cover of french pulp "true crime" book - the illustration is a fanciful rendering of the bonnot gang's attack on the chantilly bank, yet represents the solution to the world's economic crisis.

Illegalism

…as practised in France

“The community of workers, have they the right to take back all the products of their labour? Yes, a thousand times yes. This re-appropriation is the revolution, without which everything still is to be done. A group of workers, have they the right to a partial re-appropriation of the collective produce? Without a doubt. When the revolution can’t be made in its entirety, it must be made at least to the best of its ability.

“The isolated individual, has he a right to a personal re-appropriation of his part of the collective property? How can it be doubted. The collective property being appropriated by a few, why shouldn’t it be taken back in detail, when it can’t be taken back as a whole? He has the absolute right to take it – to steal…”                           — Elisee Reclus

Anarchism has always been associated with crime and criminal activity. In many countries of the 19th century, belonging to an Anarchist organization, publishing or writing – or even possessing – Anarchist literature was a crime. In most of the countries where Anarchists ideas attracted a substantial following (Italy, France, Germany, Russia and the U.S.), Anarchist were often “blackballed” by the local businessmen, hounded out of their jobs and homes. The unemployed – and unemployable – Anarchists were often forced into a life of crime out of desperation.

This was the intention of the powerful, to keep the workers and peasants in their place and harass, imprison or kill those who dared speak out against their oppression. However, even in the greatest police states ever created, only a fraction of the criminals are ever apprehended. These “professional” criminals inspired many Anarchists not only to engage in criminal activity for their livelihood, but to embrace this role. Seeing themselves as frontline warriors in the battle against Capital, they politicized their activities by robbing symbols of the wealthy (banks, trains, wealthy people’s houses) and then sharing the loot with Anarchist publications, printers, prisoners and comrades in dire need.

Though some great folk-heroes arose from the ranks of the Anarcho-bandits, most lived low-key lives, not ever hinting at their clandestine activities. Indeed, most of the robbers, thieves, assassins and bombers that we know of are well-known because they were caught. Many others were never apprehended, though. After years of activity, they would retire to an asture life and pass their skills, equipment and contacts to the next generation of rebels. These people who embraced crime as part of their political struggle were known as Illegalists. And, though local bandits were national heroes in Italy, the Ukraine and Spain, they actually became part of the overall Anarchist revolutionary movement in France.

In the bitter years following the suppression of the Paris Commune, anarchist and union activity were outlawed. However, in 1880, a general pardon of Communards was issued and thousands of exiled Parisians returned home. Soon, there were hundreds of Anarchist organizations, many with their own publication. They gave themselves names like “the Sword“, “Viper“, “the Terror of La Ciotat“. One paper in particular stands out as a mouthpiece of Illegalism: Pere Peinard.

According to one contemporary, this most scurrilous paper, with the largest working class readership of any Parisian anarchist newspaper at the time,

With no display of philosophy (which is not to say it had none) it played openly upon the appetites, predjudices, and rancours of the proletariate. Without reserve or disguise, it incited to theft, counterfeiting, the repudiation of taxes and rents, killing and arson. It councelled the immediate assassination of deputies, senators, judges, priests and army officers. It advised unemployed working men to take food for themselves and their families wherever it was to be found, to help themselves to shoes at the shoe shop when the spring rains wet their feet, and to overcoats at the clothier’s when the winter winds nipped them. It urged employed working men to put their tyrannical employers out of the way, and to appropriate their factories; farm labourers and vineyard workers to take possession of the farms and vineyards, and turn the landlords and vineyard owners into fertilizing phosphates; miners to seize the mines and to offer picks to shareholders in case they showed a willingness to work like their brother men, otherwise to dump them into the disused shafts; conscripts to emigrate rather than perform their military service, and soldiers to desert or shoot their officers. It glorified poachers and other deliberate breakers of the law. It recounted the exploits of olden-time brigands and outlaws, and exhorted contemporaries to follow their example.” (the above quotes are from the Bonnot Gang by Richard Parry)

Resignation is death. Revolt is life.” from the first issue of l’anarchie

l’anarchie was another Illegalist newspaper, which appeared every Thursday from 4/13/05 until the outbreak of World War One, in 1914. It declared itself against resignation and conformity to the existing state of affairs. It condemned vices (marriage, military service, work, drinking, voting, smoking tobacco and eating meat. It exalted l’endehors, the outsider, and the hors-la-loi, outlaws. Here are some of it’s general beliefs:

SOCIETY:

There were not two opposed classes, bourgeois and proletarian, but only individuals – though these individuals could be either for or against the status quo. The Master and the Slave were mutually dependant, but the Rebel could come from either category, so long as they were ready to rise in revolt against existing society.

UNIONS;

The syndicats were seen as capitalist organizations which defended the workers as workers; thus keeping them in a social role anarchists should aim to destroy. Their role as workers had little to do with their own realization as individuals. The Unions were seen as unwitting tools of capitalism. Their ideal was to live their lives as neither exploited nor exploiter. But how to do that under the existing society? Through the reprise individuelle, the individual taking what he desired from his exploiters.

Clement Duval, a partially disabled veteran of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, spent a year in Prison for stealing from his employer in order to feed his family and buy much-needed medication. Unable to support his family upon his release, he undertook a life of crime. After burgling the mansion of a wealthy Paris socialite, he set it ablaze. Accosted by a policeman outside, he struck the officer down and fled. He was sentenced to death upon his capture, but the sentence was commuted to life at hard labor on Devil’s Island. His words were published in the pages of Revolte: “Theft exists only through the exploitation of man by man…when Society refuses you the right to exist, you must take it…the policeman arrested me in the name of the Law, I struck him in the name of Liberty…

Vittorio Pini, an anarchist shoemaker on the lam from Italy, along with four comrades, netted over 500,000 francs in a series of burglaries. They stole almost exclusively to support hard-up comrades or prisoners and to subsidize the anarchist press in France and Italy.

Alexandre Marius Jacob serves as the model of anarcho-banditry:  from a 13-year-old serving on a pirate ship in the Indian Ocean, he went on to become a well-known manufacturer of explosives at the age of 16. By the time he was twenty, he was successfully robbing the homes and churches of the ruling class. After escaping from prison, he decided that his previous crimes had not been enough, and he formed a criminal gang with some of his anarchist comrades. Calling themselves “les Travaillers de la Nuit” (the Night Workers), they went on to form a vast network of safe-houses, tool co-operatives, fences, so that as many as one-hundred people joined the gang and its satellites. Of course, they helped anarchist causes as much as they helped themselves.

The Bonnot Gang

Prior to the outbreak of World War One, a group of Anarchists decided to form an illegalist group. Dubbed “the Bonnot gang” by French authorities, they were described as the most dangerous criminals of their time. They were the first modern criminal gang of the 20th century and were the originators of several modern urban crimes, including:

  • Carjacking
  • Use of an automobile as an escape vehicle
  • Use of stolen cars in the committing of a crime

They were moderately successful, but a massive effort by the police across France eventually brought about their capture. Though a few of the members were tried and sent to the guillotine or life at hard labor, others chose to go down fighting rather than surrender. See Richard Parry’s book, The Bonnot Gang for a full account of their exploits.

see also:

illegalism and the spanish revolution (1936)

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