17 July 2020 **** Front Page

How the Paris Commune helps us to imagine the future

By Tapani Lausti

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

A health crisis and the economic turbulence caused by it are enough to immediately reveal the shallowness of the pretense that modern capitalist societies are somehow a great human achievement. More and more people realize that we live in societies which go against every decent human instinct. Occasionally the possibility of a more meaningful life comes to view, as the occupy and indignados movements showed. Even the word “commune” reappeared in some commentaries.

The Paris Commune was a fascinating example of how social life could fairly easily be organised in a democratically decent way. Its example, though, has been buried under deliberately contemptuous misleading accounts of what really happened.

Yet, the Paris Commune was a fascinating historical experience. For seventy-two days in the spring of 1871, a worker-led insurrection transformed the city of Paris into an autonomous Commune and set about improvising the free organization of its social life according to principles of association and cooperation.

Although the Paris Commune is a dramatically important example of how societies could be reorganised, Kristin Ross writes that communard thought has historically received little attention, even from writers and scholars politically sympathetic to the event’s memory.

Ross points out that the Communal imagination operated on the preferred scale of the local autonomous unit within an internationalist horizon. It had little room for the nation, or, for that matter, for the market or the state.

Unlike much of the left thinking which enphasises clear political programmes, Ross emphasises how in reality actions produce dreams and ideas, and not the reverse.

One of the dreamers who was seriously influenced by the Paris Commune was William Morris. He was sometimes thought of as a woolly or unsystematic thinker because he insisted on looking upon thinking as creating and building a content where ideas might be both productive and immediately effective in their moment.

The commune thinking had a serious effect on Morris for the rest of his life. Together with his essays and his magnificent novel News from Nowhere Morris created a world that may seem as daydreaming but actually describes a life and a world which are based on realistic ideas of human life unspoiled by the imaginary “reality” distorted by centuries of unequal social relations. What Morris called “this so-called society” was not a society at all in his opinion but a state of war: the war of commerce. Senseless luxury, which Morris knew cannot exist without slavery of some kind, would be replaced by communal luxury, or equality in abundance. As Ross writes, Morris has emerged in the minds of many as a founding voice in the discourse of “socialist ecology.”

According to Ross, evoking communitarian or tribal societies of the past may provide clues to the free forms of a whole new economic life in the future. For the people who lived through the Paris Commune, a type of liberty and a network of solidarity were realized, and out of local defeat there may well come a prototype for future social revolutions. A parable is not about going backwards or reversing time but about opening it up – opening up the web of possibilities.

The Communards had not decreed or proclaimed the abolishment of the state. Rather, they had set about, step by step, dismantling, in the short time they had, all of its bureaucratic underpinnings.

According to Ross, what Karl Marx saw enacted in the Commune’s working existence was the actual dissolution of commodity fetishism and the establishment instead of its opposite social relations as “freely associated labor.”

Productive labor no longer carried the meaning of salaried labor exchanged against capital. It had taken on the larger meaning of an activity useful to the needs of society as a whole.

About the tragic end of the Commune, Ross writes: “Because the Commune struck at the very heart of the state, social and economic system, the European middle class rallied against the insurrection in a movement resembling a religious crusade, a crusade that culminated with the class massacre that occurred in the heart of “civilized” Europe: the mass shootings of tens of thousands of Communards in May 1871.

In its short life, the Paris Commune made visible alternative ways of organizing social and economic life. As Ross notes, political struggle itself produces new conditions, modifies social relations, changes the participants in the event, and the way they think and speak – the struggle itself creates new political forms, ways of being, and new theoretical understanding of those ways and forms. People became aware of their right to control their own lives. In this sense the Commune was not a failure.

Ross writes: “The post-Commune period was, I think, like our own, not a period of great theoretical purity. And William Morris was not alone in thinking that an obsession with such purity frequently gets in the way of the task of making socialists.”

Morris saw that a better life would avoid hyper-specialization. Instead, one person may be called upon to take on successive, different tasks – an echo of the “varied life” that Morris saw to be as important an element as equality to how he envisioned life after capitalism: “variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of condition, and nothing but the union of these two will bring about real freedom.”

Ross concludes: “Just as for each of these thinkers true individualism was only possible under communism, which needs and values the contribution of each individual to the common good, so true luxury could only be communal luxury.”

Here we are, a century and a half later. William Morris would be shocked to find how the majority of humanity still toils in boring jobs. For him the source of happiness was creative freedom. Soulless drudgery in his eyes was a crime against humanity. Capitalism cannot offer less privileged people the dignity that even feudalism could allow.

Yet, we now know that humans have a nervous system that allows us to develop highly intelligent knowledge. Noam Chomsky says that growing children can jump relatively quickly from incoherent information to highly organized understanding. This richness of the human mind is in contradiction with the lack of imagination of current social thinking. Chomsky thinks that a hierarchical society is probably also in contradiction of an inborn human sense of morality.

 

Read also:

Archive: Occupy and los indignados, Noam Chomsky, David Graeber

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