“The Splendor of Our Public and Common Life”

Edward Bellamy’s utopian novels inspired a social movement and influenced a generation of urban planners and designers. They are worth reading today, as designers consider their political commitments.

Edward Bellamy portrait and cover of his novel Looking Backward
Edward Bellamy, ca. 1889, the year after writing his novel Looking Backward, shown here in a 1937 edition. [Library of Congress]

In 1889, a new political magazine in Boston described plans for an “American Revolution of 1950.” 1 Denouncing the “wage slavery” of the Gilded Age, the writers proposed to abolish capitalism and turn the economy over to the people. But this magazine had no connection to the Communist Second International which convened that summer in Paris, and its contributors were hardly members of the industrial proletariat. Rather, they were middle-class reformers who had been radicalized by a work of fiction: Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, published the previous year.

Probably no cultural work was more responsible for pushing public opinion to the left in the Progressive Era. Decades later, Erich Fromm called Looking Backward “one of the most remarkable books ever published in America,” and William Dean Howells observed that it “virtually founded the Populist Party.” In 1935, when the philosopher John Dewey, the essayist Edward Weeks, and the historian Charles Beard were asked to list the most influential works of the previous half century, they all put Bellamy’s novel in second place, just after Karl Marx’s Kapital. And it was not just appreciated by an intellectual elite — Looking Backward was the third best-selling American book of its time. 2

Yet today the novel is largely unknown and almost totally unread. Most historians treat it as a one-off literary boomlet, a prefatory note to the reform movements that swept through Western politics around the turn of the 20th century. To be fair, it is a strange piece of work: a structural critique of industrial capitalism, tied to a breezy vision of a revolutionized future, wrapped in an insipid romance. But to dismiss Looking Backward as a dreamy fantasy is to miss the point, as the novel was just a starting place. The sequel Equality (1897), though far less popular, added sophistication and depth to the vision of a post-capitalist society laid out in the first volume. More importantly, in the early 1890s, Bellamy’s influence exploded out beyond literary circles into a genuine mass movement expressing profound frustration with the greed, injustice, and exploitation that marked industrial capitalism. Bellamy clubs sprang up around the country to advocate for deep structural reforms to the nation’s political economy.

Most of those clubs folded within a few years, but they created a social and ideological infrastructure which supported progressive reforms into the new century. Nowhere was this legacy stronger than in the emerging field of public planning. 3 From metropolitan parks to municipal transit systems, cities are still shaped by the programs that grew out of this intellectual ferment. Before the 1890s, any proposal to bring services under public control was a “voice crying out in the wilderness,” according to the historian John Hope Franklin. But by the end of the decade such proposals were “being seriously considered by a large number of government units” — an astonishing shift that Franklin attributed to the mass appeal of the Bellamy movement. 4 Municipal socialism flourished from Milwaukee to Cleveland to London.

For all these reasons, Looking Backward and Equality are more than historical curiosities. We needn’t revive these texts as contemporary gospel, but they are worth reading today for lessons in how cultural critique — even fiction — can advance a political program. And the next time you hear someone say that the quintessential American landscape is found in the individualistic frontier, the quick-buck boomtown, or the tract development of private homes, you can point out that one of the most exceptionally popular books in the nation’s history portrayed the site of the American dream as a publicly-owned garden city with a democratically planned economy.

An 1870 map of Chicopee Falls shows the Bellamy family home on Church Street, not far from the millworks. [Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center/Boston Public Library]

A City Transformed

Edward Bellamy was born in 1850 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, where his father was a member of the clergy. His hometown typified the conditions that Leo Marx would later describe in The Machine in the Garden: a geometric mill complex churning out industrial plenty, set in the agrarian Connecticut River Valley, a classic landscape of small-town republicanism. Edward admired the efficiency and power of capitalist production, but he inherited his mother’s “conviction that a life spent seeking creature comforts in a materialist society was a snare and a delusion.” 5 A journalist turned fantasy novelist, he suffered from tuberculosis and lived in his parents’ house for most of his life. Looking out one window toward the mills, with their dazzling productive power and their exploitation of land and workers, and out another onto the mythical communitarian mosaic of the New England township, he had in view the ingredients for a new political philosophy. 6

Looking Backward was his fourth novel, published when he was 38. It is told through the eyes of Julian West, a wealthy and politically conservative avatar of the Gilded Age, who sleeps until the year 2000 after being accidentally mummified in the basement of his Boston townhouse. Dr. Leete, an enlightened resident of the future Boston, discovers West asleep in a hidden chamber and awakens the catatonic capitalist, who refuses to believe that it isn’t all a prank. So, in order to prove that a century has passed, the doctor takes West upstairs, where they look out over the city:

Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger or smaller inclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open spaces filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and an architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side. Surely I had never seen this city nor one comparable to it before. Raising my eyes at last towards the horizon, I looked westward. That blue ribbon winding away to the sunset, was it not the sinuous Charles? I looked east; Boston harbor stretched before me within its headlands, not one of its green islets missing.

The juxtaposition is especially dramatic given West’s description of this same neighborhood under “invasion by tenement houses and manufactories” in the 19th century. Everywhere, Boston’s landscape is marked by the consequences of a revolution that occurred while West was asleep. The transformation is so extreme that he imagines “a thousand years instead of a hundred had elapsed since I last looked on this city.” Electricity has made all other forms of heating and lighting obsolete. The banks have disappeared from State Street and the shops from Washington Street. Private residences are well-appointed but relatively unimportant, since meals are taken at community clubs scattered throughout the tree-lined neighborhoods, and domestic tasks like laundry are performed in public facilities. West is astonished by “the magnificent architecture, the richness of embellishment” of the dining halls. Dr. Leete explains that these aren’t private luxuries, but rather the result of collective action: they reflect “the splendor of our public and common life.” 7

Looking Backward is told through the eyes of a wealthy, politically conservative avatar of the Gilded Age who sleeps until the year 2000 after being accidentally mummified in his Boston townhouse.

The novel’s narrative engine is a cloying love story in which West discovers that Edith Leete, the daughter of his 21st-century host, is a descendant of the fiancée he left behind in the Gilded Age. The forgettable quality of this romance has led many critics to reject Bellamy as an unserious thinker. But the frame narrative is little more than an excuse for Bellamy to spin lengthy disquisitions about the nature of economic inequality, which gives his books the strange tone of a lecture series wrapped in a novel — sometimes literally, as in a scene from Equality where West remotely attends a classroom discussion of economic theory at the Arlington School via a futuristic device called the electroscope.

Bellamy was astonishingly prescient about the trajectory of technological change. In addition to electroscopic videoconferencing, he foresaw technologies that we would now recognize as credit cards, merchandise databases, music streaming, and speech recognition. He even described a shop where buyers could sample goods and place remote orders to a central warehouse, not unlike Amazon’s foray into physical storefronts. Bellamy was a techno-optimist; he believed the ultimate end of progress in science and engineering would be a better world for all. But he also knew that technical advances would not lead to social progress if they were not set in a political economy that prioritized shared benefits above individual gain.

Bradbury Building Los Angeles
The Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles, designed by George Wyman in 1893, was reportedly inspired by a passage in Looking Backward: “I was in a vast hall full of light…” [Historic American Buildings Survey]

By his account, Bellamy began writing Looking Backward as “a cloud-palace for an ideal humanity,” in the escapist tradition of utopian literature. But as he worked out this utopia in his mind, he realized that it pointed the way to “a definite scheme of industrial reorganization.” 8 He began to think of the novel not as a daydream but as an instruction manual for economic revolution. And he found a template for a command economy in the machinery of war: people, material, and production were organized and financed by the state at an enormous scale for aggression and bloodshed. Why couldn’t the same logic be applied to the peacetime purpose of attacking misery and poverty? “Who are the public enemies?,” Dr. Leete asks. “Are they France, England, Germany, or hunger, cold, and nakedness?”

This insight is central to Bellamy’s explanation of how the revolution could be achieved. He argued that modern societies had the productive power to take care of everyone, if only the allocation of resources were directed by a rational and cooperative public administration. Unlike many romantic critics of industrialism, Bellamy did not dismiss factory work as inherently demeaning or exploitative. In his vision of the future, industrial progress is not rolled back but redirected, removed from the sphere of capitalist competition and placed under the management of a democratic order. “Every man,” Dr. Leete says — and every woman, too — “is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity.” Instead of a handful of corporations owned by a few stockholders, the economy is directed by a huge, all-encompassing public corporation, owned by the citizens. 9

As he worked out this utopia in his mind, Bellamy began to think of the novel not as a daydream but as an instruction manual for economic revolution.

This reconciliation of technical power and a moral economy gave Bellamy’s politics a distinctive bent. Many social critics in the Gilded Age saw monopolies and business trusts as their chief antagonists, but Bellamy had no sentimental attachment to smallholder capitalism. 10 Breaking up the big firms to promote entrepreneurial competition was senseless when you could put the firms under democratic control instead. Similarly, he rejected culturally conservative reformers who looked to an idealized past of medieval villages and bartered handicrafts (an anti-modernist strain of reform that persists today in the neo-traditional aesthetics of New Urbanism and the techno-skepticism of the anti-GMO movement).

Bellamy accepted that the technical and organizational powers of capitalism had permanently reworked society into an interdependent, complicated, mass system. The problem with capitalism was not that it was too big or centralized or impersonal, but that it was, in a way, not big enough. Production and distribution should be controlled not by self-interested owners, but by the larger administrative powers of the state. In Bellamy’s great revolution, the corporations aren’t smashed up; they’re fused together to eliminate the principle of competition and assembled into massive sectoral conglomerates, governed according to how they will best serve the public interest. “The people of the United States concluded to assume their own business,” Dr. Leete calmly explains, “just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government.” 11

True to his Yankee roots, Bellamy had a bourgeois faith that an idealistic appeal to righteousness would steer the course of history. But at the same time, he insisted on the material realities of capital ownership and financial self-interest. Consequently, he believed that the only hope of a moral economy was one where the people held the levers of the engine. Decorating around the edges with charity and uplift programs could never overturn the individualistic logic that was fundamental to private capitalism.

And Bellamy believed that the imaginative lines of reform should always run toward the future. Unlike his contemporary Henry George, whose theories of ground rent were motivated by a desire to turn the country back to a smallholder economy of yeoman independence, Bellamy looked unrelentingly forward. In a striking passage from Equality, he put the future tense of the revolution in no uncertain terms:

Fight forward, not backward! March with the course of economic evolution, not against it! The competitive system can never be restored, neither is it worthy of restoration, having been at best an immoral, wasteful, brutal scramble for existence. New issues demand new answers. It is in vain to pit the moribund system of competition against the young giant of private monopoly; it must rather be opposed by the greater giant of public monopoly. The consolidation of business in private interests must be met with greater consolidation in the public interest, the trust and the syndicate with the city, State, and nation, capitalism with nationalism. The capitalists have destroyed the competitive system. Do not try to restore it, but rather thank them for the work, if not the motive, and set about, not to rebuild the old village of hovels, but to rear on the cleared place the temple humanity so long has waited for. 12

Public bath houses in South Boston, aerial view
Public bath houses in South Boston, 1928. [Boston Public Library]

Works of the Public

In this utopian future, public management doesn’t just revolutionize human interactions. It also reshapes the form of the city. The shift from private consumption to public enjoyment has a dramatic effect on common spaces, as in the canopies that roll out over the city’s sidewalks when it rains. Edith Leete sneers at the “imbecility” of a scene in a 19th century painting: “a crowd of people in the rain, each one holding his umbrella over himself and his wife, and giving his neighbors the drippings.” The basic insight of the economic revolution, according to Dr. Leete, is that instead of “putting three hundred thousand umbrellas over as many heads,” a society could “put up one umbrella over all the heads.” Bellamy lived too early to condemn the still greater imbecility of putting 270 million automobiles around as many bodies.

Public management reshapes the form of the city … as in the canopies that roll out over the city’s sidewalks when it rains.

Public works in this future city are efficient and omnipresent enterprises, which mantain all sectors of the economy. Wastewater is treated directly at every residence, leaving only clean water flowing in the sewers; solid waste is electrically cremated. In describing these miracles, however, Bellamy is careful to note that it is not a scientific but a social upheaval which makes them possible. “The necessary scientific knowledge and appliances had long been available,” Dr. Leete says, but this technology did not proliferate so long as “the rich had in the poor a race of uncomplaining economic serfs on which to lay all their burdens.” (Considering the exploitation of labor in today’s “gig economy” leads to a similar conclusion.)

The future Bostonians speak with reverence about the “Great Revolution” which sparked the crack-up of Julian West’s world and its reconstitution as a socialist utopia. Critics who read only Looking Backward could dismiss that as a feeble dream, but in Equality the arc of revolution is described more fully. West is surprised to learn that future historians date the dawn of revolution to 1873 — well before he fell into his catatonia — when people began to understand how capitalism “squeezed dry the masses always and everywhere,” forcing an “irrepressible conflict … between the power of wealth and the democratic idea.” (The real-life Panic of 1873 was, in fact, the worst financial crisis the United States had seen to date.) The rich grew richer, “as the body of a spider swells as he sucks the juice of his victims,” until the conflict broke out into the open. In an eerily resonant turn of phrase, Dr. Leete wonders how West’s generation could ever have tolerated a society in which “one per cent of the people, one one-hundredth of the nation, possessed over half, or fifty-five per cent, of its total wealth.” He would have been shocked to find that we tolerate similar conditions in 2019. 13

Dr. Leete wonders how West’s generation could ever have tolerated a society in which 1 percent of the people possessed 55 percent of total wealth.”

In the early phases of the revolution, “innumerable reform nostrums” were offered by groups ranging from prohibitionists to religious fundamentalists, in an effort to bandage up the social order. But while these “petty reforms” dribbled out, “the power of the plutocracy” grew from size of “the little finger of a man” to become “thicker than his loins.” The plutocrats who controlled the newspapers, churches, and schools, not to mention the police, were able to subdue organized resistance. But by the 1890s, Dr. Leete explains, conditions had grown so intolerable that the need for radical change was clear. Reformers used the levers of democratic action to expropriate private capital and reorganize the economy under public control.

If there is a romanticism in Bellamy it lies here, in his persistent belief that moral suasion and liberal enlightenment would serve as the motor of revolution. Bellamy’s end goal may have been analogous to Marx’s, but he rejected a dictatorship of the proletariat. This is one reason why Bellamy’s movement was popular amongst middle-class reformers; it attempted “to reconcile peacefully an unreasonable capitalist class to an embittered laboring class.” 14 In pairing the concepts of equal political citizenship and equal economic shareholding, Bellamy situated the great revolution within the series of liberal political upheavals that ran through Western history. “The idea of an integrated economic system coordinating the efforts of all for the common welfare, which is the basis of the modern state, is as old as philosophy,” Dr. Leete says. “As a theory it dates back to Plato at least.” And so Bellamy’s socialist utopia was an extension of the principles advanced in the American Revolution of 1776. “Economic equality,” the Doctor continues, was “the obvious, necessary, and only adequate pledge of these three birthrights — life, liberty, and happiness.” Deposing the European monarchies was a preliminary step toward genuine popular rule, but deposing capitalism was the final action: “The entire present order of economic democracy and equality was indeed logically bound up in the first full statement of the democratic idea, but only as the full-grown tree is in the seed.” 15

Edward Bellamy’s desk and chair
Edward Bellamy’s desk and chair. [Chicopee Archives Online]

By drawing this direct parallel to the democratic revolutions that underlay the American mythos, Bellamy sought to insulate himself from accusations that his utopia was hostile to individual freedom. His description of an “industrial army” led some readers to see his society as overly bureaucratized, even militaristic. To these critics, Looking Backward’s citizens seemed “quite willing cogs in the new industrial order,” whose “carefully regimented lives … emulate the mechanized processes that have helped to create their world.” 16 Bellamy’s struggle to reconcile the tension between cooperation and compulsion is especially disquieting for modern readers who have the benefit of hindsight in considering the dehumanizing mania of totalitarian regimes.

In fact, the very word Bellamy used to describe his program rings alarm bells today. He admired “socialism” but felt its European connotations were too strong, so he called his system “Nationalism,” which recalls the new right-wing regimes ascendant in countries like the United States, India, and Brazil. Yet Bellamy’s nation was not defined by ethnic identity; he meant the nation as the closest approximation of a universal belief that “everyone” should be the owners and directors of their economic common fate. This was nationalism in the sense of Clement Attlee nationalizing Britain’s railways or Bernie Sanders calling for the nationalization of health insurance, not nationalism in the sense of Donald Trump draping razor wire over the borders.

As it happens, organizing economic production and distribution at the national level was one of Bellamy’s more moderate compromises. He initially imagined the entire world fused into one egalitarian order. Early drafts of Looking Backward were set not in Boston but in Asheville, North Carolina, which was to be the provincial capital of the United States, under a world polity centered in Bern, Switzerland. But Bellamy changed the setting because he became convinced that only a national-scale integration would be practically feasible by 2000 (though he still believed in world unity by the year 3000).

Bellamy also emphasized cultural and artistic diversity as key benefits of a nationalized economy. “The aesthetic equivalent of the moral wrong of inequality was the artistic abomination of uniformity,” he wrote. “Equality creates an atmosphere which kills imitation, and is pregnant with originality, for every one acts out himself, having nothing to gain by imitating anyone else.” In his future Boston, citizens of all genders are equal members of the productive force. Women and men wear more or less equivalent clothes, and they compete equally in athletics; West is shocked during a visit to a gym, where he sees women exercising, unencumbered by corsets and skirts. Edith tells West that there are now more women than men in science and engineering. Gender liberation, as with all freedoms in Bellamy’s system, is portrayed as a natural consequence of the economic revolution.

And yet he could not see beyond the great racial fault line that cleaved through full participation in American democracy. There is essentially no mention of race in Looking Backward, and Equality takes only a few paragraphs to dismiss racial prejudice as the “bigoted” habit of Southerners alone, while assuring bigots that they could maintain segregation even as they enrolled the descendants of slaves into an otherwise equal parity in the national economic system. That Bellamy could imagine overturning almost everything about the social order while maintaining the principle of “separate but equal” is an indictment of the degree to which white New Englanders acquiesced to the continuity of racial difference. Bellamy argued that the economic revolution would abolish wage slavery just as the Civil War had abolished chattel slavery, but he could not see how the long shadow of white supremacy structured American life. 17

Charlesbank Women’s Gymnasium, line illustration
Charlesbank Women’s Gymnasium, featured in Sylvester Baxter’s Boston Park Guide (1896).

Anti-Capitalism and the Origins of City Planning

Strange as it may seem to consider a novel as one of the foundational texts of urban planning, Bellamy’s fusion of beautiful landscapes, social cooperation, and bureaucratic expertise resonated with American and British designers. In Bellamy’s novels, the overthrow of capitalism results in a kind of garden republic, as if the whole world is a comfortable and well-designed residential district. And instead of placing the responsibility for this revolution in the hands of the proletariat (like Marx) or small entrepreneurs (like George), Bellamy put it in the hands of planners — experts who could run the whole economy for the public good. One of Bellamy’s early followers said that his program for reforming cities was “more radical than socialism in its ideas” while “more conservative in its means of applying them.” 19

Bellamy’s fusion of beautiful landscapes, social cooperation, and bureaucratic expertise resonated with American and British designers.

This philosophy — one part technical optimism about the role of experts in modernizing social organization; one part belief in organic community solidarity and the salubrious effects of nature and beauty on social harmony — was a potent ideological concoction for the reformers who sought to correct misery and injustice by designing better places. Like many of these reformers, Bellamy’s attitude toward the modern city was ambiguous. He embraced the industrial mechanization and regimentation of urban life, but he feared the unruly mix of forms and functions that led to disorder. 20

After reading Looking Backward, set entirely in Boston, the emphatically anti-modernist English designer William Morris complained that Bellamy had “no idea beyond existence in a great city” and that his rural villages were nothing more than “servants of the great centres of civilization.” 21 In Equality, however, Bellamy describes something very different, a kind of regional city, with fast transportation and the electroscope linking together previously remote villages. Here, the “tendency countryward” has allowed cities to replace crowded residential tenements with “structures of the low broad, roomy style,” while “parks, gardens, and roomy spaces were multiplied on every hand.” Edith Leete even chooses farming as her vocation in the cooperative industrial system.

On an electroscopic tour of the country — a kind of virtual reality hologram of the utopian American landscape — West is struck by how the entire country exhibits “the same parklike aspect that had marked the immediate environs of the city.” It appears to him that “some consummate landscape artist” has produced “arrangements of scenery,” reshaping the country with “the works of man blending with the face of Nature in perfect harmony.” Dr. Leete explains that the whole continent is treated in this manner, with regional variation according to natural conditions. Cities and countryside have been reforested since there is no more “wasting of the woods.” As the historian John L. Thomas argues, Bellamy’s ideology employed “a working model of the good society as a composite of city and country,” with “an urban-rural continuum running from village neighborhoods to gateway cities.” 22

Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities diagram
Diagram from Ebenezer Howard’s, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898).

In England, an idealistic social reformer named Ebenezer Howard read Looking Backward and Equality, which set his mind reeling. According to Peter Hall and Colin Ward, Bellamy’s novels were the “the key” that unlocked Howard’s inchoate ideas about economic reform and steered him toward the principles of urban design and public planning. 23 In 1898, Howard published To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, the influential text which introduced the Garden Cities movement. Half a century later, his disciple Frederic Osborn, the chair of the British Town and Country Planning Association, wrote an introduction to Garden Cities of Tomorrow (as later editions were known), crediting Bellamy as a major influence:

If any one book may be said to have ‘triggered off’ the charge accumulating in Howard’s mind, it was Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the American edition of which aroused his enthusiasm in 1888 and which he was instrumental in having published in England. [… The book’s] two basic assumptions — that technological advance could emancipate men from degrading toil, and that men are inherently co-operative and equalitarian — were the essence of Howard’s own optimistic outlook, in which there was no proletarian resentment or class-bitterness, and not a trace of nostalgic anti-urbanism, anti-industrialism, or back-to-the-landism.

The “vision of the communistic Boston of A.D. 2000,” Osborn concluded, had also “swallowed whole” the imaginations of many reformist members of the British Labor government then in power. 24 According to the historian R. C. K. Ensor, a standard path for left reformers in England was to first read George, and then embrace a full-throated socialism after reading Bellamy: “‘Out of Henry George by either Bellamy or Gronlund’ was a true pedigree of the convictions held by nearly all the leading propagandists who set socialism on its feet in Great Britain between 1886 and 1900.” 25

In Boston, the journalist, social reformer, and parks administrator Sylvester Baxter drew a direct line between anti-capitalism and the movement for public parks.

If Ebenezer Howard put Bellamy’s ideas at the center of planning debates in Great Britain, Sylvester Baxter was a major conduit to landscape designers in the United States. A journalist, social reformer, and parks administrator, Baxter was one of Bellamy’s chief connections in the Boston literary scene. He was also a founding member of the first “Nationalist Club,” devoted to promoting Bellamy’s ideas. By the winter of 1891 there were 165 such clubs around the country. They formed an important, if relatively short-lived infrastructure for the rising tide of left politics. By the middle of the decade, many of these clubs had merged with the Populist Party, and some people who had been radicalized by Bellamy went on to lead the left wing of Progressivism. Job Harriman, for instance, rose through the San Francisco Bellamy club to become Eugene Debs’s running mate on the Socialist presidential ticket in 1900. 26

In addition to founding the first Nationalist Club, Sylvester Baxter was an early advocate for the preservation of large tracts of “wild” nature on the edges of cities. He drew a direct line between anti-capitalism and the movement for public parks. In 1892, when the Nationalists were at peak strength, he became secretary of the Massachusetts Metropolitan Park Commission, which directed the first initiative to create public open space at the metropolitan scale. Much of the credit for that work has gone to Charles Eliot, a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted who was the board’s landscape architect. But it was Baxter, chasing a Bellamy-inspired dream of a cooperative social order, who made the political case for this new arm of the welfare state.

Boston’s Metropolitan Park System
Boston’s Metropolitan Park System was connected by a network of bicycle routes, shown in red on this 1904 map. [Library of Congress]

Parks were to be the gateway to a more ambitious central plan. By putting “this great metropolitan community under one comprehensive municipal authority,” Baxter wrote in his secretary’s report, the industrial metropolis would be able to furnish the needs of the people directly, freely, and equally, rather than through a private system that tended toward luxury for the few. 27 At almost the same time as he was serving on the parks commission, Baxter was writing the preface to a new edition of Looking Backward, emphasizing the book’s “definite scheme of industrial organization,” with “an equal share allotted to all persons … on the same ground that men share equally in the free gifts of nature.” He tried to steer readers to Equality, too: “so full of ideas, so replete with suggestive aspects, so rich in quotable parts, as to form an arsenal of arguments for apostles of the new democracy.” Baxter concluded his argument with a metaphor straight from the parks movement: “The humane and thoughtful reader will lay down Equality and regard the world about him with a feeling akin to that with which the child of the tenement returns from his ‘country week’ to the foul smells, the discordant noises, the incessant strife of the wonted environment.” 28

Through the nationalist clubs and magazines, the utopian ideas contained in Looking Backward were converted into an actual program for municipal reform.

In a 1902 article on “the picturesque aspects of municipal socialism,” Baxter made an even more explicit connection between landscape reform and public ownership. “The ownership and operation of public utilities by the local community,” he wrote, was a principle that could be supported “by the beauty of its manifestations as well as by its direct utility.” The Boston Public Library was such an example, with its great reading rooms and art collections equally available to all citizens, so that “no monarch in his palace could command greater comfort than this unit of the sovereign people does in his.” Similarly, the public park system offered “free country-clubs for the people.” Just as Julian West had been amazed by the Leander Natatorium of future Boston, with its tidal pools and relaxed, happy swimmers, Baxter pointed to the public baths being developed by the metropolitan park district as pilot lights for a socialist, cooperative future. 29

The utopian ideas contained in Looking Backward were converted into an actual program for municipal reform in the pages of two magazines: The Nationalist, which Baxter helped found in 1889, and The New Nation, which Bellamy launched and edited from 1891 to 1894. Despite their titles, those publications were often focused on the city as the most practical scale for socialist initiatives. “The local public control and ownership of functions and services like water works, illuminating and heating supplies, etc.,” might seem too gradual an approach, Baxter wrote in an early article. “But it should be remembered that these are important steps towards the nationalization of industry; for, with the complete realization of our system, the only essential political entities, beside the inclusive nation, would be the municipalities to which the exercise of local functions would of course be delegated.” 30

Magazine clipping of Sylvester Baxter’s article "Picturesque Aspects of Municipal Socialism"
Illustrations from Sylvester Baxter’s article “Picturesque Aspects of Municipal Socialism,” The Pilgrim (1902).

Indeed, the movement broadly called “municipal socialism” that flourished in the first decades of the 20th century represented the most direct outcome of the Bellamy clubs’ activism. At the national scale, progressives pursued regulation, rather than outright public ownership, as a politically feasible way to meet their goal of reigning in industrial greed, bringing companies like meatpacking plants and oil refineries under tighter control. At the municipal scale, however, there was a much sharper appetite for the outright acquisition of public services. Cities across the country experimented with municipalizing everything from streetcars to electricity to natural gas, while expanding their role in furnishing public amenities like parks and libraries.

Bellamy’s The New Nation carried the masthead slogan, “the industrial system of a nation, as well as its political system, ought to be a government of the people.” In its pages were hundreds of excited reports about municipal ownership schemes around the country and abroad: on October 28, 1893, a dispatch from the London County Council, where the progressives stood “squarely for municipal socialism”; on December 2, 1893, a report from Toledo, where municipal ownership of electrical production was moving ahead; on February 3, 1894, praise for the Boston philanthropist Robert Treat Paine, who supported municipal ownership of water, gas, and street railways, tempered by an admonishment of Paine’s fear that public housing might unfairly compete with private real estate. “Poverty in dens of squalor,” the editorial argued, “is a menace to the community and such enemies must be met by society in its corporate capacity.” 31 Public services, public infrastructure, public housing — the more that could be undertaken by the people, the better.

Cities across the country experimented with municipalizing everything from streetcars to electricity to natural gas, while expanding their role in furnishing public amenities like parks and libraries.

Some of the most important theorists and practitioners of the new field of urban planning were linked to these campaigns for municipal ownership. Many planners understood that capitalism was responsible for the squalor and danger in industrial cities, but they shied away from the class-revolutionary rhetoric of Communism. Bellamy’s liberal philosophy could be more easily assimilated into a reformist rhetoric which emphasized the importance of public cooperation and regulatory control. An emphasis on outright public acquisition became a fundamental belief even for more mainstream planners of this generation. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., for instance, worked with the lawyer Flavel Shurtleff to compile an exhaustive guide to how public agencies could acquire private property. Sometimes such initiatives tended toward decoration, as in city planner John Nolen’s argument that street trees ought to be a publicly managed amenity. But elsewhere, planners under the spell of Bellamy-derived socialism made the case for greater provisioning of public services. The radical theorist Benjamin C. Marsh defined urban planning as “democracy’s challenge to the American city.” 32

Activist mayors like Cleveland’s Tom Johnson, Detroit’s Hazen Pingree, and Toledo’s Samuel Jones ran on populist platforms that promised equal amenities for all people  — a 19th-century version of the “right to the city.” 33 In office, they enacted programs that put municipal planners in charge of new public enterprises, seizing control of private utilities and inching closer to what Bellamy had described as full democratic control of the economy. In Milwaukee, Emil Seidel became the first Socialist mayor of a large American city in 1910, and he launched a program of expanded municipal services. Charles B. Whitnall, the landscape architect who was the Seidel administration’s master planner, developed one of the country’s first comprehensive regional park plans coordinated with intra-city commuting lines and freight circulation. He even called for the creation of a 3,000-acre municipal apple orchard to supply healthy food at low costs. Reporting on that plan, George Allan England described socialist Milwaukee as a practical test of “all that Plato, More, or Bellamy could ever dream.” Seidel himself embraced Bellamy in his autobiography, acknowledging that “it was Looking Backward which finally tossed me headlong into the cause of Socialism.” 34

Gordon Park Swimming School
Gordon Park Swimming School, public bath houses opened in socialist Milwaukee in 1914.

Toward a Splendid Public Life

Bellamy’s influence on the urban reform movements of the turn of the century was not limited to the specific individuals, like Baxter, Howard, or Seidel, who read the novels and had their worldviews upended. More generally, Bellamy injected utopianism into political discourse at a formative time when planners and landscape designers were just beginning to define their professional roles. Utopian thinking has always had a spatial dimension, and visions of the good life through the ages, from Charles Fourier’s Phalanstères to Ursula LeGuin’s Annares, have unfolded within and through creative programs of geographic order. But Bellamy’s utopia caught the public imagination in a moment when Western cities were obviously in crisis, and when planners and designers were looking for a political and moral purpose that might organize their disciplines.

Bellamy’s utopia caught the public imagination in a moment when Western cities were obviously in crisis, and when planners and designers were looking for a political and moral purpose that might organize their disciplines.

In Equality, Bellamy borrows Shakespeare’s phrase “the whirligig of time” to describe the arc that brings the 19th century into dialogue with the post-revolutionary future. In the 2020s that whirligig brings us back again to some of the same conditions that alarmed Bellamy. Cities are buckling under the pressures of technological upheaval and an economic order utterly unable to provide for the common good. The injustices of winner-take-all capitalism are reproduced in the landscape itself, with luxury and squalor parceled out block by block. Landscape planners and designers are trying to figure out what responsibility they have for these problems, and how they might claim the agency to solve them.

This moment rings with the urgency of connecting design and social reform back together at their roots. As Billy Fleming argued in his Places article on “Design and the Green New Deal,” landscape architects and planners don’t need more good intentions or best practices — they need the political will to grapple with structural conditions and a real theory of power. 35 For Bellamy readers who started out dreaming about a post-revolutionary Boston, design was not an ornament of hegemonic injustice, but rather its wrecking ball.

In 1945, Arthur E. Morgan, one of the directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, published The Philosophy of Edward Bellamy, which laid out an intellectual history that connected 19th century utopian thinking to the welfare state of the New Deal. “When we examine a list of reforms demanded by the Nationalists,” Morgan wrote, “we find almost a catalogue of social legislation of the past half century.” In fact, he argued, some of the authors of the New Deal’s legislative accomplishments “are in a direct line of descent from the First Nationalist Club of Boston, or received their first social stimulus from Looking Backward.” 36

That lineage extends forward to today’s resurgent leftist movements. But while Karl Marx is back in vogue — and even Henry George has a strangely ardent following among urbanists — Bellamy languishes in obscurity. Yet his vision of utopia contained features that are creatively adaptable to the present. He was critical of modernity, but not an anti-modernist; optimistic about science and technology, but realistic about their subordination to political economy. And his ideas can be revisited as we try to formulate a democratic planning that engages with the real conditions of technological progress and economic injustice.

Cleveland’s public streetcar opened in 1906 with a 3-cent fare (about 85 cents today, adjusted for inflation). [Postcard from Cleveland State University Special Collections]

Bellamy’s call to embrace “the full meaning of democracy as an economic as well as a political proposition” provided a generation of American reformers with a basic belief: that we should “regulate for the common good the course of the life-giving stream,” so that “the earth would bloom like one garden, and none of its children lack any good thing.” We must find a way to point toward the future without assuming that scientific change will automatically sweep us into a better life; we must figure out how to harness the incredible powers and possibilities of modernity while demanding substantive justice, equality, and agency in weighing the benefits and hazards of these transformations. “It is certainly no more difficult to devise plans for a rationally organized and truly human society than it is to construct atomic bombs, intercontinental missiles, and travels to the moon,” Erich Fromm wrote in the 1960 introduction to Looking Backward. He added that Bellamy offered a guide to “the fulfillment of humanism in an industrial society.” 37

Landscape architects and planners don’t need more good intentions or best practices — they need a real theory of power.

One reason Bellamy’s utopian vision of the public realm seems less radical today than in 1888 is that it has been partly substantiated. Those tree-lined boulevards, the magnificent libraries and parks — they were built. In some cases, utilities were municipalized. The many urban reformers, designers, and theorists who were moved by Bellamy, either firsthand or at a distance, found their way to positions of power and realized certain elements of his vision. Many of those works still exist, from libraries to trolley tracks; they are waymarks towards a broad-minded democratic socialism. As Baxter argued in an 1891 speech to political leaders in Providence, Rhode Island, “it is sufficient to mention the improvements in our public school system, the establishment of water works, of parks, of libraries — things designed for the comfort and enjoyment of the public as well as for its necessity and convenience,” in order to see the gradual path towards total public control of common life in the manner suggested by Bellamy. “The tendency of the age,” Baxter concluded, “is very strongly towards increasing the functions of our governmental organizations, municipal, state, and national, by assuming the administration of services which affect the common welfare and which can be more efficiently conducted by associated action then when left to each individual to provide for himself.” 38 That tendency underwrote the political motivation of the design professions up until at least the middle of the 20th century — and could potentially do so today.

The urban historian Lewis Mumford, himself a ceaseless collector of resources from the “usable past,” wrote his first book on utopian thinking, and, while he found Bellamy’s version too mechanical for his organicist tastes, he credited the novelist with a fundamentally humane vision of equality. Bellamy “wanted private life to be simple and public life to be splendid,” observed Mumford. 39 That is a maxim which might serve as a working credo for designers today, at a time when public life in all of its guises is crumbling, while private luxury intensifies to levels not seen since Bellamy’s own time. It is a credo which runs straight through politics and power, for one cannot answer the question of the balance between public and private without also answering the question of why the control of our economic life remains locked in the hands of a few.

  1. “Editorial Notes,” The Nationalist 1:1 (1889), 21.
  2. Erich Fromm, introduction to the 1960 edition of Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (New American Library); William Dean Howells, Literature and Life: Studies (Harper & Brothers, 1902), 294; Elizabeth Sadler, “One Book’s Influence: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward,” The New England Quarterly 17:4 (December 1944), 530, https://doi.org/10.2307/361806.
  3. John R. Mullin and Kenneth Payne, “Thoughts on Edward Bellamy as City Planner: The Ordered Art of Geometry,” Planning History Studies 34 (1997). [PDF]
  4. John Hope Franklin, “Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement,” The New England Quarterly 11:4 (December 1938), 772.
  5. John L. Thomas, Alternative America: Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Henry Demarest Lloyd and the Adversary Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1983), 38. See also Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford University Press, 1964).
  6. For more on the New England town as a mythical landscape of American democracy, see Garrett Dash Nelson, “The Town Was Us,” Places Journal, July 2018, https://doi.org/10.22269/180731.
  7. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 20001887, originally published 1888, “Memorial Edition” (Houghton Mifflin, 1898), 23, 38–39, 157–58.
  8. Edward Bellamy, “How I Came To Write ‘Looking Backward’,” The Nationalist 1:1 (1889), 1–4.
  9. Bellamy, Looking Backward, 59, 132.
  10. T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (University of Chicago Press, 1994).
  11. Bellamy, Looking Backward, 56.
  12. Edward Bellamy, Equality (Appleton, 1897), 333.
  13. Bellamy, Looking Backward, 152; Bellamy, Equality, 40, 308, 314, 321, 331. The chart linked here showing the rising share of total wealth held by the top 1 percent, is from Chad Stone, Danilo Trisi, Arloc Sherman, and Roderick Taylor, “A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, August 21, 2019, supported by data from Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 131:2 (May 2016).
  14. Bellamy, Equality, 327–28; Franklin, 740.
  15. Bellamy, Equality, 17–18, 331.
  16. Howard P. Segal, “Bellamy and Technology: Reconciling Centralization and Decentralization,” in Ed. Daphne Patai, Looking Backward, 1988-1888: Essays on Edward Bellamy (University of Massachusetts Press, 1989), 91.
  17. Bellamy, Equality, 61, 144–53, 365.
  18. Mullin and Payne, “Thoughts on Edward Bellamy as City Planner.”
  19. Sylvester Baxter, “Why the Name, Nationalism?,” The Nationalist 1:3 (1889), 82–83.
  20. John R. Mullin, “Edward Bellamy’s Ambivalence: Can Utopia Be Urban?,” Utopian Studies 11:1 (2000), 51–65.
  21. William Morris, “Looking Backward,” Commonweal, 5:180 (June 22, 1889), 194–95.
  22. Bellamy, Equality, 294–97; Thomas, 359.
  23. Peter Hall and Colin Ward, Sociable Cities: The 21st Century Reinvention of the Garden City (Routledge, 1998), 10. See also David Pinder, Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power, and Politics in 20th Century (Routledge, 2013).
  24. Frederic Osborn, introduction to the 1946 edition of Ebenezer Howard, Garden Cities of To-Morrow (Faber and Faber).
  25. R. C. K. Ensor, England 1870–1914 (Clarendon, 1936), 334. Laurence Gronlund was the author of The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884), a source of inspiration to Bellamy, and Gronlund later wrote for The Nationalist.
  26. Carl J. Guarneri, “Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: The International Impact of an American Socialist Utopia, 1888-1945,” in Ed. Mary G. Kemperink, Willemien H. S. Roenhorst, Visualizing Utopia (Peeters, 2007), 1-30.
  27. Massachusetts Metropolitan Park Commission, Report of the Board of Metropolitan Park Commissioners, January 1893.
  28. Sylvester Baxter, introduction to the 1898 edition of Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (Houghton Mifflin).
  29. Sylvester Baxter, “Picturesque Aspects of Municipal Socialism,” Pilgrim 5:5 (May 1902), 6.
  30. Sylvester Baxter, “Why the Name, Nationalism?”
  31. “Municipal Socialism in London,” The New Nation 3:43 (October 28, 1893); “Nationalistic Drift,” The New Nation 3:48 (December 2, 1893); “Municipal Lodging Houses,” The New Nation 4:5 (February 3, 1894).
  32. Flavel Shurtleff and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Carrying out the City Plan: The Practical Application of American Law in the Execution of City Plans (Survey Associates, 1914); John Nolen, Madison: A Model City (1911); Benjamin Clarke Marsh, An Introduction to City Planning: Democracy’s Challenge to the American City (1909).
  33. On the right to the city, see the work of Henri Lefebvre, especially the English translation of “Right to the City” (1968) in Writings on Cities (Oxford University Press, 1996); and David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53 (Sept–Oct 2008), 23–40.
  34. George Allan England, “Milwaukee’s Socialist Government,” The American Review of Reviews 42 (October 1910); Emil Seidel, unpublished papers, quoted in Edward A. Benoit III, A Democracy of Its Own: Milwaukee’s Socialisms, Master’s thesis, University of Milwaukee (2009), 65–66.
  35. Billy Fleming, “Design and the Green New Deal,” Places Journal, April 2019, https://doi.org/10.22269/190416.
  36. Arthur E. Morgan, Edward Bellamy (Columbia University Press, 1944), 296–97.
  37. Bellamy, Equality, 17; Bellamy, Looking Backward, 329; Fromm, op. cit.
  38. Sylvester Baxter, Souvenir of the Banquet of the Advance Club (Johnson and Company, 1891).
  39. Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (Boni and Liveright, 1922), 169.
Garrett Dash Nelson, ““The Splendor of Our Public and Common Life”,” Places Journal, December 2019. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/191217

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