Kristin Ross: The contemporary relevance of the Paris Commune

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Interview with Joseph Confavreux for Mediapart on the occasion of the publication of the French translation of Communal Luxury:  The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune 

Convinced that “the world of the Communards is closer to us than the world of our parents,” and that “it is actions that produce dreams and not the reverse,” Kristin Ross explores the imaginary and the practices of the Paris Commune, in order to show its political actuality today. At the juncture of a history of ideas, of imaginaries and of facts, Ross, a Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, explores the Commune and its “afterlives,” in a book that is at once a textual study, an exploration of the thoughts and practices of Communards and their fellow travelers, and a political proposition for the present moment. 


Kristin Ross’s idea is not to simply identify the possible resonances between past and present, but rather to resituate and restage the multidimensional power of a moment in history that has undoubtedly not finished producing its effects, even if it was not only defeated militarily, but also captured and in part emptied of its substance by French republican history, on the one hand, state communist on the other. To recreate all the potentialities of the event, Kristin Ross borrows a metaphor from one of the best known of the Communards, Elisée Reclus.  “The Commune, we might say, is perhaps best figured as having the qualities Reclus attributes in his book to the mountain stream. Its scale and geography are livable, not sublime. The stream, in his view, was superior to the river because of the unpredictability of its course. The river’s torrents of water barrel down a deep furrow pre-carved by the thousands of gallons that have preceded it; the stream, on the other hand, makes its own way. But for that very reason, the relative strength of the waters of any mountain brook is proportionately greater than that of the Amazon.” 

Joseph Confavreux: What new can be said about the Commune, whose history has been written and rewritten. What have you added to the dominant historiographies of the Commune? 

Kristin Ross: It is actually a very good moment to see and say something new about the Commune because the event has become “liberated,” so to speak, from the two dominant historiographies that managed or framed what we could perceive and understand about the insurrection:  the official state-Communist history, on the one hand, and the French national fiction, on the other. Since 1989 the Commune is no longer forced to play the role of failed revolution to the Bolshevik one which was to have provided the corrective. And much of my book is directed at showing how the fierce anti-statism of the Commune, its profoundly non-national imaginary, has always made its integration into even the more radical sequence of the history of French Republicanism tenuous if not impossible.  The Commune does not really belong to either of those stories. Like those trousers in the back of your closet that you keep trying on, it will never fit.

            Communal Luxury is not a history of the Paris Commune. It is more of an attempt on my part to intervene into the history of that extraordinary event in order, as Sartre once said, to “ouvrir le champ du possible” today.   But such an intervention can only be made, I think, by respecting the singularity of the event, its distinct phenomenology and modes of being—what the particular individuals who made the Commune said and did, what they thought they were doing, the words and names they borrowed, invented, debated. For me, this involved a preference in my research for the texts written by Communards over those written about them. And it involved a closer reading of those texts than is usually performed by historians or politologues—neither of which I am. This kind of attention is something I learned in part from my training in literary studies and in part long ago when I encountered and translated the early work of Jacques Rancière, to whom I owe the idea that the voices of workers from the past are entitled to as much of our attention as the voices of those who construct theories around them today. By focusing on the words and agency of concrete individuals acting in common to dismantle the hierarchical organization of their society, I’ve tried to think the Commune historically—as belonging to the past—and, at the same time, as the figuration of a possible future. The book is my way of reopening, in other words, from the midst of our current struggles, the possibility of a history and a future different from the course taken by capitalist modernization on the one hand, and by utilitarian state socialism on the other.  This is a project that I think many of us today share, and I see the Commune as central to that project.

           Histories of the Commune, especially the old classics, were often preoccupied by the military maneuvers and the street-fighting, and by the legislative squabbling in the Hotel de Ville. A more recent strand of British empiricism has become obsessed with ascertaining a numerically precise body-count of dead Communards. In the end such recalibrations of the body-count serves to minimalize the significance of the massacre—an agenda that I certainly don’t share. Minimizing the significance of a massacre or maximizing the “success” of an illegal war always involves emphasizing body-counts. As for me, I view that extraordinary attempt by the state to kill off one by one and en bloc its class enemy—regardless of how many it successfully exterminated—to be the foundational act of the Third Republic. But my own attention has been drawn much more to showing the way Communard thought continued to be prolonged and elaborated beyond the Semaine Sanglante, as Communard exiles and refugees like Malon, Lafargue, Reclus and Léo met up with and collaborated with supporters like Marx, Kropotkin and William Morris.  The French word “survie” nicely invokes such a life beyond life—the continuation of the struggle in other forms. Henri Lefebvre—a thinker ignored for the most part in France today but widely read in North and South America—believed that the thought or theory of a movement is generated only with and after the movement itself; it is an integral part of the energies unleashed by political action. In the discussions and practices that took place in the cafes of London and the mountains of the Jura in the years following the Commune, we see a focus on the commune-form that we call today ecological, an attempt to think together the insurrectional commune—what had transpired that spring in a major European city—in tandem with what remained of the ancient agrarian communes of the countryside.  We see a profound rethinking of the practice of solidarity not as moral or ethical conduct—but as political strategy. And we see the development of a vision of social transformation slavishly beholden to neither anarchism nor Marxism but borrowing from both—a vision its originators, mostly former Communards, called “anarchist communism.” This kind of political analysis, one that unites rather than opposes the political battle against oppression with the economic battle against exploitation, can only resonate strongly, I think, in militant circles today. 

Joseph Confavreux:  Are there lessons to be learned from the 1871 Commune for possible communes today? Are there lessons to be learned from the defeat of the Commune? What are the resonances of the Commune in the events and political culture of today? 

Kristin Ross: I don’t believe that the past gives lessons.  But I do think there are moments when particular past struggles leap out and present themselves as a possible future. And I think this is the case with the Commune today. I can easily imagine that young people today, living on the edge of the various informal economies, uninterested in careers as a hedge-fund managers or bureaucrats, attempting to live otherwise in a thriving if crisis-ridden capitalism, would find meaningful the debates about the role of communes and intentional communities in bringing about the systemic change necessary for an ecologically sustainable existence—debates that took place in Switzerland and England in the wake of the Commune. But I don’t think I need to spell out in detail the rapprochements between the artisans and workers who made the Commune, most of whom spent most of their time not working but looking for work, and today’s precarious youth. Readers will make their own rapprochements. This said, it was certainly the return of an occupation-based political strategy, the return of a strategy of seizing space, taking up space, from Montreal to Tunisia, Madrid to Oakland, in 2011, that drew me  to a new reflection on the Paris Commune.  And in Communal Luxury  I have tried to stage the event of the Commune in such a way that some of today’s most pressing political problems and goals might emerge most vividly. The need to refashion an internationalist conjuncture, for example, or the status of art and artists, the future of labor and education, the commune-form and its relation to ecological theory and practice.

Joseph Confavreux: What are the principal ingredients of the imaginary of the Commune that you describe? What does “communal luxury” mean? 

Kristin Ross: When the slogan “Vive la Commune!” began to ring out in workers’ reunions across Paris during the final years of the Empire, the emotion and affective charge attached to the word “commune” far exceeded any of the meanings associated with the word. Workers wanted to be free to organize their own social life according to principles of association and cooperation. They wanted to substitute a decentralized, communal organization—a direct cooperation of all energies and intelligences—for the standing government.  The word “commune,” of course, echoed the most radically democratic aspect of the French Revolution. And it meant a powerful demand for local autonomy.

      Missing from all this, of course, is the nation and the state. They did not want to be a state, but rather an element, a unit in a federation of communes ultimately international in scale. The communal imaginary was deeply non-national in its contours, operating on a scale both smaller and larger than the nation. In the words of one of its better-known participants, Gustave Courbet, during the Commune “Paris did not want to be the capital of France.” It wanted to be an autonomous unit in an international federation of communes.

       These are some of the strands that, woven together, make up what I am calling “communal luxury.” The phrase is Eugène Pottier’s; it is taken from the manifesto he wrote with other artists during the Commune when they organized themselves into a federation. “Nous travaillerons pour notre régénération, pour le luxe communal, et pour la République Universelle.” At a basic level, what Pottier and his artist comrades meant by “communal luxury” was something like “public beauty”—the enhancement of public spaces in every town and village, the right of everyone to live and work in a pleasing environment.  This may seem a minor demand. But if beauty were to actually flourish in public spaces and not just in private salons this would mean an art that was fully integrated into daily life. It would mean transforming the aesthetic coordinates of the entire society.  And, as Communards like Elisée Reclus and fellow travelers like William Morris knew well, it was the outline of an ecologist program.

           The phrase “communal luxury” had a polemical dimension too.  It was designed to counteract the “misérabiliste” image of life under the Commune that the Versaillais were busy propagating in the French countryside.  Sharing, for the Versaillais, could only mean sharing misery. “Communal luxury” countered this propaganda with an image of equality in abundance, a world where everyone would have his or her share of the best. Communal luxury is a call to re-evaluate luxury itself, what a society means by wealth, by “commonwealth,” what a society holds valuable. In this sense it is the name for a different measure of social wealth than the one offered by the market, an idea of shared wealth profoundly different than the quantitative race to overproduction.

         In the work of Commune refugees and fellow travelers like William Morris and Kropotkin what I am calling “communal luxury” was expanded into the vision of an ecologically viable human society.  The work of Elisée Reclus, Paul 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 nineteenth century and was not resuscitated again until the 1970s.   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. And they believed a systemic problem demands a systemic solution.

Joseph Confavreux: Is the Commune still relevant today?

Kristin Ross:I would say that it is newly relevant.  Its contemporanaeity lies perhaps in Chiapas, Mexico. Or perhaps outside of Toulouse. It emphatically does NOT reside in a movement like the one to dig up Louise Michel’s corpse and re-inter it in the Pantheon. What a silly idea!  The cult of monumentality and the affirmation of a national, centralized space is hardly in keeping with the people who tore down the Vendôme Column! Integrating the Commune into monumental (nationalist) space, not only diminishes it, it closes off any trace or memory of it.  The last thing on the minds of Paula Minck, Louise Michel and the other Communardes was inclusion in the State. They were completely uninterested in the vote or in any other parliamentary-style marker of belonging to the Republic.  As participating members in the public life of the Universal Republic they were indifferent to republican politics in general. Women in 1848 had sought the vote. But by refusing to follow that well-trodden path, the Communardes of 1871 managed to open up the political form itself for change. They made a form that would respond to a whole set of desires, identifications, and practices that could not be defined by the territory of the State, circumscribed by the nation, or managed by the market. What could be more actual than that?

Read the original French on the Mediapart website.

Kristin Ross's Communal Luxury is available to purchase from the Verso website at 30% discount (hardback) with free postage and bundled ebook.