On Earth, as in Heaven: the Utopianism of Edward Bellamy

What did Jesus mean by the Kingdom of God, when he prayed two thousand years ago for it to come on earth? What might this Kingdom look like if it came much later than expected, long after the Roman Empire had faded into history, nation states had emerged as the new centers of earthly power, and democratic government had been conceptualized and at least partially implemented? In two late 19th Century American novels, a forgotten genius named Edward Bellamy tackled these perplexing questions and proved equal to the task. Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) depicted in striking detail a developed nation governed by the core teachings of Jesus, creating a national and world sensation that rivaled Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His sequel, Equality (1897), responded to critics of Looking Backward with a refined, even more elaborate description of how the Kingdom would manifest in this modern world.

With uncanny prescience—anticipating radio, television, airplanes, electric cars, power tools, air conditioning, calculators, credit cards, supply chains, women’s liberation, alternative energy, environmental restoration, recycling, and other commonplaces of contemporary life—Bellamy painted a vivid and compelling portrait of what he believed America would become as the 20th Century unfolded. An impending nonviolent revolution, sweeping aside the immemorial and oppressive “rule of the rich,” would bring forth a radically egalitarian social order of material abundance and moral sublimity. America would finally embody the lofty principles of the Preamble to its Declaration of Independence. Unlike his other predictions, Bellamy’s revolution has not come to pass—at least not yet—but his resplendent vision of its culmination has lost little luster. Read today his two testaments of continuing revelation, and one’s spiritual and political lives become one flesh.

In the Kingdom come to America, citizens have both equal votes in elections and equal stakes in the national economy. The Golden Rule is official policy. From cradle to grave, citizens receive an annual credit to draw upon, reflecting an equal share of their nation’s available output of goods and services. All Americans, male and female, have the same opportunities and responsibilities: during the first twenty-one years of life, to become well-educated in the public schools, where every able student obtains at least the equivalent of a college degree, and all are exposed to a wide variety of potential occupations; from twenty-one to forty-five, to serve in the nation’s centrally-planned, regionally-organized industries and professions in a largely self-chosen capacity and location; after forty-five, to devote their extended retirement years to continuing intellectual and spiritual development and volunteer community service. At no time does any citizen work for another or become dependent upon another. All live and work as peers to promote the welfare and prosperity of the nation they share and love.

Social cohesion and personal initiative flow from higher patriotism, mutuality of interest, and public honor, a self-reinforcing triad which has replaced private profit-seeking as the impetus of economic activity. Before the revolution, citizens with competing economic interests fought to maximize them, regardless of the expense to other citizens or even to the nation itself. Amid that perpetual conflict, patriotism was but an occasional chauvinistic or militaristic sentiment. In the new post-revolutionary America, a higher form of patriotism creates a humanitarian bond between citizens, one which naturally arises from their identical mutual interests in the success of the national enterprise. So successful is this new social model that it has spread worldwide in a panoply of cultural variations, ushering in a peaceful era of international cooperation. Like soldiers who once rose through the ranks to gain increasing respect and responsibility, workers in the new “industrial army” strive to earn promotions, public honor, and civic awards for outstanding contributions to society and humanity. The earthly Kingdom does not seek to eliminate ambition but to give it nobler expression.

Far from a regimented anthill, the America of 2000 is a beehive of individual expression and social experimentation. Equality has not led to uniformity but to the unleashing of human potential. Artists, authors, philosophical and spiritual teachers, publishers of newspapers and magazines, and other creative entrepreneurs are exempt from the “industrial army” if they garner sufficient citizen support to match the annual credit. Pioneers who wish to forge their own paths outside the mainstream are given the means to get started in lieu of the credit. Democracy has permeated every nook and cranny of society. Advanced communication systems allow citizens to vote frequently on a broad spectrum of issues, from the election of their public officials to the civic projects and programs they will undertake. Although income equality has essentially eliminated corruption, ineffective officials can be recalled at any time, and no significant governmental action can be taken without approval by plebiscite. “Government of, by, and for the people” has not perished but has at last been born.

When only touched upon in essay form, Bellamy’s ideas may sound fanciful, naively optimistic. When encountered in his books, however, they come across as inescapable conclusions of Socratic logic, self-evident applications of the teachings of Jesus and the principles of America’s founding document. Every conceivable objection to the virtue and viability of a radically egalitarian society is raised, fleshed out, and refuted. This is why Looking Backward became the most popular utopian novel ever written, was translated into at least twenty languages, and influenced the likes of Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Samuel Clemens, Emma Goldman, Charles Beard, Carl Sandburg, George Orwell, Thorstein Veblen, Erich Fromm, Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, and a host of other noteworthy intellectual and social leaders. Indeed, as the 19th Century drew to a close, Bellamy clubs were blossoming throughout America and new populist political parties were being formed. Then as fast as it all had arisen, it began to fall apart simultaneously with Bellamy’s fragile, failing health.

His legacy continued to live on in a series of reforms—public ownership of utilities, the general election of senators, the civil service system, the income tax amendment, the inheritance tax, the parcel post system, women’s suffrage, improved child education and labor laws, curtailment of egregious industrial abuses, soil conservation and reforestation efforts, etc. Yet Bellamy’s tragic death in 1898, at the age of forty-eight, marked the end of his vastly more radical vision…or did it? The question is asked in light of his most stunning prediction. “It was not till the kings had been shorn of power and the interregnum of sham democracy (operative in the political but not the economic arena) had set in, leaving no virile force in the state or the world to resist the money power, that the opportunity for a world-wide plutocratic despotism arrived. …When international trade and financial relations had broken down national barriers and the world had become one field of economic enterprise, (then) did the idea of a universally dominant and centralized money power become not only possible…(but) had already so far materialized itself as to cast its shadow before. If the Revolution had not come when it did, we cannot doubt that something like this universal plutocratic dynasty or some highly centered oligarchy, based upon the complete monopoly of all property by a small body, would long before this time have become the government of the world.” Equality (1897)

Well over a hundred years ago, Edward Bellamy explained in two novels what the modern world would look like if the Kingdom of God arrived in its midst. He also explained what that world would look like if it did not. Wealth would accumulate in the private economic arena to the point where it could buy and control the public political arena, and then would come the plutocratic strangulation of the human race. So it has happened before our eyes. The numbers shift a bit from year to year, but recent estimates are that 80% of humanity struggles to survive on $10.00 or less per day, 50% on $2.50 or less, and seven million children die annually from malnutrition and preventable or treatable disease. Meanwhile, a handful of billionaires have become richer than the poorer half of the world’s population, and globalized financial and corporate monstrosities dictate the one-sided terms under which entire nations must live. Not only has this insane, obscene wealth concentration corrupted politics and plunged the masses into crippling austerity, but even more dreadfully, it has plundered and polluted our planet to the point of mass species extinction and looming ecocide.

Small wonder that we drown in dystopian thought, swallowing the poisonous TINA water that there is no alternative. Although Bellamy was spot on in predicting plutocracy absent a revolution, the revolution he saw coming never came. His untimely illness and death sapped the initial momentum of his movement, but the coupe de grace of Bellamy’s “impending” revolution was delivered by a confluence of foreign and domestic events he did not foresee. On the foreign front came two world wars, the rise of authoritarian communism, and the resulting Cold War. On the domestic front came the New Deal, the post-WWII surge of American industry, and its following decades of global dominance. The foreign events were all-consuming crises; the domestic events allowed much of America’s fragile working class to move into the seemingly-more secure middle class, fostering the false assumption that the evils of capitalism had been constrained. Now that the near-collapse of the global capitalist system has mired us in the consequences of the Great Recession, and the scarcity of stable work for steady pay is again the stark reality in America and across the world, attention should be paid to how Bellamy believed the Second Great American Revolution would unfold.

The process would begin with growing public awareness of its dire predicament, since the dawn of civilization, under “the rule of the rich.” What had begun with the slaves of ancient empires and continued with the serfs of feudalism had culminated with the wage-slaves of capitalism caught in the vise-grip of global plutocracy. The growing awareness of this perpetual plight would be energized by a widespread spiritual awakening to feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood long suppressed by ruthless competition. Universal moral values like the Golden Rule—and what Schweitzer would later call “reverence for life”—would come to be seen not merely as personal guidance in a fallen world but as bedrock principles upon which to build a better, more beautiful one. The nature and purpose of democratic government would again be understood as defined in America’s founding document: as an institution, called into being by the people, to ensure equality by enabling every citizen to exercise inherent rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When it became clear that those rights could be secured only in the economic arena, democracy would move boldly into it.

The mechanics of that move—successive flanking and pincer maneuvers by which a revitalized, rapidly-expanding public sector would first out-compete, then surround, then absorb what had become a dwindling, profit-starved private sector—is beyond the scope of a short two-part essay. A piece like this can only point to Looking Backward and Equality, sequentially read and pondered, as a path up the mountain to gain a clear and comprehensive view of the utopian shore toward which today we either swim or perish. Fortunately, Bellamy left a glimmering wake to follow, and his 19th Century vision readily lends itself to 21st Century revision. Included in that task would be the removal of lingering Victorian attitudes in Bellamy’s thought, the balancing of his large-scale mechanistic mode of progress with the small-scale organic, and the re-imagining of an “eco-industrial army,” one which not only produces goods and services in accord with environmental constraints but which also works directly, like FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, to protect nature and begin to heal the immense harm we have done to her (and thus to ourselves).

Desperately we long to feel again the thrill of hope, the possible fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer that the Kingdom of God come on earth. A forgotten genius named Edward Bellamy deserves to be remembered, for he enables us, persuades us, impels us to believe that it can and it must. Let his words, not mine, close this essay. “The great enthusiasm of humanity which overthrew the old order and brought in the fraternal society was not primarily or consciously a godward aspiration at all. It was essentially a humane movement. …But ‘if we love one another God dwelleth in us,’ and so men found it. It appears that there came a moment, the most transcendent moment in the history of the race of man, when with the fraternal glow of this world of new-found embracing brothers there seems to have mingled the ineffable thrill of a divine participation, as if the hand of God were clasped over the joined hands of men. And so it has continued to this day and shall for evermore.”Equality (1897)

Note to the reader: For those who deem Bellamy’s emphases on nationalism and patriotism either dated or dangerous, attention is called to the nurturing and inclusive form of nationalism recently proposed in “Reclaiming the State” by Mitchell and Fazi (Pluto Press, 2017), a proposal which includes both a universal jobs guarantee and a “socio-ecological transformation of production and society,” funded via Modern Monetary Theory. For those who seek a more scholarly approach to Bellamy’s work, please search the net for Dr. Nora Willi’s insightful dissertation (UIC, 2018), “Looking Back to Bellamy: American Political Theology for a New Gilded Age.”

Newton Finn is an attorney. He lives in Illinois.