Bellamy, socialism and utopia

 Winter 1987-88 issue of the World Socialist

For as long as there has been human oppression there have been dreams of the oppressed. Oppressed people have not usually had access to the means of recording their dreams, so too many of them have been lost. Nor have they had the power to communicate their dreams as widely as the powerful have been free to spread theirs, so all too often such visions of what could be have been relegated to an area outside of “serious politics”, derided as the literary yearnings of unimportant masses, or neatly filed away under the heading of “impossibility” — a heading which is made to measure the needs of the ruling class of the day, as Mannheim clearly showed in his book, Ideology and Utopia.

The politics of Utopia begins with the visions of those who see beyond the way life is. Utopia — which derives from the Greek words for good place and no place — is never compatible with the mistaken certainties about how society must always be which all ruling classes in the history of class society have sought to perpetuate. Utopias smash through the barriers of “reality” (our rulers’ reality) and project a new form of existence.

Early Utopias reflected naive and physically unrealisable wishes of the oppressed majority. For example, the 14th century poem, The Land of Cockaygne, depicts a world where geese fly around ready-roasted calling out to be eaten. This was no realisable scheme of how society could one day be, but it did reflect the impotent desires of hungry serfs, just as the American folk song. The Big Rock Candy Mountains (originally a Norwegian Utopian song, according to the folk music historian, A.L. Lloyd) tells us something about the dreams of the American hobo when it depicts its land of soda water fountains, lemonade springs, streams of alcohol trickling down the rocks, and lakes of stew and whiskey too which you can paddle all around in your own canoe.

Not all Utopias have been fantasies. Many have constituted genuine critiques of the existing social order. In The Politics of Utopia by Goodwin and Taylor it is contended that we should take what have been labelled as Utopian ideas seriously; instead of pushing them aside to a discarded limbo between political science and mere literary criticism, those interested in politics should find time to recognise the important contribution of “utopian” thought:

“Consciousness of the difference between existing reality and a non-existent, but potentially existent, future — a morally desirable future — was one of the most important ingredients of this quest (for the good life). Unless we feel absolutely confident that we have now reached the limits of our capabilities and creativity, that we have advanced to perfection already, to dispense with utopianism would be to renounce a large part of what it is to be a political animal.”

Our present rulers, be they avowedly conservative or allegedly radical, do feel confident that with the present social system we have reached our human destination: reform it, perhaps, but scrap it: impossible, it’s utopian.

Capitalism, with its big promises of liberty and rewards for hard work and freedom, and the mean reality of what the system has been in experience, has given rise to utopian thought. Never was such thought more expressive than in the decades of disappointment which followed capitalism’s hour of glory, the French Revolution. Schemes were drawn up by men who believed that they alone had the blueprint for The New Social Order. These men — Fourier, Owen, St Simon, Babeuf, Weitling — were “utopian socialists”. Much of what they dreamed about would not be dismissed by socialists today, either in terms of their political ends, such as the abolition of government and money or their poetical impulse to destroy the pompous claims of property-based civilisation. To be sure, much of what they envisaged seems crazy now — some of it must have done then — but that is the price to be paid for the idealistic act of constructing a blueprint for the future.


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began to construct their theory of revolutionary socialism at a time when to be socialist was regarded as an act of futuristic utopianism. Most socialists in the 1840s were followers of one blueprint or another; in America the Utopias had become more than blueprints and embryonic Utopian socialist communities had sprung up in their thousands.

Marxism (that rather inadequate term which we use to sum up the essential theories of Marx and Engels and those who think in their tradition today) is a materialist theory of history. Its starting point is not based upon the moral imperative of what should be or the ideals of blueprints which start and finish in the realm of human consciousness, but upon the material recognition that in order to transform society we must revolutionise its material (productive) base. We should not be surprised, then, that the advocates of such an outlook would find themselves at odds with the utopians of their day.

The main criticism levelled against utopians by Marx (and, with greater force than in any other work, by Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) was their lack of a theory of history: Who was going to construct their Utopia? The answer of the Utopians was, We are — we who have had the unique foresight of seeing life as it could be. For Marx and Engels that was the arrogant nonsense of philosophical idealists who imagined that Ideas make History. The working class, which constitutes the majority of humankind, must be the creators of the new social system. If the workers are to create socialism (or communism; Marx and Engels used the words interchangeably) they must want it and desire it. The utopians had no time to wait for the workers to be brought in on the act of their own emancipation. This was a crucial reason for hostility between Marxism and utopianism, just as it is for the battle between modern socialists and the Leninists and other vanguardists who like the Utopians believe that they, as exclusive possessors of the revolutionary ideal, must lead the witless masses to the New Jerusalem.

Marx and Engels refused to prepare recipes for the cook-shops of the future. The only statements which they could make about what socialism would be like were made upon the materialist basis of what was then possible. Of course, time has rendered some of these projections obsolete, and, as good materialists, Marx and Engels would be the first to admit the outdated nature of some of their comments about socialism which came out of 19th century conditions, but are still advocated religiously and unhistorically by 20th century utopian leftists. For example, the view of Marx that labour vouchers could play a role in the distribution of goods in the early days of socialist society before enough for all could be produced, has been superseded by developments in technology which make the move to a moneyless world society an immediate result of the socialist revolution to come.

So, we can see that the utopian outlook, which we began by praising as the innocent child of oppressed desire, met the wrath of science and became perceived as a hindrance to revolutionary change. In short, it is precisely when “Utopia” becomes practical that Utopians become obstacles to the achievement of the new way of living. We need to dream when we are unfree to act.


Marxism left the task of transforming society to the workers. For historical reasons too complex to enter into here, the workers did not jump to the task. On the contrary, capitalism survived the scientific theory of its destruction, just as it had outlived the utopian desire for the same end. Socialism and Marxism came to be dirty words and those seeking change began to look in new directions.

Edward Bellamy, the son of a strict Baptist Minister and a frighteningly puritanical mother, a journalist of some ability, born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts on 26 March, 1850, set himself the task of writing a utopian novel which would show the world how different society could be from the rottenness of American capitalism. That he did well depict the absurdity of the capitalist way of organising society is demonstrated by the passage from Looking Backward which we re-publish at the end of this article. That his novel did have an impact is clear from the fact that approximately half a million copies of it were sold in the few years after its publication in 1888. It was, according to Goodwin and Taylor, “probably the most widely read fictional utopia ever written”. In addition to being read it was acted upon: the novel gave rise to a Nationalist movement, seeking to put into practice the vision of Bellamy’s novel. According to Cyrus F Willard (who was one of the movement’s leading figures), the Nationalist Clubs had over 6,000 members and 500,000 “believers”. He wrote that:

“We have fifty or more papers and magazines unreservedly advocating Nationalism.” (The Nationalist, II, No. 1, December 1889)

The Nationalist movement’s principles were based upon those in Bellamy’s book and the book was a bestseller, so the obvious question remains, what did it say? The novel tells the story of Julian West, a prosperous resident of Boston, who, unable to fall asleep, has his butler hypnotise him and . . . then, one hundred and thirteen years later when he wakes up, he finds himself in a fundamentally transformed Boston, the social details of which are explained to him by the rather tedious Dr Leete and his daughter, Edith — with whom, of course, Julian falls in love during his trip to utopia. What is Bellamy’s utopia like? The following features, supported by some quotations from Bellamy’s own summary of the novel in the Dawn of 15 September, 1889, define the new system:

  1.  The entire nation of the USA has become “a general business partnership, in which every man and woman is an equal partner”.
    2. All people in the new society are part of the “army of industry” which they must serve in some form between the ages of 21 and 45. The argument is that just as capitalism conscripts labour for destructive purposes in times of war, the new system conscripts labour for peaceful, productive ends. There is, incidentally, a special corps of the “army” for professional people and even one for the disabled.
    3. No wages are paid for working, but people receive vouchers (in fact, an elaborate credit card system operates) which allow them to have what they need from the common store. If some fields of work are less attractive than others, then the hours of work are shortened.
    4. The feminine corps of the army is “devoted to the lighter classes of occupations”.
    5. At the age of 45 all people are discharged from the army of labour and are “free to occupy themselves as they will for the remainder of their lives”.
    6. There is no money (in the old sense) and credit cannot be stored by individuals, so creating economic inequality.
    7. There is virtually no crime: “Robbery, theft and fraud of every sort are without a motive in a society where all have abundance, where covetousness is not stimulated by different degrees of luxury, and where equality of resources is annually renewed”.
    8. Much more wealth is produced than under capitalism because waste is avoided and science is properly used for peace and not war.

These features provide only a rough summary. For example, Bellamy devised an elaborate scheme for electing officers for the national army, giving the vote only to those over the age of 45! We shall not bother ourselves here with the more obviously outlandish features of Bellamy’s vision. Its most important contribution to the thinking of the time was its vision of a moneyless, wageless, classless society — although, as will become clear, those conditions were somewhat equivocal in Bellamy’s scheme of things. His utopia showed workers a society where life could be different — better, happier. That is what socialists must be doing. The influence of Bellamy upon the American working-class movement was considerable. The foremost Marxian thinker of early 20th century America, Daniel DeLeon, was quite evidently influenced by Bellamy. (Indeed, DeLeon maintained some of Bellamy’s non-socialist utopian features within his own vision of socialism even after he ceased to be a Nationalist.)


Like all Utopians, Bellamy lacked an historical theory of social transformation. By far the weakest part of his book is that which describes the coming of the new order: it came because people saw that it was a good idea, so they let it be, capitalists collaborating with workers, without any violent resistance, without any political action. Indeed, Bellamy goes out of his way to state that socialists were a counter-productive influence upon the great utopian change. But history does not change like that. The class struggle will not collapse into a utopian act of national goodwill. And Bellamy’s utopia was an historical non-starter. The Nationalist movement, which sought to bring about the utopian change simply by the moral preaching of educated persons of goodwill did not take long to fall to pieces, now utterly forgotten except by historians. 

So, the first criticism which socialists must make about Bellamy is that he was utopian, not in the sense of being a visionary (which all revolutionaries are), but in the sense of rejecting a scientific or materialistic idea of change. But it was not only the lack of a means of achieving socialism (and Bellamy refused to call his utopia that in case it might offend Americans) for which socialists criticise Looking Backward. The very depiction of socialism presented is unsatisfactory. The idea of such a change occurring in one country is an impossibility, given the global interdependence of the capitalist system. The state-capitalist sense of the nation being organised as a huge business corporation, with all the people as its conscript employees, does not inspire those of us seeking a truly liberated society. The abolition of the wages system (a quiet common socialist demand in American history) is spoilt by the picture of everyone having to live in a society of credit cards. The sexism of the role of women is unattractive to socialists, as indeed is the potentially eugenicist notion of creating a perfect human race which follows from Bellamy’s ideas on marriage. The new social order (and you will need to read the book to get the sense of this) is over-concerned with consumerism, technology and the pleasures of living an ordered existence. That crucial element of socialist vision which is about the unity of work and art, values beyond immediate consumption, and life being more than a process of individual satisfaction, is too often missing from Bellamy’s outlook. No wonder that it was William Morris, a socialist who embodied all of those broader notions of what it is to be a revolutionary socialist, who was amongst the first to attack Bellamy’s novel. Indeed, it was Morris’s disgust at reading Looking Backward which led him to write his infinitely better novel about what socialism might be like: News From Nowhere.

Looking Backward, published a century ago, is a novel worth reading, if only for the kind of penetrating critique of capitalism typified by the extract which follows. His rather less interesting book. Equality, written in 1890 and lacking the literary quality of Bellamy’s magnum opus, pursues the same corporatist vision, showing clearly the link (one which is often a source of embarrassment to the state-loving Left) between state-capitalism and fascism as corporatist ideals of economic organisation.

A century after Looking Backward came off the press the oppressed are still entertaining visions of what could be. Those of us who seek to pull from the roots the rottenness of what our rulers say must always be are still derided as utopians. But then, as Thomas Muntzer, the anabaptist revolutionary of the Sixteenth Century, pointed out, history belongs to those of us who “possess the strength to realise the impossible”.

Steve Coleman

Edward Bellamy on how people live under capitalism

“By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, I cannot do better than compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach to which the masses of humanity were harnessed and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was Hunger, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down, even at the steepest ascents. The seats on top were very breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, their occupants could enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merit of the straining team.

Naturally such places were in great demand and the competition for them was keen, every one seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for himself and to leave it to his child after him. By the rule of the coach a man could leave his seat to whom he wished, but on the other hand there were many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach, on which they had before ridden so pleasantly. It was naturally regarded as a terrible misfortune to lose one’s seat, and the apprehension that this might happen to them or their friends was a constant cloud upon the happiness of those who rode.

But did they think only of themselves? you ask. Was not their very luxury rendered intolerable to them by comparison with the lot of their brothers and sisters in the harness, and the knowledge that their own weight added to their toil. Had they no compassion for fellow beings from whom fortune only distinguished them? Oh, yes; commiseration was frequently expressed by those who rode for those who had to pull the coach, especially when the vehicle came to a bad place in the road, as it was constantly doing, or to a particularly steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the pitiless lashing of Hunger, the many who fainted at the rope and were trampled in the mire, made a very distressing spectacle, which often called forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach.

At such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience, and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. It was agreed that it was a great pity that the coach should be so hard to pull, and there was a sense of general relief when the specially bad piece of road was over. This relief was not, indeed, wholly on account of the team, for there was always some danger at these bad places of a general overturn in which all would lose their seats.

It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of the misery of the toilers at the rope was to enhance the passengers’ sense of the value of their seats upon the coach, and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before.

If the passengers could only have felt assured that neither they nor their friends would ever fall from the top, it is probable that, beyond contributing to the funds for liniments and bandages, they would have troubled themselves extremely little about those who dragged the coach.

I am well aware that this will appear to the men and women of the twentieth century an incredible inhumanity, but there are two facts, both very curious, which partly explain it. In the first place, it was firmly and sincerely believed that there was no other way in which Society could get along, except the many pulled at the rope and the few rode, and not only this, but that no very radical improvement even was possible, either in the harness, the coach, the roadway, or the distribution of the toil. It had always been as it was, and it would always be so. It was a pity, but it could not be helped, and philosophy forbade wasting compassion on what was beyond remedy.

The other fact is yet more curious, consisting in a singular hallucination which those on the top of the coach generally shared, that they were not exactly like their brothers and sisters who pulled at the rope, but of finer clay, in some way belonging to a higher order of beings who might justly expect to be drawn. This seems unaccountable, but, as I once rode on this very coach and shared that very hallucination, I ought to be believed. The strangest thing about the hallucination was that those who had but just climbed up from the ground, before they had outgrown the marks of the rope upon their hands, began to fall under its influence. As for those whose parents and grandfathers before them had been so fortunate as to keep their seats on the top, the conviction they cherished of the essential difference between their sort of humanity and the common article, was absolute. The effect of such a delusion in moderating fellow feeling for the sufferings of the mass of men into a distant and philosophical compassion, is obvious. To it I refer as the only extenuation I can offer for the indifference which, at this period, marked my own attitude toward the misery of my brothers.”