An interview about the Paris Communards' ideas about changing the world. From People & Nature
In her new book Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross argues that a rich legacy of ideas and practices developed during the Commune – the workers’ democracy that ruled Paris for two-and-a-half months in 1871 before being violently suppressed – needs to be recovered for the twenty-first century. Here she discusses the book with Gabriel Levy.
Gabriel Levy: You urge the readers of Communal Luxury to look at the Paris Commune not as a precursor to the Soviet Union, and not as a precursor to the Third Republic in France. If it was not those things, what was it?
Kristin Ross: Extricating the Commune from those two stories is an enormous challenge, in part because those two histories were the principal ways we had of understanding the Commune. They were the histories that claimed it. In each of these narratives the Commune was made to play an essentially edifying role, as though the Communards were martyrs to state socialism or martyrs to the French Republic. If you stop seeing what the insurgents did in this way – if you stop seeing them as martyrs, sacrificing themselves to the future – then suddenly a whole new vista becomes available and you can begin to see their self-emancipation at a daily level. You are radically in their present. If you dislodge the event from those two historiographies, you are back in the day-to-day of the Communards, and it becomes possible to see, perhaps for the first time, the kinds of political inventions and experimentations that they performed.
GL: When you spoke at the recent Planetary Natures conference at Binghamton University in the USA, you reacted very sharply to the suggestion that our relationship to the Commune is one in which we “learn from its defeat”. And you complained about the widespread habit of political back-seat driving practised on the Commune (all of it back-seat driving after the event, and therefore especially useless). Where does that false critique come from and how can it be countered?
KR: The false critique is associated particularly with these historiographies that I have mentioned. The Bolsheviks [who took power in Russia in 1917] needed a very strong myth of the Commune as the anticipation of their own revolution. They needed to have some sort of historical precedent to reassure their own people about their own transformations. So even what they considered to be the failure of the Commune – the aura of the martyrs – was supposed to, in their view, generate its contrary. So right away you have the idea of errors serving as lessons, this notion of the pedagogical role that the past is supposed to play, as though there were some sort of progressive, linear temporality: that we, by coming after, are obliged to do it better, or we will do it better—despite the fact that our circumstances are not at all the same!
What this shows is the unshakeable desire we seem to have that the past teach us a lesson, or that we have to teach the past a lesson … it doesn’t matter which, it comes to the same thing! It shows the extent to which progressive thinking about emancipation still operates as though there were some sort of blueprint of ends to be attained; and as though those ends could be precisely determined and then we could measure objectively whether they have been achieved, or not achieved, according either to time-worn and timeless standards, or to criteria that we have drawn up on the fly in 2015. It’s obviously very pleasurable to put yourself in the position of being the one who can establish what’s possible or what’s impossible, or decide when people acted too soon, when they acted too late, when they were being passé or outmoded or unrealistic. But when you adopt that position you lose any sense of the experimental dimension of politics, or of art for that matter.
GL: Could I ask you about the chapter in the book devoted to the Communards’ efforts to remake education and to remake cultural production – or rather to break down the division between creative activity and alienated production (i.e. work)?
KR: It’s significant that a large percentage of the Communards were art workers – they worked in the arts and crafts industries, they were artisans, they had an artisanal formation. There is a primacy of arts-and-crafts labour at the centre of the Commune; that model of a useful production is at the centre of their culture. And that is what [the English socialist writer and activist] William Morris would take up and develop at great length in his own thinking and in his attempt to transmit some of the political ideas of the Commune. This working culture was, incidentally, profoundly internationalist. These were people who, like many young people today, spent most of their time not working, but looking for work … and that meant moving not only from town to town but also from country to country. There were Spaniards, Italians, Poles and other nationalities who participated actively in the Commune.
In the book I use the example of the way they set about overcoming the division between high art and decorative, or industrial, art. Who counts as an artist? Who has the right to that status? Because painters and sculptors could sign their work, they were able to exert a certain amount of economic control over what they produced. This was not at all the case with songwriters, for example, or ceramicists. The Manifesto for an Artists’ Federation, read aloud at a mass meeting for “all artistic intelligences” at the university of the Sorbonne in April 1871 concludes: “We will work cooperatively toward our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendours and the Universal Republic.” (Communal Luxury, p. 58.) It was written by Eugene Pottier, a decorative artist, who also wrote the song The Internationale. Decorative artists and fine artists assembled together under the same name, the same status, and went about establishing a federation in which to work cooperatively to extend art education. I take my title, Communal Luxury, from their text and use it to refract a number of Communard ideas and practices. In this context it refers to those practices that overcome the division between those who have, and those who do not have, the luxury of playing with words or playing with images.
GL: I had the impression from the book that these issues were not a sideshow or a minority interest; this was central to the Commune’s activity.
KR: Yes, these transformations in the status of the artist were very much part of the means by which the Communards went about emancipating themselves. And this is what Karl Marx meant, by the way, when he said that the Commune’s greatest achievement was “its own working existence.” No great laws, no utopian blueprints—just the step-by-step dismantling of the bureaucratic hierarchies that govern life under capitalism in a centralized state. When Marx looked at the Commune he saw for the first time in his life an unscripted example of non-capitalist existence – he saw what non-alienated or associative labour actually looked like.
GL: You also write in Communal Luxury about education. When the Communards confronted the issue of transforming the state, some of them tried to get to work right away by transforming school education – breaking down the division between the education of people who work with their brains and of those who work with their hands. In other books I have read about the Commune, these efforts don’t get paid much attention.
KR: Yes. The reason you don’t see much about that in many books about the Commune is because of the obsession of many historians with the street fighting or with the legislative quarrels that were taking place. But in fact there were people out in the neighbourhoods getting to work directly on what they saw as the central question, which was how to transform education in a city where one-third of children didn’t go to school at all, another third were in Catholic school … and of course there was a fierce anti-clericalism in the Commune, so religious schooling came under particular attack. The Communards actually invented the idea of mandatory free public education for all children. But it was different from the way public education looks now. Communard education was based on the idea – and this was the twist – that every child, regardless of gender and regardless of class, would have the same education, and that this education would include both what we would think of as theoretical education (science, maths, history, and so on) and a training in a trade or two trades. The idea was that everyone would have both types of formations—intellectual and manual.
GL: To open up the road to a world where there would not be that division of mental and manual labour that is characteristic of capitalism?
GL: You write about the Commune as a revolt in a city surrounded by the countryside, and more broadly as a project to remake human society that is surrounded by the natural environment. You draw attention to the very rich discussions of the issues of city-country and humanity-nature, that took place in the decades after the Commune, in large part inspired by it.
KR: Yes, I spend a lot of time in the book on the prolongation of Communard thought when the Communards who survived the massacre and who avoided imprisonment met up [in exile, in the 1880s and 1890s] with people like [the Russian anarchist and geographer] Petr Kropotkin, Morris and Marx, who were all enormously supportive of the Commune but who were all—just as importantly-- transformed by its example. When these people met up with each other in London and Switzerland, the central theoretical problem that they were trying to think through was that city-country divide, which was, of course, an important factor in the demise of the Commune. [Many Communards saw the lack of a movement in rural France alongside the action in Paris as one of the factors that contributed to its eventual defeat.] How do you think the realisation of non-alienated labour in a major metropolitan centre like Paris together with the remnants of agrarian communist forms in the countryside? How do you think an urban insurrection like the one that occurred in Paris with those residual formations like the obshina in the Russian countryside?
William Morris posed the problem by considering the impossibility under capitalism of that kind of solidarity that existed among crafts workers engaged in useful production. In the case of Kropotkin and [the French geographer and anarchist] Elisée Reclus … these were geographers, people who had what was considered then a very scientific formation. Following a different path, they arrived at the same kind of uncompromising anti-capitalist and ecological (though they didn’t call it that) analysis as Morris. They all believed that the principle factors in the degradation of nature were the centralized state and the capitalist system. And they believed that a systemic problem demanded a systemic solution.
GL: You refer to them as anti-Malthusians, and for example you describe Kropotkin’s critique of [the biologist] T.H. Huxley’s Malthusian reading of Darwin.
KR: Yes, they were fiercely anti-Malthusian. They believed, on the basis of empirical fact, that the earth contained riches enough for all and that all that was needed to enhance nature and humanity simultaneously was to dismantle commerce and private property.
GL: Could you say more about the 19th century socialists’ view of the city-country divide. You quote Morris, writing about pre-capitalist rural social forms: “a vision of non-alienated labour and pre-class society is placed to contemporary times – ‘the artificial poverty of covilisation’ – as a way of recruiting past hopes to serve present needs” (Communal Luxury, p. 75). Then there was the discussion between Marx, the Russian socialist writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and others, about what could be learned from the rural communes in Russia.
KR: One of the things I find so exciting about these thinkers is their ability to work with, and treasure, forms of uneven temporality. The Russian rural communes were not models for the future in some simplistic way. They were, for example, patriarchal, and oppressive in other ways. But what fascinated Kropotkin, Reclus and others was their sheer persistence: the fact that they had endured in the midst of modern industrialization, and as such constituted an alternative path at a moment that was already narrowing itself down to the single temporality of capitalism. These thinkers, influenced by the Commune, were able to see the value of the outmoded – what Walter Benjamin calls the “revolutionary potential of the outmoded” – and to use it as a resource. They could see these [rural, non-capitalist] forms [of social organisation] as anchored in the past and yet as possible prefigurations of another route.
GL: You refer to Marx’s contention that “what Thiers and company [i.e. the reactionary government that fought the Commune] fear most, even more than the emancipation of the urban proletariat, is the emancipation of the peasants” (Communal Luxury, p. 88). I think this is a thought that has been largely lost in the 20th century reworking of this history: that, for the other side too, this is not just about the industrial proletariat.
KR: I think that thought disappeared because of the way that Marx was read during the Second International and beyond, a reading that held sway for so long: a stagist Marx , a Marx who was focused on the centrality of the state, who gave primacy to the industrial worker. I think there is a new reading of Marx that has become available, beginning in the 1980s, perhaps, with books like Teodor Shanin’s Late Marx and the Russian Road. This is a Marx who, precisely because of the Paris Commune, becomes far more interested in the world outside of Europe, and far more interested in tribal and peasant societies, both ancient and contemporary—this is what preoccupied him during the last ten years of his life.
Marx makes the remark about Thiers and company fearing the emancipation of the peasants in the context of Algeria. One of the tangents that I was unable to follow in the book because of not knowing Arabic or Berber, is that, at precisely the same moment as the Commune, there was an enormous uprising in eastern Algeria, France’s foremost colony. Thiers and company were essentially fighting two battles at the same time – against the workers in the capital and against the revolt in Algeria. And the prisoners from both actions ended up in New Caledonia together.
GL: Could we talk about the group of people, that included former Communards, who you refer to in the book as “anarchist communists”. You are suggesting not that the polemic between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin is not worth following, but that there were many others, this group among them, who also deserve our attention.
KR: There has been too much focus on the rivalry between Marx and Bakunin. People say that their dispute is what brought down the First International. Perhaps. But there was also the continental-wide counter-revolution that set in after the crushing of the Commune. If you broaden your focus a little beyond the tedious “political theory” discourse, you can see – especially in the people that I studied – a group of thinkers and militants who are slavishly beholden neither to Marx or to Bakunin, but who are busy performing a bricolage of anarchist and marxist ideas—a creative mixture that resonates very strongly with militant culture today. They were not locked into a battle about establishing the primacy of analyses based on economic exploitation over those based on political domination or vice versa. So they were able to move freely in both contexts and use both intellectual and political camps as a resource.
I sense that we’re in a similar period now, one that is not obsessed with political purity or theoretical purity of some kind.
GL: You are not trying to deliver “a message” to activists in 2015, but you do direct our attention to the way that a wide range of people in the movement at that time shared “a vision of social transformation predicated on a large federation of voluntary associations at the local level” (Communal Luxury, p. 111), notwithstanding their different approaches to theory or to history or to the analysis of capitalism.
KR: Right. And that included people who might have called themselves Marxists or called themselves anarchists: it didn’t matter. What the free commune meant to these thinkers, no matter what they called themselves, was the simultaneous dissolution of capital, state and nation. 28 July 2015.
■ Kristin Ross is a professor of comparative literature at New York University. Her other books include Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture and May '68 and its Afterlives. The publisher’s information about Communal Luxury is here, and an extract here.
■ Some 19th-century archive material, on line:
Contemporary observers of the Paris Commune, in the Marxists Internet Archive
The Civil War in France, by Karl Marx (1871)
William Morris and E. Belfort Bax on the Paris Commune
Elisee Reclus page at the Anarchist Archives
The Paris Commune by Petr Kropotkin (1880)
and some more recent commentary …
The Paris Commune by Manuel Casteels (1983)
Kropotkin was no crackpot, by Stephen Jay Gould (1987)
Marx at the Margins by Kevin Anderson (2010)