late 19th century two visions of utopia did battle for the popular and
particularly the socialist imagination, as illustrated in the two most
widely read and influential utopian stories of the time,
From cradle to grave
by the American Edward Bellamy, published in 1888, depicted a state-managed
capitalist utopia which through a bloodless and gradual revolution had
transformed America. In the new model America, depicted by Bellamy, everyone
is conscripted into the `industrial army' until they retire at 45 to live
a life of leisure until they are 80 or 90. Army recruits take care of
all jobs including domestic work, freeing women from domestic slavery.
Each family lives in elegant private rooms, and eats exquisite a la carte
fare in communal dining-houses. Everything is paid for by credit card
- cash having been abolished. Each year everyone's card is credited with
his or her share of the nation's annual product. Goods are ordered from
'sample stores' - huge luxury malls with fountains, frescoes and statues
where all goods are displayed. To purchase an item that you desire you
simply fill in an order form and the goods are delivered directly from
the warehouse to your apartment through 'electric tubes'. This consumer
utopia has been made possible by advanced use of machinery, with such
technical advances as 'music by telephone'. With each citizen having an
equality of spending power, crime against property has been almost eradicated
and along with it most of the legal profession.
Bellamy had abandoned a career in law to become a journalist & writer.
He had a fascination with military discipline reflecting his upbringing
in post-Civil War America and this and his lifelong struggle with ill
health all come out in his vision. He gave voice to a collectivist vision
where 'the nation guarantees the nurture, education and comfortable maintenance
of every citizen from the cradle to the grave'.This was a reaction against
the nineteenth-century individualism of Romantics. He preached instead
a religion of solidarity, where `All men who do their best, do the same'
and salvation is to be reached by becoming part of the egalitarian masses.
Looking Backwards struck a chord with many people being widely read and
translated into all major languages, including Russian, Bulgarian and
Arabic. It became the manifesto of the Nationalist Movement in America,
inspiring the formation of the People's Party, and was seen as an authoritative
picture of what socialism would be like.
with a vengeance
Some however did not greet Bellamy's vision with much enthusiasm.
of the change to socialism as taking place without any breakdown of (modern)
Life, or indeed disturbance of it, by means of the final development of
the great private monopolies which are such a feature of the present day.
He supposes that these must necessarily be transformed into one great
monopoly which will include the whole people and be worked for the benefit
of the people . .
The great change having thus peaceably and fatalistically
taken place, the author has put forward his scheme of the organisation
of life; which is organised with a vengeance...."
William Morris reviewing
Looking Backwards in Commonweal
Jan 22 1889.
counterblast vision, News
serialised in Commonweal used the same technique as Looking
of the present day dreamer waking up in the future, but Morris's future
was in sharp contrast to Bellamy's. Waking to find himself in London,
some 150 years after a violent revolution had overthrown capitalism in
1952, Morris's hero is guided through the streets of a regenerated city
to the house of the historian, old Hammond, who proceeds to answer his
questions on the new life and how it was attained. London by now is a
green city, Kensington is wooded, blackbirds sing in Piccadilly, salmon
abound in the Thames and Trafalgar Square has become an apricot orchard.
Hammond outlines how the Federation of Combined Workers took over after
the ruling class had tried to cling to power through a military government.
Following a popular uprising the country was re-organised through decentralised
neighbourhood councils, or motes, with central government withering away,
along with the law courts, police, military and prisons. All were no longer
necessary following the abolition of private property.
The clearing of misery
The towns had been regenerated in a program known as 'The Clearing of
Misery', an event that is still celebrated 150 years later.
'On that day we have music and dancing, and merry games and happy feasting
on the site of some of the worst of the old slums, the traditional memory
of which we have kept. On that occasion the custom is for the prettiest
girls to sing some of the old revolutionary songs, and those which were
the groans of the discontented once so hopeless, on the very spots where
those terrible crimes of class-murder were committed day by day for so
The slums were replaced by neo-historical style buildings with ample gardens
& surrounding green space, the best old buildings have been preserved
or restored, except for the Houses of Parliament which have been turned
into a 'Dung Market'. The slum dwellers repopulated the countryside, leading
to the decentralisation of services and healing the age-old rift between
town & country. Meanwhile the open spaces and 'wastes' have been protected
for all to enjoy. In the new socialist society relations between the sexes
have been transformed; marriage being a matter of choice and divorce disappearing
along with other property disputes. Women's emancipation is taken for
granted, though Morris seems to think that women given free choice would
choose to stay at home in domestic bliss. Later however we do meet a female
construction worker carving panels for a new house.
Contrary to later opinion Morris's utopia, whilst retro-medieval in appearance,
was not anti-technology. Hammond points out that
'All work which it would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely
'Force' barges ply their way up and down the Thames carrying goods from
small craft workshops and water powered mills that line the banks of the
river. This shows Morris as being more concerned about the control of
technology and its effects on the dignity of labour, rather than being
simply anti-machine. The story recasts Morris's own experiences often
with subtle jokes at his own expense, ending with a journey up the Thames
to Morris's own house at Kelmscott, where during an idyllic harvest festival
the dream fades and the hero finds himself back in the poverty & degradation
of the 19th century.
others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather
that a Dream."
Last line of News
These two very different visions of a socialist future enthused their
followers in turn; Bellamy's being embraced by the Fabians in Britain
and informing the early Labour Party; Morris's altogether more romantic
vision inspiring generations of artists, craftworkers and simple-life
dreamers. And whilst few have heard of Looking
Backwards, News from Nowhere
is still in print a century later.