‘Upturned carts, cobblestones, pieces of furniture...'

Eric Hazan, A History of the Barricade

Verso, 132pp, £9.99, ISBN 781784781255

reviewed by Ian Birchall

Barricades are even more old-fashioned than Jeremy Corbyn. They belong to an age before opinion polls and focus groups, when people simply took to the streets to fight for what they believed were their rights. Barricades were a means of defence, but they could be more than that, enabling a rebel population to trap forces with superior weaponry. In 1588 the inhabitants of Paris erected a network of barricades ‘so dense that soldiers were caught as if in a net, under fire from the barricades and neighbouring houses.’ Eric Hazan has written a short history of barricades, focussing mainly on the city which saw the greatest number of them, Paris. The book is small enough to fit in a pocket; it has maps and illustrations (unfortunately of poor quality), and gives the modern names of streets where events occurred. For revolutionary tourists it is a guide book which enables us to visualise struggles of the past.

Hazan’s story begins in 1588 with the fiercely Catholic population of Paris, who distrusted King Henri III, whom they believed to be too sympathetic to Protestantism. When he brought troops into the city, they were ‘hemmed in by the tight mesh of barricades erected by the population, and narrowly escaped massacre.’ The king was forced to leave the city.

Barricades were made of any stray items available: 'upturned carts, cobblestones, pieces of furniture, and above all barriques (barrels filled with earth to give them solidity.’ They belonged to the poor. The state might have a monopoly of sophisticated weaponry, but the common people could always make barricades. Earth in particular was in no short supply, and was a resource which could always be appropriated by those who were without wealth or privilege, but who were determined to defend and control their own territory.

Barricades erupted again in 1648, when the people of Paris rebelled against the influence of the authoritarian Cardinal Mazarin on the Regent. ‘The entire population took part in their construction, including women and children.’ And they were effective: ‘The royal troops were trapped in a network of barricades built very close together – more than a thousand barricades in an area whose diameter was around one kilometre.’

Where did the barricades come from? Was their creation spontaneous? There was no political organisation to direct their construction. Hazan argues that there was a ‘collective memory’ from 60 years before that inspired the construction, and his argument seems plausible. Pure spontaneity is a myth; there are always individuals proposing new ideas, even if history does not remember them as ‘leaders.’ In an age when families stayed in the same area for generations it seems likely that heroic stories would be handed down to children and grandchildren. Hazan thus gives us a picture of pre-Revolutionary France rather different from the well-known images of splendour and ritual at Versailles. Indeed, Hazan suggests that the reason the French court moved to Versailles was because Louis XVI ‘kept a lasting grudge’ against the Paris population after seeing the barricades when still a child.

Barricades played little part in the Revolution of 1789, but when, after Waterloo, the monarchy was restored, the people of Paris resorted to their traditional form of struggle. In 1830 the city was again filled with barricades – one estimate is that there was one barricade for every 200 inhabitants of the city. Government troops were encircled and some soldiers began to fraternise. The monarchy fell.

In June 1848 the slums of Paris rose up when the newly established Republic turned its guns against the working class which had helped it to come to power only a few months earlier. A modern working class including many railway mechanics was involved. Tocqueville, who had little sympathy with the insurgents, was forced to admit that they ‘showed wonderful powers of coordination and a military expertise that astonished the most experienced officers.’ But the barricades could not prevent defeat. Blanqui argued that the barricades were poorly organised: ‘No point of leadership or overall command.” He blamed this on the fact that “the majority of insurgents fight in their own quarter.’ While this strengthened the roots of the struggle in local communities, it weakened it in military terms in face of opponents who had learned from previous mistakes. And in 1871 the militants of the Paris Commune built barricades as a peasant army invaded Paris. Again they went down to defeat. For Hazan this was effectively the end of the story. New military developments, and the changing patterns of city life had made barricades obsolete.

So the barricades of May 1968 get only a few sentences. Hazan believes building barricades merely indicated ‘in poetic fashion the students’ determination to subvert the existing order.’ But they did offer a defence against police charges and tear gas. The fact that by July the authorities were covering cobbles in the Latin Quarter with tarmac to make it more difficult to build barricades shows that they did not see them as purely ‘poetic.’ And if the political outcome of 1968 was hardly a victory, it was certainly not a defeat. True, in purely military terms the government could have made short work of the students with machine-guns and napalm. But since some of those behind the barricades were the daughters and sons of the bourgeoisie, this would have been quite impossible politically.

Though Hazan ends with the decline of the barricade, this very autumn, in North London, barricades were set up in Sweets Way to prevent the eviction of tenants on a housing estate to make way for redevelopment. They used wheelie bins and furniture, and decorated the barricades with slogans like ‘Eat the rich.’ And the previous year, in Calais, migrants barricaded a disused factory in which they were squatting. Perhaps barricades are not quite so obsolete as Hazan claims. But we can agree with him when he says that barricades remain ‘a source of inspiration for those unresigned to the perpetuation of the existing order.’
Ian Birchall is a historian and translator. His most recent book is Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time.