Thomas More and Utopia

Thomas More was born 500 years ago this month. There is an interesting (though badly lit) exhibition at the National Gallery in London marking the event. A well known figure in his own day, he is known now to most schoolchildren as an adviser to Henry VIII. But More was not just a statesman. He was a highly successful lawyer and an important diplomat. Above all he was a scholar and writer of an enormous number of Latin works. He was also a religious fanatic who found time among all his other activities to persecute those he considered swerved a hair’s breadth from the true faith. As every schoolchild knows, he eventually quarrelled with his patron Henry VIII and suffered the same grisly fate that Henry reserved for many others, including some of his wives.


So what possible interest can a revolutionary party have in this man? The answer is that he wrote a little Latin joke, called Utopia. Unfortunately that book is not as well known to the schoolchild historian as the other, more colourful, events in More’s life.

More lived at a time when the break-up of classical feudal society was being completed. The rise of the merchant class was progressing, wage-labour was becoming the norm, and in general terms the development of capitalist society had started. It was a development that would take many centuries to complete. Nevertheless the time of More witnessed a big step forward in this historic, event.

As to why a man like More, a man of his time, wrote Utopia, it is hard to say. More was a mass of contradictions. Despite his religious ferocity, in his personal life he displayed other characteristics. Erasmus wrote of him that he had “a special hatred of tyranny and a great fancy for equality.” Perhaps such a statement must not be read at its face value—after all the circumstances in which More lived cried out of inequality. Nonetheless one can probably accept what Erasmus wrote as regards his personality: “In company his extraordinary kindness and sweetness of temper are such as to cheer the dullest spirits, and alleviate the annoyance of the most trying circumstances.” As for his “learning” in the classical sense, all his contemporaries vouch for him as one of the great scholars of his age. Karl Kautsky gave as the reasons for More’s writing an amazing work like Utopia the following: “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.”

Whatever the reasons for the book’s appearance, irrespective of the formal Latin in which it was written and taking into account the society out of which it comes, More’s book is still worth reading today. Utopia—the name literally means “no place”—is an island where King Utopus has established an ideal commonwealth. More’s book takes the form of a conversation with Raphael Hythloday (the name probably meaning in Greek—“pedlar of nonsense”) who had lived in this ideal commonwealth for several years. In the first part of the book Hythloday, More and others discuss the failure of civilization as they know it, in contrast to Utopia. In the second part Hythloday describes in detail life in Utopia.

Among the things Hythloday explains about Utopia are the system of government, the work done, the relations between the people, family life, economic relations, inter-state relations, and the designs of cities and houses. However, More is ambiguous (quite possibly deliberately) about much of Utopian life. For example, on the whole, money does not play the part More’s society, and even more so our own, have assigned to it. For example, distribution of goods takes place according to the classic socialist principle “To each according to his need.” Hythloday explains that all produce is brought to the common market (sic) place. Here says Hythloday “the head of each household looks for what he or his family needs, and carries off what he wants without any sort of payment or compensation. Why should anything be refused him? There is plenty of everything, and no reason to fear that anyone will claim more than he needs.” He goes on to point out that it is only fear of want that makes everyone greedy, thus anticipating, by nearly 350 years, what Marx and Engels pointed out in Part 1 of German Ideology. Yet in other places, the work is not quite so explicit on the role of money.


Of most interest in Utopia is the discussion of property. Again More is somewhat ambiguous. Nevertheless it can be said that the view of private property that is put forward is one of complete rejection of this form of social arrangement. Private property, Hythloday explains, prevents justice and happiness. He doubts whether “equality can be achieved where property belongs to individual men. However abundant goods may be, when everyman tries to get as much as he can for his own exclusive use, a handful of men end up sharing the whole thing.” How true!

Not that More is consistent in his discussion of property. After all, the Utopians have slaves! Which leads to another interesting aspect of the work, the condemnation of wage-labour. The Socialist points out that wage-labour results in poverty for the many and plenty for the few, at a time when there could be abundance for all.

It could be that More’s attack on wage-labour is merely that of a quasi-feudal aristocrat. He is objecting perhaps not to wage-labour, but to its converse, developing capitalist production. One argument is that in a picture of a society that accepts and uses slaves (albeit a far more humane and “justifiable” slavery than has ever really existed) and condemns wage-labour, More is actually urging a reactionary step back to ancient times (possibly influenced by Plato)  rather than presenting a revolutionary vision of a communal society. However, it can also be argued that Utopia’s rejection of wage-labour is so strong that it must be what More really felt. Hythlodlay compares the life of a wage-worker with that of a beast of burden, and concludes that in some respects, a beast is better off. And in explaining that in Utopia people do work Hythloday says this: “But no one has to exhaust himself with endless toil from early morning to late at night, as if he were a beast of burden. Such wretchedness, really worse than slavery, is the common lot of workmen in all countries except Utopia.”


There is much in More’s book that a Socialist would criticize. Nonetheless, the work is a stimulating sketch of how it is possible to re-organize society, and of the problems engendered by property relations. To that extent the work is still of interest. Utopia, whether as a joke or political propaganda, was exceptionally influential in the years after More’s death. Many of the early settlers in America were influenced to the extent of trying to develop communities on the lines of Utopia. In particular, Utopia is part of a long history of “utopian” Socialism, out of which scientific Socialism was developed.

Ronnie Warrington