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Book review: “Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries” by E. J. Hobsbawm

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.

hobsbawm.primitive rebels

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.

For a reader who is not a professional historian with that background, the book is a challenge. Still, the phenomena Hobsbawm describes are relevant and of interest to anyone familiar with community organizing and political campaigns.

This book, it seems to me, testifies to the tendency of people to enter into social protest, initially at least, on an emotional level rather than from an intellectual perspective.

They’d rather feel that something is being done than figure out what should be done and make it happen. At least, at first. This is a mindset that led to social protest that was spasmodic and impact that was, at best, temporary.

Consider the “social bandit” in the pattern of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich or the government or the foreign invaders and giving at least some of the loot to the poor.

For Hobsbawm, social banditry is a form of social protest. It doesn’t accomplish much, certainly doesn’t change the system. Yet, the oppressed can feel a vicarious elation at seeing the powerful receiving a comeuppance from the swashbuckling lawbreaker.

These bandits aren’t viewed by the poor as criminals, but as heroes. Hobsbawm mentions Jesse James, and he could have included Bonnie and Clyde. He quotes another writer as saying that the job of the social bandit is

to avenge injustice, to hammer the lords, to take from them the wealth they have robbed and with fire and sword to destroy all that cannot serve the common good: for joy, for vengeance, as a warning for future ages — and perhaps for fear of them.


“Our men”

The same is true, in a more complicated manner, with the Mafia in Sicily and similar secret societies that form to protect a traditional way of life. They become a buffer between the members of their group and the outside powers, particularly when it comes to electoral politics.

[The Mafia in southern Sicily] could provide safe majorities for whatever government gave sufficient bribes or concessions to the local bosses who could guarantee electoral victory. This was child’s play for Mafia. Its candidates were always elected. In real strongholds almost unanimously.

This pattern, Hobsbawm notes, had many parallels in the United States where

big city bosses…won their original power not simply by corruption and force, but by being “our men” for thousands of immigrant voters: Irish men for the Irish, Catholics for the Catholic, Democrats (i.e., opponents of big business) in a predominately Republican country.

Backing the social bandit and the secret society is a way for the uneducated peasant or poor city-dweller to take it to the Man, to borrow a more modern phrase, without having to do the intellectual work of understanding and committing to an ideology.


“Parasitism and riot”

Similarly, various millennial movements, like the three examples discussed by Hobsbawm, were rooted to a great extent in a directly religious or implicitly religious approach to political thinking.

All of these had a strong element of the Second Coming of Christ. Millenarians, Hobsbawm writes, “are not makers of revolution. They expect it to make itself, by divine revelation, by an announcement from on high, by a miracle — they expect it to happen somehow.”

In the cities, the mob was another sort of unorganized or poorly organized social protest. Present in every important European city where policing was slack, it was even more significant in capital cities where the mob

lived in an odd relationship with its rulers, equally compounded by parasitism and riot. Its views…may be set out fairly lucidly. It is the business of the ruler and his aristocracy to provide a livelihood for his people, either by giving employment himself, for instance by patronizing local tradesmen and general free spending and tipping as befits the status of a prince or a gentleman, or by attracting employment, as for instance the tourist and pilgrim traffic.

If the ruler failed at these and similar tasks, the mob rioted.

As with the social bandit, the secret societies and the millennial movements, the mob’s ability to riot was a blunt-edged instrument. It got the attention of those in charge, but, except in cases such as the French Revolution, it didn’t result in systemic change.



The emotional, non-intellectual aspects of social protest, Hobsbawm shows, continued even as the pre-political poor began to join more organized movements, such as labor unions. This was chiefly in the use of initiation rituals and communal ceremonies.

Here’s one prime example:

Demonstrations, whose original purpose in labor movements was utilitarian — to demonstrate the massed strength of the workers to their adversaries, and to encourage their supporters by demonstrating it, became ceremonies of solidarity whose value, for many participants, lies as much in the experience of “one-ness” as in any practical object they may seek to achieve.

A set of ritual furnishings may arise: banners, flags, massed singing and so on….American party conventions are perhaps the most striking instances.

From the perspective of community organizing or political campaigns, Primitive Rebels is not a work of ancient history.


Pre-political again?

Emotions play an important role in social protest and are probably essential to draw people into any movement.

Most of the groups described by Hobsbawm were in their pre-political stage a century or more ago. Nonetheless, one could argue that many of today’s Americans have moved so far away from politics and political involvement and political ideology — consider the low figures for voter turnouts — that an appeal to the emotions is necessary to get them interested.

Or, perhaps, that’s what today’s politicians and strategists understand only too well.

Are today’s political campaigns simply focused on the emotions of the voters to distract them from the issues?

Are they a way to keep the electorate as an unorganized pre-political group unable ever to make systemic change? An incoherent peasantry? A spasmodic mob?

Patrick T. Reardon

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