BY HEYWOOD BROUN
A good many of my radical friends express a certain kindly
condescension when they speak of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward.
"Of course you know," they say, "that it really isn't first-rate
And yet in further conversation I have known a very large number of
these same somewhat scornful Socialists to admit, "You know, the first
thing that got me started to thinking about Socialism was Bellamy's
From the beginning it has been a highly provocative book. It is now.
Many of the questions both of mood and technique are even more
pertinent in the year 1931 than they were in 1887. A critic of the
_Boston Transcript_ said, when the novel first appeared, that the new
State imagined by Bellamy was all very well, but that the author lost
much of his effectiveness by putting his Utopia a scant fifty years
ahead, and that he might much better have made it seventy-five
It is true that the fifty years assigned for changing the world
utterly are almost gone by now. Not everything which was predicted in
"Looking Backward" has come to pass. But the laugh is not against
Bellamy, but against his critic. Some of the things which must have
seemed most improbable of all to the _Transcript_ man of 1887 are now
actually in being.
In one respect Edward Bellamy set down a picture of modern American
life which is almost a hundred per cent realized. It startled me to
read the passage in which Edith shows the musical schedule to Julian
West, and tells him to choose which selection he wishes to have
brought through the air into the music room. It is true that Bellamy
imagined this broadcasting to be done over telephone wires, as is
indeed the case to-day in some phases of national hook-ups. But
consider this quotation:
"He [Dr. Leete] showed how, by turning a screw, the volume of the
music could be made to fill the room, or die away to an echo so faint
and far that one could scarcely be sure whether he heard or imagined
That might almost have been lifted bodily from an article in some
newspaper radio column.
But Bellamy did see with clear vision things and factors much more
important than the possibility of hearing a sermon without going to
church. Much which is now established in Soviet Russia bears at least
a likeness to the industrial army visioned in this prophetic book.
However, Communism can scarcely claim Bellamy as its own, for he
emphasizes repeatedly the non-violent features of the revolution which
he imagined. Indeed, at one point he argues that the left-wingers of
his own day impeded change by the very excesses of their technical
There is in his book no acceptance of a transitional stage of class
dictatorship. He sees the change coming through a general recognition
of the failings of the capitalist system. Indeed, he sees a point in
economic development where capitalism may not even be good enough for
To the strict Marxian Socialist this is profound and ridiculous
heresy. To me it does not seem fantastic. And things have happened in
the world already which were not dreamt of in Karl Marx's philosophy.
The point I wish to stress is the prevalent notion that all radical
movements in America stem from the writings of foreign authors. Now,
Bellamy, of course, was familiar with the pioneer work of Marx. And
that part of it which he liked he took over. Nevertheless, he
developed a contribution which was entirely his own. It is irrelevant
to say that, after all, the two men differed largely in their view of
the technique by which the new world was to be accomplished. A
difference in technique, as Trotzky knows to his sorrow, may be as
profound as a difference in principle.
Bellamy was essentially a New-Englander. His background was that of
Boston and its remote suburbs. And when he preaches the necessity of
the co=F6perative commonwealth, he does it with a Yankee twang. In fact,
he is as essentially native American as Norman Thomas, the present
leader of the Socialist Party in this country.
I cannot confess any vast interest in the love story which serves as a
thread for Bellamy's vision of a reconstructed society. But it can be
said that it is so palpably a thread of sugar crystal that it need not
get in the way of any reader.
I am among those who first became interested in Socialism through
reading "Looking Backward" when I was a freshman in college. It came
in the first half-year of a course which was designed to prove that
all radical panaceas were fundamentally unsound in their conception.
The professor played fair. He gave us the arguments for the radical
cause in the fall and winter, and proceeded to demolish them in spring
and early summer.
But what one learns in the winter sticks more than words uttered in
the warmth of drowsy May and June. Possibly I took more cuts toward
the end of the lecture course. All I can remember is the arguments in
favor of the radical plans. Their fallacies I have forgotten.
I differ from Bellamy's condescending converts because I feel that he
is close to an entirely practical and possible scheme of life. Since
much of the fantastic quality of his vision has been rubbed down into
reality within half a century, I think there is at least a fair chance
that another fifty years will confirm Edward Bellamy's position as one
of the most authentic prophets of our age.