Looking Back at Looking Backward

Edward Bellamy's famous utopian novel is set in today's America. Are we living his crazy dream?


On Memorial Day in 1887, Julian West, one of the best-known Americans of his day and a notorious insomniac, sought help for his chronic sleep problems. In the course of his treatment by a Boston doctor, however, West was "mesmerized" so effectively that he never regained consciousness; he has remained in a state of suspended animation for more than 100 years.

This September, it is all but certain that West will awaken from his slumber and be brought back to life. To be sure, this amazing triumph is not a scientific marvel but a literary one: West is the protagonist of Edward Bellamy's best-selling utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887. In the book, September 10, 2000, is the precise day West rouses from his long nap. Perhaps the most famous time traveler in literary history, West has had a powerful and enduring effect on the terms of American political debate.

Published in 1888, Looking Backward crystallized that combination of suspicion of markets and love of centralized planning that has in various forms persisted to this day. As West starts to rustle in his bed, it is well worth revisiting Looking Backward and teasing out the ways in which it continues to influence contemporary times.

Bellamy's vision of a future without capitalism proved immensely appealing. It took the massive hit novel Ben-Hur (1880) seven years to rack up the sales that Looking Backward tallied in just two. By the early 1890s, more than 150 "Bellamy Clubs," devoted to discussing and implementing the ideas in Looking Backward, had sprung up in cities across the United States. Translated into 20 foreign languages, the novel was a hot topic among the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia (Lenin's wife gave it a mixed review) and the architects of the New Deal (Arthur Morgan, the first head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, wrote a gushing 400-page biography of Bellamy). By the early '30s, Bellamy's fans had been absorbed into American socialist circles and Franklin Roosevelt's brain trust; both John Dewey and the historian Charles Beard announced that, among books published in the preceding 50 years, Looking Backward was matched in influence only by Das Kapital. They meant it as a compliment.

The basic structure of the society Bellamy imagined is easily summarized: The state runs everything and has converted the nation into a sumptuous barracks. An embittered West Point reject, Bellamy (1850-1898) cultivated a lifelong passion for the Prussian military. On his deathbed, he wiled away the hours by arranging tin soldiers along the folds of his coverlet. As enlistees in the state's "industrial army," all citizens in his utopia draw the same annual salary in the form of a "credit card" in which holes are punched to register purchases. The men march in mass rallies designed to encourage solidarity with the nation as a whole, which has become "a family, a vital union, a common life," or more succinctly, "truly a fatherland." Meanwhile the women carefully determine which men are the best workers, with an eye to bestowing their persons upon the diligent. Everyone is rich. Everyone is happy. And why shouldn't they be? Instead of "wasteful" market competition—which also encouraged each man to think of his brother as a potential enemy—a small group of bureaucrats regulates the whole economy, which is "so direct and simple in its working" that "the functionaries at Washington to whom it is trusted require to be nothing more than men of fair abilities."

As this summary makes obvious, in many respects the novel is a period piece, the distillation of what may have been the golden age of American crackpots, whose theories still get treated with respect by many noneconomists. This was a time when the likes of Henry George could be widely hailed as something like a messiah for his astonishing notion that income deriving from rent should be taxed at a rate of 100 percent. (Last fall's scandalously bad PBS documentary on New York City, where George ran unsuccessfully for mayor, declared him a "brilliant" social theorist.)

Bellamy's legacy is surprisingly robust. His novel gave socialism a new audience among America's middle classes. Before the novel was published, the educated and elite in America tended to associate the word socialism with a word like tuberculosis; both rippled with sinister hints of strange sexual liberties. Well aware of such prejudices, Bellamy concocted a future that is in every respect socialist but from which the word socialism has been banned. While Americans still tend not to like the sound of this word, Bellamy's readers discovered that they were very fond of the thing. More than any other book, Looking Backward made it respectable for a time to talk about implementing straightforwardly socialist schemes in the United States.

Today, of course, few in the mainstream are attracted to Bellamy's kind of authoritarian socialism. What, then, survives today of Looking Backward's outmoded vision? Bellamy's chief legacy relates to his emotional attachment to planning as a good in and of itself. Irrational devotion to the inherent rightness of large-scale planning is one of the chief features of the 20th-century mind, and although Bellamy certainly was not the first to feel this devotion—it is an ancient faith—he was one of those who helped to give this faith its recognizably modern form.

Along with many others, Bellamy laid the foundations for what could be called our planning culture. Of course, to say that a preference for planning, like a preference for curry or baseball, has something to do with culture is already to resist the ideology of the plan. The plan must almost of necessity present itself as something beyond culture; the plan is rational, whereas culture is a messy, unorganized (because unplanned) tangle of prejudices. The idea that a firewall insulates the plan from anything like a cultural prejudice is perhaps the fundamental fallacy trumpeted by the planners.

Thus that exemplary planner, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, proclaimed the following on the title page of The Radiant City, his 1933 magnum opus laying out an ideal city that would create all the conditions necessary for human happiness: "Plans are the rational and poetic monument set up in the midst of contingencies. Contingencies are the environment: places, peoples, cultures, topographies, climates." Lumping culture with the weather as just one of those things against which the plan must contend, "Le Corbu" assures us that the desire to control every last detail of life in the city is itself untainted by anything irrational—that is, by anything cultural. Skeptics, on the other hand, might wonder if it is entirely by chance that a man given to such views should emerge from the homeland of the watch.

It might be well to ask just what aspects of the prejudice in favor of planning are most immune to counterarguments based upon reason. Bellamy's Looking Backward is a good place to look for clues, since it is not clear that the book appealed to readers because of its passages laying out Bellamy's bizarre economic pensées. (At one point, for instance, he suggests that competitive entrepreneurship hinders innovation, while bureaucracy fosters it.) Indeed, when Bellamy brought out a fat sequel that laid out his economic musings in a more apparently systematic form, it laid an egg.

It may be, in fact, that the appeal of Looking Backward depended more on aesthetics than economics. Bellamy, in common with other planners, justifies his plans at least partially on aesthetic grounds. Utopian planners concern themselves with wholes—whole societies or, for the more humble, just whole cities—that are far too complex to be fully present in all of their details to an individual mind. In other words, no matter how full an account of such a society or city is given, it cannot constitute a unified object of knowledge. Such wholes can, however, be grasped aesthetically, just as one can experience aesthetic satisfaction when contemplating, say, the whole of Middlemarch without having all its details before one's mind at the same time.

Since such plans are inevitably package deals, requiring the total implementation of a comprehensive order whose details cannot be grasped all at once by the intellect, utopians often present us with aesthetically satisfying vistas. These vistas are supposed to make palpable the harmonious coordination of all human action that the planner may expound upon elsewhere in more technical and abstract, but less immediately appealing, ways.

Thus Julian West passes through an important stage in his conversion to socialist principles when he ascends a rooftop to survey the city as a whole: "At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger inclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and an architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side." Reading passages like this, one realizes that what Bellamy didn't know about government building projects would fill the one that has actually come to dominate Boston in 2000, the Big Dig.

Although the eye can compose an aesthetic whole even out of cities that do not betray any sign of having been systematically designed—Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" and El Greco's "View of Toledo" are two famous instances—what is being sold by Bellamy is the pleasure of coordinated design itself, the kind of experience offered by communities like Seaside, Florida, where much of Peter Weir's 1998 movie The Truman Show was filmed. The fact that everything is plural—"fine buildings," "open squares," "broad streets"—draws our attention to the managed rhythms made possible only by the plan, and not to any particular streets, squares, or buildings. When West dreams that he has returned to 19th-century Boston, one is not surprised to find him almost retching when confronted with the uncoordinated hubbub and "malodorousness" of the town.

It is instructive, however, to compare West's discomfort with apparent disorder to the very different assessment of such jumbles offered in our time by Peter Blake, an architectural critic skeptical of modernist planners like Le Corbusier. Demonstrating an appreciation for the ostensible chaos of an especially bustling commercial street in New Delhi, he writes, "It wasn't designed by anybody in particular. It just happened….It is a totally disorganized and frenetic mess….By even the most modest standards of urban design, nothing–nothing whatsoever–even remotely works… except life itself. For this is precisely the heart of the city."

For Bellamy, however, a messy heart means a sick polity, suggesting a link between his aesthetic preference for regularity in city design and his political assumptions. By trying to inspire a revulsion at forms that do not display conscious design, Bellamy is attempting to teach a political lesson that is unmistakable, and whose ramifications are far-reaching. For just as Bellamy would have us feel that the plan makes for peace and beauty where there was only ugliness and chaos before, so does he also seem to believe that the complexity of the modern world is precisely what requires that it be planned.

This error, which has played a distinguished part in so much of the man-made suffering of the 20th century, is endorsed in Looking Backward by Dr. Leete, Bellamy's mouthpiece. Leete describes the system of private enterprise and market exchange in the following terms: "No mode more wasteful for utilizing human energy could be devised, and for the credit of the human intellect it should be remembered that the system never was devised, but was merely a survival from rude ages when the lack of social organization made any sort of cooperation impossible." In addition to its many errors, this passage does contain one of the points that Bellamy got half-right: The market system is not the result of deliberate design. What Bellamy gets wrong is his association of lack of design with blundering inefficiency and chaos. He seems not even to conceive of the possibility that something can serve a useful purpose without having been deliberately invented to do so.

The fact that the new system has been consciously designed thus counts for Bellamy as an automatic mark in its favor, but his preference for clear-cut order rather than bewildering complexity—like a preference for Piet Mondrian rather than Jackson Pollock—may depend on the faculty of taste, which is notoriously immune to the conclusions of reason. The bazaar in New Delhi may have "just happened," but something like the mass rallies in Looking Backward cannot just happen; they must be planned. And if you have in your heart—as did Bellamy—the feeling that such rallies are beautiful, and that the hustle and bustle of spontaneous human activity is disgusting, you may find yourself casting about for a political order that will make rallies routine while outlawing jumbles.

In his brilliant obituary of one Sandor Needleman (a fictionalized version of Martin Heidegger), Woody Allen writes, "He was charmed by the National Socialist's philosophy of power, or as Needleman put it, 'I have the kind of eyes that are set off by a brown shirt.'" The degree to which political stances derive from aesthetic preferences cannot be measured with precision, but the presence of such preferences may account for the invulnerability of certain ideologies to rational attack. Molotov may have been at his most profound when, in the finest bon mot to emerge from the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he breezily quipped, "Fascism is a matter of taste."

So, increasingly, are many matters of public policy, in part because of Bellamy's surprisingly direct influence on current debates about urban design. One of Bellamy's early disciples was the British planner and architect Ebenezer Howard. He loved Looking Backward, and in order to realize its goals, albeit on a more modest scale than his master envisioned, he invented the idea of the "garden city" in the 1890s. For this, many revered him as a forerunner of the now voguish ideas known collectively as "the New Urbanism," the anti-sprawl movement that is best understood as the latest incarnation of Bellamy-tinged thinking to captivate proponents of government intervention in the market. (See "Dense Thinkers," January 1999.) Just why candidates for high office should suddenly find themselves engrossed by curb cuts, side-street traffic patterns, and that threat to national security, the strip mall, is not hard to guess: As enthusiasm for overt economic planning becomes harder to maintain in the face of its repeated failures, governments may be counted on to turn more and more to questions of urban planning in order to preserve the scope of their own prerogatives.

The New Urbanism has the unusual distinction—among theories of urban design, that is—of having been subjected to a hyperbolic satire in The Truman Show. Although the film has been received as a critique of the media—and it is that—television and the environment created by the New Urbanism function in the film as metaphors for each other, especially in the way that both work to erode the distinction between the unregulated world of private life and the requirements of the community.

In his essay "Planning the American Dream," which appears in the movement's most significant collection of manifestos, Peter Katz's The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community (1994), Todd W. Bressi explains that the New Urbanism is based on one simple principle: "Community planning and design must assert the importance of public over private values." Very similar sentiments are voiced in the film by the actress playing Truman's wife. In an interview publicizing the show, she explains that there is nothing degrading about living her life on camera, since, "For me, there is no difference between the public life and the private life." She would be right at home in Looking Backward, whose characters never tire of explaining that they cannot even conceive of themselves except as part of the organic "fatherland."

Indeed, the avowed aim of the New Urbanism is to enhance the individual's awareness of, and commitment to, the public, so that the individual will not hesitate "to assert the importance of public over private values." As is the case with Bellamy, the argument for adopting such priorities has to be made with freewheeling assertions about issues we cannot begin to talk about rationally. Thus Bellamy assures us that to rely for one's paycheck upon another individual produces a sense of degradation, but to receive it directly from a government agency is satisfaction itself. Who knew?

Similarly, advocates of the New Urbanism frequently tell us that to be in one's car or alone at home is to experience disquieting feelings of isolation and alienation. However, to present oneself for recognition by fellow citizens in a structured and heavily regulated marketplace is to be taught an ennobling lesson about, in Bressi's words, "desperately needed civic responsibility," a responsibility that will find expression in calls for "additional government initiatives." When one reads such assertions presented not as articles of faith—which they are—but as the straightforward conclusions of reason, one begins to appreciate how The Truman Show turns the spruce, inviting public spaces of the New Urbanism into symbols of paranoid dread and tyrannical surveillance.

Like Looking Backward, the New Urbanism ultimately aims at fashioning a streamlined and frictionless kind of human being, one who could not possibly offend the neighbors—or be meaningfully distinguished from them: Nietzsche's Last Man, but with a special fondness for latte and trolleys.

The desperate need for such communal characters runs through New Urbanist writing. Consider, for example, Ray Oldenburg's essay "Prospects for Community," appended to a book celebrating Seaside, Florida. "So pronounced has been the shift towards privatized lifestyles that the American dream has been sorely reshaped," writes Oldenburg. "Gone…is the ideal of community so crucial to our establishment as a nation and so essential to our predecessors' well-being and contentment." Whether this is good history is certainly open to question; the predecessors alluded to were the same people in whose faces Henry David Thoreau thought he read the signs of quiet desperation. It is certainly true, as Oldenburg states, that "the decline of community has been a perennial theme in American social commentary for most of this century." But in part that would seem to be not a sign of American thinkers' centuries-long commitment to what Oldenburg calls community, but because so many 20th-century thinkers, following in Bellamy's footsteps, have abandoned the traditional American ambivalence toward such community. As intellectuals became more and more convinced of the virtues of communalism, naturally American society, in which the individual is protected from the community to an unusual degree, started to look worse and worse.

The continuity that is reflected in the works of many recent American intellectuals points us to the robust tradition of European disdain for the relatively unregulated character of our society and manners. Hence Oldenburg approvingly quotes a Frenchman with little understanding of or taste for American life, Jean-Paul Sartre, to whom it seemed that Americans "are dying of loneliness." Just how to tell whether one society has more "community" or "loneliness" in it than another is unclear. What is clear, however, is that laments concerning the decline of community have at least something to do with a mounting hostility toward the idea that individuals should be exposed only to a minimum of interference from communally sanctioned power. The belief in the goodness of that power, of course, is a necessary feature of our planning culture—planners cannot carry out their plans without it.

What we should take away from Bellamy's and his descendants' enthusiasm for planning is this: that the desire to lay out comprehensive plans for the future is itself an expression of cultural preferences, not reason, and that such plans themselves will necessarily embody the limited range of culturally sanctioned values that make planning seem attractive. It is not the limitation per se in plans that should concern us. Culture inescapably is limitation: It allows us to become something only by keeping us from becoming everything else. That is why no child on Earth today will grow up with the character and habits of an Aztec priest, a Renaissance Florentine, or a Ptolemaic Egyptian.

But what we must remember is that master planners—even if they could manage to overcome all impediments and achieve their aims—would end up clearing a space not for liberated humanity but for the kind of human being envisioned by and at home in a culture of planning. Of that culture in its modern form, Edward Bellamy deserves to be considered a founding father and Looking Backward a founding document.

Tom Peyser (tgpeyser@att.net) teaches English at Randolph-Macon College and is the author of Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of Literary Realism (Duke University Press). He is at work on a novel about the academy.