Full-Employment Utopias

Christopher Hill

  • Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing, 1516-1700 by J.C. Davis
    Cambridge, 427 pp, £25.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23396 8
  • Science and Society in Restoration England by Michael Hunter
    Cambridge, 232 pp, £18.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 22866 2

Dr Davis’s book is a long, careful and detailed study of utopian writing in England from Sir Thomas More to the end of the 17th century. He has interesting things to say about well-known figures like More, Bacon, Winstanley and Harrington, but I found his chapters on lesser writers even more instructive. Robert Burton and Samuel Gott are revealed as more significant ‘utopians’ than has been recognised. Dr Davis is also interesting on William Sprigge’s A Modest Plea for an Equal Commonwealth of 1659, the anonymous Chaos (1659) and The Free State of Noland (1696), which he classifies as ‘Harringtonian’. He has even found a couple of Royalist utopias, which he discusses in Chapter Ten. More important, he distinguishes a category of ‘full-employment utopias’, which includes Rowland Vaughan (1610), Gabriel Plattes’s Macaria (1641), Peter Chamberlen’s The Poore Mans Advocate (1649), Peter Cornelius Plockhoy (1659), John Bellers’s Proposals for Raising a College of Industry (1695), and two essays by an anonymous Hermeticist, Philadept, published in 1698 and 1700. Many in this last group were discussed in 1952 by J.K. Fuz in a pioneering work, Welfare Economics in English Utopias, to which Dr Davis refers only in a dismissive footnote. Davis also shows that Burton was an early advocate of something like a welfare state.

This book reinforces our awareness of the problem of scarcity in 16th and early 17th-century England, and the consequent emphasis, in that relatively over-populated society, on labour discipline, on setting the poor on work, on curbing mobility. MPs, JPs, and the lesser men who as constables and churchwardens ran the parishes, became increasingly concerned with such matters in the reign of Elizabeth and the first two Stuarts; utopian writers from More to Gott shared the same concern. In More’s Utopia intensive and disciplined use of the labour resources of the whole country results in the prevention of scarcity. A century later ‘Burton was almost obsessed with idleness, which he regarded as a national curse and “the badge of gentry”.’ ‘I will suffer no beggars, rogues, vagabonds, or idle persons at all, that cannot give an account of their lives how they maintain themselves.’ Utopians emphasised at this period the wickedness of ‘natural man’, the necessity of organised and enforced labour discipline to combat idleness. Puritan preachers from William Perkins in the 1590s onwards agreed. For utopians like Johann Valentin Andreae no less than for Puritans, Geneva seemed a model community.

Dr Davis makes the point that the problem of enforcing laws against idleness led utopians from More and Burton onwards to insist on a large and uncorrupt bureaucracy. This process culminated in Bellers’s colleges of industry: ‘the institutions, rules and procedures which they adopted were designed to impose time, work and organisational disciplines upon pre-industrial man, to make him a functioning part of a human machine.’ Dr Davis draws an analogy with the elaborate regulations, implemented by a bureaucracy, which Ambrose Crowley at the end of the century found necessary to run his factory.

Utopians from More onwards placed their emphasis on restricting consumption rather than on maximising production. But after the revolution of the 1640s and 50s had liberated hitherto constricted economic forces, the stress came to be rather on achieving the Baconian vision of abolishing poverty by encouraging industry – following, as Burton, Chamberlen and Sprigge recommended, the example of the Dutch republic. Plattes and Winstanley were among the first to argue that abundance for all was possible if the economy was rationally developed: the ‘welfare economics utopians’ followed suit. By the end of the century Philadept was thinking in terms of a minimum wage, and of a public works programme to absorb society’s surplus.

The idea of conquering poverty through conquering idleness posed tricky problems about the gentry, with ‘their prescriptive social right to idleness’. Before 1640, only a dangerous radical like Thomas Scott dared to insist that the upper classes should work. Winstanley (and perhaps More in the decent obscurity of Latin) proposed to abolish the gentry altogether. Burton, who hinted at the problem, was more concerned to see that younger brothers like himself attained their fair share of idleness; the author of Chaos also wanted to abolish primogeniture. Rowland Vaughan at the beginning of the century, Chamberlen in the middle and Bellers at the end envisaged the gentry living in wealth outside the organised communities of the poor. Dr Davis suggests that the shift from nationwide utopias in the earlier period towards ‘the withdrawn community’ more analogous to the joint-stock factory is related to this problem of the gentry. The possibilities of state action, which so excited reformers like Hartlib, Chamberlen, Winstanley and Harrington in the 1640s and 1650s, no longer existed after 1660. Winstanley had advocated forcing the gentry to throw their lot in with his communist communities by an organised withdrawal of labour which would make large-scale farming impossible. Plattes, too, thought in terms of a national economic plan, though he did not face the question of the gentry as Winstanley did. After 1660, it was politically impossible to consider curtailing the gentry’s right to wealth and leisure: the most that could be hoped was to persuade them to invest in the communities in which the lower classes were organised.

I have so far ignored what I suspect Dr Davis regards as the most important aspect of his work: his assumption that ‘utopia as a system of thought is relatively unchanging.’ Davis by definition distinguishes utopian from millenarian writings, and from descriptions of the Land of Cokaygne, Arcadia and ‘the perfect moral commonwealth’. His definition, so far as I know, is accepted by no other scholar, though Dr Davis gives short shrift to rival definitions. But is a timeless definition possible or desirable? Dr Davis does not distinguish, for instance, between the utopias written in the vernacular during the English Revolution, many of which were intended as programmes for action, and, on the other hand, More’s Latin treatise, which certainly was not so intended. More said he would rather see Utopia burnt than translated into the language ordinary people could read. This is surely a more important distinction than the narrow line which separates Winstanley or Harrington from the millenarians, Gott from advocates of a ‘perfect moral community’. Dr Davis does not even distinguish between utopias written before, during and after the English Revolution, though his own evidence makes it clear that the intellectual atmosphere prevailing in the three periods was vastly different. His two Royalist utopias were both published after 1660.

Another aspect of what strikes me as Dr Davis’s unhistorical approach is his distaste for the utopian mode in general, which derives, it appears, from 20th-century experience. Quoting Berdyaev’s ‘utopia is always totalitarian,’ Dr Davis agrees: ‘the issue might be presented as utopia or freedom.’ One object of his book is to warn us against the former. He stresses throughout the regimentation which his utopians imposed on their citizens, forgetting his own reminder that 16th and 17th-century English society was regimented to a degree which the 20th century would find intolerable. The difference, as Dr Davis perceptively remarks about More, is that in Utopia regulations were enforced. Davis also attributes to all his utopians a belief in original sin: regulation of every detail of life is necessary because of the wickedness of men.

Winstanley was perhaps the first Englishman to proclaim in print that all men would be saved. He believed that the millennium had already arrived, not in the normal theological sense, but in the sense that Christ (who is the same as Reason) was rising in all men and women. Economic, political and spiritual freedom were inseparable: when Christ rose in them, all would reject covetousness and private property in favour of an egalitarian society. In order to fit Winstanley in, Dr Davis has to assume that in his last pamphlet, The Law of Freedom, Winstanley had come to accept the view he had rejected so vigorously earlier, that sin and egotism are ‘innate in fallen man’. For this remarkable reversal I know of no evidence. It is contradicted by Winstanley’s conviction that annual elections would produce disinterested state officers.

Dr Davis rejects the view that The Law of Freedom (1652) is a ‘possibilist’ document, the product of the overwhelming failure of Winstanley’s communist colony in 1649-50. This collapse was not due to God’s failure to intervene, but to the problem of educating Winstanley’s illiterate countrymen. By the time of The Law of Freedom, Dr Davis himself says, Winstanley ‘must have known it would be at least a long-drawn-out process.’ There are many indications in The Law of Freedom that Winstanley’s proposals are only a holding operation until Reason triumphs in men and women, ‘till they be willing’. The Law of Freedom relates to Winstanley’s earlier writings as Milton’s Ready and Easy Way to establish a Free Commonwealth relates to Areopagitica and The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. Both attempt to salvage something from the wreckage by appealing for some support from those who enjoy political power – in Winstanley’s case, Oliver Cromwell and the Rump of the Long Parliament.

Dr Davis is less harsh to Winstanley than he has been on previous occasions, but he still uses emotive language to portray him as a totalitarian hater of freedom. Winstanley might be a 20th-century communist who has learnt nothing from the career of Joseph Stalin. I am not convinced that when contemporaries below the rank of gentry read Winstanley (or Plattes, Chamberlen or Plockhoy, or Chaos) they would find a ‘pessimistic view of the nature of man’ leading to a denial of freedom. Similarly, Dr Davis thinks New Atlantis’s qualifications to be considered a utopia are doubtful, since Bacon was insufficiently sure of ‘the fallibility and corruptibility of his scientists’.

Harrington’s sensible suggestion that legislators should assume that citizens may be wicked is taken as an assertion of original sin. But Dr Davis has illuminating things to say about Harrington’s ‘basically federal’ system of government, in which the municipal boroughs were ‘absorbed into the county’, and about his deference to the gentry.

My disagreements with Dr Davis are on large and contentious matters, political and theological rather than historical. But, as Hazlitt put it, the allegory will not bite the reader. There is much food for thought in this large and thorough book.

Many are the controversies which introduce a little excitement into the drab lives of historians of 17th-century England. What (if anything) is the connection between religion and the rise of capitalism? Between Puritanism and the scientific revolution? What (if any) were the causes of the Civil War? In each case, the early pioneers – Weber and Tawney, Hessen and Merton, Tawney and Trevor-Roper – produced resounding, stimulating generalisations. A later, more scholarly (or more pedantic) generation proceeded to pick holes in them; and finally a boring via media is now being hammered out.

In the history of science, there are still giants abroad. Charles Webster, J.R. and M.C. Jacob have produced new and exciting syntheses in the grand manner. The object of Dr Hunter’s book is to reconsider the ‘academic dimension’ of the new science, and its institutions. He avoids ‘uncritical counting of heads’ as a means of deciding how many Fellows of the Royal Society were ‘Puritans’. The answer, of course, always varied with the initial definition of ‘Puritan’. One innocent scholar thought that no one who accepted a bishopric after 1660 could possibly have been a ‘Puritan’ during the Interregnum; another employed a definition of ‘Puritan’ which would have excluded not only John Wilkins (that was his object) but also John Milton and Richard Baxter. The discussion has here been conveniently shelved by agreeing to describe the ethos of the Royal Society as ‘latitudinarian’. Latitudinarians included virtually all those ‘Puritans’ who ‘conformed to the Church of England’ in 1660. By contrast, surviving defenders of ‘the Ancients’ against ‘the Moderns’ were High Churchmen and Non-Jurors; Oxford University condemned the work of Locke.

Dr Hunter pursues a safe via media: few will want to quarrel with his survey of the present state of research. Bacon was not a wholly original thinker; Baconianism could incorporate other ideas. ‘The formative years for the scientific tradition’ were those of the English Revolution, whose freedom of discussion and ‘intellectual ferment’ facilitated a ‘great expansion in scientific work’. The Royal Society owed much to ‘its Interregnum predecessors’, especially to ‘the Hartlib circle’. Oldenburg, a member of this circle, became Secretary to the Society and continued Hartlib’s correspondence with foreign scientists. Newton’s ‘central idea of force ... may well have had its roots in the occult tradition’.

It seems odd, in view of this close dependence on Webster and the Jacobs, for Dr Hunter to deny that ‘the almost apocalyptic expectations for science in Sprat’s History of the Royal Society’ testify to ‘the residual influence of Puritanism’: instead, they were ‘part of the general intellectual equipment of the age’. But Puritanism had made them part of this ‘intellectual equipment’. He is on safer ground when he plays down the Royal Society’s influence on the development of plain prose: ‘this stylistic change was connected with more general shifts in the intellectual climate of 17th-century England,’ including Puritanism.

Following J.R. Jacob, Hunter recognises that the threat from Interregnum radicals, and the possible atheistic tendency of science, created an atmosphere of near-panic in the Restoration period. The Royal Society carefully cultivated ‘social respectability’ by recruiting bishops, peers, courtiers and even Charles II. It became ‘a gentleman’s club’. Members below the rank of gentleman were few indeed, though some – like Sir William Petty – were self-made. ‘Those of high rank’ tended to monopolise discussions, which accordingly often became ‘trivial’. Many ‘serious scientists’ ceased to attend.

Sprat’s History of the Royal Society was a propagandist document, which attempted – whilst hushing up the Society’s Interregnum origins – to argue both that science promoted Christianity and that it would contribute to national economic improvement. Dr Hunter echoes Professor M.C. Jacob: ‘Newton’s principles were deliberately popularised as a satisfying world-view vindicating God’s control over the natural order and hence proving the error of materialist doctrines.’

He makes some points of his own about the Royal Society. Despite careful cultivation of Charles II, the Society failed to get an endowment until 1682, and so remained dependent on subscriptions from ‘less useful members’. After 1682, ‘sizeable expulsions ... occurred for the first time’. He stresses the importance of Oldenburg’s Philosophical Transactions, which, though technically not the responsibility of the Royal Society, helped to spread its reputation abroad.

The Society’s ‘concern to get to grips with the problems of the contemporary economy’ is illustrated, though ‘change generally occurred at the level of artisans and entrepreneurs,’ for whom the intellectuals – but not those responsible for running the Navy – had considerable contempt. Dr Hunter’s sympathies appear to lie with the intellectuals: he describes as ‘Philistinism’ Oldenburg’s attack on those who ‘prefer endless contentions about words before the useful works of the noblest arts’, and his observation that more intelligence can be found ‘among tradesmen and others de plebe’ than among those ‘that have consumed their whole life in public places of learning’. Perhaps the Society’s most successful contribution to the economy was Sylva (1664), which had John Evelyn’s name on the title-page but was in fact a co-operative production which ‘owed much to work done by members of the Hartlib circle and other writers in the Interregnum and earlier’. Even the gentlemen virtuosos were on occasion ‘well-informed commentators on the work of scientists’. Dr Hunter fails to convince me that ‘science’ supported centralised power and therefore absolutism. Some scientists, yes, as J.R. Jacob has shown. But hardly ‘science’.

What does emerge from this book is the growing professionalism of science from the revolutionary decades onwards. This is part of that general and rapid increase in the national wealth which Dr G. Holmes has recently stressed. Just as post-revolutionary England could afford a big navy, a big army and a big civil service, so it could afford to pay for more doctors, lawyers – and scientists.