Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Bandits’

4 Dec 2015

The latest annual collection of Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, published this week, includes an extended obituary of Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), written by Professor Sir Richard Evans FBA. Hobsbawm was one of the UK’s most renowned modern historians and public intellectuals. His influential three-volume history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, published between 1962 and 1987, put a new concept on the historiographical map: ‘the long nineteenth century’.

The following extract from the memoir describes the publication in 1969 of Hobsbawm’s book Bandits. This and the earlier Primitive Rebels (published in 1959) drew on his observations of poverty and resistance in Spain and Italy in the 1950s.

Primitive Rebels began with a brief chapter on ‘social banditry’, which Eric later expanded into a short book, Bandits, commissioned by George Weidenfeld, the Austrian-born founder of Weidenfeld and Nicolson publishers, as part of a series of brief studies on similar kinds of people, such as pirates. Here he expanded his field of vision enormously, taking in banditry across the world from China to Brazil. This was perhaps the most purely enjoyable of Eric’s books, kitted out with some fifty striking illustrations, and presenting a range of exotic information, stories, legends and biographies.

Nothing like it had been published before. It brought together a mass of familiar and unfamiliar material to advance a coherent set of arguments about the whole phenomenon of banditry. The social bandit, he argued, was a representative of rural society, living on its margins and fighting on its behalf to redistribute wealth, like Robin Hood, or avenging the wrongs done to it, like the Brazilian Lampiåo, or mounting sporadic and unorganised resistance against the state, like the haiduks of south-eastern Europe who fought against their Ottoman rulers in the eighteenth century.

The neologism of ‘social banditry’ fitted neatly into a traditional terminology used by Central European Marxists, deriving ultimately from the emergence of the ‘social question’, the question of the poverty and conditions of life and work of the nascent industrial working class in the 1840s. ‘Social banditry’ was thus a pre-organisational, pre-ideological but still in a broad sense political attempt to bring about the liberation not of the industrial classes but of the pre-industrial poor, like the other ‘archaic forms of social movement’ studied in Primitive Rebels.

In this sense, all these phenomena were slotted by Eric into a teleology that culminated in the only real and potentially successful attempt to solve the ‘social question’, namely the Marxist and eventually the Communist labour ‘social movement’. Thus he was not entirely rescuing them from what E. P. Thompson called at around the same time ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.

On the other hand, what is striking in terms of the trajectory of Eric’s thought is that he had moved by the middle of the 1950s from writing about the rising industrial working class to writing about the dispossessed and the marginalised, from history’s eventual victors, as he saw it, to history’s undoubted losers. Primitive Rebels and Bandits thus belonged squarely in the context of the New Left’s rediscovery of the marginal and the defeated, and its broadening of the scope of ‘social history’, originally simply the history of the ‘social movement’, to include many groups of people in the past who could not be portrayed as making a significant contribution to humanity’s future. In this way, these two books had an influence far beyond that of their immediate subjects. Moreover, Eric’s sympathy for his subjects shone through the teleological framework. Men such as Francisco Sabaté Llopart, he wrote, a bandit and resistance fighter in Franco’s Spain through to the end of the 1950s, were heroes: tragic, doomed heroes, but heroes none the less.

Bandits, far more than Primitive Rebels, was another book that sparked widespread and prolonged debate in academic circles, mainly on the concept of ‘social banditry’, and inspired a great deal of fresh research. It was widely criticised for taking too romantic and rosy-hued a view of its subjects: but for Eric, the greatest compliment paid to the book was praise from a group of peasant radicals in Mexico in the 1970s, who wrote to him saying they approved of what he had written. ‘It does not prove that the analysis put forward in this book is right’, he wrote in the 1999 reprint, ‘But it may give readers of the book some confidence that it is more than an exercise in antiquarianism or in academic speculation. Robin Hood, even in his most traditional forms, still means something in today’s world, to people like these Mexican peasants. There are many of them. And they should know.’

The full appreciation of Eric Hobsbawm is one of 26 extended obituaries that may be freely downloaded from Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, Volume XIV.

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