The dreamworlds of the Paris Commune

This review was first appeared on Sceptical Scot.

145 years ago this month, the Paris Commune, a bold, brief and ultimately tragic attempt to realise a political utopia in a major European city, was at its peak.

A precarious coalition of tradesmen, labourers, feminists, artists and intellectuals seized control of the French capital on 18 March 1871, fenced the city centre with barricades, and hoisted the red flag over the Hôtel de Ville.

During their momentary ascendancy the Communards sought to implement a radical participative democracy, replacing the established institutions of the state with a federation of neighbourhood councils, and private commerce with a network of co-operatively managed producer associations.

After just 72 days it was all over. The French government retook the city in May after a bloody siege in which some 30,000 revolutionaries were massacred.

But the powerful imagery and ideals associated with the Commune continue to resonate, signifying for generations of political radicals the abiding possibility of an alternative means of organising political and economic life. The rhetoric of occupation, direct democracy and co-operative economics still pulsates through the heart of contemporary efforts to mobilise opposition to the established global economic order, finding expression in movements such as the Occupy encampments, the anti-austerity protests in the public squares of Greece and Spain, the new political groups that emerged in the course of Scotland’s independence debate, and the prolonged colonisation of Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune by Kristin Ross, Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, is an absorbing exploration of the Commune’s political legacy that attempts to cut through the event’s accumulated mythologies through a close study of words and actions of the Communards themselves, several of whom recorded their impressions of the uprising and the ideals that inspired it.

Ross is less concerned with providing another blow-by-blow account of an event that has been retold so many times – the audacious seizure of power, the marshalling of the barricades, the horrific slaughter that brought it to an end – than entering into the utopian thought-worlds that motivated the Communards and which have continued to inspire the radical political movements that have succeeded them.

‘The flag of the Universal Republic’

Ross maintains the Commune has usually been interpreted as an event that fits neatly into the logic of French political history, viewed as an attempt to take up the unfinished business of the 1789 Revolution, or as a precursor to the Third Republic instituted shortly after the uprising. But, while acknowledging that the Commune clearly owed something to a collective memory of the insurrectionary Paris of 1789, she argues that close attention to what the Communards actually said and did makes clear that the 1871 revolution was motivated by a quite different set of ideals than those that inspired the storming of the Bastille. For them, the Commune was not about restoring the Republic’s status as a shining democratic light unto the nations, but rather about transcending the concept of nationhood altogether.

The Commune was internationalist in orientation, conceived as nothing less than the first chapter in a global socialist uprising that would break down distinctions of country, ethnicity and class, replacing the nation state with a worldwide federation of self-governing communities. Shortly after taking the city the revolutionaries broadcast their intentions through a series of symbolic acts. They opened up the Commune to international participants, proclaiming that ‘our flag is the flag of the Universal Republic.’ And they signalled their rejection of the nationalist violence they associated with 1789 by setting a guillotine alight under a statue of Voltaire, an icon for the transcendence of nationalism through the benign law of universal reason. Elisée Reclus, a somewhat overlooked Communard worker-intellectual who emerges as one of the heroes of Ross’s book, recalled:

Everywhere the word ‘commune’ was understood in the largest sense, as referring to a new humanity, made up of free and equal companions, oblivious to the existence of old boundaries, helping each other in peace from one end of the world to the other.

Ross seeks to show that the imaginative world of the Communards was rooted in the radical thought of the 1860s and 70s rather than that of the late 18th century. One of the representative texts she highlights, Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s hugely influential 1863 novel What Is to Be Done?, presents an early and somewhat uncanny vision of what a world inspired by international socialist ideals might look like.

Chernyshevsky discerned in Russia’s ancient rural communities – its mirs, obshinas and artels – the dim outline of a prospective network of socialist communes. Shorn of their vestigial parochialism, religious conservatism and patriarchal hierarchies, and emancipated from poverty through the application of new technologies and methods of production, the ‘primitive communism’ of the mir was the soil from which the autonomous socialist community of the future might grow. One of the book’s most striking passages describes a dream of a post-revolutionary Russian landscape in which communes built around megastructures somewhat like the 1851 Crystal Palace, which Chernyshevsky has visited on a trip to England, rise from the country’s vast plains, situated ‘two or three miles from each other, as if they were numerous chessmen on a chessboard’, separated by acres of ‘fields and meadows, gardens and woods.’ This sci-fi vision of a harmonious world of socialist citadels linked by flexible federalist structure was actually closer to the thought-world of the Communards than the ideal of a democratic Republic that had motivated the 1789 revolutionaries.

‘Communal luxury’

During the Commune’s brief duration its participants were only able to sketch the outlines of the institutions they hoped would establish the framework for the radically egalitarian communual life they envisaged.

They attempted to design democratic structures that open decision-making processes up to every member of the community. Direct democracy was impossible in a city the size of Paris, but the lineaments of a network of neighbourhood assemblies were put in place that were intended to bring elected representatives much closer to the people.

And for the Communards democracy extended to the realm of economics. Formal ‘bourgeois’ democratic representation wasn’t enough: they wanted to replace capitalist economic relations with co-operative systems of production and consumption that would allow workers greater control over the use of their labour. Some of Ross’s most interesting pages pay close attention to the means by which the Communards proposed to begin the process of breaking down the sharp divisions of labour necessitated by capitalism.

A central element in their programme to move towards a viable postcapitalism was the establishment of a public education system designed to produce well-rounded students capable of contributing to the life of the community through a wide range of skills. It would be secular: teachers were to shun the black gowns worn by the priests who dominated the pre-revolutionary Catholic schools, and instead wear clothes of bright colours. All religious symbols would be removed and replaced with images and sculptures of real objects from the world of nature. And it would be holistic: the school was re-conceived as a kind of polytechnic that would make no distinction between manual and intellectual labour. As one revolutionary journal of the time put it:

[B]eginning at a young age, the child should pass back and forth between the school and the workshop … He who wields a tool should be able to write a book, write it with passion and talent … The artisan must be able to take a break from his daily work through artistic, literary or scientific culture, without ceasing for all that to be a producer.

This holistic philosophy received one of its fullest expressions in the Federation of Artists Manifesto written in April 1871 by the craftsman Eugène Pottier, best known now as the author of The Internationale. The manifesto sought to collapse the traditional distinction between fine art and craftsmanship, proposing that all those skilled in the visual arts or trades – whether expressive, decorative or utilitarian – should work together to make the communal space more beautiful. Art would be integrated into everyday life: the fine artist would escape the confines of the salon, and the aesthetic dimensions of the work of the carpenter, the gardener or the shoemaker would be acknowledged. This expansion of the realm of the aesthetic to the details of day-to-day life was the ideal of ‘communal luxury’ Pottier had in mind when writing of the ideal of ‘Work by everyone, for everyone’:

We will work cooperatively toward our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendours and the Universal Republic.

‘A tiny system of rivulets’

The Communards’ utopian dreaming was cut short, brutally, almost as soon as that Manifesto appeared. But a collective memory of the project’s motivating ideals and fragmentary achievements worked its way into late 19th century political discourse in the manner – as Reclus put it – of a ‘tiny system of rivulets that appear on the sand after the ocean’s wave has retreated.’ Surviving participants such as Reclus, André Léo, Paul Lafargue, and Gustave Lefrançais found refuge across Europe, and went on to share their reflections on the Commune through their writings and friendships with sympathetic leftist activists and intellectuals.

Their various accounts of what they had tried to in Paris had a significant influence on the late thought of Karl Marx, who wrote that with their bold experiment the Communards had ‘stormed the heavens’, and had developed the ‘political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.’ Ross, however, is primarily interested in the close association one of the survivors – Reclus – formed with two other influential figures of 19th century socialism, William Morris and Peter Kropotkin, who together worked out the essential framework of the anarchist political philosophy that continues to influence the efforts of today’s radicals to design a credible postcapitalism.

The example of the Commune’s emphasis on holistic education, creative labour and the breakdown of the division between art and craft encouraged Morris to politicise his belief that the artistic impulse should extend to every sphere of life. Morris adopted the practice of delivering a public lecture every March to mark the anniversary of the Commune’s founding, and wrote dozens of essays elaborating a vision of a political and economic system that would prioritise the dignity of labour, many of them studded with passages that might have part of Reclus’s Manifesto. A paragraph from his 1883 lecture Art Under Plutocracy is representative:

[I] must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are conscious works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay, even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of the all the externals of our life.

Morris went so far as to seek to raise the event of the Commune to the status of myth. He saw it as only the most recent attempt in human history to realise the eternal ideal of a co-operative democratic and economic framework that would afford everyone the opportunity to lead a creative, fulfilling life. He set his 1885 poem about the Commune, Pilgrims of Hope, in the lineage of his romances of medieval Britain and Iceland, such as The House of the Wolfings, A Dream of John Ball and The Roots of the Mountains, which sought to immortalise the memory of earlier efforts to institute ideal forms of government. His 1890 utopian novel News from Nowhere imagined a transformed London the Communards would have recognised.

Ross tracks the lively correspondence amongst Morris, Kropotkin and Reclus regarding the most appropriate design for a political system that would make possible the flourishing democratic and economic life they envisaged, much of which focused on discussion of the optimal size for a self-governing community. It needed to be small enough to allow each member of the community to make a meaningful contribution, but large enough to ensure a level of production sufficient to provide for essential needs and a satisfactory quality of life.

In essence, they saw the challenge of building utopia as a design problem, requiring, as Ross puts it, ‘an acute attention to calibrating production and community life at an appropriate scale.’ They were acutely aware of the need to work out mechanisms for a degree of federation between each self-governing community, to ensure a healthy exchange of goods and services, ideas and culture, and thus guard against parochialism. They were also concerned that communes should not grow so large as to place too heavy a burden on the countryside they farmed. Each community should attempt to achieve a sustainable balance between small-scale industry and agricultural production.

Back to the future?

Communal Luxury is a fine reconstruction of the imaginative universe of the Commune, Ross’s respectful and often moving commentary allowing the voices of some of the impressive self-educated workers at the heart of the uprising to be heard. The book illuminates the precise nature of the Commune’s contribution to the history of radical political thought, and its continuing influence. Movements such as Occupy, the new groups that have emerged in Greece, Spain and Scotland, the experiments with direct democracy and participative budgeting in Barcelona, Porte Alegre and Venezuela, and the many think-tanks developing new forms of green economics, testify to a widespread desire for political and economic alternatives allowing people greater control over the remote governments that rule them and the abstract market forces that dictate how their labour is (or is not) employed.

Ross shows that the Communards were asking the same questions of the political and economic order of their time that so many are asking today. However, it is easier to agree that they were posing the right questions, than that they had the right answers. Like the visions found in Chernyshevsky’s novel, or Morris’s romances, the anarchist ideals championed by the Communards and their successors have always had a somewhat dreamlike quality. By what mechanism – other than some kind of worldwide apocalypse – could the transition from capitalist modernity to a pastoral landscape of small-scale federated communes ever be managed?

It is hard to read Ross’s recreation of the Communards’ bold enterprise without a sense of looming catastrophe, a sure premonition that their hopes of establish a self-governing citidal in the midst of a developing capitalist state were doomed from the start, an effort to turn the clock back on an industrial revolution that was already irreversible.

And if it was too late to turn back the capitalist juggernaut in the 1870s, how much more so is that true now, in the 21st century, as the global economy has become ever more tightly integrated, and it has become increasingly difficult to effect significant economic change even at a national level. Attempts by radical groups to establish political spaces that operate outside the capitalist nexus have failed because there is no soil within which they can take root: the basic resources on which they must draw to survive – clean water, electricity, building materials – must be sourced from the very economic superstructures they seek to escape. The Occupy movement, for example, like the Commune, succeeded in highlighting and clarifying widespread unease about the shortcomings of the prevailing economic order, but had no resources with which to establish the secure foundations necessary to stand as a bulwark against that order, or to withstand the established authorities when they were ready to act to sweep it away.

Indeed, it is notable that what success radical political movements have achieved in recent years has been won through effective engagement with mainstream political processes. Spain’s Podemos, for example, has been lauded for its attempts to make use of digital technologies to open up its internal decision-making mechanisms, but it has also taken care to secure concrete political influence through participation in regular elections. And Syriza, of course, which like Podemos emerged from the anti-austerity street protests of 2011, has actually succeeded in gaining power. Anarchist groups have sought to highlight Syriza’s unsuccessful effort to reverse the harsh fiscal measures imposed on Greece by the EU as proof of the futility of mainstream political engagement. But it is at least as plausible to suggest that Syriza’s difficulties have more to do with their relative isolation within Europe as a governing party of the left: only the establishment of a socialist political hegemony across the EU could afford the left access to the levers necessary to set the European economy on a different course.

Other examples of effective engagement by the left with conventional political channels that have cracked open some prospect of real change include the unexpected radicalisation of the Labour Party through the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and the strong challenge made by self-styled socialist Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for the US Presidency. These developments might be taken as indicating a disillusionment on the left with the potential of Occupy-style protests to effect concrete political change, and a renewed dedication to winning control of the ‘commanding heights’ necessary to effect real reform.

It might also be argued – as, for example, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, whose book Inventing the Future has been reviewed by Sceptial Scot – that a primary objective of the Communards and the wider anarchist tradition – liberation from the unsatisfactory working conditions capitalism imposes upon so many – has greater chance of realisation through an acceleration of the wheels of capitalist modernity, rather than their arrest.

An issue finally entering mainstream political discourse is the looming prospect of mass unemployment brought about by the automation of a broad swathe of middle-class professions that previously required human input. But with a change of perspective it is possible to view automation as an opportunity rather than a threat, a chance to shift the burden of unfulfilling, repetitive work from humans to machines, freeing up leisure time for people to engage in the kind of creative labour that Morris et al thought essential to human flourishing. With appropriate economic adjustments, such as the introduction of some kind of basic income guarantee, automation holds out the possibility of a ‘communal luxury’ attained through new technologies opened up by global economic exchange, technologies that would not be available through the small-scale ecoomic systems imagined by the Communards.

To be sure, channelling rapid economic and technological change for the benefit of all, and not just a global elite, will be a formidable political challenge. But it would be a development conceivable within the terms of the remorseless logic of a seamlessly woven global economic system secured by innumerable threads that cannot be unpicked. The political imaginary of the Communards, Morris, Kropotkin, Reclus and their followers might indeed be a beautiful one, but it seems likely to live on only in the realm of dreams.

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune by Kristin Ross is published by Verso Books.