Tag Archives: Paris Commune

Communal Luxury/Kristin Ross

Oh, postmodernism. Weren’t you quaint? Remember your heyday back in the nineties, when those rascally communists appeared to be routed, the liberal and neo-liberal crowing about the coming “post-political” era (an idea as laughable as its’ ridiculous moniker)? The world felt safer (for those in the North and Western hemispheres – let’s make believe that the rest of the planet doesn’t exist), and post-modernism offered succor to people who were ill-equipped to deal with actual unpleasant situations that require teamwork and cooperation. Instead, the academics really managed to put their heads deep in the sand, and fell into irrelevance as meaningless terms such as meta, deconstruction, and the end of history” were shouted at an increasingly apathetic world.

Them days have finished of course – every major event that has occurred since George W Bush managed to steal an election in 2000 has buried the idea that there’s no such thing as objectivity as well as the usual po-mo drivel that group movements are foolhardy due to mass activism’s “shaky philosophy”. But that spirit of taking thoughts, ideals, theories and movements and throwing them into some “the personal is the political” stew continues to this day; we call it by generic, off-brand terms such as progressive without really digging all that deeply into what that term means. Thus we have Occupy Wall Street. And thus we have the present volume – Communal Luxury by French Literature academic Kristin Ross.

Communal Luxury deals with the legacy of the Paris Commune, an event that appears to now eclipse the original French Revolution as the launching point for modernity. There is no shortage of material on the Commune, but it is an interesting change of the seasons when a volume claims to deal with the legacy (rather than the history) of the Paris Commune, and particularly what those brief desperate months mean to modern activists. It’s a pity that this volume fails do so.

Kristin Ross specifically draws links between the Commune (and more importantly, the Commune’s ideals) and events like Occupy Wall Street. And for two thirds of the writing, Ross offers cogent analysis on what those ideals actually were/are, although she is not quite as successful when she tries to drive those ideals into contemporary days. However, Ross’ parallels between art (functional or otherwise) and labour is fascinating, and there is an attempt to find consistencies between the shared communalism of Paris with modern concept of the lived, shared space of urbanity, as it is found via urban planning and living.

Communal Luxury argues for an anarchist sense of decentralizing and dismantling everything that is bound to the repressive capitalist state; and yes, there are similarities between academic postmodernism and anarchy in this respect. When Ross begins building arguments for anarchism’s line of thinking, she subsequently veers off the road and into supposition, conjecture and basically faulty reasoning.

Ross suggests that even Marx himself, after witnessing the events of the Commune, began to believe that state machinery should not be used to smash state machinery (and state machinery should be smashed by some “Other” means, which is never explained); furthermore, Ross’ Anarchist Marx apparently felt that the entire concept of historical phases (of which capitalist development is one) is fraudulent. Ross bases all of this on a few unpublished letters that Marx sent to a fellow radical in Russia, near the end of his life.

The fact that Marx was in the middle of writing Das Kapital which drove home the very concept of historical phases, is not taken into account (to say nothing of the fact that minor correspondence that one writes near death’s door doesn’t constitute an official renunciation of one’s previous theories). Ross spends an inordinate amount of pages trying to justify her own conceptualization with dubious “evidence” that Marx was actually a crypto-anarchist.

Ross then proceeds to spend the final third of the book addressing how certain anarchists (especially Kropotkin) massively influenced the Commune, which is certainly true to an extent; however, the sheer amount of time and ink devoted to singular anarchists overshadow how the Commune was influential for the world, anarchist or not – anarchists were and are still a tiny minority, even amongst the left.

There are some moments that deal with the heritage and optimism had a ripple effect on the Communards’ contemporaries, but very little time is spent on how a through-line exists from the Commune to the movements of today, particularly the much ballyhooed but never explicated Occupy Wall Street.

In all honesty, it’s a little baffling as to what Ross was attempting to accomplish with this slim volume. Was this a take on communalism and urban space, and the manner in which those two concepts have changed since the Commune? Is it about anarchism? Is it about Marx totally disavowing the work of his lifetime and embracing the “sudden destruction” anarchist school of thinking? Is it about the conflict between higher and lower forms of art?

All of this revolves around the neo-leftist potpourri methodology mentioned at the top of this article, and the connection between Then and Now (along with ideology, personalities, and the palpable effects felt around the world)  are all stirred in a pot to produce a mishmash whole.

Post-modernism was always a question without an answer, and in that sense it shares a few features with anarchism; however, without any kind of uniting factors, the anarchist/postmodern approach resembles incomprehensible muck. And sadly, that resemblance is shared by Ross.

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May Day: Victor Hugo + Louise Michel 4ever

Anyone who has perused this blog should know who Louise Michel is by now. Feminist. Radical. Communard. A genuine egalitarian who believed that all women had a place in the revolution, moving beyond bourgeoisie Republicanism and welcoming the lowest orders of women, who really were the most justifiable recipients of a socialist revolution. Frontline soldier, defending the barricades of the Paris Commune until the last minute, when she was struck unconscious and left for dead.

And then, Victor Hugo. World champion litterateur. Author of the monumental Les Miserables (the original volume, not the musical nor the verdammt American movie). A massive influence on modernist fiction, and considered the mother of all French novelists. And incidentally, a fierce proponent of the Paris Commune, committed socialist, and more or less utterly disdainful of the bourgeoisie that may have bought his books, but hated his sociopolitical stance.

There is something lyrical about French heroines, as they have pushed against injustice and particularly against the casual misogyny of European culture. The women thrash valiantly, tearing apart the reactionary impulse (and the very real, physical defenders of such regressive politics). Women such as Louise Michel leave indelible marks, marks and foundations that cannot be erased by anything including death. Foundations are laid for future generations of fighters, and Michel set the hallmark for revolutionary women apres 1871. Hugo was eventually captured by the reactionaries, and rather than be let off the hook and betray her comrades, Michel actually bragged about a series of fictional offenses during her trial: the latter poem deals with this event.

Hugo produced the following writing in praise of the indomitable Michel and the warriors of the Commune who did so much in such little time. Michel was as indestructible as Hugo describes, and to the best of his efforts Hugo elevates Michel into something that will last forever.

Viro Major

Having seen the vast massacre, the combat

the people on their cross, Paris on its pallet bed:

Tremendous pity was in your words.

You did what the great mad souls do.

And wearying of fighting, dreaming, suffering,

You said “I killed!” because you wanted to die.

 

You lied against yourself, terrible and superhuman.

Judith the sombre Jewess, Aria the Roman

Would have clapped their hands while you spoke.

You said to the lofts, “I burnt the palaces!”

You glorified those who are crushed and downtrodden.

You cried “I killed! Let them kill me!” – And the crowd

Listened to this haughty woman accuse herself.

You seemed to blow a kiss from the sepulchre;

Your steady eyes weighed on the livid judges:

And you dreamed, like the great Euminedes.

 

Pale death stood behind you.

The vast hall was full of terror.

Because the bleeding people detest civil war.

Outside could be heard the sound of the town.

This woman listened to the noisy life

From above, in an austere attitude of refusal.

She did not understand anything other than

A pillory erected for finale:

And finding affront noble and agony beautiful,

Sinister, she hastened her steps toward the tomb.

The judges murmured “Let her die! It is fair

She is vile – at least she is not majestic,”

Said their conscience. And the judges, pensive

Facing yes, facing no, as between two reefs

Hesitated, watching the severe culprit.

 

And those who, like me, know you to be incapable

Of all that is not heroism and virtue,

Who know if they asked you “Where are you from?”

That you would reply “I come from the night where there is

Suffering;

Yes, I come from the duty which you have made an abyss!”

Those who know your mysterious and sweet verses,

Your days, your nights, your cares, your tears given to all.

Your forgetting yourself to aid others

Your words which resemble the flame of the apostles;

Those who know the roof without fire, without air, without

Bread

The bed of webbing with the fir table

Your goodness, your pride as a woman of the people.

The acrid emotion which sleeps beneath your anger.

 

Your long look of hate at all the inhuman people

And the feet of the children warmed by your hands:

Those people, woman, facing your timid majesty

Meditated, and despite the bitter fold of your mouth

Despite the one who cursed you and hounded you

Who hurled at you the undignified cries of the law

Despite your high, fata voice with which you accused yourself

They saw the angel’s splendor beneath the medusa.

 

You were tall, and seemed strange in these debates;

For, puny like those who live down there,

Nothing bothers them more than two conflicting souls,

Than the divine chaos of starry things

Seen at the depths of a great inclement heart,

Than the radiation seen in a blaze.

                                                                              

 

 

 

Rebel Lives: Louise Michel/Edited by Nic Maclellan

IT’S NOT WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH IF YOU STUDY FEMINIST HISTORY EVERY DAY.

Ahem. On with the show.

There are truly few books written in English about the Paris Commune, the world’s first (and short lived) radical democracy. I’ve written a few reviews that dealt with the Commune, but sadly I believe I have missed the human element, the actual face of the Commune. I intend to redress that fact with a bizarre “biography”(?) of Louise Michel, one of the firebrands of the Commune, dedicated feminist, and anarchist.

Michel has been declared a heroine for (and therefore property of) socialists, anarchists, and even liberal democrats; the same process has unfortunately been shared by other radicals such as Rosa Luxembourg, Victor Serge, and Bertolt Brecht. It shouldn’t be that difficult to understand that some people are just good people, above and beyond political schematics. Rebel Lives‘ strange bio reflects that basic truth.

When I say “strange”, it is because this bio is actually a handful of printed material either written by Michel herself, or more general commentary of the Paris Commune. And this polyglot works – the reader gets the sense of who Michel might have been from this kaleidoscope of differing writings.

Michel was largely responsible for setting up women’s committees during the siege of Paris by Versailles’s reactionary army. Michel made sure that women shared the work, and physically defend the city, as much as their male counterparts. Michel raised the consciousness of every woman she met, due to her egalitarian values and the belief that men (capitalists etc) were largely responsible for the evils that plagued women. She wanted equality in the Commune, and she was largely successful at this.

It should be noted that as Michel was a loud and proud anarchist, some of the commentary in this bio unfortunately emanate from armchair anarchists. The latter really don’t care for Marxists, or socialists, or anybody that’s not them, and this vanguard sensibility comes across in the articles; jabs are continually made against those gosh-darned Reds, despite the complete lack of spite generated towards said anarchists. It’s a little petty, and it does take away from the sheer amount of work and progressive politics that Michel represented.

A word should be made about the period after the fall of the Commune: Michel demanded to be tried in court, out of camaraderie with her fellow fighters.. She spent 8 years in external deportation, and upon returning to Paris, she continued rabble-rousing and raising hell. Michel stood stock-still in the court rooms of France, willing to die (and become a martyr) for the left. She remained stalwart until her death.

This is a volume for feminists, in case they were curious about what kind of hell-raising has to take place for the ancien regime to fall into oblivion. This latter topic should be interesting for similarly violent, chaotic anarchists (the majority of whom are still men, who should take a look at feminism before hurtling into the whirlwind). But this also an ode to egalitarianism, and the fact that the aims of the Paris Commune still resonate today.

In solidarity, Louise Michel.