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This Day in Labor History: January 14, 1888

[ 25 ] January 14, 2014 |

On January 14, 1888, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 was published. One of the two most influential books in American labor history (with The Jungle as the other), Bellamy’s treatise tapped into the dreams of thousands of Americans who found the promises of the post-Civil War economy a lie and were desperate for alternatives to the reality of Gilded Age capitalism.

By the 1880s, the promise of post-Civil War capitalism had failed the American working class. Most working Americans believed, and this was fundamental to the founding ideology of the Republican Party, in free labor. In short that meant the ability of individuals to control their own economic destiny, either as an independent operator or as an employee in a small shop that would often lead to later independence. But the Civil War had transformed the American economy and while Gilded Age Republicans at first spoke the words of free labor, they consistently supported policies that concentrated capital at the top. Men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie became unbelievably wealthy while the majority of workers fell into poverty. The search for wealth led to wide-scale corruption that both caused economic collapses and bought off politicians all the way up to Grant’s vice-president.

By the 1880s, a lot of working-class Americans were searching for a solution. Most still fundamentally believed in the system of free labor market capitalism. They generally felt that if they could just tweak the system in one big way, everything would align. So they searched for any number of ways to do that. Some wanted to restrict immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative success for labor unions in American history. Others grasped onto the 8-hour day. The Farmers Alliance sought railroad regulations. Other workers thought Henry George’s Single Tax on land would create conditions of equality.

Of all these one-off solutions, none had more power or appeal than Edward Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward. Bellamy, a previously unknown reporter for the Springfield (MA) Daily Union, wrote a book telling the tale of Julian West, who is placed in a hypnotic trance in 1887 and because of a disaster is forgotten about until he is uncovered in 2000. Waking up, West is confused. His strife-riven, class-divided Boston of the Gilded Age has become a peaceful sort of paradise. Competitive capitalism had disappeared with all its terrible byproducts–inequality, strikes, poverty, taxes, money, wealth, and domestic labor. There were no more political parties, garbage, advertisements, state governments, or corruption. People retired at the age of 45 and lived long lives of comfort. There is harmony between the sexes, although based around a paternalistic view of women.

Most importantly for Gilded Age readers who ultimately still believed in the system’s fundamentals, this revolution was not Haymarket and it was not the Paris Commune. This was a peaceful revolution. Americans saw their society in crisis and voted in the necessary changes.

Bellamy was an evolutionary socialist and his ideas were appealing to those who realized that Gilded Age society was in a state of crisis and needed changes. Looking Backward became a best seller, moving over 1000 copies per day at its peak. By 1891, the book had sold nearly 500,000 copies, making it the biggest best seller of its era. Workers and middle class reformers around the country started Bellamy Clubs to press for his ideas. For the growing middle class, just entering the first stages of what would later be known as Progressivism, Bellamyism had possibly even more appeal than to workers. The first Bellamy Club was set up in Boston in 1889 and they soon spread around the country. A California Bellamyite wrote to him that “When the Golden Century arrives, your name will receive the homage of the human race of that period as the only writer of the 19th century capable of seeing, feeling and portraying the ‘better way.’”

Within the labor movement, Looking Backward was widely hailed. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor embraced his ideas. For the Knights’ leadership, Bellamyism was far more appealing than the anarchism that had led to the Haymarket bombing and helped destroy the 8-hour day movement that had led to its growth up to 1886. The book became central to Knights locals and in fact many Bellamy Clubs became labor unions. The book attracted followers such as Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Upton Sinclair, and Daniel DeLeon. In later years, Franklin Roosevelt and Norman Thomas talked of its influence upon them. The Progressives held the book close as well. Effectively, in a world where people were desperately searching for a vision of a future that included both equality and peace, Bellamy’s dream world was an ideal.

Although one can say this of many futuristic novels, if we squint enough, we can see Bellamy predicting some of the 20th century, including credit cards, shopping malls and radios. As literature, it’s pretty tough sledding. It’s mostly a long conversation between West and his mentor in the new world. It’s stilted and much of it is boring; I used it once to introduce a course on the Gilded Age and it was a complete disaster.

Ultimately, these relatively simplistic solutions to the perils of American capitalism began to fade in favor of far more complex and necessary understandings of the system. Whether through the pure and simple unionism of the American Federation of Labor or the ideologically complex systems of anarchism, socialism, and communism, by the late 19th century, workers increasingly understood that the system they lived in was not an anomaly but rather the intentional creation of the plutocrats. Free labor ideology faded, replaced by class consciousness. Bellamyism had long legs as a utopian ideal, but as a direct goal to attain, more realistic and complex ways of understanding the world came to the forefront.

Edward Bellamy was uncomfortable with the ardor his book evinced and resisted publishing a follow-up. He eventually did in 1897, but it did not sell well. He died in 1898.

This is the 90th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

Comments (25)

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  1. N__B says:

    I read it by accident when I was ten because it was in the “Science Fiction” section of the bookstore. Three or four years later I was listening to a teacher talk about socialist idealists and utopians and I said “Oh. That’s what that is.”

  2. LeeEsq says:

    Bellamy also accurately predicted that recorded music would lead to a decrease of musical ability.

    Utopian literature tends to be bad from a quality stand point even if its a utopia that I agree with. Look how great everything is going to be under this or that ideology doesn’t make for compelling reading. You usually don’t have great prose to make up for the lack of plot, conflict, or well developed characters either.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yeah, that’s probably largely true. Dystopian literature is more interesting, if probably less politically useful.

    • rea says:

      recorded music would lead to a decrease of musical ability.

      Is that really true at all?

      • Captain Bringdown says:

        It’s an interesting question. I’d venture that in the late 19th century a vastly greater percentage of the population was able to competently play a musical instrument than can today. I think it’s probably fair to largely attribute this to the ubiquity of recorded music.

        On the other hand, today’s virtuosi are probably more skilled than ever, at least as far as classical performers are concerned.

        • Vance Maverick says:

          Agreed, though there’s a class selection bias — the written record of the past tends to be about the better off and leisured. But I do think more people were comfortable sitting down in front of a piano (or what have you) and playing something, at some level, than today.

          • Karen says:

            I definitely think this is true. All of my grandparents were competent, if not expert, musicians and a couple of my great aunts were good enough to get paid as church organists. I’m taking guitar lessons at age 50, and my friends regard this as eight an appalling waste of money or something requiring Medal of Honor type courage, since I display my incompetence to my teacher each week. In an age when it’s actually pretty easy to get good, and not abusive, instruction in music, this makes me very sad.

            • Lasker says:

              Yes, one of the reasons that classical musicians are performing at a higher (technical) level than ever today is that pedagogy has made genuine improvements over the last 150 years.

              And the teaching materials available for beginners are much better too. In a way they are much more dumbed down – The John Thompson books that were a staple of piano instruction 60 years ago seem to move at an impossibly fast pace for most kids today, even leaving aside how culturally backwards they are. But in part this is because I think teachers in the past were much more willing to let the 50% or more of kids who didn’t get it just struggle and quit instead of try to find a way to meet them where they were.

              But still the general level of musical ability in the population as a whole is almost certainly lower today, and I think recordings are a big part of that. Recordings removed a lot of the impetus for people to make music. So, people are less likely to see real music-making in their homes, churches, schools, etc. Even better teaching can’t make up for the lack of opportunities to make and share music with others in the community, which I think is probably the single most important part of anybody’s musical education, both for motivation and actual learning.

              I have belatedly observed that many of my most talented musical friends belonged, as children, to churches with strong music programs. No coincidence. And there are fewer and fewer of those. A former teacher of mine (very interesting woman, had a piano given to her by Saddam Hussein) grew up playing on the radio every Saturday. No one but no one gets to do that anymore.

              I don’t know. I’m a piano teacher and think often about the disconnect between the music I work on with students and the music they experience in their lives. It is hard to bridge the gap. I’m not saying they need to listen to classical music. I certainly didn’t at their age. But I wish they had some experience of people making music (of any genre) together, not just passively listening to it. The best thing for it is usually christmas music since that is one of the few parts of our musical culture that still encourages everyone to participate, and is shared to a large degree even among people of very divergent backgrounds.

  3. I read this for a summer reading project in high school. We had to pick five books about politics off a list. I knew nothing about any of them and picked this, Conscience of a Conservative, The Selling of the President 1968 and two others I entirely forget. I probably chose them because those were the ones I could find in the local library or second-hand. I’m sure the paper I wrote was terrible too. I never got a response, probably just a checkmark that I finished it, but I seem to have assumed that was because it was very bad. I do remember it better than any of the others except Selling of the President.

  4. Crunchy Frog says:

    This was assigned in the American Political Theory course I took at my private liberal college – probably 1982 or 1983. Very interesting, generated lots of discussion. I think everyone liked the general notion, but not the particulars, and of course the biggest criticism was the lack of any detail on how the transition would occur. I remember the professors, who was sympathetic to the book, asked “If you have a choice between the world of today and the world envisioned by Bellamy, which would you choose?” and everyone rejected Bellamy’s world.

    Of course, back then 75% of us were on financial aid, the college still had an aid-blind admissions policy (anyone remember that? It was like the hula hoop), the Fairness Doctrine was completely intact, and we were over 40 years from the end of the depression and 20 years before the start of the second gilded age. Perhaps today he’d get a different response.

  5. Gwen says:

    Just to be clear, every damn episode of Star Trek where they prattle on about “how we don’t have money in the 23rd century” is totally ripping off of this.

    • Gwen says:

      http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NoPoverty

      “In Star Trek it’s mentioned that poverty is effectively no longer an issue in 24th century Earth. By the time of The Next Generation transporters and replicators make most things so cheap that money is kind of pointless, making this is one of the reasons people of the 24th century tend to question the moral character of anyone from the 21st century.

      “Then Star Trek: Deep Space Nine came along and deconstructed this. Because Earth has no money, they’ve lost the concept of the value of work (Jake at one point asks Nog to give up his entire life’s savings for a baseball card, and thinks Nog’s the one being unreasonable when he refuses) and they’re too much of an ivory-tower utopia to really appreciate the troubles that happen out in the rest of the universe.

      “Then again the reason of why the Federation abandoned money (other than replicators makes it pointless) is that they don’t see [wealth] the same way we do, they understand work just fine, after all Jake spends most of that episode doing a number of tasks for crew members in order. ‘they work to better others and [ourselves].’

      “Jake does this with guidance from Nog and is essentially trading favors, or work for goods or goods for goods throughout the episode. He’s just not using currency to facilitate the exchanges.”

  6. Karen says:

    This is more in bspencer’s area, but this is the least unrelated thread. Women are dumb for going to college. I would really like to know what y’all think?

  7. Chilly says:

    I read this book quite a while ago. Sometimes I like to imagine a world where leftists run around waving this book at everyone the way libertarians do with Atlas Shrugged. It’s definitely a better read, if only because it’s shorter and not morally reprehensible.

    • LeeEsq says:

      I thought that the work fiction leftists like waving around in people’s faces was the Communist Manifesto. (Ducks).

  8. LeeEsq says:

    Rea, before recorded music if you wanted to listen to it, you would either have to play it yourself or hope that somebody around you could play and was willing to. At the very least more people learned to sing somewhat well so they could amuse themselves while doing less intense chores and work. Many learned to play an instrument.

  9. LeeEsq says:

    John Philip Sousa also believed that recorded music would lead to a diffusion of musical ability as he wrote in the Menace of Mechanical Music.

  10. ChrisTS says:

    Aside from the soft sexism, one of the things I always found disappointing about LB was the subtle extension of class distinctions. Yes, everyone works at something and it is all equally valued… except some people wear special badges/decorations to signify their superior contributions.

    As for a slog, it is a bit of one. I prefer News from Nowhere – itself a slog at points – for the realism about people occasionally still doing bad things, the effort to deal with ‘unattractive work,’ and the more pastoral/rural setting[s].

  11. [...] rebellion begins in Louisiana. January 13, 1874–Tompkins Square Riot. January 14, 1888–Publication of Looking Backward. January 15, 1915–Ralph Chaplin writes “Solidarity Forever.” February 13, [...]

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