The State: It’s Historic Role. Peter Kropotkin. 1896

Section VIII

The role of the nascent State in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in relation to the urban centers was to destroy the independence of the cities; to pillage the rich guilds of merchants and artisans; to concentrate in its hands the external commerce of the cities and ruin it; to lay hands on the internal administration of the guilds and subject internal commerce as well as all manufactures, in every detail to the control of a host of officials - and in this way to kill industry and the arts; by taking over the local militias and the whole municipal administration, crushing the weak in the interest of the strong by taxation, and ruining the countries by wars.

Obviously the same tactic was applied to the villages and the peasants. Once the State felt strong enough it eagerly set about destroying the village commune, ruining the peasants in its clutches and plundering the common lands.

Historians and economists in the pay of the State teach us, of course, that the village commune having become an outdated form of land possession - which hampered progress in agriculture - had to disappear under ‘the action of natural economic forces’. The politicians and the bourgeois economists are still saying the same thing now; and there are even some revolutionaries and socialists who claim to be scientific socialists who repeat this stock fable learned at school.

Well, never has such an odious lie been uttered in the name of science. A calculated lie since history abounds with documents to prove for those who want to know - and for France it would simply suffice to consult Dalloz - that in the first place the State deprived the village commune of all its powers: its independence, its juridical and legislative powers; and that afterwards its lands were either simply stolen by the rich with the connivance of the State, or confiscated by the State directly.

In France the pillage started in the sixteenth century, and followed its course at a greater pace in the following century. From 1659 the State started taking the communes under its wing, and one has only to refer to Louis XIV s edict of 1667, to appreciate on what a scale communal goods were already being pillaged during that period. “Each one has made the best of it for his best interests...they have been fleece the communes one made use of fictitious debts,” the ‘Roi Soleil’ said in that edict...and two years later he confiscated all the communes’ income to his own advantage. Such is the meaning of ‘a natural death’ in the language which claims to be scientific.

In the following century, at a low estimate, half the communally-owned lands were simply taken over by the nobility and the clergy under the aegis of the State. And nevertheless the commune continued in existence until 1787. The village assembly met under the elm tree, apportioned the lands, distributed the tax demands - documentary evidence can be found in Babeau (Le village sous l’ancien regime). Turgot, in the province in which he was the administrator, had already found the village assemblies ‘too noisy’, and under his administration they were abolished and replaced by assemblies elected from among the village big-wigs. And on the eve of the Revolution of 1787, the State generalized that measure. The mir had been abolished, and the affairs of the commune thus came into the hands of a few syndics, elected by the richest bourgeois and peasants.

The Constituent Assembly lost no time in confirming this law in December 1789, and the bourgeois took the place of the lords to divest the communes of what communal lands remained to them. It therefore needed one Jacquerie after another in 1793 to confirm what the peasants in revolt had just achieved in Eastern France. That is to say the Constituent Assembly gave orders for the return of the communal lands to the peasants - which was in fact only done when already achieved by revolutionary action. It is the fate of all revolutionary laws, and it is time that it was understood. They are only enacted after the fait accompli.

But whilst recognizing the right of the communes to the lands that had been taken away from them since 1669, the law had to add some of its bourgeois venom. Its intention was that the communal lands should be shared in equal parts only among the ‘citizens’ - that is among the village bourgeoisie. By a stroke of the pen it wanted to dispossess the ‘inhabitants’ and the bulk of the impoverished peasants, who were most in need of these lands. Whereupon, fortunately, there were new Jacqueries and in July 1793 the convention authorized the distribution of the land among all the inhabitants individually - again something that was carried out only here and there, and served as a pretext for a new pillage of communal lands.

Were these measures not already enough to provoke what those gentlemen call ‘the natural death’ of the commune? yet for all that the commune went on living. So on August 24, 1794, reaction having seized power, it struck the major blow. The State confiscated all the communal lands and used them as a guarantee fund for the National Debt, putting them up for auction and surrendering them to its creatures, the Thermidorians.

This law was happily repealed on the 2 Prairial, Year V, after three years of rushing after the spoils. But by the same stroke of the pen the communes were abolished and replaced by cantonal councils, in order that the State could the more easily pack them with its creatures. This lasted until 1801 when the village communes were reintroduced; but then the Government itself undertook to appoint the mayors and syndics in each of the 36,000 communes! And this absurdity lasted until the Revolution of July 1830, after which the law of 1789 was reintroduced. And in the meantime, the communal lands were again confiscated entirely by the State in 1813 and pillaged for the next three years. What remained was not returned to the communes until 1816.

Do you think that was the end? Not at all! Each new regime saw in the communal lands a means of compensating its henchmen. Thus from 1830, on three different occasions - the first in 1837 and the last under Napoleon III - laws were promulgated to force the peasants to share what remained to them of the communal forests and pastures, and three times was the State obliged to abrogate these laws because of the resistance of the peasants. Nevertheless, Napoleon III took advantage of this situation to seize a few large estates and to make presents of them to his creatures.

Such are the facts. And this is what those gentlemen call in ‘scientific’ language the natural death of communal ownership ‘under the influence of economic laws’. One might as well call the massacre of a hundred thousand soldiers on the battlefield natural death!

Now, what was done in France was also done in Belgium, in England, Germany and in Austria - everywhere in Europe except in the Slav countries. [4]

But then, the periods of outbreaks of pillaging of the communes are linked throughout Europe. Only the methods vary. Thus in England, they dared not proceed with general measures; but preferred to pass through Parliament some thousands of separate Enclosure Acts by which, in every special case, Parliament sanctioned confiscation - it does so to this day - and gave the squire the right to keep the communal lands that he had ring-fenced. And whereas nature had until now respected the narrow furrows by which the communal fields were divided temporarily among the families of a village in England, and though we have in the writings of somebody called Marshal clear descriptions of this form of possession at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and though communal economy has survived in some communes [5], up to the present time, there is no lack of scholars (such as Seebohm, worthy emulator of Fustel de Coulanges) to maintain and teach that the commune never existed in England except in the form of serfdom!

In Belgium, in Germany, in Italy and Spain we find the same methods being used. And in one way or another the individual seizure of the lands that were once communal was almost completed in Western Europe by the 1850s. Of their communal lands the peasants only retain a few scraps.

This is the way the mutual alliance between the lord, the priest, the soldier and the judge, that we call the ‘State’, acted towards the peasants, in order to strip them of their last guarantee against extreme poverty and economic bondage.

But while the State was condoning and organizing this pillage, could it respect the institution of the commune as the organ of local affairs? Obviously, it could not. For to admit that some citizens should constitute a federation which takes over some of the functions of the State would have been a contradiction of first principles. The State demands from its subjects a direct, personal submission without intermediaries; it demands equality in slavery; it cannot admit of a State within a State.

Thus as soon as the State began to be constituted in the sixteenth century, it sought to destroy all the links which existed among the citizens both in the towns and in the villages. Where it tolerated, under the name of municipal institutions, some remnants of autonomy - never of independence - it was only for fiscal reasons, to reduce correspondingly the central budget; or also to give the big-wigs of the province a chance to get rich at the expense of the people, as was the case in England, quite legally until recent years, and to this day in its institutions and customs.

This is understandable. Local affairs are a matter of customary law whereas the centralization of powers is a matter of Roman law. The two cannot live side by side; the latter had to destroy the other.

It is for this reason that under the French regime in Algeria when a kabyle djemmah - a village commune - wants to plead for its lands, each inhabitant of the commune must lodge a personal complaint with the tribunals who will deal with fifty or two hundred isolated cases rather than accept the commune’s collective plea. The Jacobin code developed in the Code Napoleon hardly recognizes customary law, preferring Roman law or rather Byzantine law.

It is for this reason, again in France, that when the wind blows down a tree onto the national highway, or a peasant whose turn it is to repair the communal lane prefers to pay two or three francs to a stone breaker to do it - from twelve to fifteen employees of the Ministries of the Interior and of Finance have to be involved and more than fifty documents passed between these austere functionaries, before the tree can be sold, or before the peasant can receive permission to hand over his two or three francs to the communal treasury.

Those who may have doubts as to the veracity of this statement will find these fifty documents listed and duly numbered by M. Tricoche in the Journal des Economistes (April 1893).

That was of course under the Third Republic, for I am not talking about the barbaric procedure of the ‘ancient regime’ which was satisfied with five or at the most six documents. But the scholars will tell you that in more barbaric days, the control by the State was a sham.

And were it only paper work! It would only mean, after all, 20,000 officials too many, and another billion added to the budget. A mere trifle for the lovers of ‘order’ and alignment!

But at the bottom of all this is something much worse. There is the principle that destroys everything.

Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common: household interests, neighborhood, constant relationships. They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things. But the State does not want this, nor can it allow them to join together! After all the State gives them the school and the priest, the gendarme and the judge - this should be sufficient. And if other interests arise they can be dealt with through the usual channels of State and Church!

Thus until 1883 villagers in France were strictly prohibited from combining be it only for the purpose of bulk-buying of chemical fertilizers or the irrigation of their meadows. It was not until 1883-1886 that the Republic made up its mind to grant the peasants this right, by voting in the law on trades unions which however was hedged in with provisos and conditions.

And we who are stupefied by State education can rejoice in the sudden advances made by agricultural unions, without blushing at the thought that this right which has been denied the peasants until now, was one enjoyed without question by every man - free or serf - in the Middle Ages. We have become such slaves that we already look upon it as a ‘victory for democracy’. This is the stage we have reached in brainwashing thanks to a system of education deformed and vitiated by the State, and our Statist prejudices!



4. It is already being done in Russia, the government having authorized the pillaging of communal lands under the law of 1906 and favored this pillage by its own functionaries.

5. See Dr. Gilbert Slater ‘The Inclosure of Common Fields’ in the Geographical Journal of the Geographical Society of London, with plans and maps, January 1907. Later published in volume form.