The English Utopia. A L Morton 1952

Part II: The Island of the Saints

Quick-witted Sir Thomas More traveld in a cleane contrarie province, for he seeing most commonwealths corrupted by ill custome, and that principalities were nothing but great piracies, which gotten by violence and murther were maintained by private undermining and bloudshed, that in the cheefest flourishing kingdomes there was no equall or well devided weale one with another, but a manifest conspiracie of riche men against poore men, procuring their owne unlawful commodities under the name and interest of the commonwealth: hee concluded with himself to lay down a perfect plot of a common-wealth or government, which he would intitle his Utopia. – Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, 1594

Chapter I: More the Humanist

Between the writing of The Land of Cokaygne and the writing of Utopia lie two hundred years, and in that time a great transformation had taken place. A rapid process of differentiation was taking place among the peasantry, and the feudal, subsistence economy of the Middle Ages was giving place to a modern economy based on the production of goods for sale in the market. In the fourteenth century, as we have seen, serfdom was already undergoing profound modifications: in the fifteenth it had almost disappeared and the serf had become a free cultivator. It would be wrong to cherish any illusions about this time, but it is not altogether without reason that it has been described as a Golden Age. Yet, in the very nature of things, such a state of affairs was only partial and transitory, and if England was ever merry the merriment was but short-lived. The breaking up of the medieval village commune emancipated the serf, but it also destroyed the very basis of his security: in freeing him from his attachment to the soil it created the conditions under which he could be driven off the soil altogether.

The creation of a free peasantry implies the development of an economy based on simple commodity production, and this in its turn implies the creation of a new kind of landowner, whose power was not based on the multitude of his dependants but on the amount of cash profit he could extract from his estates. In England this process was specially marked because England was the main producer of wool, and wool was the article which more than any other could always be turned into money. At the same time, the wool industry, and the enclosures which it involved, was only the most outstanding example of a general tendency, so that when More wrote –

Your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I heare saye, be become so great devowrers and so wylde, that they eate up, and swallow downe the very men themselves...

– he was only describing in particular terms this general process, the replacement of a subsistence agriculture by an agriculture based on the production of goods for the market and the development of a purely money relation between the different classes drawing their living from the soil.

This process, together with the corresponding growth of merchant capital, of trade and of urban industry, which, though still on a handicraft basis, catered more and more for a national and even an international market, involved the birth of a new class, the proletariat. And, as More was one of the first to see, it was accompanied by the greatest amount of suffering and dislocation since the dispossession of the peasantry and the discharge of many of the retainers and other parasites of the old nobility whom the ending of internal wars among the nobility for the control of the state apparatus now rendered superfluous, ran far ahead of the absorption of the unemployed into industry. This was, indeed, the inevitable consequence of the fact that in England capitalism developed first in agriculture and trade and only afterwards and more slowly in industry, which remained on a petty, scattered and individual basis. In one of the best-known passages in Utopia More describes the sufferings of this new, disinherited class:

Therefore that one covetous and unsatiable cormaurante and very plague of his native contrey maye compasse about and inclose many thousand of akers of grounde together within one pale or hedge, the husbandmen be thrust owte of their owne, or else either by coveyne and fraude, or violent oppression they are put besydes it... by one meanes therefore or by another, either by hooke or crooke they must needes depart awaye, poore, silly, wretched soules, men, women, husbands, wives, fatherlesse children, widows, woefull mothers, with their yonge babes... Away they trudge, I say, out of their knowen and accustomed houses, fyndynge no place to rest in... And when they have wandered abroad tyll [all] be spent, what then can they else doo but steale, and then justly pardy be hanged, or els go about a-beggyng.

The early sixteenth century was a black enough time: enclosures, widespread unemployment and beggary, prices rising far more rapidly than wages, savage repressive laws against the exploited, constant wars between the national states springing up out of the ruins of feudal society, corruption, if not greater than before, at least enjoying fuller opportunity. And out of it all there arose a general sense of bewilderment and despair. Everything known and secure seemed to be in question: the static, self-contained feudal world where the lord ruled over the manor and the Pope at Rome reigned over a universal and undivided Church was passing and there seemed nothing to take its place. Yet in fact, all this suffering and uncertainty, real as it was, was still rather a symptom of growth than of decay, though, as often in an age of rapid transition, it was the decay rather than the growth which was most apparent. Over and against the misery and as it were complementary to it, was a new growth, the rise of a great merchant class, strong and confident, mapping and parcelling the world, of great cities and new industries, and, to make this possible, of new powerful states governed by dynasties like the Tudors who had seized power over the bodies of the old nobility and had established an absolutism, which, for all its oppressiveness, was not without a genuine popular basis, since it stood for order, for national as opposed to local organisation, and for an internal stability and a secure and considerable market without which the position of the bourgeois could not be consolidated.

Such was the world in which Thomas More grew to manhood: a world of despair and hope, of conflict and contrast, of increasing wealth and increasing poverty, of idealism and corruption, of the decline at once of the local and international societies in face of the national state which was to provide the frame within which bourgeois society could develop.

More himself belonged to a body which welcomed the new order, to the class of rich London merchants who were one of the principal stays of the Tudor monarchy. His father was a prominent lawyer, later a judge – a member of the upper civil service which was increasingly being drawn from the ranks of the upper bourgeoisie. More was brought up in the household of Archbishop Morton, the chief minister of Henry VII, and, rather against his will, since he was strongly attracted by the life of scholarship, became himself a lawyer. Quite early he was elected to Parliament and he acted as the spokesman of the Londoners on a number of important occasions. In this way he was brought into close touch with national affairs, and finally, as we shall see, was drawn into the service of the crown, unwillingly and with tragic results. In 1529 he became Lord Chancellor, holding office with considerable distinction but with increasing discomfort till he resigned, in 1532, on account of his reluctance to carry out Henry VIII’s church policy. Shortly after he was sent to the Tower, and, in July 1535, he was beheaded on a charge of treason. It will be necessary to discuss some parts of his career in greater detail in relation to the views he expressed in Utopia, but first of all it will be well to say something of his character and intellectual background.

Perhaps the fullest and most intimate picture of More is that given by his friend Erasmus in a letter to Hutten. Erasmus speaks of his ‘kind and friendly cheerfulness, with a little air of raillery’, of the simplicity of his tastes, his capacity for friendship and his affection for his family. This was the impression More gave to all who knew him, and even today it is scarcely possible to read either his writings or those of his biographers without arriving at a sense of peculiar intimacy such as we receive from few other historical characters. We admire the man for his courage and honesty, for the simplicity which he combined with his learning and his capacity for affairs. More, like Swift, though not altogether for the same reasons, was one of those figures around whom an apocrypha gathers – a body of anecdotes which may not be true but which are valuable because they are in keeping with a brilliant personality vividly felt. And yet, behind it all, there is something else, something a little withdrawn and a little contemptuous of common life, which comes out most plainly in More’s patronising treatment of his wives. We are constantly reminded that More was strongly drawn to the extreme austerity of life of the Carthusian order. We feel that though he would have been a delightful companion, equally prepared to discuss philosophy or to indulge in a gentle kind of practical joking, only a part of him would have been engaged. At bottom it is the typical conflict between old and new, between the humanist and the medieval ascetic, which made him write of the married and celibate orders of labour monks that ‘the Utopians counte this secte the wiser, but the other the holier’.

Perhaps it would be truer to say that Humanism itself, especially in England, was the field of such a conflict. Humanism, though it was a new doctrine, and the belief of a new historic class, still arose out of the dogmatic and scholastic thinking of the Middle Ages, and was shot through with the very things against which it was in revolt. So that we get at the one time, and even in the one person, the sceptical and pagan thought of the Renaissance and the puritan and dogmatic thought of the Reformation. Even in Italy, where Humanism was first established and most firmly rooted, this was so. Humanism reflected the boundless optimism of a new class which saw the world opening before it. It discarded the dogma of original sin and the conviction that Satan is the Lord of this world for the dogma that both man and world are only hindered by external checks from infinite improvement:

You get at this time the appearance of a new attitude which can be most broadly described as an attitude of acceptance to life, as opposed to an attitude of renunciation. As a consequence of this there emerges a new interest in man and his relationship to his environment. With this goes an increasing interest in character and personality for its own sake. (TE Hulme, Speculations, p 25)

This new attitude was not only the result of the emergence of a new progressive class but of a new conception of history. Up to this time men had been living in the shadow of the past. They looked back from the squalor of feudalism to the real and imagined glories of the ancient world as to a Golden Age. But at the close of the fifteenth century it would be roughly true to say that civilisation had reached and in some respects passed the level attained in the Graeco-Roman world. And, consequently, instead of looking back to a past more glorious than the present, it was possible to look forward to a future more glorious than either. This growth of civilisation transformed man’s whole outlook:

It was likely that as prosperity and stability of civilisation gradually increased, the distinction between nature and supernature would become less and less harsh. The doctrines of ‘grace’ and ‘original sin’ may, as has been suggested, have arisen out of the despair accompanying the disintegration of the ancient world; ‘but as life became more secure man became less otherworldly’. (Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background, p 33)

This future happiness was to be attained by the removal of all artificial and external checks, that is, by the exercise of reason, which meant in practice the adoption by princes and statesmen of the views of the Humanists.

For whereas your Plato [wrote More] judgeth that weale publiques shall by this means atteyn perfect felicitie, eyther if philosophers be kynges or else if kynges give themselves to the studie of Philosophie, how farre, I praye you, shall commen wealthes then be from thys felicitie if philosophers wyll vouchsaufe to enstruct kinges with their good councell?

And finally, though the common people had no part to play in this transformation of the world, Humanism at its best, in the hands of men like More, did look beyond the immediate future and the narrow class interests of the bourgeoisie towards the happiness of man as a whole.

Consequently, again, there was an internal contradiction and conflict. Humanism could not but be conscious of increasing misery as well as of progress, and the individual Humanists reacted either towards a superficial and hedonistic paganism or towards a moral earnestness and desire for social and religious reform. It was this latter aspect that was most strongly marked in England and Northern Europe, where Humanism never became very firmly rooted but remained, outside a group of intellectuals, a generalised and diffused influence which finally made its contribution, in a modified form, to the Revolution of the seventeenth century. And Colet, through whom more than through any other one man Humanism reached this country, had made his contact with it in Italy at a time when it was in its most highly Christian and serious phase, when the influence of Savonarola and of Pico della Mirandola was at its height.

Freed to a certain extent from the theological absolutes of scholasticism, the Humanists felt the need for a new set of absolute values. These they found partly in a more rational Christianity, but even more, perhaps, in the works of Plato and the neo-platonists. Greek philosophy came to them afresh through the study of the original texts instead of the imperfect Latin summaries that had had to serve throughout the Middle Ages. And Plato, above all, with his conceptions of ideal truth, beauty and justice, discoverable by the exercise of the reason, and to which man and his institutions – churches, states, cities and universities – could be made to conform, appealed irresistibly to men who saw in history not a development towards new forms of society but towards their own form of society. The urban life of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had a sufficient superficial resemblance to that of the Greek city states to allow of the drawing of all sorts of parallels, some valuable and some, to our way of thinking, fantastic enough. Plato’s Republic had been known, at second hand, throughout the Middle Ages, and it was inevitable that it should serve as the starting point for any draft of a model commonwealth.

Such a commonwealth was entirely static in character. Plato believed that what was necessary was to devise a city state with a sufficient hinterland and a fixed optimum population, to give it a finished and perfect constitution, regulating the relations of classes, the nature and scope of industry, the type and extent of the education necessary for the various classes, the religion best calculated to serve its social stability. The foundation-stone was justice – which meant the due subordination of classes and the recognition by all of their respective duties and rights. Such a state, he supposed, if it could once be established, might endure unchanged for ever.

These assumptions, in some cases modified, constitute the starting point of More’s Utopia, but, to a large extent, they remain unstated. More was not concerned to repeat what had already been done in the Republic, to build logically, step by step, the principles upon which a commonwealth should be based. Instead, he takes the principles for granted and presents us with a living picture of such a Commonwealth already discovered in full working order. The result is a book that is narrower but far more lively and vivid than the Republic, the picture of a society so fully realised that More feels able to answer all doubts by saying, as it were: ‘But it really is so, I have seen it, and in fact it works.’

And in some important respects More goes far beyond Plato. Utopia is not a city state, self-sufficient and self-contained, but a nation-state covering an area roughly that of England and having a full national life in relation to other states. Further, Plato’s state was a small aristocratic community living on the labour of a large number of slaves and serfs, and its communism was confined to its ruling class. Plato advocated communism not because this is the only means of securing the abolition of class exploitation, but because he thought that a preoccupation with worldly goods was bad for the morals of his philosopher ‘guardians’. More’s Utopia was an approximation to a classless society, and was necessarily communist because he believed that:

... where possessions be private, where money beareth all the stroke, it is harde and almoste impossible but there the weale publique maye justelye be governed and prosperouslye floryshe. Unless you thinke thus: that Justyce is there executed where all thinges come into the handes of evill men, or that prosperetye there floryshethe where all is divided amonge a fewe.

More had too great an experience of the world to believe that any class, however well-intentioned and carefully educated, can possess state power without oppressing and exploiting the propertyless majority. Through the whole of his book the questions of the state, of class and of property are continually being raised, and, in the main, are answered in a strikingly modern way. It is to More’s treatment of these fundamental questions that any serious and socialist analysis of Utopia must be directed, since it is its treatment of them which makes the book a landmark along the road towards scientific socialism. It is the link between the social theory of the ancient world and that of the present day.

This does not mean, of course, that it was not a book of its own time, written with a very close and deliberate attention to the contemporary situation. It is perhaps because of this close attention to what actually was, and to the tendencies and direction of his age, that More was able to look so far into the future. It was because he understood more clearly than those around him the changes that were then taking place that he was able to forecast the society which those changes were ultimately to make possible. He wrote Utopia at the turning point of his life and in the full maturity of his powers. In 1515 More was thirty-seven. He was the honoured friend of the greatest scholars of his time, of Erasmus and Colet, of Linacre and of Grocyn. He had already sat in Parliament where he had distinguished himself by his opposition to the demands of the crown. He was an outstanding lawyer and a recognised leader and spokesman of the London merchants. And, though he had refused to enter the royal service, he was sent upon an important diplomatic mission to Flanders.

It was at Antwerp, in the course of this mission, that Utopia was begun, and it is in Antwerp that the machinery of the tale is laid. There, says More, in the house of one Peter Giles, he met Raphael Hythloday, just home after having set out upon a voyage with Amerigo Vespucci, in the course of which he had been separated from his companions and had spent five years in Utopia. Hythloday is described with a vividness recalling Swift and Defoe, and the substance of the book is what he told More and Giles in the course of an afternoon and evening. In a letter published at the end of the book Giles expresses his wonder at More’s ‘perfect and suer memorie, which could welniegh worde by worde rehearse so many thinges once onely heard’. Only in one respect was this memory at fault – over the situation of the island:

For when Raphael was speaking thereof, one of Master More’s servauntes came to him, and whispered in his eare. Wherefore I being then of purpose more earnestly addict to heare, one of the company, by reason of cold taken, I thinke, a shippeborde, coughed out so loude, that he took from my hearinge certen of his wordes.

In this way the great secret was lost, ‘for we heare very uncerten newes’ of Hythloday after this time.

An account of the voyage of Vespucci, in which Hythloday is supposed to have taken part, was printed in 1507 and was certainly well known to More. In it is described the simple, pre-class society of the Indian tribes encountered. HW Donner, in Introduction to Utopia, writes of this account:

They despised gold, pearls and jewellery, and their most coveted treasures consisted in brightly coloured birds’ feathers. They neither sell, he says, nor buy, nor barter, but are content with what nature freely gives out of her abundance. They live in perfect liberty, and have neither king nor lord. They observe no laws. They hold their habitations in common, as many as six hundred sharing one building.

In 1511 Peter Martyr’s De orbe novo appeared, giving an even more idealised account of the natives of the West Indies. Clearly these reports form part of the material that went to the making of Utopia, as More in effect acknowledges by making Hythloday the narrator. This picture of primitive innocence, as interpreted by the Humanists with their belief in the classical Golden Age and reinforcing the still unforgotten communist ideas of the Middle Ages, made an important contribution towards More’s conception of a just society that looks at once backwards and forward.

Actually, the second book of Utopia, in which a detailed description of the country was given, was written in Antwerp in the autumn of 1515. The first book, which contains a long discussion on the nature of kings and the social condition of England, was added in the spring of the next year. The whole was published in Latin at Louvain towards the end of the year and between then and 1519 was republished in a number of European cities. It is curious that, in spite of the great success and popularity of Utopia, no edition was published in England in More’s lifetime, nor was any English translation printed till Robinson’s edition appeared in 1551. It is from Robinson’s revised edition of 1556 that I quote, modernising the spelling to a certain extent. Since then a number of new and in some respects more accurate translations have appeared, but Robinson’s has a warmth and a quality of style that seems to bring it closest to the original, and it is in this translation that More’s book has passed into English literature.

It may seem strange that a book by so distinguished an author, and one that had such a wide and immediate influence, should have had to wait so long for publication both in the author’s own country and in his native language. For this there were several reasons. After More’s death his memory was proscribed so long as Henry VIII was alive. The Tudors maintained a strict control of the press and it would have required very great courage to issue a book by a man who had been executed as a traitor. And while More was alive he had probably no great interest in its appearance in English. He was a member of the international of scholars, among whom Latin was the common and familiar medium of communication. So long as his friends in all countries could read his work he was satisfied, for, as we shall see, More was no revolutionary in the sense of wishing to arouse the people to a sense of their wrongs or to start any kind of movement among the mass of the exploited. But, more important still, the book sailed far too close to the wind for its immediate publication in English to be altogether safe. Not only did it advocate communism: that might have been passed over as the pleasant conceit of a platonic philosopher, but it contained the most savage criticism, explicit as well as implied, of the actual government of England. As Erasmus said:

He published his Utopia for the purpose of showing what are the things that occasion mischiefs in commonwealths; having the English constitution especially in view, which he so thoroughly knows and understands.

It was far wiser to leave such a book in a learned tongue and to allow it to be published unostentatiously in Louvain or Paris.

Chapter II: More the Communist

No one could possibly doubt that Utopia was a picture of an England in which money did not ‘bear all the stroke’, and with its criticism of the power and corruption of wealth went an equally devastating picture of the abuse of royal power. The Utopians certainly had a prince and a magistracy who, while they were in office, were given absolute authority within the limits of the constitution. But they were elected autocrats whose power was derived from the people and who were removable if that power was abused. In practice, moreover, the main work of the magistrate was to control and organise the economic life of the country:

The chiefe and almooste the onely offyce of the Syphograuntes is to see and take heede, that no manne sit idle: but that everye one applye hys owne craft with earnest diligence.

The obligation upon all to work (except for a small number of scholars who were deliberately set free to specialise in the pursuit of learning) had as its counterpart the right of all to enjoy the products of this social labour:

In the myddest of every quarter there is a market place of all manner of thinges. Thither the workes of every familie be brought into certeyne houses. And everye kynde of thing is layde up severall in barnes or store-houses. From hence the father of every familie, or everye householder fetcheth whatsoever he and his have need of, and carrieth it away with him without money, without exchange, without any gage, pawne or pledge. For whye shoulde anything be denyed him, seeing there is abundance of all things, and it is not to be feared, leste any man wyll aske more than he needeth. For why should it be thoughte that any man woulde aske more than enough, which is sure never to lacke?

This communism of the Utopians, based upon abundance and security, passes far beyond the vulgar equalitarianism of the petty-bourgeois socialists who failed to see that equality could be nothing but the abolition of classes, and approaches the conception of the ‘higher phase of communist society’, where, as Marx said in the Critique of the Gotha Programme

... when the productive forces of society have expanded proportionally with the multiform development of the individuals of whom society is made up – then will the narrow bourgeois outlook be utterly transcended, and then will society inscribe upon its banners, ‘From everyone according to his capacities, to everyone according to his needs!’ [1]

– More understood, what Morris understood later, but what many even among socialists still fail to understand, that this principle is not an idle fantasy but the only practical basis for the organisation of a classless society. Reason led the learned Humanist to the same conclusions as those already instinctively grasped by the simple men who had depicted The Land of Cokaygne.

In some ways it was easier for them and for More to reach this conception than it has been for others who had to live in a fully capitalist society. England in the sixteenth century, in spite of the development of commodity production, still retained much of the primitive agrarian collectivism that had persisted under cover of feudalism. Though the family had an individual tenement, this land lay scattered with those of the other members of the township throughout the common fields and its working depended on the joint plough team and involved a considerable cooperation at certain times. And even in More’s day, when the gap between town and country was widening, quite considerable towns had still their common fields, and when More writes of the Utopians that –

When their harvest day draweth neare, and is at hand, then the Philarches, which be the head officers and bailiffs of husbandrie, send worde to the magistrates of the citie what number of harvest men is needfull to be sent to them oute of the citie. The whiche companye of harvest men being ready at the day appoynted, almost in one fayre day dispacheth all the harvest worke.

– he had in his mind a picture not very different from what might still have been seen in the England of his own time. More’s communism, that is to say, is not merely an imaginative picture of something that might happen in the future, but even more the extension and transformation of something already existing to the conditions of a society different from his own but nevertheless related to it and arising out of it.

The most difficult question was that of the means by which this transformation could be effected, and here More, in common with most of the Utopians, was at his weakest. Certainly he had not, and could not have had, any conception of the long, painful and still far from completed historical process by which capitalism was to create its antithesis. Consequently the picture of Utopia is touched with melancholy, rising to the conclusion:

So must I needs confesse and graunte that many thinges be in the Utopian weals publique, which in our cities I may rather wishe for, than hope after.

The least attractive feature of the Utopian life is its lack of trust in the ordinary activities of common people. Even in the communal dining-rooms the old must sit with the young, to ‘keep the youngers from wanton licence of wordes and behaviours’. There are to be ‘no lurkinge corners, no places of wycked counsels or unlawful assembles. But they be in the presence sighte and under the eyes of every man.’ And, though laws are few and punishments merciful by the standard of More’s time, we have to infer that in spite of the abolition of private property and of classes, crime is still common enough to provide a considerable number of bondmen. Man, in fact, is changed much less than his surrounding, and it is clear that this aspect of Utopia reflects More’s own lack of confidence in the common man. This arises both from his own class position and that of the Humanists generally and from the whole relation of class forces at that time.

More came from the upper section of the London merchants, a class which always suffered in periods of disorder and which had just passed through the dislocation caused by a prolonged civil war. The memory of Cade’s Rebellion, of which Shakespeare gives us the typical upper-class view, was still fresh and was reinforced by more recent disturbances. And More, who, as we have seen frequently acted as the spokesman of the city, shared much of its outlook in spite of his genuine concern for the sufferings of the people. As Kautsky says:

More was in a practical respect the representative of their interests, although in his theoretical outlook he was more advanced. Capital has always called for ‘order’, only occasionally for ‘freedom’. Order was its most vital element; More, who had become great in the minds of the London middle class, was therefore a ‘man of order’ who disliked nothing more than the independent action of the people. All for the people but nothing by the people was his watchword. [2]

He was not the man to lead a revolution, even if revolution had been possible, and later he looked with horror at the Peasant War in Germany, seeing in it a natural consequence of Luther’s error in encouraging the masses to concern themselves in matters which they had not the capacity to understand.

It must also be remembered that the suffering masses in More’s time were very far from being a proletariat in the modern sense of the word. They were expropriated peasants, servants turned adrift, or, at best, handicraftmen exploited by the rich merchants – More’s own class. In any case they were individuals, just losing their accustomed occupations and social groupings and not yet reintegrated by the education of large-scale machine industry. Such a class was capable of outbursts of revolt, dangerous in proportion to their sufferings and their despair. It did not afford the basis on which a new social order could be established. Yet, if Utopia was to be more than a dream, such a basis had to be sought. This search gives us the key, not only to the understanding of Utopia but also to More’s whole career, and it involves some consideration of the role of the state in the sixteenth century.

The modern state is one of the consequences of the rise of capitalism. Production for the market demands a larger unit than the medieval village or even the small town springing up around some castle or abbey. The state provides a national basis for production and distribution and a greater security for international trade. It ensures more efficient policing, better communications, uniform laws and customs and common standards of measurement. For all these things a strong central government is necessary, capable of reducing the nobility to order. Hence the king, who under feudalism in the form in which it existed in the Middle Ages is no more than the strongest landowner, now becomes the pivot of the state apparatus. It was this fact, together with the fact that the bourgeoisie was still in a state of transition, not strong enough to rule independently but ready to lend its support to a government which was capable of giving it the conditions necessary for its continued progress, which determined the form taken by the Tudor monarchy.

But the Tudor state had a double nature. The state was progressive because society was ready to emerge from feudal atomism: the state stood for social stability and organisation as against anarchy. And so the bourgeoisie, and therefore More and the Humanists, were bound to approve and support the growth of the state. On the other hand the state was clearly and openly predatory and oppressive and its rulers were obviously corrupt and selfish, so that any man who genuinely cared, as More did about social justice, could not but find himself frequently in opposition both to the state and to its rulers. Hence More’s bitter inner conflict, which finds expression in the first book of Utopia and colours his whole life. The only hope of progress was for the Humanists to secure the ear of princes, to guide and mould their policies. But was this possible in view of the known character of the actually existing princes? ‘From the prince, as from a perpetual wel sprynge, commethe amonge the people the floode of al that is good or evell’, without the prince nothing could be done, but did not this mean that the case was hopeless? So the argument develops between More and Hythloday.

Kautsky, I think, fails to understand the point of it.

In estimating the book [he writes], we must no more be misled by the homage paid to the King than we should judge the materialists of the eighteenth century by the reverence they occasionally accorded to Christianity... More assigned the championship of his ideas to Hythloday, while he introduces himself as the critic of his ideas... The whole passage is a scorching satire on the contemporary monarchy. It constitutes More’s political confession of faith, and his justification for holding aloof from the Court. [3]

Kautsky, consequently, finds it hard to understand More’s subsequent action in entering the royal service and has some difficulty in defending him against the charge of inconsistency. I think it would be far truer to say that the dialogue, while it certainly voices a ruthless criticism of contemporary government, is an expression of More’s argument with himself. Hythloday’s criticisms certainly ring true, but so does More’s reply:

What part soever you have taken upon you, playe that as well as you can and make the best of it... you muste not forsake the shippe in the tempest, because you cannot rule and keep downe the winds... But you must with a crafty wile and a subtell traine study and endeavour youre selfe... and that which you can not turne to good, so to order that it be not verye badde.

There could but be one outcome to such an argument. More did not wish to remain a mere satirist, isolated and ineffective. The chance that something could be done through the crown might be small, but there was no other chance. And so, regretfully and heavy with misgivings, More entered the royal service. His state of mind is mirrored in the speech which he made upon taking office as Lord Chancellor:

I ascend this seat as a post full of troubles and dangers and without any real honour. The higher the post of honour the greater the fall, as the example of my predecessor [Wolsey] proves.

His misgivings were only too well justified. Henry had no use for a servant who wanted to help the people or remould society according to the dictates of philosophy. He wished to use More’s reputation for learning and sanctity and his powerful influence in the City as a cover for his own selfish policies. For nearly three years More attempted to reconcile conscience and policy, but in 1532 he felt himself bound to resign because of his opposition to Henry’s divorce and to his attitude to church questions. Out of office he immediately became dangerous because his known integrity was a standing argument against what the king was set upon doing. It became necessary to win him over or to silence him. The former proved impossible: More was therefore sent to the Tower and in 1535 beheaded on a manifestly absurd charge of treason. He was the first, as he has been the last, philosopher to attempt to engage directly in the government of England. [4]

His tragedy was none the less moving because he made his attempt with such faint hopes and with his eyes so fully opened to the realities of the situation. He knew well what forces were at work, and how strong they were, as is well shown in the famous passage in Utopia on the state, a passage strikingly in agreement with the view reached centuries later by Marx, Engels and Lenin, and as strikingly at variance with that of every kind of Liberal and social-democratic political theorist from his time to ours.

The riche men [he wrote], not only by private fraud, but also by common laws do every day pluck and snatche away from the poore some part of their daily living. So whereas it seemed before unjuste to recompense with unkindness their pains that have been beneficiall to the publique weale, nowe they have to this their wrong and unjuste dealinge (which is yet a much worse pointe) given the name of justice, yea and that by force of a law. Therefore when I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealthes, which now-a-dayes any where do flourish, so good help me, I can perceave nothing but a certein conspiracy of riche men procuring their owne commodities under the name and title of the commonwealth. They invent and devise all meanes and craftes, first how to keep safely, without feare of losing, that they have unjustly gathered together, and next how to hire and abuse the worke and laboure of the poore for as little money as may be. These devices, when the riche men have decreed to be kept and observed under the coloure of the commonaltie, that is to saye, also of the poor people, then they be made laws.

The quotation that stands at the head of this chapter shows that in More’s own time, or shortly after, this was recognised as one of the central ideas in the Utopia, for the importance of Nashe is that he was one of the acutest journalists of his time, a man with no new or profound ideas of his own, but with a remarkable aptitude for seizing upon whatever ideas were then current in intellectual circles.

This conception of the state differs in one important respect from that of modern socialism. It is unhistorical, allowing no place for growth and development. Consequently the establishment of a model commonwealth could only be a kind of accident or miracle, the work of a prince, who is imagined as something apart from the class forces which normally dominate the state. Utopia has very little history, but what we are told of its origin bears this out: the island was conquered by, and took its name from, the great King Utopus ‘which also broughte the rude and wild people to that excellent perfection in all good fashions, humanitye and civile gentilness’.

Utopia had to be a miracle. More could see what was wrong and what was needed, but he would have been more than human to see at that time the historical process by which socialism could be realised.

There is a further deduction to be drawn from More’s theory of the state. England was, as we have seen, a country of increasing wealth and increasing poverty. More was one of the first to see the relation between these facts, to understand that the rich were becoming richer because they were finding new and more effective ways of robbing the poor. Hence we find in his work what Morris calls ‘an atmosphere of asceticism, which has a curiously blended savour of Cato the Censor and a medieval monk’. [5]

Kautsky, too, speaks of the frugality of Utopia as a feature contradictory to modern socialism. This is indeed the case. The Utopians rejected all luxury and display. Their houses, though made of the best material and carefully designed, were plain and simple, their clothes uncoloured and all cut to the same pattern, their meals ample and certainly far more balanced than those of the England of the time, but plain and moderate. Jewels were playthings of children, and, as a lesson in the vanity of riches, gold was employed to make chains for bondmen, and for chamber pots. [6]

For this there were several reasons. To a certain extent it was a part of the common heritage of classicism of the Humanists, who, like the theoreticians of the French Revolution later, loved to insist on the stern frugality of the republican heroes of ancient Rome. But in the case of More there were other reasons, more personal and more important. The first was the connection, just mentioned, between wealth and poverty. More was revolted by the luxury of the ruling class of his time because he saw that this luxury was the result of the surrounding poverty. If poverty was to be banished from Utopia, the luxury which produced it must be banished also. The third reason was more positive.

The Utopians were no killjoys, opposed to pleasure and recreation in themselves:

They be muche inclined to this opinion: to thinke no kind of pleasure forbydden whereof commeth no harme.

More looked around at the ceaseless labour of the people which was necessary to provide the luxuries of the rich, and concluded that the most important end to be secured in Utopia was an abundance of leisure in which human faculties could be developed to the full, so that people could become real men and women and not mere drudges:

The magistrates do not exercise theire citizens againste theire willes in unneedful labours... so that what time may possibly be spared from the unnecessarye occupations and affayres of the common wealth, all that the citizens shoulde withdrawe from the bodily service of the same. For herein they suppose the felicitie of this life to consiste.

To any socialist society at some point or another a choice may present itself: more leisure or more production. In the modern world, with all the great and increasing resources of science and technique, this point would certainly not be reached till long after all the reasonable needs and desires of men have been satisfied. Indeed, it is possible that the problem may never really arise at all, that under socialism we really may have our cake and eat it. But for More, living in a world based on handicraft production, it arose very sharply, and he solved it by insisting for his Utopians upon a maximum working day of six hours. This, as he shows in some detail, was ample for the provision of all necessaries as well as for the comfort and pleasure needed to ensure that the best use was made of the ample leisure so secured.

One result of this ample leisure is the great importance of education in Utopia. Education was neither a mystery confined to a small literate class as in More’s England, nor something doled out in carefully measured packets to children during a certain number of years and then forgotten because it had little or no relation to life, as in our own, but a continuous attempt to understand the world in which the whole people took part, and in which, though there were specialists in learning, these were not a sect isolated from the people, but the advance guard of the whole, the leaders of an enterprise in which all could participate. And learning was valued and respected, not as a thing in itself nor yet as an indication of a certain social standing, but as a means of developing man’s capacities to their fullest.

For the rest, their leisure hours were spent by the Utopians mainly in some form of social recreation, conversation, music or games. More mentions two games not unlike chess, but all sports involving cruelty were forbidden and nothing is said of any form of physical exercises, probably because in that time these were the pastimes of the ruling class and there was not then the present large proportion of the population employed at cramping or sedentary tasks for whom some such active form of recreation is a necessary relaxation. Altogether it was a quiet, dignified and uneventful life which went on in Utopia, a land almost without history, a land with a constant population and a constitution and economy that had remained unchanged since the time of Utopus the Good. And there is little reason to think that the Utopians were not extremely happy in the same way that More himself was happy when at home with his family and his friends, and not vexed with the insoluble problems of social justice. It was, in fact, the life that More would have liked to be able to live, and one which could reasonably have been expected to tend to produce men like More.

It was further, as we have seen, a society without exploitation and therefore without classes. A few words should be said about the apparent exceptions to this. First were the magistrates, rising in various grades to the king. But these were in no sense a class or caste. They were chosen freely from among the most able of the philosophers, as these were in turn chosen from the people, for their capacity. They had no special privileges and were subject to frequent re-election. Their children had the same education, upbringing and opportunities as those of the rest of the citizens, and no office was in any sense hereditary.

At the other end of the scale were the bondsmen. These appear in Utopia for two reasons. First as More’s solution to the problem of crime. In his time death was the normal penalty for most sorts of crime and hundreds of men were hanged every year for petty thefts and similar offences. Minor offences were punished by flogging, branding or exposure in the stocks or pillory. This, More saw, was not only inhuman, but, because of its inhumanity, actually helped to increase crime, which in any case sprang rather from the nature of society than from the inherent wickedness of the criminal. He anticipated that crime would continue to exist on a considerable scale in Utopia and he proposed as a remedy to employ criminals to do all the unpleasant and degrading jobs which he supposed his free citizens (whose freedom included the right to choose their own trades) would not willingly undertake, or which he was unwilling to allow them to undertake because of the moral dangers involved. This system of bondage, if it seems out of place in a classless society, was at least far more humane and far more practical than anything that existed in the sixteenth century. And secondly, this system was a positive solution of the problem, with which socialists are always being faced, of who will do the unpleasant work in a socialist society. It is a problem which is now ceasing to exist as the development of technique reduces the amount of such work, but it is one with which many of the Utopian writers have been faced and which they have solved in a variety of ways. It was a very real problem for More, who had to construct a socialist society on the basis of hand production. He solved it, as we have seen, partly by reducing wants through the abolition of luxury and partly by this system of bondsmen. It must be noticed, however, that the bondsmen do not constitute a class, any more than convicts constitute a class in modern society. They were condemned to their tasks partly as punishment but more with the hope of reformation. In many cases their bondage was temporary. But in no case did it affect the position of their families, who had all the normal rights of citizenship.

A similar problem is that of the relation of town and country. In the Middle Ages the country was dominant, the town, with a few exceptions, no more than an enlarged village. But the development of capitalism created a continually widening gulf, the town became more and more a centre of independent life with a distinctive urban culture, the country more and more its tributary and the country workers more and more sunk in what Marx rather harshly calls ‘rural idiocy’. The town and the new class of capitalists became identified with what was thought of as progress, the country identified with stagnation. It would be hard to say whether town or country has suffered the greater loss by this separation, and it is one of the tasks of socialism to restore the unity of town and country on the higher plane of a common social life. More had his own solution, based, again, on the existing level of technique and transport, within the conditions of which life in the country could not but be ruder and more isolated than that of the towns.

Agriculture was carried on by large households and all citizens had the obligation to spend at least two years in the country, each city having its rural area which it supplied with labour and from which it received its food. In this way everyone learnt the rudiments of agriculture and a much larger labour force could be mobilised on special occasions. This was done:

... to the intent that no man shall be constrayned againste his will to contynew long in that harde and sharpe kynd of lyfe, yet manye of them have such a pleasure and delyte in husbandrye that they obteyne a longer space of yeares.

In this way the feeding of Utopia was secured without cutting off any of the people from the civilised life which More regarded as proper to man: at the same time the townsmen were not cut off from the simpler and more primitive life of the countryside.

One more detailed point requires consideration, especially as it has led to some dispute and misunderstanding. This is the religion of Utopia and the religious toleration practised there. Unlike England and all other countries known to More, Utopia was able to accommodate a variety of religions. These were all monotheistic and sufficiently similar and undogmatic to allow of a common form of worship which did not offend the followers of any. Priests were of exceeding holiness ‘and therefore very few’. Hythloday began the conversion of the Utopians to Christianity, with which their pre-existing religions did not greatly conflict. The peculiarity of the Utopians, however, was that the principle of toleration was fully recognised, King Utopus having made a decree that ‘it should be lawfull for everie man to favoure and folow what religion he would’. Even atheists were tolerated, though they were forbidden to advocate their views publicly and were not eligible for any public office.

This undoubtedly represents More’s view of what is desirable, and it is often argued that when he became Chancellor his conduct in attacking and even persecuting Lutherans was at variance with, and a descent from, the doctrines he had preached in Utopia. More, in fact, is held to have sinned against the Light. Such a view is, I think, mistaken. Setting aside the question of how far More actually was a persecutor, about which there is some doubt, it can only arise from a failure to understand what he really says in Utopia. His position is perfectly clear. After referring to the decree of Utopus which I have quoted above, he goes on to say that everyone had the right to persuade others to his belief, so long as this was done peaceably, ‘without displeasant and seditious words’:

To him that would vehemently and ferventlye in this cause strive and contende, was decreed banishment or bondage.

This was More’s own principle of action. We have seen that he distrusted and feared any popular movement or any violent overturning of the existing order, and to him Lutheranism, with its appeal to the masses and its apparent responsibility for the risings of the peasantry in Germany, was such a movement. With individual Lutherans he was able to enjoy friendly relations, but against the movement, which seemed to him to threaten ruin and chaos, he could not but struggle. I am not here concerned with the right or wrong of this attitude: what I am trying to show is that this attitude was logical and self-consistent, arising from the limitations imposed upon him by his class and age, limitations which no one, however talented, can wholly escape.

And, after all, what is remarkable about More is not his limitations but the extent to which they were transcended, not the fact that his tolerance had limits but that the principle of toleration was so plainly set forth, not the occasionally reactionary features of his Utopia but its broadly communist economy, not his fear of popular action but his understanding of the causes of poverty and his real desire to remove them. And if, as I have tried to show, his life and writings form a logical and consistent whole, it is in the Utopia that these essential features show most clearly. Here the thought is most luminous, the passion most evident, and here, in the nature of things, the socialism which could not but be obscured in the practical difficulties that beset the statesman was able to find its fullest expression. And it is as a pioneer of socialism rather than as a saint or a philosopher that More is enduringly important.

Utopia is at once a landmark and a connecting link. It is one of the great works of controlled and scientific imagination in which the classless society is visualised and mapped out. And at the same time it is the link connecting the aristocratic communism of Plato, and the instinctive, primitive communism of the Middle Ages, with the scientific communism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This modern communism has two main strands or legs, and More, with his successors among utopian socialists, provides one of them. But even in More’s day there was another socialism, that of Münzer and the peasant revolutionaries, which in its turn passes through a clearly defined channel: through the Levellers, the left wing in the French Revolution, the Luddites and the Chartists, till it too is ready to find its place in the structure of Marxism. More could not understand this other socialism, and what he saw of it he hated and feared. This was natural, for the synthesis of the philosophic and the popular socialism could not take place before the creation of the revolutionary class, the proletariat, for which it was the appropriate theory. It is enough that More was More without our needing to regret that he was not also Marx.

It does, however, follow from this that it is not till modern times that his Utopia could be properly understood. Until the birth of scientific socialism it was no more than a dream, a pretty fantasy. Readers could admire this commonwealth in which peace and justice were the ruling principles, but could only conclude regretfully, with More, that such a commonwealth was more to be wished than hoped after. Today, when the power to establish such a commonwealth lies ready to our hands, it is possible to see how exactly, within the limits imposed on him by the narrow handicraft technique of his age, More anticipates the most essential features of a modern, classless society. It is fitting, therefore, to quote in conclusion the words of the first great English Marxist, William Morris, who is also the writer of the only book of its class which is worthy of a place beside Utopia:

We socialists cannot forget that these qualities and excellencies meet to produce a steady expression of the longing for a society of equality of conditions; a society in which the individual man can scarcely conceive his existence apart from the Commonwealth of which he forms a portion. This, which is the essence of his book, is the essence also of the struggle in which we are engaged. Though doubtless it was the pressure of circumstances in his own days that made More what he was, yet that pressure forced him to give us, not a vision of the triumph of the new-born capitalistic society, the elements in which lived the new learning and the new freedom of thought of his epoch; but a picture (his own indeed, not ours) of the real New Birth which many men before him had desired, and which now indeed we may well hope is drawing near to realisation, though after such a long series of events which at the time of their happening seemed to nullify his own completely. [7]


1. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme.

2. Karl Kautsky, Thomas More and His Utopia.

3. Karl Kautsky, Thomas More and His Utopia.

4. With the exception of Bacon and the possible exception of Arthur Balfour!

5. William Morris, ‘Foreword to Thomas More’s Utopia’.

6. Lenin has also suggested that gold should be used for the construction of public lavatories! More and Lenin are joking: what is interesting is that they both make the same joke, and it is at least possible that Lenin had this passage from Utopia in his mind.

7. William Morris, ‘Foreword to Thomas More’s Utopia