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

Section II

Most philosophers of the eighteenth century had very elementary ideas on the origin of societies.

According to them, in the beginning Mankind lived in small isolated families, and perpetual warfare between them was the normal state of affairs. But, one day, realizing at last the disadvantages of their endless struggles, men decided to socialize. A social contract was concluded among the scattered families who willingly submitted themselves to an authority which - need I say? - became the starting-point as well as the initiator of all progress. And does one need to add, since we have been told as much at school, that our present governments have so far remained in their noble role as the salt of the earth, the pacifiers and civilizers of the human race?

This idea dominated the eighteenth century, a period in which very little was known about the origins of Man; and one must add that in the hands of the Encyclopaedists and of Rousseau, the idea of the ‘social contract’ became a weapon with which to fight the divine rights of kings. Nevertheless, in spite of the services it may have rendered in the past, this theory must be seen to be false.

The fact is that all animals, with the exception of some carnivores and birds of prey, and some species which are becoming extinct, live in societies. In the struggle for life, it is the gregarious species which have an advantage over those that are not. In every animal classification they are at the top of the ladder and there cannot be the slightest doubt that the first human beings with human attributes were already living in societies.

Man did not create society; society existed before Man.

We now also know - and it has been convincingly demonstrated by anthropology - that the point of departure for mankind was not the family but the clan, the tribe. The patriarchal family as we know it, or as it is depicted in Hebrew traditions, did not appear until very much later. man spent tens of thousands of years in the clan or tribal phase - let us call it the primitive tribe or, if you wish, the savage tribe - and during this time man had already developed a whole series of institutions, habits and customs much earlier than the institutions of the patriarchal family.

In these tribes, the separate family no more existed than it exists among so many other sociable mammals. Any division within the tribe was mainly between generations; and from a far distant age, going right back to the dawn of the human race, limitations had been imposed to prevent sexual relations between the different generations, which however were allowed between those of the same generation. One can still find traces of that period in some contemporary tribes as well as in the language, customs and superstitions of peoples of a much higher culture.

Hunting and food-gathering were engaged in by the whole tribe in common, and once their hunger was satisfied, they gave themselves up with passion to their dramatized dances. To this day we still find tribes who are very close to this primitive phase living on the periphery of the large continents, or in the vicinity of mountainous regions, in the least accessible parts of the world.

The accumulation of private property could not then take place there, since anything that had been the personal possession of a member of the tribe was destroyed or burned where his body was buried. This is still done, in England too, by the Gypsies, and funeral rites of ‘civilized’ people still bear the imprint of this custom: thus the Chinese burn paper models of the dead person’s possessions, and at the military leader’s funeral his horse, his sword and decorations accompany him as far as his grave. The meaning of the institution has been lost, but the form has survived.

Far from expressing contempt for human life, those primitive people hated murder and blood. To spill blood was considered such a grave matter, that every drop spilled - not only human blood but also that of some animals - required that the aggressor should lose an equal amount of his own blood.

Furthermore, murder within the tribe is something quite unknown; for instance among the Inuits or Eskimos - those survivors of the Stone Age who inhabit the Arctic regions - or among the Aleutians, etc., one definitely knows that there has not been a single murder within the tribe for fifty, sixty or more years.

But when tribes of different origin, color and language met in the course of their migrations, it often ended in war. It is true that even then men were seeking to make these encounters more pacific. Tradition, as Maine, Post and E. Nys have so well demonstrated, was already developing the germs of what in due course became International Law. For instance, a village could not be attacked without warning the inhabitants. Never would anyone dare to kill on the path used by women to reach the spring. And often to make peace it was necessary to balance the numbers of men killed on both sides.

However, all these precautions and many others besides were not enough: solidarity did not extend beyond the confines of the clan or tribe; quarrels arose between people of different clans and tribes, which could end in violence and even murder.

From that period a general law began to be developed between the clans and tribes. Your members have wounded or killed one of ours; we have a right therefore to kill one of you or to inflict a similar wound on one of you, and it did not matter who, since the tribe was always responsible for the individual acts of its members.

The well-known biblical verses: “Blood for blood, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a wound for a wound, a life for a life” - but no more! As Koenigswarter put it so well - owe their origin to them. It was their concept of justice ... and we have no reason to feel superior since the principle of ‘a life for a life’ which prevails in our codes is only one of its many survivals.

It is clear that a whole series of institutions (and many others I shall not mention) as well as a complete code of tribal morality, were already developed during this primitive phase. And this nucleus of sociable customs was kept alive by usage, custom and tradition only. There was no authority with which to impose it.

There can be no doubt that primitive society had temporary leaders. The sorcerer, the rain-maker - the learned men of that age - sought to profit from what they knew about nature in order to dominate their fellow beings. Similarly, he who could more easily memorize the proverbs and songs in which all tradition was embodied became influential. At popular festivals he would recite these proverbs and songs in which were incorporated the decisions that had been taken on such-and-such an occasion by the people’s assembly in such-and-such a connection. In many a small tribe this is still done. And dating from that age, these ‘educated’ members sought to ensure a dominant role for themselves by communicating their knowledge only to the chosen few, to the initiates. All religions, and even the arts and all trades have begun with ‘mysteries’, and modern research demonstrates the important role that secret societies of the initiates play to maintain some traditional practices in primitive clans. Already the germs of authority are present there.

It goes without saying that the courageous, the daring and, above all, the prudent, also became the temporary leaders in the struggles with other tribes or during migrations. But there was no alliance between the bearer of the ‘law’ (the one who knew by heart the tradition and past decisions), the military chief and the sorcerer and the State was no more part of these tribes than it is of the society of bees or ants, or of our contemporaries the Patagonians and the Eskimos.

Nevertheless that phase lasted for many thousands of years, and the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire had also gone through this phase and were only just emerging from it.

In the early centuries of our era there were widespread migrations of the tribes and confederations of tribes that inhabited Central and Northern Asia. Waves of small tribes driven by more or less civilized peoples who had come down from the high table lands of Asia - they themselves had probably been driven away by the rapid desiccation of these plateaux [1] - spread all over Europe, each driving the other and being assimilated in their drive towards the West.

In the course of these migrations, in which so many tribes of different origins became assimilated, the primitive tribe which still existed among most of the savage inhabitants of Europe could not avoid disintegration. The tribe was based on a common origin and the cult of common ancestors; but to which common origin could these agglomerations of people appeal when they emerged from the confusion of migrations, drives, inter-tribal wars, during which here and there one could already observe the emergence of the paternal family - the nucleus formed by the exclusive possession by some of women won or carried off from neighboring tribes?

The old ties were broken, and to avoid disruption (which, in fact, did occur for many tribes, which disappeared for ever) new links had to be forged. And they were established through the communal possession of the land - of the territory on which each agglomeration had finally settled. [2]

The possession in common of a particular area - of this small valley or those hills - became the basis for a new understanding. The ancestral gods lost all meaning; so then local gods, of that small valley or this river or that forest, gave their religious sanction to the new agglomerations by replacing the gods of the original tribe. Later Christianity, always willing to adjust to pagan survivals, made them into local saints.

Henceforth, the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families - all united, however, by the possession in common of the land - became the essential link for centuries to come.

Over vast areas of eastern Europe, Asia and Africa it still survives. The barbarians - Scandinavians, Germans, Slavs, etc. - who destroyed the Roman Empire lived under such an organization. And by studying the codes of the barbarians of that period, as well as the confederations of village communities that exist today among the Kabyles, the Mongols, the Hindus, the Africans, etc., it has been possible to reconstruct in its entirety that form of society which was the starting point of our present civilization as it is today.

Let us therefore have a look at this institution.


1. The reasons which lead me to this hypothesis are put forward in a paper, Dessication of Eur-Asia, compiled for the Research Department of the Geographical Society of London, and published in its Geographical Journal for June 1904.

2. Readers interested in this subject as well as in that of the communal phases and of the free cities, will find more detailed information and source references in my book Mutual Aid.