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Looking Backward - Edward Bellamy, Walter James Miller A utopian political tract, more interesting for its glimpse into 19th-century radical political idealism than its literary qualities.

Although largely forgotten today, 'Looking Backward' was apparently a runaway bestseller at the time of its publication, spawning dozens of social clubs devoted to improving society in ways inspired by Bellamy.

The ideas are a combination of idealistic and disconcerting.

Some of the ideas are noble and truly something to aspire to - for example, the idea that every person in a society has a right to share in the wealth of that society, and to live with dignity, without want. However, there's also a uniformity and social authoritarianism that many modern people may find repellent.

When Bellamy imagines a mega-store, he sees a temple-like place of fountains, marble, and a virtually unlimited selection of quality merchandise. When I think of a mega-store, I think WalMart.
Bellamy's vision depends on the belief that human beings are, at heart, naturally peaceful and cooperative, and that if people are given a good education, the opportunity to do what they're best at, and all the necessities of a comfortable life, crime and conflict will naturally disappear. Sadly, I disagree. I'm more of the opinion that people will always find an excuse for conflict, and that if everyone is on equal footing, each person will still find a way to try to rise higher than another. If private commerce is banned, black markets will arise.

Although Bellamy specifies that his utopia arises naturally from capitalism, without violent revolution, and that the bureaucratic and administrative tasks of the nation are overseen by a team who have no personal power or self-interest in the matter (no dictators in sight), there are still disturbing similarities to Nazi propaganda here. (Bellamy's vision, here, is undeniably one of a form of National Socialism - without the hatred, intolerance and bigotry that political movement came to be associated with.)

By chance, shortly after reading this book, I read a book review of a volume that sought to explain the rise of the Third Reich. I don't think the author's theories were correct. I think that reading this book, with its vision of a peaceful, united nation with a patriotic, healthy, fully participating and content citizenry, is far more explanatory of how radical ideas can capture the imagination of a people.

Still, it's refreshing, in this era of dystopias and apocalypse, to read something from an era when people widely dreamed that the future might be better, not worse, than the present day.