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The Barricades Then; the Uprisings Now

In the 15th to 19th centuries, when Europeans rebelled against their rulers, they frequently heaped up barrels, paving stones, and any other handy objects to create immovable masses in city streets.

Such defensive and tactical structures went together so readily, so cooperatively, that it seemed the insurrectionists were acting on instinct.

In a new book, The Insurgent Barricade (University of California Press), Mark Traugott relates the history of “the most striking embodiment” of the revolutionary spirit of the times. And it is the dissemination of “barricade consciousness” that most interests the scholar, a professor of history and sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The barricades show, he writes, how people choose and symbolize the way they voice their discontent and collective hopes.

A touchstone of his research, he says, has been a 1970s concept from the historian, sociologist, and political scientist Charles Tilly, the “repertoire of collective action,” referring to the range of protest techniques available at any particular place and time.

So, writes Traugott, in France and then throughout Europe when the cry went up—“To the barricades”—protesters often unknown to one another “knew just what to do, and managed to concert their actions with great efficiency, even without benefit of the most rudimentary of command structures.”

On the phone from Lyon, where he continues to investigate the phenomenon, Traugott said his interest dates from his research for his 1985 book, Armies of the Poor: Determinants of Working-Class Participation in the Parisian Insurrection of June 1848 (Princeton University Press). He found the barricade to be “a much bigger story, much more complicated dynamic than I had at first imagined.”

The building technique generally involved barrels—barriques, from which the term “barricades” was coined during the 16th century. Those could easily be rolled into place and filled with earth and rocks, then reinforced by whatever could be scrounged —wagons, planks and beams from construction sites, paving stones, balustrades torn from buildings. Students, exiles, and itinerant workers sustained the practice for centuries, disseminating knowledge of it throughout Europe.

Whether glorious, heroic, or foolhardy, barricades were rarely suicidal, Traugott says. Think gaming theory, he suggests: A bravura pretense of total commitment was necessary to achieve desired outcomes, and meanwhile the tactic bought protesters time to make a realistic assessment of their chances of success; they could always hightail it when the firing and military charges began.

Often, he argues, fraternization, socialization, and solidarity building—with like-minded protesters, past and present—were the only benefits that insurrectionists could hope for.

As much as heavy death tolls and failed political aspirations, the symbolic aspect of barricades inspired artists and authors—for example, Victor Hugo featured the structures when he described a June 1832 revolt in Paris in Les Misérables, while Gustave Flaubert wrote of a similar event in L’Éducation sentimentale.

For historians, barricades pose a challenge: generally unplanned, or organized in secret, they generated little documentation, particularly because key participants often ended up dead. So, rather than count on records of any one barricade event for a full sense of their nature, purpose, and accomplishments, Traugott surveyed 150 such events in France and elsewhere in Europe, large and small, successful and unsuccessful, to garner a broad-based picture of barricade combat. “Some really celebrated cases that are great success stories and that make for the legend of the barricade aren’t terribly typical,” he says.

Given events in the Middle East, in recent weeks, Traugott says yes, he has indeed paused to ask how the barricade relates. “The events are still in progress,” he notes. “We don’t know how big they are, or how far they’re going to go. The overthrow of a dictator is one thing, but whether there’ll be a set of liberal reforms, which some of the insurgents think there’ll be, or want, or the opposite, we can’t yet know.”

“So, the historian in me says not to leap ahead too quickly in making parallels.” Still, he adds, “the sociological side of me searches for patterns and generalizations,” and those abound.

The coldheartedness with which insurrections have been put down—in the past, and now—is one pattern, he says, a response that demonstrates authorities’ recognition of how dangerous their symbolism can be.

The role of media is another pattern. Just as Facebook, Twitter, and other tools have been instrumental in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, “the propagation of barrier consciousness was prominently increased in the 1840s by a couple of important changes, including the rise of the so-called illustrated press,” he says. The Illustrated London News was founded in 1842, L’illustration one year later, and then German and Italian equivalents soon after. Drawings of the barricades of Paris and other European cities galvanized their large readerships.

“For the first time, people could see actual pictures of current events,” says Traugott. “This created an enormously increased capacity to disseminate information across national and linguistic dividing lines.”

“The parallels are pretty clear to what is now a completely global, completely instantaneous form of transmission.”—Peter Monaghan

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