Social Crime

The aim of my new ‘Concepts of Crime’ feature on this website (not written as blog but as page) is to provide a quick and easy point of reference for students and general readers alike on some of the key concepts in the history of crime and historical criminology. As this website began as one solely dedicated to Robin Hood (although it has since morphed into a website encompassing all types of criminals), it seems fitting that I should begin this series by discussing a concept to which I have referred frequently: social crime.

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Those who are acquainted with some of the scholarship on Robin Hood will be familiar with this concept. It was first developed as the idea of social banditry by the neo-Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, in two books entitled Primitive Rebels (1959) and Bandits (1969).[i] In his study of bandits and mountaineers in pre-modern, agrarian societies, Hobsbawm argued that

Social bandits are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped, or supported.[ii]

The reason that such bandits were often idealised by the local population is because their actions had about them an element of social protest. Thus, Robin Hood, who allegedly flourished in the twelfth century and stole from the rich to give to the poor, was, through these actions, engaging in a form of rebellion against the state:

Social crimes are a conscious, almost a political, challenge to the prevailing social and political order and it’s values … [which] … occurs when there is a conflict of laws, e. g. between an official and unofficial system, or when acts of law-breaking have a distinct element of social protest in them, or when they are closely linked with the development of social or civil unrest.[iii]

The conflict between an official and unofficial system might constitute, for example, stealing from recently enclosed common lands. Essentially, large-scale banditry in these societies, in which the bandit targeted only the wealthy and political classes, constituted a “pre-historic social movement”: it was the precursor to modern organised labour movements. Hobsbawm’s study encompassed a wide range of historical bandits from around the world including Oleksa Dovbush, Jurej Janosik, Martina Chapanay, Dick Turpin, Pancho Villa, and Ned Kelly. His ‘seminal insight’, according to Graham Seal, was the identification of outlaw heroes as a special kid of criminal, distinct from all other thieves and robbers.[iv]

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The last true social bandit, Salvatore Giuliano

Hobsbawm’s original thesis was not without its critics. The main opposition to it came in an article written by Anton J. Blok in an article for The Peasant and the Brigand: Social Banditry Reconsidered, published in 1972. While Blok accepted that some pre-modern outlaws can indeed be held up as heroes by the local peasantry, when one looks at the facts of some of the above bandits’ criminal careers, it is quite clear that they often terrorised the peasantry. Hobsbawm had, according to Blok, relied too much on the stories and legends surrounding bandits, rather than the facts of their deeds (Hobsbawm does address the concerns of his critics in his preface to revised editions of Bandits).[v]

Hobsbawm’s fellow neo-Marxist historians, Douglas Hay, E. P. Thompson, John G. Rule, Peter Linebaugh, and Cal Winslow in a book of essays entitled Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (1975). Building upon Hobsbawm’s work on social banditry, they applied the same principles to crime in eighteenth-century England. Social banditry had become social crime. Winslow, for instance, places smugglers in the same camp as the bandits of old: the provincial and coastal areas of England were marred by poverty and tariffs on imported goods, instituted by the ruling classes, prevented plebeians from enjoying such goods. With their armed bands of raiders and their sometimes transnational networks, smuggling, according to Winslow, amounted to a form of guerrilla class warfare. Moreover, the local population often supported the smugglers, or at the very least did not report them for it, and so they were in effect local heroes.[vi] Indeed, one gets the sense that if, as Douglas Hay argues, the eighteenth-century criminal code was nothing but an instrument of terror by the ruling class against the plebeian class, then every property crime then surely becomes an act of social protest, although Hay does not state this explicitly.[vii] However, E. P. Thompson warned historians themselves against idealising social bandits and criminals too much, saying that there is no such thing as ‘nice’ social crime and ‘nasty’ social crime: there is just social crime, and the methods its practitioners use can often be brutal, even if people at the time largely approved of their actions.[viii]

Just as Hobsbawm had his critics, so too did Hay and the rest of the Albion’s Fatal Tree authors. These criticisms were advanced by J. H. Langbein in an article entitled Albion’s Fatal Flaws, although not all of his criticisms were centred upon Hay et al’s idea of social crime. Langbein disputed the idea that the eighteenth-century criminal code was an instrument of terror designed to cow the non-elites into submission by pointing out, among other things, the amount of discretion that judges and juries had in commuting sentences, and most of the people who served in the judiciary were not from the elites but the middling sorts. And of course, if it is not the case that the eighteenth-century criminal code was the elites’ instrument of terror, then the social protest aspect of any supposed social crime ceases to be social, and thus not a social crime.[ix]

Of course, all of the above scholars’ works examined criminals in pre-industrial, predominantly rural societies. Was there a way in which the idea of social crime might be applicable to modern industrial societies? Historians had noted that smuggling, coal-picking, and poaching had survived into the twentieth century (smuggling, even an act as small as bringing back more cigarettes and bypassing duty at an airport, still survives today). According to Stephen Humphries, furthermore, the juvenile criminals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, driven to steal through want and deprivation, were social criminals, and their activities such as coal-picking harked back to time-honoured beliefs in the rights of the common man to take resources freely – rights that the plebeians had enjoyed in pre-modern times.[x] Yet while it is not impossible to apply the concept to modern industrial countries, it is more difficult. As society becomes more developed, there is little to distinguish the social bandit from the petty criminal whose actions are devoid of any form of social protest and who will in all likelihood not discriminate between the small corner shop and the large chain store, as John Lea argues.[xi]

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Characters and Crooks from the Victorian era – can the idea of social banditry be applied in modern industrial society?

In conclusion, there is still merit in the insights of Hobsawm, Thompson, and Winslow. Hobsbawm’s study of bandits certainly revolutionised the study of outlaws and highwaymen. And it is a concept that certainly can be applied with some success to pre-modern, agrarian societies. Yet, as stated above, it is certainly becomes more difficult to apply the idea in a modern capitalist society, and if it is applied, it is difficult to distinguish between a ‘true’ social bandit and a petty criminal/thug.


[i] Eric J. Hobsbawn, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: W. W. Norton, 1959).

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. edn. (London: Abacus, 2001), p. 20.

[iii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, 2nd edn. (London: Pelican, 1972), p. 5.

[iv] Graham Seal, Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History (London: Anthem, 2011), p. 181.

[v] Anton J. Blok, ‘The Peasant and the Brigand: Social Banditry Reconsidered’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 14: 4 (1972), 494-503.

[vi] Douglas Hay, et al., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, rev. edn. (London: Verso, 2011), p. 149.

[vii] Hay, et al., Albion’s Fatal Tree, p. 21.

[viii] ‘Conference Report’, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History (1972), p. 10.

[ix] J. H. Langbein, ‘Albion’s Fatal Flaws’, Past and Present, No. 98 (1983), 96-120.

[x] Stephen Humphries, Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth, 1889-1939 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp. 166-72.

[xi] John Lea, ‘Social Crime Revisited’, Theoretical Criminology, 3: 3 (1999), 307-25 (p. 314).

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