Primitive Rebels

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1959. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic forms of Social Movements in the 19th and 20th Century. New York: Norton

In Eric Hobsbawm’s famous book, primitive rebels are those engaged in “pre-political” or “blind and groping” forms of social agitation; their politics are often ambiguous and perhaps even reformist, if not conservative; and they are more often rural and poor, coming on the scene on the cusp of dramatic socio-economic transformations. The social bandit is their archetypical outlaw form. “Social banditry, a universal and virtually unchanging phenomenon, is little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty: a cry for vengeance on the rich and oppressors, a vague dream of some curb upon them, a righting of individual wrongs. Its ambitions are modest… Social banditry has next to no organization or ideology, and is totally inadaptable to modern social movements” (5). It’s clearly a book of its time, abeit a very important one.

Hobsbawm surveys his theses against a series of primitive rebels: social bandits, mafia, millenarian movements (Italian Lazzaretti, Spanish anarchists, the Sicilian peasant leagues), the city mob, labor sects, and ritual in social movements. His main claim is that these forms of social contestation emerge in the absence of what he sees as more “modern” forms of political organization (parties, unions, etc.). “The bandit is a pre-political phenomenon, and his strength is in inverse proportion to that of organized agrarian revolutionism and Socialism or Communism” (23).

The most interesting (and longest) chapter in the book is the chapter on mafia. He notes three meanings of mafia: 1) A general skeptical and dismissive attitude toward the state and state law; 2) A highly mediated and decentralized form of power and patronage; 3) the control of a community’s social life by a secret—or officially unrecognized—system of gangs. “Mafia (in all three senses of the word) provided a parallel machine of law and organized power; indeed, so far as the citizen in the areas under its influence was concerned, the only effective law and power” (35). “The apparatus of coercion of the ‘parallel system’ was as shapeless and decentralized as its political and legal structure, but it fulfilled its purpose of securing internal quiet and external power” (38) The southern mafia became allied with the northern industrialists in a comfortable and mutually beneficial arrangement (43).

In the closing pages of the chapter, Hobsbawm makes some interesting comments about why mafias are machines of the status quo (52-53). Though not put in such terms: For one thing, their parasitical economic nature would become undone from any dramatic social upheaval and their reliance on a degree of widespread social complicity is predicated on the subjugation of certain classes (the Robin Hood effect). They also tend to be culturally conservative, protecting the “old way of life,” which is usually built on near-feudal social relations. “The new rural bourgeoisie, as we have seen in the chapter on Mafia, utilized the legal and illegal apparatus of feudal landowner at least as much as the more modern apparatus of the business-minded capitalist farmer and landlord” (95).

In surveying the other Primitive Rebels, Hobsbawm similarly find them wanting in more explicit forms of social organization and broader strategic plans. As for the Spanish anarchists, he is particularly harsh: “And thus the history of anarchism, almost alone among modern social movements, is one of unrelieved failure” (92).

This entry was posted in Agriculture, Bandits, Historical-Geographies, Illegality, Insurgency/Counterinsurgency, Land, Law, Power, Primitive Accumulation, Spatiality, Terror, The State, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

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