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Reimagining the Paris Commune


For Public Seminar, McKenzie Wark writes about Kristin Ross’s new book, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, an “elegant and rather useful cartography of the Paris Commune of 18 March to 28 May 1871.” Check out Wark’s text in partial below, the full version here.

The Commune is usually told as a tragic story, ending in the massacre of some 30 thousand Communards and the exile or transportation of many more. It is a way of closing off the story. But that might be a mode of narration that can also be consigned to the past. Ross: “… thinking of the Paris Commune in terms of the classic unities of tragedy risked isolating it from its conceptual and political afterlives.” (122)

Rather, Ross offers an ironic or untimely sketch of a history, building on her earlier book The Emergence of Social Space (Verso 2008). The Commune used to figure in official Marxist discourse as a failed precursor to the properly socialist revolution (led of course by a vanguard party). It is also rather uneasily annexed to liberal-bourgeois histories of the sequence of French revolutions. Ross frees it from the anachronism of the former and hypocrisy of the latter. Let us never forget that the liberal-bourgeois state is founded on murdered Communards.

Sympathetic accounts of the Commune by Marx, or Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2012) stress its practical nature, as if workers and artisans had no ideas of their own. Ross restores something of a balance in the account of both its manual and intellectual labors. She is interested in its legislative achievements. It is more a matter of ideas in action.

For example, she tells the story of Elisabeth Dmitrieff, who was a link between Marx and the influential Russian radical Nicolai Chernyshevsky. His novel, What is to Be Done? prompted her into active life. But she also seeded in Marx the idea of the traditional Russian rural commune as a proto-type for a new kind of social relation. She was part of a movement that wanted to reject on one hand the idea that Russian development has to pass through capitalism and on the other that Russia could refuse development and return to the mythic values of the commune of old. At a diagonal to both was the idea of another historical trajectory, out of the traditional commune, towards a future one, imagined in part via Charles Fourier’s phalastery. She pushed Marx toward a more multi-linear idea of historical trajectories.

*Image of Paris Commune via