From Postgate to Barthélemy
Marc Mulholland tells the story of a French revolutionary hanged for murder in London in 1855
A while ago I thought it might be a nice idea to scribble one of those crime-and-detection stories that were so popular in the inter-war years. These were generally the province of rightwing authors, but the socialist wife-and-husband team of Margaret and GDH Cole were enormously productive in the field, publishing 29 detective novels on top of a mountain of political and historical work. As stories, the Cole works were frankly rather staid, and certainly none of them were as engaging as GDH Cole’s encyclopaedic History of socialist thought - a seven-book saga written from a broadly ‘centrist’ perspective.1
A much better detective story was written by Raymond Postgate, Margaret’s brother. Postgate - who described himself as “tall, large, grey-haired, face like a hippopotamus” - came from a bourgeois family, but rebelled to become a syndicalist-socialist before World War I. He was driven out of Oxford University as a conscientious objector on political grounds and was a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Before long he became a dissident and later a close advisor (and son-in-law) to leftwing Labour Party leader George Lansbury.
Postgate in 1940 published Verdict of twelve in Penguin’s ‘Mystery and Crime’ series. The crime here concerned the mysterious death of a young boy in the care of his unsympathetic aunt; the mystery: how a random jury of 12 drawn from different social classes would react to the evidence presented at the trial. Postgate took as his epigram the famous line from Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.” Postgate applied this dictum to the jurors of the story, all of whom considered the evidence through the lens of social and class prejudice.
At a time when purveyors of anti-Semitic canards on the left are being assiduously excavated, partly for reasons of factional struggle, one particular juror created by Postgate is worth noticing. Alice Rachel had lost her husband to an anti-Semitic beating dished out by Whitechapel lumpens. Postgate commented:
Anti-Semitism is a contagion; indeed, it is worse: it is an infection. Before Hitler came to power anti-Semitism had been an endemic disease only in certain limited areas, where Jewish commercial competition was serious. Certain American towns, the environs of Stoke Newington and Whitechapel in London, for example … But, once the Nazis had passed their laws and begun their pogroms, even their enemies became Jew-conscious … The strongest anti-anti-Semite became, against his will, a Jew-smeller. Were Jews ill-mannered, rapacious, lustful and dishonest? Did they congregate in loud-voiced, ostentatious groups? You must notice them more carefully, in order to refute these silly slanders.
He defended Jews and so was only one degree less a pogromist than a fascist; for he had ceased to look upon them as normal human beings … The anti-Semite lie has by its mere propagation brought into existence the differences on which it pretended to base itself.2
This was a psychologically acute reflection on the corrosive pollution of sentiment, and offers no easy comfort on the struggle against bilious prejudice.
Verdict of twelve was just one of three novels by Postgate. Most of his publications were historical and social. He did much, for example, to introduce the forgotten figure of August Blanqui to the English-speaking world. Indeed, he was of the opinion that the Bolsheviks owed more to Blanqui than they knew or admitted.3 Throughout his life, Postgate remained interested in the byways as well as the highways of revolutionary history.
My own idea to attempt detective fiction was partly inspired by Postgate. I thought it would be easiest if I based my novel upon a real historical individual; and, because I know quite a lot about Karl Marx and his circle, I took one of his biographies off my shelf and looked up “murderer” in the index. This is where I found Emmanuel Barthélemy.
I expected there to be no great amount of information about him, and my intention was simply to fictionalise a historical shadow. But the more I researched, the more came to light. After a few months of research, snatched here and there, I began to realise that Barthélemy was coming to focus. The result was a book of hitherto obscure but remarkably dramatic revolutionary history.
Emmanuel Barthélemy was born of the French working class in 1823. As a young worker - a serriteseur (jewellery worker) - he came into contact with Blanqui’s revolutionary organisation, the Society of Seasons.
Blanqui is generally associated with the idea of the revolutionary coup d’état. This is not quite right. Blanqui was certainly a conspirator, but his not entirely unrealistic hope was that, by throwing up barricades on the street, the tinder of popular outrage against monarchy and class oppression would be set ablaze. The mechanism was nicely explained by a Blanquist militant, who recollected his role in the republican 1870 revolution against Napoleon III:
On the day before September 4 Blanqui gave orders for every Blanquist to go through the faubourgs [suburbs] to prepare for the next day’s demonstration, which must at all costs be turned into a revolution. On the morning of the 4th we hunted creatures came out of our dens to place ourselves at the head of our followers, whose rendezvous was fixed at the Place de la Concorde … Already the enormous mass of demonstrators had been pushed back into the Champ Elysees … The terrace of the Tuileries was black with people …
At this moment a strong thrust was made by the demonstrators. It was the workers from the faubourgs coming. We recognised friends and placed ourselves at their head. Very quickly we were face to face with the army and National Guards … A violent surge carried us to the head of the bridge, which must be crossed to reach the Palais Bourbon. The police tried in vain to stop the torrent …
We were in the palace, facing the main entrance guarded by the National Guard … I leapt to the handle to open the double door, and grabbed on to it. The door would not yield, and the guards beat me with their rifle-butts, so I let go …
Fortunately I knew of the door near to stair of the Tribune and the president’s chair .… I put my big shoulders against the door, buttressed myself with my feet, made a supreme effort, which broke it in and threw me down. In one bound [we] were at the president’s chair, still occupied …
[We cried out:] “Citizens, in face of our disasters and the misfortunes France, the people of Paris have invaded this place to proclaim all of the empire and the republic. We demand that the deputies decree this.”4
The republic was duly declared.
Back in the 1830s, Blanquists were organising in Paris. At one republican demonstration, organised by the Blanquists to test the mettle of their cadre, Barthélemy was badly beaten by a policeman. It is not entirely impossible that he sustained some brain damage. At any rate, in 1839, while on the way to a Blanquist insurrection, Barthélemy encountered the policeman and in a fury pulled his gun and fired at him. He survived, but Barthélemy - not yet aged 16 - was sentenced to life as a galley slave.
Nine years later, the French Revolution of 1848 overthrew the monarchy and established a republic; the first to include a socialist minister (the unjustly forgotten Louis Blanc). Barthélemy was released and quickly became an active militant, preparing for the counterrevolutionary offensive he expected, and training his fellows in barricade fighting. In June that year the government provoked a rebellion of the working class east of Paris, which rose up in doomed rebellion. Barthélemy joined the insurrection and fought as a barricade commander: one of the few to survive and write an account. Once again he was taken prisoner. He used his court-martial to publicise government atrocities against captured insurgents. That very night, in the midst of an ice storm, Barthélemy escaped from prison - an escape recounted in detail years later by Dr Cyril Lacambre, who broke out at the same time - and made his way to London.
In the British capital Barthélemy was lionised as a proletarian revolutionary by fellow refugees, but his disputatious personality, and vigorous partisanship of the still imprisoned Blanqui, soon made him factional enemies. For a period he fell in with Marx and Engels, who always admired Blanqui and at this time sympathised with his willingness to use insurrection, or armed workers’ demonstrations, to pressurise revolutionary government. Historians such as Hal Draper have been rather embarrassed by the Marx-Blanqui connection, which they tend to play down, but there is little doubt that Blanqui’s strategy of continual proletarian mobilisation in armed demonstrations - such as had driven the French revolution of the 1790s - had a profound effect on Marx’s concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Marx and the Blanquists even joined together in a short-lived organisation, grandly called the Société Universelle des Communistes Révolutionnaires. As the Communist League split, however, Barthélemy fell in with Marx’s rival, August Willich.
Barthélemy was frustrated with factional infighting and disgusted by Marx’s retreat to the library. He preferred dangerous activity, acting as a revolutionary secret agent, and flitting back and forth from France, seeking to arrange the escape of Blanqui from the prison island on which he was immured. In 1851, Barthélemy participated in the unsuccessful armed resistance to Louis Napoleon’s coup against the French Republic to establish the second French empire.
A key organiser of the resistance to Napoleon’s coup was a giant ex-naval commander called Frédéric Cournet. He was arrested, but escaped by strangling his captor. Cournet was a bellicose and violent man who had mortally offended Barthélemy by relaying rumours that he was pimping for his girlfriend. Barthélemy was advised against confronting Cournet, an expert in arms, but with typical bravado he challenged him to a duel. In controversial circumstances, Barthélemy survived the encounter near Windsor, the last fatal duel in England. He was found guilty of manslaughter and released within a year.
While in prison, Barthélemy fell in love with Sarah Loudon - a young servant and feisty survivor - who renewed his zeal. Together they prepared a scheme to assassinate the French emperor. An attempt to extort funds for the dangerous mission led to an argument with Barthélemy’s former employer at Warren Street, George Moore. Leaving Moore dead, Barthélemy drew off pursuers to allow Sarah to escape, and in so doing killed another man.
In January 1855, on a cold and snowy morning, Barthélemy was hanged at Newgate Prison. He went to his death defiant. His last words were: “Now I shall know the secret.”
A wax model of Barthélemy became the star attraction at Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’. For those who knew him, however, Barthélemy was a complex, magnetic personality: part hero and part villain. He would be used to symbolise the very idea of working class revolution in Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misérables.
Postgate for a long time was associated with the ‘Plebs League’, then the National Council of Labour Colleges, which saw itself as a site for ‘non-party Marxism’. He was an outspoken critic of communist ‘democratic centralism’ and dogmatism. Even when still a member of the Communist Party, he was criticised as an undisciplined intellectual. Postgate joked about this:
The showing of scholarly knowledge is at all times regarded as a vulgar proceeding - though why, when it is permissible to exhibit fine clothes or physical excellence, goodness only knows. Perhaps it is because the possession of an unusual and painfully acquired knowledge of obscure theorists arouses the collector’s spirit, and its possessor becomes as odious an exhibitionist and bore as a stamp collector or a Don Juan. Or it may be that certain faculties of certain universities are overstaffed and underworked and have to make work for themselves; or it may be that the writers of PhD theses are really inspired by a retroactive form of Messiah hunting, which makes them seek in some dead second-rater the inspiration which their contemporaries find in living technocrats and currency reformers.5
Postgate’s point, however, was that a true left history requires understanding of warp and weft - warts and all. Taking this into account, Barthélemy is worth remembering - and not just as a story ‘stranger than fiction’.
Marc Mulholland’s The murderer of Warren Street: the true story of a nineteenth-century revolutionary (Hutchinson 2018) is now available at bookshops.
1. In the sense of the Austro-Marxist-dominated Vienna International, which for period after World War I tried to navigate between the abject timidity of social democracy and the dictatorial propensities of the Comintern.
2. RW Postgate Verdict of twelve London 1940, pp55-56.
3. RW Postgate Revolutionary biographies: some revolutionary sketches Madras 1922, p83.
4. RW Postgate How to make a revolution London 1934, pp115-18.
5. RW Postgate ibid p106.