The State: It’s Historic Role. Peter Kropotkin. 1896
The village community consisted then, as it still does, of individual families. But all the families of the same village owned the land in common. They considered it as their common heritage and shared it out among themselves on the basis of the size of each family - their needs and their potential. Hundreds of millions of human beings still live in this way in Eastern Europe, India, Java, etc. It is the same kind of system that has been established in our time by Russian peasants, freely in Siberia, as soon as the State gave them a chance to occupy the vast Siberian territory in their own way.
Today the cultivation of the land in a village community is carried out by each individual household independently. Since all the arable land is shared out between the families (and further shared out when necessary) each cultivates its field as best it can. But originally, the land was also worked in common, and this custom is still carried on in many places - at least on a part of the land. As to the clearing of woodland and the thinning of forests, the construction of bridges, the building of small forts and turrets, for use as places of safety in the event of invasion - all these activities were carried out on a communal basis, just as hundreds of millions of peasants still do where the village commune has held out against the encroachments of the State. But ‘consumption’ - to use a modern term - was already operating on a family basis, each family having its cattle, its kitchen garden and stores. The means both for hoarding and for handing down goods and chattels accumulated through inheritance had already been introduced.
In all its affairs the village commune was sovereign. Local custom was law and the plenary assembly of all the heads of family, men and women, was the judge, the only judge, in civil and criminal matters. When an inhabitant had lodged a complaint against another and stuck his knife in the ground at the place where the commune normally assembled, the commune had to ‘find the sentence’ according to local custom once the fact of an offense had been established by the juries of the two parties in litigation.
Were I to recount all the interesting aspects of this phase, I would not have the space in which to do so. I must therefore refer the reader to Mutual Aid. Suffice it to mention here that all the institutions which States were to seize later for the benefit of minorities, that all notions of law that exist in our codes (which have been mutilated in favor of minorities) and all forms of judicial procedure, in so far as they offer guarantees to the individual, had their beginnings in the village commune. So when we imagine that we have made great advances in introducing for instance, the jury, all we have done is to return to the institution of the so-called ‘barbarians’ after having changed it to the advantage of the ruling classes. Roman law was simply grafted to customary law.
The sense of national unity was developing at the same time through large free federations of village communes.
The village commune, being based on the possession in common and very often in the cultivation in common of the land; and being sovereign both as judge and legislator of customary law, satisfied most of the needs of the social being.
But not all its needs: there were still others that had to be satisfied. Now, the spirit of the times was not to appeal to a government as soon as a new need was making itself felt. On the contrary the individuals themselves would take the initiative to come together, to join forces, and to federate; to create an entente, large or small, numerous or restricted, which was in keeping with the new need. And society then was literally covered, as if by a network, of sworn brotherhoods; of guilds for mutual aid, of ‘conjurations’, in the village as well as outside it, in the federation.
We may observe this phase and spirit at work even today, among many barbarian federations, which have remained outside the modern States copied on the Roman or rather Byzantine model.
Thus, to take one example among many, the Kabyles have maintained their village community, with the characteristics I have just mentioned: land in common, communal tribunals, etc. But man feels the need for action beyond the narrow confines of his hamlet. Some rove the world seeking adventure as pedlars. Others take up some kind of trade - or ‘art’. And those pedlars and those artisans join together in ‘fraternities’, even when they belong to different villages, tribes or confederations. Union is needed for mutual succor on voyages to distant lands, for the mutual exchange of the mysteries of one’s trade, and so they join forces. They swear brotherhood and practice it in a way that makes a deep impression on Europeans; it is a real brotherhood and not just empty words.
Furthermore, misfortune can overtake anyone. Who knows but that tomorrow in a brawl a normally gentle and quiet man may exceed the established limits of decorum and sociability? Who knows whether he might resort to blows and inflict wounds? It will be necessary to pay heavy compensation to the offended or wounded party; it will be necessary to plead one’s cause before the village assembly, and to reconstruct the facts, on the testimony of six, ten or twelve ‘sworn brothers’. All the more reason to enter a fraternity.
Besides, man feels the need to meddle in politics, to engage in intrigue perhaps, or to propagate a particular moral opinion or a particular custom. Finally, external peace has to be safeguarded; alliances with other tribes to be concluded, federations to be constituted far and wide; elements of intertribal law to be spread abroad. Well then, to gratify all these needs of an emotional or intellectual nature, the Kabyles, the Mongols, the Malays, do not appeal to a government; they haven’t one. Being men of customary law, and individual initiative, they have not been perverted from acting for themselves by the corrupting force of government and Church. They unite spontaneously. They form sworn brotherhoods, political and religious associations, craft associations - guilds as they were called in the Middle Ages, and cofs as they are called today by the Kabyles. And these cofs extend beyond the boundaries of the hamlet; they extend far and wide into the desert and to foreign cities; and brotherhood is practiced in these associations. To refuse help to a member of one’s cof - even at the risk of losing all one’s possessions and one’s life - is to commit an act of treason to the ‘brotherhood’; it is to be treated as one’s ‘brother’s’ murderer.
What we find today among the Kabyles, Mongols, Malays, etc., was the very essence of life of the barbarians in Europe from the fifth to the twelfth and even until the fifteenth century. Under the name of guilds, friendships, brotherhoods, etc., associations abounded for mutual defense, to avenge affronts suffered by some members of the union and to express solidarity, to replace the ‘eye for an eye’ vengeance by compensation, followed by the acceptance of the aggressor in the brotherhood; for the exercise of trades, for aid in case of illness, for defence of the territory; to prevent encroachments of a nascent authority; for commerce, for the practice of ‘good neighborliness’; for propaganda - in a word for all that Europeans, educated by the Rome of the Caesars and the Popes, nowadays expect from the State. It is even very doubtful whether there was a single man in that period, free man or serf, apart from those who had been banned by their own brotherhoods, who did not belong to a brotherhood or some guild, as well as to his commune.
The Scandinavian Sagas extol their achievements; the devotion of sworn brothers is the theme of the most beautiful poems. Of course, the Church and nascent kings, representatives of the Byzantine (or Roman) law which reappeared, hurl their excommunications and their rules and regulations at the brotherhood, but fortunately they remained a dead letter.
The whole history of the epoch loses its meaning and is quite incomprehensible if one does not take those brotherhoods into consideration, these unions of brothers and sisters, which sprang up everywhere to deal with the many needs in the economic and personal lives of the people.
In order to appreciate the immense progress achieved by this double institution of village communities and freely sworn brotherhoods - outside any Roman Catholic or Statist influence - take for instance Europe as it was at the time of the barbarian invasion, and compare it with what it became in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The untamed forest is conquered and colonized; villages cover the country and are surrounded by fields and hedges and protected by small forts interlinked by paths crossing forests and the marshes.
In these villages one finds the seeds of industrial arts and discovers a whole network of institutions for maintaining internal and external peace. In the event of murder or woundings the villagers no longer seek as in the tribe, to eliminate or to inflict an equivalent wound on the aggressor, or even one of his relatives or some of his fellow villagers. Rather is it the brigand-lords who still adhere to that principle (hence their wars without end), whereas among villagers compensation, fixed by arbiters, becomes the rule after which peace is re-established and the aggressor is often, if not always, adopted by the family who has been wronged by his aggression.
Arbitration for all disputes becomes a deeply rooted institution in daily use - in spite of and against the bishops and the nascent kinglets who would wish every difference should be laid before them, or their agents, in order to benefit from the fred - the fine formerly levied by the village on violators of the peace when they brought their dispute before them, and which the kings and bishops now appropriate.
And finally hundreds of villages are already united in powerful federations, sworn to internal peace, who look upon their territory as a common heritage and are united for mutual protection. These were the seeds of European nations. And to this day one can still study those federations in operation among the Mongol, the Turko-Finnish and Malayan tribes.
Meanwhile black clouds are gathering on the horizon. Other unions - of dominant minorities - are also established, which seek slowly to make these free men into serfs, into subjects. Rome is dead, but its tradition is reborn, and the Christian church, haunted by the visions of Eastern theocracies, gives its powerful support to the new powers that seek to establish themselves.
Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him, Man has always preferred peace and quiet. Quarrelsome rather than fierce, he prefers his cattle, the land, and his hut to soldiering. For this reason, no sooner had the great migrations of barbarians slowed down, no sooner had the hordes and the tribes fortified themselves more or less in their respective territories, than we see that defence of the territory against new waves of emigrants is entrusted to someone who engages a small band of adventurers - hardened warriors or brigands - to follow him, while the overwhelming majority engages in rearing cattle, in working the land. And that defender soon begins to accumulate riches; he gives horses and iron (then very expensive) to the miserable cultivator who has neither horse nor plough, and reduces him to servitude. He also begins to lay down the bases for military power.
And at the same time, little by little, the tradition that makes the law is being forgotten by the majority. In each village only a few old folk can remember the verses and songs containing the ‘precedents’ on which customary law is based, and on festive occasions the repeat these before the community. And slowly, certain families make it their speciality, transmitted from father to son, of remembering these songs and verses, of preserving the purity of the law. Villagers would go to them to adjudicate on complicated disputes, especially when two confederations could not agree to accept the decisions of the arbiters chosen from among themselves.
Princely and royal authority is already germinating in these families, and the more I study the institutions of that period the more do I see that customary law did much more to create that authority than did the power of the sword. Man allowed himself to be enslaved much more by his desire to ‘punish’ the aggressor according to the law than by direct military conquest.
And gradually the first ‘concentration of powers’, the first mutual assurance for domination - by judge and military leader - is made against the village community. A single man assumes these two functions. He surrounds himself with armed men to carry out the judicial decisions; he fortifies himself in his turret; he accumulates for his family family the riches of the time - bread, cattle iron - and slowly imposes his domination over the peasant in the vicinity.
The learned man of the period, that is the sorcerer or the priest, soon gave him his support either to share his power or, by adding force to the knowledge of customary law to his powers as a feared magician, the priest takes it over himself. From which stems the temporal authority of the bishops in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries.
I would need a series of lectures rather than a chapter to deal with this subject which is so full of new lessons, and to recount how free men gradually became serfs, forced to work for the lord of the manor, temporal or clerical; of how authority was built up over the villages and boroughs in a tentative, groping manner; of how the peasants leagued together, rebelled, struggled to oppose this growing domination; of how they perished in those attacks against the thick walls of the castle and against the men clad in iron defending it.
It will be enough for me to say that round about the tenth and eleventh centuries the whole of Europe appeared to be moving towards the constitution of those barbarian kingdoms, similar to the ones found today in the heart of Africa, or those of theocracies one knows about from Oriental history. This could not happen in a day; but the seeds of those petty royalties and for those petty theocracies were already there and were increasingly manifesting themselves.
Fortunately the ‘barbarian’ spirit - Scandinavian, Saxon, Celt, German Slav - which for seven or eight centuries had incited men to seek the satisfaction of their needs through individual initiative and through free agreement between the brotherhoods and guilds - fortunately that spirit persisted in the villages and boroughs. The barbarians allowed themselves to be enslaved, they worked for the master, but their feeling for free action and free agreement had not yet been broken down. Their brotherhoods were more alive than ever, and the crusades had only succeeded in arousing and developing them in the West.
And so the revolution of the urban communities, resulting from the union of the village community and the sworn brotherhood of the artisans and the merchant - which had been prepared long since by the federal mood of the period - exploded in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with striking effect in Europe. It had already started in the Italian communities in the tenth century.
This revolution, which most university historians prefer to ignore, or to underestimate, saved Europe from the disaster which threatened it. It arrested the development of theocratic and despotic kingdoms in which our civilization might well have foundered, after a few centuries of pompous splendor, just as did the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Assyria and Babylon. It opened the way for a new way of life: that of the free communes.