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How Mr. Bellamy Looked Backward

THE reading public is as wayward and as fickle as a bee among the flowers. It will not long pause anywhere, and it easily leaves each blossom for a better. But like the bee, while impelled by an instinct that makes it search for sugar, it sucks in therewith its solid sustenance.

I am not quite certain that the bee does exactly do this; but it is just the kind of thing that the bee is likely to do. And in any case it is precisely the thing which the reading public does. It will not read unless it is tempted by the sugary sweetness of the romantic interest. It must have its hero and its heroine and its course of love that never will run smooth. For information the reader cares nothing. If he absorbs it, it must be by accident, and unawares. He passes over the heavy tomes filled with valuable fact, and settles like the random bee upon the bright flowers of contemporary romance.

Hence if the reader is to be ensnared into absorbing something useful, it must be hidden somehow among the flowers. A treatise on religion must be disguised as a love story in which a young clergyman, sworn into holy orders, falls in love with an actress. The facts of history are imparted by a love story centering around the adventures of a hitherto unknown son of Louis the Fourteenth. And a discussion of the relations of labor and capital takes the form of a romance in which the daughter of a multi-millionaire steps voluntarily out of her Fifth Avenue home to work in a steam laundry.

Such is the recognized method by which the great unthinking public is taught to think. Slavery was not fully known till Mrs. Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and the slow tyranny of the law's delay was taught to the world for ever in the pages of "Bleak House."

So it has been with socialism. No single influence ever brought its ideas and its propaganda so forcibly and clearly before the public mind as Mr. Edward Bellamy's brilliant novel, "Looking Backward," published some thirty years ago. The task was arduous. Social and economic theory is heavy to the verge of being indigestible. There is no such thing as a gay book on political economy for reading in a hammock. Yet Mr. Bellamy succeeded. His book is in cold reality nothing but a series of conversations explaining how a socialist commonwealth is supposed to work. Yet he contrives to bring into it a hero and a heroine, and somehow the warm beating of their hearts and the stolen glances in their eyes breathe into the dry dust of economic argument the breath of life. Nor was ever a better presentation made of the essential program of socialism.

It is worth while then, as was said in the preceding chapter, to consider Mr. Bellamy's commonwealth as the most typical and the most carefully constructed of all the ready-made socialisms that have been put forward.

The mere machinery of the story can be lightly passed over. It is intended simply as the sugar that lures the random bee. The hero, living in Boston in 1887, is supposed to fall asleep in a deep, underground chamber which he has made for himself as a remedy against a harassing insomnia. Unknown to the sleeper the house above his retreat is burned down. He remains in a trance for a hundred and thirteen years and awakes to find himself in the Boston of the year 2000 A. D. Kind hands remove him from his sepulcher. He is revived. He finds himself under the care of a certain learned and genial Dr. Leete, whose house stands on the very site where once the sleeper lived. The beautiful daughter of Dr. Leete looks upon the newcomer from the lost world with eyes in which, to the mind of the sagacious reader, love is seen at once to dawn. In reality she is the great-granddaughter of the fiancée whom the sleeper was to have married in his former life; thus a faint suggestion of the transmigration of souls illuminates their intercourse. Beyond that there is no story and at the end of the book the sleeper, in another dream, is conveniently transported back to 1887 which he can now contrast, in horror, with the ideal world of 2000 A. D.

And what was this world? The sleeper's first vision of it was given him by Dr. Leete, who took him to the house top and let him see the Boston of the future. Wide avenues replace the crowded, noisy streets. There are no shops but only here and there among the trees great marble buildings, the emporiums from which the goods are delivered to the purple public.

And the goods are delivered indeed! Dr. Leete explains it all with intervals of grateful cigar smoking and of music and promenades with the beautiful Edith, and meals in wonderful communistic restaurants with romantic waiters, who feel themselves, mirabile dictu, quite independent.

And this is how the commonwealth operates. Everybody works or at least works until the age of forty, so that it may be truly said in these halcyon days everybody works but father. But the work of life does not begin till education ends at the age of twenty-one. After that all the young men and women pass for three years into the general "Industrial Army," much as the young men used to pass into the ranks of conscription. Afterwards each person may select any trade that he likes. But the hours are made longer or shorter according to whether too many or too few young people apply to come in. A gardener works for more hours than a scavenger. Yet all occupations are equally honorable. The wages of all the people are equal; or rather there are no wages at all, as the workers merely receive cards, which entitle them to goods of such and such a quantity at any of the emporiums. The cards are punched out as the goods are used. The goods are all valued according to the amount of time used in their making and each citizen draws out the same total amount. But he may take it out in installments just as he likes, drawing many things one month and few the next. He may even get goods in advance if he has any special need. He may, within a certain time limit, save up his cards, but it must be remembered that the one thing which no card can buy and which no citizens can own is the "means of production." These belong collectively to all. Land, mines, machinery, factories and the whole mechanism of transport, these things are public property managed by the State. Its workers in their use of them are all directed by public authority as to what they shall make and when they shall make it, and how much shall be made. On these terms all share alike; the cripple receives as much as the giant; the worker of exceptional dexterity and energy the same as his slower and less gifted fellow.

All the management, the control--and let this be noted, for there is no escape from it either by Mr. Bellamy or by anybody else--is exercised by boards of officials elected by the people. All the complex organization by which production goes on by which the workers are supervised and shifted from trade to trade, by which their requests for a change of work or an extension of credit are heard and judged--all of this is done by the elected "bosses." One lays stress on this not because it is Mr. Bellamy's plan, but because it is, and it has to be, the plan of anybody who constructs a socialist commonwealth.

Mr. Bellamy has many ingenious arrangements to meet the needs of people who want to be singers or actors or writers,--in other words, who do not want to work. They may sing or act as much as they like, provided that enough other people will hand over enough of their food cards to keep them going. But if no one wants to hear them sing or see them act they may starve,--just as they do now. Here the author harks back unconsciously to his nineteenth century individualism; he need not have done so; other socialist writers would have it that one of the everlasting boards would "sit on" every aspiring actor or author before he was allowed to begin. But we may take it either way. It is not the major point. There is no need to discuss the question of how to deal with the artist under socialism. If the rest of it were all right, no one need worry about the artist. Perhaps he would do better without being remunerated at all. It is doubtful whether the huge commercial premium that greets success to-day does good or harm. But let it pass. It is immaterial to the present matter.

One comes back to the essential question of the structure of the commonwealth. Can such a thing, or anything conceived in its likeness, possibly work? The answer is, and must be, absolutely and emphatically no.

Let anyone conversant with modern democracy as it is,--not as its founders dreamed of it,--picture to himself the operation of a system whereby anything and everything is controlled by elected officials, from whom there is no escape, outside of whom is no livelihood and to whom all men must bow! Democracy, let us grant it, is the best system of government as yet operative in this world of sin. Beside autocratic kingship it shines with a white light; it is obviously the portal of the future. But we know it now too well to idealize its merits.

A century and a half ago when the world was painfully struggling out of the tyranny of autocratic kingship, when English liberalism was in its cradle, when Thomas Jefferson was composing the immortal phrases of the Declaration of Independence and unknown patriots dreamed of freedom in France,--at such an epoch it was but natural that the principle of popular election should be idealized as the sovereign remedy for the political evils of mankind. It was natural and salutary that it should be so. The force of such idealization helped to carry forward the human race to a new milestone on the path of progress.

But when it is proposed to entrust to the method of elective control not a part but the whole of the fortunes of humanity, to commit to it not merely the form of government and the necessary maintenance of law, order and public safety, but the whole operation of the production and distribution of the world's goods, the case is altered. The time is ripe then for retrospect over the experience of the nineteenth century and for a realization of what has proved in that experience the peculiar defects of elective democracy.

Mr. Bellamy pictures his elected managers,--as every socialist has to do,--as a sagacious and paternal group, free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions and animated only by the thought of the public good. Gravely they deliberate; wisely and justly they decide. Their gray heads--for Bellamy prefers them old--are bowed in quiet confabulation over the nice adjustment of the national production, over the petition of this or that citizen. The public care sits heavily on their breast. Their own peculiar fortune they have lightly passed by. They do not favor their relations or their friends. They do not count their hours of toil. They do not enumerate their gain. They work, in short, as work the angels.

Now let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found? Here and there, perhaps, one sees in the world of to-day in the stern virtue of an honorable public servant some approximation to such a civic ideal. But how much, too, has been seen of the rule of "cliques" and "interests" and "bosses;" of the election of genial incompetents popular as spendthrifts; of crooked partisans warm to their friends and bitter to their enemies; of administration by a party for a party; and of the insidious poison of commercial greed defiling the wells of public honesty. The unending conflict between business and politics, between the private gain and the public good, has been for two generations the despair of modern democracy. It turns this way and that in its vain effort to escape corruption. It puts its faith now in representative legislatures, and now in appointed boards and commissions; it appeals to the vote of the whole people or it places an almost autocratic power and a supreme responsibility in the hands of a single man. And nowhere has the escape been found. The melancholy lesson is being learned that the path of human progress is arduous and its forward movement slow and that no mere form of government can aid unless it is inspired by a higher public spirit of the individual citizen than we have yet managed to achieve.

And of the world of to-day, be it remembered, elective democratic control covers only a part of the field. Under socialism it covers it all. To-day in our haphazard world a man is his own master; often indeed the mastership is but a pitiful thing, little more than being master of his own failure and starvation; often indeed the dead weight of circumstance, the accident of birth, the want of education, may so press him down that his freedom is only a mockery. Let us grant all that. But under socialism freedom is gone. There is nothing but the rule of the elected boss. The worker is commanded to his task and obey he must. If he will not, there is, there can only be, the prison and the scourge, or to be cast out in the wilderness to starve.

Consider what it would mean to be under a socialist state. Here for example is a worker who is, who says he is, too ill to work. He begs that he may be set free. The grave official, as Mr. Bellamy sees him, looks at the worker's tongue. "My poor fellow," says he, "you are indeed ill. Go and rest yourself under a shady tree while the others are busy with the harvest." So speaks the ideal official dealing with the ideal citizen in the dream life among the angels. But suppose that the worker, being not an angel but a human being, is but a mere hulking, lazy brute who prefers to sham sick rather than endure the tedium of toil. Or suppose that the grave official is not an angel, but a man of hateful heart or one with a personal spite to vent upon his victim. What then? How could one face a régime in which the everlasting taskmaster held control? There is nothing like it among us at the present day except within the melancholy precincts of the penitentiary. There and there only, the socialist system is in operation.

Who can deny that under such a system the man with the glib tongue and the persuasive manner, the babbling talker and the scheming organizer, would secure all the places of power and profit, while patient merit went to the wall?

Or turn from the gray officials to the purple citizens of the soap bubble commonwealth of socialism. All work, we are told, and all receive their remuneration. We must not think of it as money-wages, but, all said and done, an allotted share of goods, marked out upon a card, comes pretty much to the same thing. The wages that the citizens receive must either be equal or not equal. That at least is plain logic. Either everybody gets exactly the same wages irrespective of capability and diligence, or else the wages or salaries or whatever one calls them, are graded, so that one receives much and the other little.

Now either of these alternatives spells disaster. If the wages are graded according to capacity, then the grading is done by the everlasting elective officials. They can, and they will, vote themselves and their friends or adherents into the good jobs and the high places. The advancement of a bright and capable young man will depend, not upon what he does, but upon what the elected bosses are pleased to do with him; not upon the strength of his own hands, but upon the strength of the "pull" that he has with the bosses who run the part of the industry that he is in. Unequal wages under socialism would mean a fierce and corrupt scramble for power, office and emolument, beside which the utmost aberrations of Tammany Hall would seem as innocuous as a Sunday School picnic.

"But," objects Mr. Bellamy or any other socialist, "you forget. Please remember that under socialism the scramble for wealth is limited; no man can own capital, but only consumption goods. The most that any man may acquire is merely the articles that he wants to consume, not the engines and machinery of production itself. Hence even avarice dwindles and dies, when its wonted food of 'capitalism' is withdrawn."

But surely this point of view is the very converse of the teachings of common sense. "Consumption goods" are the very things that we do want. All else is but a means to them. One admits, as per exception, the queer acquisitiveness of the miser-millionaire, playing the game for his own sake. Undoubtedly he exists. Undoubtedly his existence is a product of the system, a pathological product, a kind of elephantiasis of individualism. But speaking broadly, consumption goods, present or future, are the end in sight of the industrial struggle. Give me the houses and the gardens, the yachts, the motor cars and the champagne and I do not care who owns the gravel crusher and the steam plow. And if under a socialist commonwealth a man can vote to himself or gain by the votes of his adherents, a vast income of consumption goods and leave to his unhappy fellow a narrow minimum of subsistence, then the resulting evil of inequality is worse, far worse than it could even be to-day.

Or try, if one will, the other horn of the dilemma. That, too, one will find as ill a resting place as an upright thistle. Let the wages,--as with Mr. Bellamy,--all be equal. The managers then cannot vote themselves large emoluments if they try. But what about the purple citizens? Will they work, or will they lie round in their purple garments and loaf? Work? Why should they work, their pay is there "fresh and fresh"? Why should they turn up on time for their task? Why should they not dawdle at their labor sitting upon the fence in endless colloquy while the harvest rots upon the stalk? If among them is one who cares to work with a fever of industry that even socialism cannot calm, let him do it. We, his fellows, will take our time. Our pay is there as certain and as sound as his. Not for us the eager industry and the fond plans for the future,--for the home and competence--that spurred on the strenuous youth of old days,--not for us the earnest planning of the husband and wife thoughtful and anxious for the future of their little ones. Not for us the honest penny saved for a rainy day. Here in the dreamland of socialism there are no rainy days. It is sunshine all the time in this lotus land of the loafer. And for the future, let the "State" provide; for the children's welfare let the "State" take thought; while we live it shall feed us, when we fall ill it shall tend us and when we die it shall bury us. Meantime let us eat, drink and be merry and work as little as we may. Let us sit among the flowers. It is too hot to labor. Let us warm ourselves beside the public stove. It is too cold to work.

But what? Such conduct, you say, will not be allowed in the commonwealth. Idleness and slovenly, careless work will be forbidden? Ah! then you must mean that beside the worker will be the overseer with the whip; the time-clock will mark his energy upon its dial; the machine will register his effort; and if he will not work there is lurking for him in the background the shadowed door of the prison. Exactly and logically so. Socialism, in other words, is slavery.

But here the socialist and his school interpose at once with an objection. Under the socialist commonwealth, they say, the people will want to work; they will have acquired a new civic spirit; they will work eagerly and cheerfully for the sake of the public good and from their love of the system under which they live. The loafer will be extinct. The sponge and the parasite will have perished. Even crime itself, so the socialist tells us, will diminish to the vanishing point, till there is nothing of it except here and there a sort of pathological survival, an atavism, or a "throwing back" to the forgotten sins of the grandfathers. Here and there, some poor fellow afflicted with this disease may break into my socialistic house and steal my pictures and my wine. Poor chap! Deal with him very gently. He is not wicked. He is ill.

This last argument, in a word, begs the whole question. With perfect citizens any government is good. In a population of angels a socialistic commonwealth would work to perfection. But until we have the angels we must keep the commonwealth waiting.

Nor is it necessary here to discuss the hundred and one modifications of the socialistic plan. Each and all fail for one and the same reason. The municipal socialist, despairing of the huge collective state, dreams of his little town as an organic unit in which all share alike; the syndicalist in his fancy sees his trade united into a co-operative body in which all are equal; the gradualist, in whose mind lingers the leaven of doubt, frames for himself a hazy vision of a prolonged preparation for the future, of socialism achieved little by little, the citizens being trained as it goes on till they are to reach somehow or somewhere in cloud land the nirvana of the elimination of self; like indeed, they are, to the horse in the ancient fable that was being trained to live without food but died, alas, just as the experiment was succeeding.

There is no way out. Socialism is but a dream, a bubble floating in the air. In the light of its opalescent colors we may see many visions of what we might be if we were better than we are, we may learn much that is useful as to what we can be even as we are; but if we mistake the floating bubble for the marble palaces of the city of desire, it will lead us forward in our pursuit till we fall over the edge of the abyss beyond which is chaos.


Stephen Leacock

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