This interdisciplinary research project seeks to approach ‘democracy’ as the subject of conflict and contestation. In light of this objective, our aim is to show how ‘The Commune’ has been the subject of political conflict and debate throughout the past 150 years. Our claim is that ‘The Commune’ has fulfilled a productive role as a signifier for various – complementary as well as incompatible – values or utopian ideals, political experiences, and fears or perceived threats. We hypothesize that ‘The Commune’ may be regarded as the key signifier of a broad and long-standing democratic repertoire in its own right – a repertoire that is sometimes referred to as ‘communalism’.

‘Communalism’ as a Democratic Repertoire?

Combining historical, philosophical, and empirical methods and perspectives, the aim of this project is to reconstruct ‘communalism’ as a democratic repertoire that exists alongside other repertoires such as populism or parliamentarianism. Although the concrete form and composition of this communalist repertoire has varied over time, a number of key aspects have been reinstated and rearticulated in various democratic practices and theories since its inception in 1871.

First, communalism implies a sense of political community, which can be determined by a geographical territory, a common economic interest or working environment, or a shared identity.

Second, a communalist politics is distinctively internationalist and often promotes confederal forms of organisation and decision-making.

Third, a communalist repertoire typically combines various forms and ideas of democratic action and organisation – street action and participatory democracy in public or neighbourhood assemblies on the one hand; electoral representation in city or workers’ councils on the other.

Finally, a communalist repertoire is often transferred to contexts or conditions that are characterised by crisis – be it of a political, economic, cultural, or environmental nature.

Research questions

The central question addressed in each of the subprojects, is how the image of ‘The Commune’ is implicitly or explicitly invoked – and, consequently, rearticulated and redefined – in the practices, debates, and discourses of these movements.

In that light, the following questions are addressed in each subproject:

What ideals of ‘democracy’ are implied in this image of ‘The Commune’?
How are these ideals informed by, and/or contrasted with, political experiences with other/competing democratic repertoires?
What concessions are made, or which dilemmas are faced, when these ideals are implemented in practice?

Project outline

In March 1871, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war and the ensuing political crisis, the people of Paris denounced their provisional government, and declared their city a free Commune. What followed was 72 days of social and political experimentation. As its main body of government, the Commune established a council. Public life flourished, especially in the political ‘clubs’ that emerged in each neighbourhood. Self-organised workers’ cooperatives fulfilled a central economic role, and the communards established a free, secular school system. Gender equality increased significantly, and women played a key role in the establishment and defence of the Commune.

This project comprises three individual post-doc research projects. Each subproject will focus on a specific historical instance of the communalist democratic repertoire, and each from a different methodological or disciplinary perspective. These three instances occur at an interval of about 50 years.