Thomas More’s Utopia and Marxist Theory: A Comparison

In today’s post, Ruby explores the links between Thomas More’s Utopia, and Marxist theory.

 

When Thomas More published Utopia in 1516, it is impossible to know whether he was aware of how influential and wide-reaching his book would become. The idea of a ‘utopia’ has been the focus of political and religious ideologies since records began, but More distilled this very human want of a better society in what is considered his masterpiece. His work has influenced politicians (who regard him as their patron saint), philosophers and even science fiction writers; anyone who wishes to imagine a society which differs from the status quo.

                                        Karl Marx (L) and Friedrich Engels (R)

 

It is important to note before I continue this comparison, that Marx had much contempt for the middle class utopianists of the time, but when reading his theories and More’s texts, it is impossible not to notice the similarities between their ideologies. The parallels between the two philosophies are many, predominantly when discussing property ownership/rights and the re-distribution of wealth.

 

More, Marx, and Utopia

 In Utopia, the fictional country which the book revolves around, society is “based on communal ownership instead of private property” and most Utopians are equal (more on that later). The Communist Manifesto argues wholeheartedly against private property ownership, and even goes so far as to say that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single phrase: Abolition of Private Property.” Both philosophers argued that private property didn’t include things like personal belongings (clothes, books, art, etc.) but land ownership or property which has been acquired through dishonest and exploitative means, or as Marx would put it “bourgeois private property”. While it might seem strange that More, who later in life became Lord High Chancellor of England, would argue against the ownership of private property – it actually isn’t. More was the son of a lawyer, so he ought to have been used to arguing and playing Devil’s advocate! The idea of public ownership of the land being virtuous and something to argue for would have, for More, come from his religious background.

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Portrait of Thomas More (1527)by Hans Holbeinthe Younger. Link

 

More and Marx differ, however, when it comes to the morality of slavery, which the latter argued against. In Utopia, people are not enslaved because of racial or religious factors, but as a punishment for a crime.  More was a lawyer, which informs his views on slavery as a form of sentencing. Due to the fact that people in Utopia are born and raised equally, culturally and financially, he believed that criminals should be punished very harshly. He didn’t believe that capital punishment worked as it seemed pointless, with no way of redeeming or rehabilitating the criminal (which is ironic considering that More himself was beheaded). Due to this, the Utopian society is not equal because of the existence of slaves and therefore does not fit into the requirements of a communist society. The book is not an argument for communism and should not be seen as such, but aspects of it have influenced left-wing literature due to its Marxist characteristics. Marx was a staunch critic of slavery and condemned the American slave trade, remarking in Capital “in the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic.”

Utopia in the 16th Century 

 

Despite this, the book is revolutionary in the way that it deals with class structure, as similar to now, 16thcentury England roughly operated on a three-tier class system: labourers (working class), yeomen/merchants (middle class) and aristocracy (upper class). This is a very simplified version of the system and in some ways, Utopia adheres to this, but the quality of life within these factions of society are similar. Apart from the slaves, everyone is:

  • Entitled to an education
  • Expected to wear the same clothes
  • Given leisure time
  • Entitled to eight hours of sleep
  • Ensured to work the same hours as each other
  • Provided with a house and garden (equal in size and quality as everyone else)

This may have been written in reaction to the Manorial system, prevalent in medieval Europe, which related serfdom towards a particular section of land or that of a property owner. Cricitcism of the Enclosure system, whereby smaller farms on what had previously been common land were enclosed and the land was made available only to the owner, is also prevalent in the first book of Utopia as the character of Raphael Hythloday discusses English law. As I mentioned earlier, no one person owns the land in Utopia but it is public property which is cared for by the working population. You might have found it odd that I included the part about clothes, but at the time the sumptuary laws were in place meaning that you couldn’t wear clothing or fabric which was ‘above your station’. This was put in place to ensure that labourers didn’t spend money they didn’t have on luxuries, but it was also another way to discriminate against the poor. Utopians disparage costly and superfluous possessions, believing that jewellery and silks display arrogance, as depicted in this section:


“ The ambassadors of the nations that lie near Utopia, knowing their customs, and that fine clothes are in no esteem among them, that silk is despised, and gold is a badge of infamy, use to come very modestly clothed; but the Anemolians lying more remote, and having had little commerce with them, understanding that they were coarsely clothed, and all in the same manner, took it for granted that they had none of those fine things among them of which they made no use; and they being a vain-glorious rather than a wise people, resolved to set themselves out with so much pomp, that they should look like gods, and strike the eyes of the poor Utopians with their splendour.”

Fashion and the production of clothing also plays a part in Marxist philosophy, as Marx despised the “murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”, but perhaps not for the same reason More did. Yes, the fact that it visually split society up into the different social classes wouldn’t have exactly pleased Marx, but it was the waste of resources the fashion industry caused that concerned him.

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Thomas More’s Utopia, First Edition (1516) on loan from the John Ryland’s Library in The Whitworth’s Utopias exhibition

 

A Morally Right Society

 

Another aspect which connects the Communist Manifesto and Utopia is the way that the writers persuade the readers that their idea of how society should function is morally right. In Marx and Engels’ famous work, they hark back to a pre-industrial revolution world in which society, whilst still unfair and stratified, was maybe slightly more humane. They also stress that the “history of all hithero existing society is the history of class struggles” but then go on to clarify “that is, all written history”. This clarification implies that before record, society may have been somewhat classless, an implication which is neither fictional nor factual but something in between: a theory. More’s land of Utopia is about as real as Narnia, but it is used to make a point about the society that he was living in. This critical technique is quite effective as it is a way to make the audience question the morality of their society through entertaining means. The book looks to a simpler, communalist and fictional idea of the past in a similar way to The Communist Manifesto. Both books rely on a theoretical society to compare with their own, which helps the viewer imagine a better, more utopian world.

So, in conclusion, why did Karl Marx and Thomas More only drink herbal tea? Because proper-tea is theft.

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