Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part III.


1. Description

The mode of production determines the type of the household, and the latter determines the forms of the family and of marriage, as well as the position of woman. Let us see how More would organise these relationships in his ideal commonwealth. In this connection his attitude towards the population question may be dealt with.

“As their cities are composed of families, so their families are made up of those that are nearly related to one another. Their women, when they grow up, are married out, but all the males, both children and grandchildren, live still in the same house, in great obedience to their common parent, unless age has weakened his understanding, and in that case he that is next to him in age comes in his room; but lest any city should become either too great, or by any accident be dispeopled, provision is made that none of their cities may contain above six thousand families, besides those of the country around it. No family may have less than ten and more than sixteen persons in it, but there can be no determined number for the children under age; this rule is easily observed by removing some of the children of a more fruitful couple to any other family that does not abound so much in them. By the same rule they supply cities that do not increase so fast from others that breed faster; and if there is any increase over the whole island, number of their citizens then they draw out a out of the several towns and send them over to the neighbouring continent, where, if they find that the inhabitants have more soil than they can well cultivate, they fix a colony, taking the inhabitants into their society if they are willing to live with them; and where they do that of their own accord, they quickly enter into their method of life and conform to their rules, and this proves a happiness to both nations; for, according to their constitution, such care is taken of the soil that it becomes fruitful enough for both, though it might be otherwise too narrow and barren for any one of them. But if the natives refuse to conform themselves to their laws they drive them out of those bounds which they mark out for themselves, and use force if they resist, for they account it a very just cause of war for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated, since every man has, by the law of nature, a right to such a waste portion of the earth as is necessary for his subsistence. If an accident has so lessened the number of the inhabitants of any of their towns that it cannot be made up from the other towns of the island without diminishing them too much (which is said to have fallen out but twice since they were first a people, when great numbers were carried off by the plague), the loss is then supplied by recalling as many as are wanted from their colonies, for they will abandon these rather than suffer the towns in the island to sink too low.

“But to return to their manner of living in society the oldest man of every family, as has been already said, is its governor; wives serve their husbands, and children their parents, and always the younger serves the elder. Every city is divided into four equal parts, and in the middle of each there is a market-place. What is brought thither, and manufactured by the several families, is carried from thence to houses appointed for that purpose, in which all things of a sort are laid by themselves; and thither every father goes, and takes whatsoever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange. There is no reason for giving a denial to any person, since there is such plenty of everything among them; and there is no danger of a man’s asking for more than he needs; they have no inducements to do this, since they are sure they shall always be supplied: it is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous; but, besides fear, there is in man a pride that makes him fancy it a particular glory to excel others in pomp and excess; but by the laws of the Utopians, there is no room for this.”

Near these markets were the provision markets, where cattle was brought already slaughtered and purified, as we have seen. The slaughtering was done outside the town by a brook, to spare the town the infection of ill-smells.

“In every street there are great halls, that lie at an equal distance from each other, distinguished by particular names. The Syphogrants dwell in those that are set over thirty families, fifteen lying on one side of it, and as many on the other. In these halls they all meet and have their repasts; the stewards of every one of them come to the market-place at an appointed hour, and according to the number of those that belong to the hall they carry home provisions. But they take more care of their sick than of any others; who are lodged in hospitals situated without every town, and so conveniently appointed that every sick person prefers treatment in the hospital to remaining at home.

“At the hours of dinner and supper the whole Syphogranty being called together by sound of trumpet, they meet and eat together, except only such as are in the hospitals or lie sick at home. Yet, after the halls are served no man is hindered to carry provisions home from the market-place, for they know that none does that but for some good reason; for though any that will may eat at home, yet none does it willingly, since it is both ridiculous and foolish for any to give themselves the trouble to make ready an ill dinner at home when there is a much more plentiful one made ready for him so near hand. All the uneasy and sordid services about these halls are performed by their slaves; but the dressing and cooking their meat, and the ordering of their tables, belong only to the women, all those of every family taking it by turns. They sit at three or more tables, according to their number; the men sit towards the wall, and the women sit on the other side, that if any of them should be taken suddenly ill, which is no uncommon case amongst women with child, she may, without disturbing the rest, rise and go to the nurses’ room (who are there with the sucking children), where there is always clean water at hand and cradles, in which they may lay the young children if there is occasion for it, and a fire, that they may shift and dress them before it. Every child is nursed by its own mother if death or sickness does not intervene; and in that case the Syphogrants’ wives find out a nurse quickly, which is no hard matter, for any one that can do it offers herself cheerfully; for as they are much inclined to that piece of mercy, so the child whom they nurse considers the nurse as its mother. All the children under five years old sit among the nurses; the rest of the younger sort of both sexes, till they are fit for marriage, either serve those that sit at table, or, if they are not strong enough for that, stand by them in great silence and eat what is given them; nor have they any other formality of dining.”

This is followed by a detailed account of the common meal times, which we must omit, as it contains nothing essential and important and would take us too far out of our way. The description concludes in the following manner

“They despatch their dinners quickly, but sit long at supper, because they go to work after the one, and are to sleep after the other, during which they think the stomach carries on the concoction more vigorously. They never sup without music, and there is always fruit served up after meat; while they are at table some burn perfumes and sprinkle about fragrant ointments and sweet waters – in short, they want nothing that may cheer up their spirits; they give themselves a large allowance that way, and indulge themselves in all such pleasures as are attended with no inconvenience. Thus do those that are in the towns live together; but in the country, where they live at a great distance, every one eats at home, and no family wants any necessary sort of provision, for it is from them that provisions are sent unto those that live in the towns.”

So much for the household of the Utopians. Their marriage customs are described in the chapter on slavery: “Their women are not married before eighteen nor their men before two-and-twenty, and if any of them run into forbidden embraces before marriage they are severely punished, and the privilege of marriage is denied them unless they can obtain a special warrant from the Prince. Such disorders cast a great reproach upon the master and mistress of the family in which they happen, for it is supposed that they have failed in their duty. The reason of punishing this so severely is, because they think that if they were not strictly restrained from all vagrant appetites, very few would engage in a state in which they venture the quiet of their whole lives, by being confined to one person, and are obliged to endure all the inconveniences with which it is accompanied. In choosing their wives they use a method that would appear to us very absurd and ridiculous, but it is constantly observed among them, and is accounted perfectly consistent with wisdom. Before marriage some grave matron presents the bride, naked, whether she is a virgin or a widow, to the bridegroom, and after that some grave man presents the bridegroom, naked, to the bride. We, indeed, both laughed at this, and condemned it as very indecent. But they, on the other hand, wondered at the folly of the men of all other nations, who, if they are but to buy a horse of a small value, are so cautious that they will see every part of him, and take off both his saddle and all his other tackle, that there may be no secret ulcer hid under any of them, and that yet in the choice of a wife, on which depends the happiness or unhappiness of the rest of his life, a man should venture upon trust, and only see about a hand’s-breadth of the face, all the rest of the body being covered, under which may lie hid what may be contagious as well as loathsome. All men are not so wise as to choose a woman only for her good qualities, and even wise men consider the body as that which adds not a little to the mind, and it is certain there may be some such deformity covered with clothes as may totally alienate a man from his wife, when it is too late to part with her; if such a thing is discovered after marriage a man has no remedy but patience; they, therefore, think it is reasonable that there should be good provision made against such mischievous frauds.

“There was so much the more reason for them to make a regulation in this matter, because they are the only people of those parts that neither allow of polygamy nor of divorces, except in the case of adultery or insufferable perverseness, for in these cases the Senate dissolves the marriage and grants the injured person leave to marry again; but the guilty are made infamous and are never allowed the privilege of a second marriage. None are suffered to put away their wives against their wills, from any great calamity that may have fallen on their persons, for they look on it as the height of cruelty and treachery to abandon either of the married persons when they need mast the tender care of their consort, and that chiefly in the case of old age, which, as it carries many diseases along with it, so it is a disease of itself. But it frequently falls out that when a married couple do not well agree, they, by mutual consent, separate, and find out other persons with whom they hope they may live more happily; yet this is not done without obtaining leave of the Senate, which never admits of a divorce but upon a strict enquiry made, both by the senators and their wives, into the grounds upon which it is desired, and even when they are satisfied concerning the reasons of it they go on but slewly, for they imagine that too great easiness in granting leave for new marriages would very much shake the kindness of married people. They punish severely those that defile the marriage bed; if both parties are married they are divorced, and the injured persons may marry one another, or whom they please, but the adulterer and the adulteress are condemned to slavery, yet if either of the injured persons cannot shake off the love of the married person they may live with them still in that state, but they must follow them to that labour to which the slaves are condemned, and sometimes the repentance of the condemned, together with the unshaken kindness of the innocent and injured person, has prevailed so far with the Prince that he has taken off the sentence; but those that relapse after they are once pardoned are punished with death.”

To this account a few sentences may be added which throw light on the position of women in Utopia. “Husbands have power to correct their wives and parents to chastise their children, unless the fault is so great that a public punishment is thought necessary for striking terror into others.”

“But as they force no man to go into any foreign war against his will, so they do not hinder those women who are willing to go along with their husbands; on the contrary, they encourage and praise them, and they stand often next their husbands in the front of the army. They also place together those who are related, parents, and children, kindred, and those that are mutually allied, near one another; that those whom nature has inspired with the greatest zeal for assisting one another may be the nearest and readiest to do it; and it is a matter of great reproach if husband or wife survive one another, or if a child survives his parent.”

“The wives of their priests are the most extraordinary women of the whole country; sometimes the women themselves are made priests, though that falls out but seldom, nor are any but ancient widows chosen into that order.”

These quotations suffice to describe the marriage and family customs of the Utopians.

2. Criticism

We have already shown in what amiable detail the common meals of the Utopians are described. This is not chance, nor More’s personal predilection, but is part of the essence of his Communism. Large-scale industry, which is the starting-point of modern Socialism, is a system of social labour; a large-scale undertaking requires the systematic co-operation of hundreds, even thousands, of men, women, and children. What modern Socialism aims at is the extension of this social character of work within the individual undertaking to the whole field of production, and the adaptation of the mode of appropriation to the mode of production. The partially social character of work as it exists to-day is the starting-point of the communistic character of the commonwealth which modern Socialism labours to achieve.

Handicraft and peasant agriculture, which formed More’s starting-point, on the contrary, imply the isolation of numerous small concerns. Consequently, More was obliged to lay all the greater stress upon the social character of meals and pleasures. Sociality in this sphere is a point of secondary importance for modern Socialism, but a vital condition for More’s Socialism. In this respect, More has closer affinity with the so-called socialistic phenomena of Antiquity, above all, with Platonic Communism, than with present-day Socialism.

The common meals, however, were important for More not only as a means of cementing social cohesion, but as a partial means of emancipating woman from household labours.

This brings us to an aspect of the question which generally furnished a goon test for the character of a socialistic system.

The starting-point of modern proletarian Socialism is large-scale industry, a mode of production which transforms the various branches of work of the individual household into public services.

Women’s work in the home becomes not only increasingly superfluous, but also an increasingly intolerable burden, both for the wife and the husband.

Simultaneously, large-scale industry increases the opportunities and the advantages of employing women fin industry. Women are thus drawn away from the narrowness and isolation of their households into a wider life.

The emancipation of women from the household involves their political emancipation. An equal footing for the sexes in public life is advocated by every modern proletarian socialist, as it was by the great Utopians.

In this respect More anticipated a principle of modern Socialism before the material conditions existed upon which this principle could be based.

By his ordinance of common meals More only partially achieved the emancipation of women from the separate household, as he had perforce to leave one of its strongest supports standing: the peasant and handicraft mode of production, which determined that a separate household should correspond to every separate unit of production, as was typically developed in the Roman family. The Roman word familia signifies, in fact, not the whole of the blood relatives, but the whole of those allied in a specific unit of production.

It was natural that the wife and children of a peasant should work with him in tilling the land, tending the cattle, etc., and, of course, his grandchildren when the size of the concern required it. But the slaves who, in addition to these relatives, were employed in the under-taking, likewise belonged to the Roman family. Children who left the concern, such as daughters to be married, ceased to belong to the family. The head of the family was the director of the undertaking, and as such the members of the family owed him unquestioning obedience. The children of the Roman family occupied the same position towards him as the slaves, and it is characteristic that the son could only become free from the supremacy of the father by being sold by him, at least in appearance, as a slave.

The patriarchal peasant family and household of the Middle Ages was organised in a similar manner, although its divisions were not so rigid. All those who took part in the direction of a separate peasant undertaking formed an economic unit.

Even with medieval handicraft every undertaking formed a household, a family in itself, excluding the children of the master engaged in other undertakings, but including the apprentices and journeymen, whether or not they were related to the master. Many trade secrets were family secrets, handed down from father to son. Sometimes the business was exclusively confined to the family (in the sense of blood-relationship). In the case of the medieval handicraftsman, as in that of the peasant, the business and the household were closely bound up with each other.

On the other hand, a typical capitalist business is quite separate from the household of its owner and manager. This allows the wage workers to set up a home of their own, which the guild journeymen could not do, but it also permits the workers to starve while the master lives in luxury, whereas under guild handicraft both feasted at the same table. As capitalism reacted upon handicraft, the unity of business and household was gradually broken down. With the peasant, however, it has generally lasted until to-day.

In More’s time the household both in agriculture and industry was still firmly attached to the business.

Although More loosened this attachment by his common meals, so far as the town workers were concerned, he could not entirely sever it. Consequently, we find the patriarchal family in his pages in almost classical form. The families of the Utopians are productive associations, like the handicraft families of the Middle Ages, connected for the most part by ties of blood. The size of these families is determined by technical considerations. The peasant families are larger than the handicraft families; the former number at least forty, the latter only ten to sixteen adults. Redundant members of one family fill the gap in another family.

When More grafted the patriarchal family on to his Utopian commonwealth, he could not escape its consequences, although he tried to neutralise them as much as possible, so far as they were unfavourable to women.

He not only left intact a certain degree of subordination of the wife to the husband, but also preserved the forms of sexual relationships peculiar to the patriarchal family – the requirement of pre-nuptial maiden chastity, and strict prohibition of adultery. These prescriptions were so deeply rooted that they have undergone little change in the last four centuries, and it was difficult for More to escape their influence. The most he could do was to soften the harshness of marriage relationships. But in some respects he has even accentuated this strictness, by extending the limitations imposed on women to men, instead of giving women the freedom of men.. Thus he requires both sexes to observe pre-nuptial chastity, and forbids either to commit adultery. In respect of divorce, he introduces some trifling relaxations. Yet he requires that marriage should rest on mutual inclination, a necessary provision if the wife is not to be the slave of the husband, and if the latter is to be forbidden extra-marital intercourse. To obviate subsequent repentance and desire for divorce, he adopts the expedient of introducing bride and bridegroom to each other in a nude state.

Such hair-splitting is the necessary result of the attempt to explore the possibilities of realising an idea, while the actual conditions were only developed far enough to give an impulse to this idea, without providing the conditions necessary for its realisation.

In his analysis of the family and marriage More’s genius encountered more difficulties from the actual conditions which surrounded him than in his analysis of the mode of production. Consequently, we find in the former to a greater extent than in the latter principles peculiar to modern Socialism mixed up with those that belong to a past mode of production, and a past form of the family. The principle of common meals, the participation of women in public life, in war and in the priesthood, as well as in the choice of officials, are modern principles, while the maintenance of the subordination of woman and of the patriarchal separate household conflict with the tendencies of modern Socialism, and even with the tendencies of More’s own Socialism.

He has little in common with Plato in the sphere we are discussing. It is difficult to decide whether More was ever enthusiastic for the community of women. Erasmus, who tells us this, understood More’s Socialism too little to rank as a trustworthy source of information on this question. We know that in Utopia More advocated strict monogamy and the free choice of partners, and was thus in direct conflict with Plato, who advocates the community of women and sexual selection from above, both of which institutions run counter to modern feeling.

If More is further from Plato than from us in this respect, both are much alike, and deviate from modern Socialism, in their attitude towards the population question. They both consider it necessary for the population of their ideal community to remain stationary. The means to this end are different in each case. Child exposure and abortion, which Plato proposed as something obvious, never entered More’s head, who recommended a socialistic colonial and emigration policy, which was in stark contradiction to the policy of his time. He did not desire the subjugation and exploitation of the natives, but their admission into the new polity as citizens with equal rights and their participation in the higher mode of production brought to them by the colonists.

He was, however, as much constrained as Plato to assume that the population should remain at a given level, as both of them based their commonwealths on husbandry and handicraft. These forms of production are conservative, they develop the productive power of labour but slowly and imperceptibly, frequently ossifying when they reach a certain level. Once the whole of the fertile soil of a country is occupied, any substantial increase in the population is impossible on the basis of peasant agriculture without inflicting harm on the community.

The population question assumes another shape when large-scale undertakings in industry and agriculture arise. This form of production invokes the aid of science, by whose tireless researches and discoveries it is constantly revolutionised. The productivity of labour is continuously increased, and a certain steady growth of the population is thereby rendered possible. The productivity of labour will increase with the development of the division of labour within society, with the restriction of each separate undertaking to the manufacture of a specific article upon a wholesale scale. The steady growth of this mass production and of the possibility of marketing these products is a preliminary condition for the progress of the mode of production under modern technical conditions. Such a growth is possible by raising the standard of life, and thus increasing individual consumption, by increasing the number of consumers, either by extending the area of the market or by augmenting the population.

Under certain circumstances it may be necessary to regulate the pace of this growth. A limitation of the population to a specific number, as More advocated, and was obliged to advocate, is, however, contrary to the modern mode of production, as it is to modern Socialism.


Last updated on 23.11.2003