Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune

Reviewed by Joe

Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso 2015) 148 pages, $23.95

Familiar to socialists, anarchists, and other radicals is the historical significance of the Paris Commune. Beginning in March 1871 and lasting only a couple of months, the Commune gave the first glimpse of how the working class, at the head of other oppressed classes, would organize society. Lessons ranging from the nature of the capitalist state, to the lengths the ruling class will go to in order to crush a workers’ revolution, to the role of the peasantry, to solidarity across divisions of gender and race, can be taken from those short months.

This book aims to show the effect of the Commune on its participants and on prominent contemporary figures. It does not rehash the history other than to contextualize the author’s argument. Those unfamiliar with the history will not get an introduction to it here. Ross wants to show how the Commune generated ideas that can still be useful to us today.

In an outstanding chapter entitled “The Literature of the North,” she traces the impact of the Commune on Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, and Karl Marx. The Commune inspired Kropotkin to abandon a career in Geography. This was no small decision. He was a major figure in the discipline, having carried out the first accurate mapping of the world’s northern polar region. Shortly after the crushing of the Commune, he was offered the post of Secretary of the Imperial Geographic Society of St. Petersburg. He turned down this post to dedicate his life to human liberation. He would use his studies of the earth and of the evolution of life to produce his classic text, Mutual Aid. The Paris Commune and its idea of the “Universal Republic,” where work was done by everyone and no one’s needs were denied, inspired Kropotkin’s view of evolutionary theory. He tapped into the tradition of “Russian communal social forms” and the Commune to counter the social Darwinist claim that the competition inherent in capitalism is part of human nature.

William Morris became a convert to the cause of socialism in the months after the Paris Commune. He was traveling in Iceland and was struck by the communal life of the Icelanders who did not have the class stratification of the England that Morris knew. He would later say, “I learned one lesson there, thoroughly I hope, that the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes” (69). Morris was one of the chief defenders of the Paris Commune in Britain. The effect the Commune had on him can be seen in what he said in a debate with anarchists: “You could not live communalistically until the present society of capitalism or contract is at an end … and it is because I know that this cannot be brought about as long as private property exists, that I desire the abolition of private property, and am a Communist” (118).

Ross devotes the bulk of the chapter to Marx. She looks at three areas of Marx’s thought that underwent a change after the Commune. The first had to do with the role of the state in the transition from capitalism to socialism. Until the Commune, he held out the chance that in democratic republics like Britain or the United States, socialism might come through peaceful means via democratic institutions. The Paris Commune changed all this as recently warring states joined forces to drown it in blood. In a new preface to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto, Marx inserted the now famous line “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purpose” (78).

Second, the experience of the Commune changed Marx’s approach to labor. Looking at the Commune, Marx wrote, “With labor emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labor ceases to be a class attribute” (80). The Commune gave Marx insight into how the relations between living human beings in class society are the foundations of material reality and the sources of theory. Analyzing exploitation and the struggle against it is important, but can become overly abstract. Marx understood this better after the Paris Commune.

Finally, Marx began to contemplate the possibility of certain societies skipping capitalism and transitioning to socialism based on communal forms of peasant society. This change in his ideas was inspired by the way the Communards argued for a unity of interests between the Parisian workers and the peasants of France’s countryside. In “To the Workers of the Countryside,” the Communards reached out to the peasants, “Brother, you are being deceived. Our interests are the same…. What Paris wants is the land for the peasants, the tool for the workers, and work by and for everyone” (87).  Marx thus comes to realize the sometimes key role of the peasantry in the liberation of humanity.

The other main theme that runs through the book is the idea of solidarity and how it became a reality in the Paris Commune. Barriers to unity such as nationality, race, and gender broke down in the face of the “Universal Republic.” Although often thought of as a French event, the Paris Commune had participants from many nations. Racism also broke down during the Commune. All were welcome to join. One participant, Louise Michel, describes being on guard duty with an African man formerly a member of the Papal Guards. She had never had personal contact with an African before and held common European prejudices. But the solidarity in the middle of struggle made allies of everyone. Although Michel’s description of the man is racist by modern standards, she is convinced that he is an ally because he is “converted to the Commune.” Women played a huge role in the Paris Commune. Ross focuses primarily on the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. Founded at first directly to care for and clothe the people of Paris, the Union grew into the “largest and most effective organization” in the entire Commune” (27). It took as its goal the eventual end of gender inequality. It envisioned unions of women workers in cooperatives that would establish links throughout France and internationally. Through the Union, women participated in all facets of the Commune. They produced and fought alongside the men while fighting for their own interests as an oppressed group.

The book is rich in quotes from the Communards. Ross also talks about the prominent role that artists played during the Commune and in keeping its spirit alive after it was crushed. Kristin Ross has produced an original contribution to the study of the Paris Commune; it should be read and discussed widely.

Reviewed by Joe Cleffie Philadelphia, PA