The barricade is the iconic tactic of historic class struggles, and its history is engagingly explored in Hazan’s history, finds William Booth
Eric Hazan, A History of the Barricade, translated by David Fernbach (Verso 2015), x, 132pp.
Following the publication in 2014 of the English translation of A People’s History of the French Revolution, French historian Eric Hazan’s latest book is a short volume which tells the story of barricades: how they came into being, where they were most effectively deployed, and how their use eventually became impractical. The book takes a chronological approach, beginning with the first recorded use of the word ‘barricade’, deriving from the French for barrels, of which they were initially made.
It opens during the French Wars of Religion (which took place between c1560 and c1600), with stops in 1648 and 1795 before arriving in the nineteenth century, the first half of which saw frequent recourse to the tactic. There are three chapters on the importance of barricades in ending the Bourbon monarchy in France (and their recurrence in opposition to the subsequent Orleanist version); four on that period so important to the development of Marx’s thought, 1848-51; and finally a lament for the Commune (‘at one o’clock, it was all over’).
One thing that emerges very clearly is that barricades were a ‘weapon of the weak’; in other words, they allowed some of the more marginalised members of society - the urban poor, and often women - to seize power temporarily. The immediate challenge to official power posed by barricades was enormous. The advantages held by well-armed, well-paid soldiers could be wiped out rapidly as they found themselves trapped in mazes of unfamiliar streets with ‘rocks and stones’ hailing down on them, and ‘terrifying cries [and] seditious murmurs’ ringing in their ears (pp.6-7). However, Hazan also places the era of the barricade in the past, its decline already evident by the time of the Paris Commune of 1871.
While clear that ‘barricades form a network that links combatants together and lends unity to the struggle’, Hazan also suggests that the tactic cannot be applied to the modern, wide-avenued metropolis. Old city centres where narrow, easily-blocked streets do still exist, the City of London for instance, are no longer generally populated by those with pressing material grievances. Though the twentieth century did see some echoes of barricade fighting - Hazan’s epilogue mentions the Spartacist uprising in Berlin (1919) and revolutionary street fighting in Barcelona (1936) and Madrid (1937) for instance - they had lost their supra-military function, as what the author calls a ‘symbolic form of insurrection’ (p.123).
Woven into the chapters about individual episodes of barricade construction (and destruction) is an account of the long struggle between the aristocracy and the French people. Barricades clearly played a key role in the destruction of feudalism, though also in resisting the juggernaut of the post-feudal French state. Hazan doesn’t scrimp on detail, and the episodes he highlights are described in a clear, engaging way and illustrated with helpful maps. He brings in a range of contemporary voices which adds a literary flourish to the book, including Dumas, Tocqueville and Baudelaire.
Naturally the book is concerned primarily with Paris, a city which will forever be associated with the idea of the barricade. While the role of Lyons as a counterweight to Paris is also explored - what Hazan calls ‘the first proletarian barricades’ allowed a small force of striking workers ‘to keep 8,000 men at bay for a week’ in France’s emergent second city in November 1831 - it would be useful to have a little more context (p.59). How widely was the tactic used, in Europe and beyond? Did the street battles of the (earlier) German Peasants’ War or (contemporary) Latin American rebellions against Spanish rule show kinship with the tactic, or was the French approach unique? While Hazan does acknowledge that barricades appeared elsewhere, especially in 1848, the Parisian place in the broader narrative of popular self-defence and pseudo-fortification could be more explicit.
The question lurking in the background here is whether we need a book about the history of barricades. Perhaps surprisingly, there have been several books on this subject before, notably Jill Harsin’s Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848 (Palgrave Macmillan 2002) and Mark Traugott’s The Insurgent Barricade (University of California Press 2011). I think, though, that Hazan’s book has a good deal to offer that is new and challenging. It is a brief, popular history in contrast to Traugott’s more compendious academic book, and takes a much longer view than Harsin’s focused account.
Moreover, Hazan tackles the subject from an unapologetically radical perspective; the book feels like it is aimed at a broad, politically-active readership who might benefit from knowing the history of street confrontation and tactics for resistance. Of course, it is not simply a book about barricades; it is a book about the development of class struggle, the challenges to authority posed by urbanisation, and the means by which popular forces can challenge the state.
Among a range of tactics that will be familiar to all, including strikes, riots, marches, and sabotage, Hazan convincingly presents the construction and manning of barricades as being particularly frightening to the elite, and that is perhaps why this short history is so captivating and evocative. An unusual book then, but one that is highly recommended.