In Defence of Hobsbawm’s ‘Primitive Rebels’ Thesis

To what extent has the historiography of anarchism in Spain advanced since Eric Hobsbawm advanced his thesis of ‘primitive rebels’?

Anarchism made its first appearance in Spain between 1868 and 1873, during the country’s bourgeois revolutionary period ‘when pillars of the old semi-feudal regime finally collapsed’. This was concurrent with the arrival of the Italian Giuseppe Fanelli, who introduced anarchist theory to the Spanish pueblos through Mikhail Bakunin’s International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, part of the First International. Anarchism found particular popularity in Andalusia, attracting the ‘landless, smallholders, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and artisans.’ Many industrial, pro-separatist and anti-authoritarian workers in Barcelona and the surrounding Catalonian regions also became anarchists.

Anarchism was shaped primarily by criticism of the state, capitalism and religion, and ‘its political goal was the destruction of the state for the purpose of preserving the autonomy of the local community.’ Distinguishing anarchism from socialism and communism was the ‘[t]he central place accorded the value of liberty and the emphasis placed upon the dangers of political centralization.’

Until the end of the Civil War in 1939, anarchism was the prevalent ideology within labour organisations. The Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), founded in 1911, claimed 1.5 million members by 1931, and ‘was in turn dominated by the illegal Anarchist center,’ known as the Ferderación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) believed to have around 30,000 members as of 1936. Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels (1959), explores various forms of rebellions in pre-modern peasant societies, with one chapter dedicated to the anarchist movement in rural Andalusia. His study has been very influential in the historiography of Spanish anarchism, but has also met strong criticism, with some historians such as Murray Bookchin dismissing his thesis entirely. This essay seeks to outline Hobsbawm’s thesis and evaluate the historiography of the Spanish anarchist movement, but will ultimately conclude that, although there is inevitably scope for development in our understanding of anarchism in Spain as a whole, Hobsbawm’s economic and social analysis is still important, and that many of the charges against his work are undeserved.

When Hobsbawm uses the term ‘primitive’ rebels, he is referring to ‘the world of people who neither write nor read many books––often because they are illiterate […] pre-political people who have not yet found, or only begun to find, a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world.’ He argues that the Spanish anarchist movement was not ideological, but part of a moral economy; a pre-modern form of politics led by emotional impulses rather than a sophisticated political critique of the system itself.10 In Hobsbawm’s words, ‘it is misleading to express the anarchists’ aspirations in terms of a precise set of economic and political demands. They were for a new moral world.’ His thesis stresses the millenarianism of Andalusian anarchists. In other words, anarchism was a kind of secular religion. Hobsbawm explains that ‘millenarian movements […] are impractical and utopian. […] they flourish best in periods of extraordinary social ferment and tend to speak the language of apocalyptic religion’. Furthermore, they expect revolution ‘to make itself, by divine revelation, by an announcement from on high, by a miracle’, in other words, spontaneously. After the revolution ‘peace, freedom and equality would reign’, and ‘“vice-promoting” luxuries’ such as alcohol and tobacco would be abandoned by ‘the more austere adherents,’ as Bookchin summarises.

This school of thought was pioneered by Juan Díaz del Moral, who analysed the peasantry of Córdoba in Historia de las agitaciones campesinas andaluzas (1928), and Gerald Brenan, a British writer best known for his personal observations of Spanish anarchism in The Spanish Labyrinth (1943). Del Moral concluded that anarchism ‘had a magical rather than a scientific sense of time and historical development’, unable to focus their reasonable anger at ‘concrete’ forces. Brenan viewed the rise of anarchism as a substitute for the Catholic Church, which had alienated poor Spaniards by increasingly aligning with the rich and becoming ‘the symbol of everything that was vile, stupid and hypocritical.’ As José Álvarez Junco summarises,

El rápido, casi repentino proceso de secularización que la sociedad española sufre durante el siglo XIX [significó que] el anarquismo cumple […] la función que antes había desempeñado la Iglesia –– defensora de principios ético-sociales como la igualdad humana esencial, el comunismo primitivo y la solidaridad entre los humildes.

The root of Hobsbawm’s analysis is economic. Anarchism flourished in Spain in accordance with the country’s stunted and uneven transition to modern capitalist relations, and so ‘represented a transitional phase in the development of Spanish working-class consciousness.’ The period of chronic social upheaval that began in the 1850s was a result of the introduction of agrarian capitalism in the countryside; it was a rebellion against the implications of modernisation. As Brenan had noted, the disentailment of the Church played a key role, as the long-standing economic and social ties between the Church and the lower classes were severed.

However, Hobsbawm’s analysis of the Andalusian anarchists has been subject to scrutiny. Bookchin, an anarchist himself, argues that ‘E. J. Hobsbawm’s essay on Anarchist “millenarianism” […] is riddled by Marxian prejudgements. […] Apart from useful information about the Casa Viejas uprising, he adds very little to what Diaz del Moral observes with greater sympathy for his subject.’ Indeed, Hobsbawm’s criticism of Spanish anarchism is, in essence, a Marxist criticism of anarchism and its methods. However, to dismiss his analysis for being Marxist, rather than assessing the content itself, is unhelpful. It is also inaccurate to say Hobsbawm lacked sympathy for his subject.

Hobsbawm clearly understands the oppression faced by the braceros and ultimately, sympathises with the aims of the movement. As he notes in Revolutionaries, ‘There is no difference between the ultimate objective of marxists and anarchists, i.e. a libertarian communism in which exploitation, classes and the state will have ceased to exist.’ The heart of Hobsbawm’s criticism is of the anarchists’ methodology.

Temma Kaplan is the most prominent of Hobsbawm’s critics, particularly regarding his millenarian analogy.Central to her criticism is that ‘[i]n a secular age, the taint of religion is the taint of irrationality’.Kaplan points out that ‘[c]enturies of Christian hegemony had given them a language with which to express abstract ideas, but no separate language to express a new egalitarian consciousness.’If the anarchist movement appeared religious, ‘it is because the anarchists adopted the old forms to teach the new and to demonstrate their rejection of the old ways.’Anarchists were dedicated to science and secular education, ‘to restore the sense of justice in this life rather than the next.’

Martha Grace Duncan, however, points out that the term ‘millenarian’ is not intended literally; it is a metaphor.Hobsbawm is well aware of the rejection of the Church and religion by the anarchists. The millenarian school simply highlights the ‘resemblance between Spanish anarchism and the religious sects that live in “tense expectation” of a millennium’.

In addition, Kaplan argues that the ‘spontaneity’ of anarchism that Hobsbawm disparages was not chiliastic, but ‘intimately related to their ideas about workers’ control.’ She continues:

Workers’ control entailed the ability to make decisions about one’s trade or craft on the spot, without asking advice or permission from foremen or supervisors. It was also part of their ideas about community autonomy. The local council or commission, made up of all syndicates and sections, would make decisions for the community spontaneously, not according to rigid rules.

This was intrinsic to the anarchists’ dedication to not coercing their followers. The characterisation of the anarchists as chiliastic ignores what Kaplan sees as ‘their clear comprehension of the social sources of their oppression.’ George Esenwein contributes to Kaplan’s claims that anarchists were more politically aware and organised than their characterisation as millenarian credits them. He points out that, in the case of the Jerez incident in 1892:

the agitators seem to have had a clear motive in mind when they rose: they sought to release their comrades from the local jail and thereby demonstrate their defiance of the government’s incessant persecution of the International movement. However clumsily and surely they expressed their grievance, the workers were patently aiming to achieve this objective and not to overthrow the local government in order to inaugurate the birth of a libertarian society.

Kaplan contends that the millennial view suggests that the anarchists’ defeat was a result of this irrationality, and overlooks ‘the power of the state to crush popular social movements’. But blaming the state for anarchism’s failure ignores the fact that the Spanish state was a far more fragile than many, and there had been successful revolutions in states more centralised and heavy-handed than Spain––namely Russia in 1917. And, as Hobsbawm quotes from Brenan, ‘a single strike of (socialist) miners in the Asturias shook the Spanish government more than seventy years of massive anarchist revolutionary activity, which presented little more than a routine police problem.’

Duncan asserts that rationality and millenarianism are not mutually exclusive, insomuch as the movement could have exhibited (and in fact did exhibit) millenarian features at one time and place and secular/rational features at another. […] Some adherents might have believed in the imminent arrival of utopia, while others might have held the view that the making of a revolution was a gradual, prolonged process and that the goal was great improvement, not perfection. Esenwein vindicates this, when noting that during the Jerez rising ‘the mob action of the workers indicted a degree of irrationalism that is consistent with millenarian behaviour.’

To suggest that Hobsbawm denies the political consciousness of the anarchists is incorrect. He comments that:

The [Spanish] state was not a ‘foreigners’ state as in Sicily[…] or in Southern Italy. […] To revolt against a legitimate ruler always requires considerably greater political consciousness than to reject a foreigner.

Similarly, Bookchin implies that Hobsbawm had regarded Spanish anarchism as impractical in its goals. Yet Hobsbawm draws attention to the realism of the anarchists’ goal of the self-governing pueblo, in the Andalusian context: ‘Under Andalusian conditions such a programme was less utopian than it seems. […] [It] seems reasonable to assume that authority and the state were unnecessary intrusions.’ As Duncan highlights, ‘Bookchin’s explanation for the failure of Spanish anarchism is in fact the same criticism presented by the millenarian theorists: i.e., that the anarchists were impractical not so much in their vision as in their methods of bringing it to fruition.’

Another common criticism of Hobsbawm is that, by focusing on the braceros of Andalusia, he neglects the wider anarchist movement in Spain. José Peirats Vals claims that he ignores ‘the regional variations of the movement and cannot account for the process whereby anarchism became the dominant creed among the working class in Barcelona.’Bookchin argues that, while [p]easant anarchism retained its intensely moral elements, […] the real strength of the Spanish Federation lay in the north, particularly in Barcelona and nearby textile towns. All seductive preconceptions aside, the fact is that Spanish anarchism first developed among urban industrial workers and craftsmen, not millenarian peasants. However, as Duncan explains, ‘Bookchin implies that the first anarchists enjoy a greater claim to being anarchists than the later adherents.’40 And, in fact, ‘during most of the nineteenth century, Andalusian anarchists outnumbered northern anarchists.’But Primitive Rebels is above all a study of rural, pre-industrial rebellion; it is unfair to criticise his thesis for not analysing the more institutionalised, working-class northern regions as it would not be relevant.

Michael Weisser challenges Hobsbawm at his foundations. He claims that Hobsbawm’s ‘presumed social preconditions for agrarian revolutionism existed in Spain before the liberal reforms.’ Peasants had faced acute oppression and abandonment since time immemorial, so Hobsbawm’s theory about the introduction of capitalism did not explain the rise of anarchism as there was no ‘Golden Age’ to hark back to.43 But this Golden Age is not literal; of course, Hobsbawm does not suggest that peasants lived a rosy existence before capitalism. Michael Löwy summarises Hobsbawm’s meaning succinctly:

in order to understand these revolts, you have to start from the realisation that modernization, the intrusion of capitalism into peasant societies and the advent of economic liberalism and modern social relationships, is truly catastrophic for them .[…] Whether […] a gradual process […] or a sudden one […] they perceive it as an aggressive act that destroys their way of life. Mass peasant revolts […] are often inspired by nostalgia for the traditional world, the ‘good old days’ –– that belong more or less to the realm of myth.

To conclude, Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels thesis is often misrepresented, particularly with regard to his application of the millenarian theory, and there is much criticism of what his study isn’t rather than what it is. And as Duncan also concluded, there is clearly an element of pro-anarchist bias in the objection to Hobsbawm’s thesis.Primitive Rebels is not intended to be an exhaustive account of the entire Spanish anarchist movement, but an insight into the particular, distinct movement in Andalusia. It still holds great significance in this respect, particularly for its analysis of the impact of agrarian capitalism and the liberal state. Historians have since supplemented his work, but are far from disproving or superseding his central analysis.


Bookchin, Murray, The Spanish Anarchists: The heroic years, 1868-1936 (Harper Colophon Books: London, 1977)

Brenan, Gerald, The Spanish Labyrinth (Cambride University Press: London, 1974)

Christie, Stuart, We, the Anarchists!: A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (Meltzer Press: Hastings, 2000)

Duncan, Martha Grace, ‘Spanish Anarchism Refracted: Theme and Image in the Millenarian and Revisionist Literature’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (July 1988), pp. 323-346

Esenwein, George Richard, Anarchist Ideology and the Working-Class Movement in Spain, 1868–1898 (University of California Press: Oxford, 1989)

Gilmore, David, ‘Review: The peasants of the Montes: the roots of rural rebellion in Spain by Michael Weisser’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 81, No. 2 (June 1979), pp. 416-417

Hobsbawm, Eric J., Primitive Rebels (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1963)

Hobsbawm, Eric J., Revolutionaries (Abacus: London, 1999)

Junco, José Álvarez, La ideología política del anarquismo español (1868-1910) (Siglo veintiuno de España editores: Madrid, 1992)

Kaplan, Temma, Anarchists of Andalusia 1868-1903 (Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1977)

Kaplan, Temma, ‘The Social Base of Nineteenth-Century Andalusian Anarchism in Jerez de la Frontera’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Summer 1975), pp. 47-70

Löwy, Michael, ‘Eric Hobsbawm, sociologist of peasant millenarianism’, Estudos Avançados, Vol. 24, No. 69 (2010), pp. 105-118

Smith, Angel, ‘Anarchism, the General Strike and the Barcelona Labour Movement, 1899-1914’, European History Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1997) pp. 5-40.

Trotsky, Leon, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39) (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1973)

Valls, José Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, Vol III Edited, Chris Ealham (ed.) Translated by Paul Sharkey and Chris Ealham (ChistieBooks: Sussex, 2006)


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