Alan Knight is emeritus professor of the history of Latin America at the University of Oxford. He is a renowned scholar of Mexican history, and his books have won awards such as the American Historical Association’s Beveridge Prize and the Bolton Prize for his two-volume study The Mexican Revolution, Volume 1: Porfirians, Liberals, and Peasants and The Mexican Revolution, Volume 2: Counter-revolution and Reconstruction, both available from the University of Nebraska Press. The following is an excerpt from his newest book, Bandits and Liberals, Rebels and Saints (Nebraska, 2022).
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Eric Hobsbawm was, along with Victor Kiernan, the most cosmopolitan of the British Marxist historians. Though his earliest published work dealt with British labor history, his initial interest in French North Africa having been stymied by the outbreak of the Second World War, he soon diversified, chiefly to Europe but also to Asia, Africa, and the Americas, including Latin America. Apart from some firsthand research, chiefly on contemporary (1960s) Peru, his Latin American forays were based almost entirely on secondary sources. However, Hobsbawm had a proven knack for choosing good secondary sources on which to build his ambitious surveys, so his work, while bullish and broad-brush in approach, is not strewn with the errors and simplifications that often mar such works of synthesis.
At least three major concepts of Hobsbawmian provenance have entered the Latin American historiographical mainstream: the general crisis of the seventeenth century; the invention of tradition; and, as a subset of primitive/“prepolitical” rebellion, social banditry, which has been the subject of some lively debate. His book Bandits—the more popular follow-up to Primitive Rebels—focused heavily on Europe, but it contains several references to Latin American cases, and in some recent editions, Pancho Villa, the celebrated Mexican bandit turned revolutionary, graces the cover. (More surprisingly, a recent Spanish version of Rebeldes primitivos 25 carries on its cover what looks suspiciously like a Mexican-revolutionary scene, which is very odd, since the Mexican revolutionaries—being “revolutionaries” rather than “prepolitical” rebels—were quite rightly absent from the pages of Primitive Rebels.)
Whatever one might think about Hobsbawm’s discussion of banditry and its contribution to Latin American history, we should recognize at the outset that it served to bring bandits in from the cold, rescuing them from the clutches of romantics and folklorists. That sort of rescue of “subaltern” actors from the “enormous condescension of posterity,” once it’s done, can begin to appear natural, a statement of the historiographically obvious; thus, we may underestimate the original novelty of the approach and the credit that is due for introducing a (historiographical) novelty and successfully naturalizing it.
The key novelty was the concept of social banditry, that is, of banditry that had a strongly social dimension, involving popular support, and that made banditry a form of popular resistance (or, indeed, “primitive rebellion”). On the basis of wide, if sometimes rather superficial, reading (which, in Bandits, now encompassed the world, including Brazil, Mexico, and Peru), Hobsbawm argued that this was a global phenomenon, displaying common features regarding bandit organization, motivation, recruitment, and modus operandi. Some generalizations display a characteristic Hobsbawmian chutzpah, for example, the breezy generalization that “the bulk of bandits speak no kind of argot but simply a version of the local peasant dialect” or—perhaps my favorite—when Hobsbawm tosses off a reference to “the well-known [sic] Bulgarian ballad . . . ‘Stoian and Nedelia.’”
It was a tribute to the appeal and originality of the work—both Primitive Rebels and, even more, Bandits—that it provoked plenty of comment, a good deal of it critical. Several critics pointed out, correctly, that Hobsbawm had relied almost entirely on secondary sources; that these were often literary (in the broad sense: novels, poems, ballads); and that available primary sources, notably, police and similar government documents, were largely neglected, even when they were accessible. Thus, when Hobsbawm boldly states that “the documents are unanimous,” one may reasonably ask which documents and how comprehensive Hobsbawm’s search for “documents” had been. Sources mattered because, it was further alleged, Hobsbawm’s reliance on literary texts seriously distorted reality. And in his case, reality mattered: given his robust defense of empirical history, he could hardly plead a fashionable postmodern indifference to positivistic facts. Indeed, Hobsbawm recognized that myths about the “noble bandit” could mislead, and “in all cases we need independent evidence of his actions.”