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

Section X

If one goes a little deeper into these different categories of phenomena which I have hardly touched upon in this short outline one will understand why - seeing the State as it has been in history, and as it is in essence today - and convinced that a social institution cannot lend itself to all the desired goals since as with every organ, it developed according to the function it performed, in a definite direction and not in all possible directions - one will understand, I say, why the conclusion we arrive at is for the abolition of the State.

We see it in the Institution, developed in the history of human societies to prevent the direct association among men to shackle the development of local and individual initiative, to crush existing liberties, to prevent their new blossoming - all this in order to subject the masses to the will of minorities.

And we know an institution which has a long past going back several thousand years cannot lend itself to a function opposed to history for which and by which it was developed in the course of history.

To this absolutely unshakeable argument for anyone who has reflected on history, what reply do we get? One is answered with an almost childish argument:

’The State exists and represents a powerful ready-made organization. Why not use it instead of wanting to destroy it? It operates for evil ends - agreed; but the reason is that it is in the hands of the exploiters. If it were taken over by the people, why would it not be used for better ends, for the good of the people?’

Always the same dream - that of the Marquis de Posa in Schiller’s drama seeking to make an instrument of emancipation out of absolutism; or again the dream of the gentle Abbe Pierre in Zola’s Rome wanting to make of the Church the lever for socialism.

How sad it is to have to reply to such arguments! For those who argue in this way either haven’t a clue as to the true historic role of the State, or they view the social revolution in such a superficial and painless form that it ceases to have anything in common with their socialist aspirations.

Take the concrete example of France.

All thinking people must have noticed the striking fact that the Third Republic, in spite of its republican form of government, has remained monarchist in essence. We have all reproached it for not having republicanized France - I am not saying that it has done nothing for the social revolution, but that it has not even introduced a morality - that is an outlook which is simply republican. For the little that has been done in the past 25 years to democratize social attitudes or to spread a little education has been done everywhere, in all the European monarchies, under pressure from the times through which we are passing. Then where does this strange anomaly of a republic which has remained a monarchy come from?

It arises from the fact that France has remained a State, and exactly where it was thirty years ago. The holders of power have changed the name but all that huge ministerial scaffolding, all that centralized organization of white-collar workers, all this apeing of the Rome of the Caesars which has developed in France, all that huge organization to assure and extend the exploitation of the masses in favor of a few privileged groups, which is the essence of the State institution - all that has remained. And those wheels of bureaucracy continue as in the past to exchange their fifty documents when the wind has blown down a tree on to the highway and to transfer the millions deducted from the nation to the coffers of the privileged. The official stamp on the documents has changed; but the State, its spirit, its organs, its territorial centralization, its centralization of functions, its favoritism, and its role as creator of monopolies have remained. Like an octopus they go on spreading their tentacles over the country.

The republicans - and I am speaking of the sincere ones - had cherished the illusion that one could ‘utilize the organization of the State’ to effect a change in a Republican direction, and these are the results. Whereas it was necessary to break up the old organization, shatter the State and rebuild a new organization from the very foundations of society - the liberated village commune, federalism, groupings from simple to complex, free working association - they thought of using the ‘organization that already existed’. And, not having understood that, one does not make an historical institution follow in the direction to which one points - that is in the opposite direction to the one it has taken over the centuries - they were swallowed up by the institution.

And this happened though in this case it was not even a question yet of changing the whole economic relations in society! The aim was merely to reform only some aspects of political relations between men.

But after such a complex failure, and in the light of such a pitiful experiment, there are those who still insist in telling us that the conquest of powers in the State, by the people, will suffice to accomplish the social revolution! - that the old machine, the old organization, slowly developed in the course of history to crush freedom, to crush the individual, to establish oppression on a legal basis, to create monopolists, to lead minds astray by accustoming them to servitude - will lend itself perfectly to its new functions: that it will become the instrument, the framework for the germination of a new life, to found freedom and equality on economic bases, the destruction of monopolies, the awakening of society and towards the achievement of a future of freedom and equality!

What a sad and tragic mistake!

To give full scope to socialism entails rebuilding from top to bottom a society dominated by the narrow individualism of the shopkeeper. It is not as has sometimes been said by those indulging in metaphysical wooliness just a question of giving the worker ‘the total product of his labour’; it is a question of completely reshaping all relationships, from those which exist today between every individual and his churchwarden or his station-master to those which exist between trades, hamlets, cities and regions. In ever street, in every hamlet, in every group of men gathered around a factory or along a section of the railway line, the creative , constructive and organizational spirit must be awakened in order to rebuild life - in the factory, in the village, in the store, in production and in distribution of supplies. All relations between individuals and great centers of population have to be made all over again, from the very day, from the very moment one alters the existing commercial or administrative organization.

And they expect this immense task, requiring the free expression of popular genius, to be carried out within the framework of the State and the pyramidal organization which is the essence of the State! They expect the State whose very raison d’etre is the crushing of the individual, the hatred of initiative, the triumph of one idea which must be inevitably that of mediocrity - to become the lever for the accomplishment of this immense transformation. They want to direct the renewal of a society by means of decrees and electoral majorities ... How ridiculous!

Throughout the history of our civilization, two traditions, two opposing tendencies have confronted each other: the Roman and the Popular; the imperial and the federalist; the authoritarian and the libertarian. And this is so, once more, on the eve of the social revolution.

Between these two currents, always manifesting themselves, always at grips with each other - the popular trend and that which thirsts for political and religious domination - we have made our choice.

We seek to recapture the spirit which drove people in the twelfth century to organism themselves on the basis of free agreement and individual initiative as well as of the free federation of the interested parties. And we are quite prepared to leave the others to cling to the imperial, the Roman and canonical tradition.

History is not an uninterrupted natural development. Again and again development has stopped in one particular territory only to emerge somewhere else. Egypt, the Near East, the Mediterranean shores and Central Europe have all in turn been centers of historical development. But every time the pattern has been the same: beginning with the phase of the primitive tribe followed by the village commune; then by the free city, finally to die with the advent of the State.

In Egypt, civilization begins with the primitive tribe. It advances to the village commune and later to the period of the free cities; later still to the State which, after a period in which it flourished, leads to death.

Development starts afresh in Syria, in Persia and in Palestine. It follows the same pattern: the tribe, the village commune, the free city, the all-powerful State and ... death!

A new civilization then comes to life in Greece. Always through the tribe. Slowly it reaches the level of the village commune and then to the republican cities. In these cities civilization reaches its zenith. But the East communicates its poisonous breath, its traditions of despotism. Wars and conquests create the Empire of Alexander of Macedonia. The State asserts itself, grows, destroys all culture and ... it is death.

Rome in its turn restarts civilization. Once more one finds at the beginning the primitive tribe, then the village commune followed by the city. At this phase Rome was at the height of its civilization. But then come the State and the Empire and then ... death!

On the ruins of the Roman Empire, Celtic, Germanic, Slavonic and Scandanavian tribes once more take up the threads of civilization. Slowly the primitive tribe develops its institutions and manages to build up the village commune. It lingers in this phase until the twelfth century when the republican city arises, and this brings with it the blossoming of the human spirit, proof of which are the masterpieces of architecture, the grandiose development of the arts, the discoveries which lay the foundations of natural sciences...But then the State emerges ... Death? Yes: death - or renewal!

Either the State for ever, crushing individual and local life, taking over in all fields of human activity, bringing with it all its wars and domestic struggles for power, its palace revolutions which only replace one tyrant by another, and inevitably at the end of this development there is ... death!

Or the destruction of States, and new life starting again in thousands of centers on the principles of the lively initiative of the individual and groups and that of free agreement.

The choice lies with you!