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 economics.”
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 ‘Looking Backward.'”
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 centuries.
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 it.”
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 philosophy.
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 the capitalist.
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 coöperative 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.