Book Review: Kristin Ross Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune

Kristin Ross has written a beautiful, inspirational account of the life and afterlife of the Paris Commune and of the everyday communards who brought it to fruition.

“Communal Luxury” takes as its subject matter the Paris Commune of 1871, one of the single greatest advances toward a free society ever attempted in human history. The Commune arose in the course of a devastating war between France and Prussia (Germany), with the French army’s defeat prompting the collapse of the imperialist, authoritarian French regime. The people of Paris organised their own defence, bought their own cannons, and refused to hand said cannons over to the new French Republic. Instead, staging a worker-led insurrection, they declared Paris to be liberated from both the French and Prussian forces and set about constructing a free society, one in which all comers participated in decision-making and all wealth was shared in common. The Commune lasted some 72 days in the spring of 1871 before being brutally crushed by the reactionary forces of Nation, Church, State and Capital. Some 25,000 men, women, and children were executed.


Traditionally, most writers on the Left who describe the Commune do so in order to show how it conformed to Marxist or Anarchist accounts of how a social revolution might be put into effect. Marx’s ‘Civil War in France’ is the perfect example of this. Here, Marx is arguably at his most anarchist, insisting that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the state machinery as is, but must set about destroying the state and replacing it with small-scale, communal units of decision-making. In place of electing representatives, the Communards used a system of delegates. That is, the people of Paris decided what policy to adopt in a neighbourhood assembly and then entrusted a delegate to convey their collective decision to the regional or city council. If a delegate failed to convey or implement their decision, the people of the neighbourhood assembly could revoke his or her mandate and appoint another. The actual existence of such a system of direct democracy, and its successful operation in meeting day-to-day needs, provided a shining example to workers of what was possible through collective self-organisation and cooperation. Communism lay just beyond the barricade…or did it?

Much subsequent writing, Ross argues, framed the Commune in terms of anarchism versus Marxism, peasant versus worker, Jacobin revolutionary terror versus anarcho-syndicalism, and so on. The problem is that these accounts tend to overlook actual day-to-day life in the Paris Commune during its short lifespan, particularly the lived experience and ideas of those ordinary/extraordinary men and women who brought it into being. Communard thought, Ross claims, has historically received little attention. So…have you heard of Elisée Reclus, André Léo, Paul Lafargue, or Gustave Lefrancais? Or Marie Verdure and Elie Decoudray who organised a new model of popular creches and schools throughout Paris’s working-class districts? (In order to keep children’s minds active, everything to do with religion was removed and replaced with pictures and sculptures of real objects, including trees, animals and bird aviaries). Or the shoemaker Napoléon Gaillard who turned barricade-making into an art form, posing for photographs in front of his latest creations?

Ross’s book shifts the spotlight away from critical and laudatory theorists towards the Commune’s chief organisers and misfits themselves, and their own developing thoughts and ideas. More than that, she shows how the Commune transformed the common sense (or ideas, or ‘theories’) of those involved, and of subsequent generations of activists across Europe and North America. For Ross, theory or dreams do not prompt actions; rather the actions of the Communards themselves transformed and expanded people’s imaginations. The Commune, above all, was a laboratory of political invention where people set about improvising the free organisation of social life according to principles of association and cooperation. Or as Marx put it, the Commune’s success lay in its ‘working existence’.

The idea of ‘Communal Luxury’ is taken from the Federation of Artists Manifesto (April 1871), a free association of artists - professional, amateur, industrial designers and workers – who declared ‘We will work cooperatively toward our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendours and the Universal Republic’. A political culture of ‘communal luxury’ rejected both the bourgeois republic’s opulent class living on the labour of others as well as the state socialist projects’ living by the drab repression and administration of individuality. Communal luxury, Ross claims, meant that Communard artists such as Eugene Pottier saw the need to de-privatise art and beauty, to interweave them into everyday life, and to make happiness available to all. As Communard Elisée Reclus put it, the Commune proposed ‘a more superior ideal…a new society in which there are no masters by birth, trade, title of wealth, and no slaves by origin, caste or salary’. The Commune was not bound by time or space – to Paris or to the spring of 1871 - but meant the unleashing of ‘a new humanity, made up of free and equal companions, oblivious to the existence of old boundaries, helping each other in peace from one end of the world to the other’.

Long after its bloody repression then, the Commune lived and lives on. And not simply in memory. Ross traces how Communard exiles and refugees in England and Switzerland met up and worked with supporters and fellow travellers such as Marx, Peter Kropotkin, and William Morris, inspiring them and changing their lives and their thinking. The Paris Commune helped unleash creative energies across Europe. Ross, in particular, looks at how what Reclus called ‘solidarity’, Morris called ‘fellowship’, and Kropotkin ‘mutual aid’ was not so much a moral or ethical position as a political strategy. For these thinkers, the political culture of the Commune suggested two far-reaching but necessary transformations: collective ownership of land and industry as well as collective creation of regional self-sufficiency and decentralised decision-making.  

The book has a couple of weaknesses. Ross is a professor of comparative literature so the language is bit flowery and academic at times. This is doubly problematic because the term "political imaginary" is a bit too all-encompassing and never very precise on details. Hence, we are never exposed to the theoretical or strategic debates among the Communards themselves. All this tends to be overlooked in favour of emphasising Communards' improvisation ahead of their political ideologies. (The two can never be as neatly separated as Ross suggests). Also, the claim to recapture the Communards’ cultural history is probably overstated. The concluding third of the book is devoted to more familiar theorists such as Marx, Kropotkin and Morris. The discussion of their ideas is fantastic, particularly their relevance to contemporary concerns about environmental collapse. But it would have been equally interesting to check back in on the working class of Paris and their collective after-thoughts. That said, history from below is demanding in terms of finding source material so we should probably be glad of the everyday narratives from the opening chapters rather than lament their absence in the concluding pages.

Our world is not the world of the Communards. Nor does the Commune provide us with ready-made ‘lessons’ for us to learn. All that said, we have seen, after 2011, the return of groups occupying city centres and squares – from Istanbul to Madrid, Cairo to Oakland –in order to attempt decentralised and participatory ways of doing democracy and anti-capitalism. As we live in the ruins of both capitalist and state socialist modernisation projects, the Paris Commune – the political culture and ideas of the ordinary men and women who created it – proposes a democratic, ecological, and communal future instead. 

Communal Luxury provides a really interesting and enjoyable discussion of the Communards' lives and afterlives, including their ongoing relevance and inspiration. It’s well worth a read.