Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part III.


1. Exposition

IN the second book of Utopia Raphael Hythloday describes the institutions and customs which obtain in the island of “Utopia” and which so delighted him. Let us first hear what he has to tell us regarding the mode of production, out of which arise the social, political, and religious institutions.

“There are fifty-four cities in the island of Utopia,” relates Raphael, “all large and well built, the manners, customs, and laws of which are the same, and they are all contrived as near in the same manner as the ground on which they stand will allow. The nearest lie at least twenty-four miles’ distance from one another, and the most remote are not so far distant but that a man can go on foot in one day from it to that which lies next it ... The jurisdiction of every city extends at least twenty miles, and where the towns lie wider, they have much more ground. No town desires to enlarge its bounds, for the people consider themselves rather as tenants than landlords.

“They have built, over all the country, farmhouses for husbandmen, which are well contrived, and furnished with all things necessary for country labour. Inhabitants are sent, by turns, from the cities to dwell in them; no country family has fewer than forty men and women in it, besides two bondmen. There is a master and a mistress set over every family, and over thirty families there is a magistrate.

“Every year twenty of this family come back to the town after they have stayed two years in the country, and in their room there are other twenty sent from the town, that they may learn country work from those that have been already one year in the country, as they must teach those that come to them the next from the town. By this means such as dwell in those country farms are never ignorant of agriculture, and so commit no errors which might otherwise be fatal and bring them under a scarcity of corn. But though there is every year such a shifting of the husbandmen to prevent any man being forced against his will to follow that hard course of life too long, yet many among them take such pleasure in it that they desire leave to continue in it many years.

“These husbandmen till the ground, breed cattle, hew wood, and convey it to the towns either by land or water, as is most convenient. They breed an infinite multitude of chickens in a very curious manner, etc. And although they know exactly how much corn will serve every town and all that tract of country which belongs to it, yet they sow much more and breed more cattle than are necessary for their consumption, and they give the overplus of which they make no use to their neighbours.

“When they want anything in the country which it does not produce, they fetch that from the town, without carrying anything in exchange for it. And the magistrates of the town take care to see it given them; for they meet generally in the town once a month, upon a festival day. When the time of harvest comes, the magistrates in the country send to those in the towns and let them know how many hands they will need for reaping the harvest; and the number they call for being sent to them, they commonly despatch it all in one day, when the weather is favourable.”

So much for agriculture. Let us now turn to the town

“The streets are very convenient for all carriage, and are well sheltered from the winds. Their buildings are good, and are so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house. The streets are twenty feet broad; there lie gardens behind all their houses. These are large, but enclosed with buildings, that on all hands face the streets, so that every house has both a door to the street and a back door to the garden. Their doors have all two leaves, which, as they are easily opened, so they shut of their own accord; and, there being no property among them, every man may freely enter into any house whatsoever. At every ten years’ end they shift their houses by lots. They cultivate their gardens with great care, so that they have both vines, fruits, herbs, and flowers in them; and all is so well ordered and so finely kept that I never saw gardens anywhere that were both so fruitful and so beautiful as theirs. And this humour of ordering their gardens so well is not only kept up by the pleasure they find in it, but also by an emulation between the inhabitants of the several streets, who vie with each other. And there is, indeed, nothing belonging to the whole town that is both more useful and more pleasant.

“Agriculture is that which is so universally understood among them that no person, either man or woman, is ignorant of it; they are instructed in it from their childhood, partly by what they learn at school, and partly by practice, they being led out often into the fields about the town, where they not only see others at work but are likewise exercised in it themselves.

“Besides agriculture, which is so common to them all, every man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself; such as the manufacture of wool or flax, masonry, smith’s work, or carpenter’s work; for there is no other sort of trade that is in great esteem among them.

“Throughout the island they wear the same sort of clothes, without any other distinction except what is necessary to distinguish the two sexes and the married and unmarried. The fashion never alters, and as it is neither disagreeable nor uneasy, so it is suited to the climate, and calculated both for their summers and winters. Every family makes their own clothes; but all among them, women as well as men, learn one or other of the trades formerly mentioned. Women, for the most part, deal in wool and flax, which suit best with their weakness, leaving the ruder trades to the men.

“The same trade generally passes down from father to son, inclinations often following descent: but if any man’s genius lies another way he is, by adoption, translated into a family that deals in the trade to which he is inclined; and when that is to be done, care is taken, not only by his father, but by the magistrate, that he may be put to a discreet and good man: and if, after a person has learned one trade, he desires to acquire another, that is also allowed, and is managed in the same manner as the former. When he has learned both, he follows that which he likes best, unless the public has more occasion for the other.

“The chief, and almost the only, business of the Syphogrants is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently; yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden, which as it is indeed a heavy slavery, so it is everywhere the common course of life amongst all mechanics except the Utopians; but they, dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work, three of which are before dinner and three after; they then sup, and at eight o’clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours: the rest of their time, besides that taken up in work, eating, and sleeping, is left to every man’s discretion.

“But the time appointed for labour is to be narrowly examined, otherwise you may imagine, that since there are only six hours appointed for work, they may fall under a scarcity of necessary provisions. But it is so far from being true, that this time is not sufficient for supplying them with plenty of all things, either necessary or convenient; that it is rather too much; and this you will easily apprehend, if you consider how great a part of all other nations is quite idle. First, women generally do little, who are the half of mankind; and if some few women are diligent, their husbands are idle: then consider the great company of idle priests, and of those that are called religious men; add to these all rich men, chiefly those that have estates in land, who are called noblemen and gentlemen, together with their families, made up of idle persons, that are kept more for show than use; add to these, all those strong and lusty beggars, that go about pretending some disease, in excuse for their begging; and upon the whole account you will find that the number of those by whose labours mankind is supplied, is much less than you perhaps imagined. Then consider how few of those that work are employed in labours that are of real service; for we who measure all things by money, give rise to many trades that are both vain and superfluous, and serve only to support riot and luxury. For if those who work were employed only in such things as the conveniences of life require, there would be such an abundance of them, that the prices of them would so sink, that tradesmen could not be maintained by their gains; if all those who labour about useless things, were set to more profitable employments, and if all they that languish out their lives in sloth and idleness, every one of whom consumes as much as any two of the men that are at work, were forced to labour, you may easily imagine that a small proportion of time would serve for doing all that is either necessary, profitable, or pleasant to mankind, especially while pleasure is kept within its due bounds. This appears very plainly in Utopia, for there, in a great city, and in all the territory that lies round it, you can scarce find five hundred, either men or women, by their age and strength, are capable of labour, that are not engaged in it; even the Syphogrants, though excused by the law, yet do not excuse themselves, but work, that by their examples they may excite the industry of the rest of the people. The like exemption is allowed to those, who being recommended to the people by the priests, are by the secret suffrages of the Syphopgrants privileged from labour, that they may apply themselves wholly to study; and if any of these fall short of those hopes that they seemed at first to give, they are obliged to return to work. And sometimes a mechanic, that so employs his leisure hours as to make a considerable advancement in learning, is eased from being a tradesman, and ranked among their learned men. From these their officials are chosen.

“And thus from the great numbers among them that are neither suffered to be idle, nor to be employed in any fruitless labour, you may easily make the estimate how much may be done in those few hours in which they are obliged to labour. But besides all that has been already said, it is to be considered that the needful arts among them are managed with less labour than anywhere else. The building or the repairing of houses among us employ many hands, because often a thriftless heir suffers a house that his father built to fall into decay, so that his successor must, at a great cost, repair that which he might have kept up with a small charge: it frequently happens that the same house which one person built at a vast expense, is neglected by another, who thinks he has a more delicate sense of the beauties of architecture; and he suffering it to fall to ruin, builds another at no less charge. But among the Utopians, all things are so regulated that men very seldom build upon a new piece of ground; and are not only very quick in repairing their houses, but show their foresight in preventing their decay; so that their buildings are preserved very long, with but little labour; and thus the builders to whom that care belongs are often without employment, except the hewing of timber, and the squaring of stones, that the materials may be in readiness for raising a building very suddenly, when there is any occasion for it. As to their clothes, observe how little work is spent in them: while they are at labour, they are clothed with leather and skins, cast carelessly about them, which will last seven years; and when they appear in public they put on an upper garment, which hides the other; and these are all of one colour, and that is the natural colour of the wool. As they need less woollen cloth than is used anywhere else, so that which they make use of is much less costly. They use linen cloth more; but that is prepared with less labour, and they value cloth only by the whiteness of the linen, or the cleanness of the wool, without much regard to the fineness of the thread while in other places, four or five upper garments of woollen cloth, of different colours, and as many vests of silk, will scarce serve one man; and while those that are nicer think ten too few, every man there is content with one, which very often serves him two years. Nor is there anything that can tempt a man to desire more; for if he had them, he would neither be the warmer, nor would he make one jot the better appearance of it. And thus, since they are all employed in some useful labour, and since they content themselves with fewer things, it falls out that there is a great abundance of all things among them: so that it frequently happens, that for want of other work, vast numbers are sent out to mend the highways. But when no public undertaking is to be performed, the hours of working are lessened. The magistrates never engage the people in unnecessary labour.”

It is interesting to compare More’s views with those of Marx regarding the curtailment of working hours in a communistic society. A similar train of thought will be found in both. In Capital we read: “Only by suppressing the capitalist form of production could the length of the working-day be reduced to the necessary labour-time.

“The more the productiveness of labour increases, the more can the working-day be shortened; and the more the working-day is shortened, the more can the intensity of labour increase. From a social point of view, the productiveness increases in the same ratio as the economy of labour, which, in its turn, includes not only economy of the means of production, but also the avoidance of useless labour. The capitalist mode of production, while, on the one hand, enforcing economy in each individual business, on the other hand, begets, by its anarchical system of competition, the most outrageous squandering of labour-power and of the social means of production, not to mention the creation of a vast number of employments, at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous.

“The intensity and productiveness of labour being given, the time which society is bound to devote to material production is shorter, and as a consequence, the time at its disposal for the free development, intellectual and social, of the individual is greater, in proportion as the work is more and more evenly divided among all the able-bodied members of society, and as a particular class is more and more deprived of the power to shift the natural burden of labour from its own shoulders to those of another layer of society. In this direction, the shortening of the working-day finds at last a limit in the generalisation of labour. In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour-time” (Capital, vol.i., pp.539-540).

So much for handicraft and agriculture in Utopia. Both are occupations which possess a certain charm when not pursued to the point of weariness. The labour both of the handicraftsman and of the peasant is not monotonous, but full of variety. Each of them stands in a sort of personal relationship to the products of his labour, which are his pride and his joy. Of course, we are not thinking of the artisan and peasant in capitalist society, who are rather disguised proletarians, producers of surplus-value for the capitalists.

More was justified in assuming that agriculture and handicraft possess enough attraction in themselves to render any strict labour discipline unnecessary. But how does it fare with the unpleasant and repugnant kinds of labour? To provide for their due performance, he invokes the aid of religion, which was still a powerful influence in his time.

“There are many among them (the Utopians) that upon a motive of religion neglect learning, and apply themselves to no sort of study; nor do they allow themselves any leisure time, but are perpetually employed, believing that by the good things that a man does he secures to himself that happiness that comes after death. Some of these visit the sick; others mend highways, cleanse ditches, repair bridges, or dig turf, gravel or stone. Others fell and cleave timber, and bring wood, corn, and other necessaries, on carts, into their towns; nor do these only serve the public, but they serve even private men, more than the slaves themselves do: for if there is anywhere a rough, hard, and sordid piece of work to be done, from which many are frightened by the labour and loathsomeness of it, they cheerfully, and of their own accord, take that to their share; and by that means, as they ease others very much, so they afflict themselves, and spend their whole life in hard labour: and yet they do not value themselves upon this, nor lessen other people’s credit to raise their own; but by their stooping to such servile employments they are so far from being despised, that they are so much the more esteemed by the whole nation.

“Of these there are two sorts: some live unmarried and chaste, and abstain from eating any sort of flesh; and thus weaning themselves from all the pleasures of the present life, which they account hurtful, they pursue, even by the hardest and painfullest methods possible, that blessedness which they hope for hereafter; and the nearer they approach to it, they are the more cheerful and earnest in their endeavours after it. Another sort of them is leas willing to put themselves to much toil, and therefore prefer a married state to a single one; and as they do not deny themselves the pleasure of it, so they think the begetting of children is a debt which they owe to human nature, and to their country; nor do they avoid any pleasure that does not hinder labour; and therefore eat flesh so much the more willingly, as they find that by this means they are the more able to work: the Utopians look upon these as the wiser sect, but they esteem the other as the most holy.”

These ideal, modest, enthusiastic labour monks, who stand in striking contrast to the lazy, dissolute and arrogant monks of More’s time, do not, however, seem sufficient for the performance of unpleasant work, of which there were certain types which a pious man could not bring himself to do – for example, the slaughter of animals, work which inevitably brutalises those who perform it. From such work More desired the Utopians to hold aloof. But the work had to be done. In this difficulty More was obliged to be false to himself, and to prescribe compulsory labour for one clans of the inhabitants of Utopia.

“They do not make slaves of prisoners of war, except those that are taken in battle, nor of the sons of their slaves, nor of those of other nations: the slaves among them are only such as are condemned to that state of life for the commission of some crime, or, which is more common, such as their merchants find condemned to die in those parts to which they trade, whom they sometimes redeem at low rates, and in other places have them for nothing. They are kept at perpetual labour, and are always chained, but with this difference, that their own natives are treated much worse than the rest, and since they could not be restrained by the advantages of so excellent an education, are judged worthy of harder usage.

“Another sort of slaves are the poor of the neighbouring countries, who offer of their own accord to come and serve them: they treat these better, and use them in all other respects as well as their own countrymen, except their imposing more labour upon them, which is no hard task to those that have been accustomed to it; and if any of these have a mind to go back to their own country, which, indeed, falls out but seldom, as they do not force them to stay, so they do not send them away empty-handed.”

But the position of the condemned criminal is not a hopeless one: “For the most part slavery is the punishment even of the greatest crimes, for as that is no less terrible to the criminals themselves than death, so they think the preserving them in a state of servitude is more for the interest of the commonwealth than killing them, since, as their labour is a greater benefit to the public than their death could be, so the eight of their misery is more lasting terror to other men than that which would be given by their death. If their slaves rebel, and will not bear their yoke and submit to the labour that is enjoined them, they are treated as wild beasts that cannot be kept in order, neither by a prison nor by their chains, and are at last put to death. But those who bear their punishment patiently, and are so much wrought on by that pressure that lien so hard on them, that it appears they are really more troubled for the crimes they have committed than for the miseries they suffer, are not out of hope, but that, at last, either the Prince will, by his prerogative, or the people, by their intercession, restore them again to their liberty, or, at least, very much mitigate their slavery.” The work of these bondsmen lies, among other things, in the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. From the slaughterhouses outside the town their beasts are brought into the towns, after they have been killed and prepared by the bondsmen; “for they suffer none of their citizens to kill their cattle, because they think that pity and good-nature, which are among the best of those affections that are born with us, are much impaired by the butchering of animals ... All the uneasy and sordid services about the dining-halls are performed by their slaves.”

So much for work and the workers. We must now describe the economic relations of the whole community to the separate producing communities on the one hand, and to the outside world on the other.

“In their great council at Amaurot, to which there are three sent from every town once a year, they examine what towns abound in provisions and what are under any scarcity, that so the one may be furnished from the other; and this is done freely, without any sort of exchange; for, according to their plenty or scarcity, they supply or are supplied from one another, so that indeed the whole island is, as it were, one family, When they have thus taken care of their whole country, and laid up stores for two years (which they do to prevent the ill consequences of an unfavourable season), they order an exportation of the overplus, both of corn, honey, wool, flax, wood, wax, tallow, leather, and cattle, which they send out, commonly in great quantities, to other nations. They order a seventh part of all these goods to be freely given to the poor of the countries to which they send them, and sell the rest at moderate rates; and by this exchange they not only bring back those few things that they need at home (for, indeed, they scarce need anything but iron), but likewise a great deal of gold and silver; and by their driving this trade so long, it is not to be imagined how vast a treasure they have got among them.” All neighbouring towns and States are indebted to them. The treasures are accumulated merely to permit the recruitment of mercenary troops and the bribing of a section of the enemy in the event of war.

They themselves have no money and thus require no gold, and to prevent any desire therefor arising, “they have fallen upon an expedient which, as it agrees with their other policy, so is it very different from ours, and will scarce gain belief among us who value gold so much, and lay it up so carefully. They eat and drink out of vessels of earth or glass, which make an agreeable appearance, though formed of brittle materials; while they make their chamber-pots and close-stools of gold and silver, and that not only in their public halls, but in their private houses. Of the same metals they likewise make chains and fetters for their slaves, to some of which, as a badge of infamy, they hang an earring of gold, and make others a chain or a coronet of the same metal.”

Such is More’s account of the economic relations of his ideal commonwealth.

2. Criticism

Nobody with any knowledge of the subject would assert that More’s aims are in complete agreement with the tendencies of modern scientific Socialism, which is based on two factors: the development of the proletariat as a class and the development of large-scale machine production, which enlists science in its service and to-day imposes a scheme of systematically organised social labour within each undertaking. Large-scale industry constitutes the technical foundation upon which, as modern Socialism holds, the proletariat will shape production in accordance with its interests, when it becomes a politically decisive factor.

The capitalist mode of production, however, developed its evils at an earlier time than it created the elements which are destined to remove them. The proletariat must become a permanent institution and an important section of the people before it is conscious of itself as a class and can reveal itself to the investigator as the power which will bear the burden of social reorganisation. On the other hand, under the system of commodity production, large-scale industry can only develop in the capitalistic form; it only became possible when large masses of capital had accumulated in a few hands, which were confronted with an army of propertyless, work-seeking proletarians.

Capital and proletariat, mass poverty and great wealth must exist for a long time before they develop the seeds of a new society. So long as such seeds are not disclosed, all attempts to remove the evils of the capitalist mode of production by the introduction of an alternative system are futile, and Socialism is doomed to remain of a Utopian character.

This was still the position at the beginning of the nineteenth century. How much more unfavourable was it in More’s time! At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was already a Labour Movement with definite aims; the only Labour Movement that More was acquainted with consisted of a few secret leagues and despairing revolts of artisan and peasant elements. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the transition from capitalist manufacture to large-scale industry could be clearly perceived. In More’s time capitalism was just beginning to gain the upper hand over the industry and agriculture of England. Its domination had not lasted long enough to effect a technical revolution; the difference between capitalist and simple commodity production was of degree rather than of kind. The worker who wove wool for the merchant did so in the same way as the members of the Weavers’ Guild. The difference consisted merely in the fact that the merchant employed more workers than the master weaver, and that the master weaver’s journeymen had every prospect of becoming masters themselves, while the wage worker of the capitalist merchant had no chance of ever becoming a capitalist. The distinction between the capitalist and the guild mode of production was then only of a social, not of a technical character: handicraft was the basis of one as of the other.

Agriculture was in a like case. The undertakings of capitalist farmers were at first distinguished from those of feudal settlers by their magnitude. There was little to be seen of improvements in methods of cultivation or the use of perfected tools. Men were made superfluous, not by an increase in the productivity of agricultural labour, but by the transition to a ruder form of agricultural production, from cornfields to pasturage.

However obvious, therefore, certain of the evils of capitalism were in More’s time, the technical foundations upon which it was based, and upon which More was obliged to build up his anti-capitalist commonwealth, were still handicraft and peasant agriculture.

It is clear that More could not avoid deviating in many points from modern Socialism. Reactionary as he seems to us in many respects, if one is so foolish as to measure him by the standards of the twentieth and not by the sixteenth century – being, in consequence of the backwardness of the proletariat, an opponent of every popular movement and a champion of constitutional monarchy – More’s Socialism often appears retrogressive in an economic respect. The surprising thing is, however, that in spite of the unfavourable conditions, More’s Socialism does exhibit so many of the most essential features of modern Socialism that he may rightly be counted among modern Socialists.

The unmodern aspects of More’s Communism are the necessary consequences of the mode of production he was obliged to take as his starting-point. The chief of these reactionary features is the attachment of every man to a specific handicraft.

The most important work in modern large-scale industry is assigned to science, which methodically investigates the mechanical and chemical forces employed in production, and also investigates the mechanical and chemical properties of the various materials whose transformation is the object of production, and finally directs the application of the technical principles it has investigated. Only a few easily learned movements in connection with supervising the machinery or the chemical processes are left to the hand worker.

This vacuity and simplicity of manual labour is to-day one of the most important causes of its degrading tendency. It no longer employs or attracts the mind, and is repellent and blunting in its effect. It permits skilled labour to be replaced by unskilled, and strong workers by weak workers. It also frees the capitalists to an increasing extent from the necessity of keeping a staff of skilled workers. And simultaneously the conditions of production are constantly being transformed by the application of science to production, for science does not rest, nor does the pressure of competition to effect new improvements. The machine of yesterday is obsolete to-day, and out of the running to-morrow.

When the proletariat directs production, it will transform these causes of the degradation of the working class into so many instruments for its elevation. The simplification of machine movements renders it possible for the worker to change his work from time to time, bringing into play a number of muscles and nerves whose harmonious activity will impart vitality just as unproductive gymnastics do to-day. Successively engaged in the most diverse occupations, he will then become conscious of his latent capabilities, and from a machine will become a free man. And the simultaneous preoccupation with the sciences, which will come with a shorter working day, will restore intellectual meaning to his work, by disclosing its connection with the totality of technical and economic processes and their roots.

Instead of changes of work, which is only possible with large-scale production, and will also be necessary if the working class is not to degenerate, More prescribes the attachment of every worker to a specific handicraft. In handicraft the handling of the tool and the knowledge of its effect upon the raw material is not the result of methodical and scientific investigation, but is the accumulation of personal, often haphazard, experiences. This is also the case with manufacture, where, however, each division of production is split up into various detail processes, to each of which a worker is permanently assigned, and to learn which does not, of course, require as much time as is necessary to learn all the movements and methods of a specific process of production. While it is necessary in manufacture to keep a worker for a long time at his detail process, in order to acquire the needful skill to make his labour as productive as possible, in handicraft it is a technical necessity to put a worker to a certain trade in youth, so that from constant intercourse with a skilled master, he may become acquainted with all the traditions of the trade. This apprenticeship did not appear an evil, as handicraft still possessed a certain charm.

But how shall we deal with the work of day labourers, who were already very numerous in More’s time, with the dirty work-slaughtering, sanitary services, etc? These unpleasant labours, a favourite objection of the Philistine to Socialism, have been a thorn in the flesh for all Utopists. Fourier tried to solve the problem by introducing psychological motives, often very ingeniously contrived, into work. More attempted to achieve something similar, as we have seen, by the lever of religion, which was so strong in his time. But as he did not consider this sufficient, he was obliged to have recourse to the compulsory labour of slaves, and to introduce into his commonwealth a class without property and rights working for others. He resorts to all kinds of devices to soften this institution by pointing to persons in that class who might otherwise have been overtaken by a worse fate. To remove the degraded class entirely was impossible for him, given the technical foundation of his speculations. Only modern large-scale industry provides the full opportunity for adjusting the various kinds of work, and so simplifying the residue of unpleasant work as to permit of its alternate performance by all capable of labour, thus abolishing any special compulsion upon an unfortunate class of workers. The distinction between pleasant and unpleasant work has largely disappeared, inasmuch as work which was formerly pleasant has been divested of every attraction. But modern technology has also succeeded in lightening or abolishing many unpleasant tasks. On the whole, however, technology has not hitherto accomplished very much in this direction. To make work more pleasant is not the task which capitalism assigns to it. Capitalism desires a saving of labour-power, even though the unpleasantness of work be increased. Only when the working class exercises a decisive influence upon the mode of production, will science be utilised to throw its whole weight into solving the problem of abolishing unpleasant labours. And there is no problem of this kind which modern technology could not solve as soon as it seriously applied itself thereto. Moreover, a great part of the unpleasant work of to-day will be abolished by the transfer of industry to the countryside, of which we shall have to speak.

A third feature which contradicts modern Socialism may be referred to in this connection: the frugality of the Utopians.

More’s intention is – and this is quite a modern feature – to free the citizens of his commonwealth as much as possible from physical labour, in order to procure them leisure for intellectual and social activity. His chief means to this end are the organisation of labour, to avoid all the useless work which the existing anarchy introduces into the economic life, and which was comparatively slight in More’s time, and finally the restriction of wants.

The first two points More has in common with modern Socialism, but not the last. To speak to-day of the necessity of restricting wants, in order to shorten working hours, would imply a strange misconception of the conditions of our age of over-production, where one technical improvement follows another, where the mode of production has reached such a level of productivity that it threatens to burst the framework of capitalism, in order to develop without hindrance.

It was different in More ‘s time. The productivity of handicraft developed very slowly, and sometimes completely ossified. And so it was with peasant agriculture. No considerable increase of production in relation to the number of workers could be expected from a communism established on this foundation. Consequently, wants had to be limited if it was desired to reduce hours of labour.

The effect of capitalism, as More saw it, was not over-production, but scarcity. Pasturage was extended at the expense of agriculture, resulting in a rise in the prices of food, which was partly caused by the flow of silver and gold from America to Europe. What, however, was of greater weight with More in making his Utopians of frugal manners was the senseless luxury of his age. A luxury in clothing as in the furnishing of houses, an excessive pomp, developed, which served not for the satisfaction of an artistic need, but the display of wealth. It is easy to understand why More combated this with great vigour, and why he went to the opposite extreme in clothing his Utopians with skins and uniform woollen garments.

Do not, however, believe that More preached a monkish asceticism. On the contrary, we shall see him revealed as a true Epicurean in respect of harmless enjoyments which did not impose superfluous work upon the community.

Here, as elsewhere, his unmodern ideas appear as limitations imposed upon him by the backwardness of his age, without influencing him to the extent of obscuring the essentially modern character of his ideals.

This becomes obvious when we consider what features More’s Socialism has in common with present-day Socialism, in contrast both to primitive communism, with whose vestiges More became acquainted, and to Plato’s communism, with which, as we know, he was familiar.

We have already noted how world commerce broke down the exclusiveness and restrictions of the primitive community, beyond which even Plato did not advance, as he put the nation as an economic unity in place of the village community.

But world trade also broke down the caste system of the primitive communities.

Like the medieval towns, the Platonic Republic was divided into rigidly defined castes, and Plato’s communism was a privilege of the supreme caste.

On the other hand, the vital principle of capitalism is free competition: equality of competitive conditions for everybody, and therefore abolition of caste distinctions. If capitalism united the small communities into a nation, it also tended to absorb all castes into one nation.

This tendency of capitalism also coincides with More’s communism. It is national in contrast to the local and caste communism of the past, with which More was acquainted by experience and study. In this, he was more modern than present-day Anarchism, which aims at splitting up the nation into independent groups and communes.

We have seen that the Senate of the Utopians consists of delegates from the various communities; it is this representative body of the nation which organises production, estimates the needs which it is to supply, and divides the labour produce according to the results of these statistics. The local communities are not commodity producers, exchanging their products for those of other communities. Each one produces for the whole nation. The nation, and not the local community, is also the owner of the means of production; above all, of the land. And not the local community, but the Commonwealth as a whole sells to foreign countries the superfluity of products and receives the proceeds of such sale. Gold and silver constitute the war chest of the nation.

The equality of all members of the community, however, which under capitalism only implies an equality of competitive conditions, becomes, under More’s communism, an equal obligation of all to labour. This great principle connects it most closely with modern Socialism, and distinguishes it most sharply from Plato’s communism, which is a communism of non-workers, of exploiters. The privileged class of the Platonic Republic, the “guardians,” who alone practise communism, regarded work as something degrading; they lived on the tribute from the working citizens.

There is only one unimportant exception from the equal obligation to labour in Utopia: among the able-bodied a few scholars are exempted. This exception was necessary under the system of handicraft, where manual work was too onerous to leave time for mental activity.

The existence of compulsory labour, of course, contravenes the equality of the Utopians. We have seen what the explanation of this contradiction is. Moreover, More himself, in making this concession to the backwardness of the contemporary mode of production, preserved the modern character as much as possible, inasmuch as he made the bondsmen, not a hereditary caste, but a class. The bondsmen are either foreign wage workers, who may change their position if they desire, or declassed persons condemned to forced labour, owing to their misconduct, with the chance of retrieving their characters.

Specially noteworthy and completely in line with present-day Socialism is the equal obligation to work imposed on man and woman, the assigning to woman an industrial vocation. Women as well as men must learn a handicraft. We shall revert to the subject of woman’s work in the next chapter.

An important and characteristic feature of the mode of production of the Utopians has yet to be mentioned: the removal of the antagonism between town and country.

This problem is a wholly modern one, due to the concentration of industry in the towns. In More’s time the solution of the problem was not so pressing as it is to-day. Yet the antagonism between town and country had already developed pretty considerably in many countries. This may be inferred from the rise of pastoral poetry (first in Italy in the fifteenth century) which expressed the longing of the townsman for the country.

More had a particularly good opportunity to observe the tendency of the modern mode of production to increase the size of the great towns, for London was one of the most rapidly growing towns of that time.

More himself left London as often as he could to stay in the village of Chelsea.

The conditions of London and More’s own inclinations combined to convince him of the necessity for abolishing the antagonism between town and country.

This can only be done by transferring industry to the countryside, by combining industrial with agricultural labour. If, however, this adjustment is not to lead to general rustication, the technical means must exist to remove that isolation which is necessarily bound up with small peasant farming, means for the communication of ideas by other methods than personal intercourse – newspapers, post, telegraph, telephone, must be highly developed, as well as means for the transport of products, machines, raw materials, and persons: railways, steamers, motor traffic. Finally, every agricultural undertaking must be so extensive as to permit of the concentration of a larger number of workers in one spot.

All these preliminary conditions were entirely absent in More’s time. His aim, however, was a higher level of mental culture, not the rustication of the whole people. This combination of agricultural with industrial labour was, therefore, impossible for him, and he was obliged to content himself with prescribing a certain period of agricultural labour for every citizen, making children familiar with it from an early age, and setting a limit to the size of the towns. We shall learn that no town might number more or less than 6,000 families, comprising ten to sixteen adults. These devices do not, of course, harmonise with modern Socialism, but they were a necessity imposed upon More by the small-scale production of his time.

We observe again that More’s aims are modern, but their realisation was prevented by the backwardness of the mode of production of his time. This was sufficiently developed to enable an observer like More, methodically trained and specially cognisant of the economic conditions, and under the particularly favourable circumstances which England then offered, to perceive its tendencies, but not far enough developed to disclose the means of overcoming these tendencies.

Thus More’s communism is modern in most of its tendencies, and unmodern in most of its expedients.


Last updated on 23.11.2003