They didn’t have a name for themselves. They were “illegalists,” a species of individualist anarchism roundly ignored by today’s anarchists. They met through association with the magazine l’Anarchie (1905 – 1914). l’Anarchie introduced them to illegalism, the notion that living free was not a reward for successful revolutionaries, but a prize that was available to every individual who merely reached out his or her hand (filled with multiple rounds of convincing arguments, of course). From the January 1909 issue of l’Anarchie:
Before judging illegal roles, it is first necessary to define what is legality. What is legality? This is what the law allows. What is illegality? This is what the law defends. So the legal man is the one who respects the law or, at least, observes it. The illegal man is the one who misunderstands and breaks the law. These are clear, simple, absolute, general definitions. By virtue of these definitions, can we say that the anarchist must always respect and observe the law and remain legal? It would be absurd.
In that same issue…
When Stirner, in The Unique and His Property, vehemently asserted individual uniqueness, the affirmation appeared (even to the most advanced) as absurd as it was paradoxical. But it remained a problem. And this problem is for each one of us, according to his education, his condition and his temperament. For each of us, there is indeed only one real individual in the universe, of which (so to speak) he is the center of it. You are it for you; I am for myself. Each one of us has in himself instincts, needs, passions, intelligence and faculties of his own, and he uses what surrounds him for his preservation and development.
Stirner, in his reactionary passion against the State, Law, Morality and the modern theories of Human Society (who have constantly absorbed and still absorb the individual) opposes them with the unique individual, exalting him. He urges the unique individual to deny them and to consider myself unique, until I consider all others as animal and vegetables which I destroy for my existence.
The group was founded by Octave Garnier (1889 – 1912), a thief and a counterfeiter. Garnier’s peers included René Valet (1890 – 1912), and Jules Bonnot (1876 – 1912)
In 1911 the gang robbed a bank messenger and fled in a stolen limousine. They were the first to use military-grade weapons in a criminal act, and the first to use a getaway car. Newspapers sold copy by playing up the science fiction terror of a criminal gang that were the mechanical masters of the police. Bonnot showed up (well armed) in the office of the Le Petit Parisien to convey his personal displeasure with the attention, after which the group was known as La Bande à Bonnot, The Bonnot Gang.
The Bonnot Gang robbed a gun shop, robbed and murdered a Parisian socialite and his maid, shot several policemen, killed bank clerks during additional robberies and more. Without a friend in or out of power, the gang disbanded in 1912 and fled to safe houses.
Garnier and Valet held off nearly seven hundred police and soldiers when their safe house was surrounded in 1912. The authorities resorted to dynamite to stun the criminals, then shot them execution-style in the temple. Garnier left a suicide note, reading in part:
It’s for all these reasons that I rebelled, it’s because I didn’t want to live this life of present-day society, because I didn’t want to wait and maybe die before I’d lived, that I defended myself against the oppressors with all the means at my disposal…
Bonnot was also routed with dynamite. Partially trapped under rubble, he was shot ten times in a deliberately non-fatal fashion. An eleventh shot to the head killed him, the mercy that prevented the mob around his safe house from lynching him.
Victor Serge (1890 – 1947) had known several of La Bande à Bonnot. In his posthumous Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) he wrote:
A positive wave of violence and despair began to grow. The outlaw anarchists shot at the police and blew out their own brains. Others, overpowered before they could fire the last bullet into their own heads, went off sneering to the guillotine. [I] recognized, in the various newspaper reports, faces I had met or known; I saw the whole of the movement founded by Libertad dragged into the scum of society by a kind of madness; and nobody could do anything about it, least of all myself. The theoreticians, terrified, headed for cover. It was like a collective suicide.