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

Section VII

The victory of the State over the communes of the Middle Ages and the federalist institutions of the time was nevertheless not sudden. There was a period when it was sufficiently threatened for the outcome to be in doubt.

A vast popular movement - religious in its form and expressions but eminently equalitarian and communist in its aspirations - emerged in the towns and countryside of Central Europe.

Already, in the fourteenth century (in 1358 in France and in 1381 in England) two similar movements had come into being. The two powerful uprisings of the Jacquerie and of Wat Tyler had shaken society to its very foundations. Both however had been principally directed against the nobility, and though both had been defeated, they had broken feudal power. The uprising of peasants in England had put an end to serfdom and the Jacquerie in France had so severely checked serfdom in its development that from then on the institution simply vegetated, without ever reaching the power that it was to achieve later in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe.

Now, in the sixteenth century, a similar movement appeared in Central Europe. Under the name of the Hussite uprising in Bohemia, Anabaptism in Germany, Switzerland and in the Low Countries, it was - apart from the revolt against the Lords - a complete uprising against the State and Church, against Roman and canon law, in the name of primitive Christianity. [3]

For a long time misrepresented by Statist and ecclesiastical historians, this movement is only beginning to be understood today.

The absolute freedom of the individual, who must only obey the commands of his conscience, and communism were the watchwords of this uprising. And it was only later once the State and Church had succeeded in exterminating its most ardent defenders and directing it to their own ends, that this movement reduced in importance and deprived of its revolutionary character, became the Lutheran Reformation.

With Luther the movement was welcomed by the princes; but it had begun as communist anarchism, advocated and put into practice in some places. And if one looks beyond the religious phraseology which was a tribute to the times, one finds in it the very essence of the current of ideas which we represent today: the negation of laws made by the State or said to be divinely inspired, the individual conscience being the one and only law; commune, absolute master of its destiny, taking back from the Lords the communal lands and refusing to pay dues in kind or in money to the State; in other words communism and equality put into practice. Thus when Denck, one of the philosophers of the Anabaptist movement, was asked whether nevertheless he recognized the authority of the Bible, he replied that the only rule of conduct which each individual finds for himself in the Bible, was obligatory for him. And meanwhile, such vague formulas - derived from ecclesiastical jargon - that authority of ‘the book’ from which one so easily borrows arguments for and against communism, for and against authority, and so indefinite when it is a question of clearly affirming freedom - did not this religious tendency alone contain the germ for the certain defeat of the uprising?

Born in the towns, the movement soon spread to the countryside. The peasants refused to obey anybody and fixing an old shoe on a pike in the manner of a flag they would go about recovering the land from the lords, breaking the bonds of serfdom, driving away priest and judge, and forming themselves into free communes. And it was only by the stake, the wheel and the gibbet, by the massacre of a hundred thousand peasants in a few years, that royal or imperial power, allied to that of papal or Reformed Church - Luther encouraging the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope - that put an end to those uprisings which had for a period threatened the consolidation of the nascent States.

Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism, was supported by the State, massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the be inning. Then, the remnants of the popular wave sought refuge in the communities of the ‘Moravian Brothers’, who in their turn were destroyed a century later by the Church and the State. Those among them who were not exterminated went to seek sanctuary, some in South Eastern Russia (the Mennonite community since emigrated to Canada), some to Greenland where they have managed ever since to live in communities and refusing all service to the State.

Henceforth the State was assured of its existence. The jurist, the priest and the war lord, joined in an alliance around the thrones, were able to pursue their work of annihilation.

How many lies have been accumulated by Statist historians, in the pay of the State, on that period!

Indeed have we not all learned at school for instance that the State had performed the great service of creating, out of the ruins of feudal society, national unions which had previously been made impossible by the rivalries between cities? Having learned this at school, almost all of us have gone on believing this to be true in adulthood.

And yet, now we learn that in spite of all the rivalries, medieval cities had already worked for four centuries toward building those unions, through federation, freely consented, and that they had succeeded.

For instance, the union of Lombardy, comprised the cities of Northern Italy with its federal treasury in Milan. Other federations such as the union of Tuscany, the union of Rhineland (which comprised sixty towns), the federations of Westphalia, of Bohemia, of Serbia, Poland and of Russian towns, covered Europe. At the same time, the commercial union of the Hanse included Scandinavian, German, Polish and Russian towns in all the Baltic basin. There were already all the elements, as well as the fact itself, of large groupings freely constituted.

Do you require the living proof of these groupings? You have it in Switzerland! There, the union first asserted itself among the village communes (the old cantons), just as at the same time in France it was constituted in the Lyonnais. And since in Switzerland the separation between town and village had not been as far-reaching as in the countries where the towns were engaged in large-scale commerce with distant parts, the towns gave assistance to the peasant insurrection of the sixteenth century and thus the union included towns and villages to constitute a federation which continues to this day.

But the State, by its very nature, cannot tolerate a free federation: it represents that bogie of all jurists, ‘a State within the State’. The State cannot recognize a freely-formed union operating within itself; it only recognizes subjects. The State and its sister the Church arrogate to themselves alone the right to serve as the link between men.

Consequently, the State must, perforce, wipe out cities based on the direct union between citizens. It must abolish all unions within the city, as well as the city itself, and wipe out all direct union between the cities. For the federal principle it must substitute the principle of submission and discipline. Such is the stuff of the State, for without this principle it ceases to be State.

And the sixteenth century - a century of carnage and wars - can be summed up quite simply by this struggle of the nascent State against the free towns and their federations. The towns were besieged, stormed, and sacked, their inhabitants decimated or deported.

The State in the end wins total victory. And these are the consequences:

In the sixteenth century Europe was covered with rich cities, whose artisans, masons, weavers and engravers produced marvelous works of art; their universities established the foundations of modern empirical science, their caravans covered the continents, their vessels ploughed the seas and rivers.

What remained two centuries later? Towns with anything from 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants and which (as was the case of Florence) had a greater proportion of schools and, in the communal hospitals, beds, in relation to the population than is the case with the most favored towns today, became rotten boroughs. Their populations were decimated or deported, the State and Church took over their wealth. Industry was dying out under the rigorous control of the State’s employees; commerce dead. Even the roads which had hitherto linked these cities became impassable in the seventeenth century.

State is synonymous with war. Wars devastated Europe and managed to finish off the towns which the State had not yet directly destroyed.

With the towns crushed, at least the villages gained something from the concentration of State power? Of course not! One has only to read what the historians tell us of life in the Scottish countryside, or in Tuscany and in Germany in the sixteenth century and compare these accounts with those of extreme poverty in England in the years around 1648, in France under Louis XIV - the ‘Roi Soleil’ - in Germany, in Italy, everywhere, after a century of State domination.

Historians are unanimous in declaring that extreme poverty exists everywhere. In those places where serfdom had been abolished, it is reconstituted under a thousand new guises; and where it had not yet been destroyed, it emerges under the aegis of ancient slavery or worse. In Russia it was the nascent State of the Romanovs that introduced serfdom and soon gave it the characteristics of slavery.

But could anything else come out of Statal wretchedness since its first concern, once the towns had been crushed, was to destroy the village commune and all the ties between the peasants, and then to surrender their lands to sacking by the rich and to bring them all individually into subjection to the official, the priest or the lord?



3. The time of troubles in Russia at the beginning of the seventeenth century, represent a similar movement, directed against serfdom and the State but without a religious basis.