Kristin Ross is Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University. Her book, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2015), is a masterful study of the ideas and aspirations driving the historic revolt. ROAR editor Jerome Roos spoke to her about the Commune’s legacy, its impact on 19th century radical thought, and the revival of the communal imaginary in our times.
This interview was originally published in ROAR Magazine Issue #1 “Revive la Commune!“
ROAR: The Paris Commune has been studied and debated for almost a century and a half. How does your book add to our understanding of this world-historical event, and why did you decide to write it now?
Kristin Ross: Like many people after 2011 I was struck by the return — from Oakland to Istanbul, Montreal to Madrid — of a political strategy based on seizing space, taking up space, rendering public places that the state considered private. Militants across the world had reopened and were experiencing the space-time of occupation, with all the fundamental changes in daily life this implies. They experienced their own neighborhoods transformed into theaters for strategic operations and lived a profound modification of their own affective relation to urban space.
My books are always interventions into specific situations. Contemporary events drew me to a new reflection on the Paris Commune, which for many remains a kind of paradigm for the insurgent city. I decided to restage what took place in Paris in the spring of 1871 when artisans and communists, workers and anarchists took over the city and organized their lives according to principles of association and federation.
While much has been written about the military maneuvers and legislative disputes of the Communards, I wanted to revisit the inventions of the insurgents in such a way that some of today’s most pressing problems and goals might emerge most vividly. The need, for example, to refashion an internationalist conjuncture, or the status of art and artists, the future of labor and education, the commune-form and its relation to ecological theory and practice: these were my preoccupations.
The Paris Commune has always been an important point of reference for the left but what is new about today is in part the entire post-1989 political context and the collapse of state socialism, which took to the grave a whole political imaginary. In my book, the Paris Commune reemerges freed from that historiography, and offering a clear alternative to the centralism of the socialist state. At the same time the Commune has never, in my opinion, fit easily into the role that French national history tries to make it play as a kind of radical sequence in the establishment of the Republic. By liberating it from the two histories that have instrumentalized it, I was certain we would be able to perceive the Commune anew as a laboratory of political invention.
Communal Luxury is neither a history of the Paris Commune nor a work of political theory in the ordinary sense of the term. Historians and political theorists have been responsible for most of the massive literature generated by the Commune, and in the case of the latter — whether communists, anarchists, or even philosophers like Alain Badiou — this means approaching the event from the perspective of an already-formulated theory. Communard actions become the empirical data marshaled in support of verifying the given theory, as if the material world were a sort of local manifestation of the abstract rather than the other way around.
To my mind this amounts to summoning up the poor Communards from their graves only in order to lend gravitas to philosophizing. What I did instead was to immerse myself for several years in the narratives produced by the Communards themselves and a few of their fellow travelers of the period. I looked closely not only at what they did but at what they thought and said about what they were doing, the words they used, fought over, imported from the past or from distant regions, the words they discarded.
These narratives about their struggle — and we are fortunate that so many of the literate Communards chose to write something about their experience — are already highly theoretical documents. But they tend not to be treated as such by political theorists. This is why I had very little use for the existing political theory about the Commune and why, in the end, I find political theorists to be the bane of our existence to the extent that they approach instances of political insurrection from the perspective of an overarching view that tries to unify them under a single concept, theory, or narrative of historical progression. I don’t think it is wise to consider historical events from an omniscient perspective, nor from the vantage point provided by our present, fat and complacent with all the wisdom of the “back-seat driver,” correcting the errors of the past.
I ignored all the innumerable commentaries and analyses of the Commune, many of which — even those written by people sympathetic to the memory of the Commune — consist of nothing but this kind of second-guessing or listing of errors. I had to perform a massive clearing of the terrain in order to construct the distinct phenomenology of the event and visualize it outside of the multiple projections placed on it by historians. It is the event and its excesses which teach you how to consider it, how to think and talk about it.
And once you have paid this kind of attention to workers as thinkers — an attention I learned when I encountered and translated some of the early work of Jacques Rancière — you can’t tell the story the same old way: the way, for example it has been told by the two traditions that controlled its narration for so long: official state-Communist historiography on the one hand and the French national fiction on the other. You have to reframe and reconfigure those past experiences in order to render them significant on their own terms and to make them visible to us now, in the present.
By focusing on the words and agency of concrete individuals acting in common to dismantle, little by little and step by step, the social hierarchies that make up a state’s bureaucracy, I’ve tried to think the Commune historically — as belonging to the past, as dead and gone — and, at the same time, as the figuration of a possible future. I tried to stage it as very much a part of its historical era, yet in a way that exceeds its own history and suggests to us, perhaps, the deepest and most durable demands for worldwide democracy and revolution.
The book is my way of reopening, in other words, from the midst of our current struggles, the possibility of a different historiography, one that allows us to think and do politics differently. The Commune offers a distinct alternative to the course taken by capitalist modernization on the one hand, and the one taken by utilitarian state socialism on the other. This is a project that I think more and more of us share and it’s why I wrote the book.
By choosing to focus on the afterlife of the Commune more than on the 72 days of “its own working existence,” you manage to unearth the myriad ways in which the Commune’s political imaginary actually survived the massacre and lived on in the struggles and thought of ex-Communards and their contemporaries. What do you consider to be the most important legacy of the Commune in this respect?
I did not so much focus on the “afterlife” of the Commune as I did on its survival. In one of my earlier books, May ’68 and Its Afterlives, my subject was indeed, as the title suggests, something more like a memory study: how the ’68 insurrections were represented and discussed ten, twenty, thirty years later. And today very interesting work is being written by what some choose to see as the “afterlives” or “reactivations” of the Paris Commune: studies of the Shanghai Commune, for example, or other aspects of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or studies that look to the Zapatistas as a kind of reactivation of some of the gestures of 1871.
Communal Luxury, however, is limited to the life-span of the Communards and is centrifugal or geographic in its reach. I examine the shockwaves of the event as they reach Kropotkin in Finland or William Morris in Iceland, or as they propel the hard-pressed Communard exiles and refugees themselves into far-reaching new political networks and ways of living in Switzerland, London and elsewhere in the aftermath of the massacre that brought the Commune to an end. The extremity and gore of that end, the Bloody Week of state violence that brought thousands of people to their deaths, has all too often proved to be an uncontrollable lure, making invisible the networks and pathways of survival, reinvention and political transmission that came in the years immediately after, and that concern me in the latter part of the book.
There’s almost a wish on the part of historians to lock the whole event up into a neat 72-day episode that ends in tragedy. In that sense I wanted to examine the prolongation of Communard thought beyond the bloody carnage in the streets of Paris, its elaboration when the exiles met up with their supporters in England and the mountains of Switzerland. In so doing, of course, I am very much in agreement with Henri Lefebvre who tells us that the thought and theory of a movement is generated only with and after the movement itself. Struggles create new political forms and ways of doing as well as new theoretical understandings of these practices and forms.
On one level you could argue that it is the forms taken by that survival — a “life beyond life” as in the French word “survie” — that constitute the Commune’s most important legacy: the very fact that its own “working existence” continued, the refusal on the part of the survivors and their supporters to allow the catastrophe of the massacre to bring everything to an end.
At a more symbolic level, though, the legacy left by the thought generated by the Commune emerges in my book in the cluster of meanings that attach to the phrase I chose for the book’s title: “communal luxury.” I discovered the phrase tucked away in the final sentence of the Manifesto Eugène Pottier, Courbet and other artists wrote when they were organizing during the Commune. For them the phrase expressed a demand for something like public beauty—the idea that everyone has the right to live and work in pleasing circumstances, the demand that art and beauty should not be reserved for the enjoyment of the elite, but that they be fully integrated into daily public life.
This may seem a merely “decorative” demand on the part of decorative artists and artisans, but it is a demand that in fact calls for nothing short of the total reinvention of what counts as wealth, what a society values. It is a call for the reinvention of wealth beyond exchange-value. And in the work of Commune refugees like Elisée Reclus and Paul Lafargue and fellow travelers like Peter Kropotkin and William Morris, what I am calling “communal luxury” was expanded into the vision of an ecologically viable human society. It’s striking that the work of Reclus, 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 19th century and was not resuscitated again until the 1970s with figures like Murray Bookchin.
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. The roots of ecological crisis were to be found in the centralized nation-state and the capitalist economic system. And they believed a systemic problem demands a systemic solution.