Illegalism — Theory and History

This rant should be read theatrically out loud in public as either a sermon or a lecture. This pompous tone should be worth some laughs, especially if used with props such as a judge’s robe or other regalia of authority.

Its probably not a bad guess that you, the reader are undoubtedly sandwiched into the role of a service worker, a student, a housewife, a factory prole, homeless or some other member of the countless categories of a wildly heterogeneous, autonomous working class. And also undoubtedly at one time you have probably broken the law. It may have been a trivially small thing such as crossing the street without a light or double parking or it may have been some more substantially illegal act such as shoplifting. Any which way in that particular moment, you placed a certain personal desire of yours over the abstract, imperative don’t of the Law. These infractions either consciously or unconsciously mirror a larger tendency in which the working class in general has consistently refused the imposition of an artificial, alien Law over its many, varying needs and desires.


We’ve all heard ad infinitum the chorus of ideologues and moralists who mouth the praises of the Law. The preachers, parents, politicians, police, professors and other pigs which make up the frontlines of capitalism’s ideological structure all agree in the sacredness of Law. “The Law is an impartial (if flawed – after all, we live in an imperfect world – but it is always getting better) arbiter in the war of all against all. “The Law is universal,” they harumph, “it mediates justice in all societies. Anything else would be, well…mindless chaos…anarchy.” We know better.

The Law isn’t universal or timeless, but is instead a specific manifestation of certain historical communities. And quite to the opposite of what they say, it has always served as a means of coercion rather than a solution. The Law is a weapon used as by the rulers to keep their people in line and no other social system has used this weapon more effectively than modern capitalism. Indeed, the golden age of Law corresponds with the glorious heyday of the emerging bourgeoisie – the 18th century. In England alone, the number of crimes punishable by death quadrupled in that century (with most of them being so-called property crimes). In contrast to legal coercion. primitive “pre-state” societies, which have made up 99% of the last 2.5 million years of human existence, have relied on all sorts of diffuse sanctions — such as ostracism — to deal with the few acts of anti-social violence that arise in their societies. Part of the legal system lies on the usurpation and twisting of these social functions. What was once part of an organic and egalitarian system now becomes, in the hands of a power elite, a justification for their own power.


Illegality as a form of human activity is not and has never been confined to the marginalized realm of the petty criminal. It has instead blossomed throughout the world as long as there has been a capitalism which forced an unwilling people to become workers. Along with the above mentioned explosion of legal coercion in the 18th century, a simultaneous resistance was forming. Widescale on-the-job theft came into existence with ship-builders stealing large quantities of lumber. Coal miners were also eager to get in on the action, witnessed by the common pilferings of coal to heat their homes. Illegailty as a tool of working class survival extended into the countryside as agricultural laborers and peasants throughout the world stole food, burned haystacks and occasionally rose up in insurrection against the aristocratic landlords of the period. A foundation was laid from below for the next two centuries of working class illegality.

And what a legacy this proved to be. A rising tide of popular illegality kept pace with the rapid expansion of capitalism and its corresponding explosion of legal forms. As more and more strikes and other forms of overt activity were crushed by a conspiracy of anti-labor laws and police brutality, covert illegal activities such as sabotage became favorite tactics of insurgent workers. In the 20th century, working class illegality positively exploded in a variety of imaginative forms. An excellent example is the Italian “self-reduction” movement of the 1970’s in which whole working class neighborhoods reduced their living costs by simply not paying (or reducing the amount paid) for things like rent, electricity, train fares, food, etc. Another inspiring example is the massive re-appropriation of goods which accompanied the last few decades of urban riots from the sixties to the 1992 L.A. rebellion.


The term “illegalism” is a made up word. A convenient bit of nonsense used to flatten out a whole libidinal movement onto some descriptive framework. A group of turn-of-the-century French anarchists did in fact call themselves illegalists in the sense of being something like a cellist (implying activity), but illegalism as a coherent, over-arching ideology doesn’t exist at any level. The illegalists, who became infamous as the dreaded Bonnot Gang, undertook a whole series of flamboyant armed robberies (in fact, they pioneered the use of the automobile in bank robbery). By placing their desires over the Law not just as a stop-gap method of survival or resistance, but as a full-out liberatory escape from their lives as factory workers, they stand as one of the most heroic examples of illegaity. Their example is not one of ideology or academic theory, but of biting radical action.

— by Chris Kutalik

this essay/rant originally appeared in ATLATL – a journal of subversive chronicles