Two great figures loom on the threshold of Socialism: Thomas More and Thomas Münzer, two men whose fame rang throughout Europe in their lifetimes: one a statesman and scholar who attained to the highest position in his native land and whose works aroused the admiration of his contemporaries; the other an agitator and organiser, before whose quickly collected multitudes of proletarians and peasants the German princes trembled. Fundamentally different from each other in respect of standpoint, method, and temperament, both were alike as regards their object – communism, alike in daring and fidelity to conviction, and alike in the end which overtook them – both died on the scaffold.
It is sometimes debated whether the honour of having inaugurated the history of Socialism should fall to More or to Münzer, both of whom follow the long line of Socialists, from Lycurgus and Pythagorus to Plato, the Gracchi, Catilina, Christ, His apostles and disciples, who are sometimes mentioned in proof of the assertion that there have always been Socialists without the goal ever coming nearer.
We grant that with the development of commodity production a class of free persona without property arose in antiquity, who were called by the Romans proletarians. And in connection therewith endeavours to abolish or alleviate many social inequalities manifested themselves betimes. But the proletariat of old was quite different from the modern variety, and modern Socialism is equally different from antique Socialism.
There are historians who believe they find in the Rome of Julius Caesar the same proletariat as in modern London, Paris, or Berlin. In reality, however, the modern proletariat has undergone manifold changes during the short space of 400 years it has existed, in accordance with concurrent economic development. The proletariat of to-day is markedly dissimilar from the proletariat of 1848, and much more numerous are its variations from its prototype in the days of Utopia, when Capital had but just entered on its economic revolution, and feudalism still wielded an extensive power over the economic life of the masses of the people.
The new ideas, prompted by the new interests, had not discarded the vestments of modes of thinking derived from feudalism, and the latter persisted as traditional illusions long after the main props of its material foundation had been knocked away.
The peculiar character of that time would necessarily colour the socialism which then arose. More was a child of his age; he could not overstep its limits, but it testifies to his perspicacity, and perhaps also to his instinct, that he already perceived the problems inherent in social development.
The bases of his socialism are modern, but they are overlaid by so much that is not modern that it is often extremely difficult to reveal them. While More’s socialism is at no point reactionary in its tendency, inasmuch as he did not perceive the salvation of the world to lie in a return to feudal conditions, it frequently happened that only the resources of feudal times were at his disposal for solving the problems which confronted him. Consequently, he had to twist and turn them about in a truly fantastic manner to adapt them to his modern aims.
To the student who thoughtlessly examines More’s communism many of his expedients will appear to be distorted, bizarre, and arbitrary, but they are, in fact, dictated by a thorough and well-digested knowledge of the needs and means of his time.
Like every other Socialist, More can only be understood in the light of his age, to comprehend which a knowledge of the beginnings of capitalism and the decline of feudalism, of the powerful part played by the Church on the one hand, and of world commerce on the other, is necessary. These influences had a profound effect upon More, and before we can sketch his personality and estimate his writings, it is incumbent on us to indicate, at least in outline, the historical situation whose product he was.
That is the task of the first part of our work.
Last updated on 23.11.2003