Blanqui and the Barricade, the Cosmos and the Commune



19th-century Paris has seen countless barricades constructed by working-class insurgents to defend themselves against counter-revolutionary forces — the 1830, 1848, and 1871 revolutions being only the most well-known of these moments of insurgency. In this text, Charlotte Grace analyzes the revolutionary architecture embodied by the barricade and its consecration by the main figure behind the Commune: Auguste Blanqui.

You have confiscated the rifles of July — yes. But the bullets have been fired. Every bullet of the workers of Paris is on its way round the world.” Auguste Blanqui, 1832

On March 17, 1871, just one day before the insurrection that established the Paris Commune, Auguste Blanqui was arrested. He had been a lifelong activist in the push for revolutionary socialism and a prominent advocate of what came to be known as Blanquism — a strategy for seizing state power whereby a coup d’etat would be carried out by a small group of highly organized and secretive conspirators, rather than, say, the masses of the working class, as Marx and Engels would have had it. He was taken to a cell in the Fort du Taureau in Northern Brittany, which he described as “an ellipse-shaped fortified island lying half a mile outside of the rock shores of Morlaix at a point where, after briefly morphing into the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean finally returns to the North Sea.”

Struggling with his detainment from the city and displacement from the struggle, enforced by walls and water, Blanqui looked to the sky as his revolutionary horizon. He wrote about comets, stars and the expansive (im)materiality of outer-space as liberated from borders and bursting with infinite potential. In “Comets and Barricades” (2014), the poet Sean Bonney connects Blanqui’s fascination with the surging forces of the cosmos to the relational assemblage of bodies, channels, and forces that make up the space-time of the revolutionary moment.

Three years earlier, Blanqui had his feet and eyes on the ground as he critically combed over the Parisian revolution of 1848 in A Manual for an Armed Uprising in Paris. He explored the material of the city — in its volume, matter, topology and assembly — and how this material bore the potential to either help or hinder insurgent urban warfare. This analysis led him to look at the indeterminable form and nature of barricades as the architecture through which insurgents could hinder state forces whilst simultaneously helping shelter revolutionary activity.

Blanqui complemented his analysis of the barricade with the drawing featured on the left page — probably the first design of its kind. In it, we see a plan and a section that shows the barricade as two structures, roughly six meters apart. The front façade of the barricade is a three-meter-high wall or “rampart,” with the main aim of slowing counter-forces down. Behind it is a six-meter gap before a second wall, similarly-built but fortified from behind by an inclined slope. While Blanqui doesn’t mention the choice of materials, both formal and informal hatches most-likely refer to the cobblestones that were taken up from the street. The difference is between formally-constructed vertical walls, and the slope which was likely to be made up of a range of props found strewn across the city, from park railings to sinks, crates and wagons, piled loosely and in haste.

What isn’t shown in the drawing is Blanqui’s written recommendation to build the barricades in a convex V-shape, like military fortifications of the time. The V-shape design meant that the blow of an opposing cannon or charge would only serve to knock the barricade back into itself, in some instances condensing and strengthening the material beyond what had been initially thrown together.

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Architectural instructions to build a barricade by Auguste Blanqui in A Manual for an Armed Uprising in Paris (1868).

Throughout A Manual for an Armed Uprising in Paris, Blanqui claimed the insurrectionary success of 1848 as a stroke of luck, in spite of poor spatial warfare. He claimed that barricades that were higher, stronger and better constructed — born of a “rudimentary military inspiration” — had attracted defenders but, most crucially, that their placement was unstrategic: only a handful had effectively blocked junctions and thoroughfares that were strategically important. He also criticized how the barricades were occupied: “each barricade had its own group that varied in size but that was always isolated. Whether a barricade had ten or one hundred men, it maintained no form of communication with the other posts. While the insurgents smoke their pipes behind the heaps of paving stones, the enemy successively concentrates all its forces on one point, then a second, a third, a fourth, and thereby systematically exterminates the whole insurrection.” According to Blanqui, these errors in spatial organization and human occupation would make defeat inevitable if they were to be repeated, and he advocated thinking through the barricade as part of a broader strategy of urban intervention.

By the time of the Commune, some of the lessons Blanqui had put out years before were put to use. Riffing off of the structural qualities of the V-shape, some barricades were made of loosely piled cobblestones, rejecting a formally-constructed and brittle form that could crack open in favor of a more fluid mass, harder to make one’s way through or over. Some piles were put onto wagons, fortifying barricade facades whilst being mobile enough to move elsewhere if necessary.

At the urban scale was the move to consolidate energy and matter to certain strategic locations. The development of the boulevard was itself an example of counter-insurgency endeavors by Parisian urban designers; nevertheless many large, formal barricades were built at key urban junctures such as the monumental Grande barricade de la Rue de Rivoli near Place de la Concorde, which found its own project manager in local shoemaker Napoléon Gaillard. These tall and complex structures were successful in intimidating the Versailles army into diverting their counter-revolutionary strategy from these areas. However, building effectively at this larger scale took a toll on its smaller counterparts. A strategic preoccupation with the monumental meant that larger barricades, such as those in the boulevard, were left untouched by counterrevolutionary forces. Meanwhile some 900 smaller barricades in the narrow streets of local neighborhoods, built in a hurry as the army approached, were slowly but surely, systematically destroyed, alongside the small groups of insurgents who had built them.

The lessons the Commune points to then, relate to the dispersed investment of resources and communication between local and urban scale interventions. From this, we begin to see the barricade as less a singular object, and more a network of devices that require occupation and interconnection, less an insurgent architecture than an insurgent infrastructure.


Infrastructure and the (Cosmic) Social ///

All the houses’ blocks belonging to barricaded streets should be pierced at their perimeter […] out of sight and out of reach of the enemy […] One could open communications between those spaces, usually separated by weak walls” (Blanqui, Maintenant il faut des armes, trans. Léopold Lambert, 2009)

One archetype of infrastructure is the tunnel: it is a carved space through an otherwise impenetrable mass, built to connect disparate or disconnected locations, often operating under the earth’s surface and landmarked by small, but highly-visible openings.

The tunnel was as crucial to the Commune as the barricade. Walls between the bathrooms of neighborhoods’ housing blocks were knocked through in succession, cutting routes for insurgent bodies and supplies to pass through. These tunnels also enabled Communards to shoot from the windows of the blocks from in front and behind the line of opposing forces as it approached. Rather than working independently of one another, the tunnel and the barricade worked together: the line drawn by the barricade in public space served as distraction from its permeation in private. This Trojan Horse effect, weaponizing both hyper-visible and under-the-radar tactics, was key to the Commune’s success.

In an early essay, Léopold Lambert equates barricades with tunnels by considering the operations involved in their construction. Whether aggregating matter to mark boundaries or excavating it to transgress them, these operations are still “seen as acts of creation toward two potentially resistive architectural typologies” (Log, 2012). This speaks to Lambert’s figure of the insurgent as a subject who “experiences the city rather than represents it” and who, when experiencing socialized feelings of dissent, starts to see it “as a mass that can be infiltrated, transgressed, and weaponized.”

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Barricade of the 1871 Paris Commune

In The Insurgent Barricade (2010), Mark Traugott argues that whilst Blanqui was aware that the human occupation of the barricade was central to its function, he was limited in thinking this through in a strictly military sense. Traugott claims that, in reality, the social construction of the barricades was “more likely to determine the outcome of civil conflict.” For Traugott, this social power was to be found via its captivation of outsiders, not just in the spectacle of a “finished barricade” object — a relatively ineffectual attribute in the chaotic moments of an insurrection — but through the urgent participatory project of its construction. Enlisting the public in the building or procuring of materials for what initially appeared to be a grounded, set goal with a conceivable endpoint enabled the emergence of a division of labor through which roles and responsibilities could be organized and encouraged. By creating this space of labor and interaction, barricades “allowed these various parties to gauge the costs and benefits of progressing to the stage of outright hostilities” against the state. In other words, they were escalatory spaces, where the solidarities forged by working together on the ground could begin to expand towards the imaginaries of a collective revolutionary horizon.

In making sense of Traugott’s analysis, Lauren Berlant’s emphasis on “infrastructure” over “structure” is telling. For Berlant, infrastructure is rather the “lifeworld of structure […] defined by use and movement” (“The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” 2015). Ideas around infrastructure speak to built environments and economic structures, but also to domains of practice, including religion and culture. Brian Larkin refers to infrastructure as a “cosmic” assertion of social life, expressed and maintained by “architectures of circulation” and connection between places and situations. These architectures range in form, from identifiable symbols and objects to assumed orders and temporalities. Read in these terms, we could say that Blanqui reads the barricade as urban structure rather than urban infrastructure. Failing to note the building of barricades as a movement and patterning of social form, he overlooks the “cosmic” sociality inherent to insurgent infrastructure.

May 68: Situationist Spectacle and Insurgent Aesthetics ///

Nearly a hundred years after the Commune, Paris saw an uprising that, whilst not quite managing a full-scale political revolution, is still hailed as a defining moment through which social and cultural landscapes across the Western world were lurched forwards by insurgency.

Anchored in the student movement, the body of which had been expanded by a wave of educational reforms and rising youth population, the events of May 1968 comprised a cross-section of workers, intellectuals, city and province dwellers. An “encounter between the arms of critique and the critique of arms” was welcome across the social stratas of struggle, with the terms of debate ranging from alienation and work under capitalism to the ideological structures of religion and the state. The École des Beaux-Arts, an art and architecture school in the Latin Quarter of Paris, was occupied and blockaded, becoming an epicentre from which insurgent activity could evolve and spread, from meetings to poster-printing to protest-planning. Over the month of May, around 600 barricades were built across the quarter using cobblestones alongside uprooted trees, street signs, sidewalk grates and burning cars. In addition to disrupting the general flow of the city, another key objective of constructing these barricades was to evoke the spectacle of insurgency in the minds of the public by harkening back to the imaginary of the Commune and carrying forth its legacy into the present.

The intellectual underpinnings of May ‘68 centered around the Situationist International (SI), a collective founded with the aim of nurturing mass revolutionary sentiment through the cultural domain. The SI wanted to challenge the relationship between the commodity and the spectacle, which they read as reciprocally reproducing consumer society. In this context, the barricade became a powerful redeployment of the “spectacular,” a landmark of insurgency built to capture the imagination as much as to defend an occupation. In 1962, the SI had produced Theses on the Commune alongside socio-spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre. In it, they praised the Commune as “the only implementation of a revolutionary urbanism to date.” For the SI, the Commune proved the need for the construction of “situations” or socio-spatial happenings, in which the conscious construction of our environments would be thrown into question. At the same time, the SI strategized the forms of urban warfare by developing conceptual anchors such as the “swarm,” whereby unruly and spontaneous intervention was crucial to prevent opposition forces from learning the rules by which one moves and operates. These anchors were linked to their ideas around the dérive, a method of wandering through the city that would nurture a “popular creativity” in and against the disciplinary rigidity of state-regulated urban space. The dérive itself subverts the wandering of the Flaneur, a late 18th century stereotype whose image is one of an apolitical social subject dealing with the shock of modernity.

Barricades, then, began to morph into motifs, serving as markers of a multimedia, multi-scalar insurgent aesthetic, powered by spontaneous movement. As we move towards the historical present, where the space of warfare has both accelerated in speed and somewhat dissolved into the (im)material realm of information, displacement, and surveillance, we can see that many of these qualities have endured. Similar tactical constellations have come to define the space of civil unrest, from student occupations to anti-motorway protests and power-plant shutdowns, typified by the following two recent examples.

Seattle 1999 & Genoa 2001: The Bloc ///

The black bloc is a tactic that uses more or less no ‘‘architecture’’ per se. It involves the pre-coordination of a large group of protestors who wear black clothing and/or other face-concealing and face-protecting items in order to be indistinguishable during an action. The procurement of ‘‘material’’ consists of packing a spare set of pre-owned clothes in a bag, though any potentially identifying items are sometimes swapped between people in the moment. The bloc as a social construction has no declared leaders, followers, or exclusivity as to who can use it at any one time. It’s moving nodes can lead or follow, meaning that the coordination of influential “waves” of activity by certain groups — including undercover cops looking to build future evidence of illegal activity — is common.

It could be said that the first black bloc originated in a march on Wall Street in 1967, a year before May in Paris. Black Mask, an NYC-based anarchist group affiliated with the Situationist International and more commonly known as Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers!, all wore black outfits and balaclavas to create the spectacle of a unified and militant identity. Fast forward 30 years and the Zapatista movement launched on the inauguration of the NAFTA, taking on the balaclava as a “rejection of traditional representative politics and individual identity in favor of direct democracy, equality and to undermine hierarchy and authoritarianism” in their indigenous fight against state repression, racism, and genocide. Interrupting two geopolitically seminal conferences at the turn of the millennium, Seattle’s World Trade Organization ministerial meeting and Genoa’s G8 summit, protests saw a large, anonymous swarm of bodies in black blocking roads, damaging property and fighting police.

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Protestors and their shields against the 2001 G8 in Genova. / Photo by Ares Ferrari.

In Italy, the G8 protest coincided with the tail-end of the Tute Bianche movement, in which protestors armed themselves with foam padding around their bodies before stepping into large white overalls. Ya Basta!, key protagonists within Tute Bianche, claimed in a collection of manifesto fragments called The Age of Clandestiny that “If the struggle aims at achieving visibility, the color of the fight is white, and the white garment covers the whole body.” The choice of white referenced both “invisibilized workers” and the “spectres of activists” whose organizational spaces were being evicted across Italy at the time, and were evoked as stalking the city and haunting state forces. Ya Basta! cross-referenced the balaclavas of the Zapatista movement, claiming that the anonymity achieved through mass-disguise could help to “emerge from the limbo of outdated categories in the organisation of production.”

The directionality of the black bloc strives, first and foremost, to switch from the spatially “defensive” to the spatially “offensive,” somewhat redefining the space-time of the battleground. Formally, the shelter afforded by the architecture of the barricade — a separate, wall-like object defending a defined space and that contained within or behind it — is compressed into a flexible and portable facade that offers little material protection but that screens insurgents from surveillance. This deflection of individual identity stretches beyond the moment of the bloc to resist the retrospective counter-insurgency measures undertaken by state forces. Underneath this membrane moves a swarm of mobile, half-coordinated body of bodies that can assemble and disperse, shape-shift, squeeze, push and pull as and when necessary.

Hong Kong 2014: The Frame ///

Between September and December of 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong saw sections of the city centre turned into thousands of protest camps. The city’s construction workers, who were adept in the use of bamboo for scaffolding structures sometimes up to 50 stories high, found themselves procuring and assembling this ready-to-go building material into structural frames capable of blocking entire motorways within minutes. These workers would teach other protestors the technique of “lashing,” where key joints and bonds are made using cable-ties and woven plastic strips, binding together standardized two-inch thick, 12-foot-long poles at incredible speed. As these barricades grew, platforms of plywood were nailed for sitting on and protruding poles on the front facade were sharpened with home-made turning tools or pocket knives.

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Bamboo barricades in Hong Kong’s 2014 revolts. / Photo by Underbar dk.

Thinking through its form, the barricade here ceases to be a dense, opaque, immobile mass of piled objects and, instead, becomes a lightweight, transparent structural skeleton. It can span long distances and takes on an element of fluidity that can be added to, dismantled and reassembled in another location with ease. Composed of both bodies and matter, the barricade works as a frame upon which bodies can pass through, climb, and display themselves. This allows for both human occupation of the barricade for actively defensive purposes, but also for the show of bodies upon this seemingly-fragile structure to perform a rhetorically defensive function: state forces cannot so easily destroy a precarious tower of vulnerable bodies for fear of the sway in public opinion that could result in their physical harm.

This teetering between enforcing state violence and preventing reputational damage is, of course, disproportionately considered depending on the stakes: which bodies find themselves on such a line, how explicitly state power needs to assert itself, etc. But this logic does play out in other protest practices, particularly across the Western world, such as the lock-on and the tripod, particularly common to the defense of land, where protestors place themselves in physical precarity in order to prevent or delay the onset of counter-forces.

Infrastructure and Revolutionary Space-Time ///

The frame and the bloc are, like the barricade and the tunnel, both counter and complementary. The frame reminds us of a social world that wants to be seen by weaponizing an identification with the vulnerable. The bloc reminds us of what moves under the surface, weaponizing collective de-identification as a spectacle. Blanqui’s commitment to both the poetic, infinite expanse of revolutionary cosmologies and the strategic, physical matter of the urban environment began a process of spatial reckoning. The barricade, as a frontier between Blanqui’s ground and sky, grew in conception from insurgent architecture to insurgent infrastructure, a socialized network of material and immaterial stops and starts. From there it began to evolve its relational qualities by way of fluidity, embodiment and spectacle.

It is important to remember that if the barricade is an “infra” as much as a “structure,” its spatiality is temporal, too. Composed of the “above,” the “below,” the “onward,” it asks what starts after the stop. Contemporary readings of revolutionary spacetime follow suit here. In Rojava, Chiapas, and across feminist and decolonial struggles worldwide, the idea that there constitutes an instant historical moment in which power is disassembled, a pinpoint or object, contained and labelled, is being evermore rejected. Instead, revolution is understood and felt as a perpetual and ongoing struggle, a landscape strewn with triggers, obstacles and markers, an emancipatory horizon we orient and hurtle ourselves towards. ■