Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part III.


1. The Roots of More’s Socialism

As a Humanist and a politician, More was in the front rank of his contemporaries, as a Socialist he was far ahead of them all. His political, religious, and Humanist writings are to-day only read by a small number of historians. Had he not written Utopia his name would scarcely be better known to-day than that of the friend who shared his fate, Bishop Fisher of Rochester. His socialism made him immortal.

Whence originated this socialism?

Unlike the historians of the idealistic school, we do not believe in a Holy Spit which illumines minds and fills them with ideas, to which the political and economic development adapts itself. We rather start from the assumption that the contradictions and antagonisms which the economic development creates in society stimulate thought and provoke investigations by men who are favourably situated to prosecute such researches, so that they may understand what is going on before their eyes and remove the suffering which contemporary conditions entail. In this way arise political and social ideas which influence contemporary thought, or at least, particular classes, in the degree that they respond to the actual conditions, and which are correct so far as they coincide with the interests of the aspiring classes.

So it comes about that certain ideas are only operative under certain conditions, that ideas which at one time encounter indifference and even scorn are taken up with enthusiasm, and often without strict verification, a few decades later. Idealist historians are unable to explain why this is so; they are therefore obliged in the last resort to seek refuge in God, in a mystery, like all idealist philosophers; it is the “time spirit” which decides whether or not an idea shall achieve social validity.

The materialist conception of history alone explains the influence of particular ideas. It is not concerned to deny that every age has its particular ideas which condition it, and that these ideas form the dynamics of social development. It does not, however, stop at this point, but proceeds to investigate the forces which set the machinery in motion, and these it finds in the material conditions.

It is clear that ideas must be fermenting for some time before they can exercise any influence on the masses. There is a tendency to reproach the masses with running after novelties, whereas the truth is that they cling most obstinately to the old. The antagonism of the new economic conditions to the transmitted conditions and the ideas which accord therewith must be fairly pronounced before it penetrates to the mind of the masses. Where the acumen of the investigator perceives unbridgable antagonisms of classes, the average man sees only accidental personal disputes; where the investigator sees social evils which could only be removed by social transformations, the average man consoles himself with the hope that times are only temporarily bad and will soon improve. We are not speaking of the members of classes on the decline, most of whom will not face facts, but have in mind the nascent classes, whose interests it is to see, but who cannot see until they bump right up against the new conditions. Their ideas also were conditioned by the newly developing material conditions, but these conditions were not yet sharply defined enough to render the aspiring classes accessible to these ideas.

But a thinker who takes his stand on the material conditions may be a whole epoch in advance of his time, if he perceives a newly evolving mode of production and its social consequences not only sooner than most of his contemporaries, but straining far into the future, also glimpses the more rational mode of production into which it will develop.

Thomas More is one of the few who have been capable of this bold intellectual leap; at a time when the capitalist mode of production was in its infancy, he mastered its essential features so thoroughly that the alternative mode of production which he elaborated and contrasted with it as a remedy for its evils, contained several of the most important ingredients of Modern Socialism. The drift of his speculations, of course, escaped his contemporaries, and can only be properly appreciated by us to-day. Despite the immense economic and technical transformations of the last three hundred years, we find in Utopia a number of tendencies which are still operative in the Socialist Movement of our time.

Our first enquiry pertains to the causes of such an extraordinary phenomenon. If we are not to resort to spiritism and clairvoyance, there must have been a peculiar chain of circumstances which inclined More alone in his age towards socialist theories – Münzer’s socialism was of a character quite different from More’s, and cannot therefore be taken into account.

Despite the fact that, for obvious reasons, none of More’s biographers has dealt with this question and that More himself gives us but few hints, we think we are able to indicate at least some of these causes, partly personal, partly of a local nature, which in conjunction with the general situation as we have sketched it in the first part, explain why Socialism found a theoretical expression earlier than Capitalism.

These circumstances are, put shortly, More’s personal character, his philosophical training, his activity in practical affairs, and the economic situation of England.

More’s personal character may indeed be regarded as one of the causes of his Socialism. Erasmus tells us how amiable, helpful, and full of sympathy with the poor and oppressed More was: he called him the protector of all the poor.

Only in the northern countries of Western Europe were the material conditions in the sixteenth century favourable to the formation of such a disinterested character. In the mercantile republics of Italy, as in the Courts of the Romance monarchies, egotism, the grand feature of the new mode of production, reigned absolutely; it reigned openly, boldly, full of revolutionary defiance. It was a vast egotism, quite different from the cowardly, mendacious, despicable egotism of to-day, which hides itself behind conventional hypocrisy.

Generally speaking, in the towns of England and Germany, entirely different economic conditions prevailed from those in the Italian towns, and to a lesser degree in the towns of France and Spain. Agriculture, together with the Mark constitution, still formed to a great extent the basis even of the urban mode of production; the separation of the country from the town was nowhere completely defined.

“As late as the year 1589, the Duke of Bavaria recognised that the burghers of Munich could not exist without commons. Tillage of the soil must then have been a chief support of the citizens.” (L.L. v. Maurer).

At the commencement of the sixteenth century the primitive agrarian communism still existed in England. It had survived under cover of feudalism, and only then began to yield place to another system of agriculture. The features which corresponded to primitive communism still existed, especially among the lower population, and we meet them in More only slightly glossed over with the Humanistic and courtier traits and the self-censure which the conditions imposed upon him. In his serenity, tenacity, unyieldingness, selflessness, and helpfulness we see the impress of all the characteristics of communistic “Merry England.”

But sympathy with the poor does not make one a socialist, although without that sympathy no one is likely to become a socialist. In order that socialist sentiments and ideas should grow out of this interest, it must be conjoined with a special economic situation, the existence of a working proletariat as a permanent mesa phenomenon, and on the other hand profound economic insight.

The existence of a proletariat of vagabonds creates benevolence and induces almsgiving, but does not produce a socialism of the modern variety.

Now in More’s time England was much favoured with respect to the economic development, much more so than, for example, Germany. In respect of the opportunity to appreciate it More’s position was almost unique in the northern countries. The only persons who had then learnt to think scientifically and methodically, to generalise, and who were, therefore; capable of formulating a theoretical socialism, were the Humanists. Now in the northern countries Humanism was an exotic growth, in which no class had a special interest. While the Humanists in Italy were busily engaged in active affairs, and therefore gave expression to the economic and political tendencies of their time and country, the great majority of German Humanists were merely schoolmasters with no glimmering of practical affairs, who, instead of delving into the past for weapons in the struggles of the present, stood aloof from those struggles and retired to their studies, in order to live wholly in the past.

Germany’s development did not tend to close the gap between science and life. On the contrary, the rudeness, the barbarism, the boorishness into which Germany sank to an increasing extent after the sixteenth century, and from which she did not emerge until the beginning of the eighteenth century, rendered the maintenance of science in Germany possible only by its being completely divorced from active life.

The fundamental cause of Germany’s decay resided in the alteration of the trade routes after the end of the fifteenth century, which not only impeded the economic development in Germany, but transformed it for some time into economic retrogression.

The discoveries of the Portuguese in the second half of the fifteenth century opened a sea route to India. At the same time the old communications with the East through Asia Minor and Egypt were interrupted by the invasions of the. Turks, while the caravan routes from Central Asia had previously been closed in consequence of local upheavals.

This paralysed not only the trade of the Mediterranean seaboard, but also that of the towns on the great German waterways, which, besides being the intermediaries of the trade between Italy and the North, traded with the East on their own account by other routes – via Trapezunt and the Black Sea as well as the land route over Russia. The total effect of these changes was to sever the arteries of the German towns, especially of the Hansa towns on the Baltic and the towns in Southern Germany, Nuremberg, Augsburg, etc.

The towns on the Rhine and on the estuaries of the North Sea suffered less, but the trade which they supported was insignificant and its direction had changed. It flowed not from East to West, from South to North, but contrariwise.

Antwerp became for the sixteenth century what Constantinople had been in the fourteenth century and what London was to become in the eighteenth century: the centre of world trade, the focus of the treasures of the East, to which the Americas were now added, whence they were poured out over the whole of Europe.

The proximity of Antwerp inevitably exercised the most stimulating effect upon the commerce of England, and especially of London. And even in More’s time England strove to acquire overseas possessions, although as yet without any great success. England’s commerce increased as Germany’s declined.

Out of mercantile the beginnings of industrial capital were already beginning to develop. Englishmen began to manufacture wool in their own country after the Flemish example, and even in the time of Henry VIII complaints were heard of the decay of independent handicraft in wool-combing. In Richard III’s time, Italian merchants in England were accused (An Act touching the merchants of Italy) of buying up large quantities of wool and employing the weavers to prepare it.

But in the England of More the beginnings of the capitalist mode of production in agriculture were much more perceptible than these nuclei of industrial capital. It is one of England’s most remarkable peculiarities that capitalism developed there earlier in agriculture than in industry.

The causes of this have already been indicated: they are to be traced to the quality of English wool, which made it a much-sought-after raw material for woollen manufactures.

Next to wool, timber and fuel were important agricultural products in England, in view of the growth of the towns, as was also barley for the Flemish breweries. The demand for wool grew in the degree that manufactures on the one hand, and the means of transport on the other, developed. At the outset English wool found its chief market in the Netherlands, but at the end of the fifteenth century it was being exported both to Italy and to Sweden. Among other things, this may be inferred from two commercial treaties which Henry VII concluded with Denmark and Florence in 1490.

As the market grew, the merchants and great landowners of England redoubled their efforts to extend wool production. The landowners found the simplest way of doing this was to claim for themselves the common lands which the peasants had a right to use. Thus the peasant was more and more deprived of the opportunity of keeping cattle, his entire business fell into disorder, and financial ruin overtook him. Then the great landowner’s land hunger grew more quickly than the peasant was “freed” from the soil. All kinds of expedients were adopted. Not merely individual peasants, but sometimes the inhabitants of entire villages and even small townships were expelled, to make room for sheep.

So long as the landlords themselves farmed their estates, or, as happened for a short period, leased portions of them to tenants, to whom they advanced the necessary agricultural plant, cattle, etc., the expansion of their property was always limited by the plant and stock which the landlord possessed. There was no point in extending his property unless he was able at the same time to add to his plant and stock. This limit melted away and the land hunger of the great landowners knew no bounds with the arrival of the capitalist farmer, who used his own capital to employ wage workers to cultivate the land which he leased. This class arose in England in the last third of the fifteenth century. It rapidly increased in the sixteenth century, in consequence of the unexampled profits which it then made, and which not only accelerated the accumulation of capital, but also attracted capitalists from the towns.

The rise of profits is to be especially attributed to the depreciation of gold and silver which was caused by the immense transfers of the precious metals from America to Europe; the effect of this monetary depreciation may well have been accentuated by the currency debasement of princes.

In the course of the sixteenth century the prices of agricultural products rose by 200 to 300 per cent. in consequence of the currency depreciation. Rents, on the other hand, were slow in rising, as the leases ran for long terms, and did not keep pace with the prices of agricultural products. Therefore they fell actually if not nominally.

The farmers’ profits grew at the expense of rents.

This not only increased the number of farmers and the amount of their capital, but also formed a fresh incentive for the large landowners to extend their estates, in order to make good their losses in this way.

The consequence was a rapid impoverishment of the small peasants. A concurrent phenomenon was the dispersal of the feudal bands of retainers, to which we have made reference in the first part.

The retainers were in any case a burden for the working people. Where they remained in existence, they were a burden on the peasants who were obliged to support them. Where they were broken up, they became a scourge to the wage earners, by swelling the ranks of the unemployed.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were the Golden Age for the peasants and wage workers of England.

At the end of this epoch they were both suddenly plunged into deepest poverty. The number of workless swelled to terrible dimensions. The most gruesome punishments were not, of course, calculated either to diminish their numbers or to restrain them from crime punishment for crime was uncertain, but sure was the punishment for abstention from crime: starvation.

Not much better than the situation of the workless was that of the propertyless workers, who then began to form a numerous class in agriculture. What parliamentary legislation had only incompletely achieved in the preceding two centuries was easily attained in the sixteenth century by the oppressive weight of the reserve army of the workless. Real wages diminished, and labour time was extended.

Food prices rose by 300 per cent., wages only by 150 per cent. From More’s time onwards began that steady decay of the English workers in town and country, whose position reached its lowest level in the last quarter of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth century, after which it improved, at least for certain sections, owing to trade union organisation.

Wages fell along with rents, profits grew, and so did capitalism.

When capitalism first invades industry and then turns to agriculture, it seems at the outset to wear a benevolent aspect. It must aim at a constant extending of the market, of production, while the importation of labour-power proceeds but slowly. In its early stages, such an industry is always complaining of the lack of labour-power. Capitalists must outbid handicraftsmen and peasants in order to entice away from them their journeymen and bondsmen: wages rise.

In this way capitalism began in many countries; it was hailed as a blessing. Not so in England, where it first invaded and revolutionised agriculture. Improvements in methods of cultivation made many workers superfluous. Capitalism in agriculture meant the direct setting-free of workers. In England this process of setting-free proceeded in its severest forms, at a time when industry was developing but slowly and required only small supplies of labour-power; least of all, the ignorant country labourer.

And hand in hand with the separation of the workers from the land, from their means of production, a rapid concentration of landed property into a few hands was going on.

Nowhere else in Europe, therefore, were the unfavourable reactions of the capitalist mode of production upon the working classes so immediately obvious as in England; nowhere did the unhappy workers clamour so urgently for assistance.

That such an economic situation should cause a man of More’s character to reflect and to cast about for means of alleviating the intolerable conditions is what we should expect.

More was not the only person who sought for and propounded such expedients. From numerous writings of that time, from numerous Acts of Parliament we may perceive how deep was the impression made by the economic revolution then proceeding, and how generally the shabby practices of the landlords and their tenants were condemned.

But none of those who put forward remedies had a wider outlook, to none of them came the conviction that the sufferings incident to the new mode of production could only be ended by a transition to another and higher mode of production; none of them, save More, was a Socialist.

A theory of Socialism could only arise within the realm of Humanism. As a Humanist, More learned to think methodically and to generalise. As a Humanist he was enabled to look beyond the horizon of his time and his country: in the writings of classical antiquity he became acquainted with social conditions different from those of his own time. Plato’s ideal of an aristocratic-communist community must have prompted him to imagine social conditions which, being the opposite of those existing, were free from their concomitant poverty. Plato’s authority must have encouraged him to regard such a community as more than a mere figment of the imagination, and to set it up as a goal which humanity should strive to attain.

In so far was Humanism favourable to More’s development. But the situation in England was, in a scientific respect, similar to that in Germany: English Humanism remained an imported, exotic growth, without roots in the national life, a mere academic affair. Had More been a mere Humanist, he would hardly have attained to Socialism. We know, however, that More’s father, much to the regret of Erasmus and his other Humanist friends, soon tore him away from his studies, in order to put him to the study of law and then to launch him on a practical career. We know in what close relationship More stood to the London merchants, how he was entrusted with the care of their interests on every important occasion. The majority of the positions which More filled impelled him to deal with economic questions; the fact that he was appointed to these posts also proves that he was regarded as an expert in economic matters.

We know that he was a popular advocate, that in 1509 he was appointed Under-Sheriff, in which position he had sufficient opportunity to gain an insight into the economic life of the people. We have also mentioned several missions of which he was a member, for the conduct of commercial negotiations. The first was to Bruges in 1515. In the same year Parliament appointed him a Commissioner of Sewers. His second mission was to Calais in 1517, in order to compose disputes between English and French merchants. In 1520 we find him on a mission to Bruges, to settle disputes between English merchants and the Hansa. Then he became Treasurer, and, in 1523, Speaker in the Commons, both positions presupposing experience in financial matters, and shortly afterwards Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: truly, if anybody had an opportunity to become acquainted with the economic life of his time, it was More. And he became acquainted with it from the most modern standpoint that was then possible, from that of the English merchant, for whom world trade was then opening up. In our view, this close connection of More with mercantile capital cannot be too strongly emphasised. To this we attribute the fact that More thought on modern lines, that his Socialism was modern kind

We believe that we have disclosed the most essential roots of More’s Socialism: his amiable character in harmony with primitive communism; the economic situation of England, which brought into sharp relief the disadvantageous consequences of capitalism for the working class; the fortunate union of classical philosophy with activity in practical affairs – all these circumstances combined must have induced in a mind so acute, so fearless, so truth-loving as More’s an ideal which may be regarded as a foregleam of Modern Socialism.

2. The Economic Criticism of Utopia

More put forward his economic theories, but the time was not yet ripe for them. But how keenly he observed the economic conditions of his time and how clearly he recognised the great principle, which forms one of the bases of modern Socialism, that man is a product of the material conditions in which he lives, and that a class of human beings can only be elevated through a corresponding change in the economic conditions, this he has proved in his Utopia, the critical parts of which even to-day possess more than an academic interest.

We cannot better indicate More’s economic acumen, his boldness and likewise his amiability, than by letting him speak for himself.

We quote a passage from the first book of Utopia which contains a vivid description of the economic condition of England. The passage forms an episode of the scene with Cardinal Morton from which we have already quoted some extracts throwing light upon More’s ecclesiastical standpoint.

Raphael Hythloday is relating what happened to him when he visited Cardinal Morton in England. “One day, when I was dining with him, there happened to be at table one of the English lawyers, who took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, ‘who,’ as he said, ‘were then hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet and, upon that,’ he said, ‘he could not wonder enough how it came to pass that, since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left, who were still robbing in all places.’

“Upon this, I (who took the boldness to speak freely before the Cardinal) said, ‘There was no reason to wonder at the matter, since this way of punishing thieves was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for, as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual; simple theft not being so great a crime that it ought to cost a man his life; no punishment, how severe soever, being able to restrain those from robbing who can find out no other way of livelihood. In this,’ said I, ‘not only you in England, but a great part of the world, imitate some ill masters, that are readier to chastise their scholars than to teach them. There are dreadful punishments enacted against thieves, but it were much better to make such good provisions by which each man might be put in a method how to live, and so be preserved from the fatal necessity of stealing and of dying for it.’ ‘There has been care enough taken for that,’ said he; ‘there are many handicrafts and there is husbandry, by which they may make a shift to live, unless they have a greater mind to follow ill courses.’ ‘That will not serve your turn,’ said I, ‘for many lose their limbs in civil or foreign wars, as lately in the Cornish rebellion, and some time ago in your Wars with France, who, being thus mutilated in the service of their king and country, can no more follow their old trades, and are too old to learn new ones; but since ware are only accidental things, and have intervals, let us consider those things that fall out every day. There is a great number of noblemen among you that are themselves as idle as drones, that subsist on other men’s labour, on the labour of their tenants, whom, to raise their revenues, they pare to the quick. This, indeed, is the only instance of their frugality, for in all other things they are prodigal, even to the beggaring of themselves; but, besides this, they carry about with them a great number of idle fellows, who never learned any art by which they may gain their living; and these, as soon as either their lord dies, or they themselves fall sick, are turned out of doors; for your lords are readier to feed idle people than to take care of the sick; and often the heir is not able to keep together so great a family as his predecessor did. Now, when the stomachs of those that are thus turned out of doors grow keen, they rob no less keenly; and what else can they do? For when by wandering about, they have worn out both their health and their clothes, and are tattered, and look ghastly, men of quality will not entertain them, and poor men dare not do it, knowing that one who has been bred up in idleness and pleasure, and who was used to walk about with his sword and buckler, despising all the neighbourhood with an insolent scorn as far below him, is not fit for the spade and mattock; nor will he serve a poor man for so small a hire and in so low a diet as he can afford to give him.’ To this he answered: ‘This sort of men ought to be particularly cherished, for in them consists the force of the armies for which we have occasion, since their berth inspired them with a nobler sense of honour than is to be found among tradesmen and ploughmen.’ ‘You may as well say,’ replied I, ‘that you must cherish thieves on the account of wars, for you will never want the one as long as you have the other; and as robbers prove sometimes gallant soldiers, so soldiers often prove brave robbers, so near an alliance there is between these two sorts of life. But this bad custom, so common among you, of keeping many servants, is not peculiar to this nation. In France there is yet a more pestiferous sort of people, for the whole country is full of soldiers, still kept up in time of peace (if such a state of a nation can be called a peace); and these are kept in pay on the same account that you plead for those idle retainers about noblemen: this being a maxim of those pretended statesmen, that it is necessary for the public safety to have a good body of veteran soldiers ever in readiness. They think raw men are not to be depended on, and they sometimes seek occasions for making war, that they may train up their soldiers in the art of cutting throats, or, as Sallust observed, ‘for keeping their hands in use, that they may not grow dull by too long an intermission.’ But France has learned to its cost how dangerous it is to feed such beasts. The fate of the Romans, Carthaginians, and Syrians, and many other nations and cities, which were both overturned and quite ruined by those standing armies, should make others wiser; and the folly of this maxim of the French appears plainly even from this, that their trained soldiers often find your raw men prove too hard for them, of which I will not say much, lest you may think that I flatter the English. Every day’s experience shows that the mechanics in the towns or the clowns in the country are not afraid of fighting with those idle gentlemen, if they are not disabled by some misfortune in their body or dispirited by extreme want; so that you need not fear that those well-shaped and strong men (for it is only such that noblemen love to keep about them till they spoil them), who now grow feeble with ease and are softened with their effeminate manner of life, would be less fit for action if they were well bred and well employed. And it seems very unreasonable that, for the prospect of a war, which you need never have but when you please, you should maintain so many idle men, as will always disturb you in time of peace, which is ever to be more considered than war. But I do not think that this necessity of stealing arises only from hence; there is another cause of it, more peculiar in England.’ ‘What is that?’ asked the Cardinal. ‘The increase of pasture,’ said I, ‘by which your sheep which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said to devour men and unpeople not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots, not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, not thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes; for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners, as well as tenants, are turned out of their possessions by trick or by main force, or, being wearied out by ill usage, they are forced to sell them by which means those miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell, almost for nothing their household stuff, which could not bring them much money even though they might stay for a buyer. When that little money is at an end (for it will be soon spent), what is left for them to do but either to steal and so to be hanged (God knows how justly!) or to go about and beg, and if they do this they are put in prison as idle vagabonds, while they would willingly work but can find none that will hire them; for there is no more occasion for country labour, to which they have been bred, when there is no arable land left. One shepherd can look after a flock, which will stock an extent of ground that would require many hands if it were to be ploughed and reaped. This, likewise, in many places raises the price of corn. The price of wool is also so risen that the poor people, who were wont to make cloth, are no more able to buy it; and this, likewise, makes many of them idle; for since the increase of pasture God has punished the avarice of the owners by a rot among the sheep, which has destroyed vast numbers of them – to us it might have seemed more just had it fell on the owners themselves. But, suppose the sheep would increase ever so much, their price is not likely to fall, since, though they cannot be called a monopoly, because they are not engrossed by one person, yet they are in so few hands, that these are so rich that, as they are not pressed to sell them sooner than they have a mind to, so they never do it until they have raised the price as high as possible. And on the same account it is that the other kinds of cattle are so dear, because many villages being so pulled down, and all country labour being much neglected, there are none who make it their business to breed them. The rich do not breed cattle as they do sheep, but buy them lean and at low prices; and, after they have fattened them on their grounds, sell them again at high rates. And I do not think that all the inconveniences this will produce are yet observed; for, as they sell the cattle dear, so, if they are consumed faster than the breeding countries from which they are bought can afford them, then the stock must decrease, and this must needs end in great scarcity; and by these means, this your island, which seemed as to this particular the happiest in the world, will suffer much by the cursed avarice of a few persons; besides this, the rising of corn makes all people lessen their families as much as they can, and what do those who are dismissed by them do but either beg or rob? and to this last a man of a great mind is sooner drawn than by the former. Luxury likewise breaks in apace upon you to set forward your poverty and misery; there is an excessive vanity in apparel, and great cost in diet, and that not only in noblemen’s families but even among tradesmen, among the farmers themselves, and among all ranks of persons. You have also many infamous houses, and besides those that are known the taverns and ale-houses are no better; add to these dice, cards, tables, football, tennis, and quoits, in which money runs fast away; and those that are initiated in them must in conclusion betake themselves to robbing for a supply. Banish these plagues, and give orders that those who have dispeopled so much soil may either rebuild the villages they have pulled down or let out their grounds to such as will do it; restrain those engrossings of the rich, that are as bad almost as monopolies; leave fewer occasions to idleness; let agriculture be set up again, and the manufacture of the wool be regulated, that so there maybe work found for those companies of idle people whom want forces to be thieves, or who now being idle vagabonds or useless servants will certainly grow thieves at last. If you do not find a remedy for these evils it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing thieves, which though it may have the appearance of justice yet in itself is neither just or convenient; for if you suffer your people to be ill educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?’”

After More had put this severe criticism of the economic evils of his time into the mouth of his hero, Raphael Hythloday, he proceeds to discuss the best system of punishment.

In contrast to the cruel legislation of his time he proposed to punish theft, not by hanging or even imprisonment, but by compulsory labour.

A remarkable instance of clemency for the time.

This passage is followed by the political criticism which we have quoted in a previous chapter.

How are all those evils to be remedied?

“Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the beat things will fall to the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable. Therefore, when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians, among whom all things are so well governed and with so few laws, where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality that every man lives in plenty, when I compare with them so many other nations that are still making new laws, and yet can never bring their constitution to a right regulation; where, notwithstanding every one has his property, yet all the laws that they can invent have not the power either to obtain or preserve it, or even to enable men certainly to distinguish what is their own from what is another’s, of which the many lawsuits which every day break out, and are eternally depending, give too plain a demonstration- when, I say, I balance all these things in my thoughts, I grow more favourable to Plato, and do not wonder that he resolved not to make any laws for such as would not submit to a community of all these things; for so wise a man could not but foresee that the setting all upon a level was the only way to make a nation happy; which cannot be obtained so long, as there is property, for when every man draws to himself all that he can compass, by one title or another, it must needs follow that, how plentiful soever a nation may be, yet a few dividing the wealth of it among themselves, the rest must fall into indigence. So that there will be two sorts of people among them, who deserve that their fortunes should be interchanged – the former useless, but wicked and ravenous; and the latter who by their constant industry serve the public more than themselves, sincere and modest men – from whence I am persuaded that till property is taken away, there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed; for as long as that is maintained the greatest and the far best part of mankind will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties. I confess, without taking it quite away, these pressures that lie on a great part of mankind may be made lighter, but they can never be quite removed; for if laws were made to determine at how great an extent in soil, and at how much money, every man must atop – to limit the prince, that he might not grow too great; and to restrain the people, that they might not become too insolent – and that none might factiously aspire to public employments, which ought neither be sold nor made burdensome by a great expense, since otherwise those that serve in them would be tempted to reimburse themselves by cheats and violence, and it would become necessary to find out rich men for undergoing these employments, which ought rather to be trusted to the wise. These laws, I say, might have such an effect as good diet and care might have on a sick man whose recovery is desperate; they might allay and mitigate the disease, but it could never be quite healed, nor the body politic be brought again to a good habit as long as property remains; and it will fall out as in a complication of diseases, that by applying a remedy to one sore you will provoke another, and that which removes the one ill symptom produces others, while the strengthening one part of the body weakens the rest.” “On the contrary,” answered I, “it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common. How can there be any plenty where every man will excuse himself from labour? for as the hope of gain doth not excite him so the confidence that he has in other men’s industry may make him slothful. If people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own, what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates falls to the ground? for I cannot imagine how that can be kept up among those that are in all things equal to one another.” “I do not wonder,” said he, “that it appears so to you, since you have no notion, or at least no right one, of such a constitution; but if you had been in Utopia with me, and had seen their laws and rules, as I did, for the space of five years, in which I lived among them, and during which time I was so delighted with them that indeed I should never have left them if it had not been to make a discovery of that new world to the Europeans, you would then confess that you had never seen a people so well constituted as they.”

This forms the connecting link with the description of More’s ideal society.

3. The Economic Tendencies of the Reformation in England

Before following our Communist into his Utopia, we must deal with a question which requires to be answered if our present enquiry is not to be incomplete: How is More’s repugnance to every kind of exploitation to be reconciled with his defence of Catholicism, of exploitation by the monasteries and the Pope?

The simple answer to this question is as follows: The exploitation of the people by Catholicism had become a slight thing in England at the time of More. The other aide of Catholicism, the obstacle it presented to the impoverishment of the people, was much more emphasised. More could support Catholicism in his capacity as opponent of this impoverishment, quite apart from the political and Humanistic motives impelling him thereto which we have already discussed.

England had been one of the countries which was early exposed to papal exploitation in its severest form. But since the fourteenth century the dependence of England on the Papacy had been gradually disappearing, as we have shown in the fourth chapter of the second book, and consequently the exploitation of England by the Papal Stool had considerably diminished. The kings tolerated no more of it than they felt disposed. The popes could only extract money from England on condition of sharing the spoils with the kings. The “Holy Father” and the “Defender of the True Faith” haggled with each other like Polish Jews over their share in the proceeds of papal speculations in stupidity. In the case of the sale of indulgences, which was to give the impulse to the Reformation movement, the Pope offered Henry VIII a quarter of the proceeds of the sale of indulgences in England, if Henry would give his permission for such sale, but Henry declared that he would be satisfied with nothing less than a third. Thus the indulgences became a new source of income for monarchs, a new tax, which the popes collected for them, taking on themselves, in return for a share, the full odium of the exploitation. As far as England was concerned the popes had become tax collectors for the king.

Not only the secular power, but also the clergy had become almost completely independent of the Papacy and refused to pay the ecclesiastical dues to Rome, when it did not suit either them or the monarchy. The same clergy who paid six-tenths to Henry VIII refused in 1515 to grant even one-tenth to the Pope, who did not even prevail against them when he reduced his demand to one-half.

Consequently, so far as England was concerned, separation from the Papacy was in no way the sole means, as in Germany, of putting a stop to the exploitation of Rome. We must appraise More’s attitude towards the German Reformation in the light of English conditions. More recognised at the outset that the Reformation could not remain an exclusively German affair, and Lutheranism soon penetrated to England. But what Lutheranism chiefly aimed at in England was not so much separation from the Papacy as the confiscation of the monasteries and pious endowments, which was demanded in numerous pamphlets. This in fact became, at a later date, the most powerful economic motive of Henry’s ecclesiastical reformation. Henry was driven to this for political reasons: his defeat in the contest with Spain over the Pope, and for economic reasons: his growing need of money, which impelled him to lay hands on ecclesiastical property, when it had become impracticable and dangerous to increase taxation. He was encouraged to do so by his entourage: large landowners and land speculators, who were greedily looking forward to the time when ecclesiastical landed property should be given over to “free competition” – that is, the land robbers.

The Church owned a considerable area of land in England. A number of witnesses testify that the amount was one-third of the whole of the soil.

On this gigantic landed property the traditional mode of production lasted longer than on the other English estates. Feudalism was the economic foundation upon which the power and reputation of the monasteries was based. They clung to it as long as possible. They were, of course, obliged to make concessions to the uprising mode of production, but they did so reluctantly. In these compact corporations the traditions of feudalism retained greater vitality than among the newly created nobility who had succeeded the old nobles devoured by the Wars of the Roses. While the young noble plunged headlong into the stream of the capitalist development of his time and made greed for profit his chief passion, the monasteries continued to regard not only the extent of their land, but also the people settled thereon, as the basis of their power.

They frequently continued to cultivate a part of their land with numerous semi-feudal labourers, as they had done in the Middle Ages. They sought to attach their bondsmen by treating them well, and if they could no longer prevent their transformation into tenants, they strove to give them security by granting them unusually long leases. The monasteries therefore contributed but little to the impoverishment of the country people, and their estates were most thickly populated with peasants.

It may be imagined what the effect was to expose all these estates at one stroke to capitalist exploitation. Not only were the numerous inhabitants of the monasteries thrown into the ranks of the proletariat, but also the greater part of their tenants and settlers. The number of workless proletarians must have suddenly increased to an enormous degree.

The break-up of the monasteries also signified the collapse of the great medieval organisation for the relief of the poor; we have already discussed this rôle of the Church. In this respect England offered no special peculiarities. It is enough to say that the confiscation of the monasteries meant an increase in the number of the poor and at the same time the destruction of their last refuge.

More perceived that in Germany the first effect of the Reformation was that princes and nobles confiscated Church property; he noted that in England the Lutherans likewise clamoured most insistently for the confiscation of Church property; as an opponent of the impoverishment and exploitation of the country people he was obliged, in view of the peculiar economic situation of England, to declare against the Reformation.

And the demands of the Lutherans did not stop at the monasteries. They also demanded the confiscation of the property of the guilds. The greater part of the guild property that was invested in land, consisting mostly of endowments, served to maintain hospitals, schools, and almshouses for the support of impoverished guild members, for dowries, allowances for widows and orphans, and the like. It is easy to imagine what a powerful obstacle these endowments were to the impoverishment of handicraftsmen. In part they bore an ecclesiastical character, in accordance with the period in which they arose; they were bound up with provisions for the saying of masses, the maintenance of chapels, and the like. These provisions were seized hold of by the English Lutherans, in order to give a religious colouring to their greed for the guild property, and to demand its confiscation in order to suppress the “superstitious usages” which were connected with it.

Just as the champions of the confiscation of ecclesiastical and guild property based their demands not so much on economic as religious motives, so did their opponents adopt the same position. More, too, followed his antagonists into this sphere, and defended Church property and the pious endowments by a defence of masses (in his Supplication of Souls, 1529).

The contest over Church property was not decided until after its most energetic and capable champion had perished on the scaffold. A year after More’s death the smaller monasteries were confiscated, in 1540 the large monasteries and abbeys. As, owing to Henry VIII’s extravagance and the shameless deceptions of his creatures, these confiscations did not stop the leakage in the treasury and the most blatant debasements of the currency no longer availed, the bold step of destroying the guilds and confiscating their property was at length resorted to. A law with this object was passed in the last year of Henry’s reign, but it was not enforced until the reign of his son Edward VI. Even then the powerful London guilds were not touched.

The English Reformation under Henry VIII was a most audacious machination to intensify the exploitation of the people and enrich some of the most unprincipled creatures of the King. It had, therefore, no roots in the people, but rather aroused their increasing resentment. And when what More had foreseen and opposed actually came to pass, when the people felt the full force of the robbery that had been committed, the tendencies for which More had died gained the upper hand: under Edward VI, a formidable popular insurrection broke out against the Protestant Camarilla. It was, to be sure, defeated, but after Edward’s death in 1553, the people set the Catholic Mary, Henry’s daughter by his first wife, the Spanish Katherine, on the throne.

In opposing the Reformation, therefore, More did not act contrary to the interests of the exploited people. He owed his fate to the fact that he saw farther than the multitude, that he foresaw the consequences of the Reformation, of which the majority of the people did not become fully aware until a later date, and that he was obliged to pay with his life for his convictions at a time when they were not shared by a powerful section of the people.

Henry VIII’s Reformation was not a protest against exploitation and responded to no popular need. Not until the reign of Bloody Mary did an economic antagonism develop between the English people and Catholicism, when the Reformation of Absolutism became invested with an economic interest for large classes of people and when that Protestantism was set in motion which brought so much popularity to Elizabeth in her efforts to enforce it. with an economic interest for large classes of the people, and when that Protestantism was set in motion which brought so much popularity to Elizabeth in her efforts to enforce it.

The antagonism which won popular support for the Reformation in England was not between England and Rome, but between England and Spain. The exploitation of England by the Pope had, as we know, become insignificant even before Henry’s Reformation. Consequently, the Pope was not hated so much in England as in Germany. But in the degree that England came to the front as a commercial State, in that degree did its interests become hostile to those of Spain, the great commercial power of the sixteenth century, which dominated the western seaboard of the Mediterranean and strove to be the mistress of the seas. Almost everywhere English commerce strove to develop, it found the road barred by Spain. It was strengthened in the constant struggle with the commerce of Spain, against which it conducted a guerilla war in the midst of peace; it was also strengthened by systematic piracy. From the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula to the North Sea English privateers were always loitering on the look-out for silver galleons from America or the rich merchant vessels carrying the treasures of the Indies from Lisbon to Antwerp, Portugal being a Spanish province from 1580 to 1640. Next to the slave trade, piracy was one of the foundations of England’s commercial prosperity; both were officially encouraged. Elizabeth herself fitted out slave ships, vessels of the Navy engaged in piracy, and slave dealers and pirates, such as the famous world navigator, Francis Drake, were her favourites. Eventually Philip lost patience and equipped the great Armada to destroy piracy at its base, but it came to grief, as is well known, in the most disastrous fashion.

The outcome of the constant struggle for mastery of the seas was boundless enmity and glowing hatred between the two nations.

In the sixteenth century the Spaniard was England’s hereditary enemy, the prototype of everything horrible for a Briton. Now the Pope was a tool of Spain. To be Catholic was to be Spanish, was to serve the hereditary foe, was treason to the Motherland – that is, to her commercial interests.

Out of this antagonism grew the popular Protestantism of Elizabeth, and only thereby did the Reformation become a national fact, which under Henry VIII had been, from the economic standpoint, a mere theft by an embarrassed prince and some equally embarrassed libertines and avaricious speculators.

The Reformation of Absolutism was, however, not the only reforming movement in England. Long before it a sect had formed which resisted exploitation not only by the Church, but also by the Church and the secular lords, which was therefore as hostile to the Royal Protestantism as to Catholicism. This sect struck firm roots among the poorer members of the community of whom More was the special champion, among the peasants and the small handicraftsmen and proletarians of the towns. Such were the Lollards, already mentioned, who adhered to the doctrines of Wiclif until they discovered in Calvinism a doctrine more congenial to them, whereupon they passed over to Puritanism. The Lollards had developed a kind of Socialism, but it was quite different from More’s Socialism. The latter discloses itself as breathing, partly the fresh spirit of the feudal, primitive Catholicism, partly the joyous spirit of the aspiring bourgeoisie, serene and cultivated. The Socialism of the Lollards was the expression of a tortured, despairing class which had been crushed as much as possible. It was gloomy, ascetic, and barbaric.

If to this contrast we add More’s repugnance to every popular movement, it becomes plain that More could not be on friendly terms with the Lollards.

From his English standpoint he also condemned the German Anabaptists, who seemed to him half Lutherans and half Lollards.

His opinion of them was anything but favourable.

Thus he wrote to Johann Cochlaüs: “Germany daily produces more monsters than ever Africa did. What can be more monstrous than the Anabaptists? And yet, how has this plague spread within a few years!”

And in his Confutation of Tyndall’s Answer (1532) he wrote: “And so ye may see that Tyndall affirmeth now not only those abominable heresies he taught before but all those also the Anabaptists have added unto them since. And so now be the true Church with him and agree with scripture and with the law of God, all those that say the baptising of children is void and that they say that there ought to be no rulers at all in Christendom neither spiritual, nor temporal, and that no man should have anything proper of his own, but that all lands and all goods ought by God’s law to be all men’s in common, and that all women ought to be common to all men, as well the next of kin as the farthest stranger and every man husband to every woman and every woman wife unto every man and then finally that our blessed saviour Christ was but only man and not God at all.”

The condemnation of communism as a “horrid heresy” by the communist More seems a strange inconsistence. Yet it is no chance personal phenomenon, but is bound up with the very essence of socialist beginnings. The antagonism between More and Münzer contains the seed of the great antagonism which runs through the entire history of Socialism, and which was only resolved by the Communist Manifesto, the antagonism between Utopianism and the Labour Movement.

The antagonism between More and Münzer, the theorist and the agitator, is essentially the same as that between Owenism and Chartism, between Fourierism and equalitarian communism in France.

However much More longed to see his ideal State realised he shuddered at every attempt to end exploitation from below. From his standpoint, therefore, communism would not develop in the class struggle by the logic of facts, it must be ready-made in the mind before one could think of inducing a powerful ruler to

impose it on mankind from above. That was an illusion. But to it More owed his supreme triumph, and we owe to it the first attempt to depict a mode of production which, while forming an alternative to the capitalist mode of production, at the same time retains the achievements which accompanied the triumph of capitalist civilisation over the preceding stage of development.


Last updated on 23.11.2003