Thursday, November 29, 2007

Eric Hobsbawm: Bandits

Eric Hobsbawm is widely regarded as the greatest historian of our time, even by those who don't particularly share his political views. (He has remained an unreconstructed Marxist.) I had earlier read his highly despairing account of the world affairs in the twentienth century, called The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century. The subtitle of the book is a reference to his earlier much more celebrated work of nineteenth century history in three volumes (a "long" century in comparison) which I haven't read.

I picked this particular book on a lark since the subject seemed like something that interested me. I did find it very interesting and worthwhile but found it very heavy-going as well. Actually for a book by a Marxist historian the book is surprisingly jargon-free and totally non-theoretical. Instead it is full of anecdotes, excerpts from folk lores, ballads and other forms of oral history. Hobsbawm in his afterword explains that many of his critics took issue with this approach which he then tries to defend while still conceding that some of these criticisms are valid and that the book was originally meant to open up a new area of social research and study rather than making a final statement on the subject. In the preface he talks about the origins of the book. While doing his work on social history of forms of rebellions in primitive, pre-industrial and peasant societies he found out that most of these rebels were highly similar to each other in most respects, regardless of cultural or geographical background. Some of these ideas went into his essay "The Social Bandit" which formed the first chapter of his book "Primitive Rebels." This essay proved to be highly influential and since he himself got further interested in the subject, taking the help from other local scholarly works, he expanded on his original thesis and the result is this book.

He first of all defines what he means by "a social bandit" - "peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case men to be admired, helped and supported." He is not interested in urban criminals, in fact he is not interested in criminals at all and he takes pains to separate the two. In brief it is the word "social" that is important. The social bandit is actually rebelling against the structures which bind the peasant societies while ordinary criminals are mostly asocial misfits, often working from purely individualistic motives. This also makes him disregard and disassociate from the anarchists. He says: "’The idea’ of anarchism was their motive: that totally uncompromising and lunatic dream which we all share, but which few except Spaniards ever tried to act upon, at the cost of total defeat and impotence for their labour movement.”

After having defined the scope of the study he then goes on a world tour and finds out that regardless of geographical, historical or cultural background there are remarkable parallels which exist in these "primitive forms of social protest". So we learn about the long and complicated history of Brazillian Cangaceiros, Balkan Haiduks, bandits from Catalonia and Sicily, even Indian dacoits, though he touches this last topic only very briefly. His main area of expertise seems to be the Latin American society and he really knows a great deal about it. Most of it was quite overwhelming to me and I did skip some sections of the book. He also talks about more individual figures, including those whose historicity is in dispute like Robin Hood or Schiller's play on the subject and other more real ones, like Salvatore Giuliano, Pancho Villa (featured on the cover of the book above), the Brazillian bandit-hero Lampiao and many others whose names I hadn't heard before.

As anybody who has even a small interest in the subject (from the movies at least) already knows it is the myth of the bandit that becomes more important than the real man himself, with his common human frailties. It is the mythical image which comes across and is celebrated in ballads and folk-lores and not the real human being. And it is this mythical image itself that serves as a revolutionary prototype. Hobsbawm also talks of this process and need for mythification in detail with copious examples.

Finally a few words of praise for the prose style of the book. As I said earlier it is entirely devoid of theoretical jargons and though heavy-going overall and densely packed with facts and information, it is still eminently readable. One nice sample passage here:

The second reason why bandits become revolutionaries is inherent in the peasant society. Even those who accept exploitation, oppression, and subjection as the norm of human life dream of a world without them: a world of equality, brotherhood and freedom, a totally new world without evil. Rarely is this more than a dream. Rarely is it more than an apocalyptic expectation, though in many societies the millenial dream persists: the Just emperor will one day appear, the Queen of the south seas will one day land (as in the Javanese version of this submerged hope), and all will be changed and perfect. Yet there are moments when the apocalypse seems imminent; when the entire structure of the state and existing society whose total end the apocalypse symbolises and predicts, actually looks about to collapse in ruins, and the tiny light of hope turns into the light of possible sunrise.

In short a very interesting overview and an introduction to the subject, quite worthwhile if one is interested in the subject.


Szerelem said...

Honestly, I haven't read a lot of Hobswam but have really liked whatever little of him I have read.
This book seems very interesting too. Sigh, I have such a back log of books to read and there are so many interesting one that keep going on the list!

Also, I did finally post about Head On!

Alok said...

This book is good, quite short and not that difficult as I perhaps made it out to be in my post.

jenny said...

Ha, very interesting. When someone says "Bandits" I think first of Katja von Reindorff's film, about women who escape from prison to make their musical careers--- would recommend it.

Alok said...

Oh, I had never heard of her name before. I will try to find out more.