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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lectures - Thomas More And His Utopia

Five hundred years ago, in 1516, Thomas More’s little book UTOPIA was published, in Latin. In the 19th C, Karl Kautsky in his book THOMAS MORE AND HIS UTOPIA hailed More as a fore-runner of Socialism. But there are good grounds for questioning that view. It is quite possible this was meant as a satire, as mock-serious, a spoof.

Socialists are often accused of being ‘utopian’ – aiming to achieve something so ideal that it must be unrealistic, but Engels made clear the difference between Utopian Socialism and Scientific Socialism. Utopians had no clear practical idea of how their Utopias could be achieved. Like Marx and Engels, we argue that for Socialism to be achieved requires a revolutionary class struggle, class consciousness and political organisation. That is a practical possibility, not a fantasy or wishful thinking.

‘Scientific’ Socialism is derived from the real interests of the working class and the fact of exploitation via the wages, production for profit, system, in the capitalist mode of production. It is a feasible solution to problems that capitalism creates but cannot solve – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, war, waste, and especially exploitation.

The basis of scientific Socialism is in the class struggle between the opposing interests of Capital and Labour, the haves and the have-nots, the greedy and the needy.

Capitalism means insecurity, drudgery and misery for millions while billionaire oligarchs sail the world’s oceans on their luxury super-yachts.

Unlike Utopian Socialists, we do not attempt to give precise details of just how exactly a Socialist society would operate. But the basis for such a society is clear: it would need to be founded on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Thomas More and his times

By 1516 when he wrote UTOPIA, Thomas More was a lawyer, a part-time judge, an MP, and a rising politician. More and his humanist friend Erasmus lived at a historical watershed. They were born and raised in the late 15th C, at the tail-end of the medieval world dominated by the unquestioning culture and powerful institutions of the Catholic Church.

In More’s time, the old feudal order was crumbling away. There were new voyages of discovery; mapmaking; new navigational instruments; the printing press; the Renaissance and the rediscovery of pre-Christian, classical Greek culture; new sciences; the growth of international trade; and the rise of international banking houses.

The manorial system of serfdom was collapsing. That was the system which, since the Roman Empire, had bound generations of peasants to the land, requiring them to do forced labour on the manorial ‘demesne’.

But even in the 12th C, some peasants were already negotiating to get paid wages - ‘commutation’ was conceded manor by manor, depending on local circumstances. Then in the 14th C, the Black Death killed off almost half the English population, and, with the opportunity to escape manorial serfdom, many serfs simply liberated themselves by moving elsewhere.

More had one foot in the old world, and the other in the new. As a devout Catholic, he supported the authority of the Pope. As a modern man, like many others he deplored the Church’s corrupt practices, and ridiculed astrology and superstition.

As the lawyer son of a judge, grandson of a brewer and a mercer, he was unlikely to have favoured a communistic system. As a man embedded in the political elite, supportive of authority, he would surely not have written UTOPIA with a view to turning the world upside down.

But as a satirist, he could use a fictional Portuguese ‘traveller’ visiting England who comments on how poverty is the cause of crime, rather as a modern writer might imagine a Martian visiting our war-torn, money-crazed world and being amazed and horrified at what goes on in this best of all capitalist worlds.

More wrote in Book 1 of UTOPIA of how people were driven off the land to make way for sheep, and even the commons were being enclosed. As arable gave way to pasture, the peasants were ‘redundant’ – unemployed and unemployable.

More gave a vivid and angry account of how these wretched families were forced to become homeless vagabonds, starving and destitute. This was an early and unforgettable description of a scene ruthlessly repeated in many countries, wherever and whenever the working people became a landless proletariat, with nothing to sell but their labour power. As Marx wrote:

Wage-labour pre-supposes capital, and vice versa”. Along with the proletariat, the capitalist system came into being.

How and why Utopia was written

In 1515, More was sent to Bruges to help negotiate a trade deal for resuming the valuable textile and wool trade, and went for a while to Antwerp, which is where his Utopia story starts. Peter Giles, a leading Antwerp merchant and like More a humanist, like More, introduces More to a tall sunburnt, bearded, Portuguese seaman, ‘Hythloday’ (Gk.“a pedlar of nonsense”). The made-up Greek names in UTOPIA when translated show that this story cannot be taken at face value. UTOPIA itself translates as “nowhere” but is also a pun on Eutopia, “a good place”. The name of the tidal river, Anyder, means “no-water”, and so on.

While in Antwerp, More first wrote Book 2 describing the peculiar customs of Utopia, and left this with Peter Giles. At home in London, he wrote Book 1, and in the spring sent that off. By then his friend Erasmus was in Antwerp, and he and Giles undertook the editing and publication of Utopia. It was probably Erasmus who decided to give the book its punning Greek title and made other changes.

Was Utopia an early form of communism?

In UTOPIA (Book 2) More described a society run on strictly egalitarian lines, where no one went hungry or lacked a good house, where free hospitals cared for the sick, and no-one traded with money. It was a society which, by eliminating waste and idleness, meant a working day of just 6 hours, so citizens had leisure time for enjoying music, gardens and free access to public lectures. Land and the products of human labour were all held in common, freely available to all.

A question Socialists are often asked about is who in Socialism would do the dirty, unpleasant work. Thomas More suggested a commonsense answer: such work should be done by all, not permanently but on a rota system.

In the 19th C, More’s Utopia, a communal society with no money or trade, with no rich or poor, with only contempt for gold and finery, was accepted among many Socialists as a serious proposal for a socialist or communist society. Karl Kautsky, in his book THOMAS MOREAND HIS UTOPIA, (Kerr edition, 1927) wrote praising More as a forerunner of modern Socialism. But there are problems in that view.

In Utopia there was no inequality. But this system was not brought about by the people themselves: it was decreed and established by a founding prince, Prince Utopus. His system was supervised by severe magistrates and bureaucrats, ensuring that everyone worked. Every ‘neighbour’ was required to watch out and report any slackers.

If anyone wished to travel to another city, this could only be done by getting special permission (as in Soviet Russia). To avoid waste and ostentation, everyone wore the same drab uniform clothing – as in Mao’s China.

There were slaves: criminals condemned to do forced labour, and descendants of the original natives of the island.

In short, many features of this island society to a Socialist sound very far from ideal: more like a totalitarian nightmare, an open-air prison.

But was it meant seriously? Many features of UTOPIA clash with More’s known views. There was voluntary suicide and euthanasia, which would be counter to his Catholic beliefs. There was tolerance of all forms of religion (except atheism) but More was strongly opposed to Lutheranism and other sects. And divorce? And married priests?

There was too a very odd account of Utopian marriage customs: a young woman would be displayed naked for the young man to inspect. The origin of this can be found in a Greek myth, re-told in Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES and by the satirist Juvenal (Why Write Satire?). The gullible John Aubrey,in his BRIEF LIVES tells, improbably, that More displayed his daughters naked when Roper came to ask for his daughter in marriage. But we know that More insisted on all his daughters having a really good education (the eldest was an outstanding scholar), which suggests this incredible story was just not true. Erasmus wrote of how much More loved jokes: that was something they both had in common. Maybe this was one of More’s jokes?

The idea of a land where people did not prize gold and had “no private property but everything was shared in common” was to be found in Amerigo Vespucci’s recently published, and implausible, accounts of his voyages to the New World (see UTOPIA, ed. Paul Turner, Penguin Classics, notes, p135).

In short, there is much in BOOK 2 of UTOPIA, which More could never have intended to be taken seriously. No doubt he would be chuckling now at the seriousness of so many later writers and editors, including Kautsky.

Inequality, poverty, hunger and crime

Book 1 of UTOPIA was written differently, and dealt with the real world problems of Tudor England.

Almost like a modern social scientist or political economist, More (or rather ‘Hythloday’) explained the enclosures, arguing these were due to the greed of a tiny few, bent on enriching themselves, no matter what the cost to the community:

Each greedy individual preys on his native land like a malignant growth, absorbing field after field, and enclosing thousands of acres with a single fence. Result – hundreds of farmers are evicted. They’re either cheated or bullied into giving up their property, or systematically ill-treated until they’re finally forced to sell. UTOPIA BOOK ONE –tr. Paul Turner, Penguin Classics, p47

The main cause of the crime wave was desperate poverty. With scores of beggars and thieves being hanged, the death penalty was no deterrent if the only other option was starvation.

In Book 1 of UTOPIA, More expressed his dislike of inequality: this was an England where half-starved peasants were forced to toil from dawn to dusk, while lords and ladies swaggered in silks and velvets, ostentatiously showing off gold and jewellery.

But Thomas More was from the legal and political elite so this was not a radical, communist manifesto. More deliberately left UTOPIA as a riddle wrapped in an enigma, a conundrum.

Hythloday’ is critical of modern England and praises Utopia’s communism but More puts a familiar opposing argument.

‘HYTHLODAY’: In fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests.
UTOPIA, tr. Paul Turner– Penguin Classics, Book Two p130

‘MORE’: I don’t believe you’d ever have a reasonable standard of living under a communist system... In the absence of a profit motive, everyone would become lazy, and rely on everyone else to do the work for him.
UTOPIA, Book One, p 67

Thomas More’s conclusions make it clear that he himself, a responsible politician, who would soon become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, could not and would not favour “communism minus money”:

The laws and customs of that country seemed to me in many cases perfectly ridiculous ...there was the grand absurdity on which their whole society was based, communism minus money. Now this in itself would mean the end of the aristocracy, and consequently of all dignity, splendour, and majesty, which are generally supposed to be the real glories of any nation.

UTOPIA, Book Two , p132

Engels and ‘Utopian Socialism’

Especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, a variety of ideas were suggested as to how society might be better organised.

But Engels argued that these and the movements associated with them, such as followers of St Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, would not get anywhere:

To all these Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason, and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power... absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each school... Hence, from this nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average Socialism... Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion; a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more the definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook
(SOCIALISM, UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, tr. Edward Aveling, 1893, Kerr edition).

Engels argued that, when St Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen were developing their schemes for social reform, the capitalist system was still “very incompletely developed”:

[The] new class, as yet quite incapable of independent political action, appeared as an oppressed, suffering order to whom, in its incapacity to help itself, help could, at best, be brought in from without, or down from above. (ibid.)

That seems a fair description of Lenin’s theory of Vanguardism, a top-down, “down from above”, way of bestowing ‘socialism’ on the ignorant ‘masses’.

Although Utopian Socialists bravely tried to set up model social experiments, collectives and communes, these all failed:

The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain... These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not help drifting off into mere phantasies (ibid.).

But with developing, mature, working-class movements and organisations, the class struggle led to a radical re-thinking :

Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles... From that time forward Socialism was no longer an accidental product of this or that ingenious brain but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (ibid.).

Yet Thomas More’s book is still of importance now, 500 years later. His clear, angry, description of the forcible creation of a homeless, uprooted, ‘free’ class of proletarians marked the historic start of the modern class system of wage-labour, now worldwide.

Even his mock-serious account of the wholly imaginary island ‘Utopia’, with its egalitarian communistic society, its golden chamber-pots, and its love of gardens and music, is still, mostly, very attractive – that is, if you ignore the slaves and the bureaucratic restrictions, and are happy to obey orders.

As William Morris later wrote, “a map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth having.” But however attractive such an alternative society may seem, it would remain a mere fantasy, a dream, unless there is a practical, feasible way of achieving it. As things stand, an escape from capitalism - a crisis-prone, war-torn, failing system of class division and exploitation – is possible with a political class organisation. World Socialism is a practical and feasible alternative, and not a mere Utopian dream.

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