Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Bellamy—Looking Backward

by Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Of late 18th century American novels only Uncle Tom’s Cabin outsold and out paced in significance Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the story of Julian West, who falls asleep in 1887 amidst the chaos of late capitalism and awakes to the socialist utopia of the year 2000. Bellamy’s story sparked the formation of “Bellamy Societies” across America and was an important intellectual progenitor of the progressive movement. One of the leaders of the new socialist movement, his cousin Frances Bellamy, would become famous a few years later when he penned “The Pledge of Allegiance.”

Bellamy dreamed, in the words of TS Eliot, of “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” The dissolution of competitive enterprises, material inequality, and concerns of status would lead inexorably to a transformation of human nature that would thrive in its new environment – humans being comparable to plants. By altering social structures, he argued, we could see for the first time “what unperverted human nature was really like.”

Questions of virtue and vice were rendered irrelevant. Virtue, Bellamy believed, emerged from utility or need, while vice derived from bad distributions of material goods that led to division. Both problems could be solved in one elegant solution: the development of a national community that provided for all our needs. In language redolent of the Sermon on the Mount, Bellamy observed that “no man has any more care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.” One can’t help but think of Obama’s infamous “Life of  Julia” campaign or Tocqueville’s dystopic vision of “democratic despotism.”

All now cared for, charity would become a relic of the pre-salvific period. Charity might begin at home, but it ends when the household ends (in Bellamy’s world there is no longer a household economy or household chores). A “universal brotherhood” binds humans together in deeper and more substantial ways than mere kinship. It is “a vast industrial partnership as large as the nation, as large as humanity.”

The book repeats the conversations Julian West had with the Leete family who nursed him out of his stupor. In the course of the conversation West discovered the absence of a need for charity, it having been replaced by a philanthropy administered by the state. The negation of private virtue represented the rearrangement of life “on a higher ethical basis” whose purpose was “to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived” as a “heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people.” The nation animates individual life, negating any private or personal virtue that would provide an alternate and heretical vein of personal growth. These ideas would later find concrete form in Teddy Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech of 1910.

Bellamy believed that he had uncovered the secret for bringing in the millennium (a theme repeated in FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech), the Christian dream of when time shall be no more and perfect justice and peace would reign in the world. Julian West had “seen the world’s salvation” unfold once humanity discovered its own divinity and organized social life accordingly. Part of what makes the book so interesting is that whenever West asks his hosts how they have “solved” otherwise bedeviling problems, the answer almost always begins with “nothing could be simpler.”

While Looking Backward  clearly secularizes the Christian narrative, one effect of which is to treat the nation as a kind of church and provide forward movement to secular time, and thus shape key progressive assumptions, it also draws our attention to tensions inherent in any Christian notion of charity. Christian writers sacramentalized the highly preferential relationship of marriage and the apostles enjoined special care of the household, but they also stressed obligations for strangers and encouraged a non-preferential love of all men. “When friendships were the noblest thing in the world” Jeremy Taylor wrote, “charity was little.” The more you expand the scale of political organization, the greater the tension becomes.

Bellamy handled the tension through the negation of one of its poles: namely, preferential relationships expressed in Eros. While the central discovery of Looking Backward is mankind’s realization that it is the proper object of its own love, the key problem remains as to how humanity achieves such realization, and the hermeneutical key to this is the two Ediths – the first his betrothed in 1887 and the second his guide to the worker’s paradise. While the young West eagerly plots how to bed the first Edith, the second one is desexualized. Scrubbed of all distinctiveness and particularity, she’s a stand-in for humanity itself. The substitution of abstract humanity for the passion of individualized and preferential love is further indicated in Bellamy’s plan of selective breeding, another theme picked up by the Progressives.

The key to the idea of a nanny-state, then, is the stripping of human love of its particularity, and thus its messiness.  If one thing may be true of Bellamy’s mind, is that it can’t stand complexity and messiness. It seeks to impose order on it through a “rational” and central plan that denies the variety and distinctiveness of things. That is always part of the totalizing mind.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think Frances Bellamy was motivated to write “The Pledge of Allegiance” as he did?
  2. What made it possible for Bellamy to think that the introduction of a utopia would be a relatively simple and easy affair?
  3. Bellamy was writing during a period of massive wealth inequities and unjust labor practices. How does that speak to our current moment?

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