By Peter Robinson
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Communal Luxury

This article is over 6 years, 9 months old
Issue 407

This little book collects five essays about the Paris Commune of 1871 and some of the writers who looked to it for inspiration.

Ross seems to have set herself the task of marrying the two main threads of radical thought from the second half of the 19th century — Marxism and anarchism.

The author presents illuminating episodes from memoirs and texts by communards.

She writes thoughtfully on internationalism, anti-colonialism and the idea of the Commune which sprang up in radical clubs from 1868.

She does have a tendency to repeat herself, though some passages are like elegant little riffs. There are other problems. At the start of the book Ross states:

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 at all clear to me that the past actually gives lessons.

Ross writes that readers will know the differences in the International that led to its collapse later in the 1870s and that she does not want to go over them. This dodges a central criticism of the book for Marxists.

The Commune was defeated in part because of a failure of political leadership and centralised decision making. Anarchists and Marxists took opposing positions on this and revolutionaries would be irresponsible not to try to learn from this experience.

Ross seems determined to remove the Commune from its place in the development of the Marxist idea of revolution. She writes, “The imaginary the Paris Commune leaves is thus…[not] the utilitarian state collectivist experiments that succeeded it and dominated the first half of the 20th century.”

Marx himself barely gets a mention — other than twice repeating his assertion that the most important thing about the Commune was its “own working existence”. His three addresses to the IWA and his classic pamphlet The Civil War in France show he had other insights too.

Leading revolutionaries built on Marx’s analysis. In State and Revolution, which Lenin wrote in the run up to the 1917 October Revolution, he studied forensically The Civil War in France, concluding, as did Marx, that “the working class must break up, smash the ready-made state machinery”.

The communards attempted to forge a society where everyone would be enriched by truly democratic access to art and education and an economy whose priorities would be decided by working people.

In this way they left an indispensable legacy from which we can derive inspiration — but crucially one we must learn from if ultimately we are to win the prize.

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