The Bonnot Gang: The Story of the French Illegalists: A Review
This is part of the two part review:
A review of two tasty tomes that address some of anarchism’s more controversial aspects.
Anarchism’s multiplicitous nature defies, annoys, offends, and confuses many–including anarchists. Worse, though, is that pundits and peaceniks unfamiliar with what anarchism actually is have no problem labeling any and every behavior or practice they find troubling as “anarchist.” Naturally, anarchism is conflated with senseless violence and chaos.
It would be nice, comforting, and simplistic to be able to say clearly and finally just what anarchism is. However, there are so many strains with so many self-identified and differentiated practices that there are very few common threads. And we haven’t even talked about whether anarchism as a lifestyle is authentic.
In the midst of this morass, there are many polemics, claims, assertions, and a slew of people claiming moral high ground. Others assert their definitions are the only ones; just like punk rock, individuals or collectives seek to claim and define just what an anarchist is.
While such practices may be entertaining or facilitate identity politics or practices, they’re actually kind of boring. Tedious, really. That’s where these two books from PM Press have some significant contributions for people inside, on the edges of, and outside anarchist practices and communities.
The first book deals with the Bonnot Gang. In short, this is a non-fictional representation of one of anarchism’s most noted armed gangs of robbers. Yes, most of them died from gunfire. Yes, they stole from banks and other people. Yes, they had no problem making a living as thieves and counterfeiters and robbing the middle and upper classes. And they were willing to use force to do so.
This approach is offensive to peace police and other self appointed guardians of social change who believe that meaningful change will only be peaceful and through massive non-violent resistance. Such folks would do well to read this book. Reading this reprint of The Bonnot Gang will not change any minds. Instead, if offers something more useful: an improved understanding of a group dismissed as radical, violent, and thoughtless. Such dismissals are foolish.
Whether or not you agree with class war, stealing from the rich, or shooting it out with police–and few sensible people support such approaches–the book helps readers understand the perpetrators’ social backgrounds, tensions, and mindsets when approaching acts that are perceived as being so socially transgressive. This also helps to understand why, when Wall Street can squeeze $1 Trillion out of US taxpayers, the media is seemingly more interested in focusing on moderate property damage at #Occupy or #BLM protests or a few small smashed businesses that are collateral damage at post-election riots. Yes, these lives matter. However, The Bonnot Gang helps understand why and how some members–usually just a few fringe members–turned to armed struggle and expropriation (i.e. Armed robbery and theft).
Equally disturbing to many idealistic anarchists will be the discussions of whether or not it’s revolutionary to steal to improve your own immediate financial situation. Again, this book posits no answers. Instead, it explores the ongoing tensions that were present then as those same tensions are now.
The Bonnot Gang is well written. It is easy to become involved with the text. Documentation is solid. The narrative flows. And it’s surprising that this is not fiction. The key players are fascinating, friendly, and repulsive. Most intriguing was the seeming blind loyalty to other anarchists, to harbor them no matter what, and to never, ever give any information to the cops. Then, as now, snitches thrived. However, historical portraits and studies like this allow current anarchists to compare and contrast their own culture and values to their own traditions.
Similarly, those outside of anarchist cultures, or with a few friends on the edge, would do well to read this book. The Bonnot Gang was hard core, and this book makes it clear why. Most anarchists you will ever meet have no interest in ever being the Bonnot gang. Similarly, few accountants plan to rip off an entire company, and few stock traders want to crash entire markets. But these things happen. But for some reason, a few radical anarchists are more terrifying than the single largest theft of wealth from the working classes to the ruling elite (the bank bail out).