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

Section V

With these elements - liberty, organization from the simple to the complex, production and exchange by the Trades (guilds), foreign trade handled by the whole city and not by individuals, and the purchase of provisions by the city for resale to the citizens at cost price - with such elements, the towns of the Middle Ages for the first two centuries of their free existences became centers of well-being for all the inhabitants, centers of wealth and culture, such as we have not seen since.

One has but to consult the documents which made it possible to compare the rates at which work was remunerated and the cost of provisions - Rogers has done this for England and a great number of German writers for Germany - to learn that the labour of an artisan and even of a simple day-laborer was paid at a rate not attained in our time, not even by the elite among workers. The account books of colleges of the University of Oxford (which cover seven centuries beginning at the twelfth) and of some English landed estates, as well as those of a large number of German and Swiss towns, are there to bear witness.

If one also considers the artistic finish and amount of decorative work the craftsman of that period put into not only the objects of art he produced, but also into the simplest of household utensils - a railing, a candlestick, a piece of pottery - one realists that he did not know what it meant to be hurried in his work, or overworked as is the case in our time; that he could forge, sculpt, weave, or embroider as only a very small number of worker-artists among us can manage nowadays.

Finally, if one runs through the list of donations made to the churches and the communal houses of the parish, the guild or the city, both in works of art - decorative panels, sculptures, wrought-iron and cast metal - and in money, one realists the degree of well-being attained by those cities; one also has an insight into the spirit of research and invention which manifested itself and of the breath of freedom which inspired their works, the feeling of brotherly solidarity that grew up in those guilds in which men of the same trade were united, not simply for commercial and technical reasons, but by bonds of sociability and brotherhood. Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother - a custom which certainly. required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague - and to follow him as far as the grave, and then look after his widow and children?

Abject poverty, misery, uncertainty of the morrow for the majority, and the isolation of poverty, which are the characteristics of our modern cities, were quite unknown in those ‘free oases, which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle’.

In those cities, sheltered by their conquered liberties, inspired by the spirit of free agreement and of free initiative, a whole new civilization grew up and flourished in a way unparalleled to this day.

All modern industry comes to us from these cities. In three centuries, industries and the arts attained such perfection that our century has only been able to surpass them in speed of production, but rarely in quality, and very rarely in the intrinsic beauty of the product. All the arts we seek in vain to revive now - the beauty of a Raphael, the strength and boldness of a Michelangelo, the art and science of a Leonardo da Vinci, the poetry and language of a Dante, and not least, the architecture to which we owe the cathedrals of Laon, Rheims, Cologne, Pisa, Florence - as Victor Hugo so well put it “le peuple en fut le maçon” (they were built by the people) - the treasures of sheer beauty of Florence and Venice, the town halls of Bremen and Prague, the towers of Nuremberg and Pisa, and so on ad infinitum, all was the product of that age.

Do you wish to measure the progress of that civilization at a glance? Then compare the dome of St Mark in Venice with the rustic arch of the Normans; the paintings of Raphael with the embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestries; instruments of mathematic; and physics, and the clocks of Nuremberg with the hour-glasses of the preceding centuries; the rich language of a Dante with his uncouth Latin of the tenth century. A new world was born between the two!

With the exception of that other glorious period - once more of free cities - of ancient Greece, never had humanity made such; giant step forward. Never, in the space of two or three centuries, had Man undergone such far-reaching changes, nor so extended his power over the forces of Nature.

You are perhaps thinking of the civilization and progress of our century which comes in for so much boasting? But in each of its manifestations it is only the child of the civilization that grew up with the free communes. All the great discoveries made by modern science - the compass, the clock, the watch, printing, maritime discoveries, gunpowder, the laws of gravitation, atmospheric pressure of which the steam engine is a development, the rudiments of chemistry, the scientific method already outlined by Roger Bacon and applied in Italian universities - where do all these originate if not in the free cities, in the civilization which was developed under the protection of communal liberties?

It will perhaps be pointed out that I am forgetting the internal conflicts, the domestic struggles, with which the history of these communes is filled, the street riots, the bitter wars waged against the lords, the insurrection of the ‘young arts’ against the ‘old arts’, the blood spilled in those struggles and in the reprisals that followed.

No, in fact I forget nothing. But like Leo and Botta - the two historians of medieval Italy - and Sismondi, Ferrari, Gino Capponi and so many others, I see that those struggles were the very guarantee of a free life in the free city. I perceive a renewal, a new impetus towards progress after each of those struggles. After having recounted in detail these struggles and conflicts, and having measured also the greatness of the progress achieved while blood was being shed in the streets; well-being assured for all the inhabitants, and civilization renewed - Leo and Botta concluded with this idea which is so just and of which I am frequently reminded. I would like to see it engraved in the minds of every modern revolutionary: “A commune - they said - does not represent the picture of a moral whole, does not appear universal in its manner of being, as the human mind itself, except when it has admitted conflict, opposition.”

Yes, conflict, freely debated, without an outside force, the State, adding its immense weight to the balance in favor of one of the forces engaged in the struggle.

I believe, with these two writers, that often “more harm has been done by imposing peace, because one linked together opposites in seeking to create a general political order and sacrificed individualities and small organisms, in order to absorb them in a vast colorless and lifeless whole.

It is for this reason that the communes - so long as they did not themselves seek to become States and to impose around them “submission in a vast colorless and lifeless whole” - for this reason they grew and gained a new lease of life from each struggle, and blossomed to the clatter of swords in the streets; whereas two centuries later that same civilization collapsed in the wake of wars fathered by the States.

In the commune, the struggle was for the conquest and defence of the liberty of the individual, for the federative principle for the right to unite and to act; whereas the States’ wars had as their objective the destruction of these liberties, the submission of the individual, the annihilation of the free contract, and the uniting of men in a universal slavery to king, judge and priest - to the State.

Therein lies all the difference. There are struggles and conflicts which are destructive. And there are others which drive humanity forwards.