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From the Commune to Communalism? The Paris Commune and its meaning for democratic theory and practice

May 19, 2022 - May 20, 2022

In March 1871, women, workers, and members of the National Guard of Paris erected barricades and occupied government buildings across the capital. During its 72 days of existence, the Paris Commune achieved some major reforms: the abolishment of the death penalty, conscription and child labour, postponement of debts, and the establishment of a women’s union, producer-owned cooperatives and a secular school system. The democratically elected rulers took a worker’s wage and were actively building what communard Paschal Grousset later called ‘the republic of our dreams… democratic and social… a precision instrument of economic transformation’. These achievements are even more impressive given the experimental character of political organisation of the Commune. The Communards established new, federated forms of democratic representation. Elected representatives were subject to imperative mandate and could be immediately recalled. Their experiments with self-rule and expression were not limited to the highest, most formal political institutions, but in fact ran through local neighbourhoods, clubs and workplaces.

By 28 May, after a ‘bloody week’, this experiment with self-organisation and communal democracy had been violently repressed by the armed forces of the national government. Yet the experience of Paris has inspired many different political movements. Many radical theorists and traditions have claimed ‘the Commune’ as their own: from the well-known account of Karl Marx and Lenin’s State and Revolution, to the anarchist account of Mikhail Bakunin, and from the council communists in Germany to soixante-huitards in France. A more recent radical tendency that is inspired by the work of Murray Bookchin has even explicitly referred to itself as ‘communalism’.

How can we explain that the commune inspired so many different movements and tendencies, and how could this idea be transferred between so many different social, political, cultural and economic contexts? How has the meaning of ‘the Commune’ changed throughout the past 150 years, and how can we understand and theorise communalism as a distinctive democratic ‘repertoire?’ How did, and does, this repertoire relate to other political projects – democratic or otherwise? What movements, practices, or traditions may be considered part of a broader ‘communalist’ repertoire or tendency, and on what basis? What image of ‘the Commune’ did they invoke, and how does this image correspond with the deeds and experiences of the communards in 1871?

The aim of the conference is to explore these questions on the history of the Paris Commune and its enduring relevance for democratic thought at an international conference. We have convened a group of leading experts from different fields and disciplines to contemplate and discuss the history, theory and practice of (past, present and future) communalism.

Event Programme

Day 1 (19 May)

09:30-10:45. Welcome and Introduction: Communalism as a Democratic Repertoire? 

  • Gaard Kets (Radboud University)
  • Laura Roth (Universitat Jaume I)
  • Mathijs van de Sande (Radboud University)

11:00-12:30. Session 1: Commemorating the Paris Commune: Why does the Commune Matter Today? 

  • Quentin Deluermoz (Université Paris Cité): “The Astonishing Persistence of the Commune.”
  • Carolyn Eichner (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee): “Many Paths to Justice, Many Types of Justice to be Pursued: The Commune as Multidimensional Map to Egalitarianism.” 

12:30-14:00. Lunch break 

14:00-15:30. Session 2. Communalism and the State I: between Anarchy and Confederalism? 

  • Ruth Kinna (Loughborough University): Anarchists and the Commune: Memoralisation and Constitutionalisation.
  • Joost Jongerden (Wageningen University & Research): “The Commune Beyond the Commune: Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and Democratic Confederalism.” 

16:00-17:30. Session 3. Whose Commune? The Dèmos in Communalism. 

  • Martin Breaugh (York University): “A Democracy Without Titles? 1871 Against the Politics of the Few.”
  • Sonja Lavaert (Vrije Universiteit Brussels): “Horizontality of a Spatial Event: The Commune from the Perspective of the Multitude.” 

Day 2 (20 May) 

09:00-11:00. Session 4. Communalism and the State II: Institutions, Legitimacy and Political Representation. 

  • Paul Raekstad & Enzo Rossi (University of Amsterdam): “Political Naturalism: Legitimacy Without Sovereignty.”
  • Sixtine van Outryve d’Ydewalle (UCL Louvain): “Rethinking Representation as Delegation in the Framework of Communalist Direct Democracy.”
  • Artemy Magun (European University at St. Petersburg): “The Institutional Design of Communal Democracy: Problems and Inventions.” 

11:30 – 13:00. Session 5. Communalism as Mobilization and Political Pedagogy. 

  • Matthias Flatscher (University of Vienna): “Revolutionary Clubs. Reflections on Political Mobilization in the Run-Up to the Paris Commune.”
  • Femke Kaulingfreks (Inholland University of Applied Sciences): “The Revolution Will be Live: Towards a Pedagogy of Radical Imaginaries beyond the Paris Commune.” 

13:00-14:15 Lunch break 

14:15-15:45 Session 8. Communalism, Municipalism and the Commons. 

  • Sophie Bloemen (Commons Network): Title T.B.A.
  • Cristina Flesher Fominaya (Aarhus University): “Commons Thinking and Practice in the 15-M Movement and Spanish Municipalism.” 

16:15-17:15. Closing discussion: What is Communalism? 

Online and in-person participation

The event will be streamed and there will be space for questions from participants attending remotely. Registration is mandatory.

Because of limited capacities at the conference venue, there are only limited possibilities for non-speakers to attend in-person. Please contact mathijs.vandesande@ru.nl if you are interested in this possibility, before April 30.

This conference is the first event in a series of international workshops and expert meetings, and is organised in light of the research project, ‘Vive la Commune! Communalism as a Democratic Repertoire’ (sept. 2021- 2024) which is funded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung.


  • Ramón Feenstra (Universitat Jaume I)
  • Gaard Kets (Radboud University)
  • Carolien van Ham (Radboud University)
  • Laura Roth (Universitat Jaume I)
  • Mathijs van de Sande (Radboud University)
  • Evert van der Zweerde (Radboud University)

Download the full programme here.

Download the abstracts here (this is the latest version, but we might need to update it before the event).

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May 19, 2022
May 20, 2022
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De Lindenberg Nijmegen
Ridderstraat 23
Nijmegen, 6511 TM Netherlands
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Ramón Feenstra (Universitat Jaume I)
Gaard Kets (Radboud University)
Carolien van Ham (Radboud University)
Laura Roth (Universitat Jaume I)
Mathijs van de Sande (Radboud University)
Evert van der Zweerde (Radboud University)