Review: LOOKING BACKWARD 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

LOOKING BACKWARD 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy is something of a historical curiosity that science fiction readers might find curious.

It is among the earliest of science fiction books, but shares more in common with GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Swift, or UTOPIA by More, or even the TIMAEUS of Plato than it does with genre fiction.

It is not witty nor satirical nor philosophical like these works, nor worth reading. But it is a lecture dressed in the garb of a traveler’s tale of a far land, in this case, a land lurking in the undiscovered future rather than on an undiscovered island.

It is a description in detail of the proposed utopia to be brought on by a socialist World Monopoly written in the heavy-handed lecturing style of a finger-wagging insufferably smug young intellectual. (Bellamy was 37 when he wrote this, but his style is that of a youth ten or twenty years his junior.)

The work has one or two clever bits of writing, but otherwise, is best left to rot on the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

The book is unbearably foolish, jejune, dull and unreadable.

Literally unreadable in my case. I could not wade through the whole mass of vomitously and venomously idiotic writing.

Honesty requires I confess my review below does not purport to be a thorough nor even honest, merely a collection of spleenish reactions provoked by passages of a work  I could not tolerate nor finish.

A closer study of the work by someone with a stronger stomach might adduce a more favorable opinion.


The book opens, rightly enough, with the science fictional conceit that the reader of the year 2000 will be surprised that the narrator, Julian West, fell asleep in the 1880s, over a century ago.

The story opens with an elaborate metaphor likening society to an overburdened coach where the rich sit on precarious but precious seats at the top, slathered in luxury, while their brethren toil below, pulling in the traces like beasts: there is also a denunciation of usury as unnatural.

There is a little bit of rigmarole to explain how the narrator, an insomniac, is placed in an hypnotic trance which suspended all aging and decay, how his house burned down while he slept, trapping his body in his underground bedchamber, to rest undisturbed until found by accident. He is dug up by his host, Dr. Leete, who houses and feeds him, and spends the rest of the book in a lengthy lecture about the glories of socialism.

The characters are ciphers, of which a sentence or two will suffice to describe. The narrator had been affianced to a beauty named Edith, whose loss he never mourns, once his eyes fall on the doctor’s young and attractive daughter of the same name. The is a moment of scoffing at the fashions of the late Nineteenth Century, to which I take personal affront, as nowhere in history were the fairer sex adorned more attractively.

After a single further reference to her in Chapter VIII, Edith is forgotten by the narrator until the last scene, where it is discovered that the second Edith is the great-granddaughter of the first, and so somehow can be married in her place. Or something.

There are occasional glimpses of sound writing present. For example, the narrator establishes his motive for disliking workingmen. He cannot wed until his new house is built, but strikes among the workingmen endlessly delay construction, barring hopes for nuptial bliss. He has a perfectly sound reason to hate the working class and their strikes. The character arc, such as it is, consists of overcoming his current opinion, and becoming enlightened.

From a rooftop , the narrator beholds Boston of the Twenty-First Century, and overcomes his skepticism that he overslept into the far future, now a utopia. Impressed by sight, he addresses Dr. Leete:

“You told me when we were upon the house-top that though a century only had elapsed since I fell asleep, it had been marked by greater changes in the conditions of humanity than many a previous millennium. With the city before me I could well believe that, but I am very curious to know what some of the changes have been. To make a beginning somewhere, for the subject is doubtless a large one, what solution, if any, have you found for the labor question? It was the Sphinx’s riddle of the nineteenth century, and when I dropped out the Sphinx was threatening to devour society, because the answer was not forthcoming. It is well worth sleeping a hundred years to learn what the right answer was, if, indeed, you have found it yet.”

Note the absurd heavy-handedness of the segue: Julian West wakes in the far future year of 2000, and his first question is whether an answer was found to “the labor question”.

The answer shows the unmistakable empty-skulled smugness of radicals since the dawn of time. Dr. Leete answers both that there is an can be no labor question, and that it was solved by social evolution (emphasis mine):

“As no such thing as the labor question is known nowadays,” replied Dr. Leete, “and there is no way in which it could arise, I suppose we may claim to have solved it. Society would indeed have fully deserved being devoured if it had failed to answer a riddle so entirely simple. In fact, to speak by the book, it was not necessary for society to solve the riddle at all. It may be said to have solved itself. The solution came as the result of a process of industrial evolution which could not have terminated otherwise. All that society had to do was to recognize and coöperate with that evolution, when its tendency had become unmistakable.”

Leete then pauses to upbraid West for not having seen the answer, since it was so entirely simple, even as the question first arose (emphasis mine):

“And you tell me that even then there was no general recognition of the nature of the crisis which society was nearing? Of course, I fully credit your statement. The singular blindness of your contemporaries to the signs of the times is a phenomenon commented on by many of our historians, but few facts of history are more difficult for us to realize, so obvious and unmistakable as we look back seem the indications, which must also have come under your eyes, of the transformation about to come to pass.”

You see? Historians of 2000 are baffled that the men of the 1880s did not see the entirely obvious solution, childishly simple, and inevitable: abolish poverty by abolishing property. Use a guillotine to cure a headache: So simple!

The leper’s bell of the Marxist, cultural or otherwise, is the idiotic pride rendering him unable even to understand that questions have two sides.

” Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. “

The naivety of this conceit, the mere silliness, is beyond compare.

The alleged problem is that large-scale trusts consolidated too much capital into large-scale monopolies, condemned as irresponsible, capricious, and motivated by profit-seeking. The alleged solution is to consolidate the monopolies into a single state-run monopoly controlling all industry and commerce representing the people.

Note that the language is so foggy that the fact that the single syndicate is a state-run World Monopoly is nowhere mentioned. The word “fascist” had not yet been invented. The World Monopoly is merely said to be “for the common interest for common profit.”

In an earlier paragraph, the public ownership of large corporations through stocks and bonds is mentioned only as a badge of servitude. Stockholders are somehow serfs of the companies they own.

Apparently the declaration that one represents the people suddenly makes the irresponsible responsible, the capricious sober, and alters all motives from base profit-seeking to enlightened altruism. By a silent act of will, or, rather, the expropriation by the state of all private property, human nature suddenly and irreversibly becomes angelic.

Dr. Leete goes on:

“The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.”

No explanation why monopolies are bad but one universal super-monopoly is good is ever adumbrated.

He continues:

“In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.”

So the whole science of economics is reduced to this simple and stupid analogy: seizing control of industry in the name of the state, without any checks and balances, erecting an absolute economic power, is the same as a rebellion to impose checks and balances meant to prevent the accumulation of absolute power. The thing is its own exact opposite. Liberty is slavery. A is non-A.

We then find that this transition from human to angelic was effortless and peaceful.

“Such a stupendous change as you describe,” said I, “did not, of course, take place without great bloodshed and terrible convulsions.”

“On the contrary,” replied Dr. Leete, “there was absolutely no violence. The change had been long foreseen. Public opinion had become fully ripe for it, and the whole mass of the people was behind it. There was no more possibility of opposing it by force than by argument.”

Got that? This eructation of nonsense is presented as being impossible to oppose by argument, as well as irresistible by force, on the grounds that the whole mass of the people was behind it. The whole mass of the people are adored as an idol by Progressives as no pharaoh nor god-king was ever adored by blind and cringing masses: such is the hallmark and lasting legacy of the Progressive Intellectual.

” It had come to be recognized as an axiom that the larger the business the simpler the principles that can be applied to it; that, as the machine is truer than the hand, so the system, which in a great concern does the work of the master’s eye in a small business, turns out more accurate results.”

Again, the naivety is breathtaking. It is merely assumed that large businesses are easy to run, and very large businesses are very easy to run — this is recognized as an axiom, that is, unarguable.

In the next chapter, they turn to the tired canard, which perhaps was fresh and new at the time, that the proper function of limited government was totalitarian government, reaching all aspects of life.

Finally I said, “The idea of such an extension of the functions of government is, to say the least, rather overwhelming.”

“Extension!” he repeated, “where is the extension?”

“In my day,” I replied, “it was considered that the proper functions of government, strictly speaking, were limited to keeping the peace and defending the people against the public enemy, that is, to the military and police powers.”

“And, in heaven’s name, who are the public enemies?” exclaimed Dr. Leete. “Are they France, England, Germany, or hunger, cold, and nakedness?”

Pardon me while I puke.

The argument by analogy here is that since men gather into tribes and cities in order to deter theft and violence, and to secure their liberty to themselves and the fruits of their labor, that therefore, in the name of that liberty, all liberty should be taken away by those entrusted with the public defense, the people enslaved, all their goods plundered to the last farthing.

It is arrant nonsense.

The claim is that defending public liberty includes enslaving the public in order to provide the public with the public’s own goods in its name, as if this would stave off, rather than create, famine. It is a statement of mere insolent paradox.

The answer is no. Cold and hunger are not public enemies. They are private concerns, about which the government can do very little, and what little it can do is often deleterious. It is a matter for Church charity.

If the Church cannot gather enough alms to feed the poor, I would have no objection to the state compelling payments to the Church. What? Do we object to compulsory payments to a sectarian institution? The same objections obtain to a secular one.

Later, West and his new girl Edith go to a store, where goods produced by the World Monopoly are laid out, but with no salesmen, no advertising. When West wonders that no clerk is at hand, he mentions that in his day, clerks helped shoppers make selections. Edith is scandalized.

“But did not ladies find that very impertinent?” Edith asked, wonderingly. “What concern could it possibly be to the clerks whether people bought or not?”

“It was their sole concern,” I answered. “They were hired for the purpose of getting rid of the goods, and were expected to do their utmost, short of the use of force, to compass that end.”

“Ah, yes! How stupid I am to forget!” said Edith. “The storekeeper and his clerks depended for their livelihood on selling the goods in your day. Of course that is all different now. The goods are the nation’s. They are here for those who want them, and it is the business of the clerks to wait on people and take their orders; but it is not the interest of the clerk or the nation to dispose of a yard or a pound of anything to anybody who does not want it.” She smiled as she added, “How exceedingly odd it must have seemed to have clerks trying to induce one to take what one did not want, or was doubtful about!”

For the record, the author here is claiming that a clerk with no fiscal interest, such as a bureaucrat with the Department of Motor Vehicles, will be present for those who want them, whereas clerks attempting their utmost to make a sale should have no interest in the transaction, because, of course, goods and services should be exchanged without effort, and regardless of self-interest.

This is so naïve and inhuman as to defy description. Anyone who has never wrestled with the frustrations of getting issued equipment from a quartermaster may not have a clear picture in mind what it is like to have clerks assigned to you, but not answerable to you, nor to your needs. But compare the experience of eating in a school cafeteria versus a restaurant. In a restaurant, you are a customer; in a cafeteria, you are cattle.

However, the cherry to top the cake awaits: in the socialist future, no store clerk is familiar with the stock.

“But even a twentieth-century clerk might make himself useful in giving you information about the goods, though he did not tease you to buy them,” I suggested.

“No,” said Edith, “that is not the business of the clerk. These printed cards, for which the government authorities are responsible, give us all the information we can possibly need.”

I saw then that there was fastened to each sample a card containing in succinct form a complete statement of the make and materials of the goods and all its qualities, as well as price, leaving absolutely no point to hang a question on.

“The clerk has, then, nothing to say about the goods he sells?” I said.

“Nothing at all. It is not necessary that he should know or profess to know anything about them. Courtesy and accuracy in taking orders are all that are required of him.”

But wait! There is more. For by having the all-knowing, all-benevolent, hyper-efficient government print cards describing the relative merits of various goods, store clerks have nothing to do!

This is a particular mental illness of socialists which really should have some psychiatrist to christen with a Latinate name, for it crops up over and over again.

Socialists, simply put, have no idea what workingmen do, what clerks do, what managers do. Socialists do not know what organization is for, or how sales work, how contracts work, why contracts are negotiated, or where money comes from, what it does, or how it works.

They are like little children who have no idea what Daddy does when he puts on a coat and tie and leaves for work each day.

Of course, since all the goods are produced by manufacturers not in competition with each other, there is no reason to prefer one good to another. Or so the socialist theory goes. So whatever the neurotic name is we give to the mental illness of being unable to understand why people work for a living, or what they do, we may need a second name of an even deeper mental illness of being unable to understand what shoppers do when purchasing goods, or why a selection between competing vendors is beneficial.

The text goes on to condemn the modern system as dishonest, since clerks lie about their goods, and inefficient, since wholesalers sell to retailers rather than directly.

The idiot author neither understands that most customers are customary customers, hence the name, that is, repeat business, (who will not be repeat business if defrauded) nor understands that the free market discourages inefficiency by disincentivizing it, whereas centralized socialist planning encourages hence incentivizes inefficiency.

One need not look at history to confirm this: a simple thought experiment will show the inevitable result of rewarding failure: you get more of it.

A tale is told of an economics professor whose students where so progressive that they would not believe his lectures on the inefficiency of socialism. He challenged them to a simple experiment, to which they foolishly agreed, that all tests would be graded collectively, and the average grade given to all students, regardless of individual performance.

On the first test, a small percentage studied hard and did above average work while the majority was negligent, and performed poorly. So they all got average grades. The B-students realized doing B-grade efforts for C-grade reward was a rum game, since their fellow students were going D-grade work and getting C-grades for it. So on the next test, one and all did below average work, with even more lopsided results. On the test after that, none did any work. All got F grades. And so the entire class flunked economics. Such is socialism.

Of course, in the novel, socialism is the fountainhead of all good, including artistic genius. All books are printed by public presses at the author’s expense, as with a vanity press, and distributed to the public.

“Yes,” said Dr. Leete. “It has been an era of unexampled intellectual splendor. Probably humanity never before passed through a moral and material evolution, at once so vast in its scope and brief in its time of accomplishment, as that from the old order to the new in the early part of this century. When men came to realize the greatness of the felicity which had befallen them, and that the change through which they had passed was not merely an improvement in details of their condition, but the rise of the race to a new plane of existence with an illimitable vista of progress, their minds were affected in all their faculties with a stimulus, of which the outburst of the mediæval renaissance offers a suggestion but faint indeed. There ensued an era of mechanical invention, scientific discovery, art, musical and literary productiveness to which no previous age of the world offers anything comparable.”

The invented names of these invented works of genius are mentioned in the text: the novelists Berrian or Nesmyth, the poet Oates, ‘Past and Present,’ or, ‘In the Beginning,’ — these names strike one’s ear as curiously similar to ‘Looking Backward’.

And it is dreary indeed to contemplate that the mere opposite of the predicted blooming of literature was to take place. The last generation of poets, or, at least, of poets popular enough to have names publicly known, such as Wordsworth or Robert Frost, was found in Bellamy’s generation, and would be gone in the next.

As for the production of arts and sciences under socialism, it need only be noted that neither Soviets nor Chicoms produced anything but Lysenko. All their art was stolen, all their engineering. When people are paid not to produce, productive people vanish.

It is double dreary to contemplate that the era of progress in arts and sciences would not have been stimulated by any of the proposed reforms of Bellamy, but halted dead. The era of Thomas Edison could only take place in America, because only America, at that time, had fair patent laws: English and Continental laws were the playthings of the rich — this is why the Industrial Revolution albeit born in Europe, bloomed in America, not elsewhere. Abolishing property rights abolishes property, and that is true for intellectual as well as real property.

Nor can the ignorance of Bellamy be blamed on inexperience. Every literate man in the English speaking world of his day was familiar with the writings of Adam Smith. Bellamy is willfully ignorant.

Now, one may ask, is there actually an science fiction in this science fiction story?

The answer is yes, and, again, some of it is clever. For example, after discussing the annoyance and discomfort of going to symphonies and operas back in the day, the narrator is introduced to a telephonic device that brings music piped into one’s private chamber for all men, rich and poor, to enjoy, from various music halls and orchestras playing according to a coordinated program in various parts of the city. The turn of a screw can regulate the volume of the sound to allow it to fill the chamber.

The goods from a central warehouse are ordered by telegraphic transmitter from shops and distributed to customers through a series of pneumatic tubes directly to one’s house. The author is clever enough to add a bit of realism when he has Edith complain that some of the rural districts do not as yet have fully functioning pneumatic tube networks, so she had to wait for three hours once to have a delivery arrive.

Centralization of distribution is a fetish among Progressives, which is why Bellamy’s system of telegraphs, central storehouses, and pneumatic tube delivery strikes an eerie parallel to the alleged plans of the Great Reset to have proles own nothing, but have all goods delivered by drone from Amazon warehouses.

This love of centralization is once again seen when his girl Edith and her family invite West out for a walk. He is surprised to see, despite the pouring rain, none dons galoshes or Mackintosh coats, and none picks up an umbrella. Instead, upon stepping outside, public sidewalks and road are covered by rain-awnings rolled out for that purpose.

The characters pause to scoff at the modern hence despicable individualism of the umbrella, which protects only oneself and sluices runoff rain onto one’s neighbor. The question of how to walk dry shod in the rain to any destination the city planners had not planned for you to go, hence had not erected a covered sidewalk, is of course nowhere addressed.

Modern Progressives maintain the same glassy eyed fetish for central planning when talk turns to public busses and railways.  No provision is ever made, nor even discussed, as to what to do with folk who wish to go their own way, and visit a stop of their own choosing. Elimination of choice is the point. The alleged efficiency of public transportation is puffery.

The ending is clever, for it consists of the narrator apparently waking back in 1887, to discover his vision of the future merely a dream. He is as overwhelmed with disgust for his fellow Bostonians as Gulliver is overwhelmed with disgust for Englishmen, once his visit to the Land of the Houyhnhnms convinces him all men are Yahoos.

But then, aha! In an ironic reversal, he wakes again into the year 2000 to realize his return to the past had been but a dream, and a bad dream at that.

In tears, he renounces his loyalty to the previous world and the concepts of private property, liberty, and the dignity of man, kissing the chains of socialism in the most overwrought Victorian purple prose imaginable, soaked in scriptural references and imagery.

This scene of craven blubbering and knee-tribute is a thoroughly embarrassing. I did not read every word.

Imagine watching an innocent man break down into tear-blobs confessing sins he does not possess, in this case, the sin of being a free man as opposed to a socialist serf.

Why serfdom is said to be morally superior is nowhere explained in any Progressive writing: it is instead the fundamental mental illness that begins the whole process of intellectual self-negation we call socialism or progressivism or ‘wokeness.’

Rejected in a dream by his original Edith, capitalist Edith of Boston, he weds socialist Edith of Utopia, and lives happily ever after, owning nothing, living in a pod, and eating bugs.

One is reminded of the equally naïve bit of socialist drivel that mars an otherwise culminant masterwork of silent film, namely, METROPOLIS by Fritz Lang. The use of the image of the Tower of Babel, the Harlot of Babylon, complete with seven-headed beast, the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, the cathedral images of seven deadly sins springing to life, the Beast of Moloch consuming victims into a fiery furnace, and on and on is an example of the use of Biblical imagery for socialist causes. This was much more common in earlier generations, particularly since the generations of the Victorian Era and the Interwar period truly had no other vocabulary of images with which to express elevated ideas.

Those images are now gone, and Progressives no longer express any elevated ideas. That Edward Bellamy is making a moralistic argument in favor of his gnostic vision of the Millennium is to his credit. He sneers at the imperfections of his contemporary society while offering idiot suggestions that would only make things worse, but he does attempt to appeal to man’s higher nature to make his idiocy seem attractive.