“To counter the threat of armed working class bandits, many bourgeois began to arm themselves; from dawn to dusk they queued up to buy guns and learn how to use them, while car-owners, feeling particularly threatened, offered their vehicles to the police until such time as the bandits were caught. Cars were not yet widespread, and the idea that workers could not only have access to them, but make this particular use of them was very worrying.”
The Bonnot Gang: The Story of the French Illegalists by Richard Parry is an excellent, highly detailed account of the notorious French anarchist gang– “auto-bandits” who were the first group to use getaway cars during the course of robberies.
Don’t even think about skipping the preface to the book because this is an essential part in understanding how the members of the so-called Bonnot Gang were a symptom of the times. The term ‘Bonnot Gang’ by the way, was the name given by the French press to a loosely connected group of French anarchists–some were friends and some only had the barest acquaintance with the others. The author points out that they “were not a close-knit criminal band in the classical style, but rather a union of egoists associated for a common purpose.”
Tracing the ideas and influence of Max Stirner and his book The Ego and Its Own, Parry credits Stirner as a powerful influence on anarchist-individualism and spends the marvelous first chapter describing the anarchist scene in France and the growth of anarchist-individualism. Following the debacle of the 1871 Paris Commune, the French government cracked down, and with “revolutionary organizations outlawed, and all forms of working class political activity banned, anarchists and trade-unionists were forced to operate in ways that were clandestine and outrightly illegal.” But in spite of this (or perhaps because of this), by the 1880s “there were an estimated forty anarchist groups in France with two thousand five hundred active members.”
The bitter aftermath of the Paris Commune “left a rich legacy of class-hatred” and Parry explains, “all anarchist activity and propaganda was centered on the class struggle which was especially bitter and violent up to the mid 1890s.” Since these were active times, a plethora of newspapers sprang up, and a number of anarchist groups emerged. One of the most prominent papers to emerge was L’Anarchie–considered the mouthpiece of anarchist-individualism–the paper “positively promoted crime and the theory of illegalism.” Co-founded in 1905 by Libertad, the paper’s position was that “there were not two opposed classes, bourgeois and proletarian, but only individuals.” Libertad seems to be a rather explosive character who quarreled with Syndicalists and was largely unwelcome–except in his own circle, and even then he managed to alienate friends and lovers.
Parry explains how Illegalism grew out of anarchist-individualism and points out that “almost all the Illegalists who were associated with the Bonnot Gang were born in the late 1880s or early 90s.” During this period, Parry argues, “the anarchist desire for the abolition of the state was translated onto an immediate practical level through individual acts of assassination and bombing.” Furthermore the idea of expropriation was reduced to individual acts of ” re-appropriation through the theory of La Reprise Individuelle.” Parry stresses the point that Illegalism differed from La Reprise Individuelle as the “illegalists stole not simply for the advancement of the cause, but for their own advancement.” And it was during these times that some infamous French anarchist criminals existed: Clement Duval, Marius Jacob and Ravachol. There’s a brief overview of their careers included.
Gangs began to emerge, and proceeds from burglaries and thefts were donated to the Cause, and naturally some donated more than others. Meanwhile an intellectual argument raged between anarchists regarding Illegalism and its moral justification, and eventually a split formed. While Illegalists argued that so-called “honest citizens, believers in the State and Authority” were part of the problem, others argued against Illegalism and the use of violence and force against ordinary citizens. Again Parry goes into some detail about this split–those pro and those con Illegalism, the major proponents and detractors, and their arguments for their beliefs.
There’s a clear sense of the social pressures of the time that helped create Illegalism. With mandatory military service, there were thousands of deserters roaming around France, unable to work, and even for those who could find work, often an eighteen-hour day of the most horrendous working conditions barely managed to put food on the table. (According to the book, in the early 1900s, there were approximately 70,000 deserters and draft dodgers.) One of the gang members, anarchist and draft dodger Octave Garnier was trying to make a living at age 13, but turned to crime. Working a “sixteen or eighteen hour day, seven days a week” on forged documents barely allowed survival. Garnier became increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with his situation and gradually came to loathe the system. Into this difficult social environment, Illegalism was born, and the Bonnot Gang became a major part of it.
Parry goes into significant detail describing the members of the gang–their relationships, their teetotalism and vegetarianism. The book details the “legendary” violent crimes the Bonnot Gang committed, the subsequent hysteria that swept through France, how the gang members were caught, the trials, executions and exiles. As the net tightens on the Bonnot Gang, there’s the sense that this is only going to go one way, and certainly most of the Bonnot Gang exited this life as spectacularly as they lived it. There’s quite an extensive list of characters, so it’s advisable to take notes. You may need them.
It always seems a little unfortunate when anarchists fight amongst themselves, and yet at the same time, criticism of anarchists by other anarchists is invaluable. The aftermath of the Bonnot Gang left many anarchists scrambling to explain their philosophical positions on Illegalism. Parry goes into some depth on the sticky role Victor Serge (Victor Kibalchich) played in the trial. While as the editor of L’Anarchie, Serge promoted Illegalism, he backtracked and waffled during the trial and later called Illegalism a form of “collective suicide.” Other anarchists at the time expressed the notion that the Bonnot Gang went off the deep end. Some felt that Illegalists were not anarchists at all but were “pseudo-anarchists who dishonour the anarchist ideal” and others resented the post-Bonnot Gang crackdown on the anarchist community. The story of the Bonnot Gang is an integral part of anarchist history and it’s a story that raises some intriguing questions and deserves attention. But apart from all that, the book is an excellent read.
The book includes a bibliography, index and many black and white photos.