The word utopia, together with its derivatives utopian and utopianism, is a familiar part of our political vocabulary. It originated as the title of a work by the Tudor lawyer, statesman and writer Thomas More, first published in Latin in 1516 as a traveller’s description of a remote island. Utopia is a pun: it can be read either as ou-topos, Greek for ‘no place’, or as eu-topos, ‘good place’ – that is, a good place (society) that exists in the imagination.
More invented the word, but the thing it represents is much older. Plato in his Republic discussed the nature of the ideal city state. Medieval serfs took solace in the imaginary ease and plenty of the Land of Cockaigne. More’s utopia, however, is the first to embody a response to capitalist social relations, which in the early 16th century were just emerging in England and the Low Countries (in agriculture and textiles). As the first modern utopia, it has a special place in the emergence of modern socialist thought.
Contents of More’s Utopia
The work consists of two ‘books’. Book I is More’s account of how he came to hear of Utopia. Book II describes the Utopians’ way of life – their towns and farms, government, economy, travel, slaves, marriages, military discipline, religions.
More presents his story as true fact. Henry VIII sends him to Flanders as his ambassador to settle a dispute with Spain – and we know that this is true (it was in 1515; the dispute concerned the wool trade). During a break in the negotiations he meets his young friend Peter Giles, who introduces him to an explorer, Raphael Hythloday, just back from a long voyage. There follows a long conversation between More, Giles and Hythloday.
Giles and More urge Hythloday to put the vast knowledge acquired on his travels to use by entering the service of a king. Hythloday refuses, arguing that no courtier dare speak his mind or advocate wise and just policies. This exchange is thought to reflect More’s misgivings about his own career in royal service.
The conversation then turns to the situation in England. They discuss the enclosure (now we call it privatisation) of common land to graze sheep, the consequent pauperisation and uprooting of the peasantry (“your sheep devour men”), the futile cruelty of hanging wretches who steal to survive, and other social ills.
This leads them to the question of remedies. Hythloday declares that the injustice, conflict and waste inherent in the power of money can be overcome only by doing away with private property. More objects that this would remove the incentive to work. (Sounds familiar?) Hythloday replies that More would think otherwise had he been with him in Utopia.
Utopia is, indeed, a society without private property. Households contribute to and draw freely on common stocks of goods. Money is used only in dealings with foreign countries, while gold and jewels are regarded as baubles for children and “fools” (i.e., the mentally retarded). In these respects Utopia resembles socialism as we conceive of it.
In other respects, however, it does not. Decision-making procedures are only partly democratic. A hierarchy of “magistrates” enforces draconian regulations: travel, for instance, requires official permission. The main penalty for serious transgressions is enslavement – not to individuals, of course, but to the community. Thus, there is a class of slaves who do not participate in common ownership but are themselves owned. Utopia is not a classless society.
Was More joking?
Almost all critics treat More’s factual presentation as a mere literary device. They do not believe that he met an explorer while in Flanders or that he was influenced in his description of Utopia by information about real places. This is not to say that they attribute everything solely to More’s fertile imagination. They often draw connections between his ideas and the thought of Greco-Roman antiquity. In the foreword to an edition of Utopia published in 1893, William Morris even calls Utopia ‘an idealised ancient society’. More was one of the foremost classical scholars of his day, so it is a plausible view.
Yet More always maintained, even in private correspondence, that Utopia was based on fact. Was he joking? He liked a good joke.
Two researchers take More at his word. It is quite possible, they argue, that he did meet an explorer who had encountered or heard about a pre-Columbian society in the Americas that served More as a prototype for Utopia. Arthur E. Morgan, an engineer who was chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, takes the Inca Empire as the prototype (Nowhere was Somewhere: How History Makes Utopias and How Utopias Make History, University of North Carolina Press 1946), while the anthropologist Lorainne Stobbart identifies the Utopians with the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in present-day Mexico (Utopia: Fact or Fiction? The Evidence from the Americas, Alan Sutton 1992).
They argue that it is not valid to argue that Hythloday cannot represent a real person because Europeans knew nothing of the Maya or Incas at the time when More was writing Utopia (1515—16). This is true only if we accept the conventional chronology that conflates discovery with the military expeditions of the Spanish conquistadors (Cortes first landed in Yucatan in 1517; Pizarro entered Inca territory in 1526). But Morgan and Stobbart refer to old maps and documents indicating that Portuguese explorers reached the eastern shores of Central and South America as early as the 14th century (Hythloday is Portuguese), while English sailors were trading with the new lands by the 1470s. Whether any of these early travellers got as far as Peru is less certain, though some may have obtained indirect information about the Incas.
How closely does More’s Utopia resemble the Maya and Inca civilizations? Morgan and Stobbart detail numerous similarities in political and economic organization, dress, social customs, city layout, family life, science and art, and so on – even down to such practices as the erection of memorial pillars and ceremonial wearing of quetzal feathers. The Maya and the Incas, like the Utopians, used money only in foreign trade and had common stores from which officials distributed produce (except that, in contrast to Utopia, it was rationed). It is extremely unlikely that so many close parallels should arise purely by chance.
But there are also important differences. The most telling criticism made against these authors is that they obscure a wide gap in social structure between the aristocratic autocracies of the Maya and the Incas and the basically democratic governance of More’s Utopia (see George Logan’s review of Stobbart in Moreana, June 1994).
It is therefore doubtful whether Utopia is a direct representation of any specific pre-Columbian society. Nevertheless, More’s account does probably reflect the influence of knowledge of such societies that he had somehow acquired, possibly from a Portuguese explorer he met in Flanders.
A bureaucratic mode of production
This conclusion has implications for our understanding of the development of socialist ideas. For it means that a seminal work of modern socialist thought bears the imprint of archaic societies that though not based on private property were far removed from the classless democracy of genuine socialism.
The Maya and Inca social systems are strikingly ‘pure’ examples of what Marx called the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. In this mode, a royal bureaucracy extracts and redistributes surplus from pre-existing peasant communes and directs public works. The monarch is considered the owner of land and resources. The word ‘Asiatic’ does not, of course, fit the New World context (Marx had mainly India in mind). Karl Wittfogel, stressing the centrality of water management, coined the term ‘hydraulic mode of production’. Or we might call it the pre-industrial bureaucratic mode of production.
Louis Baudin paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live under this system in his Daily Life in Peru under the Last Incas (Macmillan, 1961). It was a hard life for the common people, but their basic necessities were supplied: a small dwelling, two woollen garments each when they marry, a patch of land, relief in the event of local famine. They were more fortunate in this regard than poor people were in More’s England – or than they themselves would be after the Spanish conquest. But they were victims of class exploitation nonetheless.
It is understandable that the Incas and the Maya should have appealed to early European critics of capitalism. Theirs, however, was not the only alternative model that the pre-Columbian Americas offered to the reign of private property. The New World was also home to the much more egalitarian ‘primitive communism’ of peoples like the Iroquois who so fascinated the 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and through him Engels and Marx, influencing their conception of ‘advanced communism’.
An upright and honest official
More’s Utopia is a sort of compromise between the democratic and authoritarian-bureaucratic conceptions of communal life. He omits important information that would help us clarify the nature of the society that he is portraying. In particular, how are the higher officials appointed or elected? (We know that lower-level officials are elected.) Do they have material privileges? Does Utopia have an aristocracy of any kind?
I interpret this ambiguity in light of More’s general attitude toward the lower classes. He felt genuine compassion for the suffering of the poor. This is clear not only from the sentiments he expresses through his alter ego Hythloday, but also from his reputation as an upright and honest judge and official. He did not take bribes from the rich and he patronised the poor. By the standards of his day and age, he was open-minded and tolerant. He belonged to the same social type as that other upright and honest official, his near-contemporary in Ming China, Hai Rui.
But More, like Hai Rui, was no rebel. He was a “good servant” of God and king, a member of the ruling class with a strong belief in order and hierarchy. His ideal was not the fully democratic self-administration of society, which he could hardly imagine, but rather paternalistic “good government” by upright and honest officials like himself.
So what shall we make of More’s Utopia? It is, to be sure, an eloquent critique of the cruelty and perversity of capitalism, all the more remarkable for having been written at a time when that system had scarcely bared its fangs. However, More – although he envisages the abolition of money – does not provide a picture of what we now mean by socialism. But then that could hardly have been expected of him.