The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, August 26, 2003
THE VANGUARDIST LOOKS BACK: I enjoyed Christopher Hitchens'
appreciation of Eric Hobsbawm in the Sunday New York Times. I've also enjoyed the anti-Hobsbawm commentary that's surfaced since then in other places. Obviously there's nothing to admire in the distinguished historian's pro-Soviet politics, but I like a lot of his work nonetheless, flaws and all.

Consider Primitive Rebels (1959). That book examines "archaic forms of social movement," by which the author means the sort of protest that mid-century Marxists usually wrote off as inarticulate, populist, "primitive," "anarchist," or "reactionary." It is, at once, a very interesting study of such movements and an inadvertently hilarious peek into the Stalinist mind. Hobsbawm doesn't just explore his subject: he gives us a running commentary on how the modern Leninist vanguard party is such a tremendous advance over these archaic forms of revolt.

And so we look at the social banditry of the world's Robin Hoods ("little more than endemic peasant protest against oppression and poverty"), the original Mafia ("a somewhat more complex development of social banditry"), and millenarian movements, which "differ from banditry and Mafia because they are revolutionary and not reformist, and because, for this reason, they are more easily modernized or absorbed into modern social movements. The interesting problem here is, how and how far this modernization takes place. I suggest that it does not take place, or takes place only very slowly and incompletely, if the matter is left to the peasants themselves....This is illustrated by the contrast between the Andalusian village anarchists and the Sicilian village Socialists and Communists; the former converted to a theory which virtually told the peasants that their spontaneous and archaic form of social agitation was good and adequate; the latter converted to a theory which transformed it." See what I mean?

But I'm getting sidetracked. His book also examines the city mob, radical religious sects, and proletarian secret societies. He uncovers a lot of interesting material, he subjects it to a sometimes brilliant analysis, and then, just when you've been nodding your head almost long enough to forget where the man is coming from, he coughs up some more Stalinism.


posted by Jesse 1:35 PM
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