more Séverine by Rodin-1893-mask

While the soldiers were shooting innocent demonstrators in Fourmies on May Day 1891, a group of anarchists marching through the streets of Clichy, a working-class suburb of Paris, also came into conflict with the police. Although shots were fired on both sides, no one was injured. However, three of the demonstrators were arrested. After being “questioned” at the police station they had to be transferred to a hospital before appearing before a judge—the police denied any knowledge of how their wounds had been inflicted. Two of the prisoners were given five and three years hard labor and the third was acquitted. The anarchists were in an uproar over the harsh punishment but almost a year passed before they tried to avenge the “Clichy Martyrs.” Then a wave of anarchist attacks swept over Paris.

On March 11 1892 a bomb exploded at 136 Boulevard Saint Germain in the house where two judges were living, one of whom was the presiding judge of the Clichy trial. Four days later another bomb went off at the Lobau barracks, followed by a third on March 27 at the residence of the prosecutor in the Clichy case. A man by the name of Ravachol was arrested after the third explosion, but the fuse had been lit on both sides. Thus began the Anarchist Terror of 1892-94. The militant anarchists were more driven than ever to destroy the symbols of bourgeois order: the justice system and the military. Out of the rhetoric of propaganda by word, dynamite started talking through propaganda by deed to which the government responded in turn with ever more ruthless laws and practices. The clash culminated in the assassination of President Carnot.

Illegalism had been a hotbed of contention since Clément Duval’s trial in 1887[1], but it was not the first time that propaganda by deed caused a rift in revolutionary currents. As we know, Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Misery in 1846 used the epigraph destruam et aedicabo, I will destroy and I will build, meaning that every social constraint must be torn down in order to establish social harmony. In 1873 Mikhail Bakunin bid farewell by saying, “If ideas alone could save the world, I challenge anyone to invent a new one. The time for ideas is over. It is time now for deeds and action.” Then at the International Congress in London in 1881, the militant voices voted to back up their talk by studying and using modern scientific discoveries for their cause. This was the point where the anarchists separated from the socialists. It was this joining of science and politics, of technology and social philosophy that was characteristic of anarchy, but the rather violent eruption of bombs in the early 1890s stained the idea of anarchism for generations to come.

For the anarchists, on the other hand, in their competition with Nobel to create a powerful explosive like nitroglycerine, as a means to political ends, chemistry became a kind of alchemy: chemical transformation for social transformation, explosion for revolution. But these experiments lasted only a short time at the turn of the century. Very soon, at least in France, the calls for dynamite would change into calls for general strikes, “propaganda by deed” would change into “direct action” and the individualists would be eclipsed by the syndicalists. The explosions of 1892 would become legend and Ravachol was the hero.

Ravachol[2] grew up poor, supporting his fatherless family, and remained poor. He worked and struggled and fanned the fires of his revolt. After first turning to counterfeiting he soon committed more serious crimes In May 1891 he heard that a Countess of Rochetaillée had died and been buried with her jewels. Ravachol took the opportunity to expropriate the riches from the grave, but apparently came up empty. Later he heard about the Hermit, an old man living alone in the hills with a hoard of money. Ravachol killed and robbed him. Unfortunately he and his companion were arrested, but they somehow managed to escape.

On the run and more determined than ever, Ravachol decided to avenge the Clichy victims. First he plotted with some partners to steal dynamite. One of his accomplices was a young man of eighteen named Simon, called “Biscuit”. The two of them staked out the house of the judge and on March 11 1892 planted the bomb on the third floor. The property damage was substantial, but no one was injured.

Then on the eve of the anniversary of the Paris Commune, March 15 1892, there was an explosion at the Lobau barracks. This, however, was not the work of Ravachol, but of Théodule Meunier. Again no loss of life, but the government introduced a bill that would demand capital punishment for such crimes. This did not discourage Ravachol. On March 27 he carried a more powerful bomb to the house of the public prosecutor. Besides the even greater property damage, six people were injured this time.

Paris was seized by fear and panic. Despite the bloody battles it had seen in recent war and the growing number of poor dying in the streets, it was these benign but direct attacks that made the government tremble and the bourgeoisie stand aghast with horror, as if the cost of property damage was more valuable than human lives. One discontent worker had brought Paris to her knees.

After the last explosion, Ravachol went to lunch at the restaurant of Monsieur Véry on Boulevard Magenta. When speaking to the waiter, Lhérot, he boasted of his crimes in no uncertain terms while trying to propagandize him. Lhérot informed the police immediately and they arrested Ravachol with a number of friends.

Ravachol was praised in the anarchist press. Emile Pouget in Le Père Peinard, Jean Grave in La Révolte and Zo d’Axa in L’En-Dehors along with the likes of Sébastien Faure, Octave Mirbeau and Bernard Lazare, to one extent or another, supported and justified his militant actions. Some of these outspoken supporters who saw a general revolt of the poor on the horizon went to jail for expressing their opinions; others would later change their opinions when faced with more serious consequences of anarchist strikes. But no one could sit idly by and not voice an opinion.

The authorities were worried about more attacks, but they did not address any of the issues that were at stake. Séverine responded by saying that in 1789 they cut off heads, so it was only natural that the people would start blowing up the bourgeoisie. But, “Come on, they only blow up once!” And whose turn will it be tomorrow?

The more serious consequences followed quickly when Ravachol’s trial opened. Théodule Meunier took revenge on Véry’s restaurant by planting a bomb that killed two people, including the owner. Thus the anarchists could talk about “Verification.” But the explosion also wounded a little girl, which pulled the public’s heartstrings. Séverine had a dilemma with these fatalities.   Who was really responsible? Did his supporters in the press now have blood on their hands? How deeply were they entangled in the struggle? And how deep did they want to go? As with Duval, however, she looked beyond the mere act and addressed the real causes: the social injustices that pushed people into the pit of despair. As long as the exploitation continued, the violence would never stop.

In the trial, only Ravachol and young Simon were found guilty of the bombs and thus sentenced to hard labor for life. However, as result of the investigation, Ravachol was sent off to answer for his crimes committed in other parts of France. When he was sentenced to death for murder, he cried, “Vive l’Anarchie!” He refused to appeal, refused to ask for a reprieve and refused the priest who was sent on execution day. He was publicly guillotined on July 11 1892 in Montbrison.

He would become a martyr, a cult figure, a thing of legend over time. But immediately, perhaps the most surprising response was how quickly things went back to normal, how easily people forgot. No changes. Case closed. Move on. People could breathe more easily now because Ravachol was gone. What they did not know was that the threat of dynamite was just beginning.


Next:  De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te

[1] See 4-Propaganda by Deed.

[2] His real name was François Auguste Koenigstein—he used his mother’s name.


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