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Social Banditry

Marxism HAP Session:  

Bandits – E.J.Hobsbawn (1969)


Who is Hobsbawm? 

The Spectator has described him as “arguably our greatest living historian” and is certainly one of Britain’s most prominent historians. Eric J. Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, Egypt to Jewish parents, June 9th 1917. He grew up in Vienna and Berlin, although English was spoken in the home. His father died in 1929 and his mother in 1931. He and his younger sister Nancy were adopted by a maternal aunt and moved to London in 1933. Got a PhD in history from King’s College, Cambridge. Served in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Educational Corps during WW2; then worked as a lecturer at various universities (inc. Stanford University). Made a fellow of the British Academy in 1978. Is currently President of Birkbeck College, University of London.

His political leanings were obvious from a young age: he joined the Socialist Schoolboys in 1931 and the Communist Party in 1936. He was a member of the Communist Party Historians group from 1946-56 – even after other members had disassociated themselves following the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956: Hobsbawm even defended the Communist’s actions in the “Daily Worker” in November 1956. Often contributed to “Marxism Today” until its close in 1991.

Has written extensively on a wide variety of topics. Eg. the “dual revolution” (the French revolution and British industrial revolution and how they influenced the trend towards modern liberal capitalism) and social banditry. Also, randomly, writes as a jazz critic under the pseudonym of “Francis Newton”. Main publications include: “Primitive Rebels” (1959), “The Age of Revolution” (1962) and “Labouring Men” (1964).

What is Social Banditry? 


  • A social bandit is a peasant as opposed to a townsman or gentleman-robber (“desperadoe”) 
  • The Lord and state regard them as criminals, but they’re heroes to the peasants. (They take care not to attack fellow peasants -> taking from the rich to give to the poor). 
  • It’s one of the most universal social phenomenons known to history; taking place in medieval societies. (ie. Between tribal/kinship organisation and modern capitalist/industrial society) So, where the peasants/landless labourers are oppressed by their lords. However there are regional variations: happy peasants don’t revolt. Plus in areas where policing is well organised and successful banditry rarely flourishes. 
  • Social bandits tend to be reactionary, standing for a return to the (real or imagined) “good old days”. 
  • Who becomes a social bandit? 1. Men (women rarely become bandits, notable exceptions include the Andalusian “serranas”) who are mobile eg. Unmarried, landless labourers, ex-servicemen, deserters, escaped prisoners, runaway serfs… 2. Local toughs (eg. The Balkan “Klepht”) 3. Normal criminals might be idolised by the public (eg. Dick Turpin 1705-39) but they aren’t social bandits. 
  • As a symbol it represents freedom, heroism and the dream of justice. 

There are three types of social banditry…

1. The Noble Robber 

Think Robin Hood (who Hobsbawm believes is just a myth w/ maybe slight truth in C14th versions), he’s the quintessential noble robber. Few live up to this ideal, although those who do are venerated almost as Saints. Eg. Diego Corrientes (1757-81) of Andalusia was, in popular opinion, akin to Christ. He was betrayed and tried although he’d killed nobody. Characteristics: 1. Victim of injustice; 2. Rights wrongs; 3. Takes from the rich to give to the poor; 4. Never kills but in self defences of just revenge; 5. If he survives, he returns to his people as an honourable citizen and member of the community; 6. He’s admired, helped and supported by his people; 7. If he dies (which he pretty much always does) it’s only through the treasonous actions of an enemy as no member of the community would help the authorities catch him; 8. He’s – at least in theory – invincible and invulnerable; 9. He’s not the enemy of the King/Emperor, who’s the font of justice, but only of the local gentry/clergy/other oppressors.

2. Avengers 

“Their appeal is not that of the agents of justice, but of men who prove that even the poor and weak can be terrible.” Eg. Bush poet on the great Lampiao: He killed for play/out of pure perversity/and gave food to the hungry/with love and charity. For example in 1744 Bandit captains attacked the cruel Lord Konstantin Zlotnicky and killed his wife and son. Hobsbawm says: “where men become bandits, cruelty breeds cruelty, blood call for blood.”

3. Haiduks 

They become bandits for economic reasons, their popularity doesn’t depend on personal moral approval (like the noble robbers), his cruelty is not his essential characteristic (like the Avenger), but is tolerated because of his services to the people. They existed permenantly so tended to have formal structure and organisation (eg. Balkan “haiduks”, Indian “dacoit” communities). “We have made many mothers weep/we have widowed many wives/many more we have made orphans/ for we are childless men ourselves.”

The Economics and Politics of Banditry 

“The more successful he is as a bandit, the more he is *both* a representative and champion of the poor *and* a part of the system of the rich.” Bandits can be good for local economies (buying village produce, perhaps through a middleman) and bad (eg. Putting off tourists). As the bandits become more successful they become integrated into the local political system. Eg. The Ramosi group in Bombay were given land and the right to charge fees from all travellers in return for guarding the villages. However, if the gangs get too powerful they can replace the local authority as the major players (eg. American mafia) – they then become proper criminals and lose the support of their communities.

Bandits and Revolution 

In times of crisis large numbers of peasants turn to banditry to survive. This can start a snowball effect which leads to revolution. Eg. Major peasant uprisings initiated the Balkan wars of the 1870s to detach Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Ottoman Empire. However it’s unusual for Banditry to become and dominate the revolutionary movement (because of technical and ideological limitations), they usually just provide fighters. Where they have dominated revolution (eg. The brigands of Italy in the 1860s) there was no programme – other than just sweeping away the “machinery of oppression.” “The bandits contribution to modern revolutions was ambiguous, doubtful and short.”

The Expropriators 

This is “quasi-banditry”… revolutionaries who adopt the methods and myths of social banditry. This might be for ideological purposes (like the Bakunist anarchists) or simply reflect their relative cultural immaturity (eg. German Journeymen called their brotherhood “The League of Outlaws” in the early C19th). “Expropriators” rob money for the good of the cause from banks (the symbols of the impersonal power of money, says Hobsbawm). Eg. The Bolshevik “Tiflis” hold up of 1907 which netted the party 200,000 roubles.

Criticisms of Hobsawm’s concept of Social Banditry 


  • Dr A. Blok, an expert on the Sicilian mafia, claims the idea of the “noble bandit” has only ever been an invention of the public. “Good” bandits who only took from the rich did so only to keep open the support network of the local populace. 
  • Dr C. Kuether, who studied criminals and robbers in C18th Germany, argues that all banditry is social anyway -> it’s an expression of social protest or rebellion. Hobsbawm responds by arguing that although social and criminal bandits might look the same to the law, the morality of social banditry is clear to the peasants. 
  • Other historians such as Pat O’Malley (studied Ned Kelly) and Richard White (studied Jesse James) argue that social banditry is not just confined to “medieval” peasants. Hobsbawm agrees that is possible in a fully capitalist society – but very unlikely.

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