Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part I.


1. Land Hunger – Feudal and Capitalist

COMMODITY production and the traffic in commodities not only created new classes with new interests and fresh outlooks, but also transformed the existing classes. The new needs to which they gave rise spread from the towns to the countryside where they likewise evoked a desire for gold and silver, the commodities which would purchase anything. Thus it became necessary to adapt feudalism to the new conditions of production and make landed property a source of money; agriculture must be turned into commodity production; while the farmer might continue to produce for his own consumption,, he was obliged, in addition, to raise a surplus to be brought to market as commodities.

This market was provided by the town, which needed not only foodstuffs, but also raw materials to an ever-increasing extent, not only corn and meat, cheese and butter, but also wool and flax, skins, wood, etc.

Under certain circumstances the peasant was able to become a commodity producer. Agriculture then became a source of money, and where this was the case, it lay in the power as well as in the interest of the peasant to convert into a money tax the personal service and the payments in kind which he was obliged to render. to the feudal lord. Under specially favourable conditions he was even able to free himself entirely from the yoke of feudality.

Following the peasants’ example, the feudal lords also strove to convert the feudal tributes into money taxes. But this conversion favoured the peasants only where conditions were unusually propitious. It proved disastrous for them where agricultural commodity production was not sufficiently developed. For the English peasants it was, at any rate, a means of loosening feudal ties; for the mass of German peasants money taxes became a scourge which drove them to despair and ruined them, without bringing the feudal lords any considerable advantage.

Meanwhile the English peasants did not have long to rejoice at their favourable situation. Commodity production imparted to the soil itself the character of a commodity and consequently a value which was not deter-mined by the number of inhabitants it nourished, but by the surplus it yielded. The smaller the number of its cultivators in proportion to the yield, and the less pretentious their standard of life, the larger the surplus and the greater the land value.

We may therefore observe two peculiar phenomena throughout Western Europe at the close of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the new epoch: there arose a hunger for the land, especially for land which required few hands for its cultivation-e.g., forests and meadows. This was accompanied by an attempt to thin the agricultural population as much as possible, partly by substituting methods which required few hands for methods which required many, partly by adding to the labour burden of the individual cultivator, so that, for example, two persona would do what three persons did before.

The feudal epoch, too, knew land hunger as keen as that of the Renaissance; but its nature was entirely dissimilar. The old feudal lords were greedy for land with the peasants, the new lords wanted the land of the peasants.

What the feudal noble wanted was not land alone, but land and people. The more densely his land was populated, the greater the number of persons to pay taxes and render services, the larger was the military following which he could maintain. The efforts of the medieval noble was not directed to expelling the peasant, but to attaching him to the soil and attracting as many new settlers as possible.

The case was different with the new noble.

As the process of skinning the peasants did not yield enough money, he was more and more obliged to turn to commodity production, to establish his own agricultural undertakings – in England these were soon transferred to capitalist tenants. The peasants’ land was required without its occupants, to expel whom every incentive existed.

Moreover, as already mentioned, value was imparted to meadows and forests. The feudal lords now began to treat as private property the common meadows and common forests, and to exclude the peasants from their use.

Now the sustenance of the peasant’s livestock depended upon the commons. Horned cattle were not only useful to him on account of the milk, meat and tan they yielded, but they were indispensable to agriculture as draught cattle and manure suppliers. The forests were important for the peasant on account of the game and wood they furnished and as pasturage for pigs.

The peasant was therefore deprived of important means of industry when he lost the common forests and meadows, and at the same time he was ruined by the money taxes. Where the economic process of peasant expropriation did not proceed fast enough for the interest of the landlord, the, latter often resorted to action on the basis of Roman law, which being unknown to the peasants, now suited the large landowners admirably, or even to direct physical force, without attempting any excuse.

Widespread impoverishment of the country people was the result of this development. The proletariat was further augmented by the dissolution of the monasteries, of which we shall speak in another connection, and the breaking up of the bands of retainers.

So long as no market existed for the products of agriculture, the landowners could not do anything with the large quantities of foodstuffs supplied by their bondsmen, except consume them, and as, despite their good stomachs, they could not do this alone, they invited others to help them, good friends, roving knights, travelling serfs, who were dependent on them, and lent them credit and power. The Earl of Warwick is said to have feasted 30,000 people in his castle on one day. He was powerful enough to make and unmake kings: he was the “king-maker.”

All this changed when the landowners found an opportunity to sell the surplus of agricultural products which they could not consume, to exchange it for something which, under the new conditions, carried more respect and power than bands of retainers-viz., money. Simultaneously the power of the princes grew, and with it the power of the police.

As internal feuds became rarer, retainers became increasingly superfluous. They began to appear to their masters as bands of idle gluttons, to be got rid of as far as possible. The princes assisted this process by compelling the dissolution of bands of retainers in those cases where they were a force which might be dangerous.

The break-up of the bands of retainers, the expulsion of the peasants, and, since the Reformation, the dissolution of the monasteries, rapidly created an enormous mass of proletarians.

2. The Proletariat

The Germanic peoples who invaded the Roman Empire were exposed to the possibility of impoverishment at the same time as they took over the Roman mode of production. In the time of the Merovingians we find among the beggars at the church doors mention of some with Frankish names. Throughout the Middle Ages the care of the poor was one of the most important functions of the Church. But poverty was still merely an isolated phenomenon. In the Middle Ages widespread distress was not unknown, but it was generally attributed to external enemies, or to nature: to forays of Hungarians or Normans, crop failures, etc. These distresses affected more or less the whole people, and were of a transitory nature. Not until the beginning of modern times did a proletariat again appear as a special and numerous class in society – a standing institution – as it had existed at the close of the Roman Republic and during the Imperial epoch.

But there was a great difference between the new and the antique proletariat. The new proletariat did not find a class beneath itself from whose direct or indirect exploitation it could have lived. Nor did the modern proletariat at the time of its rise possess any sovereign rights from the sale of which it could have derived profit, as did the sovereign populace of old Rome. The modern proletariat did not arise as the sediment of the ruling and exploiting classes; it was formed out of the dissolution of ruled and exploited classes. In the fifteenth century, for the first time in the history of the world we see a class of free proletarians forming, as the lowest class in society, a class whose interests clamour not for the substitution of one class domination by another, but for the abolition of all class domination.

Only gradually did it become distinctly conscious of the fact that it was the lowest class in society. It could call nothing but its labour-power its own, and this it was obliged to sell if it was not to starve.

The new commodities were not long in finding buyers: captains and merchants. They were required in the mercenary armies and in manufactures. The impoverishment of the masses by the methods above indicated was as important for the development of war as of industry. But what capitalistic manufactures chiefly needed were skilled workers, which they found only rarely among the expelled peasants, soldiers, and monks. Handicraft did begin to supply proletarians-the guild masters were already complaining of the competition of the merchants who imported foreign commodities – but handicraft generally was still on a firm foundation. No wonder the capitalists bewailed the lack of workers, while the workers were wandering in thousands.

The wars absorbed large numbers of men, but the country folk were to a great extent rusty in the use of weapons, and from the close of the Middle Ages war became an art which had to be learnt. Not everyone could be-come a soldier, but he who did so remained a soldier and was incapable of any other trade. In the fifteenth and, sixteenth centuries the standing armies were still very small, and most of the soldiers were discharged at the end of a war. Incapable of peaceful labour, demoralised and brutalised, the discharged soldiers frightened everyone; nobody would have anything to do with them. They became robbers, and naturally turned their attention to the most defenceless – the peasants. Themselves a consequence of the impoverishment of the masses, they became a means of accentuating this impoverishment. In Germany the impoverishment of the country population proceeded apace after the peasant war, while the development of capitalist industry and of a colonial policy was hindered by the change of world trade routes.

As the proletarians did not find in Germany the outlets that partly absorbed them in other countries, they were thrown back entirely on war and plunder. This would appear to be an important cause of the duration of the Thirty Years War. The war was possible because of the multitude of proletarians whence the armies were recruited. The war itself created fresh poverty among the peasants, and therefore produced new soldiers. The warring factions did not therefore find the reservoir of soldiers exhausted until the peasant had almost completely disappeared. Then to be sure there were no more soldiers.

Necessity obliged the workless who were unpractised in the use of arms to exploit the sympathy of the better situated. Vagrancy and swindling became a universal plague and robbers made all roads unsafe.

Vain was the attempt to suppress vagrancy by cruel and bloody laws, which did not provide opportunities for work or prevent the impoverishment of the country people. All efforts to protect the small peasant from the landowners proved fruitless. The poverty of the masses grew despite all laws and decrees.

3. Serfdom and Commodity Production

The fate of the peasants left on the land was not much better than that of their liberated brothers. In many countries, especially in England, the peasant completely disappeared, to be replaced by the capitalistic farmer who employed day labourers, of which there was henceforth no lack.

Where the peasants were not supplanted by day labourers, they were reduced to the latter’s level. In the Middle Ages the feudal lord needed his peasants. The more peasants he had, the greater was his power. When the towns were strong enough to protect absconding peasants against their lords, when the Crusades enticed away from the country a host of people who had become weary of the harsh yoke of serfdom, and the country began to be depopulated, the feudal lords were obliged to grant favourable conditions to retain their people and to attract others. This explains the improvement in the condition of the peasants in the thirteenth century. After the fourteenth century the feudal lords needed the peasant less and less, and their situation progressively worsened. The peasant homesteads were broken up in order to increase the area of the manor, and the peasant was often left with only a but and a garden. The statute labour of the peasants was not correspondingly curtailed; on the, contrary, it was prolonged indefinitely. Production for self-consumption had a certain limit, which was the needs of the persons to be supplied, even where it was based on forced labour, but commodity production with forced labour is marked by the same boundless greed for profit as is capitalism; of money one cannot have enough. Moreover, it encounters no obstacle such as the resistance which the free worker offers to capitalism.

Commodity production with forced labour is thus the most frightful of all forms of exploitation. Oriental patriarchal slavery seems an idyll compared with the slavery which prevailed in the sugar and cotton plantations of the Southern States not so many generations ago And the serfdom of feudal times was incomparably milder than that which grew out of the development of commodity production.

The capitalist mode of production in the towns encouraged serfdom. Capitalism required for its development wholesale importations of raw materials, which could then only be supplied by large-scale agriculture, operated by serfs. Serfdom in Europe was at certain times as much a vital condition for the capitalist mode of production as was later slavery in America.

As Marx wrote in 1847: “Direct slavery is the pivot of bourgeois industry. No cotton without slavery, no modern industry without cotton. Slavery alone gave the colonies their value; the colonies created world trade; and world trade is the basis of big industry” (The Poverty of Philosophy).

4. The Economic Redundancy of the New Nobility

One result of the development of commodity production was that the forms of feudalism were utilised for the maximum exploitation of the agricultural worker, who could no longer be called a peasant.

While the serf was more intensely exploited, the feudal lord became increasingly superfluous. In the Middle Ages the feudal lord needed the peasant to maintain him, while the peasant needed the feudal lord, who protected him from violation, relieved him of part of his judicial and administrative duties towards the community, and above all freed him from the oppressive burden of military service.

One result of the development of the modern State was to weaken the causes which had robbed the peasant of his independence at the beginning of the Middle Ages. As the central political power was consolidated, and internal feuds were suppressed, the nobles ceased to possess an independent military power, and the peasants ceased to require protection. The protecting lord now became the person from whom they required most protection.

The feudal lord had relieved the peasant of the burden of military service and taken it upon himself. Th, modern State shifted it from the feudal lord back to the peasant. The army of chivalry was replaced by a paid army, recruited from peasants. The maintenance of the army also fell on the peasants. Soldiers were quartered on him, and in addition to dues paid to the noble and the Church, taxes had to be paid to the State, chiefly for the maintenance of the army.

Although the noble continued to pride himself on being the country’s chosen defender, his function consisted h filling the well-paid officers’ posts.

To landed proprietorship, too, fell a diminishing share in administration and the dispensing of justice, which was more and more carried on by the bureaucracy, supported in part by additional taxes imposed on the peasants. What still survived of the old feudal justiciary in the patrimonial Courts became a new lever for exploitation.

Nothing remained of all the services which the noble once rendered the peasant, in return for equivalent services, while the duties of the peasants were indefinitely extended.

Eventually the feudal burdens and impediments became a real fetter on production. The feudal mode of appropriation came into conflict with the demands of the new mode of production. The feudal noble, long superfluous, from this point became decidedly harmful. and his removal was a necessity.

The peasant wars were, in effect, if not in form, the first violent protest against these beginnings of modernised feudalism adapted to the needs of commodity production, as above described. At the same time they were one of the last convulsions of the dying community, but they were also the precursors of the great revolution of 1789.

5. The Knighthood

Between the great nobles and the peasants stood the lesser nobility, the knights, who were descended from the old free peasants. While unable to escape feudal service to those above them, they were exempt from agrarian services and dues.

The knight stood between the large landed proprietor and the peasants, as to-day the lower middle class is between the capitalist and the worker, and he also played a similar equivocal part, to-day supporting the peasants and opposing the princes, and to-morrow reversing the rôle when the peasants became dangerous. The prototype of this class is Götz von Berlichingen. To be sure there were knights who whole-heartedly espoused the cause of the peasants, but most of them were unreliable: even Hutten’s attitude towards the peasants was ambiguous.

Whether the knighthood espoused the cause of the peasants or that of the landowners, its downfall as an independent class could not be averted. Either the knight managed to climb into the class of large land-owners, so extending his property as to be able to embark upon commodity production, or his estate became in-significant, often the prey of a powerful neighbour, always inadequate to support him according to the standard of his class. He was then obliged to disappear from the surface as a landowner and to seek his livelihood in the town as a merchant, or what counted as less derogatory, as a scholar in the retinue of a great lord – that is, as a kind of glorified lackey and bodyguard of the prince.

In Spain, England, and other countries, colonial policy offered a welcome opportunity to the lesser noble to realise his ideal: to become rich without working. The right of might conferred on him at home developed to a higher potency in the colonies and in piracy.

The adaptation of the lesser nobles to the new mode of production was, of course, no more effected without severe convulsions than were the other social transformations of the Reformation period. The knighthood strove obstinately to maintain its independence, which, however, was only possible if the feudal mode of production should survive in its original form. Moreover, the knighthood adopted the needs which the development of commodity production awakened among the ruling classes; the demands made by the knighthood upon life became greater as the possibility of satisfying them upon the basis of the feudal mode of production diminished.

The contrast between desires and capabilities in the knighthood became more and more pronounced and formed one of the peculiarities of the beginnings of the new age. The contrast often assumed a tragic form, but it did not seem so to urban literature which acclaimed the new money power. The knight, with the monk and the peasant, was the representative of the old feudal mode of production. Each of these three classes was hated and despised by the population of the great towns in which intellectual life was concentrated. But there was nothing hypocritical about the middle class while it was revolutionary, and moral indignation was the weapon it most rarely used. It fought its opponents with satire and mockery. The stupid peasant, the fat parson, the proud beggarly knight are among the favourite figures of the literature of the Renaissance and its offshoots.

We meet them first in Italy, where the new mode of production developed the earliest, but soon these figures were familiar in the literature of all Europe. From the Decameron (which appeared about 1352) of Boccaccio to Don Quixote (which appeared in 1604) there extended a long series of poems in which now the one, now the other, sometimes all three, of the aforesaid classes were held up to ridicule.

The greater part of this literature is now forgotten. Two figures among the many which formed the mocking epitaph of the knighthood are, however, still known to everybody: they are the immortal Don Quixote and Falstaff.

The Merry Wives of Windsor (written 1602) appears now to most readers as a very harmless comedy, but it typifies a bitter class struggle for all the rollicking humour which marks it. Whether Shakespeare pursued a political tendency in the comedy we do not know, but he described what he saw, the struggle between the decaying knighthood, which would not adapt itself to the bourgeois mould, and the aspiring middle class, whose women were wiser and braver than the knights without fear and reproach.


Last updated on 23.11.2003