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Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy

Part 5 out of 5

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products to those who needed them. Surely it was the sheerest
waste to force upon people what they did not want, but what
might be useful to another. The nation was so much the poorer
for every such achievement. What were these clerks thinking of?
Then I would remember that they were not acting as distributors
like those in the store I had visited in the dream Boston.
They were not serving the public interest, but their immediate
personal interest, and it was nothing to them what the ultimate
effect of their course on the general prosperity might be, if but
they increased their own hoard, for these goods were their own,
and the more they sold and the more they got for them, the
greater their gain. The more wasteful the people were, the more
articles they did not want which they could be induced to buy,
the better for these sellers. To encourage prodigality was the
express aim of the ten thousand stores of Boston.

Nor were these storekeepers and clerks a whit worse men than
any others in Boston. They must earn a living and support their
families, and how were they to find a trade to do it by which did
not necessitate placing their individual interests before those of
others and that of all? They could not be asked to starve while
they waited for an order of things such as I had seen in my
dream, in which the interest of each and that of all were
identical. But, God in heaven! what wonder, under such a
system as this about me--what wonder that the city was so
shabby, and the people so meanly dressed, and so many of them
ragged and hungry!

Some time after this it was that I drifted over into South
Boston and found myself among the manufacturing establishments.
I had been in this quarter of the city a hundred times
before, just as I had been on Washington Street, but here, as
well as there, I now first perceived the true significance of what I
witnessed. Formerly I had taken pride in the fact that, by actual
count, Boston had some four thousand independent manufacturing
establishments; but in this very multiplicity and independence
I recognized now the secret of the insignificant total
product of their industry.

If Washington Street had been like a lane in Bedlam, this was
a spectacle as much more melancholy as production is a more
vital function than distribution. For not only were these four
thousand establishments not working in concert, and for that
reason alone operating at prodigious disadvantage, but, as if this
did not involve a sufficiently disastrous loss of power, they were
using their utmost skill to frustrate one another's effort, praying
by night and working by day for the destruction of one another's

The roar and rattle of wheels and hammers resounding from
every side was not the hum of a peaceful industry, but the
clangor of swords wielded by foemen. These mills and shops
were so many forts, each under its own flag, its guns trained on
the mills and shops about it, and its sappers busy below,
undermining them.

Within each one of these forts the strictest organization of
industry was insisted on; the separate gangs worked under a
single central authority. No interference and no duplicating of
work were permitted. Each had his allotted task, and none were
idle. By what hiatus in the logical faculty, by what lost link of
reasoning, account, then, for the failure to recognize the necessity
of applying the same principle to the organization of the
national industries as a whole, to see that if lack of organization
could impair the efficiency of a shop, it must have effects as
much more disastrous in disabling the industries of the nation at
large as the latter are vaster in volume and more complex in the
relationship of their parts.

People would be prompt enough to ridicule an army in which
there were neither companies, battalions, regiments, brigades,
divisions, or army corps--no unit of organization, in fact, larger
than the corporal's squad, with no officer higher than a corporal,
and all the corporals equal in authority. And yet just such an
army were the manufacturing industries of nineteenth century
Boston, an army of four thousand independent squads led by
four thousand independent corporals, each with a separate plan
of campaign.

Knots of idle men were to be seen here and there on every
side, some idle because they could find no work at any price,
others because they could not get what they thought a fair price.
I accosted some of the latter, and they told me their grievances.
It was very little comfort I could give them. "I am sorry
for you," I said. "You get little enough, certainly, and yet the
wonder to me is, not that industries conducted as these are do
not pay you living wages, but that they are able to pay you any
wages at all."

Making my way back again after this to the peninsular city,
toward three o'clock I stood on State Street, staring, as if I had
never seen them before, at the banks and brokers' offices, and
other financial institutions, of which there had been in the State
Street of my vision no vestige. Business men, confidential clerks,
and errand boys were thronging in and out of the banks, for it
wanted but a few minutes of the closing hour. Opposite me was
the bank where I did business, and presently I crossed the street,
and, going in with the crowd, stood in a recess of the wall
looking on at the army of clerks handling money, and the cues of
depositors at the tellers' windows. An old gentleman whom I
knew, a director of the bank, passing me and observing my
contemplative attitude, stopped a moment.

"Interesting sight, isn't it, Mr. West," he said. "Wonderful
piece of mechanism; I find it so myself. I like sometimes to
stand and look on at it just as you are doing. It's a poem, sir, a
poem, that's what I call it. Did you ever think, Mr. West, that
the bank is the heart of the business system? From it and to it,
in endless flux and reflux, the life blood goes. It is flowing in
now. It will flow out again in the morning"; and pleased with his
little conceit, the old man passed on smiling.

Yesterday I should have considered the simile apt enough, but
since then I had visited a world incomparably more affluent than
this, in which money was unknown and without conceivable use.
I had learned that it had a use in the world around me only
because the work of producing the nation's livelihood, instead of
being regarded as the most strictly public and common of all
concerns, and as such conducted by the nation, was abandoned
to the hap-hazard efforts of individuals. This original mistake
necessitated endless exchanges to bring about any sort of general
distribution of products. These exchanges money effected--how
equitably, might be seen in a walk from the tenement house
districts to the Back Bay--at the cost of an army of men taken
from productive labor to manage it, with constant ruinous
breakdowns of its machinery, and a generally debauching influence
on mankind which had justified its description, from
ancient time, as the "root of all evil."

Alas for the poor old bank director with his poem! He had
mistaken the throbbing of an abscess for the beating of the
heart. What he called "a wonderful piece of mechanism" was an
imperfect device to remedy an unnecessary defect, the clumsy
crutch of a self-made cripple.

After the banks had closed I wandered aimlessly about the
business quarter for an hour or two, and later sat a while on one
of the benches of the Common, finding an interest merely in
watching the throngs that passed, such as one has in studying
the populace of a foreign city, so strange since yesterday had my
fellow citizens and their ways become to me. For thirty years I
had lived among them, and yet I seemed to have never noted
before how drawn and anxious were their faces, of the rich as of
the poor, the refined, acute faces of the educated as well as the
dull masks of the ignorant. And well it might be so, for I saw
now, as never before I had seen so plainly, that each as he
walked constantly turned to catch the whispers of a spectre at his
ear, the spectre of Uncertainty. "Do your work never so well,"
the spectre was whispering--"rise early and toil till late, rob
cunningly or serve faithfully, you shall never know security. Rich
you may be now and still come to poverty at last. Leave never so
much wealth to your children, you cannot buy the assurance that
your son may not be the servant of your servant, or that your
daughter will not have to sell herself for bread."

A man passing by thrust an advertising card in my hand,
which set forth the merits of some new scheme of life insurance.
The incident reminded me of the only device, pathetic in its
admission of the universal need it so poorly supplied, which
offered these tired and hunted men and women even a partial
protection from uncertainty. By this means, those already
well-to-do, I remembered, might purchase a precarious confi-
dence that after their death their loved ones would not, for a
while at least, be trampled under the feet of men. But this was
all, and this was only for those who could pay well for it. What
idea was possible to these wretched dwellers in the land of
Ishmael, where every man's hand was against each and the hand
of each against every other, of true life insurance as I had seen it
among the people of that dream land, each of whom, by virtue
merely of his membership in the national family, was guaranteed
against need of any sort, by a policy underwritten by one hundred
million fellow countrymen.

Some time after this it was that I recall a glimpse of myself
standing on the steps of a building on Tremont Street, looking
at a military parade. A regiment was passing. It was the first sight
in that dreary day which had inspired me with any other
emotions than wondering pity and amazement. Here at last were
order and reason, an exhibition of what intelligent cooperation
can accomplish. The people who stood looking on with kindling
faces,--could it be that the sight had for them no more than but
a spectacular interest? Could they fail to see that it was their
perfect concert of action, their organization under one control,
which made these men the tremendous engine they were, able to
vanquish a mob ten times as numerous? Seeing this so plainly,
could they fail to compare the scientific manner in which the
nation went to war with the unscientific manner in which it
went to work? Would they not query since what time the killing
of men had been a task so much more important than feeding
and clothing them, that a trained army should be deemed alone
adequate to the former, while the latter was left to a mob?

It was now toward nightfall, and the streets were thronged
with the workers from the stores, the shops, and mills. Carried
along with the stronger part of the current, I found myself, as it
began to grow dark, in the midst of a scene of squalor and
human degradation such as only the South Cove tenement
district could present. I had seen the mad wasting of human
labor; here I saw in direst shape the want that waste had bred.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on
every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked
with the effluvia of a slave ship's between-decks. As I passed I
had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid
sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship,
retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the
windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands
of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms
of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and
curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that
littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I
passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with
feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder
at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But
not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but
equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from
my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look
upon the woful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity
as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and
sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my
blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me
offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a
knife, so that I could not repress sighs and groans. I not only saw
but felt in my body all that I saw.

Presently, too, as I observed the wretched beings about me
more closely, I perceived that they were all quite dead. Their
bodies were so many living sepulchres. On each brutal brow was
plainly written the hic jacet of a soul dead within.

As I looked, horror struck, from one death's head to another, I
was affected by a singular hallucination. Like a wavering translucent
spirit face superimposed upon each of these brutish masks I
saw the ideal, the possible face that would have been the actual
if mind and soul had lived. It was not till I was aware of these
ghostly faces, and of the reproach that could not be gainsaid
which was in their eyes, that the full piteousness of the ruin that
had been wrought was revealed to me. I was moved with
contrition as with a strong agony, for I had been one of those
who had endured that these things should be. I had been one of
those who, well knowing that they were, had not desired to hear
or be compelled to think much of them, but had gone on as if
they were not, seeking my own pleasure and profit. Therefore
now I found upon my garments the blood of this great multitude
of strangled souls of my brothers. The voice of their blood
cried out against me from the ground. Every stone of the reeking
pavements, every brick of the pestilential rookeries, found a
tongue and called after me as I fled: What hast thou done with
thy brother Abel?

I have no clear recollection of anything after this till I found
myself standing on the carved stone steps of the magnificent
home of my betrothed in Commonwealth Avenue. Amid the
tumult of my thoughts that day, I had scarcely once thought of
her, but now obeying some unconscious impulse my feet had
found the familiar way to her door. I was told that the family
were at dinner, but word was sent out that I should join them at
table. Besides the family, I found several guests present, all
known to me. The table glittered with plate and costly china.
The ladies were sumptuously dressed and wore the jewels of
queens. The scene was one of costly elegance and lavish luxury.
The company was in excellent spirits, and there was plentiful
laughter and a running fire of jests.

To me it was as if, in wandering through the place of doom,
my blood turned to tears by its sights, and my spirit attuned to
sorrow, pity, and despair, I had happened in some glade upon a
merry party of roisterers. I sat in silence until Edith began to
rally me upon my sombre looks, What ailed me? The others
presently joined in the playful assault, and I became a target for
quips and jests. Where had I been, and what had I seen to make
such a dull fellow of me?

"I have been in Golgotha," at last I answered. "I have seen
Humanity hanging on a cross! Do none of you know what sights
the sun and stars look down on in this city, that you can think
and talk of anything else? Do you not know that close to your
doors a great multitude of men and women, flesh of your flesh,
live lives that are one agony from birth to death? Listen! their
dwellings are so near that if you hush your laughter you will hear
their grievous voices, the piteous crying of the little ones that
suckle poverty, the hoarse curses of men sodden in misery turned
half-way back to brutes, the chaffering of an army of women
selling themselves for bread. With what have you stopped your
ears that you do not hear these doleful sounds? For me, I can
hear nothing else."

Silence followed my words. A passion of pity had shaken me
as I spoke, but when I looked around upon the company, I saw
that, far from being stirred as I was, their faces expressed a cold
and hard astonishment, mingled in Edith's with extreme mortification,
in her father's with anger. The ladies were exchanging
scandalized looks, while one of the gentlemen had put up his
eyeglass and was studying me with an air of scientific curiosity.
When I saw that things which were to me so intolerable moved
them not at all, that words that melted my heart to speak had
only offended them with the speaker, I was at first stunned and
then overcome with a desperate sickness and faintness at the
heart. What hope was there for the wretched, for the world, if
thoughtful men and tender women were not moved by things
like these! Then I bethought myself that it must be because I
had not spoken aright. No doubt I had put the case badly. They
were angry because they thought I was berating them, when
God knew I was merely thinking of the horror of the fact
without any attempt to assign the responsibility for it.

I restrained my passion, and tried to speak calmly and logically
that I might correct this impression. I told them that I had not
meant to accuse them, as if they, or the rich in general, were
responsible for the misery of the world. True indeed it was, that
the superfluity which they wasted would, otherwise bestowed,
relieve much bitter suffering. These costly viands, these rich
wines, these gorgeous fabrics and glistening jewels represented
the ransom of many lives. They were verily not without the
guiltiness of those who waste in a land stricken with famine.
Nevertheless, all the waste of all the rich, were it saved, would go
but a little way to cure the poverty of the world. There was so
little to divide that even if the rich went share and share with
the poor, there would be but a common fare of crusts, albeit
made very sweet then by brotherly love.

The folly of men, not their hard-heartedness, was the great
cause of the world's poverty. It was not the crime of man, nor of
any class of men, that made the race so miserable, but a hideous,
ghastly mistake, a colossal world-darkening blunder. And then I
showed them how four fifths of the labor of men was utterly
wasted by the mutual warfare, the lack of organization and
concert among the workers. Seeking to make the matter very
plain, I instanced the case of arid lands where the soil yielded
the means of life only by careful use of the watercourses for
irrigation. I showed how in such countries it was counted the
most important function of the government to see that the
water was not wasted by the selfishness or ignorance of individuals,
since otherwise there would be famine. To this end its use
was strictly regulated and systematized, and individuals of their
mere caprice were not permitted to dam it or divert it, or in any
way to tamper with it.

The labor of men, I explained, was the fertilizing stream
which alone rendered earth habitable. It was but a scanty stream
at best, and its use required to be regulated by a system which
expended every drop to the best advantage, if the world were to
be supported in abundance. But how far from any system was
the actual practice! Every man wasted the precious fluid as he
wished, animated only by the equal motives of saving his own
crop and spoiling his neighbor's, that his might sell the better.
What with greed and what with spite some fields were flooded
while others were parched, and half the water ran wholly to
waste. In such a land, though a few by strength or cunning
might win the means of luxury, the lot of the great mass must be
poverty, and of the weak and ignorant bitter want and perennial

Let but the famine-stricken nation assume the function it had
neglected, and regulate for the common good the course of the
life-giving stream, and the earth would bloom like one garden,
and none of its children lack any good thing. I described the
physical felicity, mental enlightenment, and moral elevation
which would then attend the lives of all men. With fervency I
spoke of that new world, blessed with plenty, purified by justice
and sweetened by brotherly kindness, the world of which I had
indeed but dreamed, but which might so easily be made real.
But when I had expected now surely the faces around me to
light up with emotions akin to mine, they grew ever more dark,
angry, and scornful. Instead of enthusiasm, the ladies showed
only aversion and dread, while the men interrupted me with
shouts of reprobation and contempt. "Madman!" "Pestilent
fellow!" "Fanatic!" "Enemy of society!" were some of their cries,
and the one who had before taken his eyeglass to me exclaimed,
"He says we are to have no more poor. Ha! ha!"

"Put the fellow out!" exclaimed the father of my betrothed,
and at the signal the men sprang from their chairs and advanced
upon me.

It seemed to me that my heart would burst with the anguish
of finding that what was to me so plain and so all important was
to them meaningless, and that I was powerless to make it other.
So hot had been my heart that I had thought to melt an iceberg
with its glow, only to find at last the overmastering chill seizing
my own vitals. It was not enmity that I felt toward them as they
thronged me, but pity only, for them and for the world.

Although despairing, I could not give over. Still I strove with
them. Tears poured from my eyes. In my vehemence I became
inarticulate. I panted, I sobbed, I groaned, and immediately
afterward found myself sitting upright in bed in my room in Dr.
Leete's house, and the morning sun shining through the open
window into my eyes. I was gasping. The tears were streaming
down my face, and I quivered in every nerve.

As with an escaped convict who dreams that he has been
recaptured and brought back to his dark and reeking dungeon,
and opens his eyes to see the heaven's vault spread above him, so
it was with me, as I realized that my return to the nineteenth
century had been the dream, and my presence in the twentieth
was the reality.

The cruel sights which I had witnessed in my vision, and
could so well confirm from the experience of my former life,
though they had, alas! once been, and must in the retrospect to
the end of time move the compassionate to tears, were, God be
thanked, forever gone by. Long ago oppressor and oppressed,
prophet and scorner, had been dust. For generations, rich and
poor had been forgotten words.

But in that moment, while yet I mused with unspeakable
thankfulness upon the greatness of the world's salvation and my
privilege in beholding it, there suddenly pierced me like a knife a
pang of shame, remorse, and wondering self-reproach, that
bowed my head upon my breast and made me wish the grave
had hid me with my fellows from the sun. For I had been a man
of that former time. What had I done to help on the deliverance
whereat I now presumed to rejoice? I who had lived in those
cruel, insensate days, what had I done to bring them to an end? I
had been every whit as indifferent to the wretchedness of my
brothers, as cynically incredulous of better things, as besotted a
worshiper of Chaos and Old Night, as any of my fellows. So far
as my personal influence went, it had been exerted rather to
hinder than to help forward the enfranchisement of the race
which was even then preparing. What right had I to hail a
salvation which reproached me, to rejoice in a day whose
dawning I had mocked?

"Better for you, better for you," a voice within me rang, "had
this evil dream been the reality, and this fair reality the dream;
better your part pleading for crucified humanity with a scoffing
generation, than here, drinking of wells you digged not, and
eating of trees whose husbandmen you stoned"; and my spirit
answered, "Better, truly."

When at length I raised my bowed head and looked forth
from the window, Edith, fresh as the morning, had come into
the garden and was gathering flowers. I hastened to descend to
her. Kneeling before her, with my face in the dust, I confessed
with tears how little was my worth to breathe the air of this
golden century, and how infinitely less to wear upon my breast
its consummate flower. Fortunate is he who, with a case so
desperate as mine, finds a judge so merciful.

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