In Sicily in the late 19th century, the Socialists who went out into the rural areas to organize the peasants were hard-headed men. Their aims were economic, and their demands were very specific.
Not so for the peasants.
In rebelling against the oppression of landowners and the government, they were millennial in approach. Their hope was for a just and perfect world, a sort of heaven on earth. Their aims, as summarized by Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm in his 1959 book Primitive Rebels, were simple:
All should work. There should be neither rich nor poor. All should be equal. There should be no need to divide estates and houses. All should be put in common and the income should be justly distributed. This would not give rise to quarrels or selfishness because there would be brotherhood…and those who broke brotherhood would be punished.
These peasants, like most of the “primitive rebels” in Hobsbawm’s book, were pre-political. Their world was changing and had changed, but they didn’t have the intellectual framework with which to understand that change and respond to it.
They had been living an essentially medieval life, centered on their village, with rights, responsibilities and power dynamics that went back centuries. They were miserable but knew of no way to deal with their misery except with spasmodic rebellions that occurred at regular intervals.
“A true Socialist”
In the century’s final decade, though, Socialist organizers appeared and gave focus to that unrest. The peasants went along with them, but within the context of their medieval mindset.
These organizers were seen, Hobsbawm writes, as a sort of divine revelation — “good noble men, whom one peasant in Canicatti described as ‘angels come down from Paradise. We were in the dark and they have brought us light.’ ”
The peasants treated visiting Socialist leaders “as though they were bishops — men and women throwing themselves on the ground and strewing flowers in their path.”
It was, commentators frequently noted, “a new religion” — yet one that didn’t replace Christianity. For the peasants, it stood to reason that Socialists couldn’t be in conflict with the true faith of Jesus. They were a new expression of that faith.
They saw St. Francis of Assisi as “one of the first and greatest of Socialists, who had, among other things, abolished money.” After all, as one peasant woman told an interviewer, “Jesus was a true Socialist.”
“To hammer the lords”
Primitive Rebels is a short book — 174 pages of text with 19 pages of appendices — but a demanding read. Hobsbawm expects his reader to have a great knowledge of European labor and political history and a strong familiarity with Socialist, particularly Marxist, ideology. Continue reading