One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?”
There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.
I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book. Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role”
With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.
The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved, and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.
“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”
“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”
“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”
Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-
“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”
But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.
He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-
“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”
He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.
“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”
He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end, encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.
Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control, of the state.
“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”
In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.
“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”
“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”
In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.
In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.
Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .