“Looking Backward: 2000–1887” by Edward Bellamy

Throughout history, mankind has attempted to discover the perfect means of social organization. The problem rests primarily in the fact that fallible human beings must be placed in positions of authority over other persons in order for society to work. This may be considered in the form of governmental organization, economic structures, or any number of other ways society might be arranged.

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While monarchies have proven to be unsatisfactory in that a sharp minority of the people received the majority of the benefits, democracy has also proven to have its pitfalls as well, often leading to situations where a great deal of poverty and suffering are experienced by those at the bottom rungs of society as a result of economic status or lack of education or both. (This is a means of introducing the subject and making it interesting to the reader) This became increasingly obvious during the heyday of the nineteenth century when the Industrial Revolution changed forever the way in which people on this planet lived their lives.

Numerous theories were brought forward as a means of attempting to solve some of the more vexing problems of the age, such as the profound inequalities that led to worker unrest and non-production, including the somewhat extraordinary theories of Edward Bellamy, whose ideas spawned a national political movement. By comparing the seemingly revolutionary ideas of Bellamy with other great thinkers of his time such as William Sumner, Orestes Brownson, and Frederick Taylor, one can begin to appreciate how Bellamy’s unique religious position enabled him to envision an altogether different form of social organization.

Edward Bellamy received fame through his utopic novel Looking Backwards in which he established the perfect society as one led by the principles in the Religion of Solidarity. The world that he sets up is presented as a natural outgrowth of the labor troubles experienced in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As the various labor unions organized strikes against the major conglomerates that had removed human rights from their factories, Bellamy’s fable indicates that the government finally was obliged to take control of all industries as the only means by which both commercial and individual rights might be upheld.

In relinquishing control of industrial privateering, society was peacefully and entirely restructured. Rather than individual corporations, the federal administration oversaw all production efforts throughout the nation, regulating all industries and seeing to the education and welfare of all individuals. Equality in pay was brought about by adjustments in the expected working hours based upon the labor-intensive quality of the work as it was determined by the workers themselves, who also determined for themselves what part of service they would like to volunteer for. Education was provided for free to all children to the age of 24 with a possible extension until age 30 if necessary and workers were enrolled in the general corps at the age of 21.

By age 24, they were permitted to choose a specialized field to enter, where they would remain until age 45, when they would semi-retire, placed on reserve in case they were needed at some later point. (What purpose does this serve – This highly standardized social organization ensured an educated public that had ample opportunity to discover their own talents and abilities to then employ toward the welfare of the state. At the same time, their dedication to this state was encouraged by the knowledge that at their 45th birthday, when they still had plenty of healthy life to enjoy, they would be able to semi-retire and be free to explore any other interests without having any concerns about their welfare into the future.)

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The country, no longer at war with anyone, has no need for military branches per se. However, the country is run by a progressive series of promoted positions decided upon by the retired elders who no longer have a vested interest in seeking their own welfare. As Dr. Leete explains this system to Julian West, the novel’s protagonist, he tells him no society has ever developed an electorate “so ideally adapted to their office, as regards absolute impartiality, knowledge of the special qualifications and record of the candidates, solicitude for the best result, and complete absence of self-interest” (217). As these human traits are often considered to be the primary stumbling blocks of the finest governmental models available, this statement alone would seem to secure Bellamy’s social organization as the pinnacle of human endeavors.

Theorizing within the same social mess that greeted Bellamy, William Graham Sumner takes a lassie-fair approach to politics and economics, stating over and over again that each man must take responsibility for himself and his dependents, earning only so much as he is willing to put forth the effort to earn. In a logical world, this would mean that those who work hard or learn to master a rare and demanded skill will earn plenty, and those who learn to do little will earn less. This opinion that more difficult or demanding work deserved a higher rate of pay or compensation than professions requiring less skilled or less strenuous work is an idea that Sumner shares with Bellamy.

While Sumner equates this to greater pay in terms of money, Bellamy recompenses hard or risky labor and more skilled professions with less time required on the job per day. It would also mean employers, aware of the consequences, will do their best to ensure employees’ needs are provided. Again like Bellamy, insisting it is the responsibility of the organization to ensure that the needs of the people are being met. However, when employees feel they are not being treated correctly, it is the employee’s responsibility to make this known or, if this is beyond their ability, to find a spokesperson in the form of trade unions to speak for them.

This recalls Bellamy’s conception that the circumstances of workers and compensation measures in his utopia are set not by the organizations but by the workers themselves. Above all, Sumner insists, expecting the government and political bodies to take care of those individuals who refuse to care for themselves or their dependents, namely the poor, is removing the responsibility of men to care for themselves and only forces the Forgotten Man, as the average everyday middle-class taxpayer to pay for the negligence and sloth of others. “It is plain that the Forgotten Man and the Forgotten Woman are the real productive strength of the country.

The Forgotten Man works and votes – generally he prays – but his chief business in life is to pay” (149). At the same time, Sumner warns that a system that looks to the government to solve the ills of a market economy opens the way for plutocrats, those individuals who manage to become very wealthy from the tax-roll dollars, again forcing money out of the pockets of the Forgotten Men and Forgotten Women who ultimately fund these salaries.

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Another New England theorist of the late nineteenth century was Orestes Brownson who approached life from a strongly religious standpoint. This is similar to Bellamy’s approach in that changes in society are brought about by a change in human spirituality. While Brownson believed it would come about as a result of a return to the original Christian teachings of Jesus, Bellamy proposed the Religion of Solidarity, a logical approach to human organization that recognizes interdependence, as the fundamental shift in thinking required for widespread systemic change.

Brownson’s theories, like those of Bellamy and Sumner, hold that society, regardless of attempts to remove class structures, remains sharply divided into social groups based upon economic status. As he sees things, though, it is the middle class that continues to oppress the lower classes as a means of reinforcing a superior social position by preventing the lower classes from gaining the support they need to better their positions. “The middle class is always a firm champion of equality when it concerns humbling a class above it; but it is its inveterate foe when it concerns elevating a class below it” (Brownson, 1840).

For Brownson, the middle class is handily summed up within the term ’employer’ as a means of distinguishing him from the lower classes who depend upon his good nature and the upper classes who have retained their money but lost much of their power in the face of democracy. He criticizes attempts at providing universal education by pointing out that a starving boy or a freezing man cannot learn while he condemns the system of wages as a means of supplanting slavery while keeping the waged earner oppressed in poverty.

Basing his ideas on religious principles in which all men were created equal, Brownson suggests that it is mankind’s responsibility in that age to discover some means of providing the proletariat with the means to bring themselves out of wage-earning and into independence within a reasonable portion of his life. The first step in reorganizing society so as to relieve it of its inequalities, according to Brownson, is the removal of the priestly teachings that have held one class above another throughout history.

Speaking of Jesus, he says, “He instituted himself no priesthood, no form of religious worship. He recognized no priest but a holy life and commanded the construction of no temple but that of the pure heart. He preached no formal religion, enjoined no creed, set apart no day for religious worship. He preached fraternal love, peace on earth, and goodwill to men” (Brownson, 1840). From this point, he insists a spreading of Christianity as it was taught by Christ, rather than the priests, should be focused on, particularly in terms of treating one’s brother as oneself and all men are created equal in the eyes of God with equal rights and responsibilities.

Next, the government, through careful legislation, is called on to make the necessary changes to limit constraints on the laboring poor and to increase restraints on the rich and powerful, particularly by freeing itself of the control of the banks, another idea shared with Bellamy. Finally, each man is to be given just what he has earned in his life with no expectations of increase from previous generations and no possibility of providing excess for future generations. This is somewhat echoed through Bellamy with his concepts of no excess production within his society.

Frederick Taylor created his system of social management somewhat after the publication of most of these other philosophers, adapting his ideas to the efficient and equitable management of the factory. By standardizing working conditions, techniques, and tools, Taylor hoped to expedite the production process to its maximum efficiency while providing workers with opportunities for necessary breaks and support, including bonuses when production levels are exceeded or carried out to a set level.

Like Bellamy, Taylor set differential rates for work performed, taking into consideration the need for special skills, training, or a particular level of physical ability. Taylor’s process applies a strong scientific method over the ideas brought forward by Bellamy regarding the reorganization of the workplace, illustrating how it can be managed through a strictly objective process that includes careful selection of the workers, strong development of the selected workers, and intimate cooperation between the workers and those who manage them such as proposed through Bellamy’s social order. Also like Bellamy, Taylor believed that the necessary changes would have to come about through “the complete revolution in the mental attitude and the habits of all those engaged in the management as well of the workmen” (Taylor 4).

While Taylor felt that the planning of production rates should take place at the management level, another idea shared with Bellamy, he did not feel this necessarily needed to extend down to take the worker’s input into account. In general, he determined that the worker was little more than the machine that performed the work and others more educated and better able to make the correct assessments should be engaged in the study of movement and job performance to determine the best way a particular task should be carried out. Because Taylor’s methods were largely based within the then-existing economic and social system, they were widely engaged in the factories of the United States and in many other parts of the world and have been expanded to apply to other areas of work as well.

Although Bellamy shares numerous ideas with some of these other influential thinkers of his day, his ideas inspired nationwide reform organizations because of the ways in which they differed. Perhaps the greatest contrast can be drawn between Bellamy and Sumner, each seeming to represent opposite ends of the continuum. While Sumner envisioned the perfect world as one in which government stepped out of the way completely so as to allow the capitalist system free rein in the marketplace, Bellamy assumed total control of the market by the government was the only means by which utopia might be achieved.

In Sumner’s vision, the dependency of the owners on the toil of the laborers would ensure proper treatment of workers as natural protection of workers’ rights. Bellamy insisted only by being communally owned and operated by a highly organized state could any assurance of equal treatment be expected. While money remained the primary means of keeping track of progress in Sumner’s utopia, creating a system in which those who make the most money are those who can provide a unique service and placing competition as the primary driver of the market, Bellamy’s world has eliminated all need for ‘money.’

Dollars in his world refer to an imaginative concept that relates to the number of credits granted to each citizen, which is equal for all citizens on a yearly basis. Thus, competition has been eliminated and motivating forces are shifted toward a greater purpose. While the problems of the late nineteenth century were obviously not easily solved by the capitalist system that increasingly exploited workers in attempts to squeeze every last drop of productive energy out of them, giving the lie to Sumner’s beliefs, Bellamy’s ideas directed all productive energy into the system without exhausting the natural resources of the workers themselves. Happy workers lead to excess and plenty which itself eliminates selfishness and inhumane treatment of others.

While Bellamy and Brownson might have seemed to have a great deal in common in their concepts of an ideal society, a prime difference in the way in which they approached the ideal was the way in which this change was made. Bellamy insisted the necessary changes could be made peacefully through the process of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism follows much the same patterns as Darwin’s theories of evolution, indicating that society manifests the same sort of patterns found in nature.

Homogenous societies will tend to move toward heterogeneity as was seen in the great proliferation of factories and industrialization taking place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within this transition, Darwin suggests only the strongest individuals will survive, allowing weaker species or individuals to die off and thus stop contributing to the gene pool. When applied to a social context, this is the view that Sumner takes as he suggests that only the strong individuals, capable of developing the necessary survival skills of making money and forcing others to expend energy for personal benefit, will become wealthy and powerful.

However, as the theory continues, it suggests that at some point, heterogeneity becomes harmful rather than beneficial to the survival of the species. “In an organism, this phase is represented by death and decay, but in society by the establishment of a stable, harmonious, completely adapted state, in which ‘evolution can end only in the establishment of the greatest perfection and the most complete happiness'” (Hofstadter 37).

This more advanced level of the theory is what Bellamy has in mind in the creation of his New England, 2000. Brownson, on the other hand, completely refuted Social Darwinism by suggesting that it was only by a mass spiritual return to the original teachings of the Bible followed by the violent physical revolution that society could be improved. Another primary difference between these two theories can be found in the ‘religion’ preached. Brownson felt a slow conversion of the populace to the foundational concepts of Christianity as they were presented by Jesus himself rather than the church was necessary to bring about the necessary changes for greater worker equality.

The outrage brought about as a result of the subsequent realization of inhumanity as expressed by the factory owners would thus bring about violent rebellion that would completely overturn the social structures. Bellamy, on the other hand, felt that the ‘religion’ to be practiced should have a more logical base. His Religion of Solidarity was based on the realization that ‘owners’ could benefit best from ‘workers’ only when ‘workers’ were assured of their own well-being.

In other words, by ensuring that each individual in society was capable of providing for himself and his family, the society was made stronger and more stable. This natural progression also applied to human relations in the development of the Religion of Solidarity as the focus shifted from one of competition and greed into one of cooperation and the greater good. Finally, while Bellamy spends only a short amount of time berating the system in existence during his own time, Brownson devotes at least half of his work to point out the failures of his society and then hastily sketches in his plan for improvement.

Perhaps the closest comparison can be made between Bellamy and Taylor’s scientific method, yet even here there are tremendous contrasts as the life of the worker is equated almost linearly with that of the machine. For example, both Bellamy and Taylor felt that task allocation was an important element of the new society, yet the way in which this was envisioned was somewhat ambiguous in Bellamy’s world and highly defined in Taylor’s.

Task allocation refers to the breakdown of tasks into smaller component parts that, when brought together create a larger unit. In Bellamy’s world, this is broken down into predefined roles within the workplace, allocated based upon merit as demonstrated in the individual’s aptitude and enthusiasm for the work involved. Bellamy’s world is sharply defined and workplaces are closely monitored, yet individuals are still considered to be individuals.

There is room in his theory for the natural differences in individual aptitude for a given position. Julian West asks his host how it is considered fair that a strong man, for example, completes twice as much work as a weak man and yet continues to earn the exact same amount with no further reward. Bellamy suggested this was a natural division of labor ordained by providence much like the differences expected between the pulling power of a horse and that of a goat.

His society of logic fully understands this concept and merely takes pleasure in being able to provide for society to the best of his ability. Greater competence also has the effect of making these men more likely to attain higher recognition and thus fulfilling their desire for greater reward by providing them with a more fulfilling sense of satisfaction and achievement. While Sumner felt this disparity should be met through increased wages and Brownson failed to address the issue, Taylor broke the concept down into its smaller parts by scientifically analyzing every action necessary to complete each task in the production process and assigning workers to perform it.

As Taylor applied task allocation to his theory, he literally broke each action required to complete a task down into its component parts – grasping the shovel, scooping up a specific weight of the material, twisting the torso, and dumping the shovel-full of material into another pile for example. In analyzing tasks in this way, taking the worker out of the equation and leaving the determination of scientific principles up to specific ‘planners’, Taylor removes any chance of individual expression or innovation while ensuring the workplace is run as mechanistically efficient as possible, as long as all of the component parts continue to work in harmony with each other.

In addition to the above differences he had with other academics of his age, Bellamy also differed in his general approach to his subject in that his ideas originated from a religious base. Bellamy’s vision is a religious one, rather than a secular, progressive one based on economy and organization. However, Bellamy’s religious philosophy has less to do with the traditional expressions of his forebears than it does with the more modern approaches tempered by the organizational imperatives of his age that emerged with the Social Gospel. “Always more than a traditional religious movement, the social gospel stepped outside the churches to intersect the political, social and economic forces of changing America” (White & Hopkins xi).

While this movement did involve a return to the teachings of Jesus as Brownson urged, it also incorporated the realities of economics and society as it had been changed by modern science and technology. Under the social gospel, it was charged that each individual has the responsibility, under God’s direction, to care for the welfare and nurturing of his or her fellow man. This included such approaches as providing free health care for the needy, limiting the hours of the workforce particularly as it applied to mothers and children, and the provision of free child care. In many of the externals of the world he creates, Bellamy supports these ideas.

In his New England of 2000, for example, medical care and child care are no longer driving concerns for citizens who know they will receive whatever care they need when they need it. Workforce hours are also restricted to what is considered appropriate by those who perform the work and children are protected from work in favor of free education. However, in Bellamy’s world, this is not the hand-out stance taken by the social gospel movement.

Instead, these services are provided as a means of protecting and developing the workforce to assure continued productivity for society as a whole. Rather than allowing some individuals to profit unduly from the labors of others in the form of charity, Bellamy presents a world in which all citizens benefit equally as a result of their collective concentration of energies as each individual strives to perform his or her best in a non-competitive framework.

Works Cited

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Brownson, Orestes Augustus. The Laboring Classes. New York: Scholars Facsimilies & Reprint, 2000.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Sumner, William. What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1911.

White, Ronald C. Jr. & C. Howard Hopkins. The Social Gospel. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1976.

Winslow, Frederick. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1911.

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