La Nuit des Prolétaires
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think of the Paris Commune as one of the pivotal events in human history. It was not only one of the first, but still is one of the most audacious experiments in equality, freedom, and liberation from oppression that has ever taken place. One of its most remarkable qualities of this startling experiment of 1871 was its spontaneity; it is not that it had no precedents — certainly it was operating on ideas that had been percolating around Europe for decades — but that its participants, many of them uneducated, unsophisticated, and with little knowledge of the world outside of Paris so completely threw themselves into a unique and radical experiment in democracy and common humanity and more or less on their own created a working microcosm of egalitarian ideals that today, almost 150 years later and with technology and resources that they could never have dreamed of, we are still struggling to replicate.
The great Rosa Luxembourg stressed, before she met an end all too familiar to the brave men and women of the Communards, that it was not necessary to cross the Ts and dot the Is of radical theory to have a revolution; the means of living a liberated life could be — indeed, must be — discovered while in the process of living it. “The modern proletarian class doesn’t carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory,” she wrote. “The modern worker’s struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight we learn how we must fight. That’s exactly what is laudable about it — that the great masses of the working people first forge from their own consciousness, from their own belief, and even from their own understanding the weapons of their own liberation.” When she wrote those words, the German revolution was struggling, and would eventually fail; but 50 years prior, the people of Paris, hundreds of thousands strong, without a tenth the benefit she had accrued from education and commitment to the cause, managed to create the conditions of a revolutionary world with almost no planning or forethought. The Commune was not only a stunning act of defiance and a staggering accomplishment of democratic self-rule by the masses, it was a feat of unprecedented imagination.
It is this latter aspect that NYU literature professor Kristin Ross concerns herself with in the revealing new book, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. Slight and written in a slightly arch academic style, the book is nonetheless hugely impressive for the way it tells many of the stories, seemingly familiar to those who have read extensively about the events of Paris’ 1871 summer, in a context that renders them electric with new meaning. Ross sheds historical and theoretical light on the amazingly dynamic events of that period, showing that the people of Paris drew extensively — and sometimes unknowingly — on the culture and ideas of the past, but realized them in a way that had no precedent and which seemingly developed its own theories and practices with lightning speed. Marx told us that the Commune was important for its mere existence, but one of the most amazing things about it was that it did so much more than merely exist: it worked, it functioned, it thrived in ways that the city, that the world, had never dreamed.
Dreams, visions, and ideas of a life lived as never before are form a major part of Communal Luxury. Even to those familiar with the Commune, it is striking how modern their ideas seem today. They were internationalists from the very beginning (one of the main reasons they struck such terror in the hearts of the political elite, and why the French allied with their recent enemies in Germany to crush them). They forsook the growing nationalism of the day in favor of the idea of an idyllic global commonality, a desire for the global emancipation of labor from its boredom and want and cruel restraints that had nothing to do with base patriotism: they called it the “Universal Republic”, and demanded not just a guarantee of the basic necessities to keep hunger and deprivation at bay, but the best in life for everyone.
They embraced women’s rights as an essential component of their revolution: the Women’s Union was a critical part of the Commune, and was led by a 20-year-old named Elisabeth Dmitrieff who formed a crucial tie between French and Russian thinkers. They organized creches, fought on the front lines, took charge of education, and demanded much more than just a vote for women: they sought no less than “a full reorganization of women’s labor and the end of gender-based inequality” at the same time they were fighting fires, serving on ambulances, and filling sandbags. Paid labor for all women and “work and well-being for all” with the producers keeping the profits their labor generated was being demanded by these Parisians when the vote for women in America was still six decades away. Far from being a conglomeration of white working-class people, the commune included Arabs, Asians, Africans and Jews, and anti-facism and anti-imperialism were integral parts of its platform, central tenets of the idea that “socialism is the redemption of all people, the salvation for all”. “We shouldn’t forget what we did to others,” said one speaker who had fought for France against Prussia but who had no concern for nationalist humiliation; “We went into Crimea, China, Rome, Mexico, and we fought with people who asked for nothing but to live in peace with us.” Black zouaves from Africa manned the barricades as Eugène Varlin insisted that “Africa will flourish only when it administers itself”; Arab workers helped feed the population as Varlin hissed that “The French have brought [Algeria] not civilization but misery and servitude.” They completely reorganized the idea of education, eliminating the influence of the church and created a blended learning for all boys and girls, which would combine book study with the development of practical skills and the theory and application of art and science, insisting that every child should have access to every aspect of the world we could teach them.
Throughout Communal Luxury, Ross makes a rather scrupulous effort not to tie the lessons of the Paris Commune, however obvious they may be, to our present situation. But this is not out of reluctance or rejection; instead, she trusts the reader to understand the relevance of what they are reading as she describes the events as a sort of collectively realized dream, a simultaneous drawing from the hearts and minds of a diverse and growing group of people ideas that they would translate almost immediately into a contested but dynamic reality. She effectively traces the rise and fall of the Commune and its diaspora, which influenced politics for decades and produced a noise that never stopped echoing. Almost a century and a half ago, the people of Paris threw down a gauntlet, challenging the way society should conceive of work and who should benefit from it, of the role of women and children being treated with equal status, of universal acceptance of all people in opposition to petty nationalism, of what our public spaces should look like and what purpose they should serve, of what it meant to be human. That gauntlet still sits on the ground before us, waiting for someone brave enough to pick it up.