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

Section VI

In the course of the sixteenth century, the modern barbarians were to destroy all that civilization of the cities of the Middle Ages. These barbarians did not succeed in annihilating it, but in halting its progress at least two or three centuries. They launched it in a different direction, in which humanity is struggling at this moment without knowing how to escape.

They subjected the individual. They deprived him of all his liberties, they expected him to forget all his unions based on free argument and free initiative. Their aim was to level the whole of society to a common submission to the master. They destroyed all ties between men, declaring that the State and the Church alone, must henceforth create union between their subjects; that the Church and the State alone have the task of watching over the industrial, commercial, judicial, artistic, emotional interests, for which men of the twelfth century were accustomed to unite directly.

And who are these barbarians? It is the State: the Triple Alliance, finally constituted, of the military chief, the Roman judge and the priest - the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination - the three, united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society - and will crush that same society.

One naturally asks oneself, how were these new barbarians able to overcome the communes, hitherto so powerful? Where did they find the strength for conquest?

In the first place they found it in the village. Just as the communes of Ancient Greece proved unable to abolish slavery, and for that reason perished - so the communes of the Middle Ages failed to free the peasant from serfdom at the same time as the townsman.

It is true that almost everywhere, at the time of his emancipation, the townsman - himself a farming craftsman - had sought to carry the country folk with him to help him throw off the yoke. For two centuries, the townsmen in Italy, Spain and Germany were engaged in a bitter war against the feudal lords. Feats of heroism and perseverance were displayed by the burghers in that war on the castles. They bled themselves white to become masters of the castles of feudalism and to cut down the feudal forest that surrounded them.

But they only partially succeeded. War-weary, they finally made peace over the heads of the peasants. To buy peace, they handed over the peasants to the lord as long as he lived outside the territory conquered by the commune. In Italy and Germany they ended by accepting the lord as burgher, on condition that he came to live in the commune. Elsewhere they finished by sharing his dominion over the peasant. And the lord took his revenge on this ‘low rabble’ of the towns, whom he hated and despised, making blood flow on the streets by struggles and the practice of retaliation among noble families, which did not bring their differences before the syndics and the communal judges but settled them with the sword, in the street, driving one section of town-dwellers against another.

The lord also demoralized the commune with his favors, by intrigues, his lordly way of life and by his education received at the Court of the bishop or the king. He induced it to share his ambitions. And the burgher ended by imitating the lord. He became in his turn a lord, he too getting rich from distant commerce or from the labour of the serfs penned up in the villages.

After which, the peasant threw in his lot with the kings, the emperors, budding tsars and the popes when they set about building their kingdoms and subjecting the towns. Where the peasant did not march under their orders neither did he oppose them.

It is in the country, in a fortified castle, situated in the middle of rural communities that monarchy slowly came to be established. In the twelfth century, it existed in name only, and we know today what to think of the rogues, leaders of small bands of brigands who adorned themselves with that name; a name which in any case - as Augustin Thierry has so well observed - didn’t mean very much at the time, when there were “the king (the superior, the senior) of the law courts”, the “king of the nets” (among fishermen), the “king of the beggars”.

Slowly, gropingly, a baron who was favorably situated in one region, and more powerful or more cunning than the others, would succeed in raising himself above his confreres. The Church hastened to support him. And by force, scheming,. money, sword and poison if need be, one such feudal baron would grow in power at the expense of the others. But royal authority never succeeded in constituting itself in any of the free cities, which had their noisy forum, their Tarpeian Rock, or their river for the tyrants; it succeeded in the towns which had grown in the bosom of the country.

After having sought in vain to constitute this authority in Rheims, or in Laon, it was in Paris - an agglomeration of villages and boroughs surrounded by a rich countryside, which had not yet known the life of free cities; it was in Westminster, at the gates of the populous City of London; it was in the Kremlin, built in the center of rich villages on the banks of the Moskva [river] after having failed in Suzdal and in Vladimir - but never in Novgorod, Pskov, Nuremberg, Laon or Florence - that royal authority was consolidated.

The peasants from the surroundings supplied the nascent monarchies with food, horses and men; commerce - royal and not communal in this case - added to their wealth. The Church surrounded them with its attention. It protected them, came to their aid with its wealth, invested for them in their local saint and his miracles. It surrounded with its veneration the Notre Dame of Paris or the Image of the Virgin of Iberia in Moscow. And while the civilization of the free cities, freed from the bishops, gathered its youthful momentum, the Church worked relentlessly to reconstitute its authority through the intermediary of the nascent monarchy, surrounding with its attention, incense and money the royal cradle of the one it had finally chosen to re-establish with him and through him, its ecclesiastical authority. In Paris, Moscow, Madrid and Prague you see the Church bending over the cradle of royalty, a lighted torch in her hand, the executioner by her side.

Hard-working and tenacious, strengthened by her statist education, leaning on the man of strong will or cunning whom she would look for in no matter what class of society, made for intrigue and versed in Roman and Byzantine law - you can see her unrelentingly marching towards her ideal: the absolute Judaic king who nevertheless obeys the high priest - the secular arm at the orders of the ecclesiastical power.

In the sixteenth century, this slow labour of the two conspirators is already operating at full force. A king already dominates his rival fellow barons, and this power will soon be directed against the free cities to crush them in their turn.

Besides, the towns of the sixteenth century were no longer what they had been in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Born of the libertarian revolution, they nevertheless lacked the courage or the strength to spread their ideas of equality to the neighboring countryside, not even to those who had come later to settle in the city precincts, those sanctuaries of freedom, where they created the industrial crafts.

In every town one finds a distinction being drawn between the families who made the revolution of the twelfth century (simply known as ‘the families and those who came later and established themselves in the city. The old ‘merchant guild’ would not hear of accepting newcomers. It refused to absorb the ‘young arts’ into the commercial field. And from the simple steward to the city that it was in former times, when it carried out the external trade for the whole city, it became the middleman who got rich on his own account through foreign trade. It imported Oriental ostentation, it became moneylender to the city, and later joined the city lord and the priest against ‘the lower orders’; or instead it looked to the nascent king for support of its right to enrichment and its commercial monopoly. Once commerce becomes personal the free city is destroyed.

Moreover, the guilds of the old trades, which at the beginning made up the city and its government, do not wish to recognize the same rights for the young guilds, established later by the new crafts. The latter have to conquer their rights by a revolution. And it is what they do everywhere. But whereas in some cities that revolution is the starting point for a renewal of all aspects of life as well as the arts (this is so clearly seen in Florence), in other cities it ends in the victory of the popolo grasso over the popolo basso - by a crushing repression with mass deportations and executions, especially when the seigneurs and priests interfere.

And need one add that the king will use as a pretext the defence of the lower classes in order to crush the ‘fat classes’ and to subjugate both once he has become master of the city!

And then, the cities had to die, since even men’s ideas had changed. The teaching of canonic law and Roman law had modified people’s way of thinking.

The twelfth century European was fundamentally a federalist. As a man of free enterprise, and of free understanding, of associations which were freely sought and agreed to, he saw in himself the point of departure for the whole of society. He did not seek safety through obedience nor did he ask for a saviour for society. The idea of Christian and Roman discipline was unknown to him.

But under the influence of the Christian church - always in love with authority, always anxious to be the one to impose its dominion over the souls, and above all the work of the faithful; and on the other hand, under the influence of Roman law which by the twelfth century had already appeared at the courts of the powerful lords, the kings and the popes, and soon became the favorite subject at the universities - under the influence of these two teachings which are so much in accord even though originally they were bitter enemies, minds became corrupted as the priest arid the legislator took over.

Man fell in love with authority. If a revolution of the lower trades took place in a commune, the commune would call for a saviour, thus saddling itself with a dictator, a municipal Caesar; it would grant him full powers to exterminate the opposition party. And he took advantage of the situation, using all the refinements in cruelty suggested to him by the Church or those borrowed from the despotic kingdoms of the Orient.

He would no doubt have the support of the Church. Had she not always dreamed of the biblical king who will kneel before the high priest and be his docile instrument? Has she not always hated with all her force those rationalist ideas which breathed in the free towns at the time of the first Renaissance, that of the twelfth century? Did she not lay her curse on those ‘pagan’ ideas which brought man back to nature under the influence of the rediscovery of Greek civilization? And later did she not get the princes to stifle these ideas which, in the name of primitive Christianity, raised up men against the pope, the priest and religion in general? Fire, the wheel and the gibbet - those weapons so dear at all times to the Church - were used to crush the heretics. No matter what the instrument might be: pope, king or dictator, so long as fire, the wheel and the gibbet operated against her enemies.

And in the shadow of this double indoctrination, of the Roman jurist and the priest, the federalist spirit which had created the free commune, the spirit of initiative and free association was dying out and making way for the spirit of discipline, and pyramidal authoritarian organization. Both the rich and the poor were asking for a saviour.

And when the saviour appeared; when the king, enriched far from turmoil of the forum in some town of his creation, propped up by the inordinately wealthy Church and followed by defeated nobles and by their peasants, knocked at the gates of the city, promising the ‘lower classes’ royal protection against the rich and to the submissive rich his protection against the rebellious poor - the towns, already undermined by the cancer of authority, lacked the strength to resist him.

The great invasions of Europe by waves of peoples who had come once more from the East, assisted the rising royalty in this work of concentration of powers.

The Mongols had conquered and devastated Eastern Europe in the thirteenth century, and soon an empire was founded there in Moscow, under the protection of the khans of Tartary and the Russian Christian Church. The Turks had come to impose themselves in Europe and pushed forward as far as Vienna, destroying everything in their way. As a result a number of powerful States were created in Poland, Bohemia, hungary and in Central Europe to resist these two invasions. Meanwhile at the other extremity, the war of extermination waged against the Moors in Spain allowed another powerful empire to be created in Castille and Aragon, supported by the Roman Church and the Inquisition - by the sword and the stake.

These invasions and wars inevitably led Europe to enter a new phase - that of military states.

Since the communes themselves were becoming minor States, these were bound in due course to be swallowed up by the larger ones.