On a freezing Kansas afternoon, I dragged my mother to a palatial suburban movie theater to see the only holiday event I really cared about -- reliving the tragic tale of history's most musical revolutionaries. Most viewers left the showing of Les Misérables discussing Anne Hathaway (good), Russell Crowe (bad), and Sacha Baron Cohen (ugly) -- but as a student of political violence, something else caught my eye. I was more interested in the structural integrity of the barricades and the poor substitution of tenors for tactics.
The history of Paris is a history of revolutions -- 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1968. For reasons known only to Victor Hugo, Les Mis is set during the lesser-known June uprising of 1832, an anti-monarchist rebellion that was crushed by King Louis Philippe I. The movie offers more than tragic romance and soaring ballads -- it provides a blueprint for understanding the relationship between cities and violence.
Means, motive, opportunity
Why do some revolutions succeed, while others barely get off the ground? Many of the academic debates surrounding civil wars and insurgencies boil down to the relative weight of the opposing factions' resources (means), grievances (motive), and political openings (opportunity).
The revolutionaries in Les Mis don't lack for grievances. The revolution of 1830 had ended Bourbon rule in France, but disappointed both those who wanted to forge a republic and those who wanted the restoration of a Bonapartist regime. In addition, Paris was plagued by pervasive unemployment, censorship, poor public services, and a growing gap between factory owners and factory workers. But unwashed masses do not a revolution make -- it was comparatively middle class Parisian students who led the 1832 uprising.
As the street urchin Gavroche makes clear in Les Mis, the students are afforded a compelling opportunity for their revolt: the public funeral of Gen. Jean Maximilien Lamarque, one of the most prominent anti-monarchist figures in France at the time. Co-opting public events and demonstrations is a standard tactic for urban uprisings -- which is why, for example, government censors in China tolerate criticism of the regime but not calls for public gatherings or protests.
While the students have sufficient opportunity and solid grievances, they lack the means to pursue their revolution. Not only are they short on weapons and ammunition, they also lack broad public support: Few residents donate furniture to their barricades. As a result, the rebellion fizzles -- government troops are able to march through Paris and isolate the rebels after a few short days. Clandestine organizations like the students' secret society may avoid government detection, but wider mobilization is inherently limited -- leaving only empty chairs and empty tables, as the survivors sadly sing.