Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Meaning of the Paris Commune

For a few weeks in the spring of 1871, Paris was ruled by the last great revolutionary movement to shake France until the événements of May 1968.  The Commune, which lasted in its full form from March 18 until May 28, arose from a particular conjuncture - the ongoing radicalisation of French and particularly Parisian workers from the 1830s, and the defeat of the French regular army in the war launched against Prussia by the headstrong and ignorant Napoleon III, which culminated in the siege of Paris by Prussian forces, and led to the collapse of the Second Empire.

In a situation where the city of Paris was barely defended by regular forces, the National Guard, a local militia, became the primary armed defense of the city.  In doing so, it also became the conduit by which the workers' movements and various revolutionary movements, most notably the Blanquist radicals, sought to seize power and either rival or displace the national government, which was reassembling its strength outside Paris.  For a brief time, a socialist-republican urban government ruled the city.  Eventually, in the last week of May, the 'bloody week', the Commune was defeated and destroyed in an orgy of violence by French nationalist soldiers, which included the burning of the Tuileries Palace and the Hotel de Ville.   The brutal culmination was a series of massacres at Pere-Lachaise cemetery, where the last 150 Communard soldiers, having surrendered, were summarily shot at what is still known as the Communards' Wall.

Kristin Ross, a distinguished cultural historian and professor of comparative literature at New York University, can legitimately claim to be one of the pre-eminent historians in English of French culture and of its insurrectionary moments.  Her book May 68 and its Afterlives is one of the best books on that turning point of French culture, and she published a book on Rimbaud and the Commune some years ago.  Now we have her new book, Communal Luxury: The Meaning of the Paris Commune, freshly published by Verso, and already hailed by Fredric Jameson and Joan Scott as both a vital intellectual history of the Commune, and Ross's own manifesto for new ways of thinking our future, suturing the interests of radical Paris in 1871 to the new revolutionary movements of our own times.  Here is Ross, interviewed in - appropriately enough - Jacobin:

The Meaning of the Paris Commune



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