Communal Luxury: Kristin Ross


To mark May Day 2017, we bring you a selection of May Day Reading from the Verso Archive covering care work, sex work, black liberation & more; from Angela Davis, Gail Lewis, Melissa Gira Grant, Isabell Lorey, and Kristin Ross. Read them all here

We also have 50% off all our May Day reading until May 2 at midnight: see the reading list here.

The following essay is taken from Communal Luxury by Kristin Ross. Kristin Ross’s highly acclaimed work on the thought and culture of the Communard uprising of 1871 resonates with the motivations and actions of contemporary protest, which has found its most powerful expression in the reclamation of public space. This original analysis of an event and its centrifugal effects brings to life the workers in Paris who became revolutionaries, the significance they attributed to their struggle, and the elaboration and continuation of their thought in the encounters that transpired between the insurrection’s survivors and supporters like Marx, Kropotkin, and William Morris.

The most general formulation of the goals of Communal education can be found in a poster pasted on walls in the fourth arrondissement and signed by Gustave Lefrançais and Arthur Arnould among others. “To teach the child to love and respect others; to inspire in him the love of justice; to teach him as well that his instruction is undertaken in view of the interests of everyone: these are the moral principles on which henceforth communal education will be based.” But underlying much of the Commune’s ideas about schooling at a more pragmatic as well as a more theoretical level was the notion of “integral education”—professional schools where the child, girl or boy, would become capable of both working intellectually and earning a livelihood. Education, in the words of Fourier, should be “unitaire et intégrale-composée” (unitary and integrally composed), with “composed” indicating the simultaneous development of mind and body, and “integral” emphasizing anything that enriched the relationship of mind and body to promote the harmonious development of the individual. The call for such a harmonious development, as well as the claim to a right to intellectual life, can be found throughout the documents of the First International. A kind of polytechnic formation designed to overcome the division between manual and intellectual labor was envisioned for all children, regardless of class or gender. In the course of such training, practical work would alternate with the study of scientific theories and industrial art as well as physical education—a mixed or integral education long called for by working-class journals like L’Atelier, to which Eugène Pottier had been a contributor. One such journal demanded that “beginning 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.” The idea was to develop all of the aptitudes of children at once, in order that they become “complete men, that is to say, capable of using their faculties to produce not only with their hands but with the intelligence.”

“Integral” or polytechnic education answered the desire to learn a useful trade and at one and the same time escape the enforced specialization caused by the division of labor that resulted in separating educated from uneducated. In this sense it was directed against the harnessing of a child or adolescent prematurely and fatally to a particular trade. But beyond that it was less about integrating a specialization or a métier with general studies than it was about integrating general study for all children regardless of class, with a professional orientation. One of the foremost partisans of polytechnic education was Eugène Pottier, a follower of Fourier’s notion of “attractive work,” fabric designer, member of the International, and poet, who in 1885 composed an ode to a kind of schooling inspired by Fourier:


Fourier qui voulait tout en fête

Sur l’école absurde et baîllant

Sema, de sa main de Prophète

Le grain de Travail attrayant.

L’institutrice intelligente

Associe étude et plaisir:

Venez à l’école attrayante,

Venez, enfants de l’avenir.


Pottier’s name appeared affixed at the head of a poster hanging on the walls of the second arrondissement in early May:


That each child of either sex, having completed the cycle of primary studies, may leave school possessing the serious elements of one or two manual professions: this is our goal. All of our efforts tend toward attaining this result because the last word in human progress is entirely summed up by the simple phrase: Work by everyone, for everyone. Humanity must arrive at the strict realization of this precept, which is old as primitive societies, and is the basis of all equality.


The son of a box-maker who apprenticed in his father’s workshop, Eugène Pottier is best remembered today as the author of the Internationale, written in June 1871 in the midst of the ongoing savage executions of the defeated Communards. The song, which he dedicated to his friend and comrade in the Commune, Gustave Lefrançais, was not to reach any widespread diffusion until it was set to music in 1888 by Pierre De Geyter, sometime after its author returned from exile in the United States. Pottier’s activities in the Commune were not limited to his efforts in transforming primary education. He was also a founding member of the Artists’ Federation and the principal author of its manifesto.

Pottier’s activities and perspectives on the question of art and art education in the context of the Artists’ Federation have been overshadowed in most of the literature about the Commune by a scholarly fixation on the Federation’s much better known President, Gustave Courbet. Elected to the Federation along with other well-known painters—Corot, Manet, Daumier—Courbet was the only one of this group to serve in what was in fact a general headlong flight from Paris by well-known painters like Cézanne, Pissarro, and Degas in the course of the Prussian Siege preceding the Commune and the Commune itself. Courbet’s drama as the President of the Artists’ Federation, which consisted mostly in his having been held financially responsible for the destruction of the Vendôme Tower, followed by his exile in Switzerland, has been well documented. During the Commune Courbet had become an artist in the sense that Marx gave to being an artist in The German Ideology— someone who, amongst other things, paints. As such, the man to whom Alexandre Dumas referred as “that thing we call M. Gustave Courbet” was considered by many bourgeois artists and writers to have usurped public functions and stepped outside of his supposed sphere of competence by participating in the political debates and public discussions of the Commune. A statement like this by Emile Zola is fairly typical:


Certainly this is no time to laugh, but really there are certain spectacles that can’t help but make you laugh ... Courbet, the great Courbet is a member of the Paris Commune! He is going to legislate! He has answered his charge as president of the artists! And, God help us, he has been named a delegate to the commission on Public Instruction! One hundred years from now, the workshops and studios will still be laughing.


We need now to reframe our view of the Artists’ Federation in such a way that Courbet recedes and Pottier comes into focus. If we do so, I believe that a sharper sense of the precise emancipation envisioned and enacted by the federation, to which Pottier gave the name “communal luxury,” will be allowed to emerge.

On the eve of the Commune, Pottier ran a large workshop producing “toutes productions artistiques”—fabric designs, wall paper, lace, painted ceramics, painting on fabric. The internationalism avant la lettre of a workshop like Pottier’s, where skilled artisan-designers from different origins, often different nationalities, worked together at complementary tasks, derived in part from the mobility of that set of métiers—art workers moved freely from workshop to workshop, from city to city and even country to country. Pottier’s own itinerary, polytechnic in nature unlike that of Courbet, might well have figured in the pages of Jacques Rancière’s study of the worker poets, La Nuit des prolétaires. In an 1884 letter addressed to fellow Communard Paul Lafargue, he recounts his early years as the tale of an autodidact, apprenticed at the age of thirteen to his father to train to become a box-maker: “A l’établi d’un emballeur/Lourd, endormi, rêveur et gauche/Comme un bras brut et sans valeur.”12 The point of departure for emancipation in his case may well have been an old grammar book he discovered in the back of an abandoned armoire he was refinishing and a Béranger poem that he copied out and recited over and over until he had learned it by heart. The adolescent Pottier began writing poetry of his own late at night—a strenuous and tiring affair since even though his father was his boss, he was still expected to be in the workshop at 5:00 a.m. He sent his first poem to the high priest of the worker-poets, Pierre-Jean de Béranger, who sends back this reply:


I thank you for the lovely song you sent me. If you are only fifteen, it is a completely remarkable work and I am very grateful that you chose to honor me with it. You do well to use the free time that your apprenticeship grants you in such a pursuit, as long as the verses don’t cause you to forget that the most modest artisan is more useful to his country than are most makers of verse.


The resemblance between Pottier’s initiation into the world of letters and the itineraries of intellectual emancipation Rancière traces in La Nuit des prolétaires is not limited to his (perhaps apocryphal) autodidactic childhood, his appropriation of the language of poets, and the obligatory epistolary approval he seeks as an adolescent from the established writer. (The young Louise Michel sent her poems to Victor Hugo.) Pottier, who was fifty-five years old at the time of the Commune, was of a generation much closer to the artisans of the 1830s and 1840s Rancière studied—for a younger worker-artist like Gaillard fils, for example, already a skilled draftsman, the role played by aesthetic capacity in emancipation would perhaps have been less dramatic. Like so many of the artisans Rancière describes in his study, Pottier was of an age to have encountered early on the pedagogical methods of the great illuminé, Joseph Jacotot, and in an unpublished text Pottier in fact recounts using Jacotot’s methods for forty years to teach his own children and “little French children raised in the United States” how to read. “A book of Jacotot’s universal teaching method filled me with a vague synthesis,” he wrote in 1856. “‘Everything is in everything’ became my motto. It was the first truth for which I took up the cudgel.”

Pottier’s own trajectory was to bear a curious resemblance to that of Jacotot’s: both men underwent the contingency and upheaval of political exile in the wake of revolution—Pottier to Boston after the Commune and Jacotot to Louvain after the return of the Bourbons. And both survived their exiles by teaching French language. It was in Louvain that Jacotot conceived of Universal Education and, in so doing, introduced a sharper problematic into the question of popular education. The whole of Jacotot’s “method” derives from a few simple precepts, of which the simplest is the one Pottier made into his guiding maxim: “Everything is in everything.” Other Jacotot precepts derive—naturally—from the first: “Everyone is capable of connecting the knowledge they already have to new knowledge.” “Everyone is of an equal intelligence.” “The sexes are perfectly equal in terms of intelligence.” “Learn something and relate everything else to it.” Thought, for Jacotot, is not divided into specific competences and domains for specialists—it is similar in all of its exercises and can be shared by all. The something that one learns and to which one relates everything else can very well be a literal thing. Presumably, this “leçon de choses” resonated profoundly in the minds of the skilled workers and artisans like Pottier to whom Jacotot spoke. The thing, the point of departure, does not matter; it may be a letter, a poem, a carved bit of wood, a mother’s song. Anything that can be laid hold of can become the starting point for emancipation. You can start anywhere—you do not have to start at the beginning. For floor-layer Gabriel Gauny, it was the torn fragments of lentil sacks that could be arranged into peculiar encyclopedias. The only model Jacotot gives is the one provided by maternal language and the child’s capacity to learn it without any explanations. By referring to the mother tongue he is not privileging orality—the thing, the starting point, the “something” that is learned is anything that can be constituted as a writing, a thing raised to the level of writing, a thing that can be translated. Emancipation occurs when the universe of daily experience becomes translatable into writing, and a material thing becomes the bridge of translation between two minds.

To better understand the eccentricity of Jacotot’s methods and their appeal to someone like Pottier, it is important to situate them in the context of the form taken generally by the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the education of the masses. For the mid-nineteenth century, when Jacotot conceived of Universal Education, was the dawning of the great crusades to educate the masses, the protracted programs of “interior” cultural colonization designed in France to harness every last peasant in Brittany, every itinerant artisan, every wayward vagabond, to the national project. It was at this time that the ruling elites began to think that the barbarians—whether at the gates, in the workshops, or out plowing the fields—must be given a little instruction, if only to reduce social tensions. Instruction might serve to both enlighten the people and keep them in their place. Barbarians, peasants, and laborers, enclosed in their terroirs and operating within their distinct regional and cultural habitus, must be brought into a shared knowledge, a common culture. But that common culture must in turn be divided up according to an economic model so that each child is taught his or her own set of specific knowledges and skills: all these separate skills added together may create a harmony of different interests, but only to the extent that each interest and competence is carefully delineated. It was against this powerful institutional reiteration of the division of labor that Jacotot’s methods were directed.

His methods attacked the underlying principles of French republicanism as it was being consolidated at the time. A pedagogical vision of politics underwrites all of French republicanism, from the end of the eighteenth century through its consolidation after the demise of the Commune in the Third Republic, all the way up to its panicked reiterations in recent years in the face of schoolgirls in scary headscarves. The pedagogical vision of politics works, broadly speaking, in two ways: first, it conceives of teaching as forming the society of the future. And second, it conceives of politics as the way to instruct the world (parts of which, as we are repeatedly told, “are not ready for democracy”). The right to education is thought throughout to be the condition for the formation of political judgment. One learns to become a citizen. A system of education must be established whose task is essentially one of uplift and integration through knowledge: the worker or peasant is raised to the status of a sovereign citizen— raised, that is, to a dignity he or she possesses by right but not in fact. The peasant must be uprooted from his provincial soil just as in our own time the new arrivals, the immigrants or the newly poor, must be separated from their social or cultural difference by offering them the keys to the country: political access through education. Modern society demands that inequalities be a little reduced, and that there be a minimum of community between those at the top and those at the bottom. Education puts everyone in their place while assuring that some minimal community of shared knowledge exists. Inequality is a slow, lagging start from which, with a little effort and the right instruction, one can certainly catch up.

For Jacotot, though, equality was not abstract, or a topic of discussion, or a reward for good performance in the classroom. Jacotot’s great accomplishment, as Rancière makes clear, was to separate the logic of emancipation from the logic of the institution. Emancipating oneself was an individual affair; there could be no mass institutional application of his “method.” The logic of emancipation concerned concrete relations between individuals. The logic of the institution, on the other hand, is always nothing more than the indefinite reproduction of itself. Emancipation is not the result but the condition for instruction.

In one of his earliest essays, Rancière suggests that the poetry written by workers like Pottier, stealing time in the late night hours their schedules allowed them, was not a means of revindication— neither the form nor the thematic content of the poetry were what mattered. “It is not through its descriptive content nor its revindications that worker poetry becomes a social oeuvre, but rather through its pure act of existing.” The poetry illustrates neither the misery of the worker’s conditions nor the heroism of his struggle—what it says, rather, is aesthetic capacity, the transgression of the division that assigns to some manual work and to others the activity of thinking. It is the proof that one participates in another life. When Marx says that the greatest accomplishment of the Paris Commune was “its own working existence” he is saying much the same thing. More important than any laws the Communards were able to enact was simply the way in which their daily workings inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions— first and foremost among these the division between manual and artistic or intellectual labor. The world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words or images. When that division is overcome, as it was under the Commune, or as it is conveyed in the phrase “communal luxury,” what matters more than any images conveyed, laws passed, or institutions founded are the capacities set in motion. You do not have to start at the beginning—you can start anywhere.

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