Mark Traugott


On his book The Insurgent Barricade

Cover Interview of January 12, 2011

The wide angle

My interest in barricades was sparked by earlier research on the Parisian insurrections of February and June 1848.  Like so many other aspects of French revolutionary history, the construction of barricades seemed to have acquired an almost obligatory character.  It had become a sort of tropic reaction to which insurgents turned whenever the threat of civic unrest loomed.

I was struck by the tendency for barricades to reappear, often in the identical location and configuration, in one insurrection after another.  I was fascinated by the problem of how such a high degree of consistency was achieved, even though most participants in insurrectionary events were previously unknown to one another, and even though no previous barricade event might have occurred within living memory.  These mysteries caused me to reflect upon the nature of popular protest and to revisit what is known of how it is organized and sustained over time.

Two nineteenth-century images of barricades:
The insurgents’ last stand in June 1832 took place before the cloister of the Eglise Saint-Merri in a district that was a center of combat in several nineteenth-century uprisings.  “Barricade before the Eglise Saint-Merri” (above, from page 7 in the book) does not highlight the structure to any great extent but has the virtue of showing actual barricade combat.  The one below is captioned “Barricade in the rue Saint-Martin” (appears in the book on page 13).  This barricade from the February Days of 1848 exemplifies the sort of improvised structure typical of insurrectionary situations.  Note the mix and haphazard arrangement of the found materials from which this barricade has been fashioned.  This engraving may lack the dynamism of the one above, but it provides a particularly vivid picture of a massive barricade in all its glory.

When people contest existing social arrangements, they typically revert to a limited number of well established and widely recognized techniques of protest—even if some novel approach might seem to offer a more promising path to the achievement of their objectives.

In the present day, the demonstration, the strike, or the “media event” are among the common forms of contention that we take for granted, even though they are all inventions of the past two hundred years or so.  Before that time, other conventions, now outmoded—the food riot, tax revolts, or shaming ceremonies like the charivari, for example—dominated the activities of insurgents. The array of all such standard routines available at a given time and place constitutes what the historian and sociologist Charles Tilly called a people’s “repertoire of collective action.”

These recurrent patterns of protest exhibit remarkable continuity over long swaths of historical time.  Only at extremely long intervals does a society’s repertoire undergo the sort of sweeping, wholesale change that occurred in Europe at the start of the modern era, roughly between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  This resulted in the eclipse of the old-style repertoire, which had few points of similarity or overlap with the one that replaced it.

Remarkably, the barricade has constituted the great exception to that pattern: not only did the barricade figure prominently in the great events of the early modern period, it somehow managed to survive and prosper into the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first.

Understanding what made this unique outcome possible sheds light on the long-term evolution of a society’s methods for effecting change even as it demonstrates how innovations in techniques of protest tend to coincide with discrete peaks in the cycle of collective action.