Since the election of Donald Trump and the protests that took place during his inauguration, anarchism has become a household name. While many people still see anarchists as just young punks in black, running around breaking windows, they real history of the political theory is much more vast. Its vastness is good, but it is also bad. Anarchists throughout Europe have shaped the world we live in today. Others, driven by desperation reigned terror on their communities.
The more violent, desperate tales are often overlooked. That's what makes Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Epoque Paris (Nation Books, Oct. 3, 2017), the new book by John Merriman, the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University so timely and refreshing. This is not a fictional tale of the 1980's punk rock scene anarchists fighting against "the man," it is instead the true story of Jules Bonnot and the Bonnot Gang who violently fought against inequality in Paris in 1911 and 1912.
While today's anarchists are using much different and broader tactics, understanding the history of such a violent movement is important. We learn from the past, the good and bad.
Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits reads like a novel, so it flows from page to page, but what makes the book so fascinating is that it's true. The true crime feel keeps the book engaging and suspenseful, and the moral underlying in the story, wealth inequality, rings true today.
Merriman's book is dark and fast. You can feel the atmosphere of the era and his writing pulls you into the scene, leaving you with an understanding of why the Bonnot Gang acted out of desperation for them, what felt like a necessity. This is the kind of book you pick up and can't put down and then spend weeks after convincing your friends and co-workers to read it so you can talk about it.
More importantly, the story itself seems timeless. Wealth and inequality continue to be issues that dominate our society. The working-class, the impoverished are often times desperate for solutions and they are overlooked. They feel powerless when surrounded by such wealthy and powerful elites. They can't look to their government for help as the ruling class often controls them as well.
As you read and wonder what could drive these "bandits" to such actions, you begin to reflect on the world today and the puzzle pieces fall into line.
These are not the anarchists of today and for good reason. In fact, it’s arguable that the Bonnot Gang are not the anarchists of their time either. However, today’s anarchists will find the story easy to relate to, even if they disagree with the actions of the gang.
Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits is not only enjoyable to read, it becomes important. It is a warning to the elite about the shape of things to come if they continue to put their boots on the throats of the worker. It is also a reminder to modern-day anarchists how history remembers such actions and tells a story of failure to its own degree. Those fighting wealth inequality and injustice must look to the past, this will help ensure their success in the future. Otherwise, they will be destined to make the same mistakes.
In the end, Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits is a must-read for fans of history and true crime alike. It grips the reader and pulls you into a tale so wonderful you almost can't believe it's true.