“Wheresoever they come they be at home:” Utopia at 500


The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510

by Ed Simon

For its name literally meaning “No Place,” echoes of Utopia seem to be everywhere. Early autumn and a week before the pope’s visit and I am at the corner of 53rd and 5th, halfway between St. Patrick’s Cathedral and one of Auden’s “dives,” when a truck rumbles slowly past, and on its side: “Utopia Trucking Company – Flushing Queens.”

Utopia – a term more of political abuse than descriptive reality – a word that this year is a half millennium old. Thomas More, lawyer, author, theorist, radical, martyr, saint, gave us this word in 1516 with the publication of Utopia, but in many ways he merely described the contours of a country which had in some sense always existed, from the coasts of Plato’s Republic to the hills of medieval Cockaigne. Yet in explicating the rules of that fictional nation to which some of us feel we must ever strive, he created one of the most potent and useful critical concepts that a radical can have in their vocabulary. It is true that the term is often used disparagingly – we must resist this. It is true that the word is used so frequently that it seems to lose its significance – we must parse this. And it is true that considering its origins, the term is unmistakably theological – we must embrace this.

My encounter with the delivery truck demonstrates just how universal “Utopia” has become – again seemingly everywhere for being nowhere, demonstrably real and yet completely fictional. The delivery company takes its name from a neighborhood in Queens, which in turn took its name from the parkway running through it. In addition to that Utopia, the United States also boasts towns by that name in Kansas, Ohio, and Texas. Remains of places that didn’t carry the literal name, but are in some sense “utopian” (for that term is used to describe so-called “intentional communities”) line the back roads of the “Burnt Over Country” of the American second great awakening, with exotic names like Ephrata and Oneida.  This was not just a religious impulse, or not explicitly always one, for nineteenth century socialists founded communities such as Brooke Farm, or the various Phalanxes organized by economic and social precepts that could in some sense be called utopian.

The potential of utopia as both impetus and ghost has inspired and haunted Americans while the creator of that word was still alive. In 1535, the Franciscan friar Vasco de Quiroga translated Thomas More’s Utopia into Spanish while working as a missionary in Mexico. The now-lost text was sent to the English lawyer, though he was beheaded before he could read the translation, executed for opposing the king’s divorce (among other reasons). De Quiroga was undaunted, the year of More’s death he began to organize the Indians into planned communities based on the political principles from his hero’s book, the first intentional communities in the New World or anywhere else which explicitly and consciously took the name “utopian.”

In many ways de Quiroga’s example highlights the profound ambivalence in the very word itself, for while his program of emancipation, economic self-sufficiency, equality, and social services was undeniably progressive (if not radical) it was also clearly tainted by the sins of colonialism. These sorts of ambiguities are noted in almost every community that has ever strived towards a utopianism. The very word has always had a conflicted history, at best it is used as a synonym for a type of social quixotism, at worst it’s taken as a given that a utopia must always devolve into a dystopia. This is when we can even agree on how to define the term, for while unmistakably left-wing systems are often called “utopian” (whether in an affirmative or derogatory sense) the word has also been applied to everything from free-market absolutism to counter-revolutionary fascism.

One and a half miles north of where I watched the Utopia Company’s delivery truck drive by, and a portrait of More hangs on the dark chestnut walls of Henry Clay Frick’s mansion. The Carnegie Steel executive had to decamp to Millionaire’s Row in New York after he unleashed the Pinkertons on striking steel workers in Homestead Pennsylvania in 1892.  He ultimately absconded permanently from Pittsburgh and began to amass an art collection to impress New York City aristocracy. Here, the backwoods inheritor of the Old Overholt Rye fortune acquired the 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger. Perhaps as evidence of either a boorish sense of humor, or a lack of awareness, Frick displayed a portrait of Thomas Cromwell (the primary agent in the orchestration of the Chancellor’s execution) on the other side of the fireplace.  Or maybe the capitalist’s interior design was really a warning to any would-be utopians, like Alexander Berkman, the anarchist who unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Frick.

It is the most iconic depiction of More, his lush velvet sleeves jut out from underneath a somber yet still rich silken black, ermine-trimmed cloak, the heavy chancellor’s chain weighed heavy around his neck, a curtain of forest green behind him. The portrait was painted twelve years after More had written his most famous work, the book which gave us not just such an important critical term, but a means of categorizing and directing our political aspirations as well. But the years between penning Utopia and sitting for Holbein’s portrait had been long. Only a year after Utopia first ran off of the English presses and a rude monk would nail a German pamphlet to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. The reformations would be as violent as any ideological struggle before or after, and a horrified More decamped zealously to the Catholic side. When his employer Henry was still a “Defender of the Faith” More penned pamphlets attacking Luther and his English allies such as William Tyndale. The later was the man who would put the language of the English working classes into Christ’s mouth, who was later to be burnt at the stake in Belgium, under the orders of the English king. In all More was responsible for six executions (seven if you include Tyndale due to the Chancellor’s campaign, though he was ultimately killed after More himself), and there have long been accusations that the philosopher may have personally tortured these Protestant agitators. Upon the discovery of copies of Utopia following the siege at the German city of Munster where a brief communist theocracy was established before being violently subdued by a duel Catholic and Protestant military campaign (Europe’s first moment of eccumenicism….) and More wished he could consign all copies of his most important book to the flames alongside the people who he had helped to burn at Lollard’s Pit and elsewhere. As has been written before, the first great utopian was also the first anti-utopian. Holbein had the fortuitous luck to paint the elder More staring intently towards the right.

It is this later More rather than the idealistic author of Utopia who unfortunately often comes down to us today. Witness the Thomas More Society, a kind of ersatz right-wing version of the American Civil Liberties Union. They embrace the later version of More rather than the youthful one, a group for whom the rallying cry of “Religious Liberty!” is associated with the man who burnt heretics and not for the author of the communist blueprint which envisioned true freedom of conscience as a basic principle of societal organization. For another example envision the reactionary Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia who wore an exact replica of the hat depicted in the Holbein painting to the second presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, a gift from the aforementioned society, and widely interpreted as a political statement against the healthcare mandate. More’ fictional Utopia envisioned a state where medical care was an assumed human right, but the More who Justice Scalia emulated was the supposed defender of religious “liberty” manning the green-wood of the auto de fe where Scalia and others like him define “conscience of faith” as the right to deny others theirs. Viewed from this vantage point, perhaps the Gilded Age industrialist Frick enshrining More in his mansion is not so inappropriate if a modern anti-labor, anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-Muslim justice can similarly tether his identity to the founder of Utopia.

But as with all things related to More, and by extension his conceptual invention of utopia, there are ambiguities and contradictions, for some 4,668 miles from Henry Clay Frick’s mansion in New York City there once stood a monument to More and others called the Alexander Garden Obelisk, and which is described as a memorial to the “Prominent Thinkers and Leaders of the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working People.” Here, in the Kremlin, More is listed alongside Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon, Bakunin, Engels, and Marx as an intellectual partisan in the cause of workers’ liberation, the collection personally approved by Lenin in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. Some 1,447 miles southwest of Moscow, and seventeen years later More would receive a very different recommendation when Pope Pius XI canonized him as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church in St. Peter’s Square. For those of us on the left, what is to be done with Thomas More, the knighted communist, the canonized radical? To what More, and to what version of utopia, do we orient ourselves? With the indefinite nature of More the radical, More the capitalist, More the communist, More the saint, to whom do we turn? Or has “utopia” become at best an empty signifier, at worst a pejorative for misplaced idealism that can border into fanaticism? Does the left have anything left to learn from utopia, and can she still be a universal homeland to which we sail?

As radicals we abandon utopia at our own peril. As critics it is our task to not just rehabilitate the word, but to reinvigorate it as well. For humanists this is done through the critical sentiment and approach to analysis that Marxist critic Frederic Jameson explains as a process where the critic must “Always historicize.” It is true that Utopia has accumulated attendant cultural connotations, both during More’s lifetime and the long half millennium after; and it is also true that the genius of the text (as well as the attendant literary mode which it inaugurated) is complex, nuanced, and in many ways hard to separate from satire. Yet in analyzing that text there are certain conclusions that can be made. That is that when we are confronted with More the capitalist, the communist, or the saint we can categorically eliminate the first (and thus recapture him at his best from the right) and we can reconcile the last two. In understanding what precisely is radical in Utopia, and thus what is still ideologically pertinent, we must (perhaps uncomfortably for some Marxists) not just understand but embrace the religious and theological category, which undeniably structures both the original text and the subsequent utopian mode.

Utopia is a text more often mentioned than actually read, but it is only in going back to the book itself, and considering the early sixteenth-century context in which it was composed, that its radicalism becomes so evident. To begin with, the short text is really divided into two books; the first recounts a conversation between a roman a clef version of More himself (prefiguring so-called “post-modern” literature and skirting the line between reality and fiction) and a sailor named Raphael Hytholday who More meets while on a diplomatic trade mission in the Low Countries. Hytholday (who critics have noted has a name that basically means “Nonsense speaker”) has sailed with Amerigo Vespucci to the New World, where he visited Utopia, the exact location of which he cheekily informs us that he does not remember. The second book is composed of Hytholday’s recounting in detail what he encountered in Utopia, that is their approach to economic, social, political, cultural and religious structures. It is the later book that has become the more heavily quoted and popular of the two, and in many ways it is more in keeping with the proto-science fiction feel of the overall text (it’s not for nothing that More included both maps and an alphabet for his fictional country, inaugurating the intense world-building of later fantasy texts). While the first book is admittedly drier, it is also the section of Utopia that helps to place the book in a historical context that demonstrates its full radicalism.

More’s own biography demonstrates that he was complex and contradictory, and that in many ways his life followed an all too familiar and all too depressing right-ward trajectory which is often seen in disillusioned radical intellectuals. But these inconsistencies do not imply that Utopia is itself not a revolutionary text. It is true that the work is multivocal, that the competing discussions between More’s fictional surrogate and Hytholday (among others) generate a sort of Keatsian negative capability that makes a definitive point of view difficult to ascertain (or which implies there is not one perspective being endorsed). As a result critics, particularly conservative ones, have argued that the work is purely satire, an ironic portrait of an impossible society (whose name, once again, does mean “No Place”) rather than a critique of early modern power structures, or certainly any kind of recommended concrete platform for reform. As literary critic Susan Bruce writes “For critics of the right it is irksome that one of the most canonical texts in English literature appears to express so profound and explicit a critique of the economic system underlying all Western societies” with the implication being that this circle is squared by arguing that More didn’t really believe what he wrote. While it may seem unlikely that More ever meant book two to be a genuine political proposal, there is no reason to think that the sentiment which held that “the whole island is as it were one family or household” was one that he didn’t hold to as an ideal.

The multivocal aspect of the text, or its “heteroglossia” as Mikhail Bahktin called it, are not necessarily evidence of disingenuousness, nor do they prove that Utopia is a straightforward satire (even if it shares some aspects of that mode). Rather these qualities merely categorize the text as a precursor of the novel, and speak to its narrative complexity. It’s true, Utopia is not didactic agitprop nor is it simple manifesto, but rather it is as a complex narrative work prefiguring the precise heteroglosic virtues which we celebrate in the novel as a form. Yet in this particular example the politics remain radical. This is nowhere more obvious than in the first book of Utopia, which establishes the work as a radical critique of increasingly unequal economic power in England and the consolidation of state power in London (which he would soon be a part of). Utopia comments on the hegemonic structures then emerging in rapidly changing and urbanizing England. In many ways Utopia is a carnival mirror image of England, and like all great speculative fiction it serves as a comment on injustices within the society it reflects back. As a nation Utopia has fifty-four subdivisions, the same as England. Bruce again writes that “Utopia and England, for example, ostensibly invoked in the text as each other’s opposite, are in many ways very similar: like the British Isles, Utopia is an island; its main town and river resemble London and the Thames, as contemporary commentators were quick to note.” Yet for this mirror similarity in some respects, More evokes the lyrics of the radical song “The World Turn’d Upside Down” from the civil wars of a century and a half later – for that which is last in England is first in Utopia.

More’s text can be characterized as a conservative satire only when totally disentangled from the specific historical context in which the work was written. Late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century England was undergoing massive shifts in power dynamics, and changes in the actual landscape of the country. A close reading of the time period from roughly the Tudor ascension in the late fifteenth-century through their stewardship of the nation throughout the following century reveals changes that were often profoundly detrimental to the common-people of the era. It is a convenient lie of Whig historiography that sets the early modern period as “Renaissance” away from the medieval that is stereotyped as the “Dark Ages.” An honest appraisal of the actual quality of life between the late middle ages and the earliest years of the English Renaissance would not recommend the later to most people. Shifts in the economic policies of landed aristocracy and the central monarchy led to disruptive changes to the livelihood of the working classes who had maintained a particular way of life for centuries. Chief among these alterations to the medieval economic system was the introduction of enclosure, whereby the common lands which the medieval proletariat had shared freely for agriculture, lodging, livelihood, and recreation for half a millennium were rapidly privatized for the purpose of sheep grazing, so that the nobility would generate capital in the increasingly productive and lucrative wool and textile exportation trade. It is thus crucial that More and Hytholday’s meeting is directly related to the wool industry (which, as some critics have not unfairly pointed out the historical More did invest in, despite his criticisms). As Hytholday says of England: “these noblemen and gentlemen… not contenting themselves with the yearly revenues and profits… leave no ground for tillage; they enclose all into pastures; they throw down houses; they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing but only the church to be made a sheep house.” This was a nascent form of market capitalism, and despite the damage it did (and does) to the English working class it makes sense that conservative critics would act as handmaiden to reactionary justifications of the capitalist order by denying the journalistic integrity of More’s criticism and claiming Utopia as merely satire.

The enclosure movement, which continued throughout the early modern period (with privatization it arguably continues today) had a catastrophic affect on the working classes. With an inability to adequately support themselves in the manner of their ancestors a massive vagrant class was created which flooded into a London whose population was exploding. With their traditional means of support eradicated many of this class were forced into petty crime to merely survive, which led to draconian punishments by a rapidly centralizing police states. Prisons like Newgate which were packed full and were colonies for plague could be virtually death sentences, and the criminal code was revised in the strictest manner, making the slur “medieval” much more accurate to apply to the Renaissance. Hytholday discusses this anarchic lawlessness in England and the emergence of a criminal class generated by necessity, birthed by economic conditions. He speaks of “this wretched beggary and miserable poverty” which generates “riot.” Yet what is more horrific are the methods of state punishment to corral the hungry masses, and the sailor from among the Utopians speaks of the how he thinks that it is “not right nor justice that the loss of money should cause the loss of man’s life. For mine opinion is that all the goods in the world are not able to countervail man’s life” and that “God commandeth us that we shall not kill. And be we then so hasty to kill a man for taking a little money?” Execution for theft was an innovation of the so-called modern world, and it was one whose existence was justified by this rapidly changing economic order.

Hytholday (or More) contrasts this with the – well – utopian example of the Utopians. On that upside down mirror image island the Utopians “never lack work, and besides the gaining of their meat and drink, every one of them bringeth daily something into the common treasury.” It is a firm political and economic belief of the Utopians that the “only way to wealth is of a commonality” where “equality of all things” must be maintained. Of the fifty-four polities which constitute the area of the nation, “None of the cities desire to enlarge the bounds and limits of their shires, for they count themselves rather the good husbands than the owners of their lands” and that within the homes of Utopia “there is nothing with the houses that is private or any man’s own.” The author anticipated the common critique of utopia and indeed socialism itself, that it would create a boring, colorless, utilitarian society. He explains how the Utopians work only a nine hour day (a number in keeping with the sorts of working conditions labor fought for in the twentieth-century) and where during time not used for “work, sleep, and meat” that time is spent as “every man as he liketh best himself.” He prefigures the nineteenth-century radical motto “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!” Indeed More intuitively understood that far from erasing distinctions or creating a monochromatic world the life of man under socialism was one in which every individual would have full ability to self-fashion themselves. The Utopians are given the right to play, a right which More would have associated with a rapidly disappearing “Merry Old England” which was vanishing as hedges were planted to cordon off private property from the common treasury of the English people, and where enclosure abolished the shire which was the property of all men. But it is only when people are liberated from the deprivations of economic survival that we become truly at liberty to be human, and that far from being a dreary or boring place, Utopia is a land where no “supper is passed without music.” In Utopia one has bread, but one also has roses.

It was a common sentiment in radical English literature that had it that “Merry Old England” was a type of pastoral Eden, an Anglo-Saxon Arcadia, and that their ancient liberties were violated during the Norman Conquest. It’s a thread which runs throughout working class English discourse from the mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages explicated by historian Norman Cohn, to the radical religious non-conformists of the seventeenth-century who inspired Marxist historian Christopher Hill, to the Fabian socialists of the nineteenth-century. For all of its myth (not to speak of a sometimes troubling ethnocentrism) a convincing case can be made that the introduction of privatization and a market economy greatly reduced both the security, comfort, and freedoms of the common English. This detriment to quality of life has been explained away as a necessary difficulty, or erased with the teleological constructions surrounding language of “progress.” The English proletariat saw land that had rightfully belonged to them taken away, from the fields now enclosed, to the monasteries that would shortly be dissolved and have their altars stripped during the Henrician Reformation. Read in this context and More’s Utopia can be seen as a condemnation of particular injustices at a particular time, and in this way the general sense of utopianism, which is so often dismissed, can be regrounded and thus resuscitated as a potent symbol against different injustices at different times.

Sometimes the term “utopian” is used as a slur against free-market absolutists, anarchic libertarians, neo-conservative Straussians, fascists, and other reactionary ideologies. This is a duel mistake – to begin with none of those are utopian belief-systems – and secondly there is nothing wrong with ideologies that actually are utopian. As intellectual historian Russell Jacoby writes in his excellent Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age “the utopian vision has flagged; it sparks little interest. At best, ‘utopian’ is tossed around as a term of abuse; it suggest that someone is not simply unrealistic but prone to violence.” Jacoby explains that liberal anti-utopianism has become the de facto logic of late capitalism, and this use of the word “utopian” as a mere synonym for what is totalitarian (actual meaning of the word be damned) has made such a position the conventional, common sensical approach of contemporary political theory; but, Jacoby continues, referring to this liberal consensus, that “To the extent that their critique blackens all of utopian thought, I object.” As must we, for the vagaries of More’s biography are one thing, but More as a symbol of Utopia can be separated from More the conservative, More the capitalist, and More the reactionary.

But while we can separate out More the radical from that previous unholy trinity, we cannot separate him from More the saint. Utopia is an unmistakably theological concept; a humanist steeped in both orthodox as well as reformist Catholicism, and privy to the rich traditions of religiously motivated medieval political radicalism, from the Brethren of the Free Spirit to the Beguines, created it. Marxist historians such as Hill and E.P. Thompson, for as invaluable as their work has been, have sometimes minimized the theological language in which radical politics was written from the Middle Ages through the seventeenth-century (and indeed often later as well). There is sometimes an implication that biblical typology, theological concepts, and the vocabulary of the sacred, the divine, and the transcendent were simply a religious veneer over secular concepts, a tool for convincing the pious proletariat to a radical cause. This is a profound category error, for religion was not a code to conceal a secret language of radicalism, but rather it was the language itself. Theological language was not always motivated by material conditions, but indeed shaped those conditions, both in the examples of hegemonic oppression and radical resistance to those powers. That is to say that religious language was not mere artifice to adorn secular conception, nor was it sugar to make socialistic medicine more palatable, but rather because “secularism” itself is such a problematic concept political and religious radicalism were often simply identical. It calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s parable from Theses on the Philosophy of History where he compares the operations of history to an infamous eighteenth-century chess-playing “robot” dressed like a Turk, and whom a dwarfish prodigy secretly operated. In this anecdote Benjamin compared the chess-playing robot to “historical materialism,” who he said can only work if he “employs the services of theology,” the sentient human chess-player who “is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.”

Furthermore, utopianism as philosophical approach as well as literary mode in large part relied on the fertile creativity of working class apocalypticism and millennialism. I have heard it said that millennialism is a type of working class utopianism, stripped of the refinement of classical learning as exhibited in texts like More’s but also Thomas Campanella’s City of the Sun, Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, and The Commonwealth of Oceana by James Harrington among dozens of other early modern examples. The implication is that the rhetoric of millennium is the result of a type of trickle-down learning, but the opposite is actually true. Millennialism as an approach to critique and action has a genealogy going back to Daniel, utopianism only emerges in light of this earlier, religious discourse. It owes it everything.

Many Marxist critics have long rejected this claim that Marxism in particular or utopianism more generally is a form of secularized theological concept. A former professor of mine who is a prominent and brilliant Marxist scholar of Shakespeare positively bristled at the suggestion that Marx’s divisions of history, the assumed teleology, or the seemingly millennial-goals were any way indebted to a type of secularized religious vision. Indeed the association of medieval and early modern religious movements with radical left-wing politics has often been made as a presumed condemnation of the later. Though Pursuit of the Millennium remains the best historical overview of religious and political radicalism from the middle ages to the English civil wars, Cohn in part chose the description “anarchists” to make an unfavorable comparison to campus radicals at the time he was writing. Philosopher John Grey writes that “It has often been noted that for its followers communism had many of the functions of a religion,” and many on the left have reacted negatively as surely as my professor did at this suggestion. However I do not dispute Grey’s analysis, I merely contend that it is time for us to get religion.

We must lose the cringe at the specter of the theological, or at a genealogy that places radicalism and utopianism within a theological tradition. There are two reasons why it is imperative that we give the devil – or rather “God” – his due in this regard. The first is that to divorce religion from a proper analytical consideration of how power structures operate is to try and do radical critique with one arm tied behind our backs. The second is that in denying radicalism’s theological origins we sell out our birthright for a mess of pottage. The philosopher Grey, who is no friend to the utopian impulse, nevertheless remains a crucial thinker for those of us on the left to engage with, for though he stands in opposition to what he sees the dangerous idolatry of progress in utopianism, his other lesson that utopianism is a species of the theological is an important one to incorporate into our understanding. He writes that “Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion,” and indeed this interpretive rubric must be engaged with if we’re to properly chart where we’ve been and where we’re going. Many theorists of left resistance of course already acknowledge this. Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, and Simon Critchley are only a very short list of politically radical philosophers who are perfect willing to engage the theological as a category in which left discourses can and need to operate. Again we do not need to choose between More the radical and More the saint, because in all the ways that matter they are identical.

Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism wrote, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.” It is a type of via negativa approach to utopianism, a means of holding in our mind’s eye the possibility of utopia and charting an ever and ever closer course towards her shore, even if the strand must always in some sense be inaccessible. But the fact that Utopia itself can never be reached is not to advocate for an abandonment of utopianism. No, the opposite is true. We must still hold true to these maps, and we must understand who those cartographers were, which is true wherever we find ourselves, be it the Kremlin, St. Peter’s Square, or the corner of 53rd and 5th.