The Bonnot Gang takes on the Bourgeoisie

The Bonnot Gang takes on the Bourgeoisie

Sat 06 Jan

THE BALLAD OF THE ANARCHIST BANDITS: The Crime Spree That Rocked Belle Epoque Paris by JOHN MERRIMAN. New York: Nation Books, 2017.

The setting is Paris at the turn of the century, but a side of Paris that does not inspire the filmmakers and artists busy conjuring images of bohemian Montmartre, the rich and the fabulous. This is a city torn by class struggle in the wake of the Commune of 1871, a city of on the brink of the First World War riven by rioting and strikes; a city that attracted anarchists. Many working women would spend fabulously long hours making fabulous dresses for un-fabulous wages, often having to remove their own dresses when the money ran out or the rent was due. Those that did not work, the poor and voiceless, died of starvation. The extreme poverty of most of the population in the first decades of 20th-century France, spawned a thousand bands of communist socialists and anarchists.

Despite, or possibly because of having very little themselves, the poor always had a bed to spare, a room to share, and a bowl of soup to give. This was especially true of the anarchists, for whom it is a basic tenet that you should never turn anybody away. These groups spent much of their little spare time arguing as to whether it was right to overthrow the state with violence, or whether to form a trade union, or to shoot a policeman on sight. One theorised that prostitutes who spread venereal disease amongst their bourgeois clients were helping to bring about the destruction of the political elite. Only the desperate come up with theories like that, and these were desperate times.

American historian, John Merriman tells the story of a group of anarchist illegalists, dubbed by the press the Bonnot Gang (after 31-year-old Jules Bonnot, its oldest member). Bonnot is one of the most celebrated and romanticised figures in French social history, partly because he pioneered the use of the car in hold-ups and partly because of his ferocity and audacity. Once on the run, with all the town’s informers scampering to get the huge reward on his head, he walked into a Paris newspaper office, casually placed a pistol on the desk and dictated a statement to the trembling reporter. Merriman shows that in essence Bonnot is considered more a criminal than an anarchist. One of his lieutenants, Dieudonne [acute accent] was more thoughtful however:

The State tries by its censorship, by its surveillance, its police, to put an obstacle before every free activity; it believes this repression to be a duty, because it is imposed on it by the instinct of self-preservation.

The Bonnot gang was the French equivalent of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, except that being French they had intricate theories to justify their assaults on capitalism. Members of the gang, almost all dispossessed young men in their early twenties, shared a common belief in the theory that property is theft. Their common tools: a nine mm semi-automatic Browning pistol, the getaway car and potassium cyanide in case of capture. Their victims: the bourgeoisie. Their exploits: armed robbery and sometimes murder.

Their aims were to eradicate all forms of authority. They were not beyond taking the war to white-collar workers whom they considered to be lackeys of the system. One of their most notorious crimes was that of Emile Henry who in February, 1894, placed a bomb in the Café Terminus at nine in the evening. “I wanted,” he said, “to strike this mass of pretentious and stupid employees who work for three to five hundred francs a month and are more reactionary than their bourgeois masters.”

Theories of Anarchism were in the making – these theories and the practice of them were blurred. Bonnot was more interested in logistics. He had trained as a motor mechanic and knew how to drive. The other advantage he had was that he knew how to get and use guns. He could also roam freely. La Sureté had neither guns nor cars, and were organized by parish. So they could not share information freely. All they knew was that the gang was associated with anarchists. So they began to study the endless newspapers that the anarchists produced - if there were three anarchists, there were usually two newspapers. Just as avidly, the Bonnot gang perused the Parisian newspapers, becoming more absorbed in their own image than the money they were stealing.

This is a shame. Had they simply stolen the cars and then sold them abroad, they would have made more money at far less risk to everybody. As the robberies increased and the death count with it, the police arrested more and more innocent anarchists. For the police an anarchist was anybody who did not get to work on time or threatened to form a trade union. They arrested anybody who had either offered members of the gang a bed for the night or eaten with them. Or they arrested people for minor crimes in the hope that they would talk about the whereabouts of the gang.

The gang itself had about fifteen shifting members, with varying degrees of affiliation to anarchism and common sense. Bonnot was the initial driver but not the driving force; he went on to kill several other bank staff and a policeman. He is also believed to have killed a fellow bank robber who had the temerity to ask for his share of the loot. Like some other terrorists, the gang used a political movement to justify their reckless violence. On the one hand they were supposed to be anarchists but on the other they freely used the ultimate power that only comes from the barrel of a gun.

For anarchists and other political groups the question is, when is violence justified? Most people would agree that Nelson Mandela was right to fight. But few would argue that Osama Bin Laden was justified in ordering the bombing of the twin towers in New York.

This book goes into enough detail to keep the academics happy for decades to come, but those not steeped in the minutiae of Anarchist History will have difficulty following all the names, and the different branches of anarchism, as did the police. The anarchists frequently changed the names of their groups, and allegiances. Moreover, anarchists do not tend to ask too many questions about whom they allow to sleep on their floor or which branch they were following that particular week.

Merriman’s book is successful in showing the inexorable stretch of the long arm of the law. One unforeseen consequence of the gang’s actions was that gradually, but relentlessly, the French police became more and more organised especially after a policeman was shot. They used every dubious and duplicitous method that the anarchists had accused them of, to find out where the gang was hiding. At which point they were able to blow up the building that Bonnot was holed up in when he refused to surrender.

Overall the police arrested over 1,500 people, ruined the lives of many more armchair anarchists and imposed stricter laws on everybody.

As Merriman intimates, whatever the Bonnot gang did or did not do, the anarchists were right when they said it cannot compare with the murderousness of the State during the First World War, fought by the poor and voiceless on behalf of the rich and powerful.

In conclusion, he quotes the anarchist Victor Meric, looking back on the gang in 1926, Having previously expressed sympathy for Bonnot, he now that if in society one could find “a little equality in human relations, a little less savage inequality, more absolute certainty in the precarious lives of the humble and the laborious,” the murderous brutality of the Bonnot Gang would be impossible. Merriman’s book is a timely reminder of a struggle gone badly wrong.

Review by drif field

drif field describes himself as "an antiquated book dealer and waste paper merchant".


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