This is an enthralling study of class struggle in France.
It is littered with examples of ordinary people fighting back, whether it was during the French Revolution against absolutism, or in the Paris Commune.
Working class people and the power they have to collectively change the world is the central theme of the book. Hazan describes brilliantly the way that, through collective action and the experience of struggle, the French masses unearthed a brilliant tactic to exert pressure and ultimately confront the state — the barricade.
The barricade emerged as the urbanisation of France began and the arena of class struggle moved from the countryside to the city centre. Barricades consisted of upturned wagon carts, barrels filled with paving stones and various other objects. They would be used, often successfully, to halt the advance of the forces of repression and the state, protecting the gains that the people had fought for.
However, the author makes the point that it was more than just a military tactic and represented what Trotsky would call “festivals of the oppressed”.
In other words, those elements of society that suffered most under the heel of the state, most notably women, were often those that led from the front.
During the brutal crushing of the Paris Commune, one of the barricades that withstood the onslaught the longest was held by a group of working class women from a Parisian district. Hazan describes the moving image of two women Communards, each with a pistol in hand, firing at the advancing state troops and still holding the huge red flag that had come to represent the Commune “until they were cut down by army bullets”.
One of the most interesting aspects is the way the barricades could be raised, often within hours, without immediate leaders or centralisation. Hazan states, “Rumour, word of mouth, contagion from one neighbour to another does not explain everything. The answer must be sought in the collective memory of people.”
For example, the first barricades raised in 1588 against the foreign rule of Cardinal Mazarin came only 60 years before the raising of the barricades during the civil war of the Fronde.
In essence, the Parisian masses were able to challenge the state in a more concrete and organised way because they could draw on the memories and experiences of previous revolutionary clashes.
Hazan draws out numerous lessons and examples from the monumental French struggles in this book.
His book is essential reading for anyone interested in the strategy and tactics of street confrontations with the state.