This best-selling book turned socialism into a middle-class trend in the 1880s

Edward Bellamy didn’t intend to start a movement. Born in Massachusetts in 1850, he was a journalist through most of his twenties, before tuberculosis turned him toward the more restful life fiction writing. It was one of his novels, Looking Backward, 2000–1887, that became the cornerstone of a nationwide movement, energizing thousands of members in 165 groups across the country.

Bellamy, in the words of historian Arthur Lipow, rose as “the first critic of laissez faire capitalism in America advocating a collectivist alternative to find a large and enthusiastic audience.” His 1888 novel, though little read today, became a runaway success, selling 210,000 copies in its first year, reaching a peak rate of 10,000 volumes per week. It became the third-best selling American book of the century, behind Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

But not only did Looking Backward, with its vision of a blissful, leisurely utopia resonate with thousands of readers: it galvanized them.

Looking Backward, 1887–2000 tells the story of Julian West, a Bostonian of noble birth, who wakes from a Rip van Winkle-esque slumber in the year 2000. “Living in luxury,” West explains of his old life, “I derived the means of my support from the labor of others, rendering no sort of service in return.” But this old and unfair world is long behind him. Society has done away with the tensions between labor, capital, and inequality by adopting a collectivist world order. There are no warring political parties, and elections held every five years serve as a sort of legislative maintenance. Citizens work from age 21 to 45, then retire. Everyone is given an equal stipend, regardless of profession, to eliminate the tensions of material inequality.

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