I’m in the middle of reading two books at the moment that focus on the Bonnot Gang [or La Bande à Bonnot] at the moment. They were a gang based in Paris in the early part of the 20th century, 1911 – 1912 to be precise and who are famous for their use of the motor car as a getaway vehicle. I’ll get round to writing something about them at some point but I’ve first had to do some thinking about the movement and thinking that inspired them.
One of the arguments that continues to divide the anarchist movement is related to the individualist and the collectivist or social schools of thought.
The individualists, and I’m generalising a number of different philosophies here, tend to elevate the individual and the importance of their freedom of will and action over that of a group, such as commune, religion, ideology,morality etc. and these are all seen as artificial constructs. They also, to an extent, reject the idea of large, organised revolution and instead look to either encourage change through individual acts e.g. attacks on the bourgeoisie and bourgeois institutions or by offering alternative models of behaviour such as lifestyles and business. Lastly, and hence the importance of the ego as described by Max Stirner, the individualists favour the self-interested act and promote the idea of working with others when such collaboration is for the benefit of all participants. Such is the degree of individual freedom that violence against all others to satisfy your personal desires is approved and that even the creation of personal militias to acquire wealth and property through force has been suggested and approved by some individualist thinkers such as Benjamin Tucker and his “right of might”.
Social anarchists tend to see freedom from government and coercion as being found through social equality, the community and through mutual aid.
The Bonnot Gang’s thinking or philosophy was heavily influenced by Stirner’s [in]famous classic The Ego and Its Own [originally published in German as “Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum”]. In this book Stirner declares that ideas and social structures such as concepts of society, religion, ideologies, morality and the like are mere “spooks” or ghosts of the mind or simply delusions. The only thing that really matters is the satisfaction of the individual’s desires and there is no moral or ethical limit to the ways in which this can be done. The only limit to the achievement of one’s wishes is the amount of force that you can bring to the issue when compared to the force that others may wield against you. Stirner asks everyone to regard all property as their own and to feel free to wield power in order to exert control over that property. Property does not include just physical things such as land or furniture or tools or the like but is taken to mean people too. This is not a politicised movement involving such traditional revolutionary ideas as class war and the rise of the proletariat but one in which the satisfaction of the self’s needs and whims is defined as the sole justification for action.
In the late 1800s, as various states sought to violently oppress the people, most notably in the crushing of the Paris Commune, and as widespread poverty and inequality was reinforced during the period of industrialisation and capitalist expansion this was interpreted by many as a war in which the growing bourgeoisie and the establishment sought to maintain power and control over the proletariat. A number of anarchists such as Johann Most and the French anarchists Ravachol, Émile Henry and Auguste Vaillant developed the concept of Propaganda of the Deed. This movement sought to attack the edifices of the establishment and at the same time encourage others to understand and join the revolutionary movement. Marius Jacob and Clément Duval were two of many French anarchists,often organised into gangs, who became involved in theft and burglary from the “parasites” such as the clergy, the bosses and the bourgeoisie in an effort to redistribute wealth [referred to as “la reprise individuelle”] which was justified since the wealth had originally been appropriated from the workers who had laboured to produce such wealth.
The illegalists influenced by Max Stirner’s work did not see any need to justify theft on these ethical grounds. There was no moral system that people should be subservient to and therefore the taking of such things that the individual desired or allowed the individual to achieve their needs was justification enough. This was not a path to revolution for the liberation for all. Indeed, as the quote from Hégot, an illegalist, writing to the anarchist journal Les Temps Nouveaux and quoted by Doug Imrie, shows, there was a general contempt for the people as well as the grand concepts of the time.
“It is idiotic that those who have figured things out are forced to wait for the mass of cretins who are blocking the way to evolve. The herd will always be the herd. So let’s leave it to stagnate and work on our own emancipation ( . . . ) Put your old refrains aside. We have had enough of always sacrificing ourselves for something. The Fatherland, Society and Morality have fallen ( . . . ) That’s fine, but don’t contribute to reviving new entities for us: the Idea, the Revolution, Propaganda, Solidarity; we don’t give a damn. What we want is to live, to have the comforts and well-being we have a right to. What we want to accomplish is the development of our individuality in the full sense of the word, in its entirety. The individual has a right to all possible well-being, and must try to attain it all the time, by any means . . . ”
It is interesting the Hégot uses the idea of having a right to all possible well-being since a right implies having some concept of ethics or morality.
It seems to me that such a system where might is right and where the weakest members of a society, even a society of individuals, is not one in which the ideas of freedom, although such an idea would be denied by Stirner, can grow. If the individual is to accomplish his or her individuality and fulfill ideas of well-being and “potential” then it does not seem that an environment in which constant brutalising and possession of property by the powerful is likely to be conducive to such efforts.
Marius Jacob realised the same thing later in his life and couldn’t see how a struggle based on might, which is inherently unequal, would create anything but an unequal society in which some would suffer and perhaps die.
“Basically, illegalism, considered as an act of revolt, is more a matter of temperament than of doctrine. This is why it cannot have an educational effect on the working masses as a whole. By this, I mean a worthwhile educational effect.”