Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part I.


1. Feudalism

“THE sciences are flourishing and minds are active; it is a pleasure to be living,” exclaimed Hutten of his time. And he was right. For joyfully combative spirits like his it was a pleasure to live in a century which boldly swept aside ancient conditions and inherited prejudices, which imparted fluidity to the inert social development and at one stroke infinitely extended the horizon of European society, which created new classes and released new ideas and struggles.

As a “Knight of the Spirit” Hutten had every reason to rejoice in his time. As a member of the Order of Chivalry he might have regarded it with less favourable eyes. The fate of his class was linked with that of the oppressed. Its alternative to extinction was to seek in servitude to a prince the livelihood which the soil refused to yield it.

The keynote of the sixteenth century is the death--grapple of feudalism with nascent capitalism. It bears the impress of both modes of production, and constitutes a strange mixture of the two.

The foundation of feudalism was peasant and handicraft production within the limits of the local community.

One or more villages formed a local community, with common property in woods, meadows, and water, originally in arable land too. Within this local community the whole process of medieval production went on. The common property in land, as well as the transmitted private property in fields and gardens, supplied the requisite means of life, the products of the cultivation of the fields, of cattle rearing, of hunting and fishing, and the raw materials which were worked up within the patriarchal peasant family or by the handicraftsmen of the village – wood, wool, etc.

Both private and public activity within this community aimed at supplying articles of use for consumption by the producer or his family or his community, or sometimes by the feudal lord.

A local community was an economic organism which was usually self-sufficing and had almost no economic contact with the outside world. This led to a remarkable exclusiveness. He who did not belong to the community was accounted a stranger, devoid of rights or possessing very few, even when he settled in the community, so long as he did not acquire a holding of land. The whole world outside the community was foreign. The members of the community developed, on the one hand, aristocratic pride towards newcomers from the world without, who were unable to acquire any landed property, and, on the other hand, that local narrowness, that parochial policy which may still be seen in remote and backward countries. Upon such foundations were based the particularism and the separation of castes peculiar to the feudal Middle Ages.

The economic ties of the feudal State were therefore extremely loose. Empires were rapidly formed and as rapidly fell to pieces. Even the national language did not form a tie of importance, as the exclusiveness of the local communities favoured the formation and maintenance of dialects.

The only strong organisation which stood above the local communities was the universal Catholic Church, with her universal language, Latin, and her universal landed property. She it was who held together the entire mass of small, self-sufficing organisms of production in Western Europe.

The power of the Chief of State, of the King, was as slight as the ties of the State were loose. From the State itself the monarchy could derive but little power. It drew its strength, like every other social force of the time, from its landed property. The greater the landed property of a feudal lord, the more peasants in a community, the more communities in the country owing him fealty, the greater were his means of life, the greater in extent and variety were the personal services at his disposal; the larger and more splendid was the castle he could build, the more numerous were the handicraftsmen and artificers he could maintain at his Court, who supplied him with clothing, utensils, ornaments, and weapons; the larger was his travelling retinue, the more sumptuous his hospitality, the more vassals he could attach to himself.

The king was usually the largest landowner in the country, and therefore the most powerful. But he was not strong enough to impose subjection on the other landowners. When united they were generally stronger than he, while the greatest among them was a formidable opponent. The king had to rest content with being recognised as the first among equals. His position became increasingly precarious as feudality developed, as the power of the feudal lords grew by the subjugation of free peasants, as the area from which a militia could be raised contracted, leaving the king dependent on an army of chivalry.

The national and local princely power generally began only to raise its head again when the towns were sufficiently consolidated to afford it a firm support.

2. The Towns

The local community formed the basis of the medieval township as well as of the village. It was commerce, especially with Italy, which gave the impulse to its development. This commerce had never quite stopped after the downfall of the Roman Empire, even at the time of the greatest convulsions. The peasants, at any rate, did not require it, as they produced themselves what they needed. But the squires, the higher nobility, the higher clergy created a demand for the products of a higher industry. The artisans attached to their courts could only partially satisfy this need. They were not capable of producing fine linen, ornaments, and the like, such as Italy supplied. From time to time the German nobles procured these treasures during pilgrimages to Rome; but by the side of this a systematic commerce was growing up, which was especially sustained in Germany after the tenth century by the silver mining in the Hart district. The silver mines of Goslar began to be worked in 950.

At the courts of the secular lords, at the seats of the bishops, and at certain trade junctures, as where the roads from the Alpine passes touched the Rhine or the Danube, at protected places in the interior of the country, which were accessible to large ships, such as Paris and London, depots for the warehousing of goods soon came into existence, which, insignificant as they may seem to us to-day, yet aroused the covetousness of the surrounding inhabitants and of foreign robbers, Normans, Hungarians, etc. It became necessary to fortify them. Thus a start was given to the development of the town from a village.

But even after the building of walls, agriculture and production for consumption within the limits of the local commune remained the chief occupation of the inhabitants of the fortified place. The commerce was too insignificant to alter its character. The town burghers remained as locally narrow and exclusive as the village peasants.

By the side of the old fully privileged families of the village community there arose in the meantime a new power, that of the artisans, who organised themselves in associations, in guilds, after the example of the commune.

Handicraft was not originally commodity production. The artisan stood in a certain relation of service either to the local commune, or, as a retainer, to a feudal lord. He produced for the needs of the local commune or of the Court to which he was attached, not for sale. Such artisans were, of course, very numerous in the towns, especially such as were the seats of bishops or the landed nobility. Other artisans were attracted as trade developed, and a market for the products of industry was opened. The artisan was now no longer obliged to work under a servile relationship. He could become a free producer of commodities. The servile artisans in the towns endeavoured to shake off their obligations, and those in the environs fled to the town when they thought it would protect them.

Handicraft grew apace; but it remained for the most part excluded from the local commune and consequently from the government of the town; the latter being reserved for the descendants of the original members of the village community, who developed from peasant communists into haughty patricians. A class struggle between the guilds and the old families set in, which generally ended with the complete victory of the former. At the same time a struggle was going on to procure the independence of the town from the overlordship of the landed or provincial nobility, and this independence was often achieved.

In these struggles with the land-owning aristocracy the handicraftsmen felt a certain sympathy with the peasants, who were striving for an alleviation of their feudal burdens. Not infrequently both classes acted together. A democratic and republican tendency among the lower burghers was fostered by these struggles, but it did not entirely abolish the earlier exclusiveness of the village community, which was merely extended to the guild and the municipality.

Handicraft commodity production at least broke down the exclusiveness of the urban community; the artisans worked not merely for the town, but also for the surrounding district, often serving an extensive area; not so much for the peasants, who continued to make for themselves almost all they needed, as for their exploiters, the feudal lords, who had lost the artisans attached to them. On the other hand, the artisans drew their means of life and raw materials from the country. The economic interactions, as well as the antagonism, between town and country began. By the side of the village community the town, with a larger or smaller vicinage, tended to increase in importance as a second economic unit. The segregation of the individual towns, persisted, however, despite their permanent or temporary association for common ends. The effect of this was to weaken, rather than strengthen, political cohesion, as the rich and proud city republic achieved an independence which would have been quite impossible for the village communities. They formed, by the side of the great feudal lords, a new occasion for political disruption.

With the aid of the towns, the power of the squires was directed against the nobility. Eventually, however, they were threatened with the fate of being completely destroyed by their former allies. But this tendency only asserted itself to a slight extent; for within the towns was growing up a new power which was to turn them into bulwarks of a rigid political absolutism: the revolutionary power of mercantile capital, which gave rise to world commerce.

3. World Trade and Absolutism

As we already know, the trade between Italy and the Teutonic North had never quite ceased, even after the fall of the Roman domination. It had founded the towns. But it was too weak, so long as it remained chiefly petty commerce, to impart to them a special character. For some time to come, agriculture within the confines of the village communities, and later guild handicraft, occupied most of their energies and determined their character.

This was the case with many towns until the last century, and in some instances is even so to-day. But a number of townships grew into larger towns, and thus became the pioneers of a new social order. Such were the towns which, owing to the special favour of historical and geographical circumstances, became centres for overseas trade, for world commerce.

In medieval Europe, the overseas trade with the East first developed in Lower Italy, in Amalfi, where Greeks and Saracens came into conflict with the natives and afterwards established trading relations with them. Much as the East had declined, it was infinitely superior to the West in artistic skill and technical knowledge. Not only had the primeval branches of production been maintained there, but new ones had grown up by their side, such as the production and preparation of silk in the Greek Empire. Moreover, the Islamic migration of peoples had brought the highly civilised countries of the Far East, India and China, into much closer contact with Egypt and the seaboard countries of the Mediterranean than was the case at the time of the Roman domination.

In the eyes of the European barbarians, the treasures displayed by the merchants of Amalfi were valuable beyond compare. The greed to possess and acquire such treasures soon seized all the ruling classes in Europe. It powerfully contributed to those expeditions of plundering and conquest to the East which were known as the Crusades, but it also encouraged all the towns situated in a geographically favourable position to participate in such a lucrative commerce. First and foremost in North Italy.

In course of time attempts were made to imitate the products of industry which were imported, especially weaving. Even in the thirteenth century we find silk-weaving sheds in Palermo, operated by Greek prisoners of war. In the fourteenth century similar weaving sheds were established in the towns of North Italy.

Once the products were successfully imitated, the merchants soon found it more profitable to import the raw material and have it worked up at home by hired workers, provided they could find free workers, workers whom no guild compulsion or feudal service prevented from offering their services, and whom no ownership of means of production relieved from the necessity of selling their labour power.

In this way the arts of manufacture arose, and the foundations of the capitalist mode of production were laid.

In More’s time, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, these beginnings were but faintly perceptible, and industry was still chiefly under the control of guild handicraft. Capital was mainly merchant’s capital. But even in this form it was already exerting a disintegrating effect upon the feudal mode of production. The more the exchange of commodities developed, the greater became the power of money. Money was the commodity which everyone took and everyone needed, for which one could receive everything, everything which the feudal mode of production offered-personal services, house and hearth, food and drink – as well as innumerable articles which could not be produced under the family roof, articles the possession of which became increasingly necessary and which were not to be obtained except with money. The classes engaged in acquiring money, producing or exchanging, attained to increasing importance. The guildmaster who, owing to the legally restricted number of his journeymen, could only achieve moderate prosperity was soon outpaced by the merchant whose appetite for profit was boundless, whose capital was capable of unlimited expansion, and whose trading profits were enormous.

Merchant’s capital is the revolutionary economic force of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It revitalised society and provided men with fresh outlooks.

In the Middle Ages we find a narrow particularism, a parochial outlook side by side with a cosmopolitanism which comprised the whole of Western Christendom. The feeling of nationality was therefore very weak.

The merchant cannot confine himself to a small district as the peasant or artisan can. He wants the whole world in which to sell his goods. In contrast to the guild citizen, who may never pass beyond the walls of his town, we find the merchant untiring in his journeys to unknown countries. He passes beyond the boundaries of Europe, and inaugurates an epoch of discoveries which culminates in revealing the sea route to India and the discovery of America, and which, strictly speaking, is still going on to-day.

Even to-day it is the merchant who gives the impulse to most voyages of discovery, and not the scientific investigator. The Venetian Marco Polo got as far as China even in the thirteenth century. Ten years after Marco Polo, an attempt was made by daring Genoese to find a sea route to India by way of Africa, an undertaking which was to succeed two centuries later. Of greater significance for the economic development was the opening of direct sea communication from Italy to England and Holland, which was effected by Genoese and Venetians towards the end of the thirteenth century, and gave a strong impulse to capitalism in these countries of the North-West.

Commerce put in place of local ties a cosmopolitan feeling which was at home wherever a profit could be earned. At the same time it set up nationality against the universality of the Church. World trade widened the horizon of the Western peoples far beyond the region of the Catholic Church, and simultaneously narrowed it within the sphere of their own nation.

This sounds paradoxical, but it is easy to explain. The small, self-sufficing communities of the Middle Ages were scarcely, if at all, in economic antagonism with each other. Within these communities there were indeed antagonisms, but the outside world was regarded with indifference, provided it did not disturb the communities. For the great merchant, on the other hand, it is not a matter of indifference what relations the community to which he belongs has to the outside world. Trading profit arises from buying as cheap and selling as dear as possible. Profits largely depend upon the relative strength of buyers and sellers. It is, of course, most profitable to find oneself in the pleasant position of being able to take commodities from a commodity owner without giving him any return. In fact, in its beginnings, trade is very often indistinguishable from piracy. We see this in the Homeric poems, and we shall also see later that in. the England of the sixteenth century piracy was a favourite form of the “primitive accumulation” of capital and therefore enjoyed State support.

With trade, however, competition arose among buyers as well as sellers. In the foreign market these antagonisms became national antagonisms. The conflict of interests, for example, between the Genoese buyers and the Greek sellers in Constantinople, became a national antagonism. On the other hand, the conflict of interests between Genoese and Venetian merchants in the same market like-wise became a national antagonism. The stronger Genoa was as compared both with Venice and the Greek Empire, the more trading privileges it might expect in Constantinople. The greater and more powerful was the homeland or the nation, the bigger were the profits.

The development of world trade therefore promoted a powerful economic interest, which tightened and consolidated the loose textures of States, but also brought about their separation from each other and divided Christendom into several sharply sundered nations.

After the rise of world-wide commerce home trade contributed equally to the strengthening of national States.

By its nature trade tends to concentrate in certain emporiums, junctions where the roads of a large district coalesce. There the goods from abroad are collected, in order to be distributed over the whole country by means of a complicated network of roads. At the same junctions the home commodities were collected in order to be despatched abroad. The whole district dominated by such an entrepôt became an economic organism, whose ties became all the closer, whose dependence upon the centre all the stronger, the more commodity production developed and supplanted production for use.

From all parts of the district dominated by this centre people flocked thence; some intending to remain there, others intending to return after the transaction of their business. The centre grew, it became a large town, in which was concentrated not only the economic life but also the intellectual life of the country which it dominated. The language of the town became the language of the merchants and of cultivated persons. It tended to supplant Latin and to become the written language. But it also began to supplant the peasant dialects; a national language came into existence.

Political administration was adapted to the economic organisation. This too was centralised, the political central power was installed at the centre of the economic life, and the latter became the capital of the country, which it now dominated not only economically but also politically.

In this way the economic development brought into being the modern State, the national state with a homogeneous language, a centralised administration, a capital.

This course of development was frequently distorted, but at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries its trend may be distinctly perceived in the States of Western Europe, and perhaps all the more distinctly because at the time feudalism still greatly influenced the economic life, and by the force of tradition to a still greater degree governed the forms of the intellectual life. Assumptions taken for granted a few generations later had then still to assert their “right to existence” and likewise to impugn the ancient institutions. The new economic, political, and intellectual tendency had to cut a path through existing conditions; it had to enter upon controversy, and consequently its aim was often more sharply defined than in the following century.

It is noteworthy that the trend of development just described was bound to favour monarchy, or rather the power of the local prince, ill all places where he had preserved a remnant of strength. It was natural that the new political central power should cluster round the person of the local prince, and that he should form the head of the centralised administration and army. His interests and the interests of commerce were the same. The latter needed a reliable captain and a strong army, which, in accordance with the character of the economic power whose interests it served, was hired for money. Commerce needed the army to assert its interests both at home and abroad: to defeat competing nations, to conquer markets, to burst the bonds with which the small communities inside the State fettered free trade, to police the roads against the great and small feudal lords, who opposed a bold denial, not always of a theoretical nature, to the right of property which commerce proclaimed.

International intercourse also provided occasions for friction between the various nations. Commercial wars became more frequent and more violent. But every war increased the power of the princes and made them more and more absolute.

In the absence of a traditional princedom which this development would have favoured, a frequent result was the absolutism of the leaders of the mercenary hordes which the States required, as in various republics of Northern Italy.

But the new polity not only needed the prince as supreme captain. It also needed him as the chief of the political administration. The feudal administrative apparatus was in process of dissolution, the bureaucracy was as yet in its infancy. Political centralisation, which was an economic necessity for commodity production at the incipient stage of the capitalist mode of production, needed at the outset a personal head strong enough to maintain the unity, of the administration against the discordant elements, especially the nobles.

This strength only the army captain possessed. The uniting of all the resources of the military and administrative apparatus on one hand, and princely absolutism on the other, was an economic necessity for the period of the Reformation and long afterwards. This cannot be emphasised sufficiently, as many of More’s actions and writings must appear absurd from the modern standpoint, if we fail to take this point into consideration.

It seemed at that time hopeless, as in many cases it really was, to attempt to embark upon any political undertaking without or against the princes. Everything that happened in the State had to receive the sanction of the prince.

The stronger princely absolutism became in the State; the more it subserved the interest of Capital, then chiefly commerce and high finance. Not only were the interests of Capital and princedom up to a certain point identical, but princedom became more and more dependent on Capital.

The power of the princes ceased to rest upon their landed property in the degree that world commerce grew. Money tended to become the basis of this power, which was measured by the prince’s army and the magnificence of his court. Both cost money. The feudal mode of warfare was supplanted by new and superior methods which the wealthy towns had developed. A rigidly disciplined infantry was opposed to the undisciplined army of chivalry. The new army’s artillery also made it a formidable foe.

Consequently war became a question of money. Only those who had enough money to buy infantry, cannon, and large quantities of arms could indulge in the luxury of a war.

To this must be added the expense of the Court. The interests of commerce and of the monarchy alike required that the pride of the feudal noble should be broken. While his destruction was not desired, it was imperative that he should adapt himself to the new conditions. The noble must no longer linger in his stronghold supporting numerous retainers, who were useless, if not dangerous, for the monarchy and commerce.

The noble had to enter the king’s service and remain at Court. Instead of spending his revenue upon the main-tenance of his own armies, he was expected to dissipate it in luxury at Court, to spend it in purchasing just those commodities upon whose sale world commerce, the merchants’ profits, depended. An English Act of Parliament passed in 1512, which regulated the duties on gold and silken stuffs, gold brocade, velvet damask satin, taffetas, and other materials woven out of silk and gold, mentions among other things, that 3,000 to 4,000 pieces of such cloth often came to England in one ship.

The Court luxury of the noble thus supported trade and monarchy in equal measure; it augmented profits and weakened the noble financially, making him dependent on money grants from the king and the credit of the merchants.

The merchant class and the monarchy at that time promoted the spread of luxury with all possible means, chiefly by their own example. Everything was done to attract the noble from his castle to the Court, if necessary by force, if possible by marks of honour and the enticements which refined luxury offered to rude simplicity.

Both monarchy and nobility moved in a circle of reciprocal emulation as regards the development of luxury.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, property could not be invested in the funds or in shares. The idle rich who did not wish to engage in business as merchants, farmers, or manufacturers, above all the high nobility, invested their accumulated wealth in precious metals and precious stones, objects which always retained their value and found buyers everywhere. Gold and precious stones were then just such a power as a numerous retinue had been formerly. It was not enough to possess this power, it must be displayed. This was the best means to win influence which could command the subjection of some and the respect of others. The revenues of the feudal lords, which in the Middle Ages had been spent upon the upkeep of a numerous following, were now lavished upon valuables, and instead of appearing on festive occasions with their whole body of retainers, the nobles now appeared laden with all their jewels.

The king could not lag behind his courtiers; he also had to demonstrate the superiority of his power through his superior magnificence. Noble and monarch thus urged each other to ever more lavish displays.

Consequently from the fifteenth century onwards the maintenance of a splendid Court became a political need of increasing importance, without which a prince could not manage to exist. A senseless luxury developed, which swallowed up endless sums.

All this expenditure had for long exceeded the revenues derived by kings from feudal and landed property. They now began to levy money taxes, and looked to the wealthy towns, which were not to be trifled with, for most of this taxation.

The king was therefore often obliged to promise that no taxes would be imposed without the consent of the towns. The towns were summoned to send delegates, as the Third Estate, in order, in conjunction with the other two Estates, the nobility and the clergy, to agree with the king upon the amount of the taxes to be imposed. Where the towns had sufficient power, they would only consent to such taxes upon certain conditions. In England, under specially favourable conditions, brought about by the union of the small landowner with the burgher class, the legislative power of Parliament evolved out of this situation.

But the grants of money were rarely sufficient to stop up the holes made in the treasuries of the princes by ever-lasting ware and boundless court extravagance. Most princes were perpetually embarrassed despite the fact that the taxes oppressed the people most harshly. In this unpleasant predicament the rich commercial magnates and bankers were ready to help them, in return for pledging a portion of the State revenue. National debts were incurred, States and their leaders became debtors to Capital, whose interests they had to serve.

The power of absolutism grew as against the people. It overshadowed peasants and artisans, nobles and clergy. But absolutism clarified and defined the divergent outlooks and interests of commercial magnates, bankers, and land speculators.

The struggle of the eighteenth century, which led to the Great Revolution, turned essentially upon the question whether the monarchy should be a tool of the nobility and clergy or of the Third Estate. While the ideologists of the burgher class were acquainted with peasant and aristocratic republics, the idea of a middle-class republic occurred to scarcely one of them. The philosophers of the Enlightenment” rather advocated an “enlightened” despotism – that is, one conducted on their own lines. It was only the force of circumstances that imposed on the French a middle-class republic; this monarchy without a monarch did not become compatible with middle-class conditions until the mechanism of the centralised army and the bureaucracy was completely established and in working order.


Last updated on 22.11.2003