The beauty of the commons: Wark on Communal Luxury


Anarchist thought has lately picked up a rather worrying infestation of reactionary themes, such as a hyper-macho celebration of eternal combat, in which all that matters is the authentic act of aggressive self-assertion. It isn’t the first time. In this case, it’s a matter of paying too much attention to a scholastic, high theory tradition in which known Nazis such as Schmitt and Heidegger are treated with a respect that betrays the utter corruption of continental philosophy in its waning years.

One of the constant labours required of an open, creative, critical and radical thought is a constant reconstitution of the archive from which present conceptual armatures might most usefully be drawn. It's not just a question of harping on certain well-known proper names, but constituting, over and over, a milieu for thought in the past and can suddenly appear as the means for thinking this present. This kind of labour might take Walter Benjamin as its patron demiurge, although he too has become all too canonised and fossilised in our time.

It is in this spirit that I commend to the concept-workers of our time this small book by Kristin Ross, called Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso Books, 2015). It is a timely, elegant and rather useful cartography of the Paris Commune of 18 March to 28 May 1871. This small book is a sort of parable, about another time and place, but not really about the past as past. It is more about the possibility of other kinds of action in time, as indeed are most parables.

The Commune is usually told as a tragic story, ending in the massacre of some thirty thousand Communards and the exile or transportation of many more. It is a way of closing off the story. But that might be a mode of narration that can also be consigned to the past. Ross: “...thinking of the Paris Commune in terms of the classic unities of tragedy risked isolating it from its conceptual and political afterlives” (122).

Rather, Ross offers an ironic or untimely sketch of a history, building on her earlier book The Emergence of Social Space (Verso 2008). The Commune used to figure in official Marxist discourse as a failed precursor to the properly socialist revolution (led of course by a vanguard party). It is also rather uneasily annexed to liberal-bourgeois histories of the sequence of French revolutions. Ross frees it from the anachronism of the former and hypocrisy of the latter. Let us never forget that the liberal-bourgeois state is founded on murdered Communards.

Sympathetic accounts of the Commune by Marx, or Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2012) stress its practical nature, as if workers and artisans had no ideas of their own. Ross restores something of a balance in the account of both its manual and intellectual labours. She is interested in its legislative achievements. It is more a matter of ideas in action.

For example, she tells the story of Elisabeth Dmitrieff, who was a link between Marx and the influential Russian radical Nicolai Chernyshevsky. His novel, What is to Be Done? prompted her into active life. But she also seeded in Marx the idea of the traditional Russian rural commune as a prototype for a new kind of social relation. She was part of a movement that wanted to reject, on the one hand, the idea that Russian development has to pass through capitalism and, on the other, that Russia could refuse development and return to the mythic values of the commune of old. At a diagonal to both was the idea of another historical trajectory, out of the traditional commune, towards a future one, imagined in part via Charles Fourier’s phalastery. She pushed Marx toward a more multilinear idea of historical trajectories.

During the Commune, she was instrumental in founding the Women’s Union, which was not much interested in parliament or rights but in labour. The Women’s Union set up networks of producer-owned cooperatives. In a kind of trans-local détournement, this was based in part in the idea of the Russian peasant commune and in part on Fourier.

The latter’s influence shows up in all sorts of places. For example, in the organization of crèches, where the childcare workers could switch jobs frequently to avoid boredom. Fourier held that the desire for variety was one of the twelve basic passions. Interestingly, Ross is much less interested in what ideas influenced the Commune than in what ideas it generated or modified.

For example, Ross tells two stories about the work of Eugène Pottier, a fabric designed and member of the Working Men’s International. Pottier was also a poet, whose work was not about the ‘plight of the workers’ but about their capacities. He is best remembered as a the author of the verses to "The Internationale". He also had a hand in developing integral education. Free education was later taken over as a function of the state, but its roots are in the Commune. The integral model combined literary and scientific education with training in drawing, sculpture and the industrial arts. It was, among other things, an education aimed against the division of manual from industrial labour.

Pottier based his ideas in part on those of Joseph Jacotot, on whom Jacques Rancière has written a famous book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Stanford, 1991). Jacotot held that everyone’s intelligence is equal, including both men and women. Everyone can learn. Everything is connected. Learning can start from anything, from something near at hand. Starting with that one thing, one can learn other things, and connect one’s knowledge together. It is part of a pedagogy that stresses the autonomy of the learner and the connection between learning and emancipation, but one which does not need institutions. It is a basic program of what I call low theory.

Pottier was also involved in the Artists' Federation, whose best remembered member is Gustave Courbet, who would later take the blame for the destruction of the Vendome Column. Ross shifts attention to Pottier. He ran a workshop for fabric design, wallpaper and painted ceramics. This was a milieu of collaborative artisans, many of whom worked in different cities and across different applied arts. In these respects they were rather more sophisticated artist-artisans than the easel-painter Courbet. They are in some respects a prototype of what elsewhere I call the hacker class, and they discover early on some of the distinctive issues of that class.

Ross: “More important than laws the Communards were able to enact was simply the way in which their daily workings inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions – first and foremost among these the division between manual and artistic labour” (50). The way I would recode this is to think of the Commune as an early encounter with the problem of the worker and hacker alliance. How can repetitive labour and the art of making new things be brought together not only politically but practically? My interest in figures such as Alexander Bogdanov and Asger Jorn has to do with their attempts to grapple with the relation between these as different phenomena, not well suited to reduction to assumed common ground as the same kind of thing, as labour.

The Artists' Federation had an approach to self-organisation that to me looks a bit different to that of labour. They were concerned with the independence of artistic work from both the state and the market, and as concerned for the autonomy of the right to create as for their wages and security. Significantly, they tried to break down the division between fine artists, who could sign their work, and applied artisan-artists, who could not, by recognising the latter also as artists with authorial capacities.

To me this is an early example of the hacker class grasping its unity as a class, and trying to work out issues of authorship and autonomy outside the constraints of state and market patronage. Ross: “This is particularly important since it shifts value away from any market evaluation, and even from the art object itself, and onto the process of making…” (57-58). Unlike so many bourgeois artists attracted to revolution, the urgent matters were not about a style or an aesthetic, but practical matters of autonomy and organization that are much more profoundly conceptual at the same time. This was an original version of proletkult.

One could take even further the question of overcoming the separation of creation from labour. Ross uses the example of Napoléon Gaillard, the artist-shoemaker who had himself photographed in front of the barricades he "designed". These two-story-high structures were works of both art and luxury, created at least in part by a man who had also written a philosophical treatise on feet and was the inventor of rubber galoshes made of recyclable latex.

The Artists' Federation declared: “We will work cooperatively towards our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendors and the Universal Republic” (58). Their goal was the beauty of the commons, not that of a nationalist space. Hence their dislike for the Vendome Column with its glorification of state and army. Ross: “Indeed, we might think of the demolition of the column as an initial clearing of the terrain for communal luxury” (59).

Ross does not mention Lucien Henry, a rather marginal figure in this story, but of interest to me because he was a refugee from the Commune who ended up in Australia, and who tried to transplant the ethos of the Artist’s Federation to the "Working Man’s Paradise" of late 19th century Australia. There’s a marvelous catalog of his work from a show in 2001, Visions of a Republic. But I think Ross might appreciate Henry as part of the diaspora of the commune, whose story can not really be confined to the tragic arc of its fate in Paris alone.

Closer to Paris, the Commune was an influence on William Morris. His work after the fall of the Commune was in a certain way a great labour of solidarity with it. To me this makes a useful contrast to Alain Badiou’s notion of Lenin’s fidelity to the Commune – a curious fidelity in that it abandons its organisational plurality for the vanguard party.

Ross points out that when, in his utopian novel News from Nowhere, Morris replaces Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square with an apricot orchard, this is a clear echo of the fall of the Vendome column. Ross: “The orchard is the future, but it is one that hearkens back to the chronotope of a society of simple reproduction, and the cyclical nature of natural processes…” (61).

Morris’ critique of capitalism arose out of his direct experience of artistic production. To me he is a sort of double to Marx. If Marx offers a critique of exchange value, Morris approaches capitalism through a critique of use value. For Morris, the divide between useless luxury for the ruling class and poorly made necessities for the working class was in itself an indictment of the system of organising labour that produces such parallel forms of non-value.

This insight was later taken up by Asger Jorn, as I show in The Beach Beneath the Street. For both Morris and Jorn, their own creative practice poses the problem of value from the use value side, and opens up into a critique of the design, not just of things, but of social relations. For both, the red thread is Ruskin’s idea that art is the joy of labour. Hence the separation of useless art from joyless labour is the key to the problematic nature of capitalist social relations as a whole.

Curiously, Jorn shares with Morris a fascination with Nordic civilization as a parable that might decenter European fables about Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, then France, Germany and England. Here Ross puts Morris together with the two other main figures she associates with post-Commune thought-in-action: Peter Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus. Where Morris was taken by Iceland, for Kropotkin it was Finland, another part of the European story in which feudalism played little or no role. Reclus, on the other hand, was so widely traveled that even these fringe locations would have seemed rather provincially European.

For Reclus, Morris and Kropotkin, when taken together, both the Paris Commune and the rather diverse geographies of which they had sampled pointed to a rather more diverse range of possible paths to a future communism. The usual sequence from feudalism to the absolutist state to capitalism need not apply. Late in life, Marx was to think along the same lines. The Paris Commune perhaps contributed a sense of the plasticity of history. It was in miniature a version of the rather more vast problem of the "Asiatic Mode of Production".

Ross, following Raya Dunayevskaya, thinks the Commune had a significant impact on Marx’s thinking. “.. the Commune for Marx proved to be – if we may adopt the Rancierian idiom – something of a full distribution of the sensible” (77). It pointed towards a non-synthetic dialectics, a plurality of local dynamics of history. The Communards had proceeded directly to post-state forms, and had directly produced non-alienated labour.

Ross: “After seeing in the actions of the Communards what freely associated labor might actually look like, Marx was better able to theorize its opposite, the commodity form” (80). This was Marx’s break into low theory. He was no longer working, as continental philosophers still do, on critiques of august predecessors, such as Smith and Ricardo. He was rather attempting to think the conceptual labour of labour itself.

Marx broke with philosophy as the thought of the state in its ideal form. Rather, he is a theorist of civil war. It is important to note that civil war is not ontological in Marx, as it has become recently for certain anarchists. It is a thoroughly historical condition, which pits the ruling class against labour. The Commune was the historical expression of that civil war breaking out in the open, but it happens every instant in the struggle over the length and intensity of the working day.

Ross: “Civil wars have the pitiless logic of holy wars, in a civil war the dominant class arrogates to itself the monopoly on humanity” (81). One might think here of a connection to the work of François Laruelle, for whom the murder of heretics is of a piece with that of Marxists – the sacrifice of those who would dare to challenge the premise of universal exchange – but I have taken that up elsewhere.

For Ross, the late Marx is thinking capitalism via two other social metabolisms, the Paris Commune and the Russian peasant commune. Here his earlier dialog with Elizabeth Dmitrieff takes shape through another with Vera Zasulich. But Marx was critical still of the isolation and provincialism of the peasant commune. He was grasping at a problem, later articulated by Antonio Gramsci, José Carlos Mariátegui and others of the worker and peasant alliance.

For me, Ross rather downplays the differences between the artist-artisans and workers, but fortunately is alive to the problem of the differences between workers and peasants. This pulls a bit against the underlying note of universality that Ross strikes from time to time. The attempt to install a universality in action in the Commune was indeed a failure, and it failed in part through its inability the think the difference and alliance of worker and peasant.

Ross follows the diaspora of the Commune to England and Switzerland. In London we find Morris, Kropotkin, and the Marx circle in fruitful exchange. Switzerland is the site at which a distinctive anarchist communism is born. Ross is not particularly interested in the split between Marx and Bakunin’s anarchists. Instead, she takes up the thread of some more hybrid and nuanced positions that stem from the experience of the Commune.

Reclus, Kropotkin and Morris in various ways refused classical anarchism. They wanted the extinction of exchange value and the wage system – not just the state. Others, such as Paul Lafargue, added political decentralisation to the mix of themes. These were flexible thinkers, but with one thing in common. They tried to think the negation of capital, state and nation together. Here I might add that they anticipate the problem of a fourth mode of exchange as Kojin Karatani would put it, outside of capital, state and nation, but unlike in Karatani, it was based in the experience of thought-in-action of the Commune rather than derived from the philosophy of Kant.

Ross reminds us that all of them, including Morris, were forward looking. Their program was one of solidarity and with the dead as well as the living, for common ownership and decentralised power as the social forms in which collaborative labour might best flourish. They saw scarcity as a product of capital itself. Reclus in particular was a rare and prescient critic of agribusiness, having seen its prototype form in the American Midwest at first hand.

Reclus and Kropotkin were both geographers, and there is something to be said for anarchist geography as a corrective to Marxist historiography. The two are, however, not that far apart as David Harvey has recently insisted. Reclus practiced a kind of collaborative geographic knowledge workshop – which for Ross has roots in the Commune. Contrary to the sociology of August Comte, this was a science not limited to social facts, but interested in that continuum Donna Haraway calls natureculture.

Unlike those anarchists (and Christian socialists) who took a sentimental or ethical view of cooperation, both Reclus and Kropotkin were interested in cooperative behaviors in both the natural and social worlds. Ross: “Reclus’ solidarity and Kropotkin’s mutual aid are not grounded in a distinctly human sociality or moral sentiment but in a larger conception of animal existence that emphasises continuities between the human and natural world” (134). Morris called it fellowship. In each case it was a worldview that had roots in the collaborative work practices of its authors.

Unlike historical thinking, a geographic worldview necessarily includes nonhuman spaces. Reclus thought in terms of milieu rather than environment. Nature was not just a ground or resource for human social action. The human is nature becoming conscious of itself. Our species-being is “the self-consciousness of the earth” (138).

Reclus, Kroptokin and Morris are being rediscovered as "ecological" thinkers, but absent any sense of the importance of the Commune to them, which Ross so valiantly restores. They were activist-thinkers, not mere contemplators, but their action in the world was collaborative and pedagogic, not militarist in style. In a sense they are neither environmental or ecological thinkers, to the extent that those worldviews presuppose a kind of holism seen from the point of view of passive contemplation. Perhaps one could see them as Anthropocene thinkers of a sort.

Their training was outside of the academy and its divisions of labour. Hence they managed “an almost Balzacian ability to hold together multiple levels of a complex reality…” (136). But then such is the kind of knowledge-practice we might now need.

- This review was originally published on Public Seminar, 6 August 2015.

- See more from Kristin Ross here, and more from McKenzie Wark here.