Commune Theory

Commune Theory


(in Russian, obshchina theory), also mark theory; theory of the village community or peasant commune; a system of views that took shape in bourgeois historiography of the second half of the 19th century. According to the theory, the peasant or village commune (obshchina), or mark, was the point of departure for agrarian evolution and the foundation of the entire social structure of the Middle Ages. The exponents of the commune theory studied the origin and development of the feudal patrimonial estate, the medieval state, and the urban structure from the standpoint of the evolution of the village community. The basic principles of the theory were presented and substantiated in the 1850’s by G. L. von Maurer (Germany). In the second half of the 19th century, the theory, which was developed by O. von Gierke and A. Meitzen (Germany), H. Maine and E. Freeman (Great Britain), and E. Glasson and P. Viollet (France), became popular in historical scholarship. It dominated Russian medieval studies from the 1870’s through the 1890’s.

The main scientific achievement of the commune theory was the substantiation of the proposition that the social system based on private landed property was preceded by a system based on the collective cultivation of the land and collective property in the land. The theory’s weak points were its view of feudal agrarian history as a process devoid of social antagonisms; its underestimation of the role of violence and overestimation of the role of legal institutions in history; and the idea that the village community was an unchanging institution.

From the late 1890’s the theory came under criticism from reactionary historians, who asserted the age-old character of the relations of private property. Marxist historians have evaluated the commune theory as, on the whole, an achievement of 19th-century bourgeois historiography, and they use the work of its exponents critically.


Danilov, A. I. Problemy agrarnoi islorii rannego srednevekov’ia v nemetskoi istoriografii kontsa XIX—nach. XX v. [Moscow] 1958.