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This Day in Labor History: January 14, 1888

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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.

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