Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 7, 2016
Kristin Ross Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune London: Verso, 2015. 156 pp. Cloth $23.95 (9781781688397)

Textbooks of nineteenth-century European art rarely mention the 1871 Paris Commune since it produced few memorable artworks, save for André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri’s photographs of dead bodies in coffins. The Commune is typically described as a workers’ insurrection that emerged after the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War left the city in ruins and absent of political authority as a result of the conservative government helmed by Adolphe Thiers having moved its headquarters to Versailles, along with most of the city’s wealthy population. Those left behind in the predominantly working-class neighborhoods established their own government on March 18, 1871. Disdéri’s images encapsulate the final and failed outcome of this political experiment, which lasted for seventy-two days before being extinguished by the Third Republic in the span of a week. The usual narrative arc of the insurrection is thus told in terms of tragedy: absolute end dates, high casualty counts, and the tactical military failures of a government more obsessed with the symbolic work of demolishing monuments than defending itself. Kristin Ross chooses a different route in Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune by considering how messy yet urgent forms of political thought were created in an intensely lived moment and survived the executions, incarcerations, and deportations that marked the Commune’s violent end. Rather than the “generic expectations” of tragedy, she proposes that we “attend instead to the particularity of its [the Commune’s] unfolding and to the political culture that traversed it and that grew out of it” (92). Although there are no illustrations, Ross’s book vividly evokes art’s central place in the spirited forms of dissent that emerged in the context of 1871, and will therefore interest theorists, practitioners, and historians of art. Moreover, as Ross suggests, the historical context of the Commune is not so distant from our own: a crisis capitalism where the collapse of the labor market and forms of social solidarity along with the growth of an informal economy means that more time is spent looking for work than working together.

Ostensibly, Communal Luxury is an intellectual history of France that seeks to draw attention to the neglected topic of Communard political thought from the Second Empire to the 1880s. It is marked by the pointed usage of the term political imaginary, through which Ross, a comparative literature scholar, draws together an expansive and mobile constellation of things, people, and times absent from analyses that fixate upon the formation of a single ideology or doctrine. The book interweaves strands of her prior studies on Arthur Rimbaud and the social space of the Commune, as well as her work on the political memory of the May 1968 uprisings (particularly through the voice of Henri Lefevbre) and the notion of revolutionary theory as formed from a dialectic of the “lived and conceived,” the sense that “a movement’s theory has to emerge from the movement itself” (92). Rather than trace the origin of Communard ideas to the influence of Auguste Blanqui or Pierre-Joseph Prudhon, Ross plunges the reader into the middle of things where: “Thought so intimately tied to the excess of an event does not have the finesse and fine-tuning of theory produced at a safe distance, whether geographical or chronological” (7). Alongside Gustave Courbet making art out of destroying the Vendôme Column, one hears poet Eugène Pottier composing novel forms of pedagogy that are already being put into practice by the shoemaker Napoléon Gaillard. One of the finest works of art created in the spring of 1871 was the “Château Gaillard,” a two-story barricade composed from intricate strata of opus incertum and slumping sandbags, artfully arranged to impede access along the Rue de Rivoli. Gaillard considered these site-specific structures, in what critics derided as misplaced pride, as “both works of art and luxury” (55). He proudly donned his commandant’s uniform to have a photograph taken next to his creations. Rather than dwell on the inevitable destruction of these momentary impasses, Ross traces the thought forms that materialized and survived the Commune in “a kind of afterlife that does not exactly come after but in my view is part and parcel of the event itself” (6; emphasis in original).

Chapter 1 begins with an impromptu conversation between the schoolteacher Louise Michel and an unnamed African soldier from the Pontifical Guards, who happen to share sentry duty one night. Listening to them describe the effects of the Commune on their lives respectively as “a shore that must be reached” and “a book with pictures” allows for a glimpse, according to Ross, of “the transformation of the experience of time . . . that has everything to do with forms of historical memory taking on new shapes and figures or mobilizing old shapes and figures in a new context” (13). Intimate conversations, dusty revolutionary clubs, and popular memories are the spaces from which a political imaginary emerges, one that recast the anachronistic political vocabulary of 1789 and 1848 to conceive a dissident culture that worked against a divisive “cellular regime of nationality.” Benedict Anderson famously coined the expression “imagined communities” to describe the modern nation-state’s arrival from ideas that drew random strangers to identify themselves as part of a collectivity. Here, the cognate term imaginary is used quite differently to characterize the loose federation of a universal republic based in a working-class internationalism, at once smaller in scale than the French nation and more expansive in its principles of equality. Critically, Ross shows that the concrete implementation of such political concepts depended upon mobile individuals, such as twenty-year-old Elizabeth Dmitrieff, who carried ideas across national borders with youthful alacrity. A native of St. Petersburg who met with Karl Marx in London to discuss Russian rural organizations at a time when he had not heard of them, Dmitrieff then traveled onward to Paris to join the Commune and establish the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris on April 11, 1871. What prompted Dmitrieff to leave her life behind and join the International in the first place? It was a novel about communal work by Nikolay Chernyshevsky that spurred her propulsive activism, of “at once reading a book with pictures and trying to reach a new shore” (24; emphasis in original).

The right to determine what you do with your time occupies a central place in the second chapter, which explores the Commune’s interconnected theories of art, labor, schooling, and emancipation. Here, readers will also find the educational premises behind the provocative title of Ross’s book. Putting to the side Courbet, whose role as president of the Artists’ Federation has been amply discussed, Ross considers Pottier and his idea for an integral or “polytechnical” education, one quite different from the state-sponsored grande école of the same name. Pottier believed that the goal of public education was to foster the “harmonious development” of both mind and body and to integrate manual and intellectual work into a comprehensive curriculum. As Ross notes, the autodidact was influenced by Joseph Jacotot, whose philosophy of teaching could be summed up in the maxim, “Everything is in everything,” a way of learning where anything can “become the starting point for emancipation. You can start anywhere—you do not need to start at the beginning” (48). Jacques Rancière’s studies of Jacotot and the worker-poets of 1830 stealing time to make poetry are summoned in order to emphasize the extent to which the daily working existence of the Commune, however brief, actualized alternative modes of making and thinking one’s way through time. The expression “communal luxury” coined in the Artists’ Federation manifesto can be read as an attempt to invert the pathologized terms of filth, poverty, disease, and madness repeatedly launched by anti-Communard propaganda. In Ross’s interpretation, it also articulates the results of an artistic process whereby value, emancipated from the end goal of making a finished product judged by an aesthetic system or market separate from society, comes from mutually shared concerns, which form the prior condition for the possibility of making art, or anything meaningful at all.

In chapter 3, Ross shows the extent to which the working existence of the Paris Commune forced diverse sympathizers such as William Morris, Peter Kropotkin, and Marx to come to grips with how to actualize theories of social change. This forms a particularly novel context for studying the work of Kropotkin, a Russian evolutionary theorist and author of Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), and Morris, a social reformer known for his wallpaper designs and association with the Arts and Crafts Movement, since neither has generally been studied in terms of the Commune. It was while walking through Snaefellsnes, Iceland, in mid-July 1871 that Morris stumbled upon some loose stones strewn in a barren lava field and was suddenly reminded “of a half-ruined Paris barricade” (69). Elsewhere, this might be seen as a poetic technique of montage. Here, Ross uses the hallucinatory image of urban ruin lodged in the remotest wasteland in order to reframe Morris’s often dismissed interest in precapitalist societies, such as those in Iceland, as an urgent response to, not retreat from, the alienating effects of capitalist production, a method of “decentralizing the flow of history” (74). Physically and temporally separated from Morris and Kropotkin yet joined in thought, Marx too struggled to come to terms with the Paris Commune as an event that Ross argues brought him “face to face with the present human forces of emancipation and demanding that he think alongside them” (77; emphasis in original).

Even as they sought to commemorate the past, the present was foremost on the minds of the Commune’s exiled survivors, who form the subject of the fourth chapter. While countries such as Spain and Italy promptly delivered escapees back to the Third Republic, London and Switzerland played host to exile communities where the memories stirred by experiences of the Commune provided the means for formulating new political ideas, identities, and affiliations. Nostalgia was not a part of the program. As Ross emphatically argues, political struggle “produces new conditions, modifies social relations, changes the participants in the event, and the way they think and speak” (93). Even as ex-Communards adopted a slew of new identities—communist, anarchic communist, anarchist, communalist—such new self-determinations were predicated upon an engagement with the past, where, like Louis Alfred Briosne using the outdated language of 1789 in 1868, “being attentive to the energies of the outmoded was one way to think oneself into the future” (116). The final chapter considers the ways in which the Paris Commune provided the model for exploring future political communities, based neither in untenably utopian nor cloistered medieval communes, which were rejected by thinkers such as the geographer Elisée Reclus and Kropotkin because they were too isolationist. Seeking “the end of the scarcity capitalism produces through waste, hoarding, and privatization” (127), the concept of solidarity was proposed in opposition to a Darwinian evolution premised upon competition. Reconceived as an evolutionary means of human strategy and survival, solidarity would make sharing, rather than rarity, the measure of wealth.

Ross brilliantly remaps the political topoi of the Commune in a narrative that is short but densely interwoven, a pattern of lively and vibrant connections not unlike the floral design by Morris on the book’s cover. Some may find the book at times difficult to navigate for its loose chronological structure. But what the attentive reader gains is the ability to feel the surge of ideas and movement of people that transformed a situation of insurmountable crisis into a moment for revolutionary change, as well as the penning of an unlikely historical script through a “system of rapid exchanges, intersections, and collaborations, of symbolic forms of solidarity and scattered, often ephemeral encounters” (8). Reading a book with pictures, reaching a shore, and stacking sandbags can all operate as the potential starting points for political emancipation. You don’t have to start at the beginning; you can start anywhere.

Iris Moon
Visiting Assistant Professor, Undergraduate Architecture, Pratt Institute

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