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the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

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Author's response


Barricades: the War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848

by Jill Harsin
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2002
ISBN-13: 978-0-31-229479-3; ix + 417 pages, price £25.00

Pamela Pilbeam

Royal Holloway, University of London

I would like to thank Professor Pilbeam for taking the time to read this book and to provide such an extended critique. I should say, at the outset, that I have much respect for Professor Pilbeam's work; and for that reason, I feel compelled to respond to the issues raised in her review.

First I would like to turn to the major fundamental matters of analysis, narrative, chance, and the use of sources. Perhaps Professor Pilbeam's greatest charge is insufficient analysis - the inevitable charge, it seems, against narrative history. In fact, narrative history is less overtly orderly than works organized around a structural or thematic analysis; it takes many more byways, and recounts vagaries of human conduct that fail to fit into predetermined categories.

Nevertheless the general themes of Barricades are clearly laid out in the introduction and throughout the work. The book is centered on the revolutionary republicans of the July Monarchy in Paris, who took their inspiration from the Reign of Terror, and who were responsible for the revolts of 1834 and 1839, as well as multiple assassination attempts against Louis-Philippe; I called them montagnards, to distinguish them from moderate republicans and to give them one of the names they chose for themselves. My primary thesis is that these men were radical ideologues, driven to act on revolutionary passion even when it was personally disadvantageous to them. I suggest that their involvement in the revolutionary movement developed a dynamic of its own that in turn continued to shape their subsequent behaviour, ultimately trapping them into a self-defeating and repetitive path.

The economic and political environment of the era created a fertile recruiting ground for this group. Artisans experienced dramatic changes in the workplace throughout the first half of the century, including standardization of product lines, the de-skilling of certain trades, and the rise of payment by the piece; their living standards became noticeably worse. (The last would-be assassin was moved to the front of the book, where this economic backdrop was discussed, because his intense occupational difficulties illuminated the struggles of many of his fellow workers.) The political system was just as visible in its effects. A number of laws were written to criminalize certain aspects of the rights of assembly and free speech and press; others deliberately targeted working class political and trade union activities. Law enforcement included the abusive use of preventive (pretrial or pre-indictment) detention. Indeed, montagnards believed that the political system was the root of their problems, and even those who dreamed of a new cooperative world, in the style of the socialists, nevertheless thought that change could only be brought about by the overthrow of the regime.

That was the background, drawn from primary sources (particularly trials and legal analysis) as well as from the excellent secondary studies that have focused on the working classes in this period of French history. The most difficult problem in constructing the book was in how to explain the behaviour that developed in response. My decision to write the book as a narrative emerged out of my attempts to explore the role of individual activity in the making of history, to examine the precarious balance between objective conditions and subjective experience, between structural constraints and the exercise of free will. Narrative is a conscious choice, as Professor Pilbeam acknowledges, but hardly a naive one (nor are the print and televised media, even in their most apparently transparent moments, lacking in agendas; but that is another issue).(1)

In the introduction I was explicit about the implications of this choice of form - most importantly, that narrative history has a tendency to emphasize human activity over structural conditions. The result, in Barricades, was a deliberate focus on the actions of individuals rather than on their environment. What primarily interested me, as I have suggested, was the pattern of response - conspiracy, insurrection, betrayal, martyrdom - that developed over time in the group that I studied. That pattern - and not the background - was precisely what I wanted to throw into sharp relief.

On a related matter, I do believe that chance plays a role in history - not as a primary cause, but certainly as a secondary impact that pushes events in one direction rather than another. It is not reasonable to 'dismiss February 1848 as a total accident'; far from doing so, I merely called attention to contingencies that changed the shape of the struggle. The activists' shared tradition and their experience of street-level political action - combined with the ability to capitalize on government mistakes - had much to do with why February 1848 took the form it did. I also made extensive use in this study of primary sources, and wanted to bring some sense of the excitement of these sources to my readers. One example concerned the 1834 massacre of the rue Transnonain. I am not certain what straw man I was supposed to be attempting to knock down in regard to the affair, but I took the opportunity, provided by the extensive archival record, to recreate the experience of innocent victims, the 'collateral damage' of their era, under fire. I could simply have said that 'twelve were killed at the rue Transnonain', but the episode - and what it revealed about the military repression of civil disorders, then and perhaps now - seemed to require the kind of construction I attempted.

The numerous characters I encountered in these primary sources were not of course 'left to speak for themselves', though they did get to speak. Some of the montagnards I cited were obviously delusional; others provided quite shrewd critiques of early capitalism. It is hard to imagine that a serious reader would mistake these clearly identified quotations, by would-be assassins and urban insurgents, for objective or neutral assessments of Louis-Philippe and his government - though I suppose anything is possible; the point was to allow readers an entry into the mindset of the revolutionary. The 'enormous condescension of posterity', in E.P. Thompson's memorable phrase, has frequently denied the lower classes an agency of their own, for good or ill.(2) I tried to make clear that these were independent actors, with wills, goals, and dreams.

Professor Pilbeam taxes me with a number of omissions or misreadings, in a way that I find simply baffling - and indeed, more than a little exasperating. A discussion of the influence of Buonarroti and La Conspiration de l'Égalité on 1830s republican groups, as well as on Babouvist communism, can be found on pp. 113-115 and 217-21.(3) The death of Louis-Philippe's oldest son, and the 1847 portrait of the king and his five sons, are discussed on pp. 207-208; an attempted explanation of why assassination became such a frequent option is on pp. 181-7. Chapter 11 focuses on the relative inactivity of republicans in the 1840s, as the disillusioned members became more interested in labor organizations as well as socialism and communism (a discussion which includes Cabet, Blanc, and others), on pp. 211-21. Much of the inactivity had to do with the imprisonment of the leaders, discussed in chapter 12. The problem of police spies and their revelations - much more complicated, in human terms, than a matter of paid informants and ambitious policemen - is on pp. 221-8.

In regard to the middle class/working class divide, there were republican lawyers who defended working class clients, such as future Provisional Government member A. T. Marie (he and others are mentioned in the book frequently - for example, pp. 63-4, for Marie's defense of the montagnard hero Charles Jeanne). What ended, after the early 1830s, was middle class involvement with violent republicanism (with a few exceptions such as Blanqui, middle class by background, who identified himself as proletariat). The Provisional Government and the June Days revealed the fissures between the remaining montagnards and the moderate, largely bourgeois republicanism that had developed during the July Monarchy, and which is not the subject of this book. I certainly did not say that all workers, even all activist workers, turned exclusively to violence, but rather that violence, in spite of its obviously diminishing returns, remained the policy of the montagnards. I also made clear, on numerous occasions - for example, the discussion of the Société des Droits de l'homme et du Citoyen, on pp. 65-83 - that the montagnard rank and file included both fanatics and the faint of heart, as well as those who decided to try socialism or communism.

The revolution of 1830 was not merely another point on the continuum between Grenoble in 1816 and, say, Grenoble in 1832. It is certainly true that republican/Bonapartist risings had occurred throughout the Restoration, and it is important to make that fact clear. But the July Revolution was fundamentally different, because it provided decisive proof that it was still possible to change the government by the use of force; that belief, or hope, became the basis for the republican montagnard movement of the July Monarchy.

Finally, Professor Pilbeam chastises me for not giving readers 'the end of the story' - to 1871 and the Commune, as she did in her Republicanism in Nineteenth-Century France, 1814-1871.(4) Readers of Barricades, already a lengthy book, will probably be grateful that I did not. But such a span would have required a sacrifice of considerable detail; any character who stuck his head above the crowd would have had it ruthlessly lopped off. And detailed recounting and analysis, in the sense of trying to recapture the complexity of an era that has necessarily been smoothed over and simplified, was precisely the point of this work. Broad surveys are valuable; but so are studies in depth. Surely there is room for both.

  1. The following works were particularly useful to me in exploring the meaning of narrative: Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, 1987); Louis O. Mink, 'Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument', in Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki, eds, The Writing of History (University of Wisconsin Press; Madison, WI 1978); Lynn Hunt, 'History as Gesture; or, The Scandal of History', in Jonathan Arac and Barbara Johnson, eds, Consequences of Theory (Johns Hopkins University ; Baltimore, 1991); and Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Beyond the Great Story (Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA, 1995), to name only a few.Back to (1)
  2. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage Books; New York, 1966), p. 12.Back to (2)
  3. All references are to the US edition, Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848 (Palgrave Macmillan; New York, 2002).Back to (3)
  4. Pamela Pilbeam, Republicanism in Nineteenth-Century France, 1814-1871 (Macmillan; Basingstoke, 1995).Back to (4)

June 2003

Original review

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