Its Historic Role


Fourth Edition


^ Freedom Press, 127 Ossulston Street, N.W,



(A lecture which should have been delivered in Paris, on March 7, 1S96.

in the Mille Colo-anes Hall.)


IN taking as subject for this lecture the State arid the part it played in history I thought it would respond to a need which is greatly felt at this moment: that of thoroughly examining the very idea of the State, of studying its essence, its role in the past, and the part it may be called upon to play in the future.

It is especially on the "State" question that Socialists are divided. Amidst the number of fractions existing among us and corresponding to different temperaments, to different ways of thinking, and especially to the degree of confidence in tho coming Revolution, two main currents

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can be traced.

On the one hand, there are those who hope to accomplish the Social Revolution by means of the State : by upholding most of its functions, by even extending them and making use of them for the Revolution. And there are those who, liko us, see in the State, not only in its actual form and in all forms that it might assume, but in its very essence, an obstacle to the Social Revolution : the most serious hindrance to the budding of a society based on equality and liberty ; the historic form elaborated to impede this budding—and who consequently work to abolish the State, and not to reform it.

The division, as you see, is deep. It corresponds to two divergent currents which clash in all philosophy, literature, and action of our times. And if the prevalent notions about the State remain as obscure as they are today, it will be, without doubt, over this question that the most obstinate struggles will be entered upon, when—as I hope goon—Communist ideas will seek for their practical realisation in the life of societies.

It is therefore of consequence, after having so often criticised the present State, to seek the cause of its appearance, to investigate the part played by it in the past, to compare it with the institutions which it superseded.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 l>est German thinkers and many French ones, who cannot conceive society without State concentration ; and thence arises the habitual reproach cast on Anarchists of wanting to " destroy societyn and of " preaching the return of perpetual war of each against all."

Yet to reason thus is to entirely ignore the progress made in the domain of history during the last thirty years; it is to ignore 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 the 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. As there can be no State without government, it has been sometimes said that it is tho absence of government, and not the abolition of the State, that should be the aim.

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 concemi/ra-tion 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 porhaps escapes notice at first sight, appears clearly when tho origin of the State is studied.

To really 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 endeavour to do.

The Roman Empire was a State in the true sense of the word. Up till now it is the ideal of the 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 Ceesar, the omnipotent, omniscient, the god of the Empire. Every province, every district had its miniature Capitol, its little share of Roman sovereignty to direct its whole life. One law, the law im-. posed by Rome, governed the Empire; and that Empire did not represent a confederation of citizens: it was only a flock of subject*.

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 to day.

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 1>etter than we should have done, if we had launched ourselves in the study of the Roman Empire, or 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 up till now impersonated the noble part of salt of the earth, of pacifiei-s and civiliseis c/ humanity?

This conception, which was born at a time when little was knowv. about the origin of man, prevailed in the last century; and we must say that in the hands of the encyclopedists and of Rousseau, the idea of a "social contract" became a powerful weapon with which to fight royalty and divine right. Xovertheless, 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 who are not. In every class of animals they occupy the top of the ladder, and there cannot be the least doubt that the fixrt beings of human aspect already lived in societies. Man did not create society; society is anterior to man.

We also know today—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 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 divers generations, while they were freely practised 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, the customs, the superstitions of nations who were far more advanced in civilisation.

The whole tribe hunted and hurvested in common, and when they were satisfied tht*y 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.

Tho accumulation of private property could not take place, because each thing that had been the personal property of a member of tho tribe was destroyed or burned on the spot where his corpse was buried. This is even still done by gipsies in England, and the funeral rites of the " civilised " still bear its traces : the Chinese burn paper models of what lhe dead possessed ; and we lead the military chief's horse, and carry liis 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 itself was a deed absolutely tin-k>wwn\ you may see it till now, among the Inoits or Esquimaux—thoee survivors of the stone age that inhabit the Arctic regions. But when tribes of different origin, colour, or tongue met during their migrations,

war was often the result. It is true that then already men tried to mitigate the effect of these shocks. Already then, as has so well been demonstrated by Maine, Post, Nys, tho tribes agrcod 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 giving warning to the inhabitants. Never would anyone have dared to kill on a path trodden by women going to the well. And, to come to terms, the balance of the men killed on both sides had to be paid.

However, from that time forward, a general law overruled all others :—" Your people havo 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 to maintain this kernel of social customs in force, habit, custom, tradition sufficed. There was 110 authority to impose it.

Primitive individuals had, no doubt, temporary leaders. The sorcerer, 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 endeavoured to secure their ralership by only transmitting their knowledge to tho elect. All religions, and even all arts and crafts, have begun, 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 tho 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 the Esquimaux.

This stage, however, lasted thousands upon thousands of years, and the barbarians who invaded the Koman empire had j ust 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 peoples, 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—inundated Europe, impelling one another onward, mingling with one another in their overflow towards the West.

During these migrations, whon 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 neighbouring tribes?

Ancient ties were rent asunder, and under pain of a general breakup (that took place, in fact, for many a tribe, which then disappeared from history) it was essential that new ties should spring up. And thoy sprung 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 them. •

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 become possible to reconstitutes in its entirety that form of eociety, 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 fancies; but the families of a village possessed the land in common. The y looked upon it as their common patrimony and allotted it according to the size of the families. Hundreds of millions of men live still 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 the cultivation of the land was also 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 fortlets and turrets which served as refuge in case of invasion, they were done in common—as hundreds of millions of peasants still do—wherever the village commune has resisted State encroachments. But consumption, to use a modorn expression, already took place by family—each having its own cattlo, 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 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 wo 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 to 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 of that time was literally covered, as by a network, with sworn fraternities, guilds for mutual support, "con-jura-tions," 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 tho narrow limits of his hamlet. Somo like to wander about in quest of adventures, in the capacity of merchants. Some take to a craft, "an art" of some kind. And 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 to mutually transmit the mysteries of the craft—anil they unite. They swear brotherhood, and practice it in a way that strikes Europeans: in deed and not in words only.

Besides, misfortune can overtake anyone. Who knows that tomorrow, perhaps, in a brawl, a man, gentle and peaceful as a rule, will not exceed the established limits of good behaviour 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 ; 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 havo not been perverted by the corrupted idea of a government and a church which would be 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, sofs as Kabyles call them to-day. And these sofsgo beyond the boundaries of hamlets; they flourish far out in the desert and in foreign cities; and fraternity


is practised in these unions. To refuse to help a member of your so/, 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 tnurderer of a " brother,"

What we find to-day among Kabyles, Mongols, Malays, etc., was the very essence of life of so-called barbarians in Europe from the fifth to the twelfth, even till the fifteenth century. 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 neighbourship;" for propaganda, for . everything, in a word, that the European, educated by the Rome of the Csesars and the Popes, asks of the State to-day. It is even very doubtful that 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 guild, besides his commune.

Scandinavian JSwjas sing their exploits. The devotion of sworn brothers is the theme of the most beautiful of these epical songs; wherea* the Church and tho 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 peiiod loses its significance, and becomes absolutely incomprehensible, if we do not take the fraternities into account—these unions of brothel's and sisters that spring up everywhere to satisfy the multiplo needs of both economic and emotional life of man.

Nevertheless, black spots accumulate on the horizon. Other unions —those of ruling minorities— are also formed; and they endeavour, little by little, to transform these freo 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 tranquility and peace. He fights rather by necessity than by ferooity, 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 armour (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 hardly remains an old man who in his memory keeps 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 speciality, 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 to judge 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 tho sword. Man allowed himself to be enslaved far moro 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 to the detriment of the village commune. ' A single man assumed those two functions. He surrounded himself with armed men to put his judicial decisions into execution; he fortified himself in his turret; he accumulated tho wealth of the epoch, viz. bread, cattle and iron, for his family; and little by little he forced his rule upon the neighbouring peasants. The scientific man of the age, that is to say, the witch-doctor or priest, lost no time in bringing him his support and in sharing his 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 simplo lecture, would be needed to deal thoroughly with this subject, so full of new teachings, and to tell how free men became gradually 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, against the men in armour who defended them.

Suffice it for me to say, that towards 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 w; 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 1