Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune.

Author:Driver, Adam
Position:Book review
 
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London: Verso, 2015; 148 pp; ISBN 9781781688397

Despite its modest size, Kristin Ross's book is as luxuriant in detail, as elegantly and clearly expressed, and as original in conception as the 'Pimpernel' wallpaper design by William Morris that adorns the dust-jacket. Nevertheless, there are some telling design flaws.

Ross reconceptualises the historical event of the Paris Commune, describing the event as a political imaginary that was articulated, lived and prolonged after the seventy-two days of the Commune's existence in 1871. The 'communal luxury' of the title is derived from the manifesto of the Artists' Federation and refers, Ross says, to their 'demand that beauty flourish in spaces shared in common' (p 58).

Ross's temporal and spatial stretching of the Commune as an event, together with her focus on the ideas, attitudes and actions of the Communards and their fellow-travellers, yields a richly variegated and balanced work that is refreshingly undogmatic. In the first part of her book, Ross addresses the lived experience and ideas of the Communards while they held Paris. Her portrayal of the working-class Communards is rich in analysis and narrative description. The Commune's principles of voluntary federation and free association, centred on their notion of 'the Universal Republic' that went 'beyond the cellular regime of nationality', are explored through the likes of the Women's Union for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded; famed shoemaker Napoleon Gaillard, philosopher of the shoe, builder and artist of the barricade, and inventor of rubber galoshes; and Eugene Pottier, decorative artist, champion of integral education and author of the 'International' which he dedicated to fellow Communard Gustave Lefrancais. Note that the aforementioned individuals were anti-authoritarians.

In the second part of her work, Ross analyses the logics of the Communards' ideas as they were worked out by Karl Marx, William Morris, Elisee Reclus and Kropotkin. The logics she traces include the anarchists' shift from collectivism to communism and the unhinging of the Commune from its territorial basis. Perhaps the most important logic is that 'actions produce dreams and ideas, and not the reverse' (p 7). An epilogue that summarised these logics and critiqued their contemporary relevance would have been helpful.

The book is quite successful in delineating the conceptual convergences between state socialists and anarchists inspired by the...

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