Sunday, March 7, 2010

Looking Backward vs. News From Nowhere: Utopian Smackdown


Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’s News From Nowhere are the two most well-known utopian novels to come from the socialist movement. There are other well-known utopian novels, such as Thomas Moore’s Utopia and Corey Doctorrow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, but Bellamy and Morris were not just describing better visions of society, but actively engaging in political activism. And yet, the two books are very different. In fact News From Nowhere was written as a reply to Looking Backward.

The first thing you have to know about these books is that they’re not about the plot or the characters. If you go into either of these books looking for good storytelling you will be sorely disappointed. News From Nowhere doesn’t even bother with a plot and Looking Backward’s plot consists of a half-assed love story that’s eerily reminiscent of the Jacob/Renesmee relationship in Breaking Dawn.

No, these books are about the ideas. Fortunately they’re about good ideas, so they work.

The second thing you need to know about these books is that, while they are utopian novels written by socialists they are not utopian socialist novels. William Morris was a Marxist who worked closely with Friedrich Engels. Edward Bellamy was a Christian socialist with somewhat more confused political views, but with elements of Marxism.

Utopian socialism is based on the idea of coming up with an ideal society and setting up small-scale communes based on this ideal. The most prominent figure in this was Robert Owen, who tried to set up small communities of workers’ co-operatives. Unfortunately, these co-operatives were not economically self-sufficient and were dependent on the rest of the world economy, which was still based on capitalism. The result was that the co-operatives either collapsed or abandoned their ideals. This same problem has his such movements as the kibbutz movement in Israel and the various hippie communes in the 60s.

When Marx developed his scientific socialism, it was partly in opposition to utopian socialism. He put his focus on ending class-based rule world-wide rather than the nitty-gritty details of what society would look like afterwards. One reason for this was that no matter what your utopian vision is, you won’t be able to achieve it under capitalism.

The other reason was that after capitalism is overthrown, it will be up to the people to determine how to run their society. Some people may prefer an agrarian paradise. Others may want robots tending to their every need. Some may want to travel the world and enjoy free love. Others may prefer something more domestic. Why should one person’s utopian peccadilloes determine how society should be run for everybody else?

So, if Marx was so opposed to this aspect of utopian socialism would a Marxist like William Morris or someone influenced by Marxist ideas, like Edward Bellamy, write utopian novels? Like earlier utopian novels (such as Moore’s Utopia and the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels) Bellamy and Morris were partly trying to satirize aspects of present (19th century) society that were viewed as inevitable or necessary evils. By seeing a prosperous world in which everybody works for the common good it makes it absurd to think of the fact that people currently think of greed as being necessary and poverty as inevitable.

Unlike those earlier novels but like later utopian stories (Down and out in the Magic Kingdom and pre-JJ Star Trek), Looking Backward and News From Nowhere are science fiction stories set in the future, rather than in other lands. If you believe in establishing a socialist society and you write science fiction it makes sense that you might want to write about after a socialist revolution.

For these reasons, it makes sense for socialists to write utopian literature, even if they’re not utopian socialists. Books like Looking Backward and News From Nowhere are particularly refreshing since so much of modern science fiction assumes that any attempt to create a better world will inevitably result in an unspeakable dystopia. However, the fact that they’re utopian novels means that the authors utopian peccadilloes come to the fore, and these peccadilloes are in conflict.


In Looking Backward a bourgeois factory owner from Boston named Julian West goes into hypnosis in the year 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to find Boston, and all of the United States, has transformed into a socialist society. It’s filled with exciting futuristic technology. You can listen to music (and sermons) on the radio, do online shopping and pay for things with a credit card. So far, so unimpressive (except for the fact that it was written in 1888).

Here’s where it gets interesting. The credit card isn’t provided by a profit-hungry corporation trying to trick you into spending too much! Amazing! People are only punished for bad credit when they abuse the card so much that they threaten to bring society down. Since the surplus value that would normally go to corporate profits instead goes to the common good it takes a lot of credit card abuse to get to that point. Also since people don’t have to make vast profits or collapse, the only incentive to accumulate personal wealth is to live comfortably so there isn’t really any desire to keep on accumulating things to the point where it threatens to bring society down.

Early on in the book West complains about the workers at his factory going on strike. In the future world he’s shocked to learn society is run by the workers. He’s similarly shocked to learn that there’s no more war because countries aren’t squabbling over profits. The term “industrial army” is used, but it has nothing to do with actual military stuff.

Bellamy also seems to really like going into great detail about governmental procedure. People work for a set amount of time. There’s a set retirement age. There’s a set procedure for people who want to change jobs or get a break from working. This aspect of Looking Backward comes off as far less utopian, and was one of the aspects William Morris criticized. This also resulted in modern right-wing criticisms of the book comparing it with Stalinism. Nonetheless, it the people of Looking Backward still have far more freedom than most workers to today who have to work in order to make a living. And if the restrictions got too unworkable, the society was still a democracy so people could vote to change it.

The most controversial part of the book is Chapter 19, which deals with crime. Since all crime based on greed or desire for the poor to make a living is obsolete in a world without poverty, the only crime left is the result of mental illness, or atavism, as Bellamy calls it. As such it’s treated in hospitals instead of prisons, so that prisoners can be treated instead of locked up. Unfortunately under Stalinism, many political dissidents were falsely described as mentally ill and “re-educated”. Right-wing opponents of socialism like to harp on this similarity, despite the that the book was clearly referring to things like murder and not criticizing the government.

The more legitimate problems with Looking Backward, the ones that socialists would be most likely to harp on, come in Chapter 24. Here we have the following conversation
“By the way,” said I, as the doctor read aloud to us some of these items, "what part did the followers of the red flag take in the establishment of the new order of things? They were making considerable noise the last thing that I knew.”

“They had nothing to do with it except to hinder it, of course,” replied Dr. Leete. “They did that very effectually while they lasted, for their talk so disgusted people as to deprive the best considered projects for social reform of a hearing. The subsidizing of those fellows was one of the shrewdest moves of the opponents of reform.”

Dr. Leete goes on to explain that all of the working class 19th century socialist movement was funded by the capitalists to make socialism look bad. The labor movement also didn’t contribute anything because it was “narrowly” focused on the working class (i.e. a large majority of the population).
“Oh no!” replied the doctor. “The labor parties, as such, never could have accomplished anything on a large or permanent scale. For purposes of national scope, their basis as merely class organizations was too narrow. It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.”

The idea that everybody just got together and said, “Hey, we should abolish the profit system,” including the rich, solely based on some weird patriotic stuff reflects the most serious limitations in Bellamy’s political views (Unfortunately this was the aspect that most directly influenced Ralph Nader’s novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us). Capitalists aren’t going to be willing to just give up their profits without a fight. Even basic reforms like the weekend were the result of struggle. Furthermore, the existence of a party based in the working class is precisely what is needed to bring about socialism.

At the time that Looking Backward was written, the main socialist organization was the Socialist Labor Party, consisting primarily of German émigrés and heavily influenced by Ferdinand Lasalle. They took a lot of sectarian positions and never made any serious effort to reach out to the American working class at large. This meant that, for non-German-émigré in America, other ideas held sway, like populism, transcendentalism and Christian socialism.

Incidentally, Edward Bellamy’s cousin and fellow Christian socialist activist, Francis Bellamy, wrote the “Pledge of Allegiance”.

Despite this weakness, Looking Backward was responsible for changing this situation. When a moderate trade-union activist named Eugene Debs was arrested for his role in the Pullman strike, he obtained a copy of Looking Backward and converted to socialism. He went on to be the leader of the Socialist Party which first brought working-class socialist and Marxist ideas outside of the German émigré milieu.


The situation in England was a bit different. Marx and Engels were exiled to England in the 1848 uprising in Germany. The tradition of trade unionism was established much earlier, and Marxism had a much firmer base. Part of this base was a wallpaper maker with a bit of a medieval fetish named William Morris, who read Looking Backward and hated it. In reply he wrote a negative review in the socialist newspaper Commonweal and, ultimately a rival utopian novel News From Nowhere.

In his review he wrote:
“In short a machine life is the best which Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at then that this, his only idea for making labor tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery… I believe that this will always be so, and the multiplication of machinery will just multiply machinery; I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the lessening of men’s energy by the reduction of labor to a minimum, but rather the reduction of pain in labor to a minimum, so small that it will cease to be pain; a dream to humanity which can only be dreamed of till men are even more completely equal than Mr. Bellamy’s utopia would allow them to be, but which will most assuredly come about when men are really equal in condition.”

As such, News From Nowhere presents a pastoral utopia where people wear fine handcrafted clothes with intricate designs (similar to Morris’s wallpaper) and run things like a Renaissance Fair. No fancy futuristic technology. No formal education. No math? Wait a minute! I thought this was supposed to be a utopia. There come those personal peccadilloes.

As for some genuinely utopian stuff, no more pollution. All those ugly buildings that ruin the landscape are replaced with pretty picturesque villas. A large part of the book is spent on describing just how good everything looks without capitalism destroying everything for the sake of profit.

Although News From Nowhere comes off as naïvely pastoral, it is worth noting the housing policy of the Liverpool City Council when it was run by the Militant Tendency in the 80s. During that time the ugly concrete blocks that passed as council housing were torn down and replaced with much prettier council housing that included gardens and all that. The result was that the “Marxist architecture” was far more aesthetically pleasing than the capitalist architecture.

It should also be noted that, while News From Nowhere is somewhat infected by Luddism that it does recognize that technology can make life easier. However, even by the 19th century technology was already at the point where it could provide for everyone. By now it’s completely absurd that with all the resources at our disposal there are still people starving in places like Africa and America.

A lot of modern utopian science fiction like Star Trek and especially Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom take the view that technology will be what brings the utopian world. But if that was the case, it should have done so by now. Unfortunately, the profit motive gets in the way.

Furthermore, there are right-wingers, such as Lord Dick Taverne, who claim that opponents of GMOs of the agri-business Monsanto are responsible for world hunger and should be ashamed of themselves. According to Taverne Monsanto is innocently trying to end world hunger through the miracle of technology and those damn hippies are preventing Monsanto from fulfilling its philanthropic endeavors. This rings a bit hollow when one learns that Monsanto genetically engineers plants to not produce new seed so that farmers have to keep going to Monsanto to get more seeds. With ideas like this contaminating the technophilia camp, it makes the Luddism in News From Nowhere a whole lot more tolerable.

News From Nowhere also depicts a much more decentralized society than Looking Backward. There is no need for rules for when people are supposed to work and when they’re supposed to retire because wage-slavery is abolished, and people work because they want to, rather than because they need a paycheck. Morris deals with the alleged lack of incentive to work under communism in the fifteenth chapter, where he remarks
“This, that all work is now pleasureable; either because of the hope of gain in honour and wealth with which the work is done, which causes pleasurable habit, as in the case with what you may call mechanical work; and lastly (and most of our work is of this kind) because there is conscious sensuous pleasure in the work itself; it is done, that is, by artists.”

There is also a chapter entitled “Concerning Politics” that takes up a fraction of a page and is devoted to explaining that nobody uses that term anymore.

This lack of management also appears in the twenty-sixth chapter, which deals with crime. In Morris’s view, like Bellamy’s, the majority of crime under capitalism is still the result of society and, as such, crime will naturally reduce under socialism. However, Morris doesn’t claim that all remaining crime is the result of illness. Crime is now treated with neither prisons nor hospitals but with everybody getting together and trying to figure out what the motivations were and seeing if they can prevent it from happening again.

The best parts of News From Nowhere, however, are the parts where he takes on the worst parts of Looking Backward. In the seventeenth chapter, entitled “How the Change Came”. This, and some of the succeeding chapters, go into great depth of how socialism was achieved: the simple workers protests, the capitalists fighting back, the conflicts developing into a full-scale revolution. It even goes on after the revolution showing how the state withered away. This is what sets News From Nowhere apart, not only from Looking Backward but from nearly all other utopian literature.

The differences between Morris’s rounded-out Marxism and Bellamy’s hodgepodge are also reflected in other small differences. While Looking Backward stars the rich businessman Julian West, News From Nowhere stars an already convinced Marxist named William Guest, who is clearly intended as an author surrogate. This is partly because Bellamy was trying to convince all classes that socialism was a good idea, while Morris was trying to convince the working class to fight for socialism.

Oddly enough, this does give Looking Backward a bit of an advantage early on as the main character asks more basic questions. This lets Looking Backward deal with issues like what causes war as well as some of the details of the inefficiencies of capitalism that are taken as self-evident in News From Nowhere.

Also, Looking Backward ends with West waking up in the past, pained to realize it was all a dream, and then waking up again in the future, finding that his “waking up” was the real dream. When he thinks he’s back in the past he’s incredibly disappointed and he is overjoyed when he finds out the future was real. In News From Nowhere on the other hand, the Guest does find out it was all a dream. However, rather than being disappointed, he is motivated to create the world he saw.

Still, the biggest difference between the book is the industrial vs. pastoral divide. And on this question, why should we have to make a decision? Why not have it both ways? We can have fancy technology and beautiful forests with picturesque villas. And while we’re at it we can explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before. But in order to do that, we need to do something about capitalism.

And the winner is . . . In a case like this it doesn’t really make sense to pick one against the other. Neither book is perfect and limitations of each book is made up for by the strengths of the other. However, it wouldn’t be a Smackdown if there wasn’t a winner so I’ll go with News From Nowhere. Morris gave better thought to how socialism will be achieved. But really, you should read both in succession.

2 comments:

  1. "By now it’s completely absurd that with all the resources at our disposal there are still people starving in places like Africa and America."

    This might seem like an odd statement to some people. I would just point out that Africa is one of the most resource-rich continents on the planet, and yet the people there aren't compensated for the pillage of their countries (if you can compensate for such a thing) - in fact, they're brutally exploited on top of being robbed. America, too; the physical brutality isn't as prevalent, but the culture of insecurity, lies, and manipulation basically results in an atmosphere of insanity.

    So yes, it is ridiculous that people still starve in what are, in differing respects, very very wealthy places. I mean, I can and am told daily to buy a dancing hamster robot for my niece, but we can't build good housing for everyone on the planet? This isn't the 21st Century I signed up for.

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  2. Just so you know, and I hope you don't mind, I'm linking this post to the News From Nowhere discussion for my course on Technology and Utopia. If you object, please let me know. I'm trying to get my students to know that folks do discuss stuff like this on blogs, and they're not all old fogeys like me.

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