Utopian Dreams

Note 7: Thomas More: Communal Property. 4/1/99

Thomas More's rhetorical strategy of employing dialogue as a stylistic means of developing his concepts of the perfect political, social, and economic state in Utopia, a dialogue involving three rather than just two speakers (Peter, Raphael, and More himself), provided him with several important opportunities to propose and then qualify certain concepts that might otherwise have appeared to be too radical, or inconsistently humanistic, to achieve credibility with his audience. One such idea that More introduces, but later rejects, is the notion that a human political organization, a state, can exist at peace within itself if all property is held in common by all members of the society. The source of the concept of communal property in More's discourse is probably dualistic in that several Christian communities had arisen in various parts of Europe prior to the sixteenth century that practiced communal ownership of property. At the same time, of course, many Europeans were aware of the fact that native American tribes were generally characterized as living in a communal state of shared property and resources. Whether More's perception of this concept originated in the Christian communities of Europe or from his knowledge of native American tribal practices, since both were present in general knowledge at the time, is impossible to determine with any certainty now.

Raphael, who is describing Utopia to Peter and More, enters a discussion of the state of that nation's society by first explaining the nature of his own inquiries in the New World. He says, for instance, that "we made no inquiries after monsters, than which nothing is more common; for everywhere one may hear of ravenous dogs and wolves, and cruel man-eaters; but it is not so easy to find States that are well and wisely governed." The reference here to "cruel man-eaters" is ambiguous in the sense that it can, or might, refer back to the "ravenous" canines in the previous clause but can also be taken as pointing to the existence of cannibals in the New World as well. That cannibals were thought to exist in the Americas was a relatively common assumption circulating at the time in European consciousness. Sir George Peckham (1582 as opposed to 1516 when More wrote Utopia) states that cannibals in America had "teeth like dogs" and were always engaged in the active pursuit of their non-cannibalistic neighbors. Peckham uses this "fact" to justify the use of armed force against native American "cannibals" as a means of protecting the less monstrous natives from these more aggressive and vicious "man-eaters," with whom they shared the land Europe coveted. The fact that it is easier to find cannibalistic tribes than it is to discover other nations that "are well and wisely governed" suggests that utopian conditions in the New World were anything but widespread.

More's informant, Raphael, and the point can be made that the Roman Catholic saint and martyr is engaged in the practice of anthro(a)pology because he is being informed about a nation, tribe, or human community unlike any that exist in the Europe of his day, continues his account of nations that are well or badly governed by drawing a contrast between two types of rulers that are everywhere apparent in European political consciousness. He says that "most princes apply themselves more to affairs of war than to the useful arts of peace; and in these I neither have any knowledge, nor do I much desire it: they are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess." This observation, of course, cuts in two directions at once. On the one hand, Raphael's criticism of rulers who do not attend properly to their own kingdoms but seek only to expand them through the "affairs of war" clearly suggests that Europe's "princes" would be better served by staying at home and governing their own kingdoms well than they would be to journey out into the world of the newly discovered Americas in an effort to expand the land over which the exercise their dominion. Perhaps what Raphael means to suggest is that Europe needs to attend to the problems at home before it concerns itself too much with the lands across the Atlantic. Having a firm and secure base from which to launch a major effort toward colonization is an obvious necessity in anyone's world view.

Raphael then makes a pitch for the abolition of private property which probably indicates that he really is opposed to the expansion of European interests into the Americas. He says that he is "persuaded, that till property is taken away there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed: for as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties." The idea of communal property, as noted earlier, may have a dual origin in the Christian communities that observed the practice in Europe and in the tribal societies that were found in the Americas. The point made here is that private ownership of goods and resources was perceived as a significant cause of civil unrest and political turmoil in the Europe of More's day, at least by some members of his society. More himself comes down on the opposite side of the argument when he expresses this opinion relative to Raphael's statement:

"it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common: how can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labor? For as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men's industry may make him slothful: if people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own; what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed?"

More, then, quite clearly argues that the notion of communal property will suffer only to render the task of maintaining civil order more difficult, not less, and may even lead to a state of constant strife and war among civilized nations and societies. In one sense, what More says here is perfectly true, at least as far as Eurocentric perceptions of reality are concerned; that is, with a general lack of hope for "gain," without that fundamental prospect to "excite him," European (wo)men probably would have turned "slothful" (one of the seven deadly sins in Christian discourse) and the "pinch of want" probably would have forced Europe into a "perpetual" state of bloodbath and self-destruction. Fortunately for Europe, however, the virgin lands of America, Virginia say, were there across the Atlantic to beckon the multitudes of greed-driven marauders and rapists who would have stayed home otherwise to ply their industry against themselves and each other instead of the worthless bands of natives who misused and underexploited the wastelands of the Western hemisphere. One can say that England and Europe were saved from a fate worse than death, devolving into sloth. by virtue of the fact that they had discovered a virgin land in total need of domination and subjugation just a few months to the west of their major seaports at the beginning of sixteenth century.

Frederick Engels, the co-founder with Karl Marx of Marxian theory, in the conclusion of his chapter on the Iroquois federation (Chapter III in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State), argues from historical necessity, as it were, that the tribal cultures of primitive society had to be broken apart in order for (wo)man to progress or evolve into higher and more advanced states of civilization. He notes that the apparatus which accomplished this necessary human progression was brought about

"by influences which from the very start appear as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral greatness of the old gentile society. The lowest interests -- base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth -- inaugurate the new, civilized, class society. It is by the vilest means -- theft, violence, fraud, treason -- that the old classless gentile society is undermined and overthrown. And the new society itself, during all the two and a half thousand years of its existence, has never been anything else but the development of the small minority at the expense of the great exploited and oppressed majority."

In every way possible, of course, one can argue that Raphael, because he questions the validity of private property, which is the ultimate hallmark of the middle class, against which Engels and Marx always already argued and labored to destroy in favor of the proletariat, in opposition to More's insistence that society itself cannot exist conveniently without a sense of the private ownership of goods and resources, making More a spokesperson for the bourgeoisie, as it were, represents an early, if not pre-Marxian, voice more in favor of communalism (if not communism itself) than he is one in favor of pursuing the course of market development that led ultimately to the state of civilization we all know as capitalism today. The capital which allowed Europe to develop from the feudal estates of the Middle Ages into the market economy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of course, was epitomized precisely by those goods and resources that were plundered from the Americas by Eurocentric greed and avarice. That native American cultures must be "undermined and overthrown" goes without saying in Marxian analysis, since that course of evolution simply follows the dictates of historical determinism. One cautionary word is appropriate here: when Engels states that the "vilest means" necessary are appropriate to accomplish the "degradation" of native culture, that "theft, violence, fraud, treason," are necessary and desirable, if human progress is to be achieved, he is not in any way whatsoever condemning the use of those extreme measures to bring about the rise of the middle class. Indeed, Engels and Marx celebrated the use of (wo)man's lowest instincts ("base greed, brutal appetites, sordid avarice, selfish robbery of the common wealth") as a means of bringing about a society that could then be attacked and destroyed by the forces of the united proletariat.

If you doubt the validity of this assertion, simply ask Stalin how he dealt with the indigenous people of Siberia, all brothers and sisters to native Americans, when they objected to his plan to destroy the material quality of their ancestral lands for the sake of engineering the transformation of western Russia into the industrialized wasteland (called Chernoble, for instance) we have all come to know and love in the last half-century. Put simply: the Siberian people no longer exist at all. Stalin butchered them en mass and absolutely in the 1930's.

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