PRIMITIVE REBELS, E. J. HOBSBAWN, W.W. NORTON AND CO., NEW YORK, 1959
The recently deceased British historian E.J. Hobsbawn, notwithstanding his unrepentant Stalinism to the end, wrote many interesting historical studies in his very long career. The book under review, Primitive Rebels, was an early effort to trace the sociological roots of rebellion in the period of the rise of capitalism. We all know that the development of the capitalist mode of production as it started in Europe was both a long and an uneven process. The way various sections of the poor in European society, mainly rural and small town workers, responded and adjusted to its demands is the core of this study. Not all resistance movements of the time led naturally to the three great political movements that defined the plebian respond to early capitalism-socialism, communism and anarchism- but those are the ones that drew masses of people around their programs and this is the focus of this work.
Professor Hobsbawn divided his study into two basic parts. The agrarian response, particularly in heavily agrarian Southern Europe, and the urban response, particularly in the small towns of Northern Europe, where much of capitalist development gained a huge foothold. Although there are some similarities in the response of both components local conditions such as tradition, geography and custom played a key role in whether the response became an organized one or faded in the capitalist onslaught. To that end he touches upon the history of social banditry and millennialism in the agrarian milieu and the strong pull of anarchism especially in Spain on the other. His case study on peasant anarchism in the period of the Spanish Civil War is worth the attention of Marxists in order to buttress their case for why that political response (or, better, non-political response) was totally inadequate in the face of the necessity of taking state power in order to defeat Franco (the win the war and then move to revolution argument).
The strongest part of the book is in his study of the urban plebeians, their rituals and their revolutionary organizations. Here the theories and practice of the great 19th century revolutionary Louis Blanqui and his followers draw Hobsbawn’s interest. Even stronger is his study of the relationship between religion, mainly of the non-conforming sort, and the development of the organized labor movement in Britain. This goes a long way to explaining why the British labor movement was stalled, and still is stalled, in its tracks. In the end, however, the great lesson to be drawn from this work concerns today. I would ask where are the pockets of resistance to late capitalism comparable to those that emerged under early capitalism and how will they response to the effects of “globalization” of the capitalist mode of production. We await our chronicler of that subject.