Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part III.


AFTER More has given in detail the picture of an ideal society which forms the enact opposite of the society of his time, at the conclusion of Utopia he once more flings down the gauntlet in a vehement apostrophe.

Modern Socialism has hardly emitted a sharper criticism of society than is contained in the sentences with which Hythloday concludes his account of the Utopians.

“Thus have I described to you, as particularly as I could, the constitution of that commonwealth, which I do not only think the beat in the world, but indeed the only commonwealth that truly deserves that name. In all other places it is visible, that while people talk of a commonwealth every man seeks his own wealth; but there, where no man has any property, all men zealously pursue the good of the public; and, indeed, it is no wonder to see men act so differently; for in other commonwealths every man knows that unless he provides for himself, how flourishing soever the commonwealth may be, he must die of hunger; so that he sees the necessity of preferring his own concerns to the public; but in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full, no private man can want anything; for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties; neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife? He is not afraid of the misery of his children, nor is he contriving how to raise a portion for his daughters, but is secure in this, that both he and his wife, his children and grandchildren, to as many generations as he can fancy, will all live both plentifully and happily; since among them there is no less care taken of those who were once engaged in labour, but grow afterwards unable to follow it, than there is elsewhere of those that continue still employed. I would gladly hear any man compare the justice that is among them with that of all other nations; among whom, may I perish, if I see anything that looks either like justice or equity: for what justice is there in this, that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or at best is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour, upon what is so ill acquired; and a mean man, a Carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood, and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? For as the beasts do not work so constantly, so they feed almost as well, and with more pleasure; and have no anxiety about what is to come, whilst these men are depressed by a barren and fruitless employment, and tormented with the apprehensions of want in their old age; since that which they get by their daily labour does but maintain them at present, and is consumed as fast as it comes in, there is no overplus left to lay up for old age.

“Is not that government both unjust and ungrateful, that is so prodigal of its favours to those that are called gentlemen, or goldsmiths, or such others who are idle, or live either by flattery, or by contriving the arts of vain pleasure; and on the other hand, takes no care of those of a meaner sort, such as ploughmen, colliers, and smiths, without whom it could not subsist? But after the public has reaped all the advantage of their service, and they come to be oppressed with age, sickness, and want, all their labours and the good they have done is forgotten; and all the recompense given them is that they are left to die in great misery. The richer sort are often endeavouring to bring the hire of labourers lower, not only by their fraudulent practices, but by the laws which they procure to be made to that effect; so that though it is a thing most unjust in itself, to give such small rewards to those who deserve so well of the public, yet they have given those hardships the name and colour of justice, by procuring laws to be made for regulating them.

“Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who on pretence of managing the public only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that that they have so ill acquired, and then that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they pleasure. And if they can but prevail to get these contrivances established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws. Yet these wicked men after they have, by a most insatiable covetousness, divided that among themselves with which all the rest might have been well supplied, are far from that happiness that is enjoyed among the Utopians; for the use as well as the desire of money being extinguished, much anxiety and great occasions of mischief is cut off with it. And who does not see that the frauds, thefts, robberies, quarrels, tumults, contentions, seditions, murders, treacheries, and witchcrafts, which are indeed rather punished than restrained by the severities of law, would all fall off, if money were not any more valued by the world? Men’s fears, solicitudes, cares, labours, and watchings, would all perish in the same moment with the value of money; even poverty itself, for the relief of which money seems most necessary, would fall.”

Compared with this bold criticism, which attacks society at its roots, how limited does not the much belauded action of Luther appear, who commenced a year after the appearance of Utopia to preach against, not indulgences themselves, but the abuse of indulgences, and was impelled to take further steps not by a logical process going on in his mind, but by the logic of facts! And yet while the whole might of Rome was eventually summoned against the man who attacked the abuse of indulgences, without purposing to make any change in the ecclesiastical organisation, no molestation was offered to the man whose doctrines tended to sap the very foundations of society; and the advocate of a Church who was as uncatholic, and in many respects even unchristian, as any one of the reformed churches, became a martyr of the Catholic religion.

Strange as this difference in treatment appears, there was good reason for it. Luther addressed himself to the masses; he expressed the interests of powerful classes and parties. More, with his aspirations, stood alone; he addressed only a small circle of scholars, the people did not understand him and he did not desire to be understood by the people. He therefore wrote his Utopia in Latin, and concealed his thoughts in the garment of satire, which to be sure permitted him greater freedom in the expression of his opinions.

This brings us to the last question which remains tc be answered: What did More aim at in his Utopia?

We know that some regard it merely as an imitation of the Platonic Republic, while others declare it to be an idle fantasy.

We believe, however, that we have sufficiently shown that More’s Communism differs essentially from that of Plato, and instead of being “a splendid fruit of the study of antiquity,” as Rudhart would have us believe in his Thomas Morus, it is the product of the social evils and incipient economic tendencies of the Renascence; and that it is based on living actualities, and not on antiquarian book wisdom.

The idea that it was written as a jest may be dismissed. It was taken very seriously by More’s contemporaries. Budaeus, for example, wrote to Lupsetus: “We are greatly indebted to Thomas More for his Utopia, in which he holds up to the world a model of social felicity. Our age and our posterity will regard this exposition as a source of excellent doctrines and useful ordinances, from which States will construct their institutions.” Numerous other contemporaries of More express themselves in a similar sense, scholars and statesmen like Johannes Paludanus, Paulus Jonius and Hieronymus Buslidianus.

Stapleton has collected a number of pronouncements upon Utopia all of which are couched in the terms of the above quotation. All saw in Utopia a book which gives directions to rulers how to govern their States.

And this was quite in accordance with the trend of that time. In the view then prevailing, everything was possible to a prince, and to those who gained the support of a prince. More’s age was marked by a plethora of directions to princes. Macchiavelli’s Prince and Erasmus’ Manual for Christian Princes were composed at the same time as Utopia, and we have not the slightest reason for doubting that the aim of the latter was the same as the aim of the former: to show princes how they should govern.

And Utopia even pursued the special object of influencing the government and constitution of England. This is not only shown very distinctly in the first book, but Erasmus, who ought to have known it, relates this fact in his well-known letter to Hutten: “He published his Utopia for the purpose of showing, what are the things that occasion mischief in commonwealths; having the English Constitution especially in view.”

The island of Utopia is, in fact, England. More designed to show how England would look, and what shape her relations with abroad would assume, if she were communistically organised.

The analogy may be traced with exactitude: The island is separated from the Continent only by a channel 21 miles wide. The description of the capital, Amaurot, is a true description of London. Stow, in his Survey of London, vol.ii,, p.458, finds a perfect correspondence between the two towns.

Historians and economists who are perplexed by Utopia perceive in this name a subtle hint by More that he himself regarded his communism as an impracticable dream.

In all the discussions about the Utopians there is only one element of a fantastic nature, and that is not the goal that was aimed at, but the ways and means of achieving it. More saw only one force which could carry communism into effect, and this he mistrusted. He has shown us in his Utopia in what manner he conceived that communism would be enforced. A prince named Utopus conquered the country, and impressed on it the stamp of his mind; all institutions in Utopia are to be traced to him. He thought out the general plan of the commonwealth and then put it into execution.

In this way More conceived the realisation of his ideals: he was the father of Utopian Socialism, which was rightly named after his Utopia. The latter is Utopian less on account of the impracticability of its aims than on account of the inadequacy of the means at its disposal for their achievement.

We know that More could not help being an Utopist. As yet there was no party, no class to champion Socialism; the decisive political power, on which the State seemed to depend, were the princes, then a young, and in a sense a revolutionary element, without defined traditions: why should not one of them be converted to Communism? If such a prince desired, he could enforce Communism. If no prince so desired, the poverty of the people was unalterable. So thought More, and from this standpoint he was impelled to make an attempt to convert a prince. But he was by no means deceived as to the hopelessness of his task. He knew the princes of his time too well.

He concludes Utopia with the following words, after inserting a saving clause that he did not agree with all that Hythloday had related: “However, there are many things in the commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.”

In this conclusion lies the whole tragedy of More’s fate, the whole tragedy of a genius who divines the problems of his age before the material conditions exist for their solution; the whole tragedy of a character who feels obliged to grapple with the solution of the problems which the age has presented, to champion the rights of the oppressed against the arrogance of the ruling classes, even when he stands alone and his efforts have no prospect of success.

More proved the grandeur of his character when he ascended the scaffold because he would not sacrifice his conviction to a princely caprice. It was already recognised by his contemporaries, who could not, however, grasp the magnitude of his genius, much as they praised it. Only in modern times, with the rise of scientific Socialism, has it become possible to do full justice to More the Socialist. Only since the second half of the nineteenth century have the aims of Socialism as a historic phenomenon been so obvious as to render it possible to separate the essential from the unessential, the permanent from the transitory in the beginnings of the Socialist Movement. Only with this has it become possible to perceive what in Utopia is the fantastic amusement of an idle hour, what is the echo of the past, what is a presentiment of the future, and what is historical fact.

And nothing speaks more eloquently for the greatness of the man, nothing shows more distinctly how he towered above his contemporaries, than that it required more than three centuries before the conditions existed which enable us to perceive that he set himself aims which are not the idle dreaming of a leisure hour, but the result of a profound insight into the essentials of the economic tendencies of his age. Although Utopia is more than four hundred years old, the ideals of More are not vanquished, but still lie before striving mankind.


Last updated on 23.11.2003