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America’s Utopian Prophets

ISSUE:  Summer 1984
Alternative America: Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Henry Demarest Lloyd and the Adversary Tradition. By John L. Thomas. Harvard. $25.00.

One of the great tasks of intellectual leadership has been the definition of injustice. When a new injustice, or complex of injustices, first emerges fully into view, the intellectuals who grasp and report its meaning can make a critical difference in the history of the next half century or more. That is why Henry George, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and Edward Bellamy are fascinating and important. Between 1879 and 1894, each of them published an extraordinary book that dramatized and interpreted in a new way the economic injustice of an urban, industrial society. Their books stirred the American conscience like nothing since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All three authors were journalists. The next generation of social theorists would dwell for the most part in the groves of academe. Social analysis would thereupon become less apocalyptic, less grandiose, less personal. But the first burning perceptions of what had gone terribly wrong in the great cities of America, and how the wrong could be righted, came from writers who were self-taught and self-directed and who risked their jobs to discover the truth of their times. John L. Thomas has woven together into a single compelling narrative the story of the three men’s lives, their ideas, and their place in history.

Different though their backgrounds were in some ways, all three were shaped by a Protestant heritage of vocation and moral accountability, which in a simpler era had flowered in the antislavery movement. George’s impecunious father ran a religious bookshop until it failed. Lloyd and Bellamy were sons of clergymen. In the flamboyant secularism of the Gilded Age, none of the sons held on to their parents’ orthodoxy. But all of them felt an essentially religious yearning to discover or restore a true community of man, and all of them underwent something like a religious conversion when the scales dropped from their eyes and the possibility of a new civic religion opened before them.

George, the oldest of the three, had his moment of illumination around 1870 while horseback riding in the hills behind Oakland. The land about him was empty, but the teeming city of San Francisco straddled the horizon. George was already haunted by the extremes of wealth and poverty developing in his young state and by the expectation that the coming of the transcontinental railroad would further extend the power of capital while depressing the level of wages. Pausing a moment, George learned from a passing teamster that one local landowner was asking a thousand dollars an acre for this unused real estate. Suddenly an intuition dawned. Poverty and wealth were increasing simultaneously because the value of land goes up with the growth of population, and the “true producers”—the venturesome capitalist and the honest workingman—must pay more and more to the grasping landlord. Let the state expropriate these unearned rents, and the imagined harmony of a bucolic America could be restored to a nation of cities. Elaborately developed and passionately argued, this revision of classical economics became George’s great tract, Progress and Poverty (1879).

While George shifted restlessly from one unsuccessful California paper to another, Lloyd fretted at his lack of independence as a junior editor of the mighty Chicago Tribune. There, while writing financial commentaries of impeccable respectability, he came up against the great railroad strike of 1877. The news of pitched battles between strikers and state militia in several cities, the scenes of mobs burning railroad yards and looting storehouses produced in Lloyd a conversion similar to that which the vision of land monopoly inspired in George. Both glimpsed an approaching breakup of modern society if the conflicts within it were not resolved.

Lloyd found a new conceptual framework not by reformulating Manchesterian liberalism, as George did, but by rejecting it. A new respect for the state as a regulatory power incarnating the conscience of a people was becoming available in the writings of German and English economists and political theorists. Seizing upon it, Lloyd launched a campaign of outraged social criticism in magazine articles. These culminated in Wealth against Commonwealth, a 600-page indictment of Standard Oil, set in a panoramic moral history of the rise and impending decline of an acquisitive way of life.

The great railroad strike left Edward Bellamy depressed and pessimistic about the future. Social evils, he was convinced, could not be corrected by invading the rights of property or trusting in self-interested reformers. Bellamy was an unworldly recluse—neurotic, inhibited, and sickly. After spurning his parents’ religion, he could not leave the shelter of their home but spent much of his time dreaming of a religion of universal solidarity that might replace the faith he had discarded. Bellamy’s salvation was internal. It came gradually in the 1880’s as he became capable of forging new human ties, through marriage and children, thus building a tenuous bridge between his private fantasies and a living community. The sense of connectedness and involvement that fatherhood gave him made the world seem redeemable. A book that Bellamy started to write as an escapist fable of an earthly paradise turned into a blueprint for an attainable transformation. The result was Looking Backward (1888). In this runaway best-seller the Utopian anticipation of an approaching millennium, which all three writers felt, reached its fullest expression.

To many present-day readers, these late 19th-century classics of social protest are more familiar than is the career of agitation into which their authors were drawn. For each writer, the grand theory became a rallying cry for a cause more dear than life itself. Henry George began lecturing on land reform in California before his book was completed. After its publication, he took off for New York, leaving wife and family behind, to be his own missionary. His first allies were Irish nationalists, then locked in a bitter struggle with England over oppression by alien landlords. Sent abroad as correspondent for a leading Irish-American newspaper, George gathered an enthusiastic following among Irish-American workingmen. This in turn led him into the Knights of Labor and a wider concern with modern social problems. Academic economists gave George no quarter, dismissing him as a simpleminded moralist dabbling in a science beyond his grasp; but the adulation of the people fed his unshakable convictions. Between tours of Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, he fought two frenzied campaigns for mayor of New York. In the second he had no chance. His doctors warned him that the effort would probably be fatal. But George courted death, and it came to him on a grueling day a week before the election.

Like George, Henry Demarest Lloyd discerned in the organization of labor a cooperative principle that might be broadly applied to the reconstruction of society. Lloyd took up the role of adviser to and spokesman for the American labor movement at a time of bitter class divisions, when unions tended to think of themselves as the seeds of a new order and a middle-class intellectual like Lloyd who tried to bridge the gulf between classes was viewed as a dangerous enemy of civilization.(He was in fact disinherited by his wealthy father-in-law.) Lloyd took heart, however, from the eminently respectable character of Fabian socialism in England. As an activist in Chicago, he busied himself spreading word of municipal experiments elsewhere, helped organize the World’s Labor Congress at the Chicago World’s Fair, and strove above all to turn the People’s Party into a farmer-labor coalition. Few were ready for that. In 1896 the Populist remnant repudiated Lloyd, then faded into oblivion itself.

The most amazing emergence into activism was Bellamy’s, His lack of interest in politics, his distaste for power, and his personal isolation kept him aloof from any reform activity until the readers of Looking Backward spontaneously formed clubs to discuss the ideas in the book. Arguments over the specifications of his blueprint mounted. Soon this growing community of discourse persuaded Bellamy that choice, commitment, and struggle are inescapable. He had been wrong to rely on an inevitable process of consolidation to bring the new commonwealth into being. He had been equally wrong to entrust his collectivized future to an industrial army laboring obediently under a council of disinterested patriarchs. Politics and the struggle for reform could not be avoided. Leaving the seclusion of his home in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, Bellamy launched in Boston a national newspaper and, like Lloyd, embraced the Populist cause. For the next two years Bellamy poured all of his overtaxed energy into a campaign to make Nationalism (his own collectivist program) the ideological spearhead of the Populist movement. He spoke at rallies, ran for office, hobnobbed cheerfully with Boston journalists, and fired off advice in every direction. In 1893 Bellamy’s energy gave out, and he took to bed. He lived only long enough to complete a more democratic sequel to Looking Backward, entitled significantly Equality.

The appealing human qualities of John L. Thomas’s three heroes blend in these pages with a detailed assessment of their ideas. The sources of those ideas differed somewhat in the three instances, but essentially Thomas locates them in the native soil of the early American republic. The millennial and reformist strains in evangelical Protestantism joined in the middle decades of the 19th century with a heritage of Jacksonian working-class values that Thomas calls “producerism.” The latter was a dissenting tradition that reached back to 17th-century England, played an important role in the American Revolution, and throughout the 19th century animated the protests of farmers and workingmen against capitalistic monopolies. Producerism taught that the “producing classes” are victimized by parasitic idlers who control the government. When this social theory was mixed with the religious quest for a new birth of freedom, the two formed a potent creed.

Why, then, was it so roundly defeated? Why did the Populists fail to gain a following in the cities? Why did their challenge to corporate America fade so quickly in all parts of the country? Why did the Nationalist clubs fold after a season or two? Why did George become narrow and increasingly doctrinaire in his later years? Thomas suggests that his three prophets and the ideas they expressed were overwhelmed by “modernism,” which is a way of saying that they were out of date. By the end of the century the Utopian anticipation of a pure and loving community just beyond the horizon was giving way to a more pragmatic, secular worldview, and already tough-minded interest groups like the American Federation of Labor had demonstrated the uselessness of the quaint conception of a union of all producers.

Yet Thomas is unwilling to end on an elegaic note. The 19th-century Utopians, he believes, opened a middle way between modern capitalism and modern socialism, which men of good will may still tread. Here the argument becomes very sketchy indeed. Thomas emphasizes that both Lloyd and Bellamy in their later work became more and more fascinated with local cooperatives, garden cities, and decentralized authority. This is a legacy that Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and various regionalists and planners have fruitfully drawn upon. To call it “the adversary tradition, ” however, implies an ideological coherence, a continuity, a breadth of support, and a social polarization that 20th-century America has simply not experienced.

A more persuasive conclusion might be that an adversary tradition has never crystallized in America, if by that phrase we mean a radical tradition, and that the three prophets discussed here bear some of the responsibility. Instead of stressing, as Thomas does, their common endeavor to adapt early American ideas to new social conditions, one might dwell more heavily on the confusions into which their redemptive vision led. Because the late-19th-century prophets saw themselves as restoring perennial truths that an unprincipled minority was betraying, they usually thought and acted as reformers rather than radicals. Confronted by new problems of bigness and impersonal organization, the three prophets gave uncertain answers to questions about the allocation of power. Their ideas were a shifting melange of modern perceptions and old-fashioned attitudes.

An enduring adversary tradition would seem more likely to have taken root under the auspices of Marxian socialism. After 1900 the American Socialist party gave a more consistent, up-to-date, and radical expression to the strains of discontent the Utopian prophets had articulated during the two preceding decades. Socialists like Eugene Debs were the truest inheritors of the torch that Bellamy, Lloyd, and the Populists tried to light. But the Debsian Socialists had all too brief a time, before the great reaction of the 1920’s set in, to make their movement a familiar American institution. During the late 19th century, when socialism was domesticating itself in Western Europe and establishing permanent bases there, its penetration of native American opinion was blocked by the commanding presence of the Utopian prophets. Instead of creating an adversary tradition, they renewed an American dream, which absorbed and dissipated the kind of support that socialists were rallying elsewhere. Quite unintentionally, the gallant crusaders who live again in these stirring pages may have placed an alternative America out of reach.


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