Man or the State?/The State, Its Historic Role


(b. 1842)



In taking as subject for this lecture the State and the part it has played in history I thought it would respond to a need which is greatly felt at this moment. It is of consequence, after having so often criticized the present State, to seek the cause of its appearance, to investigate the part played by it in the past, and to compare it with the institutions which it superseded.

Let us first agree as to what we mean by the word State. There is, as you know, the German school that likes to confuse the State with Society. This confusion is to be met with even among the best German thinkers and many French ones, who cannot conceive of Society without State concentration. Yet to reason thus is entirely to ignore the progress made in the domain of history during the last thirty years; it is to ignore the fact that men have lived in societies during thousands of years before having known the State; it is to forget that for European nations the State is of recent origin—that it hardly dates from the sixteenth century; it is to fail to recognise that the most glorious epochs in humanity were those in which liberties and local life were not yet destroyed by the State, and when masses of men lived in communes and free federations.

The State is but one of the forms taken by Society in the course of history. How can one be confused with the other?

On the other hand, the State has also been confused with Government, It seems to me, however, that State and Government represent two ideas of a different kind. The State idea implies quite another idea to that of Government. It not only includes the existence of a power placed above Society, but also a territorial concentration and a concentration of many functions of the life of Society in the hands of a few or even of all. It implies new relations among the members of society.

This characteristic distinction, which perhaps escapes notice at first sight, appears clearly when the origin of the State is studied.

Really to understand the State there is, in fact, but one way: it is to study it in its historical development, and that is what I am going to endeavor to do.

The Roman Empire was a State in the true sense of the word. To the present day it is the ideal of students of law. Its organs covered a vast domain with a close network. Everything flowed towards Rome, economic life, military life, judicial relations, riches, education, even religion. From Rome came laws, magistrates, legions to defend their territory, governors to rule the provinces, gods. The whole life of the Empire could be traced back to the Senate; later on to the Cæsar, the omnipotent and omniscient, the god of the Empire. Every province and every district had its miniature Capitol, its little share of Roman sovereignty to direct its whole life. One law, the law imposed by Rome, governed the Empire; and that Empire did not represent a confederation of citizens,—it was only a flock of subjects.

Even at present, the students of law and the authoritarians altogether admire the unity of that Empire, the spirit of unity of those laws, the beauty (they say), the harmony of that organisation.

But the internal decomposition furthered by barbarian invasion, the death of local life, henceforth unable to resist attacks from without, and the gangrene spreading from the centre, pulled that Empire to pieces, and on its ruins was established and developed a new civilisation^ which is ours today.

And if, putting aside antique empires, we study the origin and development of that young barbarian civilisation till the time when it gave birth to our modern States, we shall be able to grasp the essence of the State. We shall do it better than we should have done if we had launched ourselves into the study of the Roman Empire, of the empire of Alexander, or else of despotic Eastern monarchies. In taking these powerful barbarian destroyers of the Roman Empire as a starting point, we can retrace the evolution of all civilisation from its origin till it reaches the stage of the State.


Most of the philosophers of the last century had conceived very elementary notions about the origin of societies.

At the beginning, they said, men lived in small, isolated families, and perpetual war among these families represented the normal condition of existence. But one fine day, perceiving the drawbacks of these endless struggles, they decided to form a society. A "social contract" was agreed upon among scattered families, who willingly submitted to an authority, which authority (need I tell you?) became the starting point and the initiative of all progress. Must I add, as you have already been told in school, that our present governments have ever since impersonated the noble role of salt of the earth, the pacifiers and civilisers of humanity?

This conception, which was born at a time when little was known about the origin of man, prevailed in the last century; and we must say that in the hands of the Encyclopædists and of Rousseau the idea of a "social contract" became a powerful weapon with which to fight royalty and divine right. Nevertheless, in spite of services it may have rendered in the past, that theory must now be recognised as false.

The fact is that all animals, save some beasts and birds of prey and a few species that are in course of extinction, live in societies. In the struggle for existence it is the sociable species that get the better of those that are not. In every class of animals the former occupy the top of the ladder, and there cannot be the least doubt that the first beings of human aspect already lived in societies. Man did not create society; society is anterior to man.

We also know to-day—anthropology has clearly demonstrated it—that the starting point of humanity was not the family but the clan, the tribe. The paternal family such as we have it, or such as it is depicted in Hebrew tradition, appeared only very much later. Men lived tens of thousands of years in the stage of clan or tribe, and during that first stage—let us call it primitive or savage tribe, if you will—man already developed a whole series of institutions, habits, and customs, far anterior to the paternal family institutions. In those tribes the separate family existed no more than it exists among so many other sociable mammalia. Divisions in the midst of the tribe itself were formed by generations; and since the earliest periods of tribal life limitations were established to hinder marriage relations between different generations, while they were freely practiced between members of the same generation. Traces of that period are still extant in certain contemporary tribes, and we find them again in the language, customs, and superstitions of nations who were far more advanced in civilisation.

The whole tribe hunted and harvested in common, and when they were satisfied they gave themselves up with passion to their dramatic dances. Nowadays we still find tribes very near to this primitive phase, driven back to the outskirts of the large continents, or in Alpine regions, the least accessible of our globe.

The accumulation of private property could not take place, because each thing that had been the personal property of a member of the tribe was destroyed or burned on the spot where his corpse was buried. This is done even now by gipsies in England, and the funeral rites of the "civilised" still bear its traces: the Chinese burn paper models of what the dead possessed; and we lead the military chief's horse, and carry his sword and decorations, as far as the grave. The meaning of the institution is lost; only the form survives.

Far from professing contempt for human life, these primitive individuals had a horror of blood and murder. Shedding blood was considered a deed of such gravity that each drop of blood shed—not only the blood of men, but also that of certain animals—required that the aggressor should lose an equal quantity of blood. In fact, a murder within the tribe was a deed absolutely unknown; it is so to this day among the Inoïts or Esquimaux—those survivors of the Stone Age that inhabit the Arctic regions. But when tribes of different origin, color, or tongue met during their migrations, war was often the result. It is true that already men had tried to mitigate the effect of these shocks. Even thus early, as has been so well demonstrated by Maine, Post, and Nys, the tribes agreed upon and respected certain rules and limitations of war, which contained the germs of what was to become international law later on. For example, a village was not to be attacked without warning to the inhabitants; and no one would have dared to kill on a path trodden by women going to the well.

However, from that time forward one general law over-ruled all others: "Your people have killed or wounded one of ours, therefore we have the right to kill one of yours, or to inflict an absolutely similar wound on one of yours"—never mind which, as it is always the tribe that is responsible for every act of its members. The well-known biblical verses, "Blood for blood, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a wound for a wound, a life for a life,"—but no more!—thence derive their origin, as was so well remarked by Koenigswarter. It was their conception of justice; and we have not much reason to boast, as the principle of "a life for a life" which prevails in our codes is but one of its numerous survivals.

As you see, a whole series of institutions, and many others which I must pass over in silence,—a whole code of tribal morals,—was already elaborated during this primitive stage. And habit, custom, tradition sufficed to maintain this kernel of social customs in force; there was no authority to impose it.

Primitive individuals had, no doubt, temporary leaders. The sorcerer and the rain-maker (the scientist of that epoch) sought to profit by what they knew, or thought they knew, about nature, to rule over their fellow men. Likewise, he who could best remember proverbs and songs in which tradition was embodied became powerful. And, since then, these "educated" men have endeavored to secure their rulership by transmitting their knowledge only to the elect. All religions, and even all arts and crafts, have begun, as you know, by "mysteries." Also, the brave, the bold, and the cunning man became the temporary leader during conflicts with other tribes or during migrations. But an alliance between the "law bearer," the military chief, and the witch-doctor did not exist, and there can be no more question of a State with these tribes than there is in a society of bees or ants or among our contemporaries the Patagonians or Esquimaux.

This stage, however, lasted thousands upon thousands of years, and the barbarians who invaded the Roman Empire had just passed through it,—in fact, they had hardly emerged from it.

In the first centuries of our era, immense migrations took place among the tribes and confederations of tribes that inhabited Central and Northern Asia. A stream of people, driven by more or less civilised tribes, came down from the table-lands of Asia—probably driven away by the rapid drying-up of those plateaux—and inundated Europe, impelling one another onward, mingling with one another in their overflow towards the West.

During these migrations, when so many tribes of diverse origin were intermixed, the primitive tribe which still existed among them and the primitive inhabitants of Europe necessarily became disaggregated. The tribe was based on its common origin, on the worship of common ancestors. But what common origin could be invoked by the agglomerations that emerged from the hurly-burly of migrations, collisions, wars between tribes, during which we see the paternal family spring up here and there—the kernel formed by some men appropriating women they had conquered or kidnapped from neighboring tribes?

Ancient ties were rent asunder, and under pain of a general break-up (that took place, in fact, for many a tribe, which then disappeared from history) it was essential that new ties should spring up. And they did spring up. They were found in the communal possession of land—of a territory, on which such an agglomeration ended by settling down.

The possession in common of a certain territory, of certain valleys, plains, or mountains, became the basis of a new agreement. Ancient gods had lost all meaning; and the local gods of a valley, river, or forest gave the religious consecration to the new agglomeration, substituting themselves for the gods of the primitive tribe. Later on, Christianity, always ready to accommodate itself to pagan survivals, made local saints of those gods.

Henceforth, the village community, composed partly or entirely of separate families — all united, nevertheless, by the possession in common of the land—became the necessary bond of union for centuries to come. On the immense stretches of land in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, it still exists to-day. The barbarians who destroyed the Roman Empire—Scandinavians, Germans, Celts, Slavs, etc.—lived under this kind of organization. And in studying the ancient barbarian codes, as well as the laws and customs of the confederations of village communes among the Kabyles, Mongols, Hindoos, Africans, etc., which still exist, it becomes possible to reconstitute in its entirety that form of society which was the starting point of our present civilization.

Let us, therefore, cast a glance on that institution.


The village community was composed, as it still is, of separate families; but the families of a village possessed the land in common. They looked upon the land as their common patrimony, and allotted it according to the size of the families. Hundreds of millions of men still live under this system in eastern Europe, India, Java, etc. It is the same system that Russian peasants have established nowadays, when the State left them free to occupy the immense Siberian territory as they thought best.

At first, also, the cultivation of the land was done in common, and this custom still obtains in many places—at least, the cultivation of certain plots of land. As to deforestation and clearings made in the woods, construction of bridges, building of forts and turrets which served as refuge in case of invasion, the work was done in common,—as it still is by hundreds of millions of peasants, wherever the village commune has resisted State encroachments. But consumption, to use a modern expression, already took place by family—each having its own cattle, kitchen garden, and provisions; the means of hoarding and transmitting wealth accumulated by inheritance already existed.

In all its business, the village commune was sovereign. Local custom was law, and the plenary council of all chiefs of families—men and women—was judge, the only judge, in civil and criminal affairs. When one of the inhabitants, complaining of another, planted his knife in the ground at the spot where the commune was wont to assemble, the commune had to "find the sentence" according to local custom, after the fact had been proved by the jurors of both litigant parties.

Time would fail me were I to tell you everything of interest presented by this stage. Suffice it for me to observe that all institutions which States took possession of later on for the benefit of minorities, all notions of right which we I find in our codes (mutilated to the advantage of minorities), and all forms of judicial procedure, in as far as they offer guarantees to the individual, had their origin in the village community. Thus, when we imagine we have made great progress—in introducing the jury, for example,—we have only returned to the institution of the barbarians, after having modified it to the advantage of the ruling classes. Roman law was only superposed upon customary law.

The sentiment of national unity was developing at the same time, by great free federations of village communes. Based on the possession and very often on the cultivation of the soil in common, sovereign as judge and legislator of customary law, the village community satisfied most needs of the social being. But not all his needs,—there were still others to be satisfied. However, the spirit of the age was not for calling upon a government as soon as a new need was felt. It was, on the contrary, to take the initiative oneself, to unite, to league, to federate, to create an understanding, great or small, numerous or restricted, which would correspond to the new need. And society at that time was literally covered, as by a network, with sworn fraternities, guilds for mutual support, "con-jurations," within and without the village, and in the federation.

We can observe this stage and spirit at work even to-day, among many a barbarian federation having remained outside modern States modelled on the Roman or rather the Byzantine type. Thus, to take an example among many others, the Kabyles have retained their village community with the powers I have just mentioned. But man feels the necessity of action outside the narrow limits of his hamlet. Some like to wander about in quest of adventure, in the capacity of merchants. Some take to a craft, "an art," of some kind. And these merchants and artisans unite in "fraternities," even when they belong to different villages, tribes, and confederations. There must be union for mutual help in distant adventures or mutually to transmit the mysteries of the craft, and they unite. They swear brotherhood, and practice it—not in words only, but in deeds.

Besides, misfortune can overtake anyone. Who knows that to-morrow, perhaps, in a brawl, a man gentle and peaceful as a rule will not exceed the established limits of good behavior and sociability? Very heavy compensation will then have to be paid to the insulted or wounded; the aggressor will have to defend himself before the village council and prove facts on the oath of six, ten, or twelve "con-jurors." This is another reason for belonging to a fraternity.

Moreover, man feels the necessity of talking politics and perhaps even intriguing, the necessity of propagating some moral opinion or custom. There is, also, external peace to be safeguarded; there are alliances to be concluded with other tribes, federations to be constituted far off, the idea of intertribal law to be propagated. Well, then, to satisfy all these needs of an emotional and intellectual kind the Kabyles, the Mongols, the Malays do not turn to a government: they have none. Men of customary law and individual initiative, they have not been perverted by the corrupted idea of a government and a church supposed to do everything. They unite directly. They constitute sworn fraternities, political and religious societies, unions of crafts—guilds as they were called in the Middle Ages, çofs as the Kabyles call them to-day. And these çofs go beyond the boundaries of hamlets: they flourish far out in the desert and in foreign cities; and fraternity is practiced in these unions. To refuse to help a member of your çof, even at the risk of losing all your belongings and your life, is an act of treason to the fraternity, and exposes the traitor to be treated as the murderer of a "brother."

What we find to-day among Kabyles, Mongols, Malays, etc., was the very essence of life of the so-called barbarians in Europe from the fifth to the twelfth centuries, even till the fifteenth. Under the name of guilds, friendships, universitates, etc., unions swarmed for mutual defence and for solidarily avenging offences against each member of the union; for substituting compensation instead of the vengeance of "an eye for an eye," followed by the reception of the aggressor into the fraternity; for the exercise of crafts, for helping in case of illness, for the defence of territory, for resisting the encroachments of nascent authority, for commerce, for the practice of "good-neighborship," for propaganda,—for everything, in a word, that the European, educated by the Rome of the Cæsars and the Popes, asks of the State to-day. It is even very doubtful if there existed at that time one single man, free or serf, (save those who were outlawed by their own fraternities) who did not belong to some fraternity or guilds besides his commune.

Scandinavian sagas sing their exploits. The devotion of sworn brothers is the theme of the most beautiful of these epical songs; whereas the Church and the rising kings, representatives of Byzantine or Roman law which reappears, hurl against them their anathemas and decrees, which happily remain a dead letter.

The whole history of that period loses its significance, and becomes absolutely incomprehensible, if we do not take the fraternities into account—these unions of brothers and sisters that spring up everywhere to satisfy the multiple needs of both the economic and the emotional life of man.

Nevertheless black spots accumulated on the horizon. Other unions—those of ruling minorities—are also formed; and they endeavor, little by little, to transform these free men into serfs, into subjects. Rome is dead, but its tradition revives; and the Christian Church, haunted by Oriental theocratic visions, gives its powerful support to the new powers that are seeking to constitute themselves.

Far from being the sanguinary beast that he is represented to be in order to prove the necessity of ruling over him, man has always loved tranquillity and peace. He fights rather by necessity than by ferocity, and prefers his cattle and his land to the profession of arms. Therefore, hardly had the great migration of barbarians begun to abate, hardly had hordes, and tribes more or less cantoned themselves on their respective lands, than we see the care of the defence of territory against new waves of immigrants confided to a man who engages a small band of adventurers, men hardened in wars, or brigands, to be his followers; while the great mass raises cattle or cultivates the soil. And this defender soon begins to amass wealth. He gives a horse and armor (very dear at that time) to the poor man, and reduces him to servitude; he begins to conquer the germ of military power. On the other hand, little by little, tradition, which constituted law in those times, is forgotten by the masses. There remains only an occasional old man who keeps in his memory the verses and songs which tell of the "precedents" of which customary law consists^ and recites them on great festival days before the commune. And little by little some families made a specialty^ transmitted from father to son, of retaining these songs and verses in their memory and of preserving "the law" in its purity. To them villagers apply for judgment of differences in intricate cases^ especially when two villages or confederations refuse to accept the decisions of arbitrators taken from their midst.

The germ of princely or royal authority is already sown in these families; and the more I study the institutions of that time, the more I see that the knowledge of customary law did far more to constitute that authority than the power of the sword. Man allowed himself to be enslaved far more by his desire to "punish according to law" than by direct military conquest.

And gradually the first "concentration of powers," the first mutual insurance for domination—that of the judge and the military chief—grew up to the detriment of the village commune. A single man assumed these two functions. He surrounded himself with armed men to put his judicial decisions into execution; he fortified himself in his turret; he accumulated the wealth of the epoch, viz., breads cattle, and iron, for his family; and little by little he forced his rule upon the neighboring peasants. The scientific man of the age, that is to say the witch-doctor or priest, lost no time in bringing his support and in sharing the chief's domination; or else, adding the sword to his power of redoubtable magician, he seized the domination for his own account.

A course of lectures, rather than a simple lecture, would be needed to deal thoroughly with this subject, so full of new teachings, and to tell how free men gradually became serfs, forced to work for the lay or clerical lord of the manor; how authority was constituted, in a tentative way, over villages and boroughs; how peasants leagued, revolted, struggled, to fight the advancing domination, and how they succumbed in those struggles against the strong castle walls and the men in armor who defended them.

Suffice it for me to say that during the tenth and eleventh centuries Europe seemed to be drifting straight towards the constitution of those barbarous kingdoms such as we now discover in the heart of Africa, or those Eastern theocracies which we know through history. This could not take place in a day; but the germs of those little kingdoms and those little theocracies were already there and were developing more and more.

Happily, the "barbarian" spirit—Scandinavian, Saxon, Celt, German, Slav—that had led men during seven or eight centuries to seek for the satisfaction of their needs in individual initiative and in free agreement of fraternities and guilds, happily that spirit still lived in the villages and boroughs. The barbarians allowed themselves to be enslaved, they worked for a master; but their spirit of free action and free agreement was not yet corrupted. Their fraternities flourished more than ever, and the Crusades had but roused and developed them in the West.

Then the revolution of the commune, long since prepared by that federative spirit and born of the union of sworn fraternity with the village community, burst forth in the twelfth century with a striking spontaneity all over Europe. This revolution, which the mass of university historians prefer to ignore, saved Europe from the calamity with which it was menaced. It arrested the evolution of theocratic and despotic monarchies, in which our civilisation would probably have gone down after a few centuries of pompous expansion, as the civilisation of Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Babylon had done. This revolution opened up a new phase of life, that of the free communes.


It is easy to understand why modern historians, nurtured as they are in the spirit of the Roman law, and accustomed to look to Roman law for the origin of every political institution, are incapable of understanding the spirit of the communalist movement of the twelfth century. This manly affirmation of the rights of the individual, who managed to constitute Society through the federation of individuals, villages, and towns, was an absolute negation of that centralising spirit of ancient Rome which penetrates all historical conceptions of present-day university teaching.

The uprising of the twelfth century cannot even be attributed to any personality of mark, or to any central institution. It is a natural, anthropological phasis of human development; and, as such, it belongs to human evolution, like the tribe and the village-community periods, but to no nation in particular, to no special region of Europe, and it is the work of no special hero.

This is why university science, which is based upon Roman law, centralisation, and hero-worship, is absolutely incapable of understanding the substance of that movement, which came from beneath. In France, Augustin Thierry and Sismondi, who both wrote in the first half of this century and who had really understood that period, have had no followers up to the present time; and now only M. Lachaire timidly tries to follow the lines of research indicated by the great historian of the Merovingian and the communalist period (Augustin Thierry). This is why, in Germany, the awakening of studies of this period and a vague comprehension of its spirit are only just now coming to the front. And this is why, in England, one finds a true comprehension of the twelfth century in the poet William Morris rather than amongst the historians,—Green (in the later part of his life) having been the only one who was capable of understanding it at all.

The commune of the Middle Ages takes its origin, on the one hand, from the village community, on the other from those thousands of fraternities and guilds which were constituted outside territorial unions. It was a federation of these two kinds of unions, developed under the protection of the fortified enclosure and the turrets of the city. In many a region it was a natural growth. Elsewhere—and this is the rule in Western Europe—it was the result of a revolution. When the inhabitants of a borough felt themselves sufficiently protected by their walls, they made a "con-juration." They mutually took the oath to put aside all pending questions concerning feuds arisen from insults, assaults, or wounds, and they swore that henceforth in the quarrels that should arise they would never again have recourse to personal revenge or to a judge other than the syndics nominated by themselves in the guild and the city.

This was long since the regular practice in every art or good-neighborship guilds in every sworn fraternity. In every village commune such had formerly been the custom, before bishop or kinglet had succeeded in introducing—and later in enforcing—his judge. Now the hamlets and the parishes which constituted the borough, as well as all the guilds and fraternities that had developed there, considered themselves a single amitas. They named their judges and swore permanent union between all these groups.

A charter was hastily drawn up and accepted. In case of need they sent for the copy of a charter from some small neighboring commune (we know hundreds of these charters to-day), and the commune was constituted. The bishop or prince, who had up till then been judge of the commune and had often become more or less its master, had only to recognize the accomplished fact, or else to fight the young "con-juration" by force of arms. Often the king—that is to say, the prince who tried to gain superiority over other princes, and whose coffers were always empty—"granted" the charter, for ready money. He thus renounced imposing his judge on the commune, while giving himself importance before other feudal lords. But this was in nowise the rule: hundreds of communes lived without any other sanction than their own good pleasure, their ramparts, and their lances.

In a hundred years this movement spread, with striking unity, to the whole of Europe,—by imitation, observe well,—including Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, and Russia. And to-day, when we compare the charters and internal organisations of French, English, Scotch, Irish, Scandinavian, German, Bohemian, Russian, Swiss, Italian, and Spanish communes, we are struck with the almost complete sameness of these charters and of the organisation which grew up under the shelter of these "social contracts." What a striking lesson for Romanists and Hegelists who know no other means to obtain a similarity of institutions than servitude before the law!

From the Atlantic to the middle course of the Volga, and from Norway to Italy, Europe was covered with similar communes—some becoming populous cities like Florence, Venice, Nuremberg, or Novgorod, others remaining boroughs of a hundred or even twenty families, but nevertheless treated as equals by their more or less prosperous sisters.

Organisms full of vigor, the communes evidently grew dissimilar in their evolution. Geographical position, the character of external commerce, the obstacles to be vanquished outside, gave every commune its own history. But for all, the principle was the same. Pskov in Russia and Brugge in Flanders, a Scotch borough of three hundred inhabitants and rich Venice with its islands, a borough in the North of France or in Poland and Florence the Beautiful represent the same amitas,—the same fellowship of village communes and of associated guilds, the same constitution in its general outline.

Generally, the town, whose enclosure grows in length and breadth with the population and surrounds itself with higher and higher towers, each tower erected by such and such a parish or such a guild and having its own individual character,—generally, I say, the town is divided into four, five, or six districts or sections, which radiate from the citadel to the ramparts. In preference each of these districts is inhabited by one "art" or craft, whereas new trades—the "young arts"—occupy the suburbs, which will soon be enclosed in a new fortified circle.

The street, or parish, represents a territorial unit, corresponding to the ancient village community. Each street or parish has its popular assembly, its forum, its popular tribunal, its elected priest, militia, banner, and often its seal as a symbol of sovereignty. It is federated with other streets, but it nevertheless keeps its independence.

The professional unit, which often corresponds, or nearly so, with the district or section, is the guild—the trade union. This union also retains its saints, its assembly, its forum, its judges. It has its treasury, its landed property, its militia and banner. It also has its seal, and it remains sovereign. In ease of war, should it think right, its militia will march and join forces with those of other guilds, and it will plant its banner side by side with the great banner, or carosse (cart), of the city.

And lastly^ the city is the union of districts, streets, parishes, and guilds, and it has its plenary assembly of all inhabitants in the large forum, its great belfry, its elected judges, its banner for rallying the militia of the guilds and districts. It negotiates as a sovereign with other cities, federates with whom it likes, concludes national and foreign alliances. Thus the English "Cinque Ports" around Dover are federated with French and Netherland ports on the other side of the Channel; the Russian Novgorod is the ally of Scandinavian, Germanic Hansa, and so on. In its external relations, every city possesses all the prerogatives of the modern State; and from that time forth is constituted, by free contracts, that body of agreements which later on became known as International Law, and was placed under the sanction of public opinion of all cities, while later on it was more often violated than respected by the States.

How often a city, not being able to decide a dispute in a complicated case, sends for "finding the sentence" to a neighboring city! How often the ruling spirit of the time—arbitration, rather than the judge's authority—is manifested in the fact of two communities taking a third as arbitrator!

Trade unions behave in the same way. They carry on their commercial and trade affairs beyond the cities and make treaties, without taking their nationalities into account. And when, in our ignorance, we talk boastingly of our international workers' congresses we forget that international trade congresses and even apprentices' congresses were already held in the fifteenth century.

Lastly, the city either defends itself against aggressors and wages its own stubborn wars against neighboring feudal lords, nominating each year one or rather two military commanders of its militias, or else accepting a "military defender"—a prince or duke—who is chosen by the city for a year, and whom it can dismiss when it pleases. It usually delivers up to this military defender the produce of judicial fines for the maintenance of his soldiers; but it forbids him to interfere with the business of the city. Or lastly, too feeble to emancipate itself entirely from its neighbors, the feudal vultures, the city will retain, as a more or less permanent military protector, a bishop or a prince of some family—Guelf or Ghibelline in Italy, from the family of Rurik in Russia or of Olgerd in Lithuania. But it will watch with jealousy that the bishop's or prince's authority shall not extend beyond the soldiers encamped in the castle. It will even forbid them to enter the town without permission. You no doubt know that even at the present day the Queen of England cannot enter the City of London without the Lord Mayor's permission.

I should like to speak to you at length about the economic life of cities in the Middle Ages; but I am obliged to pass it over in silence. It was so varied that it would need rather full development. Suffice it to remark that internal commerce was always carried on by the guilds, not by isolated artisans, the prices being fixed by mutual agreement; that at the beginning of that period, external commerce was carried on exclusively by the city; that commerce only became the monopoly of the merchants' guild later on, and still later of isolated individuals; that never was any work done on Sunday, or on Saturday afternoon (bathing day); lastly, that the city purchased the chief necessaries for the life of its inhabitants—corn, coal, etc.—and delivered these to the inhabitants at cost price. (This custom of the city making purchases of grain was retained in Switzerland till the middle of our century.) In fact, it is proved by a mass of documents of all kinds that hupianity has never known, either before or after, a period of relative well-being as perfectly assured to all as existed in the cities of the Middle Ages. The present poverty, insecurity, and over-work were absolutely unknown then.


With these elements—liberty, organisation from simple to complex, production and exchange by trade unions (guilds), commerce with foreign parts carried on by the city itself, and the buying of main provisions by the city—with these elements, the towns of the Middle Ages, during the first two centuries of their free life, became centres of well-being for all the inhabitants. They were centres of opulence and civilization such as we have not seen since.

Consult documents that allow of establishing the rates of wages for work in comparison with the price of provisions (Rogers has done it for England and a great number of writers have done it for Germany) and you will see that the work of the artisan, and even of a simple day-laborer, was remunerated at that time by a wage not even reached by skilled workmen nowadays. The account-books of the University of Oxford and of certain English estates, also those of a great number of German and Swiss towns, are there to testify to this.

On the other hand, consider the artistic finish and the quantity of decorative work which a workman of those days used to put into the beautiful work of art he did, as well as into the simplest thing of domestic life,—a railing, a candle-stick, an article of pottery,—and you see at once that he did not know the pressure, the hurry, the overwork of our times. He could forge, sculpture, weave, embroider at his leisure, as but a very small number of artist-workers can do nowadays. And if we glance over the donations to the churches and to houses which belonged to the parish, to the guild, or to the city, be it in works of art—in decorative panels, sculptures, cast or wrought iron and even silver work—or in simple mason's or carpenter's work, we understand what degree of well-being those cities had realized in their midst. We can conceive the spirit of research and invention that prevailed, the breath of liberty that inspired their works, the sentiment of fraternal solidarity that grew up in those guilds in which men of the same craft were united not only by the mercantile and technical side of a trade but also by bonds of sociability and fraternity. Was it not, in fact, the guild-law that two brothers were to watch at the bedside of every sick brother; and that the guild would take care of burying the dead brother or sister—a custom which called for devotion, in those times of contagious diseases and plagues—follow him to the grave, and take care of his widow and children?

Black misery, depression, the uncertainty of to-morrow for the greater number, which characterize our modem cities, were absolutely unknown in those "oases sprung up in the twelfth century in the middle of the feudal forest." In those cities, under the shelter of their liberties acquired through the impulse of free agreement and free initiative, a whole new civilization grew up and attained such expansion that the like has not been seen since.

All modern industry comes to us from those cities. In three centuries, industries and arts developed there to such perfection that our century has been able to surpass them only in rapidity of production, but rarely in quality and very rarely in beauty of the produce. In the higher arts, which we try in vain to revive to-day, have we surpassed the beauty of Raphael, the vigor and audacity of Michel Angelo, the science and art of Leonardo da Vinci, the poetry and language of Dante, or the architecture to which we owe the cathedrals of Laon, Rheims, Cologne ("the people were its masons" Victor Hugo has said so well), the treasures of beauty of Florence and Venice, the town halls of Bremen and Prague, the towers of Nuremberg and Pisa, and so on ad infinitum? All these great conquests of art were the product of that period.

Do you wish to measure the progress of that civilization at a glance? Compare the dome of St. Mark in Venice to the rustic arch of the Normans, Raphael's picture to the naïve embroideries and carpets of Bayeux, the mathematical and physical instruments and clocks of Nuremberg to the sand docks of the preceding centuries, Dante's sonorous language to the barbarous Latin of the tenth century. A new world has opened up between the two!

Never, with the exception of that other glorious period of ancient Greece (free cities again) had humanity made such a stride forward. Never, in two or three centuries, had man undergone so profound a change or so extended his power over the forces of nature.

You may perhaps think of the progress of civilization in our own century, which is ceaselessly boasted of. But in each of its manifestations it is but the child of the civilization which grew up in the midst of free communes. All the great discoveries which have made modern science,—the compass, the clock, the watch, printing, the maritime discoveries, gunpowder, the law of gravitation, the law of atmospheric pressure of which the steam-engine is but a development, the rudiments of chemistry, the scientific method already pointed out by Roger Bacon and practised in Italian universities,—where do all these come from, if not from the free cities which developed under the shelter of communal liberties? {{dhr}{} But you may say, perhaps, that I forget the conflicts, the internal struggles, of which the history of these communes is full,—the street tumults, the ferocious battles sustained against the landlords, the insurrections of "young arts" against the "ancient arts," the blood that was shed and the reprisals which took place in these struggles.

I forget nothing. But, like Leo and Botta, the two historians of mediæval Italy, like Sismondi, like Ferrari, Gino Capponi, and so many others, I see that these struggles were the guarantee itself of free life in a free city. I perceive a renewal of and a new flight towards progress after each one of these struggles. After describing these struggles and conflicts in detail, and after measuring the immensity of progress realized while these struggles stained the streets with blood,—the well-being assured to all the inhabitants, and the renovation of civilization,—Leo and Botta conclude with this thought, so true, which often comes to my mind:

"A commune only then represents the picture of a moral whole, only then appears universal in its behavior, like the human mind itself, when it has admitted conflict and opposition in its midst."

Yes, conflict, freely thrashed out, without an external power, the State, throwing its immense weight into the balance, in favor of one of the struggling forces.

Like those two authors, I also think that "far more misery has often been caused by imposing peace, because in such cases contradictory things were forcibly allied in order to create a general politic order, and by sacrificing individualities and little organisms in order to absorb them in a vast body without color and without life."

This is why the communes—as long as they themselves did not strive to become States and to impose submission around them, so as to create "a vast body without color or life"—always grew up, always came out younger and stronger after every struggle; this is why they flourished at the sound of arms in the street, while two centuries later that same civilization was crumbling at the noise of wars brought about by States.

In the commune, the struggle was for the conquest and maintenance of the liberty of the individual, for the principle of federation, for the right to unite and act; whereas the wars of the States aimed to destroy these liberties, to subjugate the individual, to annihilate free agreement, to unite men in one and the same servitude before the king, the judge, the priest, and the State.

There lies all the difference. There are struggles and conflicts that kill, and there are those that launch humanity forwards.


In the course of the sixteenth century, modern barbarians come and destroy the whole civilization of the cities of the Middle Ages. These barbarians do not completely annihilate it; they cannot do so, but at least they check it in its progress for two or three centuries. They drive it in a new direction.

They fetter the individual, they take all his liberties away, they order him to forget the unions which formerly were based on free initiative and free agreement, and their aim is to level the whole of society in the same submission to the master. They destroy all bonds between men, by declaring that State and Church alone must henceforth constitute the union between the subjects of a State—that only Church and State have the mission of watching over industrial, commercial, judiciary, artistic, and passional interests, for which men of the twelfth century had been wont to unite directly.

And who are those barbarians ? It is the State,—the Triple Alliance, constituted at last, of the military chief, the Roman judge, and the priest, the three forming a mutual insurance for domination; the three united in one power that will command in the name of the interests of society and will crush that society.

We naturally ask ourselves how these new barbarians could get the mastery over communes, formerly so powerful. Whence did they get their strength for conquest?

That strength they first of all found in the village. As the communes of ancient Greece did not manage to abolish slavery, so the communes of the Middle Ages were not able to emancipate the peasant from serfdom at the same time that they emancipated the citizen.

It is true that nearly everywhere, at the time of his emancipation, the citizen—himself an artisan-cultivator—had tried to induce the country folk to help in his enfranchisement. During two centuries, the citizens of Italy, Spain, and Germany carried on a stubborn war against feudal lords. Prodigies of heroism and perseverance were displayed by citizens in that war against the feudal castles. They exhausted themselves to become masters of the castles of feudalism and to cut down the feudal forest that enveloped them. But they only half succeeded. Then, tired of war, they made peace over the head of the peasant. To buy peace they delivered the peasant up to the lord, outside the territory conquered by the commune. In Italy and Germany they even ended by recognizing the lord as fellow citizen on condition that he should reside within the commune; in other parts they ended by sharing his domination over the peasant. And the lord avenged himself on these common people, whom he hated and despised, by drenching their streets in blood during the struggles of noble families and acts of revenge that were not carried before communal judges and syndics, whom the nobles despised, but were settled by the sword in the street.

The nobles demoralised the towns by their munificence, their intrigues, their great style of living, by their education received at the bishop's or the king's court. They made the citizens espouse their family struggles. And the citizen ended by imitating the lord, and became a lord in his turn, enriching himself, he too, by the labor of serfs encamped in the villages outside the city walls. After which the peasant lent assistance to nascent kings, emperors, tsars, and popes, when they began to build their kingdoms and to bring the towns under subjection. When not marching by their orders, the peasant left them free to act.

It is in the country, in fortified castles, situated in the midst of rural populations, that royalty was slowly constituted. In the twelfth century it existed but in name, and to-day we know what to think of the rogues, chiefs of little bands of brigands, who adorned themselves with the title of king, which after all (as Augustin Thierry has so well demonstrated) had very little meaning at that time; in fact, the Norse fishermen had their "Nets' Kings," and even the beggars had their "Kings"—the word having then simply the signification of "temporary leader."

Slowly, tentatively, a baron more powerful or more cunning than the others succeeded here and there in rising above the rest. The Church no doubt bestirred itself to support him. And by force, cunning, money, sword, and even poison in case of need, one of these feudal barons would become great at the expense of the others. But it was never in the free cities, which had their noisy forum, their Tarpeian rock, or their river for the tyrants, that royal authority succeeded in constituting itself; it was always in the country, in the village.

After having vainly tried to constitute this authority in Rheims or in Lyons, it was established in Paris,—an agglomeration of villages and boroughs surrounded by a rich country, which had not yet known the life of free cities; it was established in Westminster, at the gates of populous London City; it was established in the Kremlin, built in the midst of rich villages on the banks of the Moskva, after having failed at Souzdal and Vladimir. But never in Novgorod or Pskov, in Nuremberg or Florence, could royal authority be consolidated.

The neighboring peasants supplied them with grain, horses, and men; and commerce—royal, not communal—increased the wealth of the growing tyrants. The Church looked after their interests. It protected them, came to their succour with its treasure chests; it invented a saint and miracles for their royal town. It encircled with its veneration Notre-Dame of Paris or the Virgin of Iberia at Moscow. And while the civilization of free cities, emancipated from the bishops, took its youthful bound, the Church worked steadily to reconstitute its authority by the intermediary of nascent royalty; it surrounded with its tender care, its incense, and its ducats, the family cradle of the one whom it had finally chosen, in order to rebuild with him, and through him, the ecclesiastical authority. In Paris, Moscow, Madrid, and Prague you see the Church bending over the royal cradle, a lighted torch in its hand.

Hard at work, strong in its State education, leaning on the man of will or cunning whom it sought out in any class of society, learned in intrigue as well as in Roman and Byzantine law, you see the Church marching without respite towards its ideal: the Hebrew King, absolute, but obeying the high priest—the simple secular arm of ecclesiastical power.

In the sixteenth century the long work of the two conspirators is already in force. A king already rules over the barons, his rivals, and that force will alight on the free cities to crush them in their turn.

Besides, the towns of the sixteenth century were not what they were in the twelfth, thirteenth, or fourteenth centuries.

They were born out of libertarian revolution. But they had not the courage to extend their ideas of equality, either to the neighboring rural districts or even to those citizens who had later on established themselves in their enclosures, refuges of liberty, there to create industrial arts. A distinction between the old families who had made the revolution of the twelfth century—or curtly, "the families"—and the others who established themselves later on in the city, is to be met with in all towns. The old "Merchant Guild" had no desire to receive the new-comers. It refused to incorporate the "young arts" for commerce. And from simple clerk of the city it became the go-between, the intermediary, who enriched itself by distant commerce, and who imported oriental ostentation. Later on the "Merchant Guild" allied itself to the lord and the priest, or it went and sought the support of the nascent king, to maintain its monopoly, its right to enrichment. Having thus become personal instead of communal, commerce killed the free city.

Besides, the guilds of ancient trades, of which the city and its government were composed at the outset, would not recognise the same rights to the young guilds, formed later on by the younger trades. These had to conquer their rights by a revolution. And that is what they did everywhere. But while that revolution became, in most large cities, the starting of a renewal of life and arts (this is well seen in Florence), in other cities it ended in the victory of the richer orders over the poorer ones—of the "fat people" (popolo grasso) over the "low people" (popolo basso)—in a despotic crushing of the masses, in numberless transportations and executions, especially when lords and priests took part in it.

And—need we say it?—it was "the defence of the poorer orders" that the king, who had received Macchiavelli's lessons, took later on as a pretext when he came to knock at the gates of the free cities!

And then the cities had to die, because the ideas themselves of men had changed. The teaching of canonical and Roman law had perverted them.

The European of the twelfth century was essentially a federalist;—a man of free initiative, of free agreement, of unions freely consented to. He saw in the individual the starting point of all society. He did not seek salvation in obedience; he did not ask for a savior of society. The idea of Christian or Roman discipline was unknown to him.

But under the influence of the Christian Church, always fond of authority, always zealous to impose its rule on the souls and especially on the arms of the faithful; and on the other hand, under the influence of Roman law, which already, since the twelfth century, invaded the courts of the powerful lords, the kings, and the popes, and soon became a favorite study in the universities,—under the influence of these two teachings, which agreed so well although they were enemies at the beginning, the minds of men grew depraved in proportion as priest and legist triumphed.

Men became enamored of authority. If a revolution of the lower trades was accomplished in a commune, the commune called in a savior. It gave itself a dictator, a municipal Cæsar, and it endowed him with full powers to exterminate the opposite party. And the dictator profited by it, with all the refinement of cruelty that the Church or the examples which were brought from the despotic kingdoms of the East inspired him with.

The Church, of course, supported that Cæsar. Had it not always dreamt of the biblical king, who kneels before the high priest and is his docile tool? Had it not, with all its might, hated the ideas of rationalism which inspired the free towns during the first Renaissance,—that of the twelfth century,—as also those "pagan" ideas which brought man back to Nature under the influence of the rediscovery of Greek civilisation; as also, later on, those ideas which in the name of primitive Christianity incited men against the pope, the priest, and faith in general? Fire, wheel, gibbet—these weapons so dear to the Church in all times—were put into play against those heretics. And whoever was the tool,—pope, king, or dictator,—it was of little importance to the Church, so long as the wheel and the gibbet worked against heretics.

And under the twofold teaching of the Roman legist and the priest, the old federalist spirit, the spirit of free initiative and free agreement, was dying out to make room for the spirit of discipline, organisation, and pyramidal anthority. The rich and the poor alike asked for a savior.

And when the savior presented himself,—when the king, who had become enriched far from the forum's tumult, in some town of his creation, leaning on the wealthy Church, and followed by vanquished nobles and peasants,—when the king knocked at the city gates, promising the "lower orders" his mighty protection against the rich and the obedient rich his protection against the revolting poor, then the towns, which themselves were already undermined by the canker of authority, had no longer the strength to resist. They opened their gates to the king.

And then the Mongols had conquered and devastated eastern Europe in the thirteenth century, and an empire was springing up out there in Moscow, under the protection of the Tartar Khans and the Russian Christian Church. The Turks had come and settled in Europe, and pushed as far as Vienna in 1453, devastating everything on their path; and powerful States were being constituted in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, and in the centre of Europe. While at the other extremity, the war of extermination against the Moors in Spain allowed of another powerful empire to constitute itself in Castille and Aragon, supported by the Roman Church and the Inquisition—the sword and the stake.

As the communes themselves were becoming little States, these little States were inevitably doomed to be swallowed up by the big ones.


The victory of the State over the communes and the federalist institutions of the Middle Ages did not take place straightway. At one time the State was so threatened that its victory seemed doubtful.

A great popular movement, religious in form and expression, but eminently communistic in its aspirations and striving at equality, originated in the towns and rural parts of central Europe.

Already in the fourteenth century (in 1358 in France and 1381 in England) two great similar movements had taken place. Two powerful revolts, that of the Jacquerie and that of Wat Tyler, had shaken society to its foundations. Both, however, had been principally directed against the feudal lords. Both were defeated; but the peasant revolt in England completely put an end to serfdom, and the Jacquerie in France so checked it in its development that henceforth the institution of serfdom could only vegetate, without ever attaining the development it subsequently attained in Germany and in eastern Europe.

Now, in the sixteenth century a similar movement took place in central Europe. Under the name of "Hussite" in Bohemia, "Anabaptist" in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and of "Troubled Times" in Russia (at the beginning of the next century), it was over and above a struggle against feudal lords—it was a complete revolt against Church and State, against Canonic and Roman law, in the name of primitive Christianity.

This movement, which is only just beginning to be understood, was for many years travestied by State and ecclesiastical historians.

The absolute liberty of the individual—who must only obey the commandments of his conscience—and Communism were the watchwords of this revolt. And it was only later, when Church and State succeeded in exterminating its most ardent defenders, and juggled with it to their own profit, that this movement, diminished and deprived of its revolutionary character, became Luther's Reformation.

It began by Communist Anarchism, preached and in some places practised. And if we set aside the religious formulæ, which are a tribute to that epoch, we find in it the very essence of the current of ideas which Anarchism represents today: the negation of all law. State or divine, the conscience of each individual being his one and only law; the commune, absolute master of its destinies, retaking its lands from feudal lords, and refusing all personal or monetary service to the State; in fact. Communism and equality put into practice. Moreover, when Denck, one of the philosophers of the Anabaptist movement, was asked if he did not at least recognise the authority of the Bible, he answered that the only obligatory rule of conduct is the one that each individual finds, for himself, in the Bible. And yet these very formulæ, so vague, borrowed from ecclesiastical slangs this authority of "the book" from which it is so easy to borrow arguments for and against Communism, for and against authority, and so uncertain when it comes clearly to define what liberty is, these very religious tendencies of the revolt,—did they not already contain the germ of an unavoidable defeat?

Originating in towns, the movement soon spread to the country. The peasants refused to obey anybody, and planting an old shoe on a pike by way of a flag they took back the lands which the lords had seized from the village communities; they broke their bonds of serfdom, drove away priest and judge, and constituted themselves into free communes. And it was only by the stake, the wheel, and the gibbet, it was only by the massacre of more than a hundred thousand peasants in a few years, that royal or imperial power, allied to the papal or reformed church (Luther inciting to massacre peasants more violently even than the Pope), put an end to these risings that had for a moment threatened the constitution of nascent States.

Born of popular Anabaptism, the Lutheran Reformation, leaning on the State, massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it originally had derived its strength. The survivors of this immense wave of thought took refuge in the communities of the "Moravian Brothers," who, in their turn, were destroyed by Church and State. Those among them who were not exterminated sought shelter, some in the south-east of Russia, others in Greenland, where to this day they have been able to live in communities and to refuse all service to the State.

Henceforth, the State's existence was secure. The lawyer, the priest, and the soldier-lord, having constituted a solid alliance around the thrones, could carry on their work of annihilation.

Have we not all learned at school that the State rendered great service in constituting national unions on the ruins of feudal society,—unions made impracticable in earlier times by the rivalry of cities? We have all learned it in school and we have all believed it in manhood.

And nevertheless to-day we learn that, in spite of all rivalries, mediæval cities had already worked during four centuries to constitute these unions by federation, freely consented to, and that they had fully succeeded in that work of consolidation.

The Lombard Union, for example, included the cities of upper Italy and had its federal treasury in safe keeping in Genoa and Venice. Other federations, such as the Tuscan Union, the Rhenan Union (comprising sixty towns), the federations of Westphalia, of Bohemia, of Servia, of Poland, and of Russian towns, covered Europe. At the same time, the commercial union of the Hansa included Scandinavian, German, Polish, and Russian towns throughout the basin of the Baltic.

All the elements, as well as the fact itself, of large human agglomerations, freely constituted, were there already.

Do you wish for a living proof of these groups? You have it in Switzerland. There the union asserted itself first between village communes (the old cantons), in the same way that it was constituted in France in the Laonnais. And as in Switzerland the separation between town and village was never so great as it was for towns carrying on an extensive and distant commerce, the Swiss towns lent a hand to the peasant insurrections of the sixteenth century, and the union encompassed both towns and villages and constituted a federation that still exists to-day.

But the State, by its very essence, cannot tolerate free federation; because the latter represents that nightmare of the legist, "the State within the State." The State does not recognize a freely adopted union working within itself. It only deals with subjects. The State alone, and its prop the Church, arrogate to themselves the right of being the connecting link between men.

Consequently the State must perforce annihilate cities based on direct union between citizens. It must abolish all union in the city, abolish the city itself, abolish all direct union between cities. For the federative principle it must substitute the principle of submission and discipline. Submission is its substance. Without this principle it leaves off being the State; it becomes a federation.

And the sixteenth century—century of carnage and wars—is entirely summed up in this war waged by the growing States against the cities and the federations. The towns are besieged, taken by assault, pillaged; their inhabitants are decimated or transported. The State is victorious all along the line.

And the consequences are these.

In the fifteenth century Europe was covered by rich cities, whose artisans, masons, weavers, and carvers produced marvels of art, whose universities laid the foundation of science, whose caravans travelled over continents, and whose vessels ploughed rivers and seas.

What was left of them two centuries later? Towns that had numbered fifty or a hundred thousand inhabitants and that had possessed (it was so in Florence) more schools and, in the communal hospitals, more beds per inhabitant than are possessed to-day by the towns best endowed in this respect, had become rotten boroughs. Their inhabitants having been massacred or transported, the State and Church were seizing their riches. Industry was fading under the minute tutelage of State officials. Commerce was dead. The very roads that formerly united the cities had become absolutely impracticable in the seventeenth century.

The State spelt warfare, and wars were devastating Europe and completing the ruin of those towns which the State had not yet ruined direct. But had not the villages, at least, gained by State centralisation? Certainly not! Read what historians tell us about the style of living in the rural districts of Scotland, Tuscany, and Germany in the fourteenth century, and compare their descriptions of that time with the misery of England at the beginning of 1648, in France under the "sun-king" Louis XIV, in Germany, in Italy, everywhere, after a hundred years of State domination.

Misery everywhere! All unanimously recognize it and point it out. Wherever serfdom had been abolished it was reconstituted in a hundred different forms; wherever it had not yet been destroyed it was shaped, under State protection, into a ferocious institution bearing all the characteristics of antique slavery, or even worse.

And could anything else evolve out of this State-produced misery, the State's chief anxiety being to annihilate the village community after the town, to destroy all bonds existing between peasants, to give over their lands to be pillaged by the rich, and to subject them, each individually, to the functionary, the priest and the lord?


To annihilate the independence of cities; to plunder merchants' and artisans' rich guilds; to centralise the foreign trade of cities into its hands and ruin it; to seize the internal administration of guilds, and subject home trade, as well as all manufactures, even in the slightest detail, to a swarm of functionaries, and by these means kill both industry and arts; to seize upon local militias and all municipal administration; to crush the weak by taxation for the benefit of the strong; and to ruin countries by war,—such was the nascent State's behavior towards urban agglomerations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The same tactics were evidently employed towards villages and peasants. As soon as the State felt itself strong enough, it destroyed the village commune, ruined the peasants committed to its mercy, and plundered the common lands.

Historians and economists paid by the State have taught us that the village commune, having become an obsolete form of land-ownership obstructing agricultural progress, was bound to disappear by the action of natural economic forces. Politicians and bourgeois economists do not tire of repeating this even nowadays, and there are revolutionists and socialists (those who pretend to be scientific) who recite this fable learned in school.

Yet a more odious falsehood has never been affirmed by science. A deliberate falsehood, for history swarms with documents amply proving to those who wish to know (in the case of France it would almost suffice to read Dalloz) that the village commune was first of all deprived by the State of its privileges, of its independence, of its juridical and legislative powers; and that later on its lands were either simply stolen by the rich under State protection, or else confiscated by the State itself.

Plundering began as early as the sixteenth century in France, and grew apace in the following century. As early as 1659 the State took the communes under its superior protection, and we need only read Louis XIV’s edict of 1667 to learn what plundering of common lands took place at that period. " Men have taken possession of lands when it suited them.… Lands have been divided.… In order to plunder the communes fictitious debts have been devised." So said the "Sun-King" in this edict,—and two years later he confiscated for his own benefit all the revenues of the communes. This is what is called in scientific language a "natural death."

In the following century it is estimated that at least half the communal lands were simply appropriated by the aristocracy and the clergy under State patronage. And yet communes continued to exist till 1787. The village council met under the elm, granted lands, and appointed taxes—the documents relating to this are to be found in Babeau (Le village sous l’ancien régime), Turgot, in the province of which he was governor, found the village councils "too noisy" and abolished them during his governorship, substituting for them assemblies elected among the well-to-do of the village. In 1787, on the eve of the Revolution, the State made this measure general in its application. The mir was abolished, and thus communal affairs fell into the hands of a few syndics, elected by the richest bourgeois and peasants. The "Constituante" sanctioned this law in December, 1789; and the bourgeois, substituting themselves for the nobles, plundered what remained of communal lands. Many a peasant revolt was necessary to force the Convention in 1792 to sanction what the rebellious peasants had accomplished in the eastern part of France. That is to say, the Convention ordered the restitution of communal lands to the peasants. This only took place there, when the land had already been retaken by revolutionary means. It is the fate of all revolutionary laws to be put into action when they are already an accomplished fact.

Nevertheless the Convention tainted this law with bourgeois gall. It decreed that lands retaken from nobles should be divided into equal parts among "active citizens" only,—that is to say, among the village bourgeois. By one stroke of the pen it thus dispossessed "passive citizens,"—that is to say, the mass of impoverished peasants, who had most need of these communal lands. Upon which, fortunately, the peasants again revolted, and in 1793 the Convention passed a new law decreeing the division of communal lands among all inhabitants. This was never put into practice, and only served as an excuse for new thefts of communal lands.

Would not such measures suffice to bring about what is called the "natural death" of communes? Yet communes still existed. On August 24, 1794, the reaction, being in power, struck the final blow. The State confiscated all communal lands, and made of them a guarantee fund for the public debt, putting them up at auction and selling them to its creatures the "Thermidorians."

This law was happily repealed after being in force three years. But, at the same time, communes were abolished, and replaced by cantonal councils in order that the State might the more easily fill them with its creatures. This lasted till 1801, when village communes were revived. But then the government took it upon itself to appoint mayors and syndics in each of the 36,000 communes! And this absurdity lasted till the revolution of July, 1830, after which the law of 1789 was again put into force. And in the interval communal lands were again wholly confiscated by the State in 1818, and plundered anew during three years. What remained of them was only returned to the communes at the end of that period, in 1816.

This was by no means the end. Every new régime saw in communal lands a source of reward for its supporters. Therefore at three different intervals since 1880, the first time in 1837 and the last under Napoleon III, laws were promulgated to force peasants to divide what they possessed of forests and common pasture-lands; and three times the government was compelled to abrogate this law on account of the peasants' resistance. All the same, Napoleon the Third was able to profit by it and bag several large estates for his favorites.

These are facts; and this is what, in scientific language, is called the "natural death" of the communal landed property under the influence of economic laws! As well call the massacre of a hundred thousand soldiers on a battlefield "natural death."

What happened in France happened also in Belgium, England, Germany, Austria,—in fact everywhere in Europe, Slav countries excepted.

Strange that the periods of plundering the communes should correspond in all Western Europe! The methods alone vary. Thus in England those in power did not dare to enact sweeping measures; they preferred passing several thousands of separate "enclosure acts" by which, in each special case. Parliament sanctioned the confiscation of land—it does so still—and gave to the squire the right of keeping common lands he had fenced in. And notwithstanding that Nature has ever since respected the narrow furrows by which communal fields were temporarily divided among families in the villages of England, and that we have clear descriptions of this form of landed property at the beginning of the century in the books of a certain Marshall, scientific men (such as Seebohm, worthy emulator of Fustel de Coulanges) are not wanting to maintain and teach that communes have never existed in England save in the form of serfdom!

We find the same thing going on in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Spain. And in one way or another personal appropriation of lands formerly communal was almost brought to completion towards the middle of this century. Peasants have only kept scraps of their common lands. This is the way in which the mutual assurance of lord, priest, soldier, and judge—the State—has behaved toward peasants in order to despoil them of their last guarantee against misery and economic servitude.

But while organising and sanctioning this plunder, could the State respect the institution of the commune as an organ of local life? Evidently not.

To allow citizens to constitute a federation among themselves in order to appropriate some functions of the State would have been a contradiction of principle. The State demands personal and direct submission of its subjects without intermediate agents; it requires equality in servitude; it cannot allow "the State within the State."

Therefore as soon as the State began to constitute itself in the sixteenth century it set to work to destroy all bonds of union that existed among citizens, both in towns and villages. If under the name of municipal institutions it tolerated any vestiges of autonomy—never of independence—it was only with a fiscal aim to lighten the central budget as far as possible; or else to allow the provincial well-to-do to enrich themselves at the people's expense, as was the case in England, and is so still in institutions and in customs.

This is easily understood. Customary law naturally pertains to local life, and Roman law to centralisation of power. The two cannot live side by side, and the one must kill the other.

That is why under French rule in Algeria, when a Kabyle djemmah—a village commune—wants to plead for its lands, every inhabitant of the commune must bring his isolated action before the judge, who will hear fifty or even two hundred isolated actions sooner than hear the collective suit of the djemmah. The Jacobin code of the Convention (known under the name of Code Napoleon) does not recognize customary law, it only recognizes Roman or rather Byzantine law.

That is why in France when the wind blows down a tree on the national highway, or a peasant gives a stonebreaker two or three francs in preference to the unpleasant task of repairing the communal road himself, it is necessary for twelve or fifteen employees of the Home Office and Treasury to be put in motion, and for more than fifty documents to be exchanged between these austere functionaries, before the tree can be sold or the peasant receives permission to deposit two or three francs into the communal treasury. Should you have any doubts about this, you will find these fifty documents recapitulated and duly numbered by M. Tricoche in the Journal des Economistes.

This under the Third Republic, be it understood; for I do not speak of the barbarous methods of the ancient régime, that limited itself to five or six documents. No doubt scientists will tell you that at that barbarous period State control was only fictitious.

And if it were only this! After all, it would be but twenty thousand functionaries too many, and a thousand million francs more added to the budget. A detail for the lovers of "order" and levelling!

But there is worse at the bottom of all this. The principle kills everything.

The peasants of a village have a thousand interests in common: interests of economy, neighborhood, and constant intercourse. They are perforce compelled to unite for a thousand divers things. But the State cannot allow them to unite. It gives them school and priest, police and judge; that must suffice them, and should other interests arise they must apply in the regular way to Church and State.

Thus till 1888 it was severely forbidden to the villagers of France to unite, were it only to buy chemical manure or to irrigate their fields. It was only in 1888 that the Republic granted this right to peasants when it voted the law on unions, hampered by many a precaution and obstacle.

And we with our faculties blunted by State education rejoice at the sudden progress accomplished by agricultural syndicates, without blushing at the fact that this right of union of which peasants were deprived for centuries belonged to them without contention in the Middle Ages,—belonged to every man, free or serf. Slaves that we are, we believe it to be a "conquest of democracy"!


"If you have any common interests in the city or the village, ask the Church and the State to look after them. But you are forbidden to combine in a direct way to settle matters for yourself!" Such is the formula reëchoing through-out Europe since the sixteenth century. Already in an edict of Edward III, issued at the end of the fourteenth century, we read that "all unions, combinations, meetings, organised societies, statutes, and oaths already established or to be established by carpenters and masons, will henceforth be null and void." But when the defeat of the towns and of the popular insurrection of which we have spoken was completed, the State boldly laid hands on all the institutions (guilds, fraternities, etc.) which used to bind artisans and peasants together, and annihilated them.

This is plainly seen in England, where a mass of documents exists showing every step of that annihilation. Little by little the State laid hands on all guilds and fraternities. It pressed them closely, abolished their leagues, their festivals, their aldermen, and replaced these by its own functionaries and tribunals; and at the beginning of the fifteenth century, under Henry VIII, the State simply confiscated everything possessed by the guilds without further ado. The heir to the great protestant king finished his father's work.[2]

It was robbery carried on in open daylight, "without excuse" as Thorold Rogers has so well put it. And it is this robbery which the so-called scientific economists represent as the "natural death" of the guilds under the influence of economic laws!

In truth, was it possible for the State to tolerate a guild or corporation of a trade, with its tribunal, its militia, its treasury, its sworn organisation? For the statesmen this was "a State within the State." The State was bound to destroy the guilds and it destroyed it everywhere: in England, in France, in Germany, in Bohemia, preserving only the semblance of the guild as an instrument of the exchequer, as a part of the vast administrative machine.

And should we be astonished that guilds, trade-unions, and wardenships, deprived of everything that was formerly their life and placed under royal functionaries, became in the eighteenth century nought but encumbrances and obstacles to the development of industry, after having been the very life of progress four centuries before? The State had killed them. In fact it did not content itself with destroying the autonomous organisation which was necessary for the very life of the guilds and impeded the encroachments of the State; it did not content itself with confiscating all riches and property of the guilds: it appropriated for itself all their economical functions as well.

In a city of the Middle Ages, when interests conflicted in a trade, or when two guilds disagreed, there was no other appeal than to the city. They were forced to settle matters, to find some compromise, as all guilds were mutually allied in the city. And a compromise was always arrived at,—by calling in another city to arbitrate, if necessary. Henceforth, however, the only arbitrator was the State. All local disputes, sometimes of the most insignificant kind, in the smallest town of a few hundred inhabitants, had to be piled up in the shape of useless documents in the offices of king and parliament. We see the English parliament literally inundated with these thousands of petty local squabbles. It then becomes necessary to have in the capital thousands of functionaries (venal for the greater part) to classify, read, judge all these documents, to pass judgment on every detail: to regulate the way to forge a horseshoe, bleach linen, salt herrings, make a barrel, and so on ad infinitum,—and the tide still rose!

But this was not all. Soon the State laid hands on exportation. It saw in this commerce a means of enrichment, and seized upon it. Formerly, when a dispute arose between two towns about the value of exported cloth, the purity of wool, or the capacity of barrels of herrings, the two towns made remonstrances to each other. If the dispute lasted long, they addressed themselves to a third town to step in as arbitrator (this happened constantly); or else a congress of guilds of weavers and coopers was convened to regulate internationally the quality and value of cloth or the capacity of barrels.

Now, however, the State had stepped in and taken upon itself to regulate all these contentions from the centre, in Paris or in London. Through its functionaries it regulated the capacity of barrels, specified the quality of cloth, ordered the number of threads and their thickness in the warp and the woof, and interfered in the smallest details of each industry.

You know the result. Industry under this control was dying out in the eighteenth century.

What had in fact become of Benvenuto Cellini's art under State tutelage? Vanished. And the architecture of those guilds of masons and carpenters whose works of art we still admire? Only look at the hideous monuments of the State period, and at one glance you will know that architecture was dead, so dead that it has never since been able to recover from the blow dealt it by the State.

What became of the fabrics of Bruges, of the cloth from Holland? What became of those blacksmiths, so skilled in manipulating iron, who, in each European borough, knew how to turn that ungrateful metal into the most exquisite decorations? What became of those turners, those clock-makers, those fitters, who had made Nuremberg one of the glories of the Middle Ages by their instruments of precision? Speak of them to James Watt, who for his steam engine looked in vain during thirty years for a man who could make a fairly round cylinder, and whose machine remained thirty years a rough model for want of workmen to construct it!

Such was the result of State interference in the domain of industry. All that the State managed to do was to tighten the screw on the worker, depopulate the land, sow misery in the towns, reduce thousands of beings to the state of starvelings, and impose industrial slavery.

And it is these miserable wrecks of ancient guilds, these organisms mangled and oppressed by the State, that "scientific" economists have the ignorance to confound with the guilds of the Middle Ages! What the great Revolution swept away as harmful to industry was not the guild, or even the trade union; it was a piece of machinery both useless and harmful. *********


History has not been an uninterrupted evolution. At different intervals evolution has been broken in a certain region, to begin again elsewhere. Egypt, Asia, the banks of the Mediterranean, Central Europe have in turn been the scene of historical developments. But, in every case, the first phase of the evolution has been the primitive tribe, passing on into a village commune, then into the free city, and finally dying out when it reaches the phase of the State.

In Egypt, civilization began by the primitive tribe. It reached the village community phasis, and later on the period of free cities; still later that of the State, which, after a flourishing period, resulted in the death of the country. The evolution began again in Assyria, in Persia, in Palestine. Again it traversed the same path: the tribe, the village community, the free city, the all-powerful State; and finally the result was—death!

A new civilization then sprang up in Greece. Always beginning by the tribe, it slowly reached the village commune, then the period of republican cities. In these cities, civilization reached its highest summits. But the East brought to them its poisoned breath, its traditions of despotism. Wars and conquests created Alexander's empire of Macedonia. The State enthroned itself, killed all civilization, and then came—death!

Rome in its turn restored civilization. Again we find the primitive tribe at its origin, then the village commune, then the free city. At that stage it reached the apex of its civilization. But then came the State, the Empire, and then—death!

On the ruins of the Roman Empire, Celtic, Germanic, Slavonian, and Scandinavian tribes began civilization anew. Slowly the primitive tribe elaborated its institutions and reached the village commune. It remained at that stage till the twelfth century. Then rose the Republican cities which produced the glorious expansion of the human mind, attested by the monuments of architecture, the grand development of arts, the discoveries that laid the basis of natural sciences. But then came the State.

Will it again produce death? Of course it will, unless we reconstitute Society on a libertarian and anti-State basis. Either the State will be destroyed and a new life will begin in thousands of centres, on the principle of an energetic initiative of the individual, of groups, and of free agreement; or else the State must crush the individual and local life, it must become the master of all the domains of human activity, must bring with it its wars and internal struggles for the possession of power, its surface-revolutions which only change one tyrant for another, and inevitably at the end of this evolution—death!

Choose yourselves which of the two issues yon prefer.

  1. Published in 1898. The text used here is that of the edition issued in two-penny tract form from the office of "Freedom," London. It is evidently a translation from the French, poorly done and wretchedly printed; for the present purpose it has undergone careful and thorough revision. A few passages more particularly propagandistic than historical in substance, amounting altogether to perhaps one-seventh of the entire essay, are omitted here.
  2. See Toulmin Smith's work on Guilds.