Recent history has been kind to the eminent Marxist scholar Eric Hobsbawm, who passed away seven years ago at age 95 after a distinguished and controversial career. 2019 has thus far witnessed not only Richard J. Evans’s exhaustive new biography just published by Oxford University Press, but also the semicentennial of Hobsbawm’s authoritative study Bandits (1969) – an examination and redefinition of purported criminal figures from world history as populist avengers and redistributors of capital.
Yet the reprinting of this volume nearly three decades after the collapse of the very autocratic regimes and planned economies advocated and anticipated by the historian is indeed ironic, less so for the alarming possibility of a resurgent Russia under the leadership of a former KGB official than for Hobsbawm’s own inadvertent insight within its pages regarding the inevitability of the capitalist reflex.
Initially conceived as a revision of his earlier Primitive Rebels (1959), Bandits appeared ten years later in a period of near anarchy throughout much of the Western world, an environment which was more than receptive to the notion of the famous criminal as a freedom fighter or savior of the disenfranchised. Reduced to his essentials, Hobsbawm’s “noble robber” is characterized as a representative of the class struggle who begins his criminal career by being a victim of socioeconomic injustice and concludes it by becoming a victim of treachery by the authorities, and who cultivates his reputation in between by robbing the rich to give to the poor.
However, the very premise of this figure as elaborated by Hobsbawm can be seen to conceal an inherent contradiction. The author is careful to emphasize that the noble robber, having redistributed material resources to his people, ultimately reaffirms his place “as an honorable citizen” within the community. But how must he exercise those very freedoms for which he once defied the state? Now free to stand or fall economically within an open market of exchange, he faces the rather stark choice of indefinite, self-destructive alienation or – Heaven forbid! – appropriation to an emergent bourgeoisie a la John Gotti or his fictional counterpart, Tony Soprano.
Indeed, Hobsbawm’s chief exemplar, Robin Hood, whose semi-legendary life has been commemorated in sketchy verse narratives dating from the fifteenth century onward, is more often depicted in his earliest tales as an entrepreneur than a populist ideologue. Amassing capital through theft to enrich the outlaw band, Robin is shown restoring the fortunes of a knight (not an overtaxed peasant) at the expense of corrupt clergymen, and ultimately rising to prominence by becoming a royal courtier, only to squander his retainer on unwise investment in patronage, inevitably returning to his rough life in the greenwood, where he ends up unwisely trading his illicit profits in a failed effort to save his own life from his prioress cousin.
Ironically, Hobsbawm’s study currently stands as a significant statement, not as an affirmation of the rising of the proletariat, but rather as a vindication of the very bourgeois values against which he marshaled so many of his own resources throughout his lengthy career. Viewed today, Hobsbawm’s bandit is perhaps best represented not by Robin Hood but by another, albeit less famous figure of alienation from a forgotten time, the picaro Lazarillo de Tormes – the footloose sixteenth-century Spanish scamp whose pragmatic parasitism resulted in more enduring material security at the climax of his narrative, however cynical his methods for survival might appear throughout the course of his tale.
Not unlike his late medieval predecessor, today’s equivalent of Hobsbawm’s noble robber is likely to discover that a nonconformist ethos is all but unsustainable in an epoch of emanent democratic capitalism, and will at best find his proper place in legend, as a controversial but ephemeral emblem of sociopolitical upheaval.