Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Reclaiming the legacy of the Paris Commune

Jane Shallice reviews Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, by Kristin Ross

September 4, 2015
5 min read

Communal Luxury"We will work cooperatively towards our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, the future splendours and the Universal Republic", concludes the Manifesto for an Artists’ Federation, in April 1871.

Intellectually we are too often bound by the idea that days to come will be inevitably structured by the present. Kristin Ross's book considers the Paris Commune as a moment in time and a place that levered open the possibilities of something other than the accepted or probable futures. Ross argues that the Commune, seen now as liberated from contradictory legacies of French republicanism and the official communist states, had a far more radical DNA. This engaging book explores both its gestation and more importantly its legacy.

The importance of the Commune, lasting a mere 72 days, was for Marx its very working existence. A short period when the working class of Paris seized the time and, going ‘beyond the cellular regime of nationality’ and without any blue print, became, in Ross's words, a ‘working laboratory of political inventions, improvised on the spot or hobbled together out of past scenarios or phrases, reconfigured as need be, and fed by desires awakened in the popular reunions at the end of Empire’. Presented with a dramatically sudden opportunity, the Commune were determined to organise life on principles of association and cooperation.

By the 1860s, following the defeats of the European uprisings in 1848, a desperate working class had formed local societies, with ‘ambulatory orators’, which organised public meetings in each area to debate how people could have better lives. They explored questions of right of assembly, censorship, work both for men and for women, and the right to form unions. Presented with a dramatically sudden opportunity, this active network of people, seasoned in political debates within a myriad of local structures, straightway attempted to organise demands of daily life, marrying together questions of production and consumption, wishing to develop a framework of ‘communal luxury’. In establishing all as ‘citoyennes and citoyens’, the flag was that of the Universal Republic, to which all were admitted. Its revolutionary significance was emphasised by the burning of the guillotine, the pulling down of the Vendome Volume (the witness to Napoleon's imperial conquests), and the establishment of the Women's Union.

Ross however chooses to consider in detail two radical initiatives which from that fragmentary moment have a long term significance. Within weeks the Communards established free secular public education, and were debating the principles of an ‘integral’ education which would bridge manual and intellectual labour. Ross recognises that ‘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... between manual and artistic and intellectual labour’.

This was mirrored by the parallel debates within the Federation of Artists, including Gustave Courbet, Anatole Marquet de Vasselot, and the shoemaker Napoleon Gaillard, which aimed to confront the dominance of the market, of ownership and hierarchy in art. Gaillard was photographed in front of the barricade he designed, proudly establishing that such work was a work of art and luxury. Luxury being understood as the right to public spaces and to live and work in pleasing and conducive environments.

After its horrendous ending, true to form the French state engaged in an orgy of violence, as though blood would eradicate any trace of that inspirational moment, and Ross explores the waves of its transmission by exiles and thinkers. There is relatively little emphasis on Marx and Engels and the ways in which the Commune dramatically influenced their thinking. Instead, she concentrates primarily on the writings and work of the anarchist communists, including Élisée Reclus, an anarchist geographer who participated in the Commune but sadly is relatively unknown in English, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist and geographer, and William Morris, and argues that ‘what they shared was a view of human living that left little or no place for either the state or party politics, the nation or the market’. For each of them the commune held the seeds of the revolutionary form for the future and all rejected localism, aware of the dangers of isolation and parochialism but also establishing that any commune, in Kropotkin's words, needed to ‘extend itself, to universalise itself... In place of communal privileges it has to put human solidarity’.

Ross writes well with great commitment, aware that today ‘people who spend their time seeking work’ in lives of increasingly fragility under neoliberalism have a greater resonance with those men and women of 1871, than with their own parents. Today the categorial separations between different traditions of communism and anarchism are being readdressed, whether in battles around ecological issues, the nature of work, the continuing crises of the state. Our responses, like those of the Communards, have to be inclusive, open, democratic, supportive, critical and thinking beyond the present.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Jane ShalliceJane Shallice is a writer and activist

Labour’s NEC has started to empower party members – but we still have a mountain to climb
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair