Trouble in Paradise: Communistic Speculation and Thomas More’s “Utopia”
Modern day interpretations of Thomas More’s critical and controversial Utopia have called into question his messages to sixteenth century audiences. Utopia depicts a collection of similar, ideal cities that work together in equal accordance to achieve a liberating, stress-free lifestyle. As the story has aged, there have been new perceptions (developed from scholars and students alike) claiming that the work parallels communist practices. The speculative communism seen in Utopia refers to present-day radical communism of the sort that was (and in some cases still is) present in North Korea, Cuba, China, and Russia. People associate communistic government with tyrannical dictators, restriction of resources, and bleak quality of life. The line dividing Communism and Utopianism is very thin and gray. Though somewhat similar, Utopianism and Communism are also very different. Utopia best resembles communistic tendencies through the depictions of work life, emphasis on conformity, and strict laws. Although Thomas More’s Utopia shares similarities with Karl Marx’s communistic philosophy, More’s text is actually an exemplar of Renaissance humanism.
Work life in Utopia is one several focal points of the novel where communistic tendencies are displayed. Utopians take pride in their six-hour work days. On the island, it is declared that all citizens participate in agriculture/farming. Their population’s focus on farming sounds faintly similar to the focus of communist China (1958) whose ruler, Mao Zedong, demanded all citizens take part in steel and grain production in a program called the “Great Leap Forward” (San Diego State Uni.). It is easily seen that these people value their work and style when More tells audiences, “Agriculture is the one occupation at which everyone works, […] and throughout their lives always wear the same style of clothing” (More 603). This focus of all Utopian cities following the same priority towards farming sound similar to communism’s belief where each citizen most work regardless of preference. When the audience learns that all Utopians wear the same clothing, it could be easy for a reader to point out that their negligence of vanity sounds similar to communism’s practices where citizens all look very similar. The basic styling of Utopian people supports communist beliefs on living life in a simplistic matter. By disregarding different types of fashion, Utopians become (and look) more united. Another section of the Utopia that may come off across as communistic to audiences is the way these people abide by occupational rules and regulations. In their job philosophy, it is stated that, “consequently, the Utopians maintain that one should not only abide by private agreements but also obey all those public laws which control the distribution of vital goods” (More 616) in order to maintain Utopia’s functionality. In present communist society, it is required for a worker to be as efficient as possible. Since the Utopians claim to follow the public laws and private agreements set out by higher authority, this scenario demonstrates how the Utopian and Communists are submissive to work life and think similarly in terms of benefiting their work life.
While work life is a large focus of Utopian (and Communistic) society, there is also a very large emphasis on conformity. In More’s novel, the citizens never once express any signs of discontent with the current conformity placements held by the governor and phylarch. The citizens of Utopia seem to never have interaction with other non-Utopians when the narrator states, “hardly any stranger[s] enter” (More 599). This seclusion from other territories and determination to stick together as a body of Utopians sounds eerily familiar to communistic North Korea. Within this Asian country, there are a series of tests and in-depth interviews for strangers of the country to take to cross the border. Another example where there are communistic tendencies being exploited in More’s work is when it is announced that, “It is a general rule that the more different anything is from what people are used to, the harder it is for people to accept.” (More 611). This tells audiences that the inhabitants of Utopia need to blend in with the crowd and not cause any disturbances to the norms of the island. This restriction of divergence (in thinking) in Utopian society relates perfectly to communism’s support for sameness. Both societies engage in this activity of restriction to eliminate potential conflict. In communist countries, they find progress in having a united body of people with the same mindset to ensure success of their people (Bukharin & Preobrazhenskiĭ). Since Utopian and communistic philosophies both value conformity, it is easy to say that living in these worlds would require a much practice in the art of losing one’s self to a devoted cause.
In regards to the third (and final) exploration of apparent communism in Thomas More’s Utopia, one must look at the strict laws that are set in place in the story. Audiences can imagine a communistic society as a place with strict rules and the setting of Utopia is no exception to this common practice. It is common present-day communistic practice for a ruler/dictator to take over the land and rule until they die. This strict practice is apparent in Utopia when it is revealed, “That in the beginning the whole city was planned by Utopus himself […] The governor holds office for life.” (More 601-602). As one can see from Utopia’s text, there is a very big similarity in the way the rules are set in place for the island and for communistic rulings. While the firm rules regarding leadership are very strict and remaining firm, it is also important to look at another strict set of laws in the text. If there are natives on the island that do not abide by the rules, then Utopians, “think it is perfectly justifiable to make war on people who leave their land idle and waste,” (More 607) which is a very extreme. Reading this, audiences may begin to develop an idea that maybe Utopia is not what they thought it was. One may relate this to communist Russia or North Korea who send threats of war to other nations and see it justifiable as well. All in all, the strict laws of Utopia are heavily regarded by their supreme ruler and the system is not looking for change.
As one can see, there are some apparently well-considered arguments that communism is present in Utopia. While there may be many reasons and inferences to support this observation, these accusations must be laid to rest. It is imperative to understand that Utopia was written in 1516 and the foundations of communism were committed to print around 1848. Therefore, it is easy to see that the idea of a utopia came way before the idea of communism, let alone radical communist government. Utopianism was a concept, while communism was an actual practice. Therefore, any presences of communism in Utopia are all simple coincidence. Utopianism is founded on the premises of Renaissance humanism, which is all about progression of learning. After all, Thomas More created Utopia to criticize England (Cleland). Within this world, he wanted Utopia to be a place where people would not have to worry about the material items in life and focus on flourishing the mind around people that are just like oneself to embrace learning. He thought that by eliminating anything in life that was too excessive, he would be able to achieve sameness if he gave all Utopians the exact same resources. Meanwhile, the basis for Communism came from philosopher and scientist Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto. He was like More in that he wanted to eradicate the problems man face. He, however, had a different approach to make people the same. Communism is the process of bringing down the rich and rising up the poor in order to have one common middle class of people (to have equality). Unfortunately, as centuries have passed, communism has evolved into a type of government that now houses harsh rules, mean rulers, restriction of resources, and austere lifestyle. In the present, people associate communism with something bad, when it was potentially something good for humanity. The authors’ (More and Marx) intentions of writing their texts were originally meant to be for pure, hypothetical theory.
Although the speculations regarding communism in Utopia are not necessarily valid, it is heartening to see that scholarly minds are associating political philosophy and literature together. While utopianism and communism are considered different, the two philosophies are the same in that they want what is best for their people: equality. The critical work of Utopia still serves a place in modern day society to show audiences what life would be like if society were to abolish materiality. These connections to communism in Utopia are still important because it reveals how current minds think and compare things to one another. It is essential that audiences see Thomas More’s book as an exemplar of Renaissance humanism and not proto-communist manifesto due to the fact that More’s intended purpose was to challenge readers with a mental exercise of humanistic customs. With that being said, Utopia not only exemplifies Renaissance humanism, but also pinpoints the basis of what social accord could possibly be like. Thomas More’s Utopia can be thought of as many things, but what it should most be esteemed for are its humanistic and futuristic beliefs, ideas well ahead of its era.
Bukharin, Nikolaĭ, and E. Preobrazhenskiĭ A. The ABC of Communism; a Popular Explanation of the Program of the Communist Party of Russia. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1966. Print.
Cleland, Katherine. “The Renaissance “Rebirth”” Renaissance Literature. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. 23, 25 Aug. 2016. Lecture.
More, Thomas. “Utopia.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, pp. 599-616.
“The Great Leap Forward Period in China, 1958-1960.” The Great Leap Forward Period in China, 1958-1960. San José State University Department of Economics, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Yassour, Avraham. “Communism and Utopia: Marx, Engels and Fourier.” Studies in Soviet Thought, vol. 26, no. 3, 1983., pp. 217-227.
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