The impact of Edward Bellamy's novel, Looking Backward, on socialist ideas in New Zealand was felt particularly in 1889–90 and in the 1930s. His Christian democratic socialism was in some ways an adjunct and in other ways an antidote to Marxist ideas. His Utopia inspired radical spirits among trade unionists and was much discussed in relation to the maritime strike of August 1890, which ended in their defeat and disillusionment. In the early 1900s his disciples included David Low, later to become the renowned political cartoonist. A shorter work, The Parable of the Water Tank, was banned in 1932, drawing attention to it and its author. Many of the leaders of the Labour Party were sympathetic to Bellamy's ideas and, when it came to power, interest in his work increased. In 1936 the “Edward Bellamy Society of New Zealand” was formed in Wellington, with Alexander Scott as president. Three Labour members of Parliament, W. J. Lyon, H. E. Herring, and (in 1938) Mrs C. Stewart, became members, and seven others were regarded as “Bellamyists”. A branch was set up in Auckland in 1937, and a Bellamy Club formed in Kaitaia in 1940 lasted for a year. Between 1936 and 1938 the Wellington membership, though small, was active, publishing pamphlets, seeking the dissemination of Bellamy's ideas in schools, prisons, and public works camps, sponsoring radio broadcasts, and, in 1938, putting forward proposals to the parliamentary National Health and Superannuation Committee and a Select Committee of the House of Representatives. In so doing it undoubtedly influenced the Social Security Scheme. The Society ceased to function in 1941, though it was not officially deregistered until 1955.
Many features of New Zealand life – full employment, home ownership by working-class people, free education and health service, motherhood endowment, universal superannuation, and other State-supplied benefits – were proposed as radical measures by Bellamy disciples in 1890, and the Edward Bellamy Society helped to establish and shape them in the late 1930s. So this lucid and persuasive American socialist (he called his Utopia “nationalist”) had a marked influence on the Labour movement and social legislation in New Zealand.
by Walter Edward Murphy, B.A., Lecturer, School of Political Science and Public Administration, Victoria University of Wellington.