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, in medieval history
commune (kômˈyo͞on), in medieval history, collective institution that developed in continental Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Because of the importance of the commune in municipal government, the term is also used to denote a town itself to which a charter of liberties was granted by the sovereign or feudal overlord. Although in most cases the development of communes was inextricably connected with that of the cities, there were rural communes, notably in France and England, that were formed to protect the common interests of villagers.


To build defenses, regulate and improve trade, raise taxes, and maintain order, organization of an urban area was necessary. The earliest attempts at united action of the burghers involved the forming of associations in which the burghers swore an oath binding themselves together in a personal bond of mutual support and defense. The communes grew in power and, as autonomous corporate entities, became extremely influential in organizing city government. By the late 12th cent., when cities were well established, all who chose to live in them had to take an oath acknowledging the authority of the communes.

Because the town was located on land belonging to a king or emperor (see feudalism), the town owed allegiance to its lord and paid him tribute and, in wartime, service or money payment. Suzerains often favored the communes as sources of wealth and confirmed their rights in liberal charters. Disputes, nevertheless, frequently arose between communes and their overlords. In the struggle between kings and nobles, the kings usually strengthened the communes and sought alliances with them. However, in the 16th and 17th cent., when European states (notably France and Spain) became centralized, the privileges of the communes were gradually withdrawn.

The extent of their liberties and the details of their organization varied widely. A common feature was the elected council. The magistrates were usually called consoli, podestàs, and capitouls in Italy and S France, échevins and jurés in N France and the Low Countries, Senatoren and Ratsherren in Germany. Corporations and guilds gained a prominent share in the government. Militia insured the defense.

Important Communes

The earliest communes arose in N and central Italy. In the struggle between emperors and popes, the communes forming the Lombard League gained a great deal of independence and became almost synonymous with the cities themselves. In the 14th cent., however, the communes were usurped by local tyrants. The commune of Rome was established by Arnold of Brescia in 1144. In the Low Countries, e.g., in Flanders, communes arose very early and enjoyed very wide privileges. In S France, Avignon, Arles, and Toulouse were outstanding examples of self-governed communes, as Barcelona was in Spain. In Germany, cities such as Frankfurt, Cologne, Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Lübeck became republics immediately subject to the emperor (imperial and free imperial cities). Others, such as Magdeburg, held charters that became models for numerous towns in N Germany, Bohemia, and Moravia.


See W. F. T. Butler, The Lombard Communes (1906, repr. 1969); H. Pirenne, Medieval Cities (tr. 1925, repr. 1969); M. V. Clarke, The Medieval City State (1926, repr. 1966); J. H. Mundy and P. Riesenberg, The Medieval Town (1959).

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  1. a group of families or individuals living and perhaps working together, and sharing some or all possessions as well as family and communal duties. Sometimes, but not always, the establishment of communes has been motivated by political ideologies, such as SOCIALISM, COMMUNISM or UTOPIANISM.They were briefly fashionable in California and elsewhere in the 1960s, a period of experimentation with ‘alternative’ ways of living (see COUNTER CULTURE OR ALTERNATIVE CULTURE). As ‘exceptional’ ways of living within the societies in which they occur, communes must be distinguished from communal forms of living which occur in many preindustrial societies. Because they are exceptional social forms and often at odds with the ideologies of mainstream society, and also because they must often work out basic problems of social organization from the start, communes have often been short-lived. One paradox in communes, for example, is that though often motivated by collectivist ideologies, they also embody concerns for individual self-development. Compare KIBBUTZ, SECT, CULT.
  2. the revolutionary government established in Paris 1870-71 in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This has been regarded as a landmark in the history of REVOLUTIONS, as a classic case of the people seizing power, albeit only for a relatively brief period, March-May 1871, before it was crushed.
  3. the agricultural and other collectives established in China under COMMUNISM in the period of the Great Leap Forward under MAO TSE-TUNG. More than 26,000 of these were created in an endeavour to produce a distinctively Chinese route to SOCIALISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in France, Italy, Belgium, Algeria, Senegal and certain other states, an urban- or rural-type settlement that forms the lowest administrative-territorial unit. In most countries the commune is administered by an elected municipal council, which organizes the operation of communal services (public health, education, urban transportation, water supply, etc.) and the implementation of local public works projects (residential and road construction, the equipping of areas with public services and utilities, etc.). The executive of the municipal council is the mayor (or burgomaster), who is elected by the council itself or appointed by the government. The mayor is at the same time a state official who represents the interests of the central government. The mayor and the municipal council are under strict government control. The central government usually has the right to abrogate the decisions of the administrative bodies of the commune and to confirm the most important of them, to dissolve the municipal councils, and to remove the mayor.



(in Russian, obshchina), in the broad sense of the term, the most diverse communities: urban communes, rural societies, zemliachestva (associations of persons from the same place), religious fellowships, and professional associations, for example. In a number of socialist countries, such as Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Poland, and Yugoslavia, the commune is the lowest unit of territorial administration. It is also a link in the sociopolitical organization of the GDR and Yugoslavia. In the GDR, cities, communities (Gemeinde), and associations of communities are independent associations within the framework of centralized leadership and planning, and they are protected by the constitution. The rights and obligations of the community are defined by the nation’s constitution, by other state laws, and by statutes adopted by the community.

In a more specialized sense, the term “commune” refers to the initial form of social organization that emerges on the basis of natural ties of blood kinship. With the formation of class society, the primitive blood kinship commune is transformed into a neighborly (territorial) organization of the rural population. In a particular historical form, the commune is characteristic of all precapitalist structures.

At the primitive stage of social development, the commune is a universal institution that handles the totality of social functions and defines the entire system of social relations. At the same time, it is a production group, a familial-domestic group, and a religious group. Owing to the modification of the social structure as a result of the development of the productive forces, the growth of the social division of labor, and the emergence of social antagonisms, the commune loses its all-encompassing significance and becomes a local unit of the complex social organism of class society and a self-governing organization of direct producers.

In precapitalist class societies, the commune was an association, a necessary supplement to the family-individual farm, which became the main unit of production. Until the precapitalist socioeconomic conditions that engendered it disappear, the commune survives as a special institution ensuring the normal functioning and economic reproduction of the peasant farm. The commune plays a particularly important role in the economics of the peasant farm, above all, in land relations. However, the neighborly (territorial) commune of precapitalist class societies also performs broader social functions. Often, it is the local unit of territorial administration. Relations in the commune are fixed by customary law and often by state law as well. Even today, the commune is a vital, funtioning institution, an organic part of the social systems of the majority of the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The natural, spontaneously arising community—the essential precondition for the labor activity of human beings—is the foundation for historical development. The isolated individual is incapable of holding out in the struggle against nature, incapable of obtaining for himself the necessary minimum of the means of existence. At this stage, a person’s membership in a particular community is an indisputable condition for life itself. The individual exists only as a member of a family, a local group, a clan, a tribe, or another naturally formed community (K. Marx, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 46, part 1, pp. 461–87). The lack of development of labor and the primitiveness of the implements and means of production determined the collective character of the accumulation of the means of subsistence. As a cooperative system of laboring individuals the commune itself acts as “the first great productive force” (ibid., p. 485). The labor of an individual did not have an independent existence but was a constituent part, a function of the totality of labor performed by the commune (K. Marx, ibid., vol. 13, p. 19).

The division of labor within the primitive commune was not social in the strict sense of that term but was based on differences of sex and age and on seasonal forms of economic activity. A genuinely social division of labor emerged only gradually among separate communes, which exchanged the products of their activity. The structural elements of which the primitive group was composed—individuals, couples, extended (large) families, agnate groups, and so forth—could, to some degree, remain economically separate, but they found themselves incapable of living outside the commune, which acted as an economic whole.

Various viewpoints on the relationship between the commune and the clan are expressed in Soviet historiography. According to one of them, the basic structural unit of primitive society is the clan, which coincided with the commune in the early stages of development. The separation of the commune as a production unit and the clan as an exogamous group of blood relations took place later, with the transition to patriarchal clan relations. According to the adherents of another viewpoint, the commune as a production and familial-domestic group is the basic and initial social organism. The clan, phratry, tribe, and other institutions that make up the primitive communal system are secondary and derivative. Although each of the viewpoints mentioned offers a different evaluation of the interaction of economic and natural blood-clan relations in primitive society, both proceed from a recognition that the naturally arising community is the dominant and all-embracing social form, the necessary and inevitable precondition for appropriation at this stage of social development.

Progress in the development of the productive forces and in the social division of labor led to increasing complexity in the internal structure of the commune and, subsequently, to changes in the relationship of its elements. With the transition from the economy of appropriation to that of production, the conditions for individual production were created; the economic role of the family grew stronger and expanded; the value of the production experience, knowledge, and skills of individuals was enhanced; and a separation of organizational functions from productive labor became evident. As production expanded and specialization emerged, the exchange of economic activity among members of the commune (both direct exchange and exchange of products) was increasingly handled by commune and clan elders, as well as by chiefs, who gradually acquired exclusive power over the distribution of territory, the direction of collective work, the organization of military affairs, worship, and many other socially significant functions. Thus, a distinct institution of administration, a social power that acted as the general representative of the commune, began to develop within the commune. At first it was the power of experience, knowledge, authority. It existed within the commune, not apart from it. Inherent in its independence was the potential to make the transition from a social power to a political power standing above society. The privileged position of the communal and clan-tribal elite during the period of the disintegration of the primitive communal system was a factor in the acceleration of the development of property and social differentiation.

The further development of production led to the multiplication and increasing complexity of the economic, ideological, administrative governmental, military, and other social functions performed by the commune. With the emergence of class society, an increasing number of these functions was shifted to new social institutions: the formative state, the slaveholding latifundium, the fief (in Russian, pomest’e), and the patrimonial estate (votchina). However, these institutions were not able to completely take the place of the commune as a very important social institution, an organic part of the social system in precapitalist societies.

In Soviet historiography, the distinction between the two principal types of commune—the primitive blood-clan commune and the neighborly or territorial commune—is generally accepted. The two types of communes correspond to socioeconomic types of society that differ in principle: the preclass and the class precapitalist formations. The question of transitional forms (neighborly-clan, neighborly-extended [large] family, and so forth) is disputed. Some researchers consider the extended family equally a type of clan commune and a type of territorial commune. In the development of the clan commune, the early commune of hunters, fishermen, and gatherers, which is associated with the stage of the economy of appropriation, is usually distinguished from the developed clan commune of farmers and cattle raisers, which appears in the initial stage of the economy of production. However, various scholars have different understandings of the criteria for distinguishing these types of communes from the point of view of their internal structure, the concrete forms of blood clan ties.

Despite the tremendous diversity of historically concrete forms and variants of the territorial commune, it passed through certain stages that coincided, in general, with levels of social evolution. Marx distinguished three main forms (levels, stages) of the disintegration of the initial unity of the commune and the detachment of the family or individual farm: the Asiatic, the classical (or ancient), and the Germanic (”Formy, predshestvu-iushchie Kapitalisticheskomu proizvodstvu,” in K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 46, pp. 461–508). The stages of the commune enumerated by Marx are characterized by a dualism of the collective and private principles, and especially by a dualism of collective and individual landownership. But the correlation of these principles varies, depending on the stage.

In essence, the Asiatic stage of the commune is a transformed natural community that prevailed during the primitive stage of historical development. Its foundation was common property in land. Each family’s allotment represented its inalienable membership in the commune. The basis for commune organization of this kind was the great importance of collective labor, the unity of craft manufacture and agriculture within the framework of the commune, and the weakness or absence of the division of labor among different communes.

The classical stage (the polis), the next level of the disintegration of the commune’s initial unity and of the separation out of the family or individual farm and private property, presupposed an organization under which membership in the commune continued to be the prerequisite for appropriation of the land, but under which each member was the private owner of the plot he cultivated. The property used for common needs was separated from private property and referred to as state property (ager publicus). The equality of the free citizens joining the commune, who earned their livelihoods independently, served as the guarantee for the preservation of the classical commune.

The Germanic commune represents a further step in the separation of the families making up the commune and in the strengthening of the family-individual peasant farm as the main unit of production. In the Germanic commune, collective property is only a supplement to the property of individual householders. In the classical commune the existence of the individual as a private property owner was conditional on his membership in the commune (the polis, the state). By contrast, in the Germanic form, the existence of the commune itself was conditioned by the needs of the family or individual farm.

Each of the stages of the neighborly (territorial) commune includes a wide variety of modified forms. The development and the specific forms of commune organization bore the mark of the natural geographic and historical milieu, in which the commune organization, the character of economic activity, and ethnic components were situated. The commune of Oriental despotism, for example, was distinguished by characteristics engendered by the necessity for large-scale, collective work projects, such as irrigation. The dominance of common property in land was realized through property held by the supreme commune, personified by the state, or the despot. Individual communes were merely the hereditary owners of the land they cultivated.

The caste commune was a distinctive form of the early neighborly, or territorial, commune. Its characteristics were derived from a special form of the social division of labor encapsulated in the rural commune—a division of labor founded not on commodity exchange but on the barter of products and the exchange of work. The vocational distinctions engendered by this form of the social division of labor were socially fixed in caste distinctions, which sharply increased the patriarchal character and conservatism typical of the commune. The autarky (self-sufficiency) of the commune was reinforced, and serious obstacles to the development of urban handicrafts and commodity exchange were created. The disintegration of the caste commune took place at an extremely slow pace, because the exploiting elements that separated from the commune in the process of property differentiation remained within the commune-caste organization. By conserving this form of social development, the tradition-bound and ossified caste system hindered the ripening of social antagonisms. The commune-caste system became most fully developed in India, but it was also known in other societies—ancient Egypt, precolonial tropical Africa, Oceania, and medieval Japan.

In effect, the nomadic commune did not progress beyond the initial stage of the disintegration of primitive collectivism and the transformation of the neighborly commune. Because of the character of production (the necessity of collective pasturing and protection of herds, the seasonal redistribution of pastures, clan mutual aid in the event of cattle plague and other natural disasters), each individual or family (large or small) functioned only as a member of a group, usually organized in military fashion. The nomadic territory occupied by an individual economic unit was part of the common landed property of the tribe.

Around the time of their conquest of the Western Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes had communal organizations that were approaching the initial stage of the formation of the neighborly commune. (This stage in the evolution of the commune is often referred to as the agricultural stage and is considered a type of commune.) According to many researchers, the Eastern Slavic verv’ had reached this stage on the eve of the formation of Kievan Rus’ and in the initial phase of the existence of the Kievan state. (Sometimes the verv’is identified with the extended [large] family commune or with the rural commune of the type of the German mark.)

The last stage of the neighborly commune began in the period of the dominance of feudal relations. With the victory of large-scale landownership, the commune was transformed from a free organization of direct producers into an organization dependent on the ruling class and its state, which was used to exploit the producers. However, the system and institutions of the commune continued to operate within the feudal domain as an indispensable supplement to peasant farming of small parcels of land, ensuring the normal functioning of the peasant economy. Even the feudal lord’s estate had to submit to the routine of the rural commune. With the aid of the commune as an association of small producers, virgin lands were opened up, woods cleared, roads built, irrigation and reclamation structures erected, and bridges, mills, military fortifications, castles, and religious buildings built. The commune played a positive role in the transition to and regulation of the three-field system.

The existence of the commune as a type of organization of direct peasant producers was consolidated in customary, and sometimes in written law. Despite the continuing development of private property relations and of inequality in property, the neighborly commune remained democratic and played an important role in protecting its members against the feudal lords’ offensive. The commune was preserved “over the entire course of the Middle Ages in a difficult, uninterrupted struggle against the landowning aristocracy” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. En-gels, Sock, 2nd ed., vol. 19, p. 337).

Of the various types of communes, the neighborly commune is most frequently mentioned in historical sources and is studied by focusing on the German mark. Originally, the mark was an association of free landowners. During feudalization, with the transition of peasant plots from the private property of their owners into a feudal holding, the free mark became dependent. The classical variant of the Germanic mark, with the characteristic division of lands into the allotments of individual families and the Allmende (the use of which was strictly regulated), compulsory crop rotation, the open field system, various forms of servitude, and self-government, took shape around the 12th—13th centuries and survived until the end of the Middle Ages, and in a number of countries and regions, even longer. As Engels observed, the mark system “throughout the Middle Ages served as the basis and model for every social structure and permeated all of social life not only in Germany but also in northern France, England, and Scandinavia” (ibid., p. 329). The mark system was eliminated as capitalist relations penetrated agriculture and encountered in the rural commune, with its three-field system (or even compulsory crop rotation), an obstacle to the transition to more intensive forms of crop cultivation.

In Russia. One variant of the neighborly commune was the Russian medieval obshchina (peasant commune). The relative abundance of land, as well as the small size of settlements, did not require the introduction of as many forms of servitude restricting the land tenure of peasant families as was the case in the German mark system. For the same reasons, the Allmende (very extensive in area) was used collectively to a much lesser degree. On the other hand, in self-government, the obshchina-volost (a peasant administrative subdivision usually made up of several obshchinas) had many more rights than the Germanic commune. Among the powers of the obshchina-volost were the distribution of land and the regulation of its use, the apportionment of the tiaglo (feudal obligations), the election of village authorities (the starosty [elders] and subsequently, the volost elders), the collection of funds for expenditures of the mir (the peasant commune, in its administrative capacity), the organization of mutual aid, and the resolution of civil and minor criminal affairs. Like the feudal pomest’e (fief) and the votchina (patrimonial estate), the volost was a unit of territorial administration, a part of the state organism. Elected volost authorities acted as representatives of the state administration at the local level.

With the development of feudal relations, the intensification of fiscal oppression, and the growth of population and the emergence of land hunger, fundamental changes took place in the obshchina, whether it was located on state or on private lands. During the 17th and 18th centuries, equalizing repartitions of the land became the norm. Instead of having the permanent use of a particular parcel, the peasant family received a particular share (varying in size and location) of the obshchina’s land. This strengthened the obshchina’s financial and administrative rights as a collective with regard to its members. It became increasingly difficult to leave the obshchina. The Russian obshchina was distinguished from peasant communes in other countries by the fact that it was stabilized and consolidated during the late feudal period.

In the context of serfdom, relations between the votchina administration and the peasant obshchina on a landlord’s lands were based on the recognition of the right of the obshchina and its elected representatives to regulate the economic and everyday life of the village. The obshchina enjoyed a certain degree of independence in its role as guarantor of the fulfillment of state obligations (the poll tax and the recruitment of conscripts, for example). But independence was less commonly granted the obshchina in the organization of the fulfillment of obligations to the landlord. (In these matters, the obshchina usually enjoyed greater autonomy on estates where quitrent, rather than the corvée, prevailed.) As a rule, the pomeshchiki (landlords) withdrew the functions of justice and punishment from the jurisdiction of the obshchina. (These functions were preserved to a considerable degree among state peasants.) The obshchiny were left with economic control over the allotment lands, the organization of production on the peasant farm, and the regulation of civil and familial relations within the village. The enlistment of representatives of obshchina self-government in the system of votchina administration blunted class antagonism, shifting peasant discontent with the power of the pomeshchiki to the obshchina bodies that carried out their orders.

Under the Peasant Reform of 1861, the obshchina and its elective bodies became the lowest link in the government administration in the countryside on all categories of land. The status of the obshchina as a social institution was formalized in law. The General Statute Concerning Peasants Leaving Serf Dependence defined the functions of the obshchina, which was referred to as the sel’skoe obshchestvo (village society), and the rights and duties of the village skhod as the assembly of the heads of peasant households (the domokhoziaeva), as well as of the village elder (starosta) elected by the skhod. With the introduction of the zemskie uchastkovye nachal’niki (land captains) in 1889, bureaucratic control over obshchina self-government was sharply reinforced. Bodies of the mir that were not formalized in law, such as the “councils of old men” (sovety starikov) continued to function in the postreform era and influenced the internal affairs of the obshchina (for example, control over the activity of the elders, and justice based on the norms of customary law). With the development of capitalism in Russia, the bodies of obshchina self-government fell increasingly into the hands of the prosperous peasants, who used the obshchiny to enslave their fellow villagers. Increasingly, the skhod became the arena for sharper conflicts between the new social strata developing within the obshchina—the semiproletarians and the rural bourgeoisie.

From the mid-19th century the question of the essence of the obshchina and its role in the life of the countryside became a central one in the ideological and sociopolitical life of Russia. The Slavophiles and the official ideologues who followed them regarded the obshchina as a primordial Slavic institution, a foundation of the autocratic feudal system and an institution that could save Russia from revolution. This attitude gave rise to the autocracy’s “protective” policy toward the obshchina (for example, the restriction of the right to leave the commune), which delayed its disintegration. The Narodniki (Populists), A. I. Herzen, and N. G. Chernyshevskii, by contrast, viewed the obshchina as virtually a ready-made cell of socialist society and considered it capable of ensuring a special (noncapitalist) path of historical development for Russia and of saving the peasantry from the tortures of “boiling in the factory cauldron of capitalism.”

In the late 19th century, the Narodnik and Marxist orientations in the Russian revolutionary movement were divided by their attitude toward the obshchina. Marxists—and above all, V. I. Lenin—demonstrated that Russia had already embarked on the path of capitalist development and that its socialist future could only be the result of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. As Lenin pointed out, the obshchina of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was “medieval,” “archaic,” and “semifeudal.” According to him, the obshchina’s most reactionary features were the “social-estate seclusion of the peasant communities,” which fragmented peasants “into minute associations” and sustained “the traditions of inertness, the downtrodden and wild character”; the “compulsory, feudal character” of the obshchina; the peasant’s lack of “the right to leave his village community or to engage in any industry or pursuit”; and the “feudal power of the land,” that is, the absence of the right to reject the land (see Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1, p. 333; vol. 2, pp. 414, 420; vol. 3, pp. 148–49, 322; vol. 4, pp. 55–56, 432; vol. 6, pp. 344, 395, 446).

But under the autocratic feudal regime the obshchina was “an association for the ownership of allotment land” (ibid., vol. 16, p. 264). It was still an association of peasant farms that satisfied the needs of the peasants as co-owners of the land—an association bound up with the customary mode of settling (the hamlet and the village) and being, at the same time, a democratic organization of local self-government. Lenin viewed the obshchina as a cooperative association of peasants requiring protection from autocratic “trusteeship,” and he therefore declared that “we shall unreservedly defend the village commune as a democratic organization of local government, as a cooperative or a neighbor’s association, against all encroachments on the part of the bureaucrats” (ibid., vol. 6, p. 344).

During the Revolution of 1905–07, the obshchina was used by the peasants as “ ‘an apparatus for influencing the landlords’ estates’ ” (ibid., vol. 16, p. 398). Consequently, the policy of the pomeshchiki and the autocracy toward the obshchina changed: “defense of the village commune … has given place to bitter hostility toward it” (ibid., p. 350). The Stolypin agrarian reform eliminated the obshchina and replaced communal land tenure with individual peasant plots, which met the requirements of the capitalist mode of production. The reform also increased the number of kulaks and deprived the rural toiling strata of land. However, capitalism in Russia did not succeed in completely destroying the obshchina. On the eve of 1917, almost two-thirds of the peasant farms and four-fifths of the allotment land in European Russia were controlled by the obshchiny.

As a result of the Great October Socialist Revolution, all that was reactionary and fiscally enserfing in obshchina law was eliminated. The obshchina became a free league of equal cultivators of nationalized land. In the first stage of the agrarian revolution (1917 through the first half of 1918), when the task of eliminating landownership by the pomeshchiki was being carried out and the peasantry was acting as a whole, the obshchina, with its self-government through the mir, facilitated the organization of the peasants for the struggle against the pomeshchiki, and the repartition system proved to be completely suitable for the redistribution of expropriated lands among peasant farms. Equalizing repartition of the land revitalized the obshchina. In 1927, 91.1 percent of the peasant lands in the RSFSR were at the disposal of the obshchiny. Soviet laws (for example, the Land Code of the RSFSR, 1922; the All-Union General Principles of Land Use and Land Tenure, 1928) formalized a number of obshchina practices: the proportional principle of determining the size of the land allotment of individual farms and the custom of periodically equalizing land allotments by repartition; the joint use of common lands; and the organization of the self-government of the obshchina in matters related to the land. However, communal land tenure, with strip farming, the instability of the plot, and compulsory crop rotation, did not ensure the necessary conditions for the growth of agricultural production. The obshchina served as the preliminary form from which it was possible to make the transition to capitalist forms of land tenure (through individualization) and to socialist land tenure (through collectivization)..

Of fundamental importance for the socialist transformation of agriculture were the traditions of mutual aid and the traditional consciousness that the land belonged to the collective, as well as the existence of a complex of agricultural lands that were jointly used by a group of peasant farms, and in most cases, by the entire village. Under the conditions of the Soviet social system, the traditions of mutual aid and collectivism in the obshchina were encouraged and supported in every way possible. However, the traditionalism and conservatism of the obshchina were irreconcilably opposed to the revolutionary character of collectivization. As the direct distributor of lands, the obshchina disposed of considerable material resources in the form of communal taxes, whereas the village Soviets did not have an independent budget. The obshchina acquired great influence in the peasants’ political life, as well as their economic life, and in a number of cases it opposed the village soviets. Sometimes the soviet found itself subordinate to the mirskoi skhod (mir assembly), in which the poor peasants (bedniaki), middle peasants (seredniaki), and kulaks had equal voting rights. It became necessary to introduce fundamental changes into the status of the obshchina. A number of laws adopted between 1927 and 1929 ensured the subordination of the obshchina to the village soviets, by giving the soviets the power to confirm decisions made by the skhody and to supervise the execution of such decisions, by transferring communal tax funds to the soviets, and by depriving the kulaks of their casting votes in the skhody and of their right to be elected to the obshchina’s self-governing bodies.

The complete collectivization of agriculture did away with the conditions for the existence of the obshchina as a neighborly association of individual peasant farmers for the joint use of the land. The obshchina was eliminated when two-thirds of its members entered the kolkhozes. All agricultural lands and property in common use were transferred to the kolkhoz, but farms not joining the kolkhoz retained the right to use these lands. Non-agricultural lands and property, enterprises, and public buildings came under the control of the village soviets.

Even after the October Revolution of 1917, the numerically small peoples of the Northern European USSR, Siberia, and the Far East retained, to a considerable degree, their primitive cattle-raising, hunting, and fishing economy, as well as their commune-clan way of life. Consequently, Soviet construction had to begin from the clan commune as the basic social form. Clan assemblies and clan soviets constituted the primary organization of the local link of Soviet administration—the organization that prepared for the transition in the early 1930’s to territorial settled and nomadic soviets. Primitive forms of collective production and mutual aid were used to create elementary productive associations, which included the entire population of the commune and all branches of its economic activity. The transition from associations of this type to kolkhozes began in the late 1930’s and was completed after the war. The transformation of the clan communes into a collective farm, which took place slowly, was, in essence, a profoundly revolutionary process.

The nomadic pasture commune of the cattle raisers of Kazakhstan and Central Asia during the 1920’s was a variety of the neighborly-clan commune. The primary economic and social cell of the migrant cattle raisers was the economic aul, which consisted of an extended family commune or a group of clan families. A group of economic auly constituted an administrative aul, as did a commune engaged in the collective pasturing of cattle on communal land. The transformation of the nomadic-pasture commune from a neighborly-clan organization into a village organization began in the mid-1920’s. Communal and clan ties and traditions exerted a perceptible influence on the collectivization of cattle-raising farms. Many kolkhozes were established on the basis of and within the framework of economic auly. Consequently, they were small (ten to 15 families) and maintained various clan principles in internal structure, production, and everyday life. Even today, vestiges of the traditions and norms of the large-family commune are encountered in the life of the kolkhoz members of Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

The historical experience of socialist transformations in the USSR shows that the obshchina cannot serve as an independent factor in the transition to socialism. Traditionalism and conservatism and the heed to ensure the normal functioning and economic reproduction of the family or individual peasant farm constitute the essence of the obshchina. The obshchina contains only one factor favoring development—its own disintegration. Only the fundamental technical and social modernization of agriculture carried out under the leadership of the working class and the Soviet state created the conditions for the transformation of the obshchina into a collective farm. The use of the obshchina in socialist construction depends on the character of the obshchina and on its place in the life of the peasants, and, above all, on the capacity of the revolutionary forces of the country to carry out the socialist transformation of the entire society. The forms, traditions, and skills of collective labor, consumption, and mutual aid characteristic of the obshchina may be used in the construction of the socialist economy.


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Engels, F. “Frankskii period.” Ibid.
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“Diskussiia po probleme rodovoi i sel’skoi obshchiny na drevnem Vostoke.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1963, no. 1.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the smallest administrative unit in Belgium, France, Italy, and Switzerland, governed by a mayor and council
2. the government or inhabitants of a commune
3. a medieval town enjoying a large degree of autonomy
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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