Village Commune

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Kevin Carson:

"The village commune was, almost universally, the dominant property model in societies which, so far in human history, came closest to approximating the libertarian ideal of statelessness and voluntary association. At the highest point of human development before the rise of the state, the stateless villages and small market towns that existed in peace without paying tribute to imperial conquerors, the common ownership of land by the peasant commune was almost universal.

Communal ownership of land was the norm in the stateless village societies of the neolithic period, from the Agricultural Revolution until the rise of the first states.

The internal pattern of the village commune, wherever it was found, typically approximated the hypothetical case study of traditional tenure practices described by James Scott:

- 'Let us imagine a community in which families have usufruct rights to parcels of cropland during the main growing season. Only certain crops, however, may be planted, and every seven years the usufruct land is distributed among resident families according to each family's size and its number of able-bodied adults. After the harvest of the main-season crop, all cropland reverts to common land where any family may glean, graze their fowl and livestock, and even plant quickly maturing, dry-season crops. Rights to graze fowl and livestock on pasture-land held in common by the village is extended to all local families, but the number of animals that can be grazed is restricted according to family size, especially in dry years when forage is scarce.... Everyone has the right to gather firewood for normal family needs, and the village blacksmith and baker are given larger allotments. No commercial sale from village woodlands is permitted. Trees that have been planted and any fruit they may bear are the property of the family who planted them, no matter where they are now growing.... Land is set aside for use or leasing out by widows with children and dependents of conscripted males.... After a crop failure leading to a food shortage, many of these arrangements are readjusted. Better-off villagers are expected to assume some responsibility for poorer relatives—by sharing their land, by hiring them, or by simply feeding them. Should the shortage persist, a council composed of heads of families may inventory food supplies and begin daily rationing.'

The village commune model traced its origins, in the oldest areas of civilization, back to the beginning of the agricultural revolution, when humans first began to raise crops in permanent village settlements. Before that time, the dominant social grouping was the semi-nomadic hunter-gather group. As hunter-gatherers experimented with saving a portion of the grain they'd gathered, they became increasingly tied to permanent settlements.

In the areas where communal tenure reemerged in Dark Age Europe, after the collapse of Roman power, the village commune had its origin in the settlement of barbarian tribes. (Even in Europe, the village commune was actually the reemergence of a social unit which had previously been partly suppressed, first by the Roman Republic in Italy and later by the Empire in its areas of conquest).

In both cases, the hunter-gather group or the clan was a mobile or semi-mobile social unit based on common kinship relations. So the village commune commonly had its origins in a group of settlers who saw themselves as members of the same clan and sharing a common ancestry, who broke the land for a new agricultural settlement by their common efforts. It was not, as the modern town, a group of atomized individuals who simply happened to live in the same geographic area and had to negotiate the organization of basic public services and utilities in some manner or other. It was an organic social unit of people who saw themselves, in some sense, as related. It was a settlement by “a union between families considered as of common descent and owning a certain territory in common.” In fact, in the transition from the clan to the village community, the nucleus of a newly founded village commune was frequently a single joint household or extended family compound, sharing its hearth and livestock in common.

Even after the founding clan split apart into separate patriarchal family households and recognized the private accumulation and hereditary transmission of wealth,

-'wealth was conceived exclusively in the shape of movable property, including cattle, implements, arms, and the dwelling-house.... As to private property in land, the village community did not, and could not, recognize anything of the kind, and, as a rule, it does not recognize it now.... The clearing of the woods and the breaking of the prairies being mostly done by the communities or, at least, by the joint work of several families—always with the consent of the community—the cleared plots were held by each family for a term of four, twelve, or twenty years, after which term they were treated as parts of the arable land held in common.'

And even where a league of separate families together settled a new village, they soon developed a mythology of a common ancestor as a basis for social solidarity.10 As we shall see below, the atomized groups of landless peasants which Stolypin deported to set up new village colonies in Siberia spontaneously organized the new villages around the mir's principle of common ownership (despite Stolypin's vision of individual family farmsteads held in fee simple). The village commune was, therefore, an example of the kind of collective homesteading described above by Roderick Long. In some variations of the village commune, e.g. in India and in many of the Germanic tribes, Henry Sumner Maine argued, there was a theoretical right for an individual to sever his aliquot share of the common land from the rest and own it individually. But this was almost never done, Maine said, because it was highly impractical.

For one thing, the severance of one's patrimony in the common land from the commune was viewed as akin to divorcing oneself from an organized community and setting up the nucleus of a new community alongside (or within) it, and required some rather involved ceremonial for its legal conclusion. And the individual peasant's subsequent relations with the community, consequently, would take on the complexity and delicacy of relations between two organized societies. So many functions of the agricultural year, like plowing and harvest, were organized in part or in whole collectively, that the transaction costs entailed in organizing cooperative efforts between seceded individuals and the rest of the commune would have been well-nigh prohibitive.

When the great majority of a society considers common ownership as the normal way of doing things, and the normal method of organizing social functions presupposes that background state of affairs, even when there is no legal impediment whatsoever to an individual severing her share of property from the common there are likely to be very powerful path dependencies that make it costly and impractical to do so. A given social system, even if participation in its institutions is formally completely voluntary and there are no coercive barriers to exit, tends to function like ground cover plants that create an interlocking ecosystem and crowd out alternatives, or a forest of one species of trees that exclude other species by overshadowing.

Kropotkin summarized, in sweeping language, the universality of the village commune as a building block of society:

- 'It is now known, and scarcely contested, that the village community was not a specific feature of the Slavonians, nor even the ancient Teutons. It prevailed in England during both the Saxon and Norman times, and partially survived till the last century; it was at the bottom of the social organization of old Scotland, old Ireland, and old Wales. In France, the communal possession and the communal allotment of arable land by the village folkmote persisted from the first centuries of our era till the times of Turgot, who found the folkmotes “too noisy” and therefore abolished them. It survived Roman rule in Italy, and revived after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was the rule with the Scandinavians, the Slavonians, the Finns (in the pittaya, as also, probably, the kihla-kunta), the Coures, and the Lives. The village community in India—past and present, Aryan and non-Aryan—is well known through the epoch-making works of Sir Henry Maine; and Elphinstone has described it among the Afghans. We also find it in the Mongolian oulous, the Kabyle thaddart, the Javanese dessa, the Malayan kota or tofa, and under a variety of names in Abyssinia, the Soudan, in the interior of Africa, with natives of both Americas, with all the small and large tribes of the Pacific archipelagos. In short, we do not know one single human race or one single nation which has not had its period of village communities.... It is anterior to serfdom, and even servile submission was powerless to break it. It was a universal phase of evolution, a natural outcome of the clan organization, with all those stems, at least, which have played, or play still, some part in history.'

We see a version of this communal ownership in the Jubilee system of Israel, as it was later idealized in the Mosaic Law by the priestly and deuteronomic redactors of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and had actually existed to a greater or lesser degree in the period of the Judges. The ultimate ownership of land lay with the tribe, clan and family—to whom it reverted in the Jubilee year (every forty-ninth or fiftieth year—there's some scholarly dispute). Sales of land were actually long-term leases, with the price discounted depending on how many years it was until Jubilee. Among the customary by-laws regulating individual and family possessions was the allowance of gleaning. It's likely that the Biblical accounts of a revelation from Mount Sinai performed a function similar to that of the totemic ancestor as a legitimization of communal ownership, legitimizing a Bronze Age society that predated the Torah. At the time of the Judges, even the so-called J and E documents likely existed as nothing but epic poetry preserved in oral form, with the tribes of Israel existing as an amphictyonic league centered on Bethel or Shiloh.

The prophet Isaiah wrote in reference to land “privatization” (i.e. enclosure) in violation of the law of Jubilee by the landed oligarchy, in this passage from the Bible: “Woe unto them who join house to house, who lay field to field, till there is no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!” (Isaiah 5:8) An English encloser, Lord Leicester, later said in quite similar language: “It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one's country. I look around, and not a house is to be seen but mine. I am the giant of Giant Castle, and have eaten up all my neighbours.”

Henry Sumner Maine, writing in the nineteenth century, pointed to the village communes of India as the most faithful surviving version of what had once been an institution common to all the branches of the Indo-European family.

- 'The Village Community of India is at once an organised patriarchal society and an assemblage of coproprietors. The personal relations to each other of the men who compose it are indistinguishably confounded with their proprietary rights, and to the attempts of English functionaries to separate the two may be assigned some of the most formidable miscarriages of Anglo-Indian administration. The Village Community is known to be of immense antiquity. In whatever direction research has been pushed into Indian history, general or local, it has always found the Community in existence at the farthest point of its progress.... Conquests and revolutions seem to have swept over it without disturbing or displacing it, and the most beneficent systems of government in India have always been those which have recognised it as the basis of administration.'

Like Kropotkin, Maine saw the village commune's joint ownership of land as rooted in its origin from a group of families sharing common descent. “[T]he simplest form of an Indian Village Community,” he wrote, is just such “a body of kindred holding a domain in common...” Although this process of formation of a Village Community from an extended body of kindred comprising several related families “may be regarded as typical,” there were many exceptions. Even in villages founded by “a single assemblage of blood-relations,” nevertheless “men of alien extraction have always, from time to time, been engrafted on it” and “admitted to the brotherhood.” And there were also villages which “appear to have sprung not from one but from two or more families; and there are some whose composition is known to be entirely artificial...” Even so, all such villages have created a myth of “an original parentage,” even when the “assumption of common origin... [is] sometimes notoriously at variance with fact....” The village operated on the fiction of common origin, being either an “assemblage of blood relations” or “a body of co-proprietors formed on the model of an association of kinsmen.”

As Maine's reference to the administration of India suggests, the village commune continued in widespread existence even after the rise of the state, amounting internally to a stateless society with a parasitic layer of kings, priests, bureaucrats and feudal landlords superimposed on it. The village commune was “under the dominion of comparatively powerful kings” who exacted tribute and conscripted soldiers from it, “bud did not otherwise meddle with the cultivating societies.”19 The state's relationship to the governed was through the village as a unit, rather than the exercise of regulatory authority over relations between individuals.

In Russia, Maine saw the enactment of serfdom under the tsars as an imposition upon a preexisting social system: namely, “the ancient organisation of the village.”

Where the village commune persisted, the state had little or no direct dealings with individuals. It dealt with the peasantry only collectively, through the commune.

The premodern and early modern state... dealt more with communities than with individuals when it came to taxes. Some apparently individual taxes, such as the notorious Russian “soul tax,” which was collected from all subjects, were actually paid directly by the communities or indirectly through the nobles whose subjects they were. Failure to deliver the required sum usually led to collective punishment. The only agents of taxation who regularly reached to the level of the household and its cultivated fields were the local nobility and clergy in the course of collecting feudal dues and the religious tithe. For its part, the state had neither the administrative tools nor the information to penetrate to this level.

In such cases the commune functioned internally much as it had before the rise of the state, allotting land and mediating disputes among the families, with the additional functions of handling relations with the state collectively when a member of the commune was charged with violating one of the state's laws and assessing each family's share of taxes imposed on the village by the state. The central political conflict in the Roman Republic, as recounted in Livy, was the patricians' attempt to appropriate and enclose—“privatize”—common lands to which all members of the community had legal rights of access.

The open-field system of England, which was gradually eroded by enclosures of arable land (mainly for sheep pasturage) from the late Middle Ages on, was another version of the same early Teutonic communal property system—the Arable Mark and Common Mark—whose survivals von Maurer noted in Germany.

It was a later evolution of the system Tacitus had observed among the Germanic tribes. The system Tacitus remarked on was used by the Teutons when they were semi-nomadic and had access to extensive land inputs. It was an open-field system with interstripping of family plots, but with only a single field. When the soil was exhausted, the community moved on and broke fresh ground. This— the system likely first used at the time of the agricultural revolution—could only work with low population densities, obviously. The first adaptation as the tribes settled down and the amount of vacant land declined was a primitive two-field system, with half the arable land remaining fallow each year. By the time the low German descendants of Tacitus' subjects were observed in England, they had progressed to the full-blown three- or four-field system.

The Arable Mark, and its English open-field counterpart, was a three-field system with interstripping of family plots in each field and a periodic redivision of plots between families. The Common Mark consisted of common waste, woodlot, and pasture, of which each family was entitled to some defined share of use.

Here's how William Marshall described the open field system in 1804:

- 'In this place it is sufficient to premise that a very few centuries ago, nearly the whole of the lands of England lay in an open, and more or less in a commonable state.... [T]he following statement may serve to convey a general idea of the whole of what may be termed Common-field Townships, throughout England. Under this ingenious mode of organization, each parish or township was considered as one common farm; though the tenantry were numerous. Round the village, in which the tenants resides, lay a few small inclosures, or grass yards; for rearing calves, and as baiting and nursery grounds for other farm stock. This was the common farmstead, or homestall.... Round the homestall, lay a suit of arable fields; including the deepest and soundest of the lower grounds, situated out of water's way; for raising corn and pulse; as well as to produce fodder and litter for cattle and horses in the winter season. And, in the lowest situation..., shooting up among the arable lands, lay an extent of meadow grounds..., to afford a supply of hay, for cows and working stock, in the winter and spring months. On the outskirts of the arable lands, where the soil is adapted to the pasturage of cattle, or... less adapted to cultivation..., one or more stinted pastures, or hams, were laid out for milking cows, working cattle, or other stock which required superior pasturage in summer. While the bleakest, worst-soiled, and most distant lands of the township, were left in their native wild state; for timber and fuel; and for a common pasture.... The appropriated lands of each township were laid out with equal good sense and propriety. That each occupier might have his proportionate share of lands of different qualities, and lying in different situations, the arable lands, more particularly, were divided into numerous parcels.... And that the whole might be subjected to the same plan of management, and be conducted as one farm, the arable lands were moreover divided into compartments, or “fields,” of nearly equal size, and generally three in number, to receive, in constant rotation, the triennial succession of fallow, wheat (or rye) and spring crops (as barley, oats, beans and peas).... '

The open-field system, according to J. L. and Barbara Hammond, was “more ancient than the manorial order.... The manorial element... is superimposed on the communal...: the medieval village is a free village gradually feudalised.” As late as 1685, an estimated 85% of the surviving arable land that had not been converted to pasturage was organized on the open-field model.

The Russian mir or obshchina was essentially a variant of the same primeval open-field system that prevailed in Western Europe, but with a state far more despotic than the Western European feudal structure superimposed on it.

Marx's view of the uniqueness of the “Asiatic mode of production,” and of the backwardness that resulted from the absence of private ownership of land and the predominance of collective village ownership with the state as landlord, probably reflected the limited awareness of the time as to the extent to which the open-field system has persisted in the Middle Ages. The chief difference between the “Asiatic mode” and the open-field system of Western Europe was that in the former case a despotic central state was superimposed as a parasitic layer atop the communal peasant society, whereas in the latter case it was a pattern of feudal organization that overlay the peasant commune. Marx's Asiatic mode in India was essentially a variant of the open-field system, but—as with the Russian mir—with a despotic imperial state rather than a feudal system superimposed on it.

As described by Maine:

- 'If very general language were employed, the description of the Teutonic or Scandinavian village communities might actually serve as a description of the same institution in India. There is the arable mark, divided into separate lots but cultivated according to minute customary rules binding on all. Wherever the climate admits of the finer grass crops, there are the reserved meadows, lying generally on the verge of the arable mark. There is the waste or common land, out of which the arable mark has been cut, enjoyed as pasture by all the community pro indiviso. There is the village, consisting of habitations each ruled by a despotic pater-familias. And there is constantly a council of government to determine disputes as to custom.'

The “despotic pater-familias” — apparently a common Indo-European institution, and also noted among the archaic Latins—is obviously something to which libertarians will have moral objections. But a more democratic system of governance within the family or household would in no way affect communal tenure." (


Roderick Long, Common Property, he says, can come about through collective homesteading:

"Consider a village near a lake. It is common for the villagers to walk down to the lake to go fishing. In the early days of the community it's hard to get to the lake because of all the bushes and fallen branches in the way. But over time, the way is cleared and a path forms — not through any centrally coordinated effort, but simply as a result of all the individuals walking that way day after day.

The cleared path is the product of labor — not any individual's labor, but all of them together. If one villager decided to take advantage of the now-created path by setting up a gate and charging tolls, he would be violating the collective property right that the villagers together have earned.

Since collectives, like individuals, can mix their labor with unowned resources to make those resources more useful to their purposes, collectives, too can claim property rights by homestead." (

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