(taken from Freedom, October 2012)
It’s the 100th year anniversary of the Bonnot Gang, a group of anarchist bandits who operated in the Paris of the Belle Époque
The Bonnot Gang are famous for being the first to use automobiles as getaway cars and were well known in their day for high profile robbing sprees and violent antics. The group continue to divide opinion due to the questions they raise concerning currents in contemporary Anarchism, namely the struggle between the Syndicalist and Individualist tendencies. This tension has shaped Anarchism since the dawn of revolutionary Unionism.
The roots of the Bonnot Gang can be found in the French Illegalist movement of the nineteenth century. After the destruction of the Paris Commune Anarchist tactics turned to revenge – bombings, shootings and attacks on property were commonplace. Many of these acts were financed by robberies, such as those carried out by Ravachol, but as the terror continued the illegal dimension took on a life of its own. The cry of La Reprise Individual arose, the idea that theft from the rich was justified as they lived off the backs of the poor. Robbery ceased to be robbery and became reclaiming what was wrongfully taken. The two most prominent men to practise this philosophy were Clement Duval and Marius Jacob.
As time went on the Illegalist philosophy became even more extreme. Illegal activity became an end in itself, requiring no justification. If society was the product of capitalist social relations, then war against that society by any means necessary was entirely proper. This outlook reached its nadir with the Bonnot Gang.
The Paris Illegalists gathered around the L’Anarchie paper. One of the people who gravitated toward L’Anarchie was Octave Garnier (pictured left), a young anarchist from Fontainebleau. Garnier had been a thief since the age of thirteen and by his late teens was a hardened criminal who had served time in numerous institutions. Garnier moved into a house with future Bonnot Gang members Raymond Callemin, Jean De Boe and Edouard Carouy. He found work as a Navvy and made a living on the side by burgling houses. But Garnier was hungry for more – bigger heists that bought in more money. He started consultation with Callemin about forming a gang which could facilitate such activity. Into this fray stepped Jules Bonnot.
Bonnot was a petty criminal and anarchist who had served time in the French Army. He was recently returned from Geneva where he had been fired from his job after attacking his manager with an iron bar. The gang planned and schemed throughout the summer of 1911, before striking on the 21st December at the Société Générale Bank in Paris. The loot was roughly five thousand pounds. This disappointing first haul did not stop the robbers from striking again in a way that would send shivers through middle class French society. On the 2nd January 1912 they entered the Paris home of M. Moreau, murdered him and his maid and absconded with thirty thousand francs.
The early part of 1912 was the apex of the gangs crime spree, by March of that year they had killed two policemen and later on in that month murdered a chauffeur before stealing his car, yet they had also left themselves open to attack with acts of incredible bravado. In one such act Bonnot had shown up brandishing a Browning pistol at the offices of Le Petit Parisien, a bourgeois Paris newspaper. Bonnot apparently objected to the papers coverage of the group and at one point had loudly proclaimed “We’ll burn off our last round against the cops, and if they don’t care to come, we’ll certainly know how to find them”. It was after this incident that the press came up with the moniker ‘The Bonnot Gang’.
By the time the group split in April 1912 several of their members and supporters were under arrest. Bonnot was hiding in a safe house in Choisy-le-Roi, where he met his untimely end on 28th April. After holding officers at bay for hours, the chief of Police ordered the house demolished. Dynamite was bought in to blow off the front of the building before Bonnot was repeatedly shot as he lay dying amongst the rubble.
Octave Garnier and gang member René Valet didn’t last much longer. They holed up in the suburb of Nogent-Sur-Marne until 14th May before being killed in a shoot-out with the police. It was an abrupt end to a terror that had sent shockwaves through France.
So what can the Bonnot Gang teach us today? Those of us who describe ourselves as anarchists are often tarred with the brush of violence. The Bonnot Gang would seem to justify such an assertion, but it is important to note that the gang came from a very narrow milieu and were, in their day, despised by anarcho-syndicalists who often bore the brunt of state repression due to the acts of the Illegalists.
It must also be recognised that the strongest and most stable anarchist movements (those of Spain, Greece, Italy, early twentieth century Argentina) are precisely those that have engaged with the social struggles of their day and not merely sought to ‘go it alone’.
Though we all admire the figure of the dashing bandit, the Bonnot Gang killed working class people in a remorseless fashion and in his last will and testament Octave Garnier even bragged “Why Kill Workers? They are vile slaves, without them there wouldn’t be the bourgeois and the rich.” This particular phrase shows how nastily the individualist strain of anarchism can turn in on itself, and yet without individualism would there be any anarchism? If we’re not individualists first then what’s our problem with state socialism? These are valid questions that still need to be worked out, not least because in recent years the rise of Insurrectionism has made them more important than ever.
With anarchist attacks of increasing violence and frequency taking place in both Greece and Italy, we find ourselves confronted with same problems as 1912. Is it best to grasp the nettle and throw ourselves into a self-destructive struggle with society in order to realise our individualism; or should we build a movement that is capable of taking on the state and capital in the more long term? Is it possible to do both? The resolving of these issues is the question of the future.
(taken from Freedom, October 2012)