Back to the Barricades

By Joshua CloverMarch 6, 2016

A History of the Barricade by Eric Hazan

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, the former surgeon Eric Hazan wrote a book called The Invention of Paris. It is not obvious that we need more histories of Paris, but I am always grateful for one with its affections directed toward popular and proletarian lifeworlds. Hazan’s is an uncanny walking guide which exhumes the city’s accreted centuries in various geographies of the present — an oddly-angled street, an artificial slope — like a strolling descent into the iterations of Troy stacked like an inverted wedding cake.

Some two thirds of the way into this earlier book, the tour arrives at a corner on rue Saint-Martin where the Paris Rebellion of 1832 begins with the raising of a barricade and then another and another. Their locations are sketched. With this the chronicle’s course diverts, as if it were barricade fighting in particular that had been waiting across pages and years to be unconcealed. Hazan barely returns to other matters before ending with the promise that “Those who think that the game is over […] should reflect on the variations in the bursting force of Paris, which so regularly surprised all their predecessors over the course of centuries.” 

Hazan’s melancholy and mistitled new volume, A History of the Barricade, is in many ways the return to and realization of that long conclusion of Invention, even revisiting the original sketch of the 1832 emplacements; most chapters get their own tactical map or two. Nonetheless, the book is not terribly interested in the particularities of the barricade as such. Instead it presents a series of insurrectionary episodes featuring street fighting almost entirely in Paris. It should rightly be called “The Insurgent Barricade,” but that name was already taken by Mark Traugott, whose useful volume is far more comprehensive and various and long. Traugott’s comparatively conventional history elucidates the barricade’s manifold appearances over a broader geography and span, considering its technical developments, how the tactic spread, and so on. Hazan’s short sharp book rises and falls like a battle cry and a keen of mourning both at once. These guys should really swap titles.

Hazan begins with the Day of the Barricades in 1588, a successful uprising that handed the city to the Catholic League amidst the Wars of Religion. Four of the 11 chapters draw on the tumultuous sequence from 1848 to 1851, a period of shifting currents and political overturnings so dizzying that even scholars struggle to keep the timeline straight. But the book’s narrative pivot, wherein the tide of history turns against the barricade, comes swiftly and falls just in advance of this whirlpool, during the decades immediately preceding when tragedy had not yet turned entirely to farce.

This reversal is bracketed by chapters five and seven, titled respectively “The First Proletarian Barricades” and “The Last Victorious Barricades.” The former briefly departs Paris for Lyon, France, the textile manufactory and labor stronghold of such scope it was known as “La Fabrique,” also the name of Hazan’s vital small press in his guise as a publisher. In 1831 and 1834, striking textile workers deployed the barricade to considerable effect before being overwhelmed by military force: “it was not to be forgotten how in the course of this first proletarian insurrection a small number of poorly armed workers, without a central command, managed with their barricades to keep 8,000 men at bay for a week.” Chapter seven returns us to the capital for the February Revolution of 1848. It is a scant three pages long, no doubt because it ends in victory. It is the brevity not of the chapter but of the victory itself, crushed by the first week of summer as one among a continent’s worth of failed revolutions in that year, that provides the 19th century much of its pathos.

Why then did urban insurrection and its barricades fade away, with the telling and sanguine exception of 1871? This is a matter of some dispute. It’s a one-sided dispute for the most part, regarding the reasons that Paris was remade in the second half of the 19th century. Some streets were widened, many broad ways newly laid out, providing the long vistas of what is called Haussmanization, after Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine who set forth the plans. That his remodel was deliberately designed to thwart the barricades has taken on the aura of common knowledge, and common knowledge is to be mistrusted. But this assertion about architecture and state strategy is what they say and most everyone believes it, discerning in the boulevards a mid-century modern style for counterrevolution, designed to ensure that the state could send its army undetained to douse any spark of insurrection before it caught.

The incomparable art historian T. J. Clark hazards an at least partial dissent in The Painting of Modern Life, suggesting over an extended passage that we might look more to technologies of embourgeoisement in general, and in particular the desire to push the popular classes out of central Paris while providing better runs for the great new department stores, allowing for a rhythm of consumption matching an ever-accelerating commercial production. In Clark’s telling, too, the boulevards were intended to accommodate a ferocious and undetainable army, albeit one dispatched by capital itself, armed to the teeth with cash.

After Haussmanization, in any case, the barricade is done for, and Hazan leads us dolorously to the aforementioned spring of 1871 wherein the city was seized with nary a barricade by the communards. They would eventually be forced to defend themselves against the national army marching from Versailles. This task would prove impossible despite, among other efforts, the raising of grand barricades, none grander than the “Chateau-Gaillard,” named after its architect, a shoemaker by trade, and rising two stories at the place de la Concorde. This fell, as would the “woman’s barricade” a couple kilometers to the north staffed by the Union des femmes. They would all fall, and barricadists unable to flee would be shot. Those wishing for details and context would do well to visit with Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871 and Kristin Ross’s Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, among others.

Hazan is interested in something less and something more. In marking the fact that a once common method of insurrectionary combat has been taken off the table, the book conjures a more general experience of ending. The death of a singular tactic comes to stand for the seeming death of revolutionary struggle more broadly, at least in the Western world Hazan contemplates. This substitution may seem a conjuring trick; it can hardly be faulted. After all, revolution is one of the half-dozen topics in this world worth writing about and the least miserable, even in the face of defeat. For all the twilit tonalities of Hazan’s book, there is something joyous about it. It affirms that one of the options available to common people, one chosen over and over in the most desolate situations, is fighting back.


But we should perhaps not be too quick to depart from practical matters that follow from the focus of the book’s historical aperture, from the places and times it considers which make it not a history of the barricade but of something more particular. For all its geographical insistence, the book never quite names what makes the barricade so Parisian, which is neither the nature of the city nor of its people. Or not exactly. Rather, it has to do with the peculiar relation of France to the world and Paris to France. On the one hand, the nation has long occupied a position of both power and prestige within the world market, which is to say the world information network. Doings there have been understood as always much more than local, in distinction to Luxembourg or Australia. On the other, the political, economic, and demographic structure of France has been such that seizure of the Hotel de Ville has portended at the same time control over the nation. It is a historical idiosyncrasy that a few days of street fighting in a single city might immediately threaten the European order. In this context a barricade at city hall is no joke.

Hazan’s dating of “the official birth of the barricades” to open struggle with the state has various consequences. The tactic’s roots are not in insurrection from below so much as defense from the side; it is born before 1588 in the chaining off against marauders of protobourgeois neighborhoods during risings of the poor. The book in moments endeavors to annex the architecture to offensive struggles, but the barricade takes a fundamentally defensive posture. This is a bit obscured in the telling, but the lessons of the French Revolution and the Commune are clear enough. The arrival of barricades comes often when insurrection has been pushed back on its heels. Moreover it offers only two real advantages. Either it slows military advances long enough for the famed “fraternization” to occur, persuading troops against the course of going to war on the population from which they are drawn; or it makes use of facing windows above the barricades to fire on troops brought to a temporary halt. This is an inescapable lesson of the book. A barricade without snipers is just stuff piled in the street. We might recognize from this history that those firing down on cops from Detroit rooftops during the riot of 1967, for example, were not some unconscionable deviation from the rules of urban engagement but rather tradition itself.

That said, Hazan leaves the practicality of the barricade to the past. Again it is the boulevard that is to blame, for the most part. “Though the twentieth century had no shortage of riots, insurrections and revolutions,” he writes in a swift but capacious coda assaying the last 150 years, “the barricade remained a marginal element”:

The reasons for this are material rather than psychological or political. The physiognomy of cities has changed: under the axes of demolishers, the old, narrow, winding streets inherited from the Middle Ages made way for boulevards and avenues whose width and straight lines are unpropitious for barricades. The rue Saint-Martin was easier to block than the boulevard Magenta: Haussmann knew this, and his disciples applied the same principle in the majority of European cities. At the same time, the armies assembled by the state to deal with civil war have been modernized. In the face of effective artillery, backed by tanks and other mechanical weapons, the barricade no longer pulls the same weight. Finally, the way in which cities are peopled has changed. The traditional barricades were erected by inhabitants, men, women and children, who also worked there or close by, and were ready to die there. With the capitalist organization of urban life, this street-village has disappeared. Proletarians were compelled to work increasingly far from where they lived, and the site of struggle shifted to the factory, where it made no sense to pile up paving-stones. 

No doubt the remaking of the city moves the popular quarters far from the gleaming avenues where the bourgeois shops with a vengeance. It is perhaps less true that manual laborers came to live at great distances from the factories that employed them, at least until the suburban detonations of the mid-20th century. The barricade wanes with the rise of capitalism less because of the distance between home and workplace than because the industrial economy reveals a vulnerability to the strike which swiftly becomes the preferred weapon of the proletariat. Finally, there is little distance between the sides in the boulevard dispute; the victory of the industrial revolution, of wage labor as the only subsistence allowed, of circulation expanding to keep pace with massive increases in commodity production, is the breaking of the barricade. These are a single fact.

But that fact raises a final question. The deindustrializing West has overseen the eclipse of the workers’ movement. The strike weapon barely survives. This is not some failure of will nor a cunning stratagem of the political class, at least not in the first instance. Rather it is a consequence of real changes, the great relative decline in industrial employment and profitability foremost among them. It will have escaped no one’s notice that there has been an apparent reversal of the changes that brought low the barricade. Within the repertoire of tactics the riot, and with it the street fight with the state, has returned to supplant for the most part the strike in the West over the last decades. Might the barricade see a similar renaissance in our time?

It is hard to imagine. If the advances of industrialization have followed strange and self-undermining paths, advances in military and surveillance techniques have continued in more linear fashion. Any urban police force of 2016 would put the armies of 1834 to rout. The equipping and deployment of riot police is designed to assure, among other things, that no fraternization is possible; neither does rifle fire from the third story seem likely to turn the tide, were any partisans able to lodge themselves there.

And yet. I remember staring for a long while two Augusts ago at a chain stretched across an opening into Nesbit-Newton Park along West Florissant in Ferguson, Missouri, and at a decrepit traffic barrier around the corner on Northwinds Estates Drive which blocked off another neighborhood entrance where the line of trees and untended undergrowth broke, across from the dowdy Versailles Apartments. These were quiet and nondescript objects. Their purpose was clear enough. In the nights that followed the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a small civil war broke out. I hesitate to call it that, or would hesitate had I not seen the hardened Humvees bucking against their bridles in the Target parking lot at the other end of West Florissant, wrapped in camo and filled with young soldiers. This period was distinguished by, among other things, the fact that some local residents took the opportunity to shoot back at the cops. That is what a civil war is. And then they would haul ass into the park or into the estates and it was important that the police cruisers and fortified SUVs summoned from across the region could not follow, that it was a footrace in the dark among those who knew the terrain intimately and those who did not.  Such an event is not a revolution.  But no revolution has started without such things, small as they are.


Joshua Clover is author of six books and has been translated into a dozen languages. His two latest are Red Epic (Commune Editions) and Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso).

LARB Contributor

Joshua Clover is author of six books and has been translated into a dozen languages. His two latest are Red Epic (Commune Editions) and Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso). A columnist at The Nation, he is a cofounder of Commune Editions. He is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Davis.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!