I invite you to contemplate and compare two rather different visions of socialism as embodied in utopian novels that appeared at the same period -- the late nineteenth century -- in the United States and Britain. Today, a century and a quarter later, they both seem outdated in many ways, but the divergent approaches to socialism that they represent still exist.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887 was first published in Boston, Massachusetts in 1888. The novel is available online here. William Morris' News from Nowhere first appeared in serial form in the journal Commonweal of the Socialist League, starting in January 1890. Morris intended it as a critical response and alternative to Bellamy's utopia, so it makes sense to consider the two works together. News from Nowhere is available online here. In the same source you will find many other writings by Morris that are still worth reading: I especially recommend his 1884 lecture 'How we live and how we might live'.

The terms Bolshevism and Leninism are usually treated as synonyms. In view of Lenin’s enormous influence over the Bolshevik party, that might seem fair enough. But in fact Lenin did have political and intellectual rivals inside his own party. The most important of these non-Leninist Bolsheviks was Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928).

Bogdanov was a man of many talents and interests. His formal training was in medicine and psychiatry. He invented an original philosophy that he called 'tectology' and is now regarded as a precursor of systems theory (also known as synergetics). In addition he was a Marxian economist, a theorist of culture, a popular science fiction writer, and of course a political activist. Even today most of his work is not available in English. The only book devoted to him is Zenovia Sochor’s study of his ideas about culture (Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, Cornell University Press 1988).

A volume of Bogdanov’s science fiction has, however, appeared in English (Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia, translated by Charles Rougle and edited by Loren R. Graham and Richard Stites, Indiana University Press 1984). Here we have two novels set on Mars (Red Star and Engineer Menni), a poem supposedly expressing the thoughts and feelings of 'a Martian stranded on Earth,' and interpretative essays by each of the editors. Red Star recounts how Martians take the Russian Bolshevik Leonid to their home planet to learn about the communist society there and act as a link between Earth and Mars.

The word utopia, together with its derivatives utopian and utopianism, is a familiar part of our political vocabulary. It originated as the title of a work by the Tudor lawyer, statesman and writer Thomas More, first published in Latin in 1516 as a traveller’s description of a remote island. Utopia is a pun: it can be read either as ou-topos, Greek for ‘no place’, or as eu-topos, ‘good place’ – that is, a good place (society) that exists in the imagination.

More invented the word, but the thing it represents is much older. Plato in his Republic discussed the nature of the ideal city state. Medieval serfs took solace in the imaginary ease and plenty of the Land of Cockaigne. More’s utopia, however, is the first to embody a response to capitalist social relations, which in the early 16th century were just emerging in England and the Low Countries (in agriculture and textiles). As the first modern utopia, it has a special place in the emergence of modern socialist thought.