A Review of Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune by Kristin Ross
Department of History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz
Kristin Ross’s book on the Paris Commune points simultaneously in two directions, one historical, the other political. It is a political intervention that goes back to the Commune in order to rethink and reopen emancipatory paths after 1989 and the collapse of the idea of state-communism. It is an intervention in the field of historiography because it challenges the idea of state-communism that played an important role in the communist historiography of the Commune. These two dimensions, politics and historiography, are strictly related to each other.
Kristin Ross, (2015) Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, London: Verso.
The literature on the Paris Commune is vast. It is often repetitive. Certainly, as Trotsky wrote, one looks back to the Commune whenever the question of revolution has to be reconsidered in theory and practice: ‘Each time that we study the history of the Commune we see it from a new aspect, thanks to the experience acquired by the later revolutionary struggles and above all by the latest revolutions, not only the Russian but the German and Hungarian revolutions.’ For Trotsky, in comparing 1871 and 1917, the central issue was the party, or the lack of the centralisation of power in the Commune. And now? Why, how and to what end should we turn back to the Commune?
The virtue of Kristin Ross’s book is that it returns to the Commune from a very new perspective. Her temporal-historical register is that of everyday life and its legacy. This is the reason why Ross looks at the Commune though the lens of actors like Gustave Lefrançais and Elisée Reclus, among others, and the legacy taken up by thinkers like Morris and Kropotkin. Ross is not interested in the question of strategy, which is usually judged by the ex post wisdom of those who blame the Commune for having been defeated. As is well known, the Commune is often accused for not having an organised party or for not seizing the Bank of France. By contrast, Ross privileges the political and social change in the temporal dimension of the everyday. Her book points out the quality of the transformations in human relations, work and art, which the communards anticipated in the everyday.
Kristin Ross’s book points simultaneously in two directions: one historical, the other political. It is a political intervention that goes back to the Commune in order to rethink and reopen emancipatory paths after 1989 and the collapse of the idea of state-communism. It is an intervention in the field of historiography because it challenges the idea of state-communism that played an important role in the communist historiography of the Commune. These two dimensions, politics and historiography, are strictly related to each other.
Benedetto Croce once stated that history is always contemporary history. He was almost right. Indeed, Croce’s statement has to be amended with Antonio Gramsci’s correction that history is not just erudite or bookish, but requires the identification of history and politics. From that standpoint, politicians are historians who, by operating in the present, interpret the past; and historians are politicians who dig into the past in order to reopen abandoned and repressed alternative pathways. The political criterion of a historiographical intervention is given by the standpoint of the historian, a standpoint that can never be neutral. According to Walter Benjamin, the supposed neutrality of the historicist’s perspective coincides with the point of view of the dominant classes. By contrast, the materialist historian, he states, develops the ability to look at the past not as an object to be investigated, but as something incomplete and open to possible futures, which are still encapsulated in ‘what-has-been’. Ross is familiar with this way of looking at the past and her book is an extraordinary combination of historiography and politics.
William Morris is a constant presence in Ross’s reading of the Commune and allows her to place it in a temporal dimension that exceeds the historical existence of the Commune itself. In this way, the Commune does not coincide with the massacre of the Communards and the failure of that political experiment. Instead, it links up with temporalities that precede it and prolong its gesture. Morris once said that his tales of the past were parables of the days to come. A parable, comments Ross, is ‘not about going backwards or reversing time, but about opening it up – opening up the web of possibilities’ (p. 75). Kristin Ross’s book is fully entitled to be considered part of the tradition of political historiography that digs into the past in order to extract encapsulated futures.
Let us examine this issue more closely. Communal Luxury re-reads the political experiments of the Commune in the light of our present, namely the recent forms of protest on the world-political scene. It is not by chance that Occupy movements were looking for a tradition that originated in the Paris Commune. One could easily remark that such references to the Commune are rather common on the left. However, what is new is the entire post-1989 political context, which designates a political imaginary that is no longer organised around an end that must be realised. In other words, the collapse of a certain idea of socialism dragged with it an entire imaginary, but also the instrumental conception of praxis, according to which means were justified by the end – socialism – to be realised.
How to provide a new imaginary? This is one of the questions that the book raises. ‘The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune’ – this is the subtitle of Ross’s book – is an alternative legacy that invites us to rethink political and social change in a new framework. Ross’s book looks back at the Commune without any nostalgia, but in order to grasp alternative trajectories of emancipation, i.e., trajectories that do not lead to the centralism of the socialist state. On the contrary, they express a new hope, which is no longer interested in taking power and the control of the state, but in practising politics beyond the state. Ross writes, ‘The end of state-communism freed the Commune from the role it had played in official communist history’ (p. 4). And it may well open new possibilities of liberation. In any case, one can say about 1989 what the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in his famously misinterpreted answer said when, in 1972, he was asked about the impact of the French Revolution: ‘too early to say’.
The end of Real Socialism becomes the condition of possibility for a different historiography that allows us to think politics differently. Ross states: ‘if we begin with the state, we end with the state. Let us begin instead with the popular reunions at the end of the Empire, the various associations and committees they spawned, and the “buzzing hives” that were the revolutionary clubs of the Siege. Then we see a different picture.’ (p. 14.) Communal Luxury aims to show us this different picture.
The title of the book – Communal Luxury, overlaid onto a blue painting by William Morris – is taken from the Manifesto of the Federation of the Parisian Artists written during the Commune. In the manifesto, ‘communal luxury’ expressed the demand for public beauty, i.e., a complete reconfiguration of everyday life according to which art and beauty must be integrated into life and work and not be confined in private spaces for the enjoyment of the privileged class. Communal luxury is, on the one side, the vantage point from which to observe the aesthetic reinvention of everyday life; on the other, it is a kind of prefiguration of William Morris’s idea of a new space/time, which is harmonised with the rhythm of nature. This is the space of experimental politics beyond the binary opposition of city and country, the space of the reinvention of the human within a plethora of human and non-human differences (p. 136). But not only that. It is also a trans-national space and the space of political and socio-economic experimentation. Indeed, ‘communal luxury’ reconfigures wealth into a new wealth that is no longer ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’ subjugated to the tyranny of exchange-value. Instead, it is a liberated wealth, which contributes to the regeneration of society through new values and solidarity. Not by chance, the last chapter of the book is titled ‘Solidarity’.
The book begins with the flag of the Universal Republic and concludes with the reinvention of wealth beyond exchange-value. But a new history of the Commune requires a new starting point and new references. In fact, the book observes the Commune through the viewpoint of William Morris, Elisée Reclus, Peter Kropotkin, Elisabeth Dmitrieff and Napoléon Gaillard, among others. Lenin is mentioned solely for his ‘apocryphal dance in the snow in front of the Winter Palace on the seventy-third day of the Russian Revolution – the day, that is, that the Revolution had lasted one day longer than the Commune and in so doing turned the latter into the failed revolution of which the new one would be the corrective’ (p. 4). Ross does not develop an analysis of the Bolshevist’s claim of correcting the failed insurgency of the Commune. This is not the task of her book. Instead, the image of a dancing Lenin leaves the historical bifurcation open. It is the same alternative that tormented the Commune’s existence: state-centralisation versus a universal federation of peoples or, to employ the terminology of Arthur Arnould, Unité versus Union. In order to investigate this bifurcation in a non-dogmatic way, one has to pay attention not so much to military events before and after March 18, but, as Ross does, to popular reunions, clubs and various associations, which constituted the social and political fabric of the Commune. From this perspective Ross’s book is able to shed light on the often-forgotten ‘non-nationalist originality of the Commune’ (p. 12).
To the extent that the Paris Commune freed itself from the nation-state, it developed ‘a new vision of revolution based on communal autonomy’ (p. 111), which exceeds both the geographical-political provincialism of space – the nation – and the temporal provincialism of the unilinear conception of time: ‘The new, for Kropotkin as for Morris, could only be modelled on anachronisms land-locked in the present’ (p. 116). I want to give a couple of examples of the move that deprovincialises space and time, which this book helps us to think.
Let me begin with the international participation in the Commune and the diverse contributions to the ‘working laboratory of political inventions’ (p. 11). Ross tells us the story of Elisabeth Dmitrieff, the young member of the Russian section of the First International who joined the Commune and created the Women’s Union for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. Dmitrieff was the theoretical mediator between Marx and Chernyshevsky who alerted Marx to the possibility of skipping capitalist accumulation. She was also the practical mediator between the French idea of the commune and the Russian collectivism of the obshina (p. 29). Ross suggests that when Marx looked to Russia, he saw its rural and non-capitalist communities ‘through the filter of the Parisian insurrection’ (p. 82). He could see in the Russian peasant commune and in the ‘archaic’ societies ‘the traces of the primary communism he had observed in the Paris Commune’ (p. 82). However, communism is not the consolation prize for the working class for suffering through primitive accumulation. After the Paris Commune and in dialogue with the Russian Populists, Marx abandoned the unilinear vision of historical time and began to consider history as ‘a series of layers from various ages, the one superimposed on the other’. From this standpoint the ‘“archaic” type of communal property’ can prefigure different historical trajectories that lead to non-capitalist forms of society without undertaking primitive accumulation. Marx’s recommendation (to himself and us) is therefore precious: ‘We should not, then, be too frightened by the word “archaic”.’
From this angle we can see Dmitrieff and Chernyshevsky teaching Marx ‘the possible conjunctures between traditional and modern structures’ (p. 26). There are forms of the past that can be mobilised in the present and show trajectories, whose unexplored potentialities contain possible futures. The story of the Commune that Ross relates to us breaks with the history of the forms of transition and its stagist model. William Morris beautifully expressed the perspective of a different kind of historiography that is required today: the Federalist Administration of the Commune is, he wrote, politically ‘entirely opposed to French tradition since the time of Richelieu’, while socially it gives birth to the new world of ‘the workman organically associated for the first time since the Communes of the Middle Ages, and since 1793’. There are two traditions: on the one hand, there is the tradition of the state and its centralisation of power; on the other, there are the traditions of insurgency, which does not create new political institutions ex nihilo. New institutions root their practices in the sunken legacy that links to the communes of the Middle Ages and the French Revolution.
Morris was an artist of the combination of modern and non-modern temporalities. The latter are not an expression of nostalgia, but rather visions of non-alienated labour. According to Ross, ‘Evoking communitarian or tribal societies of the past may provide clues to the free forms of a whole new economic life in the future’ (p. 75). The encounter of different temporalities generated a new field of possibilities in which the new life of the Commune was experimented with by putting together art, work and revolution.
Ross explores this field through ‘marginal’ actors and thinkers of the Commune. Gaillard is one of those actors. He was not only a revolutionary but also a shoemaker; an excellent one, it appears. During the period of the Commune, Gaillard the shoemaker built a massive barricade that barred access to the rue de Rivoli. He considered his barricades, no less than his shoes, works of art and luxury. Barricades became works of art of the revolution. And daily artisanal production became revolutionary. ‘“I believe myself to be a worker,” wrote Gaillard to Vermorel, “an ‘artist-shoemaker,’ and though making shoes, I have the right to as much respect from men as those who think themselves workers while wielding a pen”’ (p. 56). Claiming the same dignity of intellectual labour for manual labour, Gaillard does not trivially dispute the division of labour. He goes much further. The new revolutionary principle of the Commune digs like a mole in the ground of everyday life. As Ross emphasises, Gaillard was questioning the familiar distinction between the useful and the beautiful (p. 57). Indeed, Gaillard’s philosophy of the shoe claims to bring the work of the artist shoemaker ‘back to the anatomical principles of the foot’ (p. 57). Gaillard alleged that the modern shoe has imprisoned the foot in a narrow, deforming instrument of torture. Bringing back the work of the artisan to the ‘anatomical principles of the foot’ expressed an attempt to mobilise past temporalities in order to recombine in a new form production and art, two dimensions which, in ancient Greek, were merged in the same word: poiesis. Recalling the old principle of artistic production by the artisan, Gaillard challenged the series and mass production in which the product is no longer shaped according to human needs. Instead people have to adapt themselves to objects, and both producers and consumers have to adapt themselves to the tyranny of exchange-value. The Women’s Union made this point very clear in a document addressed to the Labour Commission: blaming the ‘disastrous implications of repetitive work on body and mind’, the Women’s Union claimed the ‘diversity of work in any profession’.
In the revolutionary experience, art could no longer remain external to the everyday. Ross shows how the intermixture of art, revolution and work redefines the relationships between human beings and use-value, on the one hand, and working time and free time, on the other hand. In the interruption of the dominant temporality of the state, there emerges a different quality of time, which is both social and political. Reconfiguring the distinction of labour time and free time, social and political life, private and public life, the Commune was giving birth to a new humanity, which was not an abstract word, but a matter of education, art and works. ‘Everywhere the word “commune” was understood in the largest sense, as referring to a new humanity’, stated Elisée Reclus (p. 5). The ‘new humanity’ concerns a different configuration of social, economic and political life according to the principles of cooperation and association. However, as Ross reminds us by referring to Morris, this new life, the possibility to ‘live communistically’, cannot be achieved without the ‘abolition of private property’ (p. 118). This statement has not ceased to be disturbing in the eyes of the dominant class. Nevertheless, it remains the cornerstone of any real political and social change.
Ross redirects our attention to the fact that during the period of the Commune words such as citoyen and citoyenne ‘no longer indicate national belonging – they are addressed to people who have separated themselves from the national collectivity’ (p. 16). The story of this separation is the story told by Communal Luxury. It is in this separation that the flag of the Universal Republic appears. This flag merges dimensions that transcend the borders of nationality and its historical time. As Ross reminds us, the term ‘Universal Republic’ did not originate with the Commune, but with the Prussian-born Anacharsis Cloots, who was naturalised in 1792 and became a member of the National Convention in September of the same year. During the Revolution, the Universal Republic was not just an abstract ideal of sharing the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man with the whole world. Cloots himself acted as universal citizen beyond the nation and beyond his aristocratic status when he joined the Revolution. Many foreigners, like Cloots, took part in the Revolution, becoming political citizens in the everyday political practice of assemblies, sections and clubs. The 1793 Constitution ratified this political circumstance in article 4, which stated that ‘aliens whom the legislative body has declared as one well deserving of the human race, are admitted to exercise the rights of a French citizen.’ Reactivating an ancient conception of mediaeval rights, the same article extended the exercise of the rights of French citizens to ‘every alien, who has attained the age of twenty-one, and has been domiciled in France one year’. The Universal Republic in the French Revolution was more than a principle; it was a practice that the 1793 Constitution had to assimilate.
Regarding the tradition of the Universal Republic, Ross states that, ‘far from implying a return to the principles of the bourgeois 1789 revolution, the slogan universal republic, when spoken by Communards, marks their break from the legacy of the French Revolutions in the direction of a real working-class internationalism’ (p. 23). However, if Ross had applied to the French Revolution the multitemporal framework through which she had analysed the Commune, she would have had a different view of the tradition of the Universal Republic. Indeed, the French Revolution was more than a bourgeois revolution. There were many revolutions within the Revolution, revolutions which exceeded the narrow political-temporal definition of a bourgeois revolution. For instance, the Women’s Union in 1871 ‘showed no trace of interest in parliamentary or rights-based demands’ (p. 28). Similarly, in 1792, Pauline Léon demanded not political rights but a revolutionary citizenship for women, which included the right to bear weapons. In both cases, women were already acting as political citizens despite the fact they did not have legal citizenship; in 1792 as in 1871 they were ‘indifferent to the vote and to traditional forms of republican politics in general’ (p. 28).
To conclude, I want to raise the question of universalism. It is true that the universality of the Universal Republic is not about scale. It expressed political inclusion beyond national identity. Being ‘French’ in Paris during March through May 1871 was not matter of national belonging but of a political and social practice. The adjective ‘universal’ may find an explanation in the Declaration to the French People of April 19, which states that Paris reserves the right ‘to universalise power and property’. The universalisation of power through assemblies and the imperative mandate and the universalisation of property through a new regime of property relations were the two sides of the Universal Republic. These dimensions prefigured new institutions, which were not based on the logic of the modern national state. Ross’s book focuses brilliantly on the everyday life and various associations and committees of the Commune, but it does not address the new institutions in which the forms of a new political life were being worked out.
Édouard Vaillant, who oversaw work on education and culture during the Commune, offers us an insight into the correlation between the universalisation of power and that of property when he said: ‘we must apply to the theatres […] the regime of associations. […] The general management of theatres is charged with replacing the existing regime of proprietors and privilege with a system of association to be run entirely by the artists themselves.’ Private property was not in question merely abstractly, but rather in the everyday practices that sought to overcome the separation between the means of production and performers at any level. The communal practice, which simultaneously questioned state centralisation and property, induced the Federations of the artists to claim the abolition of subsidy as well: ‘In the place of state subsidies, the Federation looked to cooperation among the artists themselves as a way forward, rather like a trade union whereby each artist’s dignity was protected by all the others’ (p. 51). Indeed, the radical manifesto of the twentieth arrondissement demanded the abolition of all subsidies, not just those related to religion, but also to theatres and the press. Decentralisation and distancing from the state were made possible through a new institutional articulation. Addressing the question of institutions would have been important in order to show how the collective creativity of the Commune, which was at the same time international and ecological, tried to reshape social life in a new political order and new property relations in the short time available to it.
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