Bonnot Gang, The: The Story of the French Illegalists By Richard Parry

The Bonnot Gang was a group—and “group” was a tricky word for these neo-anarchists—of illegalists best known as the first robbers to use a car as the main part of a getaway. They operated in early twentieth-century Paris. Inside that single city, one could have seen grandeur on a level of old-money Boston just a few miles (if that) from poverty that, though urban, was comparable to the most struggling areas of Appalachia. (I’m curious to learn how comparable to the tuberclerotic alleys of that Paris are with the current Muslim areas in and around modern Paris.)

An illegalist is someone for whom breaking the law is its own ideology. While such an ideology doesn’t seem completely unreasonable in this particular historical context, most of the illegalists and anarchists in this book make you think not of ground-level activists so much as Ayn Rand-revering putzes. Their economic circumstances vanish from the reader’s mind as they live their lives according to “the unbridled I,” as their favored philosopher Max Stirner phrased it. Which isn’t to say that their gradient-varied philosophies—along with their in-fighting—doesn’t make for compelling reading.

And for devoted readers of labor history, especially American readers under-read in European history, The Bonnot Gang offers a fascinating summary of the many Parisian strikes and riots of this post-Communard, pre-WWI era. A few of the paragraphs describe events of which I’d eagerly have read full chapters.

But this 254-page book has, by the author’s count, nineteen principal characters, most of whom this reader had a too-difficult time distinguishing from one another. Once the book focuses on the police manhunt for the robbers, it becomes historical reportage, and if you’ve been unable to keep track of the characters before this point, there’s no chance you will afterwards.

Originally published in 1987, the book is in its second edition. –Jim Woster (PM Press, pmpress.org)