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.

Grace Funambulist 4
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.