Tom butler-bowdon


Wanted to let you know about some exciting new books.

The Capstone Classics series began 10 years ago now with Think and Grow Rich and Art of War.

They were popular from the start. Interesting Introductions that put each title into context for the modern reader, plus in a stunning hardback design at a reasonable price.

We're now at 17 titles - soon to become 20. Will announce the next three before long. All I can say is they are probably not what you expect!

People have emailed saying they've bought every title in the series, and I get why: they're a visual representation of human wisdom. When you can read books online or on a device (and instantly forget about them), a personal physical library is powerful. It's a reminder that you're a learner, a collector of knowledge, and that your opinions are based on something.

I always come to a book with an open mind, and like this quote from Orange Book on Twitter:

"Smart people read from the perspective of the writer, not their own."

So here goes – the new ones:


Thomas More by Holbein the Younger, National Gallery London

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Some books have been so big they coined new words.

In 1516, one was published in Latin with an enigmatic Greek-derived word as its title.

Utopia (meaning either “good-place” or “no-place”) gave a traveler’s account of a newly discovered island somewhere in the New World where the inhabitants enjoy a social order based purely on natural reason and justice.

The description of harmony, prosperity, and equality found on Utopia was a pointed contrast with the poverty, crime, and often frightening political conditions of 16th century Europe.


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Utopia's author, Sir Thomas More (1477–1535), was an intellectual star in England and ultimately the advisor and friend of King Henry VIII. In the end, he was executed for his devout Catholicism.

Utopia is a fascinating read. For this new Capstone edition I had historian Niall Kishtainy write a great Introduction which covers the life and times of More, the controversies around the book, and how each generation seems to see it in a new way.

Although deeply religious, More was an original thinker. His book was a subtle way of getting people to think about alternatives to the world they lived in. But even at the time, some people took it too literally.

Today, the word "utopia" is a by-word for failed Panglossian schemes. We no longer believe in utopias, and for good reason (more below) - but utopian thinking is still a good thing I believe.

This new edition has just come out in the UK and for US, Canada and Australia readers order here.

TBBMarx EngelsBerlin

Communist Utopia

In 1918, the co-founder of a real-life utopia, Vladimir Lenin, had Thomas More’s name inscribed on an obelisk in Moscow's Alexander Park.

The obelisk, which had been a monument to the tercentenary of Romanov imperial rule, was now "in honor of the fighters of the revolution of all times and peoples".

More was ninth on the list of great socialist names, with Marx & Engels at the top.

In 2013, the Putin regime removed and then reworked the obelisk to make it again a monument to the Romanovs.

The Berlin Marx-Engels monument to your left (with me on a visit in 2018) was put up in 1986... with impeccably bad timing. But the city's authorities chose not to take it away after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Every society changes its idols from time to time. But most countries - sensibly - do not try to destroy reminders of their heritage. People can learn about history more easily if there's something physical to focus on.

If communism was a utopian scheme that didn't end well, let's keep getting reminded of it. Otherwise, new generations will fall for "this time it's different" reasoning.


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Communist Manifesto

As a fan of the power of capitalism to lift people out of poverty, I've long been fascinated by its antithesis.

I doubt the power-hungry Lenin ever honestly believed a perfect communist world could be created, but Marx and Engels were true believers.

Although published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto is as provocative as ever. Beginning with the famous "A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism", its stirring language helped spread the socialist message far and wide, unleashing a century of political revolution.

In our age of great inequality the Manifesto's message of an exploited and suffering working class that must rise up and claim the means of production and wealth is still pretty powerful. The pandemic has if anything widened economic gulfs. Central bank expansion of the monetary supply has meant a great inflation of asset prices. If you had stocks, real estate, crypto etc before the pandemic, you've got richer. If not, you've seen your purchasing power decrease as the value of currencies fall in relation to assets. Stimulus checks don't make a big dent in this basic equation.

I wrote an Introduction to a new edition of The Communist Manifesto, which is now out in the UK and in the US, Canada, Australia. You can get it here on Really love the cover for this one: the black, white and red reminds me of Russian Constructivist art and so is a perfect match for the content.

I try to set the scene by talking about the "year of revolutions" (1848) which shook Europe to its core. Marx believed a socialist revolution was just around the corner, and he was justified in thinking so.

In the end he was sorely disappointed.

We often hear that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time is come. But reactionary regimes and forces, or just plain lack of momentum, meant it would be almost 70 years before the Russian Revolution.

Perhaps the peoples of Europe resisted communism for so long because they thought it was too good to be true? They were basically right: the wisdom of crowds.

Marx and Engels' vision of a worker-driven society made perfect sense on paper, and seemed very just. But it went against many aspects of human nature. The wish for freedom is greater than the desire for equality. The urge to excel is more sacred to us than knowing everyone has enough food and a roof. The desire to own property and pass it on is more powerful, it seems, than the quality of the public realm.

SovietWoman WorkerMonument1937

1937 monument to male worker and female collective farmer, by Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina

Utopia for women?

One of the upsides of communism was an emphasis on equality between the sexes.

In a world in which all social relations are shaped by capital, to Marx and Engels it was obvious that things such as morality, culture, religion and law are not ‘universal’ but rather bourgeois conspiracies to keep the proletariat worker and his family in his place. The individuality and freedom of the bourgeois gentleman or lady in fact rests on unearned land rents and factory conditions that require worker exploitation.

This led Marx to his most shocking idea: the abolition of the family. What he meant is the bourgeois family, who enjoyed the luxury of togetherness because they were not working all hours. Their nice house, possessions, education and stability sits on the back of the labourer, whose own children may be forced to work in a factory or go into prostitution.

When it comes to the equality of women, Marx and Engels note that the bourgeois woman is a “mere instrument of production” - just another thing to be exploited by the bourgeois male.

Women under a communist system, on the other hand, would be liberated. And indeed, Soviet Russia's first constitution specifically recognized the rights of women.

Virginia Woolf with father

A young Virginia Woolf with her father, Leslie Stephen

Virginia Woolf's Room

One woman who could hardly have been more 'bourgeois' was Virginia Woolf, and she's definitely worth a diversion if you'll bear with me.

Her father Leslie Stephen was an academic, editor and philosopher of some means, and her mother Julia Jackson was a model and social activist. The family divided their time between a large house off Hyde Park in London (very near the Royal Albert Hall if you've been there), and a holiday villa in St Ives, Cornwall.

Her famous essay/book A Room Of One's Own is conventionally seen as a work of female empowerment, but I read it as a manifesto for any creative who needs a solid income in order to have the time and space to do their work. Or, to make a transition (as Woolf did) from regular jobs to earning as a writer.

It's a forerunner of present-day titles like Joe Barnes' excellent Personal Freedom Manifesto, which guides the reader to a creative life beyond the 9 to 5, or Julia Cameron's now classic The Artist's Way.

Virginia Woolf s bed at Monk s House

Virginia Woolf's bedroom at Monk's House, Sussex, where she lived with husband Leonard Woolf

Despite her background, in her twenties Woolf had to work as a teacher and wrote articles to earn money. A legacy left by an aunt changed that. It gave her a regular stream of income which allowed her to focus solely on her writing, and to enjoy the intense artistic and romantic goings-on of the Bloomsbury Set, which included her sister the painter Vanessa Bell, writer E.M. Forster, and economist John Maynard Keynes.

Reading Woolf's essay made me think of Karl Marx, who was only able to spend the years writing Das Kapital in the British Library thanks to his wife Jenny's legacy from her well-off father. Friedrich Engels, of course, had independent means thanks to his family's ownership of textile mills.

But whereas Marx and Engels bit the hand that fed them (i.e. capitalism), Woolf did no such thing. She was very aware of her privileged position, and relished it: she loved having the ability to own her own flat and to buy little luxuries, and not - like so many female writers before her - to have to work in the corner of the lounge room, justifying the time writing to a husband, father or brother.

Capstone-Woolf-RoomOfOne sOwn

New Capstone edition, click for more info

In the book - which is set in the sylvan grounds of Oxford and Cambridge - Woolf also reflects on the personal finances of women, which in her time were still often under the control of male relatives, even if they were well off. If this had not been the case, she thinks, there'd be many more university colleges endowed by, and for, women.

What I didn't appreciate, and what Jessica Gildersleeve talks about in the excellent Introduction I commissioned, is how Woolf was at the forefront of modernist literature. The strange, circulatory, almost stream-of-consciousness style of the writing was groundbreaking at the time, and people read it today as much for this as for the content.

The new Capstone Classics edition has just come out in the UK and now also in the US & Canada, and is available many other places.

Whatever your gender, you will get something out of Woolf's tome.

She sits in a pantheon of writers including Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germain Greer. Their efforts (and of course movements such as the Suffragettes) were in no way utopian, but rather resemble a long, hard struggle towards political, creative and financial independence.


Map of Utopia by Abraham Ortelius c. 1595

Rome a utopia?

Most human advances begin as a crazy dream, and over many years or decades, and often a lot disillusionment, they eventually start to solidify.

Utopian ideas are great if the progenitors give themselves a long enough time frame, and take human fallibility into account.


The Roman Republic as imagined by a 19th century painter

A city that emerges from the rusticity and backwardness of its hinterland is a kind of utopia for the peasants who dream of living there: the paved roads, public buildings, piped water and sewage. The culture, the famous, rich or beautiful people that live within a city's walls, the wealthy families that commission great art, not to mention the saints and sages that inhabit the sacred spaces.

Ancient Rome must have seemed like a utopia for those who viewed from afar, including the Germanic tribes which eventually sacked it. The initial Roman Republic, before the string of mad and bad emperors undermined everything it stood for, was a noble idea that represented the best of European civilization at the time.


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Super-rich Seneca

The Republic lasted roughly 500 years until a couple of decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, born in 4 BCE, was a contemporary of Jesus. He was from a wealthy upper class Roman family living in Spain. His father was an esteemed writer.

Seneca was sent to Rome for his schooling in philosophy and rhetoric, and in time became a celebrated writer himself. He became the tutor of a young Emperor Nero, but as Nero was still a boy, Seneca virtually ruled Rome for a period of five years. He became incredibly wealthy from being at the centre of power - a billionaire by today's standards, with many houses, farms, vineyards and a huge staff including slaves.

As Stoicism authority Donald Robertson explains in the new Capstone edition of Seneca's Letters, the reality of Seneca's life was that he was caught between an image of himself as a man of letters and a Stoic philosopher, and the reality of court intrigues, power and money.

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Click to watch Seneca interview

He was exiled a couple of times, and ended up being commanded by the state to commit suicide. That he was famously "Stoic" about the latter, suggests that he ultimately did live out the philosophy he proclaimed.

By the time of Seneca's death Rome could hardly be seen as a utopia or a light shining on a hill. Corruption led to a long decline, which accelerated at the end of the 4th century.

I discussed Seneca's life and times recently with Donald Robertson on the Book Insights podcast. It's a fascinating discussion.

Soyuz TMA-9 launch

Soyuz rocket on its way to the International Space Station, 2006


What is the lesson in all this?

It's never a waste of time dreaming up a Utopia. It's all - as Silicon Valley people say - in the execution.

Utopian ideals often become reality, and the reality can last a very long time. Even after the Roman Empire had splintered into multiple territories and centers of control, "Rome" as an ideal endured through the Middle Ages and into modern times.

Life in antiquity could be brutal, depending on your station in life, but the effort to build shining cities on hills did raise up humanity as a whole. We are still living with and enjoying the legacies, from language, law and philosophy, to main roads and underfloor heating.

Today, instead of utopian "build it and they will come" thinking, we prefer to create a "minimum viable product". We sing the praises of organic growth, and like the idea of Nassim Taleb's "Lindy effect" i.e. trusting in ideas, products, foods that have proven themselves over time.

But as venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is fond of pointing out, mere iteration or tinkering or streamlining of processes is not enough. To create something great means going back to first principles and totally rethinking what could be possible.

So be utopian. Just remember to take human nature into account, and be open to altering course if the facts demand it. Think of the self-guiding missile: locked on to the big target, but constantly making tiny adjustments to make sure it hits.

Kind regards,
Tom Butler-Bowdon


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