The Bonnot Gang

March 18, 2010

I have been, to a certain extent, obsessed lately with looking up anything to do with the ‘Bonnot Gang’.

The Bonnot Gang were a mostly French, criminal anarchist gang. They operated from circa 1911-1912 in France and Belgium during the  Belle  Époque, a ‘golden age’ for many European bourgeoisie. The Bonnot Gang were prominent illegalists. Anarchists who believed in direct action against the state. Crime for the sake of committing crime, to please ones personal desires. Around this time, many anarchists became involved in the concept of ‘propaganda of the deed’. Propaganda of the deed is the promotion of violent deeds against enemies and the state in the hope that this will catalyze the masses into beginning a revolution. Propaganda of the deed takes many, many forms from regicide to tyrannicide to violence against anyone considered a threat to the working class. Propaganda of the deed was basically the father of illegalism, which was also influenced by Max Stirner’s ‘egoism’. Stirner was a monumental thinker and is surprisingly rarely read today. Stirner  developed his egoist philosophy, notably in his work ‘ The Ego and Its Own ‘. This showed Stirner’s radical anti-authoritarianism and his belief in the individual over the collective. Stirner began a critique of Prussian society, stating that all human beings in his society worshipped concepts, like “God, Emperor, Pope, Fatherland” etc. Stirner believed that concepts that claim absolute truths are fraudulent, and they are, the relativity of truth is an example of this. Stirner believed that institutions and concepts held authority over the individual. Stirner stated, and rightly so, that human beings should control the concepts, and not live with concepts controlling them. Stirner’s belief was to have a society that was not corrupted by medieval dogma and petty faith. Here is an extract from Stirner’s work, it is obvious to see how it influenced future anarchists;

In the time of spirits thoughts grew till they overtopped my head, whose offspring they yet were; they hovered about me and convulsed me like fever-phantasies — an awful power. The thoughts had become corporeal on their own account, were ghosts, e. g. God, Emperor, Pope, Fatherland, etc. If I destroy their corporeality, then I take them back into mine, and say: “I alone am corporeal.” And now I take the world as what it is to me, as mine, as my property; I refer all to myself.

Another concept that gave birth to illegalism was individual reclamation, which is basically taking from the rich to feed the poor. To me, this is justifiable as the unjust nature of capitalism promotes the opportunity for individual reclamation. A hungry man should never be punished for stealing bread, and a man who steals money to keep his family going is entirely correct. The hypocritical nature of our so-called ‘Christian’ society, is beyond belief. Christianity is incompatible with capitalism, and those who try to justify their wealth by proclaiming they earned it honestly are wrong, what is honest about one man owning yachts whilst another dies on the street? What is honest about earning a ‘decent’ living working in any corporation that ships off to countries like India, for the workers there to be exploited. No-one would have any wealth if they were without a workforce. This is why individual reclamation is justifiable, and not being a man of any Christian ‘virtues’ I see it even more justifiable. No-one can call themselves an honest follower of Jesus and work in today’s market, as they say, Capitalism is a greedy business. You may have worked honestly for it, but it is not honest. Christianity itself is a farce that I will touch more upon in a later post, the Christian teaching of “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.” is inhumane and disgusting. I admit that inequality is natural, but to say one is ordered to remain in one’s position for life is filthy.

In individual reclamation, Anarchists believe their theft is ethical because of the inequalities that are present in capitalism.

Illegalism was born out of these thoughts, wherein the Anarchists embraced a criminal lifestyle, however they were different as they believed that instead of using individual reclamation as means of justifying oneself against crime against the state, one should not put any moral thought into crime against an unjust institution. Thus crime, for illegalists took the forms of their desires, what they wanted was stolen, all justified by the inequality they faced, their contempt for ‘morally upstanding’ institutions ruled morals out. Illegalism was born out of direct action, assaulting the state and the upkeepers of it, where it hurt, their pockets.

I have always had a complete love for rebels, outsiders and the under-dogs. The affirmation of the Bonnot Gang’s deeds is truly heroic. Their belief in their own right to commit crime, beautiful. However, like most anarchist theories, detrimental for civilians and I believe that Anarchist’s justification for murder and extreme violence is weak, however, I feel attracted to it, their methods seem grotesquely romantic. I will touch more upon this when I write on Stalin in his youth.

Now for the facts: The Bonnot Gang was originally formed by hardcore anarchists, but it’s illegalist activities brought them into contact with non-anarchist criminals. The Bonnot Gang are credited with the first use of the Getaway Car. Their first robbery was at the Société Générale bank in Paris on 21st December 1911. The Bonnot gang made off with 5,126 francs, the rest of it was composed of securities. Their bank-robbing skills were later copied by American Outlaws like John Dillinger and Baby-Face Nelson.

    • On the 28th December 1911 the gang broke into a gun shop in Paris, stealing numerous rifles and Mausers.
    • On January 2nd 1912 they stormed the house of wealthy businessman M. Moreau, shooting him dead and making off with 30,000 francs.
    • As cars were not common they stole from wealthy garages and around January/February 1912 they shot dead two policemen in Belgium who tried to apprehend them.
    • The gang’s non-elected leader, Jules Bonnot gave the gang its name after he publicly appeared outside a daily newspaper armed with his boot heel swagger and a loaded Mauser declaring that if the police were too afraid to find them, they would find the police.
    • On March 25th 1912 they stole an expensive car, shooting the driver in the head and then driving it to a local branch of the Société Générale, where they shot the three cashiers who refused to hand over money. What is often left out here is the speech given by the gang’s (official to the gang, but not to the media) leader, Octave Garnier, who declared that the money would go to funding the poor and the rich had no right to their “expensive food, fine wines and luxury cigars” when most, decent working French men were “grinding their bones upon the cogs of industry, and dying of hunger, malnutrition and tuberculosis” whilst the rich sat comfortable in their town houses. The gang again made off by car.
    • The Société Générale promised a reward of 100,000 Francs for information that would lead to arrests. On April 24 1912, three policeman surprised Bonnot in the apartment of a suspected fence. The officers opened fire, but the elusive Bonnot avoided their barrage of fire and dived out a window, popping back to fire rapidly, killing one policeman and wounding another, then fleeing over the rooftops. Part of the 100,000 Francs reward was later given to the widow of the dead policeman.
    • On April 28, police tracked Bonnot to a house in the Paris suburbs. They besieged the place with 500 armed policemen, soldiers, firemen, military engineers and private gun-owners. By noon, after intense sporadic fire from both sides, Paris Police Chief Lépines sent three policemen to put a dynamite charge under the house. The explosion demolished the front of the building. Armed with three Browning’s and a Bayard pistol, Bonnot succeeded in wounding three police officers. However, the explosion knocked Bonnot of his feet, he then crawled under a mattress. When the police entered Bonnot was shot ten times in the upper body, Police Chief Lépines shot him in the head.

Bonnot, however was the least violent of the gang, known for being elusive and an excellent driver, he was known as “Le Bourgeois” amongst fellow anarchists. Bonnot played cat-and-mouse games and enjoyed outwitting the police, who according to Bonnot were “the enforcers of inequality and suppressors of individual freedom, they terrorize the working communities and most are as morally dubious as I am!”

The gang’s leader Octave Garnier suffered a similar fate, on May 14, 1912, Garnier and Rene Valet were cornered by the police in a Parisian suburb. Armed with Mausers and browning pistols they managed to hold off 50 detectives, hordes of police officers and a large number of Republican Guards and Zouaves for 6 hours. The building was then dynamited and Garnier was knocked unconscious by the blast and then executed. His last will and testament, found on his corpse read, “It’s for all these reasons that I rebelled, it’s because I didn’t want to live this life of present-day society, because I didn’t want to wait and maybe die before I’d lived, that I defended myself against the oppressors with all the means at my disposal.”

Perhaps it is just me, but I find these young men rather romantic, as I said before, in a grotesque way. However one must remember that life is never as clean as we ‘moral entrepreneurs’ want, or believe it to be. I believe the rebellion of the Bonnot Gang to be heroic in its own unique way. I believe their tactics to be wrong, but their vision, dreams and the sense of righteousness embodies the mind. However, we have to note that yes, their fight was an illegal one, hence they were illegalists, but the question here is; who makes the rules? Who benefits from them? Maybe the Bonnot Gang are too strong an example, too repulsive to us, timid modern men and women of equality and humane principles.

I conclude that it is the rebels nature, not to be understood, to be sidelined, treated as a ‘bad apple’. The message is, we must always question, who makes the laws? Who benefits from them? Why are they there? Do they perhaps disguise illegality? To put it to you plainly, my dear friends, if a man grows rich of another mans labour, and not rewarded for his labour, but rather sidelined. Is this just? Take for example, the average worker in Lille, in France in the mid-nineteenth century had a life-expectancy of 32. The inequalities may be less nowadays, but considering this, were the Bonnot Gang really ‘bad apples’? To cut the shit, I conclude, that there is no good, no evil, no distinct groups. As the two are so entwined, but we are taught they are separate. The Bourgoisie kept all the money from the poor and the law was against bank robbery, as it may cause harm. Here we have a wrong and a right. The Bonnot Gang murdered to free the banks of bourgeoisie control, to liberate the people of poverty, (as well as satisfying personal desires to rebel), here again we have a wrong, and a right.