Quotes from Looking Backward

by Edward Bellamy

From the Introduction to the Signet Classic's edition by Prof. W. J. Miller

     Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward ranks as one of those rare fictions that explode in the political arena and then become literary classics... [Bellamy] wanted to show that a viciously competitive economic system is wasteful, unjust, and degrading to all concerned, rich and poor alike; he also prophesied that it could evolve into a cooperative society with more dignity and self-fulfilment for everyone.
           - p v

     Reading Bellamy, history buffs readily recognize Nationalist principles in twentieth-century social legislation. One typical instance of a Bellamy principle that bore fruit: He had urged the government to set up federal corporations to discover whether non-profit industries could serve humanity better than private companies did. Along these lines the New Deal created the Tennessee Valley Authority. One of its functions was to serve as a "yardstick," to measure actual costs of generating electricity against the prices charged by utilities run for profit.
           - p vii

     [Bellamy] accurately predicted substitution of credit cards for money, rapid consolidation of corporations, globalization of capitalism, revolutionary effects of technology on everything from how we shop, eat, launder, and practice religion to how we listen to music and enjoy leisure.
           - p xii

From the text of the Signet Classics edition of 2000.

     Humanity, they argued, having climbed to the top round of the ladder of civilization, was about to take a header into chaos...
           - p 12

     The records of the period show that the outcry against the concentration of capital was furious. Men believed that it threatened society with a form of tyranny more abhorrent than it had ever endured. The believed that the great corporations were preparing for them the yoke of a baser servitude than had ever been imposed on the race, servitude not to men but to soulless machnes incapable of any motive but insatiable greed. Looking back, we cannot wonder at their desperation, for certainly humanity was never confronted with a fate more sordid and hideous than would have be the era of worporate tyranny which they anticipated.
           - p 35

     To restore the former order of things, even if possible, would have involved returning to the day of stage-coaches. Oppressive and intolerable as was the regime of the great consolidations of capital, even its victims, while they cursed it, were forced to admit the prodigious increase of efficiency which had been imparted to the national industries, the vast economies effect by concentration of management and unity of organization, and to confess that since the new system had taken the place of the old the wealth of the world had increased at a rate before undreamed of. To be sure this vast increase had gone chiefly to make the rich richer, increasing the gap between them and the poor; but the fact remained that, as a means of producing wealth, capital had been proven efficient in proportion to its consolidation.
           - p 36

     At last, strangely late in the world's history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people's livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.
           - p 37

     And in heaven's name, who are the public enemies? Are they France, England, Germany, or hunger, cold and nakedness?
           - p 39

     We should have thought that no arrangement could be worse than to entrust the politicians with control of the wealth-producing machinery of the country.
           - p 40

     In your day a man was not ashamed to be grossly ignorant of all trades except his own, but such ignorance would not be consistent with our idea of placing every one in a position to select intelligently the occupation for which he has most taste.
           - p 43

     You observe that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance. The term, as we use it, answer to no real thing, but merely serves as an algebraical symbol for comparing the values of products with one another.
           - p 57

     In our day the market rate determined the price of labor of all sorts, as well as of goods. The employer paid as little as he could, and the worker got as much. It was not a pretty system ethically, I admit; but it did, at least, furnish us a rough-and-ready formula for settling a question which must be settled then thousand times a day if the world was ever going to get forwad. There seemed to be no other practical way of doing it.
     "Yes," replied Dr. Leete, "it was the only practical way under a system which made the interests of every individual antagonistic to those of every other; but it would have been a pity if humanity could never have devised a better plan, for yours was simply the application to the mutual relations of men of the devil's maxim, 'Your necessity is my opportunity'."
           - p 59

     The man of great endowments who does not do all he might, though he may do more than a man of small endowments who does his best, is deemed a less deserving worker than the latter, and dies a debtor to his fellows.
           - p 61

     ... what is spent one way must be saved another.
           - p 71

     Of course, we all sing nowadays as a matter of course in the training of the voice, and some learn to play instruments for their private amusement; but the professional music is so much grander and more perfect than any performance of ours, and so easily commanded when we wish to hear it, that we don't think of calling our singing or playing music at all. All the really fine singers and players are in the musical service, and the rest of us hold our peace for the main part.
           - p 72

     We have simply carried the idea of labor-saving by cooperation into our musical service as into everything else.
           - p 73

     Their misery came with all your other miseries, from that incapacity for cooperation which followed from the individualism on which your social system was founded, from your inability to perceive that you could make ten times more profit out of your fellow men by uniting with them than by contending with them.
           - p 78

     So far as possible, indeed, the preferences even of the poorest of workmen are considered in assigning their line of work, because not only their happiness but their usefulness is thus enhanced.
           - p 81

     Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity.
           - p 86

     I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.

     The worker is not a citizen because he works, but works because he is a citizen.
           - p 87

     You must understand that we all look forward to an eventual unification of the world as one nation.
           - p 93

     Nowadays it is an axiom of ethics that to accept a service from another which we would be unwilling to return in kind, if need be, is like borrowing with the intention of not repaying, while to enforce such a service by taking advantage of the poverty or necessity of a person would be an outrage like forcible robbery.
           - p 102

     When men came to realize the greatness of the felicity which had befallen them, and that the change through which they had passed was not merely an improvement in details of their condition, but the rise of the race to a new plane of existence with an illimitable vista of progress... there ensued an era of mechanical invention, scientific discovery, art, musical and literary productiveness to which no previous age of the world offers anything comparable.
           - p 106

     One can look back a thousand years easier than forward fifty.
           - p 115

     After the necessary contingents have been detailed for the various industries, the amount of labor left for other employment is expended in creating fixed capital, such as buildings, machinery, engineering works, and so forth.
           - p 120

     If bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a close second.
           - p 130

     It is rarely that Congress, even when it meets, considers any new laws of consequence, and then it only has power to commend them to the following Congress, lest anything be done hastily.
           - p 136

     One generation of the world today represents a greater volume of intellectual life than any five centuries ever did before.
           - p 145

     A very important cause of former poverty was the vast waste of labor and materials which resulted from domestic washing and cooking, and the performing separately of innumerable other tasks to which we apply the cooperative plan.
           - p 149

     The producers of the nineteenth century were not, like ours, working together for the maintenance of the community, but each solely for his own maintenance at the expense of the community.
           - p 151

     I am going to ask you to sit down with me and try to make me comprehend ... how such schrewd fellows as your contemporaries appear to have been ... ever came to entrust the business of providing for the community to a class whose interest it was to starve it.
           - p 152

     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.
           - p 166

     The sexes now meet with the ease of perfect equals, suitors to each other for nothing by love.
           - p 173

     The necessities of poverty, the need of having a home, no longer temp women to accept as fathers of their children men whom they neither can love nor respect.
           - p 174

     The result is, that not all the encouragements and incentives of every sort which we have provided to develop industry, talent, genius, excellence of whatever kind, are comparable in their effect on our young men with the fact that our women sit aloft as judges of the race and reserve themselves to reward the winners.
           - p 175

     Our women have risen to the full heighth o their responsibility as the wardens of the world to come, to whose keeping the keys of the future are confided.
           - p 176

     My friends, if you would see men again the beasts of prey they seemed in the nineteenth century, all you have to do is restore the old social and industrial system, which taught them to view their natural prey in their fellow men, and find their gain in the loss of others.
           - p 180

     Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became coworkers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. "What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?" stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, "What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?" -- its difficulties vanished.
           - p 186

     Equity left charity without an occupation.

     As in the old society the generous, the just, the tender-hearted had been placed at a disadvantage by the possession of those qualities, so in the new society the cold-hearted, the greedy, and self-seeking found themselves out of joint with the world.
           - p 115

     Wretched men ... who, because they will not learn to be helpers of one another, are doomed to be beggers of one another from the least to the greatest.
           - p 204

     The more wasteful the people were, the more articles they did not want which they could be induced to buy, the better for these sellers.
           - p 206

     The folly of men, not their hard-heartedness, was the great cause of the world's poverty.
           - p 214

     All thoughtful men agree that the present aspect of society is portentious of great changes. The only question is, whether they will be for the better or the worse. Those who believe in man's essential nobleness lean to the former view, those who believe in his essential baseness to the latter. For my part, I hold to the former opinion. Looking Backward was written in the belief that the Golden Age lies before us and not behind us, and is not far away. Our children will surely see it, and we, too, who are already men and women, if we deserve it by our faith and by our works. -- Edward Bellamy
           - p 220

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71