T. A. Jackson

Book Review

Utopia and its Author

Source: Plebs, December 1934.
Transcription: Adam Buick
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Thomas More and his Utopia
Karl Kautsky

So intense is the contempt under which the name of Karl Kautsky has been buried by the cumulative crapulosities of his post-war writings—for which the most charitable excuse is sheer senile decay—that it is necessary right at the outset to remind readers that Thomas More and his Utopia, by Karl Kautsky (N.C.L.C. 1/-) dates from Kautsky’s earlier period, having been written in London while its author was under the direct personal influence and guidance of Frederick Engels. It is, in fact, far and away the most considerable of Kautsky’s writings, at any rate from the standpoint of the British workers, not only because it is very well done, but because its subject is one which deserves far more consideration than it is customary to give it.

Thomas More was a remarkable man, living in a remarkable time, and he produced in Utopia a remarkable book. From the standpoint of orthodox university culture (i.e., bourgeois philistinism) he is unaccountable. Henry VIII., we know, had More’s head cut off, and he is accordingly claimed as a martyr by the Catholic Church. But the Catholicism to which More adhered, and which provided the purely incidental occasion of his death, was a totally different thing from that which passes for Catholicism to-day.

A Stirring Epoch

More, in fact, was one of a whole school, and his attitude has its counterpart to-day, as, likewise, his period finds its parallel in our own day. He lived in the stirring epoch in which the first clear breaches were made in the form of social order which had, despite innumerable changes of detail, persisted in essence all through the Middle Ages. It was the period of the first great uprising of the bourgeoisie, and of the first definite beginnings of modern capitalism. And it was one of the ironies of history that More, with his friends Erasmus, Colet, and others, had, by their enthusiastic Humanism, prepared the way for the explosion which filled them with horror when it came.

It is the old tragedy of Reform versus Revolution all over again. More was, in fact, in his theological outlook, as much in advance of Martin Luther (say) as Luther was in advance of a monk of the Thebaid. More, in fact, in his Utopia, struck a note which showed him centuries before his time—he advocated that the State should be completely indifferent as between religious sects. His Humanism, like that of Erasmus and Colet, was based on so profoundly critical a scholarship as made him (like them) contemptuous of the crudities of the theology which passed muster as “God’s Truth” with the most fanatical Reformers. But he, like they, was profoundly filled with a sense of the gulf fixed between the culture of the refined and aristocratic scholar, and the crude, ignorant, fanaticism of the vulgar.

More could dream, as his Utopia shows, of a fully elaborated communist society, but he could imagine no means of bringing such a society into being—except through the benevolent despotism of an enlightened monarch. Hence he took his stand against the endeavour to impose a Reformation on the Church and State by vulgar clamours and tumultuous broils from without. And that, all the more determinedly, and at times, though rarely, acrimoniously, because he himself was so thoroughly bent upon reforming both from within.

More and Nationalism

And on the very issue upon which he was condemned and for which he was beheaded, the same point is made clear. He would not accept, as Henry VIII. and the new-made law demanded, the King as Head of the Church.

As a Humanist he stood for the one-ness of the human family. And he saw, shrewdly, that this new-fangled “Nationalism,” of which the making of the King into a little Pope was an expression, could only end logically in breaking that human unity and solidarity into a mob of discordant and warring Nationalities. In form he stood for the supremacy of the Pope of Rome, and so far the Catholic Church can claim him. But in substance and reality he, who was in culture more protestant than any Protestant, was also in his Humanism more catholic than any Catholic.

His aspirations were (and here lay the tragedy) such as could be realised only by revolution—yet his hatred of strife, mean self-seeking, and disorder, made him a furious opponent of every revolutionary act and deed. If it had ever been possible to leap over the stages of historical transition, and pass without a break from the culmination of mediaeval society to a fully installed communism, More would have been the leader not of England only, but of the whole world. It was not possible. The way to the ordered classless society of the future lay through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, through the horrors of bourgeois revolution, through the greater horrors of its triumphant establishment, and the shattering world-pangs of its overthrow in turn.

There is much in More which is peculiar to his time. That a man of his wit and penetration could so thoroughly believe in princes and their indispensability is, at first, amazing. But, on reflection, is it anything but a form of faith in that (pseudo) ultramodern notion, the “leader-principle”? On the other hand, there is very much more in him which is amazingly modern—much that became of practical revolutionary significance in the bourgeois revolutionary struggles and much that is suggestive for the proletarian revolutionary struggle of our own day.

There is no space for quotation and citation. Let it suffice that in Kautsky’s study of More and his Utopia there is a feast of fascinations ready for all who have the wit to sit down and taste them.