Kristin Ross. Communal Luxury. The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. London: Verso Books, 2015.


« En révolution, l'époque qui copie est perdue. » — Louise Michel. 


A specter is haunting Communal Luxury: the specter of Cornelius Castoriadis who, curiously enough, is never mentioned in this brief, disjointed account of the ideologies of the Paris Commune of 1871 and their reverberations in later anarchist and Marxist theory. All the same, the book’s underpinnings are those of Castoriadis, the Greek-French theoretician and merciless critic of Bureaucratic Marxism. It was Castoriadis who came up with the concept of the Imaginary, meaning the manner in which a society (or a wannabe society like the Paris Commune) creates… its singular way of living, seeing and making its own existence; who singled out the Commune as an ideal form of what he called the “autonomous imaginary,” meaning a society that, instead of delegating its self-definition to God, to politicians or economists of the Right or Left (or, so help me, academics) defines its own political and social existence around the daily reinvention of social life. Ross has written brilliantly of how French radical culture drew the lessons to be learned from the May, ’68 uprising. She’s written brilliantly of the ways French society in the postwar years reinvented itself in the image of American consumerism. Communal Luxury might have been equally brilliant had it been more questioning of the Commune’s own Imaginary, and of the concept of Imaginary itself; had it questioned the Imaginary assigned to the Commune by its survivors and by contemporary questioners like Castoriadis instead of passing it on wholesale. Could you guess? Castoriadis was early on a Trotskyite; he ended up a kind of psychoanalytic semi-libertarian; in Ross’s interpretation his early commitment to Permanent Revolution is carried all the way through and beyond, to Lifestyle Libertarianism. The Imagine in her Imaginary is more Lennon than Lenin.


Many among the most active participants in the Commune were followers of the anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Proudhon’s belief that the utopian society can spontaneously reinvent itself and transcend historical constraints was a powerful force in their theorizing; but the same belief, uncritically applied, creates an irreparable disjunction in the organization of this book: as any one knows who's had the experience of theorizing the future in a revolutionary moment, it's not enough to plan for future conditions, one has to watch that one doesn't reproduce the conditions of the past. Ross announces from the get-go that she's not going to give much coverage to the ideological and intellectual sources of the Commune, as if she could make the Commune’s ideological and historical constraints disappear by ignoring them. She aligns herself with those who dream of utopian futures achieved by human will transcending its historical fetters: who want to believe that consciousness creates without being, in turn, created. The name Proudhon appears only three times in her index; Fourier, six; Marx appears repeatedly in order for Ross to deny his influence. When Ross is driven to reintroduce historical and social contingency she does so, as is often done on the Marx-baiting left, by setting up what she imagines to have been Marx's own unbending historical determinism; but as Charlie himself explained, 

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

 As a matter of record, Marx thought the uprising of the Commune was ill-advised, but his objection was not a detached theoretical position based on rigid assumptions about historical inevitability, as Ross suggests: by 1871 Marx had found himself rising to prominence in the International Workingmen's Association after decades of obscurity—an association that included every type of progressive, Proudhonian or other; earlier, he’d had friends mowed down in an ill-advised attempt to prolong the German Revolution of 1848. In a letter written before the fall of the Commune he explained that his doubts about the Commune were not based on grand historicizing theories but on strategic concerns; yet Ross would have us believe that Marx gave a primacy to theoretical forecast over practical organizational problems and tactics, which makes sense if one wants to believe, first that Marxism is all theory and mechanistic theory at that, second, that Marxism is inevitably a centralizing organizational process, and third, that the first and second items are inevitably linked. In the process of attempting to refute a Marx she doesn’t know Ross makes a hash of Marxist theory, at one point coming up with a curious and none-too-coherent restatement of the concept of the negation of the negation as if she’d just discovered it on her own. Marx is her revolutionary superego, the Name of the Father that’s introjected under pretense of being overthrown.

In an effort to reinsert revolutionary spontaneity Ross points out, as many have done before, that the Commune was not born on March 18, 1871,when the reactionary Government sent troops to disarm the People of Paris, but rather and just as spontaneously, in the mass political meetings of the last two years of the Second Empire; her first, naïve implication is, that the discursive realm of revolutionary thought that preceded the Commune was the proximate cause of the Commune itself: that the Commune, in effect, talked itself into being; the second is that democratic mass meetings are intrinsically revolutionary—Occupy without the silly hand gestures. This approach distorts in equal measure her interpretation of the events that preceded the Commune, those that accompanied it, and those that followed it down to the present day. To quote Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History, she allows the consequences of contingencies to run through her fingers like the beads of a rosary.

Her theoretical position prevents Ross from examining the extent to which ideas developed by the Commune conflicted or cohered with those inherited from its past: she’s unwilling to acknowledge that the consciousness of the Communards was determined as much by the revolutionary circumstances in which they found themselves as was that of Marx in her own reading. This leads to a series of impressive gaffes, none more so than her interpretation of the expression that gives her book its title. “Communal Luxury” was a phrase thrown out in the Manifesto of the Federation of Parisian Artists, a phrase probably coined by Eugène Pottier, best remembered nowadays as the poet who penned the words to the Internationale: artists (meaning all those who produce what they sell in the realm of design or representation) should no longer work to produce for private ownership and exploitation, but for the beautification of the Polis itself: for a public, not a private aesthetic. The concept was not particularly radical—think for instance of the Mall in Washington, DC, one of the great examples of Government support for Public Art of the nineteenth century. Ross, while acknowledging the intended meaning, quickly moves on to suggest that Pottier and the Commune anticipated the theories of her colleague Jacques Rancière, the present-day darling of American art schools. The irony is, that Rancière’s Le Partage du sensible is a twenty-first century rehash of nineteenth-century conceptions of Art that preceded the Commune: Art as That which Inspires us to a Better Future, meaning (among other things) Art as That which the Mahsses are invited to consume and the elites to sponsor. Pottier’s proposal—or rather, the proposal of the Federation des artistes de Paris, a group that included Courbet, Dalou and Falguiére— is an eminently practical affair, suggesting simply that the artists themselves have control of the distribution and promotion of artworks throughout the city halls of France, replacing and re-hauling the vast system of promotion and patronage of the Second Empire, which consisted of buying and placing original artworks or copies thereof in churches and city halls. The call for "Communal Luxury" is no more of a break with the past than Rancière’s rehash; the same could probably be said of Communard theories of education, to which Ross devotes a fascinating but ultimately derivative chapter. Pottier took it for granted (as did most all socialists until World War One) that the appreciation of art was an organic aspect of a cohesive society, not a noumenal function to be revealed above and beyond Society; he was less interested in the reception of art than in creating and expanding the conditions for the production of art; Ross in turn is less interested in Pottier’s meaning than in ringing changes on the expression of her title: I counted at least six separate and divergent explanations of  the expression “Communal Luxury” in her book.

When Ross comes to trace the evolution of radical thought after the Commune she merely suggest influences without fleshing out her suggestions. Karl Marx, William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, the anarchist geographer and the only one among these who was present at the Commune, each take their turn at having been influenced—which they all were, only not in the ways Ross imagines. Marx was, indeed, deeply influenced by the events of 1871; but the author’s grasp of Marx is too weak, her opinion of his theoretical range too low, her knowledge of his early work too slim and, above all, her grasp of praxis too confused to allow her to draw precise connections. In her haste to show that Marx modified his theories after the Commune, she writes:

The Commune reawakened and re-enforced his [Marx’s] critique of the state to such an extent that he felt called upon […] to revise the preface to the Communist Manifesto, writing  now against the “revolutionary measures” that had, in the 1848 version, hinged on “centralization… in the hands of the state.”

Follows a quote from the 1872 Preface so truncated as to give the impression that Marx modified his theory because of the lesson of the Commune, as if Marxist praxis was some kind of scientism based on experiment and correction. Not being much of a statist myself I would be happy to believe that Marx eventually shifted his attitude to favor a more decentralized vision of revolutionary organization as a general principle, but that’s not the case. Here is the full passage with Ross’s extracts in bold—the version she quotes differs from mine in minor ways; the Address Marx refers to was given on May 30th, three days after the fall of the Commune; the "February Revolution" Marx alludes to refers to the French Revolution of 1848.

The general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever. Here and there, some detail might be improved. The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience acquired, first in the February Revolution and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, when the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this program has in some details been antiquated. One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” (See The Civil War in France: Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’ s Association, 1871, where this point is further developed.)

In the months immediately preceding the Commune a smart and empathic boss (there are a few) wrote down a brief, penetrating study of Parisian workers and their ideologies:

Anyone involved with social questions, that is, with the well-being of his fellow human beings, is a SOCIALIST. Socialists in 1870 may be divided into two distinct categories:
Those who want the State to be everything, at the expense of individual initiative;
Those who want the individual to be everything, and the State their servant.

Tout individu qui s'occupe de la question sociale, c'est-à-dire du bien-être de ses semblables, est un SOCIALISTE. Les socialistes de 1870 peuvent se diviser en deux groupes bien distincts dans la classe laborieuse: I. ceux qui veulent use l'État soit tout, au détriment de l'initiative individuelle; II. Ceux qui veulent que les individus soient tout, et que l'État soit serviteur.

No doubt the Communards were more likely to favor the second option over the first; no doubt, also, they were keenly aware of the inherent conflicts between the State and Civil Society: the commonly used term La Sociale would have made no sense without that awareness. In her rush to argue that the Commune initiated this awareness, Ross indicts Marx for not having an insight he had, in fact, developed as early as 1843; conversely, she confuses the Communard's call for international solidarity (hardly surprising in the middle of a three-way war) with a call for the withering of the State: Behind Ross's apparent progressivism lies a nasty strain of affection for liberal modernist planification.

And, as with Marx, the author’s discussion of William Morris is notable, not so much for influence found as for influence unmentioned. There are a few striking comparisons waiting to be drawn from her book and never made, the fact, for instance, that Pottier, like Morris, was a chef d'atelier, a middleperson who organized workers under him and who, like many petit-bourgeois, joined in solidarity with the workers under his direction. As Claire Jones has recently shown, the chef d'atelier was de-facto owner of all artworks and designs produced "under" him, a fact that was bitterly resented and which, in fact, is addressed in the above-mentioned artists' manifesto. Like today's so-called "creatives," Pottier's "creativity" consisted primarily in his access to various sources of capital—a fact that the Manifesto does not, of course, address.

Likewise, Ross contemptuously dismisses Courbet’s interest in historic preservation of Parisian monuments during the Commune without ever drawing the connections with Morris’s own interest in the matter. The gaping logical hole in Ross’s approach to Courbet, Morris, Reclus and even Kropotkin is exposed in the first two pages of the section devoted to the latter three: Kropotkin, she announces, gave up a promising career as a geologist in order to devote himself to politics. Likewise Morris, who was travelling through Iceland in the weeks after the Commune, was “reminded by the loose stone on the edges of the lava fields of ‘a half-ruined Paris barricade.’”

The secret word is organicism. Social, political and cultural thought from the Enlightenment on was concerned with the need for, and the possibilities of, an “organic” society. The two anecdotes suggest that Kropotkin and Morris first grasped the importance of the Commune as the social form of a natural process. Ross dismisses Courbet’s interest in the preservation of historic monuments during the Commune without drawing the clear connection to the very common idea, dating back to the late Enlightenment, that the preservation of Medieval monuments as demanded by Morris, by Courbet, by Victor Hugo and Ruskin, was justified precisely because of the supposedly organic nature of Medieval architecture.

Undeterred, Ross sets out on an overconfident romp through the concept of organicism under the various facets it presented in the work of Élysée Reclus and the Russian revolutionaries, oblivious to the distinctions that need to be drawn between nineteenth-century European concepts of organicism and those of twentieth-century American anarcho-liberalism—let alone the distinctions between Reclus, Morris and Kropotkin.

Reclus is presented as a forerunner of American ecological thought, which is reasonable enough; and as a forerunner of American self-sustaining communes, which is not: Ross quickly dismisses Reclus's own dismissal of what she translates as “Icaries;” the correct English word is Icarias, referring to the self-sustaining utopian communities founded by Étienne Cabet in the American South and Southwest (as well as in California) in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. By dismissing Reclus' own dismissal Ross undercuts her argument that Reclus's thinking had been affected by his post-Icarian experience in 1871. As for Kropotkin, he was no ecologist in the sense that Ross makes him out to be—quite the opposite, in fact : as should be evident from the title of his best-known book, Kropotkin considered human cooperation to be the product of a Darwinian struggle; the drive toward cooperation was not spontaneous but evolutionary, developing out of a specific conditions, geographic, social, historic. Human cooperation would develop from engagement with struggle, not from hanging around the commune in Vermont. In this Kropotkin was closer to Marx and Freud than to the Proudhonian closet in which Ross has confined him.

Here and once again, Ross regresses to Romantic political theory: her Commune is an idealized and sentimental version of early nineteenth century utopian thought. Only an American overdosed on nineteen seventies-style fantasies of rural communes would confuse the political tensions between rural and urban castes of the later nineteenth century with some kind of anti-ecological tendency where industrial labor is the anti-organic, anti-ecological bad guy and rural labor is all gentle sons of the earth, full of natural wisdom. The fact that, in France as in Russia as late as 1917 those gentle sons were often industrial workers on a seasonal basis, seems to escape her: one wonders if she ever considered the symbolism of the Hammer and Sickle. Marx was willing to believe that Revolution was possible in an overwhelmingly pre-industrial place like Russia; he was willing to believe that so-called “primitive” communes had revolutionary potential: he was not willing to associate either of these ideas with the fantasy that the coming Communist society would in any way be a return to a more natural, organic, originary one. We're all entitled to our own Imaginary; we’re not entitled to hijack the Imaginary of others for our own purposes.

By the book's end Ross has moved beyond Castoriadis to full-blown Bookchin, Bookchin being the American anarchist theorist who died in 2006, disappointed that his theories had led to little more than Lifestyle Libertarianism. Like Bookchin, Ross puts her faith in affinity groups united, not by hard contingencies, but by a communality of desires: in other terms a throwback to Romantic Mutualism; like Bookchin, Castoriadis and most romantic anarchists since Rousseau she falls back on psychic drives as the only available substitute for historical and social determinism, claiming that the spiritual inheritors of the Commune “shared… an unwillingness to subordinate hope to economic determinism.” That sentence means nothing, unless by “economic determinism” Ross means need as a natural human motivator: she confuses Marx with Malthus. As Ross herself admits on the same page, she's not really interested in intellectual and ideological filiations; what attracts her is empathic reactions to the Commune. It's a fascinating topic, one that could have drawn together Marx, Morris, Hugo, Manet and many others. Some other book, perhaps.

As the Marxist art critic Max Raphael pointed out,

The political commitment of artists and intellectuals serves to provide them with emotional support, rather than with weapons useful in their practical activities. In point of fact, they are Proudhonians, although—or perhaps because—they have never read Proudhon.

I have nothing against empathy, mind you, some of my best friends are empathic; it's just the particular nature of Ross's empathy, as revealed in her title, that's at odd with everything the Commune stood for: in the end her conception of Communal Luxury boils down to a defense of consumption without capital; once again, she sets up a straw Marx to buttress her argument, by referring to a passage from Marx's 1872 revisions to the French edition of Capital. According to Ross, Marx radically changed his understanding of the twin character of the commodity as exchange- and use-value; but as we know from a letter to Engels written immediately after the publication of Capital, Marx was concerned early on that the concept, which he considered the lynchpin of his theory, needed clarification, not modification. Her misapprehension leads Ross to a clumsy argument about the possibility of suppressing the exchange value of a commodity altogether (no mean trick) which in turn leads her to fantasize the development of a progressive movement in the late nineteenth century which she labels “anarchist communism.” Anarchist communism, she claims, “made the complete extinction of exchange value the central motor of the revolutionary process,” presumably to be replaced by Kantian contemplation of the commodity in the manner favored by Rancière. But as Castoriadis himself pointed out, “the mode of distribution of the social product is inseparable from the mode of production.” [« [L]e mode de répartition du produit social est inséparable du mode de production. »]. Contrary to Ross it's not the burning desire of the virtuous revolutionary that determines social relations, it's the relationship among producers and consumers that determines the social system, a relationship that may have something to do with love and affection, and then again, mostly not. Pass the joint.

The high point of Communal Luxury is an extraordinary vignette that Ross pulls from the writings of the legendary Communarde Louise Michel. Michel and an unnamed African Communard are both guarding the midnight trenches:

—What effect does the life we are leading have on you?
—Well, I said, the effect of seeing before us a shore that we have to reach.
—For me, he replied, the effect is one of reading a book with pictures.

As Ross has earlier explained in her Introduction, “Like Walter Benjamin… I believe there are moments when a particular event or struggle enters vividly into the figurability of the present, and this seems to me to be the case with the Commune today.” She is referring to Benjamin's last great work, Über den Begriff der Geschichte [On the Concept of History]:

Vergangenes historisch artikulieren heiβt nicht, es erkennen „wie es denn eigentlich gewesen ist”. Es heiβt, sich einer Erinnerung bemächtigen, wie sie in Augenblick einer Gefahr aufblitzt.

« Décrire le passé tel qu'il a été » : voilà, d'après Ranke la tâche de l'historien. C'est une définition toute chimérique. La connaissance du passé ressemblerait plutôt à l'acte par lequel à l'homme au moment d'un danger soudain se présentera un souvenir qui le sauve.

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.

And which moment of danger is that? The vegan co-op ran out of gluten-free muffins? Ross pretends to channel Benjamin while in fact she merely recycles the liberal-libertarian narrative proposed by her colleague in the field of Comparative Literature, the usually scintillating Richard Rorty:

The creation of a new form of cultural life, a new vocabulary, will have its utility explained only retrospectively… Once we figure out how to use the vocabularies of these movements, we can tell a story of progress, showing how the literalization of certain metaphors served the purpose of making possible all the good things that have recently happened. Further, we can now view all these good things as particular instances of some more general good, the overall end of which the movement served. This latter process was Hegel’s definition of philosophy: “holding your time in thought.” I construe this to mean “finding a description of all the things characteristic of your time of which you most approve, with which you unflinchingly identify, a description which will serve as a description of the end toward which the historical developments which led up to your time were means…” The product is us  our conscience, our culture, our way of life.

The proof of the theoretical pudding lies, not in proleptically picking out those elements of Communard thought that fit the author's idea of progressive theory in the present, it’s in finding the limits and contradictions of theory itself in the face of praxis, past, present and future. Once more Ross allows this wonderful anecdote to “slip through her fingers like the beads in a rosary,” with its stress on the contradiction between a theodicy in which history presents us one hand with a “shore we have to reach,” a sea-route laid supposedly by the Science of History, and on the other hand a truly anarchist approach that works out of the understanding that historical events are mere approximations to be perused and reinvented again and again without directions from the Future; that stands before History as the child at the center of Courbet’s Atelier stands before the image of Nature; that “would regard the realization of utopias, and the envisaging of further utopias, as an endless process—an endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth,” and least of all the kind of truth you get at your local Starbucks. Ultimately what Ross misreads in Benjamin, in Marx, in the experience of the Commune itself, is the belief that the lessons of History will come, not from success but from repeated failures:

Die [Arbeiter] Klasse verlernte in dieser Schule gleich sehr den Haβ wie den Opferwillen. Denn beide nähren sich and dem Bild der geknechteten Vorfahren, nicht am Ideal der befreiten Enkel.

Car ce qui nourrira cette force, ce qui entiendra cette promptitude, est l'image des ancêtres enchaînés, non d'une postérité affranchie.

Through this schooling the [working] class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.

The true act of will, Benjamin concluded, lay not in turning to the past pour trouver du nouveau, but in turning one’s back on everything about it that's falsely utopian. Arthur Rimbaud well understood that the crushing of the Commune meant the triumph of a society devoted to consumption, not production, as did the aesthetic subversion of the worker's Uprising of May, 1968:

Société, tout est rétabli : les orgies
Pleurent leur ancien râle aux anciens lupanars.


As Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, the affective choices of the bourgeoisie are themselves dialectical, and never more so than when they pretend not to be:

Le nouveau spirituel n'a rien de positif, il est négation pure et simple du temporel ; au Moyen Âge c'est le temporel qui est l'Inessentiel par rapport à la Spiritualité ; au xixe siècle l'inverse se produit : le Temporel est premier, le spirituel est le parasite inessentiel qui le ronge et tente de le détruire. Il s'agit de nier le monde ou de le consommer. De le nier en le consommant.

[In the nineteenth century] the new spirituality had nothing positive about it, it was merely a negation of the temporal. In the Middle Ages the Saeculum was the inessential in relation to the Spiritual; in the nineteenth century it was the reverse: the Temporal came first, Spirituality was the non-essential parasite that gnawed at and attempted to destroy the Temporal. The point is either to deny the world as given, or to consume it: to deny it through consumption.

Either way. In the twentieth century the ideological positions of a Ross, a Rancière, a Debord, amount to little more than a left-wing spirituality whose designated parasite is Materialism and whose death-wish is Consumerism. Is it incidental that one of the most enraged among the Situationists of '68 is now a Buddhist? To which Benjamin might have added:

Der historische Materialist […] überläβt es andern, bei der Hure „Es war einmal” im Bordell des Historismus sich auszugeben. Er bleibt seine Kräfte Herr: Manns genug, das Kontinuum der Gechichte aufzusprengen.

The historical materialist […] leaves it to others to give themselves to the whore called “Once upon a time” in the bordello of historicism. He remains master of his powers: man enough, to explode the continuum of history.

Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, the first historian of the Commune and a friend of Marx, put it more directly, if no less forcefully:


Celui qui fait au peuple de fausses légendes révolutionnaires, celui qui l'amuse d'histoires chantantes, est aussi criminel que le geographe qui dresserait des cartes menteuses pour les navigateurs.



June 27, 2015; last revised August 3, 2016.