No Quarter: an Anarchist Zine about Pirates

Tuesday, January 23, 1990

Bandits

Bandits by E. J. Hobsbawm (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969)
Bandits is a vital book for anyone who wants to look at the social history of banditry. It is an amazing wealth of information on banditry all over the world. Hobsbawn defines social bandits as “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”(p.13). In Bandits, Hobsbawm documents and analyzes social banditry all over the world. He talks about several types of social bandits, the noble robber (like the fictional Robin Hood or the historical Diego Corrientes and Juro Janosik), avengers (known for their violence such as Rio Preto from Brazil), and haiduks (groups of free armed men somewhere between bandits and occasionally what Hobsbawm [p. 62] characterises as “primitive movements of guerrilla resistance and liberation”).
Chapter 7 is on the intersection between banditry and revolution, which would seem to be a point of much interest for many readers. Unfortunately this is where Hobsbawm Communism comes across the strongest and he betrays some of his biases.

At this point the bandit has to choose between becoming a criminal or a revolutionary.
What if he chooses revolution? As we have seen, social banditry has an affinity for revolution, being a phenomenon of social protest, if not a precursor or potential incubator of revolt. In this it differs sharply from the ordinary underworld of crime, with which we have already had occasion to contrast it. The underworld (as its name implies) is an anti-society, which exists by reversing the values of the ‘straight’ world – it is, in its own phrase, ‘bent’ – but is otherwise parasitic on it. A revolutionary world is also a ‘straight’ world, except perhaps at especially apocalyptic moments when even the anti-social criminals have their access of patriotism or revolutionary exaltation. Hence for the genuine underworld revolutions are little more than unusually good occasions for crime. There is no evidence that the flourishing underworld of Paris provided revolutionary militants or sympathisers in the French revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, though in 1871 the prostitutes were strongly Communard; but as a class they were victims of exploitation rather than criminals (p.84).

What are we to think about the choice that the bandit is given by Hobsbawm? In the eyes of the state a bandit does not cease to be a bandit the moment she takes up the banner of revolution. Far from it. In fact the charge of bandit is often a term of abuse used by states against revolutionaries and resistance fighters. The Nazi’s used the charge against partisans. Franco used it against the anarchist guerrillas after the end of the civil war. I’m sure there are numerous other examples. Throughout Bandits there are examples of people criminalized in one way or another who become bandits. I’d guess they are probably less concerned with what historians and zine writers will think of them and classify them as, and more concerned with staying alive, looking after themselves, their families and communities.
At the beginning of Bandits Hobsbawm makes it clear he is writing about social bandits, not freebooters (common criminals), nor bandit gentry, nor bandits in urban settings. Here he is dividing the social bandits into the ones he wants to claim, and the others. As we can see from his example of prostitutes in the Paris commune, these distinctions can seem fairly arbitrary. Why are some criminals ‘anti-social’ and others members of an exploited class? Does it really make any sense to make a distinction like that? It raises the question as to what Hobsbawm is referring to when he wrote: “especially apocalyptic moments when even the anti-social criminals have their access of patriotism or revolutionary exaltation”(p.84).
The next chapter on “the expropriators”, perhaps offers us some clues. First he ridicules “Bakuninist anarchists”(p.94), then he talks about Lenin and Stalin for a while, then he decides to explain exactly what he means by the phenomenon of expropriation. He chose the example of Francisco Sabate Llopart (El Quico)*, the most famous of the anarchists who waged guerrilla war against Franco after the defeat in the Spanish civil war. Why did El Quico keep fighting Franco until his death in 1960? Indeed, what motivated all the other anarchist guerrillas? Hobsbawm explains: “’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.” (p. 97). He proceeds to abuse Francisco Sabate Llopart, the anarchist guerrillas in general, and anarchists in the Spanish revolution for the next 11 pages. Then he writes a conclusion, 6 more pages, and then the end! So getting back to my somewhat disingenuous question about to which especially apocalyptic moment Hobsbawm was referring, I’m guessing it was the Spanish revolution. Can you believe the anarchists would be so bold as to open up the jails when they had the chance? And that many of the ‘criminals’ were not as anti-social as some might assume? Some even contributed to the revolution. Then again, as we learn from the biographical sketch of Sabate, the anarchists were all criminals anyway.
I was being serious when I said that this book is a great resource. I know of no other book that covers so much ground in the social history of banditry. The first 93 pages are well worth a read, despite their somewhat Stalinist sympathies and heavy handed approach. But what can be said about the ridiculous attacks against anarchism, and more importantly the intentional misrepresentation of Francisco Sabate Llopart especially, but also all the other anarchist guerrillas? To allow petty ideological concerns to attack the names of men who had the courage to fight and ultimately die in the struggle against Franco and fascism is disgusting. So until there is a book on bandits that approaches the thoroughness of Bandits, hold your nose and take it for what it is. Perhaps stop reading after chapter six or seven. And if anyone finds a better book, please let me know.

*For more information about Sabate and the anarchist guerilla resistance to Franco I encourage you to read Antonio Tellez’s Sabate: Guerilla Extraordinary translated by Stuart Christie and Tellez’s The Anarchist Resistance to Franco: biographical notes. The later is a pamphlet of photos and short biographical notes of an number of anarchist guerilla’s published by the Kate Sharpley Library. The former is published by AK Press and Elephant Editions.

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