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Jasper Bernes reviews Communal Luxury

Kristin Ross. Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune. London: Verso, 2015. 156 pp.

Review by Jasper Bernes

Kristin Ross begins her new book on the Paris Commune with a bold claim: “the world of the Communards in in fact much closer to us than is the world of our parents.” She presents for us a Commune “unmoored” from the “lineages and narrative structures” to which it has been bound in the past, especially by “official communist historiography.” Author of one of the best books on poetry in a time of revolutionary upheaval, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, Ross was moved to revisit the Paris Commune by the emergence in 2011 of an “occupational form of protest” in which she saw strong affinities with the political culture of the Commune. She is not the first to suggest that the movements of 2011 find their closest analogues in the nineteenth century, but here she offers something other than the standard observation that levels of inequality have returned to heights not seen since the beginnings of the workers’ movement, or that the reversals and ambiguities of the Arab Spring resembled nothing so much as a new 1848. Rather, her book implies that the political horizons of our time share something with the maximalist project produced by the Commune and elaborated by its survivors and exponents, who glimpsed in its fragile and unexpected manifestation the furthest possibilities of social revolution: an immediate end to wage-labor and money, nations and nation states, and the introduction of a form of “communal luxury” in which the division between mental and manual labor is overcome and all can participate in aesthetic experience. Ross is less interested in the “lessons” of this history than she is in articulating how the figures involved envisioned revolution. This marks a break with the way that the Commune has often been treated by commentators. In the wake of its defeat, the alliances between the factions of the workers’ movement brought together in the First International broke down; as a result, the history of the Commune has been variously mobilized as a forensic exhibit in the polemics between contending factions of socialists, anarchists, and communists. One of the most powerful indications of Ross’s book is that these schisms may finally have run their course and we can return to the Commune afresh, viewing its maximalist project through the eyes of figures such as Elisabeth Dmitrieff, Elisée Reclus, Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, and Paul Lafargue, who, though they ended up on various sides of the post-Commune splits, nonetheless remained faithful to its promise.