May Days

May 5, 2018 § 4 Comments


In Kristin Ross’s lively and illuminating book, Communal Luxury, she quotes a passage from Louise Michel’s memoirs of the Paris Commune. Michel is on sentry duty along with a black African formerly of the Papal Guards. He asks her:

– What effect does the life we are leading have on you?

– Well, I said, the effect of seeing before us a shore that we have to reach.

– For me, he replied, the effect is one of reading a book with pictures.

This brief dialogue vibrates with modernity, its speakers inserting themselves into the future: she anticipates change beyond what she can yet envisage, he has escaped from another life into a vivid new narrative. Similarly interrogating the perspectives of its protagonists, Communal Luxury considers the experience of the Commune as it was lived and thought of, both then and in the later thinking of its survivors.

For a long time I’d regarded Louise Michel as a mythic figure, a heroine of what I thought of as an almost mythic event, the short-lived spring of 1871 that ended in tragedy on May 28. I’d always associated her with ‘The Hands of Jeanne-Marie’, Rimbaud’s poem in praise of the women who took part in building and defending the Commune. Rimbaud’s dazzlingly patterned words don’t readily yield to translation or any simplifying interpretation; they create a powerful stream of images that concludes with those hands bloodied and in chains, as tens of thousands were when destined for the firing squad or deportation to the Pacific colony of New Caledonia after the Commune’s suppression. It was a surprise when a few years ago I saw an exhibition in Montmartre that displayed a newspaper interview with Michel, some photographs included. Instantly, despite the blurry newsprint, she became real, a modern individual.

Poetry is one dimension of the Commune; so many poets were involved in it, both great names we can recognise and those of workers whose schooling came through their politics – one of the latter, Eugène Pottier, wrote the Internationale as the savage executions were underway in June 1871. Painters too were Communards. At the same time, this was a worker-led insurrection.

Insurrection suggests a spontaneous uprising, which at a certain moment it was. But it didn’t begin just with the refusal to hand over the Montmartre cannons at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The Commune was some years in the making. It lasted just over two months, and its achievements in democratic self-government were extraordinary. It made a statement of intent against the death penalty by burning the guillotine. Had it not been compelled to defend itself in a civil war – a national army against the people of Paris – it would have happily espoused pacifism. Using the writings and speeches of the Communards, Ross’s book explores its origins and points the way to its afterlife. What’s revealed is a prescience about our own past century, in description and diagnosis, and, in action, an aspiration to be ‘not the capital of France but an autonomous collective in a universal federation of peoples’:  something more than an internationalist blueprint for the years that flowed from 1968.

Women played a huge part in the Commune, first through the debating clubs that thrived from 1868 – ‘a quasi-Brechtian merging of pedagogy and entertainment’ – then through the influential Women’s Union that brought together workers in the garment trades and others. As well as pursuing the goal of ending gender-based inequality, its members fought on the barricades, set up co-ops and organised crêches. The Commune adopted equal pay for male and female teachers and initiated major changes in education, for children and adults alike. Training workers to become teachers was part of its overall aim of breaking down divisions of labour between manual and intellectual workers.

Sundry fascinating figures populate the Commune. Among them is the geographer Elisée Reclus, who already saw the havoc wreaked by capitalism’s onslaughts on the land and the oceans, its threat to the existence of species, and foresaw the coming of agribusiness worldwide. His passion for ecology paralleled the ardour of his commitment to anarchist communism. I first encountered him in a published collection of photographs by Nadar, his portrait next to that of the writer Jules Vallès, another Communard, both devouring the eye of the camera with great intensity.

Reclus put the figure of the Commune’s executed dead at 30,000. He was among those banished from France (one account suggests that British geographers had petitioned for his deportation sentence to be commuted to exile), most ending up in Switzerland or Britain. From London, Geneva and Lausanne they continued to discuss, publish and uphold the ideas of the Commune: the interconnectedness of life’s every aspect in politics, from art to agriculture, science and education, and how to achieve equality through individual freedom and solidarity.

In all this the Communards both prefigured and enacted the utopianism of 1968 and the decade or so that followed. Through the late 60s and the 70s, in that period of great optimism which we simply took for granted, more and more experiences of everyday life, work and culture became the material of politics and saw a flourishing of movements for change. The Women’s Movement grew into a network of collectives and campaigns whose concerns often overlapped while being particular. Solidarity again became a watchword.

I don’t see 1968 as over and done with, and I no longer see the Commune as a tragedy. Reading Communal Luxury I had an exhilarating sense not of looking backwards, but forwards. Not, of course, to some repetition or renewal; the digitally driven world of 2018 might well be on another planet compared with that of 1871, and it’s certainly very different from the time of my youth, 50 years ago. But even in the harsh light of present despair and injustice, new ideas will emerge. The Communards paid a high price, yet after defeat survivors continued to learn and think hopefully about the world they’d been on the way to remaking. The Commune may seem like a miracle interrupted, but it didn’t end there.

Take your dreams for reality.  And let the realist you become demand the impossible.


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§ 4 Responses to May Days

  • Alan Stanton says:

    I bought this book among many others in one of Verso’s tempting and ultra-cheap ebook sales. I hadn’t got round to reading it. Partly because I’ve a pile of unread books.

    But also – to be frank – because I was put off by not understanding what authors mean when they use the word “imaginary” as a noun. (Maybe it makes sense in French?)

    Anyway, your blog post has tempted me to put “Communal Luxury” higher up my ‘must read’ list. Many thanks for that.

    Also a more general thank-you for your thoughtful and enjoyable blog.

    Alan Stanton

  • Vic Lanser says:

    Occupy! has emerged from this, nearly a century later.

    I know with some Googling I could find this out, but you might know off the top of your head if those banished to Nouvelle Calédonie has had any lasting influence on that DomTom.

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