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Study Guide: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy - BookNotes

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When Julian West exclaims over the great increase in the government’s functions, Doctor Leete cannot imagine what he means. Julian West explains that in his day the government’s only functions were to keep the peace and to defend the people against public enemies. Doctor Leete cannot imagine a worst public enemy than “hunger, cold, and nakedness.” He cannot believe all the waste caused by senseless wars, when the government forced the people to fight and die for no profit to anyone. He says there are now no wars now. He adds that people of the twentieth century feel that the nineteenth century was a time when the power of government was extended beyond belief.

Julian West reminds him that since politicians were so corrupt in the nineteenth century, no one would have agreed to hand over industry to them. Doctor Leete recognizes this point and notes that now there are no politicians and no parties. He says the “conditions for human life have changed, and with them the motives of human action.” Therefore, no official will be corrupt under the present system because there is no profit in it.

Doctor Leete continues his explanation of the solution of the labor problem. He says that with the government’s assumption of control of capital, all the citizens became employees. It was as if the principle of universal military service had been applied to the labor question. The entire social order of twentieth-century society is based on the idea of public service. For anyone not to contribute is like an act of suicide. In this society, youth is devoted entirely to education and age is devoted to ease and relaxation. People serve the industrial service for twenty-four years from age twenty-one to forty-five.


Here, further details of Bellamy’s utopia are laid out in the late night conversation between Julian West and Doctor Leete. This utopia is run according to a principle of common profit. Everyone contributes to the state, and everyone receives an equal share of the profit. Because this is the case, corruption and greed are obsolete.



Julian West wonders how the system can function fairly in determining where people can best serve. Doctor Leete assures him that this function is performed by the people themselves, which he names as men only. It is as yet unclear if women are involved in this industrial state. He adds that every man determines for himself what his natural aptitude is and that he is helped in every way to assess this aptitude. All during the school years, children are observed and encouraged to learn about the various trades, so that they can choose intelligently when the time comes. The supply of workers always fits exactly with the demand for the trades. This is the task of the administration: it must always work to “equalize the attractions of the trades.” It does this by adjusting the hours of labor to fit the difficulty of the work. The harder the work, the less the hours, and vice versa. The principle followed is that the relative difficulty of work should be evenly distributed. The administration will go to any extent to make this rule apply, even to the point of reducing the work day to ten minutes. If still no one were to volunteer for a job, they would declare it extra hazardous. Then people would volunteer for the honor of serving the country. But there are no jobs that are physically dangerous. Doctor Leete adds, “The nation does not maim and slaughter its workmen by thousands, as did the private capitalists and corporations of your day.”

Doctor Leete further notes that if a job is so popular that there are too many potential workers, the administration will choose the workers with the greatest aptitude. However, if a worker persists to desire to work in one trade, he will be given the opportunity. Most often, however, people have secondary preferences and can go to those trades instead. He says that there is a class of unskilled or common laborers. These are people who are in their first three years of service. When the man does enter his trade, he does not necessarily have to remain in it for the rest of his service. However, most people do not want to move. If they do, they enter a new trade at the beginner’s level. They can also move to a new part of the country without any change in income.

Julian West wonders how this system deals with professional occupations. Doctor Leete says that after the compulsory term of three years as common laborers, every one chooses for himself whether he wants to be a laborer, a professional or an artist. His aptitude is tested, and he is able to enter the appropriate university. The schools are so difficult that no one would go to them just to avoid work. Every man can go to college until the age of thirty since people decide their vocation at different ages.

Julian West’s next question concerns wages. He wants to know how they have adjusted wages so that every one is satisfied. Doctor Leete put off answering the question until the next day because it is now three o’clock in the morning. He gives Julian West something to drink, which immediately puts him to sleep.


Edward Bellamy addresses the inequalities of the social system of the nineteenth century in this chapter. He describes the government as a benevolent organization run on principles of reason. He describes every phase of a man’s life as determined by his own needs, desires and aptitude. The social system is flexible enough to accommodate all sorts of needs and desires in the individuals that form it.

As yet, there is no word about women. It is unclear at this point if Bellamy is using the generic “man,” or if he is specifically writing about men’s work. For most of the examples, it sounds like the latter, because he uses the same term for individual examples. For instance, he refers to the “young man” who decides what he will do in his life. It was not uncommon for a nineteenth-century author to forget the place of women while writing about the perfect society. Edward Bellamy waits until almost the end of the book, Chapter XXV, to discuss women. His illustrations of the twentieth century are entirely centered on men up to and even after that chapter.


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