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

Section IX

"If in the town and the village you have common interests, then ask the State or the church to deal with them. but for you to get together to deal with these interests is forbidden.” This is the [formula] that echoes throughout Europe from the sixteenth century.

Already at the end of the fourteenth century an edict by Edward III, King of England, stated that “every alliance, connivance, gatherings, meetings, enactments and solemn oaths made or to [be] made between carpenters and masons, are null and void”. But it was only after the defeat of the villages and of the popular uprisings, to which we have already referred, that the State dared to interfere with all the institutions - guilds, brotherhoods, etc. - which bound the artisans together, to disband and destroy them. This is what one sees so clearly in England since the vast [documentation available] allows one to follow this movement step by little [step as] the State takes over all the guilds and brotherhoods. It besets them, abolishes their conjurations, their syndics, which they replace by their officers, their tribunals and their banquets; and at the beginning of the sixteenth century under Henry VIII, the State simply confiscates all that the guilds possess without bothering with formalities or procedure. The heir of the protestant king completes his task.

It is daylight robbery, without apologies as Thorold Rogers so well put it. And again, it is this theft that the so-called scientific economists describe as the ‘natural’ death of the guilds under the influence of ‘economic laws’!

Indeed, could the State tolerate the guild, the trade corporation, with its tribunal, its militia, its treasury, its sworn organisation? It was the ‘State within the State’! The real State had to destroy it and this it did everywhere: in England, in France, in Germany, Bohemia and Russia, maintaining only the pretence for the sake of the tax collector and as part of its huge administrative machine. And surely there is no reason to be surprised that once the guilds, and guild masterships were deprived of all that hitherto had been their lives, were put under the orders of the royal officials and had simply become cogs in the machinery of administration, that by the eighteenth century they were a hindrance, an obstacle to industrial development, in spite of the fact that for four centuries before that they represented life itself. The State had destroyed them.

But the State was not satisfied with putting a spoke in the wheels of life of the sworn brotherhoods of trades which embarrassed it by placing themselves between it and its subjects. It was not satisfied with confiscating their funds and their properties. The State had to take over their functions as well as their assets.

In a city of the Middle Ages, when there was a conflict of interests within a trade or where two different guilds were in disagreement, the only recourse was to the city. They were obliged to come to an agreement, to any kind of compromise arrangement, since they were all mutually tied up with the city. And the latter never failed to assert itself, either by arbitration or at a pinch by referring the dispute to another city. From then on, the State was the only judge. All local conflicts including insignificant disputes in small towns with only a few hundred inhabitants, accumulated in the form of documents in the offices of the king or of parliament. The English parliament was literally inundated by thousands of minor local squabbles. As a result thousands of officials were required in the capital - most of them corruptible - to read, classify, and form an opinion on all this litigation and adjudicate on the smallest details: for example how to shoe a horse, to bleach linen, to salt herrings, to make a barrel and so on ad infinitum, and the wave of questions went on increasing in volume!

But this was not all. In due course the State took over export trade, seeing it as a source of profit. Formerly, when a difference arose between two towns on the value of cloth that had been exported, or of the quality of wool or over the capacity of herring barrels, the towns themselves would remonstrate with each other. If the disagreement dragged on, more often than not they would invite another town to arbitrate. Alternatively a congress of the weavers or coopers guilds would be summoned to decide on an international level the quality and value of cloth and the capacity of barrels.

But henceforth it was the State in London or in Paris which undertook to deal with these disputes. Through its officials it controlled the capacity of barrels, defined the quality of cloth, allowing for variations as well as establishing the number of threads and their thickness in the warp and the woof, and by its ordinances meddling with the smallest details in every industry.

You can guess with what results. Under such control industry in the eighteenth century was dying.

What had in fact come of Benvenuto Cellini’s art under State tutelage? It had disappeared! And the architecture of those guilds of masons and carpenters whose works of art we still admire? Just observe the hideous monuments of the statist period and at one glance you will come to the conclusion that architecture was dead, to such an extent that it has not yet recovered from the blows it received at the hands of the State.

What was happening to the textiles of Bruges and the cloth from Holland? Where were these ironsmiths, so skilled in handling iron and who, in every important European village, knew how to make this ungrateful metal lend itself to transformation into the most exquisite decorations? Where were those turners, those watchmakers, those fitters who had made Nuremberg one of the glories of the Middle Ages for precision instruments? Talk about it to James Watt who two centuries later spent thirty years in vain, looking for a worker who could produce a more or less circular cylinder for his steam engine. Consequently his machine remained at the project stage for thirty years because there were no craftsmen able to construct it.

Such was the role of the State in the industrial field. All it was capable of doing was to tighten the screw for the worker, depopulate the countryside, spread misery in the towns, reduce [millions of human] beings to a state of starvation and impose industrial serfdom.

And it is these pitiful remains of the old guilds, these organisms which have been battered and over-taxed, these useless cogs of the administrative machine, which the ever scientific economists are so ignorant as to confuse with the guilds of the Middle Ages. What the Great French Revolution swept away as harmful to industry was not the guild, nor even the trade union, but the useless and harmful cog in the machinery of State.

But what the Revolution was at pains not to sweep away was the power of the State over industry, over the factory serf.

Do you remember the discussion which took place at the Convention - at the terrible Convention - apropos of a strike? To the complaints of the strikers the Convention replied: “The State alone has the duty to watch over the interests of all citizens. By striking, you are forming a coalition, you are creating a State within the State. So - death!”

In this reply only the bourgeois nature of the Revolution has been discerned. But has it not, in fact, a much deeper significance? Does it not sum up the attitude of the State, which found its complete and logical expression in regard to society as a whole in the Jacobinism of 1793? “Have you something t you something to complain about? Then address your complaint to the State! It alone has the mission to redress the grievances of its subjects. As for a coalition to defend yourselves - Never!” It was in this sense that the Republic called itself one and indivisible.

Does not the modern socialist Jacobin think in the same way? Did not the Convention express the gist of Jacobin thought with the cold logic that is typical of it?

In this answer of the Convention was summed up the attitude of all States in regard to all coalitions and all private societies, whatever their aim.

In the case of the strike, it is a fact that in Russia it is still considered a crime of high treason. In most of Germany too where Wilhelm would say to the miners: “Appeal to me; but if ever you presume to act for yourselves you will taste the swords of my soldiers”.

Such is still almost always the case in France. And even in England, only after having struggled for a century by means of secret societies, by the dagger for traitors and for the masters, by explosive powders under machines (as late as 1860), by emery powder poured into grease-boxes and so on, did British workers begin to win the right to strike, and will soon have it altogether - if they don’t fall into the traps already set for them by the State, in seeking to impose compulsory arbitration in return for an eight hour day.

More than a century of bitter struggles! And what misery! how many workers died in prison, were transported to Australia, were shot or hanged, in order to win back the right to combine which - let it be remembered once more - every man free or serf practised freely so long as the State did not lay its heavy hand on societies.

But then, was it the workman only who was treated in this way?

Let us simply recall the struggles that the bourgeoisie had to wage against the State to win the right to constitute itself into commercial societies - a right which the State only began to concede when it discovered a convenient way of creating monopolies for the benefit of its creatures and to fill its coffers. Think of the struggle for the right to speak, think or write other than the way the State decrees through the Academy, the University and the Church! Think of the struggles that have had to be waged to this day in order to be able to teach children to read - a right which the State possesses but does not use! Even of the struggles to secure the right to enjoy oneself in public! Not to mention those which should be waged in order to dare to choose one s judge and one’s laws - a thing that was in daily use in other times - nor the struggles that will be needed before one is able to make a bonfire of that book of infamous punishments, invented by the spirit of the inquisition and of the despotic empires of the Orient known under the name of the Penal Code!

Observe next taxation - an institution originating purely with the State - this formidable weapon used by the State, in Europe as in the young societies of the two Americas, to keep the masses under its heel, to favour its minions, to ruin the majority for the benefit of the rulers and to maintain the old divisions and castes.

Then take the wars without which States can neither constitute themselves nor maintain themselves; wars which become disastrous, and inevitable, the moment one admits that a particular region - simply because it is part of a State - has interests opposed to those of its neighbours who are part of another State. Think of past wars and of those that subjected people will have to wage to conquer the right to breathe freely, the wars for markets, the wars to create colonial empires. And in France we unfortunately know only too well that every war, victorious or not, is followed b slavery.

And finally what is even worse than all that has just been enumerated, is the fact that the education we all receive from the State, at school and after, has so warped our minds that the very notion of freedom ends up by being lost, and disguised in servitude.

It is a sad sight to see those who believe themselves to be revolutionaries unleashing their hatred on the anarchist - just because his views on freedom go beyond their petty and narrow concepts of freedom learned in the State school. And meanwhile, this spectacle is a reality. The fact is that the spirit of voluntary servitude was always cleverly cultivated in the minds of the young, and still is, in order to perpetuate the subjection of the individual to the State.

Libertarian philosophy is stifled by the Roman and Catholic pseudo-philosophy of the State. History is vitiated from the very first page, where it lies when speaking of the Merovingian and Carolingian monarchies, to the last page where it glorifies Jacobinism and refuses to recognise the role of the people in creating the institutions. Natural sciences are perverted in order to be put at the service of the double idol: Church-State. Individual psychology, and even more that of societies, are falsified in each of their assertions in justifying the triple alliance of soldier, priest and judge. Finally, morality, after having preached for centuries obedience to the Church, or the book, achieves its emancipation today only to then preach servility to the State: “No direct moral obligations towards your neighbour, nor even any feeling of solidarity; all your obligations are to the State”, we are told, we are taught, in this new cult of the old Roman and Caesarian divinity. “The neighbour, the comrade, the companion - forget them. You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State. And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it.”

And the glorification of the State and of its discipline, for which the university and the Church, the press and the political parties labour, is propagated so successfully that even revolutionaries dare not look this fetish straight in the eye.

The modern radical is a centralist. Statist and rabid Jacobin. And the socialist falls into step. Just as the Florentines at the end of the fifteenth century knew no better than to call on the dictatorship of the State to save themselves from the Patricians, so the socialists can only call upon the same Gods, the dictatorship of the State, to save themselves from the horrors of the economic regime created by that very same State!