Ravachol’s Return


A mug shot of Ravachol

My thoughts today after the scandalous acquittal of Mark Duggan’s assassins justified as a lawful killing turned for some reason to Ravachol (with this level of injustice in British society who knows whether ‘little Ravachols’ will not grow up soon) . Ravachol turned up in a quote on Facebook yesterday and in some ways this acted as a kind of echo to a strong family memory. Ravachol is, in a way, a part of my family history. A distant Italian relative (an uncle of my grandfather) was chosen as the one son allowed in his large but poor family to study. The only way he could study was to go to a seminary to become a priest. He was soon expelled from the seminary because he was found reading (and reading about) Ravachol. Ravachol was the kind of extreme version of the bomb-throwing anarchist that many people associate with anarchists. I was always intrigued about my Italian relative (later an orthodox Communist- he lived until the late 50s- and had wanted to go to Moscow for Stalin’s funeral). I’ve always been told the same stories: how he used to ‘torment’ priests from the Christian Democratic Party with his dialectics after the war given his grounding in theology and how they’d run away from him when he tried to debate them; during the fascist biennio he was persecuted by fascists and would hide from them in a hidden room in the apartment- they would come with the caster oil (if anyone has seen Fellini’s Amarcord they’d know what this was like); as a worker on the railways he was also regularly imprisoned even before the advent of fascism whenever the royal train passed through the Ligurian coastline (his anarchist sympathies meant that the authorities suspected him of wanting to throw a bomb into the royal carriages). In short, the tales are a selected few but often repeated. In any case while my aunt would insist that he was expelled from the seminary for reading Marx and Engels, my grandfather (a communist until in the very late years of his life wished that he had remained an anarchist) would insist that it was texts of Ravachol that led him to ruin his families ambitions of becoming a priest. Anyway maybe it is a fact that Ravachol is the kind of archetypal historical figure whose time has, it seems, not ended.

Francois-Claudius Koeningstein (Oct. 14, 1859 — July 11, 1892) was the son of a French mother and a Dutch father and who was abandoned by his father when eight. Growing up poor and forced to work from a young age he became radicalized due to the police repression of demonstrations (including the shooting of some demonstrators).Ravachol, though, decided that counter-terror was the strategy. Terror against the members of the bourgeoisie. He placed bombs in the living quarters of the Advocate General, Bulot, the councillor Benoit who presided over the Assises Court during the Clichy Affair. Informed on by a restaurant employee called Lhérot, Ravachol was captured.
In reprisal, the restaurant where Lhérot worked was bombed the day before Ravachol’s trial.
Ravachol was arrested on 30 March 1892 for his bombings at the Restaurant Véry and he was condemned to prison for life but another trial for supposed other crimes would lead to the death penalty. There was little that remained of his writings and speeches. However, he became celebrated by others in song and in literature as well as by journalists and writers.

Gustave Matthieu, a friend and accomplice of Ravachol, was to write just before Ravachol’s execution:

You can kill him, but you’ll never be able to stifle the voice of the rebels: the little Ravachols will grow up. You can do what you want, but they’ll be more skillful and terrible than their predecessor.

The spirit of Ravachol was set to music in the song La Ravachole, sung to the tune of the song of the French Revolution, La Carmagnole:

The text was translated by Mitch Abidor for the Marxists Internet Archive and goes like this:

In the great city of Paris,
There are well-fed bourgeois,
There are the poor,
Who have an empty stomach:
The former are greedy,
Long live the sound, long live the sound,
The former are greedy,
Long live the sound
Of the explosion!

Let’s dance the Ravachole
Long live the sound, long live the sound
Let’s dance the Ravachole
Of the explosion!

Ah ça ira ça ira ça ira
All the bourgeois will taste the bomb
Ah ça ira ça ira ça ira
We’ll blow up all the bourgeois
We’ll blow them up!

There are sell out magistrates,
There are big-bellied financiers,
There are cops,
But for all these scoundrels,
There’s dynamite,
Long live the sound, long live the sound,
There’s dynamite,
Long live the sound,
Of the explosion!

There are the feeble-minded senators,
There are the rotten deputies,
There are the generals,
Murderers and executioners,
Butchers in uniform,
Long live the sound, long live the sound,
Butchers in uniform,
Long live the sound
Of the explosion!

… … …

Ah, goddamit, it’s time to put an end to this,
We’ve moaned and suffered long enough,
No half-way war,
No more cowardly pity,
Death to the bourgeoisie!
Long live the sound, long live the sound
Death to the bourgeoisie!
Long live the sound
Of the explosion!

Ravachol’s Principles have been published in the same site with the same translator.
Maybe the most interest document is his Forbidden Speech – a speech he tried to give at his trial but apparently he was cut off after a few words. Again found here

Here are major parts of it:

If I speak, it’s not to defend myself for the acts of which I’m accused, for it is society alone which is responsible, since by its organization it sets man in a continual struggle of one against the other. In fact, don’t we today see, in all classes and all positions, people who desire, I won’t say the death, because that doesn’t sound good, but the ill-fortune of their like, if they can gain advantages from this. For example, doesn’t a boss hope to see a competitor die? And don’t all businessmen reciprocally hope to be the only ones to enjoy the advantages that their occupations bring? In order to obtain employment, doesn’t the unemployed worker hope that for some reason or another someone who does have a job will be thrown out of his workplace. Well then, in a society where such events occur, there’s no reason to be surprised about the kind of acts for which I’m blamed, which are nothing but the logical consequence of the struggle for existence that men carry on who are obliged to use every means available in order to live. And since it’s every man for himself, isn’t he who is in need reduced to thinking: “Well, since that’s the way things are, when I’m hungry I have no reason to hesitate about using the means at my disposal, even at the risk of causing victims! Bosses, when they fire workers, do they worry whether or not they’re going to die of hunger? Do those who have a surplus worry if there are those who lack the basic necessities”?

There are some who give assistance, but they are powerless to relieve all those in need and who will either die prematurely because of privations of various kinds, or voluntarily by suicides of all kinds, in order to put an end to a miserable existence and to not have to put up with the rigors of hunger, with countless shames and humiliations, and who are without hope of ever seeing them end. Thus there are the Hayem and Souhain families, who killed their children so as not to see them suffer any longer, and all the women who, in fear of not being able to feed a child, don’t hesitate to destroy in their wombs the fruit of their love.

And all these things happen in the midst of an abundance of all sorts of products. We could understand if these things happened in a country where products are rare, where there is famine. But in France, where abundance reigns, where butcher shops are loaded with meat, bakeries with bread, where clothing and shoes are piled up in stores, where there are unoccupied lodgings! How can anyone accept that everything is for the best in a society when the contrary can be seen so clearly? There are many people who will feel sorry for the victims, but who’ll tell you they can’t do anything about it. Let everyone scrape by as he can! What can he who lacks the necessities when he’s working do when he loses his job? He has only to let himself die of hunger. Then they’ll throw a few pious words on his corpse.

So that is why I committed the acts of which I am accused, and which are nothing but the logical consequence of the barbaric state of a society which does nothing but increase the rigor of the laws that go after the effects, without ever touching the causes. It is said that you must be cruel to kill your like, but those who say this don’t see that you resolve to do this only to avoid the same fate.

In the same way you, messieurs members of the jury, will doubtless sentence me to death, because you think it is necessary, and that my death will be a source of satisfaction for you who hate to see human blood flow; but when you think it is useful to have it flow in order to ensure the security of your existence, you hesitate no more than I do, but with this difference: you do it without running any risk, while I, on the other hand, acted at the risk of my very life.

I am nothing but an uneducated worker; but because I have lived the life of the poor, I feel more than a rich bourgeois the iniquity of your repressive laws. What gives you the right to kill or lock up a man who, put on earth with the need to live, found himself obliged to take that which he lacks in order to feed himself?

I worked to live and to provide for my family; as long as neither I nor my family suffered too much, I remained what you call honest. Then work became scarce, and with unemployment came hunger. It is only then that the great law of nature, that imperious voice that accepts no reply, the instinct of preservation, forced me to commit some of the crimes and misdemeanors of which I am accused and which I admit I am the author of.

Judge me, messieurs of the jury, but if you have understood me, while judging me judge all the unfortunate who poverty, combined with natural pride, made criminals, and who wealth or ease would have made honest men.

An intelligent society would have made of them men like any other!

Others were to write defences of Ravachol. Octave Mirbeau was to write in an article:

Octave Mirbeau

Our society has no right to complain, since it has given birth to Ravachol: it sowed misery, and reaped revolution.

… Who is it –throughout this endless procession of tortures which has been the history of the human race –who is it that sheds the blood, always the same, relentlessly, without any pause for the sake of mercy? Governments, religions, industries, forced labor camps, all of these are drenched in blood. The murder is weary of their laws, their prayers, and their progress. Again just recently, there were the frenzied butchers who turned Paris into a slaughterhouse as the Commune perished. There were pointless massacres, such as at Fourmies where the bodies of innocent women and little kids tried out the ballistic virtues of the Lebels machine gun for the first time. And there are always the mines in which fifty, a hundred, or five hundred poor devils are suffocated, swallowed in a single moment of horrible destruction, their charred bodies never to see daylight again. And there are also the horrid conquests of distant countries where happy races, unknown and peaceful, groan under the boot of that robber of continents, that filthy rapist of forest communities and virgin lands, the western slave trader.

Each footstep taken in this society bristles with privileges, and is marked with a bloodstain; each turn of the government machinery grinds the tumbling, gasping flesh of the poor; and tears are running from everywhere in the impenetrable night of suffering. Facing these endless murders and continuous tortures, what’s the meaning of society, this crumbling wall, this collapsing staircase?

We live in ugly times. The misery has never been worse, because it’s never been more obvious, and it’s never stood closer to the spectacle of wasted riches and the promised land of well-being from which it is relentlessly turned away. Never has the law, which protects only the banks, pressed so hard upon the tortured shoulders of the poor. Capitalism is insatiable, and the wage system compounds the evils of ancient slavery. The shops are packed full of clothing, and there are those who go about completely naked; the indifferent rich are puking up food, while others perish from hunger in their doorways. No cry is heeded: whenever a single, louder complaint penetrates the din of sad murmurs, the Lebels is loaded and the troops are mobilized.

The anarchist critic Paul Adam was to pen a Eulogy for Ravachol The full translation can be found here

After all the judiciary debates, chronicles, and appeals to legal murder, Ravachol properly remains the proponent of the great idea of the ancient religions which would advocate seeking individual death for the good of the world, the denial of self, and the sacrifice of life and reputation for the exaltation of the poor and humble. He is plainly the restorer of the essential sacrifice.

So long as men exist in the world to suffer slow starvation, to the final exhaustion of life, theft and murder will remain natural. No justice can logically oppose and punish it, unless it expresses honestly, and without other reasons, Force crushing Weakness. But if a new strength is raised before its own, it must not blacken the adversary. It must accept the duel and deal with the enemy so that in the days of its own defeat, it may find mercy in the New Force.

Ravachol was the champion of that New Force. First he explained the theory of his acts and the logic of his crimes; and there is no public declamation capable of convincing him of straying or of error. His act was the consequence of his ideas, and his ideas were born of the lamentable state of barbarity or stagnant humanity.

Ravachol saw sorrow around him, and he has exalted the sorrow of others by offering himself in sacrifice. His incontestable charity and disinterestedness, the vigor of his acts, and his courage before inevitable death raise him up to the splendors of legend. In this time of cynicism and irony, a Saint is born to us.

His blood will be an example from which will spring new courage and new martyrs. The great idea of universal altruism will flower in the red pool at the foot of the guillotine.

A fruitful death has been accomplished. An event of human history is marked in the annals of the people. The legal murder of Ravachol opens a new era.

And you artists who, with an eloquent brush, recount on the canvas your mystic dreams, a grand subject is offered here for your work. If you have understood your era, if you have recognized and kissed the threshold of the future, it is for you to trace out in a pious triptych the Life of the Saint, and his demise. For a time will come when in the temples of Real Fraternity, we will place your stained glass window in the loveliest place, in order that the light of the sun passing through the halo of the martyr will light up the gratitude of men free of selfishness on a planet free from property.

In another article entitled The Laughter of Ravachol, a Victor Barrucand wrote that Ravachol exercised “through the example of his life and death a salutary contagion, a sort of new morality without obligation or punitive sanction that would annul the Old Law”. Barrucand spoke of Ravachol’s Homeric derision and compared the stronger and more bitter laughter of Ravachol to that of Voltaire, “that other wrecker”. Barrucand also alluded to the fact that he had died at the same age as Christ, calling him a “violent Christ”. The artist Charles Maurin, an anarchist painter and engraver, made a famous woodprint of Ravachol:

Woodprint of Ravachol made by Charles Maurin

A verb ravacholiser would even be invented meaning to kill someone, preferably bl blowing them up with dynamite. A wealthy propoerty owner a Madame Boubon-neaud received a threat from Ravachol followers stating “we are going to ravachol you”. Ravachol was, in many ways, the prototype for Joseph Conrad’s novel on terrorism The Secret Agent. Is a historical revival on the cards?

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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