This is a collection of five deeply thought essays on distinct but overlapping debates regarding the Paris Commune of the spring of 1871, coming not to a unified conclusion but raising more sharply pointed questions about social aims and possibilities. There had been self-governing towns and village associations called “communes” since the middle ages, but it was a new and revolutionary conception that emerged in the wake of the French revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848, becoming a popular theme in Paris political clubs in the 1860s. The new concept, suited to the rapidly developing industrial world of 19th century Europe, was of a self-governing collective that was also egalitarian and voluntary, that is, entered into freely rather than with statuses predetermined at birth, and decisions and leadership all chosen, and revoked as necessary, by free vote of the people. Goods would be distributed to provide for the material needs of all, and in further contrast to preindustrial communes, it would not isolate itself but be open to newcomers and to free exchange of ideas and goods with other communities.
The amazing thing, astounding to participants and observers, is that something approaching that ideal became a reality in continental Europe’s greatest and most economically and technically advanced city for over two months (the 72 days from the revolt of 18 March to final massacre ending 28 May 1871).
The essays, or chapters, successively examine the pre-history of the Paris Commune in the thinking of worker intellectuals, the Commune’s actual practice during its brief active existence — with special attention to women’s actions and demands — and the sequels of the Commune’s experience in the thinking of survivors and sympathizers, including especially the geographers Elisée Reclus and Piotr Kropotkin and the arts & crafts artist, artisan and self-proclaimed “Communist” William Morris. Like Morris, Kristin Ross searches through ideals of the past to illuminate possibilities for our future — though without Morris’ medieval romanticism. It’s a marvelous intellectual journey, pointing to interpretations of the Arab spring, Spain in 2011, and many other popular revolts, in course or about to come.
« Elle n’est pas morte » sang survivors. And indeed “she”, la Commune, did not die with the defenders of the Paris barricades or the scores of communards shot down in the cemetery Père Lachaise at the end of May 1871. The ideal of the commune, had been born earlier in the imaginations of workers and their allies, as productive capacities and expanded communications made the scarcities and restrictions of capitalism seem unnecessary and intolerable. It was born in the imaginations of workers like Eugène Pottier, decorative artist, poet, communard and author of the phrase “communal luxury” and of the lyrics of The Internationale. And bookbinder Nathalie LeMel, and schoolteacher Louise Michel, and many others. And lives on still.