72 days in 1871


Paris 1871, Barricade from above, preparations for war, Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg

From New Left Review:

L’imaginaire de la Commune is the title of Kristin Ross’s new book in its first, French edition. It is debatable whether this laconic phrasing could have survived the passage into English with its resonances unimpaired. Verso’s more elaborate formulation is properly informative, recalling an event and its animating vision, and defining the emphasis of Ross’s treatment, which falls on a triumph of political and social imagination. What it surrenders, though, is the great, stirring generality of the simple phrase ‘The Commune!’—‘the rallying cry’ as well as ‘the thing itself’—which the author herself insists upon, as she ranges through the experiences of seventy-two days in Paris in the spring of 1871, reconstructing an altogether more extensive and complex time-space, both objective and inward, of communes past, present and to come.

The unique military conjuncture is well known: the victorious Prussians camped to the east of the capital, staying their hand, as the defeated government forces, now regrouped at Versailles to the west, began a sustained bombardment of the city’s revolutionaries. But in Ross’s treatment, even a strict measurement of time reaches back some years into the later 1860s, which saw a ferment of political discussion among the workers of Paris, as the Second Empire faltered. ‘It is the clubs and the associations that have done all the harm,’ was one police official’s retrospective judgement. There, in what one anti-Communard author called ‘the Collège de France of insurrection’, the idea of the ‘social Commune’ had taken shape well before the collapse of official resistance to Prussia’s armies. Its imaginative hold on posterity would be greater and longer-lived, sustained through the 1870s and 80s and beyond by those who had survived the bloody repression to make it to the Communard colonies of London and Geneva—and also by such unflagging champions as Peter Kropotkin and William Morris. Only one French veteran, the geographer and anarchist thinker Élisée Reclus, gets as much attention as these two, a Russian gentleman-scientist and an English poet and decorator who had neither first-hand experience of the insurrection nor even much initial awareness of what was unfolding—in contrast, say, with Marx, who, in his London exile, was intensely engaged. But that is in keeping with Ross’s understanding of the Commune’s imaginary, which is not inhibited either by national borders or by the programmed sequences of modernizing reason. It is a four-dimensional network of sorts in which familiar lines of political inheritance criss-cross with new bondings in the present and retrospective acts of affiliation that enrich the significance of the events they look back on. Thus, Jacobin and Proudhonist currents were predictably to the fore from the outset; Elisabeth Dmitrieff, the founder of the Women’s Union, opened a key intellectual ‘transversal’ between Marx and revolutionary forces in Russia; Kropotkin and Morris became a part of the memory of the Commune by virtue of their embrace of its historic promise and their own later individual contributions to the thought-cluster for which it offered the foremost symbol—in a word, its imaginary.

This is a long-standing preoccupation in Ross’s work, as readers of her first book, The Emergence of Social Space (1988), centred on the poetry of Rimbaud, will be aware. The constructions of social memory and their political implications were the matter of an incisive critical study, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (2002).Communal Luxury bears a close relation to both these books, as historical writing in a modernist mode: Bloch’s Erbschaft is an explicit presence in it, and the Benjamin of the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ is Ross’s inspiration for the priorities she sets herself. ‘I have preferred’, she says, to attend to the ‘voices and actions’ of the Communards themselves, rather than

the long chorus of political commentary or analysis—whether celebratory or critical—that followed. I have not been concerned with weighing the Commune’s successes or failures, nor with ascertaining in any direct way the lessons it might have provided or might continue to provide for the movements, insurrections and revolutions that have come in its wake. It is not clear to me that the past actually gives lessons.

However, she continues, ‘Like Walter Benjamin . . . I believe that there are moments when a particular event or struggle enters vividly into the figurability of the present, and this seems to me to be the case with the Commune today.’ The alternatives mapped here are not so stark, in truth. Ross’s arresting declaration implies a different style of learning, not the conclusion that there is nothing to learn.

“Afterlives of the Commune”, Francis Mulhearne, New Left Review