Monday, April 30, 2012

`Hobsbawm's Rebels

ShotHotBot reading that booklist yesterday, asks a fair question, and catches me out.  I really should say a word or two about what and why these books are keepers, aside from the mere titles.  So, start with ShothotBot's choice, Primitive Rebels, by E.  J. Hobsbawm,, which I found in London in 1976, probably at Collette's Marxist Bookstore in Charing Cross Road.  In answer to the immediate question: no, this book probably doesn't have much of anything to do with the 99 percent movement, because Hobsbawm is dealing here with genuine outsiders--those who never lugged around a copy of Das Kapital, not even in pretense, and who scarcely recognize the 20th Century, saying nothing of the stages of capitalist development.  It's of a piece with a number of other items in Hobsbawm's early work.  There's one called Bandits (and I can barely tell PR and Bandits apart); another (with George Rudé) called Captain Swing, about popular peasant riots against the threshing machine in England around 1830.

I don't know about anybody else but for me at the time, it was a bracing refreshment.  I'd read a bit of the standard narrative of revolutionary history, more than a bit about the underemployed intellectuals, the briefless lawyers, the pulpitless preachers and suchlike who haunted the libraries and coffee shops of great cities pouring our fusillades of dialectic.  I knew little or nothing about the mostly rural, mostly semi-literate or worse vessels of frustrated rage, who flashed across the night sky and then almost inevitably burned out.

Hobsbawm wasn't entirely unique, of course.  In his preface he tips his hast to Euclides da Cunha, whose Rebellion in the Backlands I think I had not hitherto encountered (and which, in fact, I didn't get round to reading until many years later).  In his text he tries to tie his work together with Norman Cohn's classic Search for the Millennium--"of all the primitive social movements discussed in this book,"  Hobsbawm observes, "the one least handicapped by its primitiveness."  To Cohn I might add HFM Prescott's  Man on a Donkey, about the Pilgrimage of Grace that threatened the very crown of Henry VIII. You could easily also bracket Hobsbawm with Eric Wolf, particularly Europe and the People without History-another one I have not yet thrown away.    I suppose I'd want to throw in Jack Womak's Zapata and the Mexican Revoluition (I see there is now a Kindle--and this is beginning to sound like an Amazon Listmania collection).  Indeed it may be Womak who ties the whole package together.  As someone has said, the challenge of almost every 20C revolution is "what do you do about the peasants?"  The answer in most cases is: you betray them.The Zapatistas, at least as seen by Womak, seem to drive one peasant revolution that can actually survive the telling.

Hobsbawm is at his best on Southern Italy and Sicily--he was the first person to introduce  me to the idea that the Mafia can be thought of as a kind of government, cheek by jowl with the tradition of peasant rebellion and outright banditry.   From Southern Italy, here's a "Carbonaro oath" which Hobsbawm quotes; it gives you the flavor of the mix:

I, N.H. promise and swear upon the general statutes of the order, and upon this steel, the avenging instrument of the perjured, scrupulously to keep the secret of Carbonarism; and neither to write, engrave, or paint anything concerning it, without having obtained a written permission.  I swear to help my Good Cousins in case of  need, as much as in me lies, and not to attempt anything against the honour of their families.  I consent and wish, if I perjure myself, that my body may be cut in pieces, then burnt, and my ashes scattered to the wind, in order that my name may be held up[ to the execration of the Good Cousins throughout the earth.  So help me God.
 Source, as cited by Hobsbawm: Memoirs of  the Secret Societies of the South of Italy (1821) 196.

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