Hobsbawm literally pioneered the study of bandits as a social phenomenon. Bandits as a popular form of resistance. Bandits was first published in 1969 and the field has expanded greatly since then, with many theories (some complementary and some opposing) coming forth on the subject.
This book, however, remains a seminal one. And for that reason, this book is simply must read for anyone who is interested in this fascinating topic.
The book starts by explaining who and what a social bandit is. The earliest form of banditry is the example of the mythical Robin Hood (who in all probability did not exist as a single individual). The late examples include bandits like Salvatore Giuliano (whom Puzo immortalized in international popular culture in “The Sicialian”) and bandit turned revolutionaries like Pancho Villa.
Hobsbawn prepares the basis of the definition of bandits by describing the political, social and economic reasons for the rise of bandits and why they still exist in some forms even to this day. He goes on to describe some forms of banditry that persisted for a long time in some countries (like Haiduks in the Balkans).
He describes the environment under which they flourished and gives explanations for the reasons why some bandits are eulogized and become legends, even in their own lifetime and why some other bandits are not (and the latter are not a part of his description of social bandits). He explains why the social bandit enjoyed extensive support in the rural and marginal areas even when they may not have actually lived upto the Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich to give to the poor.
Later he ties up the bandit phenomenon with revolutionary and independence movements in the countries and he explains the various relationships that bandits had with the nationalist movements. He brings in the role of women and their relationship to the bandits.
As I said it is a fascinating topic and it is an interesting book. But I was expecting and hoping for much more. From a purely academic point of view, the book is excellent since it brings forth its theories well. But from a reading point of view, it falls short of expectations.
To be an enjoyable read, you need more description of the bandits. You get the theory but you dont get to know the bandits. You dont quite get the smell of the world that they lived in. You dont get many examples for the different theories that are given to you. You cant quite relate to the bandits and you feel an itching want to do so. The author whets your appetite that much.
Another point is that the book is almost exclusively devoted to European or South American bandits. Eastern ones (from India or China) get only passing reference.
To be fair, the author concedes as such in the introduction. The author explains that he intends to give this book as a primer and the reader must read other books to get more meat.
So, read this book as a window to a world that is not easily accessible. But be ready to trawl the internet to delve deeper.