Sydney Libertarianism. Kenneth Maddock


Source: Broadsheet 60-61, June-July 1970;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

Illegalism is one of the lesser-known branches of anarchism. Some anarchists suspect the motives of the illegalists; some radicals of other persuasions use them to discredit anarchists generally. Even radicals who do not tar all anarchists with the illegalist brush, seem reluctant to take illegalism at face value. Hence Max Nomad’s debunking comment that “some people seem to need an ideological cloak for their acquisitive propensities.”[1]

I am not interested in defending or ‘discrediting the illegalists. I am interested in them as an anarchist manifestation. In acting as they do, they are developing anarchist ideas in particular social circumstances. The same may be said of syndicalists, Sydney libertarians, members of communes and adherents of other branches of anarchism. I propose to raise three questions;, (i) what is illegalism?; (ii) is there an anarchist cause for illegalism?; and (iii) is illegalism viable?


Illegalism is a fusion into a way of life of anarchist critique and illegal activity such that the critique appears to justify the activity and the activity appears to put into practice the critique. An illegalist is thus to be distinguished from an anarchist who happens to commit crimes, and from a criminal who happens to hold anarchist opinions. It follows, I think, that the ideal illegalist would take some trouble to stress the opinions that justify his crimes. He would want it, to be known that they are the acts of an anarchist.

The quality of this way of life can best be brought out by considering some of its practitioners. I shall start with the French illegalist E. Bertran.

Bertran has published .an account of his life[2], in which he gives “the police and life record of L.A.R. otherwise E. Bertran.” His record reads;

“Born in Paris 1878. 1895, Paris; 3 months imprisonment as a result of first contact with police as an anarchist. 1897, Brussels; 18 months for contempt of laws and inciting revolt. 1900, London: 9 months hard labour for counterfeiting. 1901, Paris: 5 years reclusion for counterfeiting. 1905, Bristol (England); 7 years penal servitude served in Dartmoor. 1912, Paris; 8 years forced labour for counterfeiting. Deported for life to French Guyana. Escaped from there in 1920. A deserter from-the French Army, into which he had been conscripted, L.A.R. was expelled and remained an outlaw all his life, being deported from Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Venezuela. ‘. Using assumed names and false documents, he has lived for 20 years respectively in English, Spanish and Italian speaking, countries, and 30 years in French, speaking countries. Amen!”

Bertran comments :upon ‘his life: “I am not at all disposed or prepared to give any advice tending to encourage people to adopt a criminal career, nor to represent wrongdoing as an admirable or admissible business to follow. This is certainly not my intention or desire as I have been a criminal and paid dearly for it. What I am after is to see things clearly and so arrive at a fit and proper conclusion. Besides, defending crime .would be both foolish and childish.”

So much for the man’s illegal activities, and his unproselytizing, unsentimental view of them. What are his ideas?

Bertran read Max Stirner in 1898, when he was 20 years old. He found that Stirner allowed him “to reason logically and safely.” One conclusion at which he arrived was that he had “a right to anything within his reach.” This follows, Bertran thinks, from “the Stirnerian slogan”: “only two things in existence – me on one side and the-world on the other ... the: world is mine if I am able to appropriate, it.” Another conclusion is “that I have every, right, to do as I please – that ,I have the right to cut your throat, for instance.”

Bertran recognizes that in drawing such conclusions he may be suspected of exaggeration, and that he runs the risk of losing sympathy. He defends himself by pointing to the animal world where nature affords the example of creatures eating and destroying one another. “The criminal,” Bertran says, “does not do anything else than what the beasts do and he has as much right to do so as they have.”

Here it might be objected that individuals behave in ways common to their species, whereas, individual men behave in ways that are socially established. . Not only do ways of life: differ from time to time and place to place, but a plurality of ways is found in any one society. Crime is one such way of life, and it is hard to see how it can be justified by appeals to the behaviour characterizing species of animals. The point is tacitly admitted by Bertran when he speaks of “rights”: the right to do as you please, to cut throats, to take anything within your reach, to do as the beasts do. Rights are concomitants of ways of life, and are characteristically., appealed to when ways of life .conflict. Rights are not claimed by animals engaged in eating or destroying one another.

If Bertran wants to invoke nature he. might put himself on sounder ground by contending that the rules .broken by illegalists are merely rules, for eating, and destroying one’s fellow-creatures, and that illegalists prefer to eat and destroy in their own way. They are like rogue members of a species.

Bertran makes it clear that he rejects, not only dominant ways of life, but the social ambitions of the general run of nonconformists. “I have,” he says, “no social remedy for a pseudo-universal suffering, nor a solution to any social problem Indeed, I may say that for me there is no standing social problem, any more than there is for bees or termites.'’ It is not surprising, therefore, that he does not formulate alternatives to present social arrangements. Here he parts company with anarchists like Kropotkin and Malatesta who might agree that present arrangements are merely ways of regulating the eating and destroying of men, but who hold that such arrangements can be revolutionized and that societies can be created in which men will be able to express their natures while living in harmony with one another. Bertran would, no doubt, maintain that men cannot live in harmony while expressing their natures.

I suspect that he would agree with a younger individualist, Jean-Pierre Schweitzer. Schweitzer quotes the dictum of Terence that “Nothing human is alien to me.” Schweitzer comments that the human “includes selfishness, cruelty, violence, and other anti-social tendencies against which Judeo-Christianity has been unsuccessfully, campaigning for the past 3,000 years."[3] When modern humanists cite Terence approvingly they do not draw this realistic conclusion. Bertran would, and he would not be in the least interested in joining the Jews and Christians in their campaign.

Another illegalist is the Italian Renzo Novatore, an admirer of Baudelaire, Nietzche and Stirner..His career, though shorter than Bertran’s, is philosophically more interesting, for he was a writer who elaborated his opinions in print while at the height of his illegalist life.

According to Enzo Martucci who has written admiringly on him[4], Novatore put into action his thoughts and feelings by attacking the mangy herd of sheep and shepherds,, thus demonstrating that life can be lived in intensity and not in duration as with the cowardly mass. Martucci describes Novatore as “a poet of the free life. Intolerant of every chain and limitation, he wanted to follow every impulse that rose within him.” Here is an example of his poetry written in the manner of Baudelaire :

“My soul .is a sacrilegious temple in which the bells of sin and ‘crime, voluptuous and perverse, loudly ring out revolt and despair.” He expresses in prose his view of humanity:

“The World “War made man more bestial and plebeian, more trivial and brutal, and he will again march towards. Death without knowing why. How vulgar and idiotic it is to die without knowing why, and not for your own ideals. You must search for your real enemy, fight your own war for your own ideals. You must make your own .revolution.”

This is very un-Stirnerite. Stirner would, say that only a. man dominated by spooks would die for ideals. More in. keeping with Stirnerite egoism is Novatore’s view that men have needs and aspirations that cannot be satisfied without injury to the needs and aspirations of others. Men must either renounce their needs and aspirations, thus becoming slaves, or seek to satisfy them, thus coming into conflict with society.

In what ways did Novatore come into conflict with society? His crimes include theft, filial disobedience, -: homicide and refusal to be conscripted. During the War, Novatore took to the hills in order to keep out of the army. Deserters were amnestied after the War, but Novatore soon became an outlaw again (Martucci does not explain why). On one occasion his home in a village was attacked by fascists intending to murder him. He repulsed them by throwing homemade grenades, but after that had to keep away from the village. He died in a gun-battle in 1922. Martucci describes the circumstances:

“Together with the intrepid illegalist S.P., he was at an inn ... when a. group of Carabinieri arrived disguised as huntsmen. Novatore and S.P. immediately opened fire and the police replied.”

Martucci adds an intriguing detail:

“After his death it was discovered that, together with a few others, he was preparing to strike at society and tear from it that which it denies to the individual.”

During his life, Novatore expounded his ideas in libertarian journals. After his death, his friends collected some of his writings in two volumes, Above Authority and Towards the Creative – Nothing.

Like Bertran, Novatore had no time for the cooperative harmony advocated by some anarchists. He told the Arcola anarcho-communists that he was. with them in destroying the tyranny of existing society, but that he was opposed to their attempts to build anew. His view of anarchism as a declaration of war on society as such; comes out well in this passage:

“Anarchy is not a social form, but a method of individual ion. No society will concede to me more than a limited freedom and a well-being that it grants to each of its members. But I am not content with this and want more, I want all that I have: the power to conquer . .:. Every society seeks to confine me to the august limits of the permitted and prohibited. But I do not acknowledge these limits, for nothing is forbidden and all is permitted to those who have the force and valor.”

“Consequently, anarchy, which is the natural liberty of the individual freed from the odious yoke, of spiritual and mental governors, is not the construction of a new and suffocating society. It is a decisive fight against all societies -Christian, democratic, socialist, communist, etc., etc. Anarchism is the eternal struggle of a small ‘minority of aristocratic outsiders against all the societies which follow one another on the stage of history.”

Novatore’s position has something in common with that of Sydney libertarians, though he develops and expresses his position differently. His psychological theory frankly recognizes the injuriousness to others of the actions to which the individual is moved. Freedom of action includes freedom of cruel and violent action. Novatore’s catholic view of human nature, like Bertran’s and Schweitzer’s, lays the basis for thorough-going moral crticism.

Sydney libertarians would sympathize with Novatore when he declares his permanent opposition, but would criticize his individualistic social theory. With their leaning to egalitarianism and non-violence, they would be out of sympathy with his determination to take whatever he wants and to use force in so doing. Their romantic bias to the proletarian, declasse and lumpen intellectual, would put then out of sympathy with his aristocratic elitism.

If anarchism is, as Novatore maintains, the eternal struggle of a small minority of aristocratic outsiders against all the. societies which follow one another on the stage of history, the question arises of the origin of this small minority. Are. its members nature’s aristocrats, naturally at odds with the rest of their species? Or are they socially produced, owing their opinions and tastes to their experiences in life? If the latter, why should not the institutions that have induced those opinions and tastes be strengthened and broadened in their influences? Novatore may deal with these questions, but unluckily hardly any of his work is available.

It is hard to work out how Novatore would reconcile his anti-society position with his appeal to the aristocratic spirit. The two mix like oil and water. What is this spirit if not something that is supposed to typify the aristocracy (past or present)? The aristocracy is a class occupying a domineering position in a hierarchy of classes. Thus the supremely anti-social and individualistic illegalist is able to explain his eternal outsiders only in terms of a state of mind historically resulting from a definite class within society.

Bertran and Novatore are little known. A celebrated case of illegalism is the Bonnot Gang.[5]

Jules Bonnot was sacked in 1911. He was sitting with one or two others in a Montmartre cafe when the following conversation is said to have occurred:

“Aren’t you all sick and tired of this wretched existence? Here we are, flogging a stolen bicycle here, and pushing a few dud coins there, or even stooping to pick up our ridiculous wages from the foreman, capitalism’ s galley-master, after a long week’s work at the factory – and what do we get out of it? Nothing! You all talk about revolution and illegality, but what do you do about it?”

“What do you expect us to do?” one of them asked sarcastically. “Rob a bank?”

“Precisely,” Bonnot replied.

A gang of 20 or so formed. All were anarchists, some had associated with syndicalists, some were to donate part of their takings to the anarchist cause. A few days before Christmas 1911, the gang made one of the first motor car raids in history, robbing a bank courier of his money bags as he left the bank doors.

Four days later, they raided an armory just as it was closing for the holidays. Early in the New Year, firearms were stolen in a raid on the American Armaments Factory. More attacks were made during February.

Few members of the gang attempted to disguise themselves. Photographs of them were printed in the press. When false statements were made in the newspapers, protesting letters were written. In March, 1912, Gamier wrote to a newspaper with the request that his letter be communicated to the police. In the letter, Gamier addressed himself directly to the police agent Guichard:

“Oh, I know you'll win in the finish all right. You have a formidable arsenal at your disposal, and what have we got? Nothing! We'll be beaten because you're the stronger and we're the weaker, but in the meantime, we hope that You'll have to pay for your victory.

“Looking forward to seeing you – Garnier. “

Most members of the gang were killed or captured during 1912. Twenty three persons were put on trial. Three were executed, four (including Bertran) acquitted, the others (including Victor Serge) imprisoned for varying terms.

The Bonnot Gang became romantically notorious as “les bandits tragiques.” The bourgeois press not only romanticized them, but used them to expose the inefficiency of the police. The anarchist press was generally antagonistic. Anarchists distinguished illegal acts committed in revenge against oppressors and members of oppressing classes from illegal acts committed to enrich the actors. The critics of the Bonnot Gang were not concerned to preach that “crime does not pay.” Their point was that criminal attacks on private property, like the legal defense of private property, were manifestations of a bourgeois attitude.

Bertran, in his reminiscences of the Bonnot Gang[6], says that Bonnot declared war on society. The same could be said of Bertran and Novatore. Their motives seem to have differed from those of some of Bonnot’s companions. Some members of the gang regarded their acts as a way of recovering from the bourgeoisie part of the wealth that it extorted from the workers. Marius Jacob[7], the leader of a gang which accomplished scores of robberies from 1900 on, was similarly motivated. He prided himself on robbing only the unproductive. On one occasion he was burgling a house when he realized it belonged to the writer Pierre Loti. Jacob left the house without taking anything. The Jacob Gang and some members of the Bonnot Gang, were evidently anarchists of a social persuasion. They exerted themselves against “enemies of the people.” There is no reason to believe that Bertran and Novatore would ever have seen illegal acts in

that light. To Bertran, the gang raids would have been human equivalents of mutual eating and destruction amongst animals; to Novatore, they would have been incidents in the permanent, war of aristocratic outsiders against the mangy herd of sheep and shepherds.

Bill Dwyer could, be considered as a local example of an illegalist.

Two. papers have recently been published on him[8], and his activities and. Opinions are too well-known to be recapitulated here.


The illegalists relate their illegal acts to their anarchist opinions. What is to be made of their contention? Is there anything in anarchism to foster illegal activity?

Here we can start by recognizing that anarchism historically is associated with a vision of a free and. equal society, a society in which relations among men will be founded on liberty, equality and fraternity. But what would count as a step towards such a society? There is no agreement or certainty among anarchists in answering that question,, Anarchism, then, bears a vision, but lacks any way of realizing the vision. There is no rational course of action to take if you want to realize the free and equal society, The various developments of anarchism can be understood as responses to this problem. Thus there are propaganda by deed, reformism, propaganda by word, permanent protest, and so on. Illegalism, I would argue, is one; outcome of the tension between a vision of the future and an ignorance of how to realize the vision.

Illegal activity can, of course, be undertaken as a means to an end, as when robberies are accomplished to finance- revolutions, or when somebody like Dwyer sells drugs to finance propaganda by word. It is perhaps doubtful if this is illegalism in the sense in which I am using the term, for the illegal activity is adopted, not as part of a way of life, but as a means to an end. It is a fair presumption that the illegal acts would not be committed if legal means were available. The point is sometimes made against those whose illegal acts are committed as means to an end, that only a fraction of the takings finds its way to the movement’s treasury. Nomad, for example, asserts that:

“Ostensibly the hold-ups were carried out to get money for printing leaflets and for getting guns and explosives for the revolutionary struggle. In reality it was a permanent circle of guns and bombs used for the sake of getting more guns and bombs for further hold-ups and so on ad infinitum, while the leaflets and the other aspects of the movement could wait. In the meantime the heroes had to live, and as they lived dangerously, some of them argued that they were entitled to have a good time before they were hanged.” [9]

Nomad, of course, is an unsympathetic observer. He does not consider the exemplary and symbolic value of hold-ups and of having a good time. Furthermore, the “degeneration” to which he refers would occur only amongst social illegalists. For individualist illegalists, illegal acts were part of a way of life, and were not committed in the hope of bringing about social reconstruction.

The exemplary and symbolic value of illegalism lies in its defiance of the laws of the State. The State and the laws would disappear in the free society of the future, but the future has not yet arrived, and the individualists do not believe that it ever will. Illegalism may not destroy the State and the laws, but in the meantime the illegalist disobeys them and thus breaks free from the relations of authority that other men accept. This is an anarchist justification for illegalism: the illegalist attacks the State or interests, such as private property, that are sanctioned by the State, His acts, being incompatible with respect for the State, have something in common with other varieties of anarchism. Illegalism, then, is an anarchist manifestation, not an anarchist aberration.

Some people would deny this. Bertran is an example. In his reminiscences of the Bonnot Gang, he says that it would be absurd and silly to regard anarchist philosophy as responsible for the crimes committed by Bonnot and his companions. This is a doubtful argument. Bonnot and his companions were anarchists and, so far as ideas inspire actions, it was anarchist ideas that inspired their actions. Bertran himself concedes that the only point of contact between the members of the gang was their anarchism. He remarks also that Bonnot’s doctrine was not new. Before 1900, there were quite a few illegalists claiming to relieve the bourgeoisie of superfluous property. What Bertran is perhaps really getting at is that anarchists are not alone in acting violently. He states that royalists, republicans, socialists, communists, and most Christian sects have committed violence. This is true, but it does not follow that the violence practiced by this or that group, party or sect was not inspired by their ideas. Ways of life are informed by ideas, and violence may be involved in the actions that are thought to be called for by the ideas. The fact that socialists, Christians and others are violent does not mean that when anarchists act violently their violence is unconnected with their anarchism.

There are at least three ways in which anarchism can be understood, as the “cause” of illegalism. One way is that anarchism embodies a tension between an ideal and its realization. Illegalism is a relaxation or satisfaction of the tension. A second way is that the institutions attacked by illegalists would have to disappear before a free society could, be established. The here-and- now struggles of illegalists can easily be seen as doing part of what must be done if anarchist ideals are to be realized. A third way is that anarchist ideas induce a rebellious state of mind in the oppressed, encouraging realistic insights into, and contempt for, the institutions responsible for their oppression. These institutions are those whose disappearance is a necessary condition of-the realization of anarchist ideals. By dissolving the psychology of conformity, anarchism removes the unthinking obedience that is the greatest support of oppressive institutions. The last point was brought out well by Marius Jacob in his declaration to the court that tried him. The prejudice of respect for property, he stated, was the best gendarme for the privileged classes.[10]


The question of the viability of illegalism can be approached in different ways. The least interesting is whether illegalists can “get away with it.” The Bonnot Gang did not last long. Dwyer was short lived, and as the police knew about him they could have broken his scene before they did. But Novatore and the Jacob Gang kept going for several years. Bertran was unrepentant at the age of 92, after becoming an illegalist when he was 20.

Viability may be considered also in relation to the anarchist vision of a future society. Here it would be necessary to distinguish social and individualist exponents. The former would presumably “retire” when anarchy came about. Their view is that illegalism is an adaptation to certain conditions and is thus appropriate in, say, bourgeois society, but inappropriate in a society where producers are not exploited. That is how Jacob saw the matter. He declared to the court that “If I have delivered myself to theft, it was not for gain, for lucre, but for principle, for what is right. I have preferred to conserve my liberty, my independence, my dignity as a man, than to make myself the artisan of the fortune of a master. In cruder terns, without euphemisms, I have preferred robbing to being robbed!"[11]

Some at least of the individualists would want to carry on the struggle no matter what social transformation occurred. They are inspired by that branch of anarchist thought that sees society as such as oppressive and that regards the State and private property merely as particular forms of oppression bound to be replaced by others.

Viability may be considered finally as having to do with the internal relations of illegalist groups. Illegalism would seem to be as liable as other isms to produce internal hierarchies, i.e., to the reproduction within itself of the sheep / shepherd distinction that Novatore denounces in the surrounding society. The scope of the growth of oligarchy would conceivably be reduced by the small size of illegalist groups, the face-to-face relations within them, the spirit of camaraderie that their peculiar existence might be expected to foster, and the brevity to which most of them are doomed. Individuals may certainly remain illegalists over very long periods, but it is hard to imagine groups of illegalists lasting nearly as long as the political parties and trade unions whose oligarchic tendencies have been exposed by writers like Childe and Michels. Even so, the danger of oligarchy is suggested by this passage from Bertran:

“It has even happened .that some such individualist anarchist groups appeared to follow a certain rigorous ideological tendency that appeared authoritarian, even sectarian, but in such a case it may be considered as a mere system of action rendered tactically necessary in a temporary or simple struggle against a possible reaction. Very often such a disciplined attitude has been caused by a need to observe a relative purity with the view of obviating a threatened deviation from a plan of action arising from the group.” [12]

I do not know whether Bertran had illegal acts in mind in writing this tortuous passage, but what he says would surely apply more forcefully where the “plan,” is for illegal action. As for his appeals to purity and tactical necessity, are they not the appeals that are regularly made by authoritarian apologists? The dangers to which illegalists are subject would perhaps exacerbate tendencies to oligarchy – oligarchy for the sake of purity and tactical necessity, of course (at the same time there would be the countervailing forces that were mentioned earlier). Gangs of conventional criminals exhibit hierarchy and obedience, not merely because of the authoritarian personalities of their members, but because of the problem of surviving against the force of the State while holding their own against their rivals in extra-legal enterprise. Thus just as anarchist legalism displays some of the internal features of other kinds of legal organization, anarchist illegalism can be expected to display some of the internal features of other kinds of illegal organization.

What sets the anarchists apart is that their movements carry forward a criticize that on the one hand destroys in theory all hierarchy and obedience, and on the other hand stimulates a spirit of contempt for all authority. The aspiration of the illegalists is to be as uncompromising in the conduct of their lives as they are in their criticism of life.

Kenneth Maddock


1. Max Nomad, Aspects of Revolt (New York: 1959), 215.

2. E. Bertran, “Walking on Air,” Minus One, no. 23 (December, 1968).

3. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, 0 Idios (London: 1966), 3.

p class="information">4. J E. Martucci, “Renzo Novatore,” Minus One, no. 21 (February, 1968).

5. Jean Maitron, Histoire du Mouvement Anarchists en France 1880-1914 (Paris: 1955), 399-412. E.B. Mell, The Truth About the Bonnot Gang, (London, 1968).

6. E. Bertran, “The Bonnot Gang.- A Reminiscence,” Minus One, no.13 (March, 1966).

7. Maitron, op.cit., pp.389-92, 535~38j G. Woodcock, Anarchism, (Harmondsworth, 1963), 296.

8. K. Maddock, “Bill Dwyer’s An Anarchist Illegalist,” Tharunka, (21 April, 1970) J. Murphy, “Bill Dwyer and. LSD,” Broadsheet, No. 59.

9. Nomad, op. cit., 220.

10. Maitron, op. cit., 537.

11. Maitron, op.cit., 538.

12. E. Bertran, “Notes on Individualism,” Minus One, no.18 (May, 1967).