The survival of the Paris Commune

  • March 18, 2021

Paris Commune 150

The Commune of 1871 was never truly vanquished — its political imaginary lived on and is today being liberated and revived in a new cycle of struggles.

Kristin Ross is Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. Her book, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2015), is a masterful study of the ideas and aspirations driving the historic revolt. ROAR editor Jerome Roos spoke to her about the Commune’s legacy, its impact on 19th century radical thought, and the revival of the communal imaginary in our times.

This interview was originally published in ROAR Magazine Issue #1: “Revive la Commune!”.

ROAR: The Paris Commune has been studied and debated for almost a century and a half. How does your book add to our understanding of this world-historical event, and why did you decide to write it now?

Kristin Ross: Like many people after 2011 I was struck by the return — from Oakland to Istanbul, Montreal to Madrid — of a political strategy based on seizing space, taking up space, rendering public places that the state considered private. Militants across the world had reopened and were experiencing the space-time of occupation, with all the fundamental changes in daily life this implies. They experienced their own neighborhoods transformed into theaters for strategic operations and lived a profound modification of their own affective relation to urban space.

My books are always interventions into specific situations. Contemporary events drew me to a new reflection on the Paris Commune, which for many remains a kind of paradigm for the insurgent city. I decided to restage what took place in Paris in the spring of 1871 when artisans and communists, workers and anarchists took over the city and organized their lives according to principles of association and federation.

While much has been written about the military maneuvers and legislative disputes of the Communards, I wanted to revisit the inventions of the insurgents in such a way that some of today’s most pressing problems and goals might emerge most vividly. The need, for example, to refashion an internationalist conjuncture, or the status of art and artists, the future of labor and education, the commune-form and its relation to ecological theory and practice: these were my preoccupations.

The Paris Commune has always been an important point of reference for the left but what is new about today is in part the entire post-1989 political context and the collapse of state socialism, which took to the grave a whole political imaginary. In my book, the Paris Commune reemerges freed from that historiography, and offering a clear alternative to the centralism of the socialist state. At the same time the Commune has never, in my opinion, fit easily into the role that French national history tries to make it play as a kind of radical sequence in the establishment of the Republic. By liberating it from the two histories that have instrumentalized it, I was certain we would be able to perceive the Commune anew as a laboratory of political invention.

Communal Luxury is neither a history of the Paris Commune nor a work of political theory in the ordinary sense of the term. Historians and political theorists have been responsible for most of the massive literature generated by the Commune, and in the case of the latter — whether communists, anarchists, or even philosophers like Alain Badiou — this means approaching the event from the perspective of an already-formulated theory. Communard actions become the empirical data marshaled in support of verifying the given theory, as if the material world were a sort of local manifestation of the abstract rather than the other way around.

To my mind this amounts to summoning up the poor Communards from their graves only in order to lend gravitas to philosophizing. What I did instead was to immerse myself for several years in the narratives produced by the Communards themselves and a few of their fellow travelers of the period. I looked closely not only at what they did but at what they thought and said about what they were doing, the words they used, fought over, imported from the past or from distant regions, the words they discarded.

These narratives about their struggle — and we are fortunate that so many of the literate Communards chose to write something about their experience — are already highly theoretical documents. But they tend not to be treated as such by political theorists. This is why I had very little use for the existing political theory about the Commune and why, in the end, I find political theorists to be the bane of our existence to the extent that they approach instances of political insurrection from the perspective of an overarching view that tries to unify them under a single concept, theory, or narrative of historical progression. I don’t think it is wise to consider historical events from an omniscient perspective, nor from the vantage point provided by our present, fat and complacent with all the wisdom of the “back-seat driver,” correcting the errors of the past.

I ignored all the innumerable commentaries and analyses of the Commune, many of which — even those written by people sympathetic to the memory of the Commune — consist of nothing but this kind of second-guessing or listing of errors. I had to perform a massive clearing of the terrain in order to construct the distinct phenomenology of the event and visualize it outside of the multiple projections placed on it by historians. It is the event and its excesses which teach you how to consider it, how to think and talk about it.

And once you have paid this kind of attention to workers as thinkers — an attention I learned when I encountered and translated some of the early work of Jacques Rancière — you can’t tell the story the same old way: the way, for example it has been told by the two traditions that controlled its narration for so long: official state-Communist historiography on the one hand and the French national fiction on the other. You have to reframe and reconfigure those past experiences in order to render them significant on their own terms and to make them visible to us now, in the present.

By focusing on the words and agency of concrete individuals acting in common to dismantle, little by little and step by step, the social hierarchies that make up a state’s bureaucracy, I’ve tried to think the Commune historically — as belonging to the past, as dead and gone — and, at the same time, as the figuration of a possible future. I tried to stage it as very much a part of its historical era, yet in a way that exceeds its own history and suggests to us, perhaps, the deepest and most durable demands for worldwide democracy and revolution.

The book is my way of reopening, in other words, from the midst of our current struggles, the possibility of a different historiography, one that allows us to think and do politics differently. The Commune offers a distinct alternative to the course taken by capitalist modernization on the one hand, and the one taken by utilitarian state socialism on the other. This is a project that I think more and more of us share and it’s why I wrote the book.

By choosing to focus on the afterlife of the Commune more than on the 72 days of “its own working existence,” you manage to unearth the myriad ways in which the Commune’s political imaginary actually survived the massacre and lived on in the struggles and thought of ex-Communards and their contemporaries. What do you consider to be the most important legacy of the Commune in this respect?

I did not so much focus on the “afterlife” of the Commune as I did on its survival. In one of my earlier books, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, my subject was indeed, as the title suggests, something more like a memory study: how the ’68 insurrections were represented and discussed ten, twenty, thirty years later. And today very interesting work is being written by what some choose to see as the “afterlives” or “reactivations” of the Paris Commune: studies of the Shanghai Commune, for example, or other aspects of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or studies that look to the Zapatistas as a kind of reactivation of some of the gestures of 1871.

Communal Luxury, however, is limited to the life-span of the Communards and is centrifugal or geographic in its reach. I examine the shockwaves of the event as they reach Kropotkin in Finland or William Morris in Iceland, or as they propel the hard-pressed Communard exiles and refugees themselves into far-reaching new political networks and ways of living in Switzerland, London and elsewhere in the aftermath of the massacre that brought the Commune to an end. The extremity and gore of that end, the Bloody Week of state violence that brought thousands of people to their deaths, has all too often proved to be an uncontrollable lure, making invisible the networks and pathways of survival, reinvention and political transmission that came in the years immediately after, and that concern me in the latter part of the book.

There’s almost a wish on the part of historians to lock the whole event up into a neat 72-day episode that ends in tragedy. In that sense I wanted to examine the prolongation of Communard thought beyond the bloody carnage in the streets of Paris, its elaboration when the exiles met up with their supporters in England and the mountains of Switzerland. In so doing, of course, I am very much in agreement with Henri Lefebvre who tells us that the thought and theory of a movement is generated only with and after the movement itself. Struggles create new political forms and ways of doing as well as new theoretical understandings of these practices and forms.

On one level you could argue that it is the forms taken by that survival — a “life beyond life” as in the French word “survie” — that constitute the Commune’s most important legacy: the very fact that its own “working existence” continued, the refusal on the part of the survivors and their supporters to allow the catastrophe of the massacre to bring everything to an end.

At a more symbolic level, though, the legacy left by the thought generated by the Commune emerges in my book in the cluster of meanings that attach to the phrase I chose for the book’s title: “communal luxury.” I discovered the phrase tucked away in the final sentence of the Manifesto Eugène Pottier, Courbet and other artists wrote when they were organizing during the Commune. For them the phrase expressed a demand for something like public beauty—the idea that everyone has the right to live and work in pleasing circumstances, the demand that art and beauty should not be reserved for the enjoyment of the elite, but that they be fully integrated into daily public life.

This may seem a merely “decorative” demand on the part of decorative artists and artisans, but it is a demand that in fact calls for nothing short of the total reinvention of what counts as wealth, what a society values. It is a call for the reinvention of wealth beyond exchange-value. And in the work of Commune refugees like Elisée Reclus and Paul Lafargue and fellow travelers like Peter Kropotkin and William Morris, what I am calling “communal luxury” was expanded into the vision of an ecologically viable human society. It’s striking that the work of Reclus, Lafargue and their friends is now at the center of the attention of ecological theorists who find there a level of environmental thought that died with that generation in the late 19th century and was not resuscitated again until the 1970s with figures like Murray Bookchin.

This is all exciting work, but it often fails to take into account how the experience of the Commune was part and parcel of the ecological perspective they developed. The experience of the Commune and its ruthless suppression made their analysis even more uncompromising. In their view, capitalism was a system of reckless waste that was causing the ecological degradation of the planet. The roots of ecological crisis were to be found in the centralized nation-state and the capitalist economic system. And they believed a systemic problem demands a systemic solution.

Following up on the previous question, you particularly emphasize the profound impact of the Commune on Marx’s thinking at the time. Could you briefly discuss how the events of 1871 informed, changed or deepened Marx’s understanding of capitalist development and the transition to a post-capitalist society?

Marx knew about as much as it was possible for someone to know about what was transpiring in Paris streets that spring given his distance and the veritable wall of censorship — “a Chinese wall of lies” in his terms — mounted by the Versaillais to prevent accurate information from reaching French people in the countryside and foreigners alike. He looked at the Commune and was astonished to see for the first time in his life a living example of unscripted non-capitalist life in the flesh — the inverse of dailiness lived under state domination. For the very first time he saw people actually behaving as if they were the owners of their lives and not wage slaves.

In Communal Luxury I chart the profound changes the Commune’s existence brought to Marx’s thinking, and, more importantly, to his path: the new attention he paid in the decade following the Commune to peasant questions, to the world outside Europe, to pre-capitalist societies, and to the possibility of multiple routes to socialism. Seeing for the first time what non-alienated labor actually looked like had the paradoxical effect of strengthening Marx’s theory and causing a break with the very concept of theory.

But it must be said that I am less concerned with relating the Commune to the intellectual trajectories of Marx or some of the other well-known fellow travelers I discuss in the book, than I am in weaving together the thought, practices, and trajectories of contemporaries like Kropotkin, Marx, Reclus and Morris, shoemaker Gaillard and other lesser known figures into the relational web the event produced — a kind of “globalization from below.”

The socialist imaginary in the immediate wake of the Commune was fueled not only by the recent insurrection, but by elements that include medieval Iceland, the communist potential of ancient rural peasant communes in Russia and elsewhere, the beginnings of something called anarchist communism, and a profound rethinking of solidarity from what we would call today an ecological perspective.

You note how the Commune was really a shared project that “melted divergences between left factions.” Likewise, you yourself have little patience for sectarian squabbles that overemphasize the split between Marx and Bakunin, or between communism and anarchism, in the wake of the insurrection. What was it about the Commune that allowed these various tendencies to find common cause, and what — if anything — should the left take from this experience today?

Life is too short for sectarianism. It is not that sectarianism didn’t exist under the Commune and in its wake. In fact, the left in the years immediately after the Commune is usually seen to be fiercely riven by the quarrel between Marx and Bakunin — a quarrel between Marxists and anarchists that is said to be responsible for the end of the First International, and a quarrel that is often tiresomely rehearsed today between those who believe economic exploitation is the root of all evil and those who believe that it’s political oppression.

What I chose to do in my book was to push Marx and Bakunin, those two old graybeards whose quarrel has been for so long all any of us could see or hear from that era, off the stage or at least to the sidelines for the moment in order to see what else there was to be seen. And what I discovered was a whole host of very interesting people who were neither slavishly loyal to Marxism nor to anarchism, but who made adroit use of both sets of ideas.

This seems to me to resemble very closely the way militants today go about their political lives, perhaps because some of the most sectarian types from both sides have left the scene. Even so, my book has had its share of sectarian attack — for insufficient towing of the Marxist line and of the anarchist line, in about equal numbers!

Many contemporary movements seem to harken back to the spirit of the Commune in their own struggles. Do you believe we are experiencing a revival of the communal imaginary in our times? How would you account for the return of occupation-based political strategies and this renewed interest in the politics of urban space?

I think there is clearly a revival of the communal imaginary today, but I don’t agree with you that it is centered in the politics of urban space. The city today all too often presents young people with three choices: no work, badly paid work, or meaningless work. Many have chosen to move to the countryside to lead lives that interweave struggle and social cooperation. When I think about the various struggles today, particularly in France which is the context I know best, they are often in rural areas, and are concerned with defending a way of life deemed “archaic” under capitalist modernization. Occupiers seek to create a form of regional self-sufficiency that does not entail retreating into a self-enclosed world, or eddying in isolated pools of self-referentiality.

This is a desire that emerged very strongly, by the way, in the period following the Commune, and I discuss at some length the many interesting debates on this subject that took place in the Jura mountains in Switzerland between refugees and their supporters all too aware of the dangers of isolation. From what I know of the current communal occupations of territories and terrains, occupiers and Zadistes claim a certain lineage not only with the Paris Commune but with more recent struggles like the Larzac in the 1970s and important figures from that era like Bernard Lambert. It was Lambert, after all, who stood upon the Larzac plateau in 1973 and proclaimed to the thousands of people who had traveled there from all over France and beyond to support local farmers in their fight against being expelled from their land by the French Army, that “Never again will peasants be on the side of Versailles.”

When Lambert in his classic text, Les Paysans dans la lutte des classes, situated urban workers and peasants in the same place vis-à-vis capitalist modernity, he was mobilizing exactly the same rhetorical strategy that one of the main characters in my book, Communard Elisée Reclus, does in his 1899 pamphlet, “A mon frère, le paysan.” And it’s the identical strategy underlying an even earlier pamphlet addressed to (but never received by) French in the countryside by besieged Communards in April 1871, “Au Travailleur des campagnes.” To quote Lambert: “Paysans, travailleurs, même combat.”

Today, the existence of ZADs — zones à defendre, or “zones to be defended” — and communes like Nôtre-Dame-des-Landes in France or No TAV outside of Turin, settlements that occupy spaces given over by the state to large infrastructural projects judged to be useless and imposed, mark the emergence of something like a distinctly alternative and combative rural life. This is a rural life opposed to agribusiness, to the destruction of farmland, to the privatization of water and other resources, and to the construction by the state of infrastructural projects on a Pharaonic scale. We see here a real defiance with regard to the state. And at the same time the rural world is being defended as a space whose physical as well as cultural realities oppose the homogenizing logic of capital. By refusing to move they are placing themselves at the center of combat.

The current remobilization of the commune-form, as I understand it, seeks in part to block the ongoing creation of a territorial network of privileged financial metropolitan centers whose development comes at a price: the destruction of the links that tie those centers to their immediate outskirts and surroundings. It is those outskirts, rural or semi-rural in nature, that are then destined to decline in a kind of prolonged desertification, as finance capital sucks more and more personnel and resources into the work of transporting at higher and higher speed, and on a larger and larger scale, communication, goods and services between the designated loci of wealth.

Militants today often see themselves as fighting a distinctly new and neoliberal reality, but I don’t think it matters much whether we view neoliberalism as a distinctly novel phase of capitalism or not — the capitalist world they oppose was already substantially analyzed by Henri Lefebvre in his Production of Space, a book that came out, I believe, in the early 1970s. There he showed how the increasing “planification” of space under capitalism was a movement in three parts: homogeneity, fragmentation and hierarchy.

The production of homogeneity is guaranteed by the unification of a global system with centers or points of metropolitan strength that dominate peripheral weaker points. Simultaneously, though, space becomes fragmented the better to be instrumentalized and appropriated: it comes to be divided up like graph paper into autonomous, Taylorized parcels with distinct localized functions. And an increasingly conscious and treacherous strategy divides all the rural and suburban zones, the satellites made up of small and medium cities, the banlieues and the bleak spaces left behind by the decomposition of agrarian life — all these semi-colonies to the metropolis — into more or less favored zones with most, of course, being destined for controlled, closely supervised, often precipitous decline.

Such contemporary struggles and occupations are, like the Paris Commune — of necessity — locally based. They are bound to a particular space and as such demand a specific political choice. They share all the concerns and aspirations that are place-specific in kind. But they are not localist or localizing in their aims. Communards, we should recall, were fiercely anti-state and largely indifferent to the nation. Under the Commune Paris wanted to be an autonomous unit in an international federation of communes.

In this regard the Commune anticipated in act all kinds of possibilities such that even the projects it could not undertake and that remain at the level of a wish or an intention, like the federating project, retain a profound meaning. Site-specific struggles like Nôtre-Dame-des-Landes and No TAV are much better placed today to achieve the kind of international federation that Paris under the Commune had no time to achieve.

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