Kristin Ross’s excellent, but all too short Communal Luxury is a much needed refresher course on the tragedy that was the Paris Commune of 1871. In a very short space, she supplies the essential philosophical antecedents and tells of the key personnel involved in its formation and ex-pat extension after the slaughter. Along the way, the reader can’t help but be reminded of recent political formations such as Occupy, and to note the same patterns of popular rebellions met with overwhelming force by various ruling classes. Running alongside that overwhelming force, establishment propaganda is generally successful in limiting the story to its own version of events, which seldom comes close to the truth.
Ross concentrates the most on three figures: William Morris, Élisée Reclus and Petr Kropotkin, spending most of her time on their works and thoughts after the Paris Commune. In previous books she has spent time on others who were a part of the events, like Rimbaud, but in this short book she concentrates on these three.
While they differed on many things, they all were strongly influenced by the idea that humans naturally aid one another, can and will work with one another, cooperate with one another, and that society should be built on that premise, rather than on the idea that we are meant to always be at war. It’s interesting to note that Russian evolutionary thinking in that century, the 19th, tended to see human evolution as, at least in part, dependent on mutual aid in the face of a harsh and unyielding environment, which was different than the West’s view in general. It struck this reader how much influence the prevailing capitalist economic system must have had on Darwin and his progeny, likely without their knowing it. That he and they, to one degree or another, saw the “survival of the fittest” like the battle between competing business interests and “the markets” in general. The Russians had a different view at the time, one that came out of a different context: humans, working together, giving mutual aid in order to survive against the elements.
Which made me think: the West has a history of assuming its take on things is “objective” and rises above its context into the universal — or forgets context altogether. It doesn’t take much digging to realize that there are many different viewpoints we overlook, or refuse to acknowledge, and these, ironically, “compete” with our own. Western Art, fortunately, especially from the Modernist period on, provides an antidote to this narrow vision. One of its chief gifts to the world is the embrace of multiple perspectives, simultaneously, democratically. Multiplicity in general. No one view is privileged — or should be.
Thanks to her book, William Morris is now someone I especially want to explore further, and Ross’s work suggests several possible directions. All three men thought Art was essential to any healthy society, to its well-being, and to the creation of fully developed individuals who achieve as much of their potential as possible. But Morris spent much of his adult life organizing to make this a reality, to make Art, and Arts and Crafts in particular, an essential birthright for every citizen. Universal access. No one left out. All as a (birth)right of citizenship.
Will write more about Communal Luxury in the near future.