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Response to Review of The Insurgent Barricade

In responding to Pamela Pilbeam’s thorough and thoughtful review of The Insurgent Barricade, I will try to do three things: first, to set straight a couple of misapprehensions that I would not want to see gain currency in ongoing discussions of the history of the barricade; second, to engage some of Professor Pilbeam’s suggestions for where further study of the barricade phenomenon might go; and finally, to try to point out a couple of aspects of the book’s argument that are not addressed in depth in the review.

Professor Pilbeam begins by offering a detailed summary of the historical progression covered in the book. This will be of particular value to two categories of readers: first to those whose curiosity regarding barricades, while real, is also period-specific, and who would prefer to consult my book selectively; and second to those who may be interested in forms or techniques of collective action whose development parallels that of the barricade but who would hesitate to take on a tome of over 400 pages without some knowledge of its contents. Perhaps inevitably, the effort to render a long and complex argument more succinctly than I have been able to do has resulted in a few statements that require clarification, as they are not consistent with what I wrote.

For example, while acknowledging evidence I presented for the existence of barricades a generation earlier than the First Day of the Barricades, Professor Pilbeam nonetheless refers to the structures built in 1588 as ‘The first defences that were identified as barricades…’ This undercuts the main point of the chapter in question, which was to emphasize the essential ambiguity of historical origins, regardless of the phenomenon in question, and to try to clarify the processes that systematically privilege large events, led by recognizable personages, that take place in visible locations, even when their designation as the discrete moment of origination is demonstrably false. Thus, the review reprises the account of the comte de Brissac’s supposed ‘invention’ of the barricade without making it explicit that I reject this (and other) accounts that  assign individual responsibility for what was, in fact, a collective process to which a considerable number of anonymous individuals made the crucial contributions.

As for the barricades which reappeared on multiple occasions during the 1789 revolution, I would agree that my discussion of them was partly aimed at correcting the historical record (in the face of categorical assertions by a number of noted historians that barricade use was unknown in that period). But at the same time, its larger purpose was to underscore the remarkable continuity in insurgents’ recourse to barricades at key moments in the history of French contention. This point underpinned the argument made in the concluding chapter of the book that a few peak moments in the long-term cycle of collective action – representing a relatively small proportion of the 330 years of history covered in the book – produced most of the important innovations in barricade use, an observation of much wider potential import. In this particular case, for example, the period of effervescence leading up to the French Revolution happened also to be the moment when barricades first spread beyond the borders of France (notably to Belgium, which Pilbeam mentions in connection with my discussion of that country’s use of barricades in 1830 without referencing its much earlier adoption of the tactic, beginning in 1787 and continuing throughout the Brabant Revolution).

A couple of other minor discrepancies are worth pointing out, if only to ensure that they do not become part of the acquired knowledge on the subject. First, the barricades that appeared in June 1791 in connection with the king’s flight were raised not in Paris but in Varennes, as part of the impromptu mobilization to capture the royal party. Second, of the hundreds of barricades constructed in Paris in 1871, a mere handful were ‘stylised symbols, rather than practical weapons’. The overwhelming majority are instead best described as entirely spontaneous barricades of classic form and function, which proved to be far more efficacious in the combat that ensued. The review’s subsequent reference to ‘the failure to erect barricades spontaneously’ in 1871 therefore risks being misleading, especially since my point in including a photograph of the most famous of the constructions of the Paris Commune’s Commission of Barricades was to illustrate why these prefabricated structures had to be ruled out of consideration as barricades in the sense that that term is used in my book.

As for new or alternative directions in which the study of barricades might be taken, I understand and sympathize with her wish that more attention had been paid to the motivation and psychology of individual insurgents; but in a work that covers three centuries of barricade use (and at one point takes the reader all the way back to the fourteenth century to consider the barricade’s antecedents in the medieval custom of extending chains), there were limits to what I could undertake. I have tried to address those issues in other contexts – for example, in a 1997 article written for the conference that Professor Pilbeam references at the start of her review, which examined the divergent orientations that developed as the 19th century advanced between categories of barricade defenders that I labeled ‘neighbors’ and ‘cosmopolitans’.(1)

With regard to the suggestion that barricades ceased to be effective after February 1848 because  ‘soldiers became hardened to guerrilla warfare when they used artillery techniques that did not necessitate them seeing their enemy at close quarters’, this is certainly an insight worth pursuing and one that I see as entirely consistent with my general point of view. I do, after all, explicitly associate the decline in the barricade’s practical utility with the use of artillery against civilian populations (though I see this as a gradual process that can be traced at least as far back as Napoléon’s 'whiff of grapeshot', directed against one of the barricades of the French Revolution mentioned earlier). The issue of physical distance between insurgents and repressors may, however, turn out to be less crucial than it at first appears, because the critical moment when the barricade is capable of changing the course and affecting the outcome of a civil conflict typically occurs at a preliminary stage in the confrontation, when the opportunity for fraternization still exists, rather than when artillery fire has already begun. What is more, while recognizing that I am clearly in a minority, I am not a strong partisan of the view that Haussmann’s widening of Paris streets was in itself a major factor in the decline of barricade use. I find much more promising Pilbeam’s suggestion that workers who no longer worked and lived in the same districts were less inclined to turn to barricades as an insurrectionary technique. As I suggest in the book, this seems to have been a far more significant consequence of the rebuilding of Paris, which displaced to the suburbs a large share of the working population that had previously inhabited the central districts of the capital.

Like other scholars whose work falls squarely between disciplines, I am familiar with the problem that reviews inevitably emphasize one aspect of a book’s content more heavily than another. In these terms, I would characterize Professor Pilbeam’s as a historian’s review, as is entirely appropriate given both her own disciplinary affiliation and the fact that her text appears in Reviews in History. It is in these terms that I understand her regret over the absence of a ‘continuous narrative of barricades and their relative success’. But, because it risks leaving potential readers with a false impression,  I feel the need to correct her statement, made near the beginning of the review, that, ‘While chapters one to three and five to eight are descriptive accounts of the use of barricades, the other chapters are more wide-ranging and theoretical’. Since there are only eight chapters to the book, this would suggest that only chapter four, the shortest of them all, has a conceptual purpose. It is certainly true that the early chapters, on which Professor Pilbeam’s synopsis is mainly focused, contain a great deal of historical detail. But chapters six (on the diffusion of barricades in 1848), seven (on the practical, sociological, and symbolic functions that barricades fulfill), and eight (on the long-term evolution that repertoires of collective action have undergone and the anomalous persistence that the barricade has exhibited, despite all these changes) – in addition to chapter four, which she explicitly references – are all primarily analytic in orientation. Readers who shy away from an approach centered in social-science history should be forewarned that a considerable portion of the book is theoretical in orientation (just as those who are more favorably inclined to such a perspective need to realize that they will be asked to wade through a substantial amount of historical detail, particularly in the first three chapters).

Let me close by noting the two brief mentions made of contemporary events, in particular the reference to ‘the “Arab spring” of 2011’. That insurgents of the present day (and in locations all over the globe) continue to build barricades as a way of linking themselves to the ideals that defined earlier insurrectionary episodes helps reinforce the central point I tried to make in my book. For me, the barricade, like other well established techniques of contention – the food riot, the strike, and the sit-in come immediately to mind – has a history of its own, the understanding of which sheds considerable light on how conflicts arise, are managed, and continually evolve. Without pretending that we can yet know whether the parallels that appear to link recent events with the ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ in 1848 are more than superficial, there are quite specific issues that cry out for explanation. Among the most obvious are the question of how a mass of individuals previously unknown to one another and with little in the way of pre-existing organization or material resources can mount effective challenges to powerful, long-established regimes; and under what circumstances events embedded in a seemingly unique historical and social context acquire the potential to spread like wildfire to new settings. Understanding how widely recognized, culturally transmitted repertoires of collective action make this possible is what The Insurgent Barricade is all about.


  1. See M. Traugott, "Les barricades dans les insurrections parisiennes: rôles sociaux et modes de fonctionnement," in Alain Corbin and Jean-Marie Mayeur, eds., La Barricade, (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1997), pp. 71-81.Back to (1)