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

Section I

In taking the State and its historic role as the subject for this study, I think I am satisfying a much felt need at the present time: that of examining in depth the very concept of the State, of studying its essence, its past role and the part it may be called upon to play in the future.

It is above all over the question of the State that socialists are divided. Two main currents can be discerned in the factions that exist among us which correspond to differences in temperament as well as in ways of thinking, but above all to the extent that one believes in the coming revolution.

There are those, on the one hand, who hope to achieve the social revolution through the State by preserving and even extending most of its powers to be used for the revolution. And there are those like ourselves who see the State, both in its present form, in its very essence, and in whatever guise it might appear, an obstacle to the social revolution, the greatest hindrance to the birth of a society based on equality and liberty, as well as the historic means designed to prevent this blossoming. The latter work to abolish the State and not to reform it.

It is clear that the division is a deep one. It corresponds with two divergent currents which in our time are manifest in all philosophical thought, in literature as well as in action. And if the prevailing views on the State remain as obscure as they are today, there is no doubt whatsoever that when - and we hope, soon - communist ideas are subjected to practical application in the daily life of communities, it will be on the question of the State that the most stubborn struggles will be waged.

Having so often criticized the State as it is today, it behooves one to seek the reason for its emergence, to study in depth its past role, and to compare it with institutions that it has replaced.

Let us, first of all, be agreed as to what we wish to include by the term ‘the State’.

There is, of course, the German school which takes pleasure in confusing State with Society. This confusion is to be found among the best German thinkers and many of the French who cannot visualize Society without a concentration of the State; and it is for this reason that anarchists are generally upbraided for wanting to destroy society’ and of advocating a return to ‘the permanent war of each against all’.

However to argue in this way is to overlook altogether the advances made in the domain of history in the past thirty or so years; it is to overlook the fact that Man lived in Societies for thousands of years before the State had been heard of; it is to forget that so far as Europe is concerned the State is of recent origin - it barely goes back to the sixteenth century; and finally, it is to ignore that the most glorious periods in Man’s history are those in which civil liberties and communal life had not yet been destroyed by the State, and in which large numbers of people lived in communes and free federations.

The State is only one of the forms assumed by society in the course of history. Why then make no distinction between what is permanent and what is accidental?

On the other hand the State has also been confused with Government. Since there can be no State without government, it has sometimes been said that what one must aim at is the absence of government and not the abolition of the State.

However, it seems to me that State and government are two concepts of a different order. The State idea means something quite different from the idea of government. It not only includes the existence of a power situated above society, but also of a territorial concentration as well as the concentration in the hands of a few of many functions in the life of societies. It implies some new relationships between members of society which did not exist before the formation of the State. A whole mechanism of legislation and of policing has to be developed in order to subject some classes to the domination of others.

This distinction, which at first sight might not be obvious, emerges especially when one studies the origins of the State.

Indeed, there is only one way of really understanding the State, and that is to study its historic development, and this is what we shall try to do.

The Roman Empire was a State in the real sense of the word. To this day it remains the legist’s ideal. Its organs covered a vast domain with a tight network. Everything gravitated towards Rome: economic and military life, wealth, education, nay, even religion. From Rome came the laws, the magistrates, the legions to defend the territory, the prefects and the gods, The whole life of the Empire went back to the Senate - later to the Caesar, the all powerful, omniscient, god of the Empire. Every province, every district had its Capitol in miniature, its small portion of Roman sovereignty to govern every aspect of daily life. A single law, that imposed by Rome, dominated that Empire which did not represent a confederation of fellow citizens but was simply a herd of subjects.

Even now, the legist and the authoritarian still admire the unity of that Empire, the unitarian spirit of its laws and, as they put it, the beauty and harmony of that organization.

But the disintegration from within, hastened by the barbarian invasion; the extinction of local life, which could no longer resist the attacks from outside on the one hand nor the canker spreading from the center on the other; the domination by the rich who had appropriated the land to themselves and the misery of those who cultivated it - all these causes reduced the Empire to a shambles, and on these ruins a new civilization developed which is now ours.

So, if we leave aside the civilization of antiquity, and concentrate our attention on the origin and developments of this young barbarian civilization, right up to the times when, in its turn, it gave birth to our modern States, we will be able to capture the essence of the State better than had we directed our studies to the Roman Empire, or to that of Alexander of Macedonia, or again the despotic monarchies of the East.

In using, for instance, these powerful barbarian overthrowers of the Roman Empire as our point of departure, we will be able to retrace the evolution of our whole civilization, from its beginnings and up to its Statal phase.