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  • Published in Book Reviews

Communal Luxury is an effective account of the 1871 Paris Commune, and how understanding it aids our struggle for freedom within a decaying capitalism, argues John Westmoreland

Communal Luxury

Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso 2015), 156pp.

This book is in many ways, a work for our times. Kristin Ross decided to write it because the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 has a relevance to the forms of protest we witness today, what Ross refers to as the ‘politics of encampment and occupation’. The political issues themselves of ‘how to refashion an internationalist conjuncture, the future of education, labour and art, the commune-form and its relationship to ecological theory and practice’ (p.2) are very much what the new activists for social change are concerned with too.

Communal Luxury is a book about ideas more than events. As a professor of comparative literature at the University of New York, Ross is able to use a rich literary mix to develop her themes, and the writings of many of the Communards themselves are well used.

This consciously sets the work apart from previous histories of the Paris Commune. Ross is dismissive of what she calls ‘Communist-state’ histories, although she cites Marx throughout, which focus on the lessons learned by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who smashed the bourgeois state in order to consolidate the rule of the workers in Petrograd. Similarly, and far more convincingly, Ross attacks the accounts of French Republican historians that denigrate the Commune in order to boost the humanitarian accomplishments of the French Third Republic that was proclaimed after the fall of the Commune and fell with the Nazi invasion of 1940.

The Paris Commune happened when the victorious Prussian army surrounded Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1) and the government of France fled the city. The power of the Commune was exercised by the National Guard, which itself had fallen under the control of the workers in March with the popular seizure of the city’s cannons. The Commune lasted 72 days and was the first time modern society was organised on a communist basis. The rule was ‘everyone labours, for everyone’. The government of the Commune was based on equal voting rights, with elected deputies subject to recall if they failed to uphold their duty. Food, housing and rights and responsibilities were held equally by all citizens. In May 1871 the Commune fell and the Communards were summarily tried and executed in what became known as the ‘massacres’. Some 25,000 were executed in the most grotesque bourgeois terror. The indignant bourgeoisie revealed their class hatred to all the world and forced all serious thinkers to choose between defence of the Commune or support for the bourgeois terror.

‘Communal luxury’ was a term coined by the Communards themselves, and has a resonance today. Capitalist production produces a wasteful luxury for the rich, and mass produced cheap goods for the poor. Communal luxury occurred because production was focussed on the needs of the community, and was organised by the collective will of the community. The conjoining of human design and human need is communal luxury, or happiness for the many.

The ‘political imaginary’ in the title refers to the ideas thrown up by the experience of the Commune – ‘unleashed by the creative energies and excesses of the movement itself’ (pp.6-7). In this regard the scope of the book is limited to the recorded ideas of the participants and their supporters. Ross acknowledges this as ‘a rough-hewn constructive kind of thought’, but defends it as being unspoiled by writers who have been too concerned with ‘high-theory’ (p.7).

Nevertheless the book is well worth a read, and provides much food for thought about the Commune itself and how we might use it to understand the world of decaying capitalism and our struggle for freedom and fulfilment within it.

It might be useful to deal with criticisms of Communal Luxury first. The book suffers from two faults. The first is that it is written in too complex an academic style to fulfil the needs of most activists. The central concept in the title of ‘political imaginary’ is too broad a term to support analysis. The complexity of some passages betrays the creative and selective way in which the account of the Commune has been conceived. The second flaw is that in an attempt to write about the Commune so that it fits in with the anti-capitalist movement today, there is a rather artificial attempt to be inclusive regarding thinkers at the time who clearly had little in common.

Ross wants to say as do many today, ‘let’s put theoretical divisions to one side and concentrate on what unites us’. Of course this an admirable start to united-front work but at crucial moments, mass struggles split and socialists have to argue about strategy and tactics. Where Ross tries to stitch together the ‘political imaginary’ of such divergent (and often hostile) thinkers as Karl Marx and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, the book is far from convincing. The disagreements were important to both – Kropotkin and the Jura federation he was part of were expelled from the International Workingmen’s Association for their anarchist tendencies.

However, there is also much to commend this book. It is very successful in discussing an historical event in a way that informs the present. Communal Luxury is a relatively short work, just 142 pages. There are five chapters and these can be summarised as follows.

Beyond the “Cellular Regime of Nationality” looks at the ideological origins of the Commune in the reunion clubs where radicals began to meet from the summer of 1868 onwards to discuss and debate the government of virtual dictatorship under Napoleon III, who overthrew the Second Republic in 1851. The meetings were increasingly radical in their attacks on the government of ‘capitalist vampires’. At first discussion showed the demoralisation of the workers, but by coming together regularly a shared analysis of the workings of the capitalist system emerged; ‘all the meetings were about bread’ (p.18). There developed the desire for an international commune based on equality for all. Thus before the deed of the Commune of 1871, which was very much an act of necessity, there existed the political desire for an egalitarian and internationalist commune. Of huge symbolic importance was the destruction of the Vendome Column which was a monument to imperialist conquest. When the opportunity arose a commune was formed in direct opposition to the imperialist government. In the anti-capitalist movement today, the criticism of decaying and bloody capitalism spawns the desire for and a vision of a better world.

Communards pose with the toppled statue of Napoleon I, 1871

Chapter Two is on the ‘communal luxury’ that the Commune created. Of particular value are the two themes which Ross selects to illustrate what communal luxury was all about – art and education. In April the Communards set about re-founding education ‘on the widest possible basis’ (p.41). Religion was abolished from schools and girls, orphans and all disadvantaged children were given compulsory instruction. The movement drew in writers, teachers and artists. Education was polytechnic, offering academic and practical instruction.

For workers to conquer state power the division that capitalism imposes between work with the head and the hand should be broken, and an integrated education where the student is at home in both the library and the workshop should replace it. The education movement was visualised around a dialectical concept - the study of every separate thing leads to knowledge of every other thing.

In a similar way the arts were also re-founded and integrated with labour. Thus the repetitive and de-skilled labour of the factory denies the worker the opportunity to use their art in making a product. In bourgeois society the artist stands outside or above society, and art itself is classified in elitist terms. The artists who were drawn to the inspiration of the Commune set up the Artists Federation, under the leadership of Gustave Courbet. In terms of art itself, little was produced of value, but the importance of art for the individual worker was recognised and this was both a damning criticism of the narrowness of workers’ lives under capitalism as well as a grand experiment in getting workers to see the art in their own craft. Of course the experiment was cruelly mocked when the Commune was suppressed but the movement carried on and found expression in the British Arts and Crafts movement and the work of William Morris.

The last three chapters deal with the ‘political imaginary’ which came from the Commune after its suppression. It was carried into Switzerland and Britain by the Communard exiles. In these pages some important points are made about the intellectual fall-out from the Commune, but the work is too sweeping to be entirely convincing.

As the Commune was suppressed the victorious bourgeoisie revealed their terror that the revolutionary impulse of the Commune might reach the peasants. The French countryside was flooded with lurid accounts of free-love and political anarchy which, had it not been quashed, would have resulted in the sequestration of peasant lands. Ross connects the responses of three important thinkers to the question of how to unite town and country in a common vision of a future political economy. Karl Marx, William Morris and Peter Kropotkin all wrote sterling defences of the Commune, and all researched the literature on peasant agriculture. The issue of how to draw the peasantry into politics on the side of the Left is still as relevant today as it was then. But although what Ross argues about their individual research is well founded, the commonality of the thought of Marx, Morris and Kropotkin is exaggerated.

For Marx the working class was the only force that could bring about the end of capitalism, and for revolution to succeed the workers would have to lead the peasants in the revolution. Kropotkin on the other hand saw the Russian Obschina or peasant commune as the basis for a future socialist society. Ross overlooks the sheer backwardness and lack of political culture in the Russian peasants, and fails to offer a critique of the utopian idealisation of peasant life by Kropotkin.

Nevertheless there are some important insights made about how the defence of the Commune produced radical thought in a number of areas. The discussion of how the Commune led Marx and Kropotkin to criticise Darwin’s account of evolution as a model for free-market competition in nature is particularly enjoyable. The Commune enabled an appreciation of the value of cooperation in nature to explain the survival of species, as much as competition for resources.

A final feature of Communal Luxury which commends the book is that Ross is able to reveal new, or at least largely forgotten works from Communard writers. Foremost among these is the writing of Elisee Reclus whose major work, Nouvelle Geographie Universelle, is only now being acknowledged as an important precursor to modern studies of ecology. The conception of a geography which is based on the idea that ‘a study of every separate thing is a study of everything’ came directly from Communard thought. It directly challenges the idea that the economy stands above the environment, and that profit making can override culture, nature and joy. This section is extremely relevant to activists camped to prevent fracking, or trying to create a space for themselves in an urban environment.

In summary, although Communal Luxury can be criticised for its lack of analytical rigour, it is food for thought, and well worth a read. The book is relevant to the modern activist and will provoke debate, and in this regard Kristin Ross should be commended.

John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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