Is Thomas More’s Socialist Society Possible Today? And In What Form? — Part V

It is clear that the Utopian political economy that More outlines is not possible to implement completely under modern circumstances. That is not probably what even More wanted to mean.

by Laksiri Fernando

( January 15, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) With the publication of Chapter 3 of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka),’ the key question we are raising is whether his outline of a socialist society is possible today? My answer is yes; if not immediately, eventually. It does not need to be exactly in the way Thomas More outlined 500 years ago, but in its essence and in main principles. A major problem that we are confronting today is many of those who are called ‘Socialists’ have given up that struggle for various reasons.

The Left in Sri Lanka or elsewhere should not give up the socialist struggle for political expediency, or for the sake of modernization or fancy ideas of technological/managerial transformation. The struggle for democracy is important, but even that is not a reason to give up socialism. On the other hand, democracy is the surest path to socialism unlike the misguided attempts of building socialism without democracy by the so-called communist movements.

Here we are celebrating the five hundred years of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (December 1516) by publishing the chapters of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ by Laksiri Fernando (CreateSpace, 2014) every Sunday until the book ends, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian. This will allow anyone who wishes to read it, sooner or later, free access to the book. The publication link to the original for those who wish to obtain a printed copy is

What is published today is Chapter 3 of the book titled ‘Utopian Political Economy.’ Along with other chapters, it is an outline of a socialist society. We can see how far we can get socialist inspirations from Thomas More for today’s world. This is Part V of the series as we have already published chapters 1 & 2 in addition to the Preface and the Introduction.


“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interactions, the relations within which these individuals stand.” – Karl Marx[1]

THE POLITICAL ECONOMY of Thomas More’s Utopia is a system of agrarian socialism combined with good governance at least in the economic sphere. As we have already discussed, based on a ‘dream island,’ very much similar to Ceylon in its geographical and physical makeup, More was describing a well-planned harmonious social system where men and women, and all sections of society, work and live in equality and happiness with few laws and congenial governance.[2]

However, More obviously was not in a position to completely transcend the social practices or institutions of his time or the country that he came to know about. He talked about a ‘Prince’ as the head of the political system and ‘slavery’ took a milder form as a method of criminal punishment. Nevertheless, many of his propositions were remarkably futuristic, the practice or advocacy of them is common today although there can be doubts whether the overall ‘socialism’ that he talked about ‘without any property’ could be at all put into practice. More himself was not sure, and perhaps that was the reason why he titled the system as Utopia. According to some, it meant ‘good, but no place’ in Greek.

More advocated a society of equality without social classes, exploitation or poverty. That is something possible to achieve within a reasonable social range, without vast disparities but rewarding those who do or contribute better. It was a society of plenty. His political system was partly ‘liberal’ with few laws but an orderly government. The highest officers worked with the people. He advocated a ‘six hour working day’ and perhaps one of the first to stand for gender equity at least in some form. Some of his other innovative ideas were related to ‘euthanasia,’ ‘rainwater harvesting,’ and ‘urban-rural harmony.’ He even talked about incubation of farm chicken which was not known or practiced at that time.

With an extensive welfare system, he gave priority to health and education. Intellectual pursuits were highly acclaimed. His system was almost a ‘knowledge economy.’ Although he gave priority to ‘freedom of choice’ what he terribly missed was ‘individual privacy.’ Anyone could walk into anyone’s home. It was ‘transparency’ taken into a far extreme and ‘transparency’ into personal life. As More said, “All men live in full view.”

Social Base  

Written as a fiction and/or ‘report of a traveler,’ there were many inconsistencies or contradictions in the text of Utopia. They could also be the result of bad translations and/or subsequent editing. The initial text was written in Latin, edited mainly by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the well-known and eminent Catholic theologian of that time. There cannot be any doubt about that input. The first English translation was by Ralph Robinson in 1551 and then an edited version in 1556. Thereafter, there had been many editions, excluding and then including several initial sections back and forth, largely adding to the confusion. Perhaps More himself anticipated different interpretations of what he wanted to say.

Utopia is a small island of around 25,000 square miles with about six million adult population.[3] There are 54 districts in the Island with an equal number of main cities, Amaurot being the island’s capital; “all large and well built: the manners, customs, and laws of which are the same.”[4] As More further says, “He that knows one of their cities knows them all; they are so like one another, except where the situation makes some difference.” The distance between one city and the other is about 24 miles and the remotest is not that far, a man can go on foot in one good day.

A District comprises a main city divided into four sections or towns and the surrounding country. The cities are contrived in the same manner depending on the ground conditions. “None of their [Districts] may contain above 6,000 families.”[5] They have a system of one third of the families going to the country from the city, every year, and living and working there for two years. Therefore, at a given time, the population distribution is about one to two between the city and the country. That is how the balance and harmony between the rural and the urban is maintained and the political economy is run.

The extended family is the basis of the society, the size of which, according to More, is around ten to sixteen adult members. “Their women are not married before eighteen, or their men before two-and-twenty.” “Their women, when they grow up, are married out; but all the males, both children and grandchildren, live still in the same house, in great obedience to their common parents.” This again sounds like traditional Ceylon although there were marriage arrangements during childhood. “There is a master and a mistress set over every family.”

“But to return to their manner of living in society, the oldest man of every family, as has been already said, is its Governor. Wives serve their husbands and children their parents, and always the younger serves the elder.”

In that sense, the society is hierarchical on a family basis; quite Asiatic in nature.

The Economy

The main base of the Utopian economy is agriculture and “no person, either man or woman, is ignorant of it.” “They are instructed in it from their childhood, partly by what they learn at school and partly by practice; they being led out often into the fields, about the town, where they not only see others at work, but are likewise exercised in it themselves.” People consider themselves rather as tenants than landlords, as there is no private property. Here is a model for any country to emulate today; linking school education to surrounding farming activities and cultivation. Some of the aspects of this system of school education linking to farm activities are practiced in countries like Japan today.

“They have built over all the country, farmhouses for husbandmen, which are well contrived, and are furnished with all things necessary for country labor. Inhabitants are sent by turns from the cities to dwell in them.”

About three families related to each other live in one farmhouse like a large extended family. In the city, a family is about ten to fifteen and when three families are sent to a farmhouse, a ‘family’ in the country has not fewer than forty members and two salves who are spending their sentences. “These husbandmen till the ground, breed cattle, hew wood, and convey it to the towns, either by land or water, as is most convenient.” More has a very broad conception for the institution of family. It is not a nuclear family. It is not merely the extended family either. There are voluntary aspects to the family which will be explained in the next chapter when we would discuss the Utopian society.

There are some features in the farming system, peculiar to Asian societies, using oxen instead of horses for work. As it says, “They breed very few horses…for they do not put them to any work, either of ploughing or carriage, in which they employ oxen; for though their horses are stronger, yet they find oxen can hold out longer; and as they are not subject to so many diseases, so they are kept upon a less charge, and with less trouble; and even when they are so worn out, that they are no more fit for labor, they are good meat at last.” Most interesting and innovative is the incubation system for chicken breeding.

“They breed an infinite multitude of chickens in a very curious manner; for the hens do not sit and hatch them, but vast numbers of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat, in order to be hatched, and they are no sooner out of the shell, and able to stir about, but they seem to consider those that feed them as their mothers, and follow them as other chickens do the hen that hatched them.”

It is clear from the above description that ‘artificial incubation’ was not in practice in England at that time, where More was living. Otherwise, there is no reason to call the ‘manner very curious.’ Most probably the information came from the Philippines or any other Southeast Asian country but not from Ceylon. They were the earliest to practice artificial incubation according to some sources.

Besides agriculture, there were trades. Both agriculture and trades were common to them all except when some people were relieved temporarily for other tasks. “Every man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself, such as the manufacture of wool, or flax, masonry, smith’s work, or carpenter’s work; for there is no sort of trade that is not in great esteem among them.” Although wool is mentioned, there is no mentioning of any sheep. The description further explained how the trades were organized.

“The same trade generally passes down from father to son, inclinations often following descent; but if any man’s genius lays another way, he is by adoption translated into a family that deals in the trade to which he is inclined.” Therefore, there was no compulsion in selecting a trade, and it was largely done by choice. This was like a guild or a loose caste system. The transfer from one family to another for the learning of a new trade was done by the magistrate with the consent of the father of the initial family and the adopted family. Therefore, the family was not a static or a rigid institution.

“And if after a person has learned one trade, he desires to acquire another that is also allowed, and is managed in the same manner as the former. When he has learned both, he follows that which he likes best, unless the public has more occasions for the other.”

What worked finally was a balance between private choice and public interest. The pride and commitment to labor was the most important part of their political economy. But Utopia was far from being an oppressed society in terms of labor. “They do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil, from morning to night,” More assures. Their life style is orderly and systematic. They divide “the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work; three of which are before dinner, and three after. They then sup, and at eight o’clock, counting from noon, go to bed and sleep eight hours.” There is choice in all these yet giving priority to public interest and some ethical considerations. Utopia is also governed by a particular value system.

“The rest of their time besides that taken up in work, eating and sleeping, is left to every man’s discretion; yet they are not to abuse that interval to luxury and idleness, but must employ it in some proper exercise according to their various inclinations, which is for the most part reading.”

Labor Conditions

More was imagining a system where people only work for six hours a day. It is possible for the following reasons. First, “if those who work were employed only in such things as the conveniences of life require, there would be such an abundance of them.”  Second, if people do not consume more than the conveniences of life require, then “the prices of them would so sink that tradesmen could not be maintained by their gains.” Here he referred to prices as in a system of capitalism. Otherwise there was no price mechanism or ‘pricing formula’ in Utopia.

Thirdly and finally, “if all those who labor about useless things were set to more profitable employments, and if all they that languish out their lives in sloth and idleness…were forced to labor, you may easily imagine that a small proportion of time would serve for doing all that is either necessary, profitable, or pleasant to mankind, especially while pleasure is kept within its due bounds.” More repeatedly said about ‘conveniences of life require’ and ‘keeping pleasure within due bounds.’ He also used the terms ‘necessary and pleasant to mankind.’

Then he said, “This appears very plainly in Utopia, for there, in a great city, and in all the territory that lies round it, you can scarce find 500, either men or women, by their age and strength, are capable of labor, that are not engaged in it.” It was a system of full employment.[6] Even the officials and the people’s representatives “though excused by the law, yet do not excuse themselves, but work.” Those who are not directly engaged in labor are the Priests. But he also noted that “the time appointed for labor is to be narrowly examined, otherwise you may imagine, that since there are only six hours appointed for work, they may fall under a scarcity of necessary provisions.” The supervision of labor is a task of the Magistrates or the political system, where the Magistrates themselves did not idle.

There is a very clear labor theory of society although More was not an economist. In Utopia, none is idle like in a capitalist society, and neither “employed in any fruitless labor.” Therefore, he said “you may make the estimate how much may be done in those few hours in which they are obliged to labor.” He also added that “needful arts among them are managed with less labor than anywhere else.” “And thus, since they are all employed in some useful labor, and since they content themselves with fewer things, it falls out that there is a great abundance of all things among them.”

System of Trade

There were two aspects to their trade: internal and external as in the case of any other country, but both are peculiar. Their system of internal trade or exchange is simple but almost impractical in a modern society. This is what it says.

“Every city is divided into four equal parts, and in the middle of each there is a marketplace: what is brought thither, and manufactured by the several families, is carried from thence to houses appointed for that purpose, in which all things of a sort are laid by themselves; and thither every father goes and takes whatsoever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange.”

Near these markets there are other shops where all sorts of provisions are available, “where there are not only herbs, fruits, and bread, but also fish, fowl, and cattle.” The strange thing about this system of market was that things were freely available and heads of families go and fetch whatever they want but presumably not exceeding what they actually need. They don’t pay anything for the ‘purchases,’ or leave anything in exchange. This could happen only in a Utopia.

Although the ‘free market’ of the type that Thomas More advocated is not practical in the present world, there are many other aspects and principles which are relevant today in the context of uneven wealth and distribution. It is said that in their Great Council in Amaurot, “once a year, they examine what [cities/districts] abound in provisions and what are under any scarcity, that so the one may be furnished from the other; and this is done freely, without any sort of exchange.” As this is done per their plenty or scarcity, and supplied from one another; “so that indeed the whole Island is, as it were, one family.”

Even without the Council equalizing the needs of cities or districts, the Magistrates themselves consider the matter that necessary things are provided to the people. “When they want anything in the country which it does not produce, they fetch that from the town, without carrying anything in exchange for it,” it is said. Further it is stated that “the Magistrates of the town take care to see it given to them.” The Magistrates generally met in the town once a month on the festival day. On the other hand, “When the time of harvest comes, the Magistrates in the country send to those in the towns, and let them know how many hands they will need for reaping the harvest; and the number they call for being sent to them, they commonly dispatch it all in one day.” Therefore, there was perfect cooperation between the town and the country on all matters of the political economy.

The second aspect of trade is external. After “they have thus taken care of their whole country, and laid up stores for two years, which they do to prevent the ill-consequences of an unfavorable season, they order an exportation of the surplus of corn, honey, wool, flax, wood, wax, tallow, leather, and cattle; which they send out commonly in great quantities to other nations.” The most interesting aspect of this exportation is what they give to the poor in other countries.

Foreign Aid

It is said that “they order a seventh part of all these goods to be freely given to the poor of the countries to which they send them, and sell the rest at moderate rates.” Here is the foreign aid in nutshell. There is no record whatsoever that foreign aid was practiced in any country before. Although Utopia is primarily an imagined country, More pronounced the concept of foreign aid most probably for the first time in the recorded history. It is also important to note that his recommendation for aid was one seventh of the goods traded and that means little over 14 per cent of trade.

Utopians also imported in exchange of what they exported. They are few things that they need at home it says. They of course bring a great deal of gold and silver that they hardly use. It is reported that ‘they hardly need anything but iron.’[7] Utopian economy is also a rich one with considerable surpluses. “By driving this trade so long, it is not to be imagined how vast a treasure they have got among them: so that now they do not much care whether they sell off their merchandise for money in hand, or upon trust.” They are mostly given to the poor countries free. This is how international philanthropy is advocated along with socialism.


It is clear that the Utopian political economy that More outlines is not possible to implement completely under modern circumstances. That is not probably what even More wanted to mean. He was basically visualizing a system as an extreme or an ideal example taking some information from, in my opinion, from the Asiatic system and/or ancient Sri Lanka, and adding his own views on the subject for a ‘good commonwealth.’

In the process, there are instances where he contradicted himself on the subject and left ambiguities. For example, when he says “wives serve their husbands,” he contradicted his main principle of gender equality that he tried to establish in the manner of living, economic activity and in family life. But “children serving the parents and young always the elder” has some validity even today with reciprocity. Instead of the word ‘serving,’ ‘respect’ might be the more appropriate term. This resonate some versions of the Singalovada Sutta of the Buddha as we have noted before.

It is also clear that if a country, a party or a leader attempts to implement such a scheme by force it could be more disastrous than the existing system of capitalism. This is what largely called Dystopia.[8] That is what in a way happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot (1975-79) and to a great extent in many communist countries. Pol Pot completely abolished private property. The personal belongings only limited to a toothbrush. In collective farms, the black tunic should be collected from the store, and a plate and a spoon from the dormitory for eating. There were major differences as well. Under Pol Pot people were forced to the rural areas from the cities. The institution of the family was abolished, and people had to work for long hours. Those are not advocated or practiced in Utopia.

Utopia is a humane society. The main thrust is to abolish social inequalities as much as possible, eradicate poverty and establish human happiness to all. As I write this summary, there is a TV discussion in the ‘Sunrise’ program on Australian Channel 7 about extreme exploitation of workers in Foxconn factories in Taiwan and China. Foxconn is a multinational company which supplies 40 per cent of electronic items particularly IPhones and IPods for Apple with billions and billions of annual profits. But workers are paid barely a ‘dollar a day’ with long hours of ten to twelve. This is what More wanted to change through a new system.

End Notes

[1] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1858.

[2] Anyone who reads through the original text in Part II of this book would realise that Raphael is the person who gives the narrative of Utopia. But it is in fact Thomas More speaking through Raphael. They are More’s ideas and philosophy. Therefore, in these chapters the narratives are given as More related them for clarity and authorship, unless otherwise mentioned.

[3] Both the size of the country and the population are calculated on the basis of the figures given and they correspond with the 15th century Ceylon.

[4] Here it is obvious that More neglected the cultural and ethnic diversity of people. This is also evident in many other socialist thinkers.

[5] There is confusion perhaps in the translation; the term ‘city’ used to denote the district, at times using it interchangeably as town as well. To avoid this ambiguity ‘district’ is used instead of ‘city’ in [box brackets] wherever appropriate.

[6] John Maynard Keynes similarly advocated a policy of ‘full employment,’ in his The General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest, 1936.

[7] This is another reason to consider that island information came from Ceylon. It is also recorded that Utopia is rich in gems and pearls but not in iron.

[8] See Hanan Yoran, Between Utopia and Dystopia, Lexington Books, 2010.  



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