Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits by John Merriman

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Strong writing, a fascinating story—a crackling good ride

When banditry becomes a rational choice, a story as relevant today as it was a century ago

Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree That Gripped Belle Epoque Paris by John Merriman is a fascinating, rigorously researched and exquisitely detailed book about the Bonnot gang, a group of professed anarchists who — enraged by the poverty and mistreatment of the working class in Paris — went on a headline-grabbing rampage that stymied law enforcement, rattled politicians and stunned the elites.

Belle époque refers to Europe’s relatively settled, stable era between the late 1800s and the beginning of WWI (1914), a period marked by cultural, technological and artistic advances. That was far, far from the case for the average working class person — especially in fin de siècle (end of the century) Paris. Jobs were scarce and being quickly displaced by automation, the pay and conditions were horrendous, there were no guarantees of safety or security — one could be fired for anything and at a moment’s notice, and women, at least those who could find a job, faced constant harassment. Unemployment was high, people were starving and forced to live in tiny, squalid housing, hygiene was non-existent, tuberculosis was on the rise, children were picking rags to survive, women — girls — were forced into prostitution, and all while the upper classes grew richer and celebrated life in the newly electrified city of lights.

The chasm between the haves and have-nots sent broad and deep socialist and anarchist current flowing through the beleaguered working class. And there were many competing anarchist camps. Some favored transformative anarchy — living the ideals so others could be influenced by the positive behaviors they saw, others favored lighting the fuse to the necessary revolution through “deeds,” such as tossing bombs at politicians, others were more theoretical, hoping to win supporters though intellectual efforts, and still others, like Bonnot, ultimately favored illegal activity, stealing from those who stole from others.

Naturally, anarchism and socialism were considered a major inconvenience by the wealthy elite who had the most to lose if, for example, pay was raised to subsistence levels and jobs were secure, never mind that children were working 12 hour days, infants were starving and teenage girls were turning tricks just a few blocks away from their swanky homes. As a consequence, agitators faced great police scrutiny and bullying and, whenever a strike occurred for, say, one day a week off, the cavalry descended and slashed people with their sabers. What passed for law enforcement was a mechanism to preserve the status quo that favored the wealthy.

Eventually, a group of anarchists led by Bonnot decided enough was enough — they stole a car, a relatively new technology at the time, and a bunch of guns (at the time, the Paris police were not armed), and went on a rampage. They started stealing money from rich people, gunning down bankers and cops, and basically terrorizing Paris and the suburbs, revealing the thin lie overlaying the belle époque mindset.

The book is loosely organized around two key members of the anarchist movement in Paris at the time, the lovers (and briefly husband and wife) Victor and Rirette. He was a passionate theorist who would later become deeply involved in the Russian revolution; she was the editor of the leading anarchist newspaper and would become a friend of Albert Camus.

Victor and Rirette knew Bonnot and all the gang members and, even though they abhorred the violence, they — and all anarchists — believed maintaining the unity of anarchism in the face of the system that was crushing everyone, was more important than choosing sides or betraying confidences. They, and others, offered sanctuary when they could, and purposefully asked no questions so they could not incriminate any other anarchist. And they, and hundreds of others, were caught up in the dragnet and sent to prison even though they had done nothing wrong.

Merriman is a strong writer, and this is a fascinating story, so it makes for a crackling good ride, like a French Bonnie and Clyde (only without the Bonnie, because the Bonnot gang was all men), with intrigues and murder and narrow escapes and betrayals and blood soaked shootouts. In fact, researching the crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde for our own series of what-if novels led me to this book. The underlying economic condition of America in the 1920s and 30s was very similar to Paris in 1910, and as we saw there and here, misery leads to hopelessness, and hopelessness — at least for some — leads inexorably to violence.

It’s a little disheartening to learn how bad things were, how wide the wealth gap was, and then read the same tired sense of shock and outrage from those in charge when violence ensues that we hear today. As if there’s a great mystery to why those oppressed by the economic system lash out. The hopeful words of Victor, who — like most of the anarchists of his day — believed in a society in which everyone should be lifted up by the fruits of labor, still ring true today, more than a 100 years later.

“Victor insisted that the anarchist had to ‘resist and take action continually.’ The masses were blocked by ‘the habit of believing, the habit of obeying, the habit of being guided.’ Laws were powerless to transform society. The ‘parliamentary illusion’ simply deluded people. From the individualist perspective, ‘Bestial violence, hatred, the sheep-like mentality of [political] leaders, the gullibility of the masses — here is what must be annihilated in order to transform society … without the renovation of mankind, there is no salvation!’ The basis of anarchist morality could be found ‘in our very lives. Because it is life that inspires insubordination.’”

Victor and Rirette, like most of the anarchists of the era, did not favor violence against individuals, but they understood how anger and hopelessness could engender the urge to lash out. And they clearly saw through the lie of an economic system that promises so much and yet dooms so many to a life of despair and hopelessness. That feels as relevant today as it was a century ago in belle époque Paris.