In its two-month life the Commune, which was fully democratically elected by all its citizens, passed a raft of progressive and far-reaching laws aimed at improving the lives of its mostly industrial-working population.
Among its reforms was the separation of church and state, pensions for widows and children of dead soldiers and measures to boost workers self-management.
The problem with such high-minded idealism was that it flew in the face of the wishes of the centre-right French government, led by Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers.
On his orders the government had decamped to Versailles rather than take on the Commune when it was declared on March 18 1871.
While the Commune issued declarations and proclamations – and argued with itself – Thiers mobilised an army to crush it, and did so bloodily in the last week of May, killing over 20,000 people in the process.
The legacy of the Commune resonated far beyond the shores of France.
Marx and Lenin studied the events closely throughout their lives.
Marx thought the Communards should have seized the Banque Nationale instead of asking it politely for money, while Lenin, Stalin and Mao reckoned the Commune died because it failed to match the savagery of its enemies – an opinion that was to have lethal consequences for millions of people in the years to come.
Nonetheless, where the Commune succeeded was inspiring generations of people in the belief that they could collectively take control of their lives and change things for the better.
Perhaps the last word belongs to another great impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. No friend of the Commune – he narrowly escaped death at the hands of a gang of some of their armed supporters – he once said: “They were madmen, but they had in them that little flame that never dies.”
Thanks to Daniel Payne and Morning Star – 27 May 2011
Image: Corpses of the Paris commune revive under the Red Flag of Soviets