Friday, 28 October 2016

The Illegalists:Anarchism, Banditry and Automobiles

A while back I backed a project on kickstarter. The project was about getting a comic book made about an interesting chapter in French history, 1911-12 when the headlines of all the major French newspapers were dominated by lurid tales of a gang of Anarchistic bandits striking fear into the hearts of the wealthy  and humiliating the police. Dubbed the Bonnot Gang after one of their more prominent members Jules Bonnot the mixed group would raid jewelry stores, banks, armouries and mansions, and one of the first to use the automobile as a getaway car.

Jules and his mates have since become a part of French folklore, a sort of 20th century Robin Hood with his band of merry men. The truth is bit more complex and a lot more bloodier of course. But I was intrigued and the sample sketches provided by the artist Attila Futaki looked great so I stumped up some money and hoped for the best. The book made its goals and earlier this year was published, and I received my copy a few months ago. I've read it a few times and really like it.

The book isn't an in depth look at the Bonnot gang, or French  Anarchism at the time or the concept of Illegalism, it also takes quite a few liberties with the story, though the historical account of what happened with the group and the police. One version of Bonnot's end not used in the book involves a brawl between the police and the army over perceived lack of support in the operation. A lot of accounts by members, supporters and opponents are mutually contradictory too, so I don't really blame the writer for going in a streamlined direction.

This book by Richard Parry* goes into extensive detail into the Bonnot Gang and the author goes to great lengths to make the reader aware of how hard it is to get completely accurate information on anything about the Gang.

Here, the question of 'historical truth' rears its ugly head: some of
the story remains very obscure for several reasons. To begin with, none
of the surviving participants admitted their guilt, at least until after the
end of the subsequent mass trial. It was part of the anarchist code never
to admit to anything or give information to the authorities. Equally, it

was almost a duty to help other comrades in need, and if this meant
perjury to save them from bourgeois justice, then so be it. Hence the
difficulty in knowing who was telling 'the truth'. Those who afterwards
wrote short 'memoirs' often glamorized or ridiculed persons or events,
partly to satisfy their own egos and partly at the behest of gutter-press
In the trial itself there were over 200 witnesses, mainly anarchists for
the defence, and presumably law-abiding citizens for the prosecution.
Much evidence from the latter was contradictory. While most were
probably telling the truth as far as they could remember, others had
told an inaccurate version so many times that either they believed it
themselves, or, under police pressure, they found it too late and too

embarrassing to withdraw it. A few were certainly motivated either by
private, or a sense of social, revenge.
But the changes made are such that many parts of the story are completely fictive, Jules Bonnot is a hardworking family man who wants to keep his head down and provide for his wife and son, and is practically pushed into criminality and rebellion. The real Jules Bonnot while caring deeply for his son at least (he fought hard for custody, even crossing the border to Switzerland) was already an experienced thief and had already been familiar with Anarchism and even met and worked with some of the gang that appear in the comic later. His love interest Judith while real was not a prostitute, though she was married. Palatano was a close associate of Bonnot but their parting of the ways was very different. Its possible that Bonnot may have murdered him, or Bonnot accidentally shot him in the head, we'll never know for sure.

Basically what I'm trying to say is don't use this comic book as a source on a school assignment, or a research project. Its like Blade Runner and Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the characters have the same names and the setting is correct but both have diverged too far and rarely meet in the middle.

On the other hand, the book does do a very good job of showing instead of telling. We don't get any expository lectures on the ideology of illegalism and reappropriation, but we do see it in action with the heists by the group being motivated mainly by the concept. And the author put in a few comments by the gang to help make this clear.  And throughout there's a not so subtle tone of individualistic defiance and a few introspective passages about society and the prospects for building a better world. So it isn't devoid of political content its just made to work with the story and leaves a lot to the readers imagination.
We also spend time with Dubois and his Anarchist workmates who are trying to build a revolutionary union, and while we don't get a page and a half tract about the importance of anarcho-syndicalism (sadly) we do see the opposition they face, the importance of solidarity and being ready and willing to meet violence with violence and how fearful the capitalists and police are of such a strategy.

In this hostile atmosphere the police and secret services were used aggressively to attack demonstrations and break picket lines. In 1891 twelve workers died in clashes with the police at Fourmies, in 1900 strikers were shot dead at Chalon-sur-Saone (on the orders of the France's first socialist- minister Alexandre Millerrand), three separate strikes and demonstrations ended in murder in 1907 and in 1908 the deaths of two striking quarrymen at Draveil were followed days later by the murder of six construction workers protesting in solidarity. The Interior Ministry had a dedicated 'political brigade' responsible directly to the minister and agent provocateurs and spies infested the CGT. When protest could not be contained by aggressive union-busting employers or the machinations of the security services, the government would typically turn to the army. When more than 200,000 workers walked out in strikes for an 8 hour day on May 1st 1906, the government brought 50,000 troops to the capital and arrested 700 strike leaders. On other occasions they used conscription as a weapon against workers, calling-up striking railmen to force them back to work in 1910 on pain of execution, jailing 200 strike leaders.
They also mention the Anarchist press and name L'Anarchie newspaper, but aside from mentioning police interference and suspicion, it amounts to a cameo.

The main educational strength of the comic is its communicating the hypocrisy and brutality of life in the Third French Republic for workers. The police are shown to be brutal in dealing with the poor, strikes are repressed by armed force, union meetings are raided and participants but in jail for weeks, Devil's Island a penal colony where many reformers and militants were exiled for advocating strike action is named several times as a potential punishment for any crime, be it armed robbery or advocating a pay rise. We also see the police execute by guillotine an innocent man.

Business is also depicted as being callous and willing to support if not push the police and army to keep taking a hardline against the unions and workplace agitators and Anarchist newspapers.

Bonnot's personal plight though romanticised is shown to be driven by a desire for payback, and a strong will to get revenge on the society that has made life hell for him and his friends. As a story its very interesting, a romantic tale of rebellion against all the odds and learning to live in those brief moments of calm during the struggle.

Its a bit thin on factual information or criticism,  but it is a comic book, and as an introduction to Bonnot (the myth of Jules Bonnot), early 20th century France and Anarchism as a political force I think it does its job well. I hope the graphic novel will spark some interest in readers to go further, but I'm happy this project got off the ground and wish its creators, Futaki, Pierce and Vogel well in their future works.

* Richard Parry is listed under the special thanks credit so the authors of the graphic novel were aware of his work.

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