Visions of Utopia

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune.
By Kristin Ross
Verso, 2015
ISBN: 9781781688397

The Port Huron Statement: Sources and Legacies of the New Lefts Founding Manifesto
Edited by Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8122-4692-6

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement.
By Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky
Oxford University Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780199313914


Reviewed by: Tim Barker

A time-honored trope of left-wing rhetoric works by identifying radical projects with the barest common sense. Witness the secondwave slogan, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” or Guatemalan reformist Juan José Arévalo’s declaration, “We are socialists because we live in the twentieth century.” More generally—and cryptically—Lenin counseled a politics “as radical as reality itself.” Effective as these formulations are, the rhetorical move involves a fundamental ambiguity. Is it that radicalism is not so radical, because it is only recognition of something everyone already accepts? Or is it that to achieve even the simplest and most obvious goals, we need to take an ax to the root of the whole system?

There is a version of this trope associated with participatory democracy. “We understand democracy to be that system of rule in which the people make the decisions that affect their lives.” Depending on your reading, this could be a high school civics lesson or a call for social revolution. Three recent books about episodes in the history of radical democracy—the 1871 Paris Commune, the 1962 Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society, and the Occupy Movement of 2011-2012—show how the tension between the obvious and the otherworldly remains unresolved in important ways today

The sequence begins with Kristin Ross’ Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. The Commune itself—a revolutionary government composed of the popular classes of Paris, which existed for seventytwo days in 1871 between the defeat of Napoleon III’s Second Empire at the hands of the Prussians and the violent foundation of the liberal Third Republic—is well-trodden historical ground. Ross’ contribution stresses the sheer radicalism of the Communard vision, which she finds too explosive to be contained within the narrow confines of French nationalist or Marxist historiography. In her clearest summation, Ross writes, “The Communal imagination operated on the preferred scale of the autonomous unit within an internationalist horizon. It had little room for the nation, or for that matter, for the market or state.” The Commune would revolutionize all aspects of life, all over the world, without throwing up any mediating institution besides voluntary association. Ross’ Communard vision centers around the transformative reconciliation of all binary oppositions—not just global and local but mental and manual labor, city and countryside, human industry and nature, and past and future. “Everything,” Ross sums up, “is in everything.”

Fortunately, Ross uses these grand themes to bring together a fascinating constellation of specific historical experiences. There is supposed to be something practical about the Communard vision, as indicated by Ross’ repeated endorsement of Marx’s conclusion that the Commune’s greatest achievement was “its own working existence.” Likewise, Ross shows that her protagonists’ ambitious visions were sparks thrown off in the course of concrete, and even dull, existence. A good example is Eugène Pottier, a spokesman for the Commune’s Artists Federation (more famous for later writing “The Internationale”). “Communal luxury” was Pottier’s name for the Federation’s program, which called for a world in which art was reunited with useful craftsmanship, and aesthetic seriousness extended to the humblest everyday objects. This wild dream emerged from Pottier’s zigzag life: As a teenage apprentice, he discovered a grammar in an old armoire and taught himself to read, writing poetry at night; by 1871, he ran a polyglot workshop of skilled artisans turning out everything from wallpaper to ceramics. Sympathetic observers abroad, William Morris chief among them, recognized with a thrill that their aesthetic politics were briefly embraced by the sovereign people.

But the dialectics of having it all have their drawbacks. Anything that falls short must be fully rejected. “There was no question for any of them,” Ross writes of her subjects, “of any reform or of a piecemeal solution.” So what do you do when “the complete dismantling of international commerce” is not on the table? The all-embracing scope of the Communard imagination reveals itself as brittle and, indeed, hostile to the reality of life after the fall. In a telling detail, Ross mentions that one of her central figures, the ex-Communard geographer Élisée Reclus, was said to hold “a kind of hatred for the people of Paris” and avoided the city even after his amnesty. The one limit to the Universal Republic, apparently, is “horror of the bourgeois, opportunistic republic,” so Ross’ protagonists turn after 1871 to the barren climes of Iceland and Siberia in search of alternatives to capitalist modernity.

If Ross sharpens the uncompromising edge of Communard democracy, the thrust of the essays collected by editors Richard Flacks and Nelson Lichtenstein in The Port Huron Statement is that the radical democrats of the early American New Left were far closer to the mainstream than generally acknowledged. The volume’s major theme, attested to by both participants and scholarly observers, is that the vision propounded in the 1962 founding statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) flowed from American traditions in general and from a healthy respect for early 1960s liberalism in particular. Many of the essays address different dimensions of this “symbiotic relationship,” including Robert Cohen on the New Left’s “love-hate relationship with the university,” Daniel Geary on SDS’s working relationship with activist liberal academics, and Nelson Lichtenstein on the ties between student radicals and the Reutherite wing of the labor movement.

This shared theme of left-liberal proximity can lead to different conclusions. Geary, for example, explores the close relationships between the early SDS and older liberals grouped around antinuclear activism and the Committee for Correspondence Newsletter, The Correspondent. Reminding us that the Port Huron Statement called for alliances with liberals, Geary also shows that Correspondence liberals like sociologist David Riesman were surprisingly sharp in their criticism of liberal reticence and Cold War verities. But Geary can only bemoan the alienation that set in within a few short years, acknowledging that the hostility came from both sides but concluding that liberalism and leftism can only succeed in a “synergistic relationship” characterized by mutual respect for both pragmatic and utopian approaches to politics.

The broad left-liberal alliance Geary describes is attractive. But in his contribution to the volume, Nelson Lichtenstein acknowledges the same descriptive overlap but finds the divorce not an unfortunate contingency but the result of a deeper underlying tension. Just as Geary showed how close early SDS came to dissenting liberal academics, Lichtenstein shows how the authors of The Port Huron Statement were on the same wavelength as their elders on United Auto Workers (UAW) staff. The connection was, first of all, practical; it was a last minute call by Michigan SDSer Sharon Jeffrey to her mother, UAW staffer Mildred Jeffrey, that found a home for the student conference at the UAW’s FDR Labor Education Center on Lake Huron. There were also substantive similarities, as the erstwhile socialists in the UAW, who had once undertaken direct action to expand democracy onto the shop floor, looked with hope on the emergence of new radicals. But Lichtenstein, in contrast to Geary, finds that the quick end to the liberal-left alliance was too overdetermined to regret. “Accommodative and coalition-building politics,” he writes, were “antithetical to the early New Left in its most creative and attractive moments” (p. 105).

One might reasonably object that nineteenth century French radicals and American baby boomers have little meaningful in common. But if nothing else, Communal Luxury and the Port Huron collection share a common contemporary reference in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its offshoots. The movement receives more extended treatment in the Flacks/Lichtenstein collection, but both books try to make sense of the present according to the political orientation with which it approaches the past. Accordingly, Ross stresses the similarity of late nineteenth century penury to today’s “collapse of the labor market.” Like the men and women who made up the Commune, more and more people today spend their time “not working but looking for work,” and like Ross’ Communards, they have neither a heroic national bourgeoisie nor state socialism to inspire them. What is (or was, or perhaps will be) important about Occupy were those elements that, however short-lived, recall the revelatory flares of 1871: the immediate experience of “living differently now,” and a solidarity that bypassed the nation to link local spaces (Zuccotti to Tahrir) on a global scale.

The commentary in the Port Huron volume does not ignore how much has changed since 1962. “It simply was nowhere in our minds,” recalls Jane Mansbridge in a memoir of her time in various participatory collectives, “that there might not always be readily available low-paying, relatively interesting jobs that would let you pay the rent now and perhaps lead to better paying jobs later” (p. 194). The popping of this postwar bubble means that any contemporary upheaval will be “fueled by despair, not hope.” But Mansbridge concurs with the volume’s other contributors in stressing that, despite changed circumstances, the internal dynamics of participatory democracy are as fraught today as they turned out to be in the 1960s. Although these warnings suggest moderation, the contributors also take care to remind liberals that utopian desire remains a resource for motivating progressive change. Inevitably, perhaps, their calls for a return to the left-liberal symbiosis of the early SDS suggest only the sketchiest of blueprints. One might easily finish the book convinced by the historical claims but unsure that the “moment of convergence” will return in a world where Walter Reuther has no real equivalent and Clark Kerr has been replaced by hedge fund managers.

Readers eager for a more sustained reflection on contemporary radical democracy can profitably turn to Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky’s The Occupiers. The book offers a detailed history of the not-quite-two-months-long occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011, with a brief prologue, epilogue, and excursuses to other encampments. Gould-Wartofsky is both a sociologist and an activist who participated in Occupy from the start, and his book aims to combine both perspectives. The bulk of the book, however, is a chronological recounting of events, and I found that the limited sociological analysis seemed sound but added little to the narrative. We learn, for example, that “a plurality” of Gould-Wartofsky’s respondents thought of Wall Street as “a kind of cypher for capitalism,” and that the interviewees were “nearly unanimous” in embracing “some or another form of radical democracy.” Interesting, but nothing you would not already suspect.

The biggest barrier to analysis is that, as Gould-Wartofsky concedes at one point, “it is still too early to tell” what impact OWS has had on American politics. He ventures the suggestion that Occupy is “not in itself a social movement” but part of a larger “political potentiality” he labels the “99 percent movement.” The definition of the “99 percent movement” remains unclear, at times seeming to encompass the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)– led Fight for $15 and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The inchoate nature of the movement, or movements, is clear in Gould-Wartofsky’s abstract speculations about paths forward. “One such path,” Gould-Wartofsky writes with clear approbation in his concluding paragraphs, “would be the construction of independent bases of power—from popular assemblies and democratic unions to national formations and international networks—which could generate the collective capacity to advance a concrete political program.”

Leaving aside a certain vagueness, this sounds great to me, as I suspect it will to you. But it is not a goal that seems any closer to reality now than it was before September 17, 2011. It does not follow obviously from the vision expressed by the book’s many interviewees, nor does it resonate with the shape of subsequent popular protest. For better or worse, the participatory form of OWS seems so far to have proved less persistent than its anti-inequality content. The phenomena which most obviously follow in the OWS chain are not occupations but the unexpectedly enthusiastic receptions for social democrats. Sanders supporters, Piketty readers, and Occupiers share a desire to deepen democracy by attacking inequality and endemic corruption, goals which seem stronger forces at present than the desire for an entirely new way of living.

Meanwhile, if anything that like a “99 percent movement” outlived the Occupy camps, it has surely been eclipsed in the world of movement politics by Black Lives Matter (BLM), which had not reached anything like its present force when The Occupiers went to press. Diffuse by design, the BLM phenomenon now includes everything from DeRay McKesson’s corporate-sponsored campaign for mayor of Baltimore to “collective bargaining by riot,” an Eric Hobsbawm coinage revived by the British journal Endnotes to describe the popular unrest that helped secure indictments and Department of Justice investigations on behalf of the residents of Ferguson and Baltimore. But from margin to mainstream, BLM so far has not yet emphasized direct democracy or the permanent occupation of physical space.

It seems safe to say that our own social world is somewhere between the prosperous optimism that birthed the Port Huron Statement and the postwar destruction that engendered the Paris Commune. It is likewise true that OWS and Sanders’ “political revolution” have both been simultaneously more successful than anyone would have guessed and clear failures on their own terms. This suggests that both souls of radical democracy—Ross’ utter rejectionism and The Port Huron Statement’s left-liberal alliance—remain compelling and as yet inadequate. Imagining ways to square the circle should keep us busy for years to come.


Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message