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A history of the barricade

In the LA Review of Books, theorist and poet Joshua Clover reviews Eric Hazan’s A History of the Barricade, published in English last fall by Verso. Clover questions the conventional wisdom that says it was the Haussmanization of Paris that put an end to the era of barricades in Paris. An excerpt:

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.

Image: A communard barricade during the Paris Commune.