Emmanuel Barthélemy: A revolutionary who became a tawdry tabloid tale

April 10, 2020
Emmanuel Barthélemy

The Murderer Of Warren Street: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Revolutionary
Marc Mulholland
W F Howes Ltd, 2019

It is the sad, but not entirely undeserved, fate of Emmanuel Barthélemy, to wind up as a star waxworks exhibit (No. 290) in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors and stigmatised as an infamous murderer, writes Oxford University historian Marc Mulholland, about the 19th century French Republican and communist revolutionary.

Karl Marx had the same view. Initially seeing something to admire in a fellow political exile fresh from his stirring heroics on the barricades in revolutionary Paris, Marx was soon enough crossing furious polemical swords, rather than harmless epées, with his former London fencing salon partner.

An artisanal metalworker, Barthélemy was a radical republican inspired by memories of barely a couple of decades ago when the ordinary labouring people of Paris had once "stormed heaven" in the era-defining French Revolution. Barthélemy’s employer was not at all happy, complaining that his once-model employee had become quite uppity, "concerned about political things and … talking freely".

While still a teenager, Barthélemy was leading secret revolutionary societies and commanding barricade battles against French monarchical regimes during the 1830s. For his troubles, he was severely beaten (losing a finger in the process) by a police sergeant, whom he shot in revenge during a subsequent chance encounter on his way to another armed street insurrection.

Jailed for murder, it took a successful republican revolution in 1839 to free Barthélemy. But he soon locked horns with his liberators, a government dominated by republicans of a capitalist or middle-class persuasion. These conservative anti-monarchists knew which class side their bread was buttered on and predictably delivered hunger, unemployment and repression to their former plebeian allies.

The response to this declaration of ruling class war was the spontaneous June rising of 1848.  It was put down with prodigious violence – for those counting along at home, the Republican government troops killed 500 rebels in just four days of street fighting, while 3000 were massacred in the aftermath. Barthélemy was among the 11,000 sent to prison.

A daring jail-break and escape to England by the young, fearless, self-assured and idealistic Barthélemy added to his romantic lustre. He was welcomed into a political alliance with Marx’s Communist League and the left faction of the English working-class Chartists.

This coalition began to fray, however, with what Mulholland accurately calls the culmination of a “long and dismal retreat” from the heady days of the 1789 Revolution. The French working class had become politically exhausted, paving the way for the overwhelming electoral victory of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III as president. Bonaparte then took a leaf out of his real-life Emperor-uncle’s book by exploiting the workers’ demoralisation to seize absolute dictatorial power in 1851.

Barthélemy was one of the few working-class activists to resist Napoleon’s coup before again escaping arrest and fleeing back to London. There, eager for "deeds" and "action", he organised a following of incensed French exiles dedicated to assassinating the new French Emperor.

Earlier political differences, once subsumed under a shared expectation of an imminent upswing in the French revolutionary cycle, now became bitterly divisive. Marx and most of the exiled European left became completely estranged from Barthélemy because of his liking for secret societies, and for his monomania for assassination in an impatient attempt to force the pace of history.

Barthélemy adopted his political philosophy from his French mentor, Auguste Blanqui, who believed that a small group of revolutionaries should liberate the working class by seizing power on their behalf. The workers, Blanqui argued, were not up to the task themselves because "ignorance" made the worker a "docile instrument of the Privileged". If the working class was not ready to rule, well … the dictatorship of the revolutionary elite would have to rule over them as well. 

Although full of Marxist phraseology, a frighteningly authoritarian Blanquist manifesto written by Barthélemy was, as Marx and Engels sourly noted, nothing but "pompous nonsense" and "quite stupid".

Barthélemy’s immaturity was not just political but personal as well. He was temperamentally hot-headed – Charles (son of Victor) Hugo noted Barthélemy’s "provocative belligerence" towards those left-wing comrades who had political disagreements with him. 

This could spill over into violence. In a duel, Barthélemy killed a London-exiled French Republican barricades commander over political differences. He also called Marx a "traitor" for urging political analysis, patient explaining and working-class organising rather than immediate communist insurrection. He added that "all traitors must be killed … Our worst foe is at home, in our own family – we ought to destroy him", he grimly concluded of many devoted republicans and socialists.

Barthélemy’s fanaticism and self-righteousness meant he was quite capable of cold-blooded murder for political ends. Such was his denouément. Employed as a machinist in a factory producing ginger beer and soda water, Barthélemy, seeking to finance his assassination plans in France, decided to extort funds from the factory owner by implicating him in a sex scandal.

In the fight that ensued, Barthélemy’s always brittle self-control snapped and he shot his employer, then killed a former policeman who tried to detain him as he fled. Barthélemy’s anti-democratic politics of elite conspiracy and violence ultimately led to the 32-year-old’s premature end on the gallows.

Mulholland solves the true-crime murder mystery quite elegantly, but the solving of the political mystery could have done with Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s apt take on the underlying issues. What Lenin said of Blanqui would equally well apply to Barthélemy – Blanqui was, said Lenin, "undoubtedly a revolutionary and an ardent supporter of socialism" but, crucially, "we [the Bolsheviks] are not Blanquists, we do not stand for a seizure of power by a minority". 

Lenin led the world’s first successful socialist revolution; Barthelemy died a common criminal. Lenin was feared by the capitalist newspapers; Barthélemy became just a tawdry tabloid tale for them.

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