"...social bandits ... are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by the people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported."
--Eric Hobsbawm, "Bandits," page 20
Eric Hobsbawm, the elder statesman of historians, first published the term "social bandit" in 1959 in his book "Primitive Rebels." Later, he would dedicate a whole book to the subject of social banditry, "Bandits."
In "Bandits," Hobsbawm sets forth systematically the idea of social banditry, a distinction setting apart those who are regarded as criminals by the state, and those who enjoy the support of the populace. This work is still relevant in looking at current history, as it can highlight the concerns that lie at the root of terrorism, and suggests that by addressing those concerns, we may best stop terrorists.
The distinction of bandits versus social bandits may not at first seem important to the average reader. To the law, and to a lesser extent, the media, anyone who attacks and robs with violence is a criminal, and a bandit. To historians, however, this definition is lacking. Throughout history there have been those who were looked upon favorably by their society, even as they opposed the law - these figured represent a crack in the seams of society, and a conflict which Hobsbawm would assert is Marxist class conflict. The most famous example is Robin Hood, but there are many others who are more firmly grounded in the historical record, for example Pancho Villa, Jesse James, Zelim Khan, Francisco Ríos, or even the early nineteenth century German League of Outlaws.
People and groups who can be called social bandits all have in common a disconnection from authority, but a connection with the society they live in, real or perceived. The bandit is assumed to have values in common with those around them, even when the leaders do not. Billy the Kid, for example, was said to be a friend of the Mexicans in Lincoln County, and was on their side in the fight against the eastern elites settling the county.
The concept of social banditry is a useful one for historians - it represents a way of characterizing those who fit within social boundaries, but outside legal ones. It also provides a framework for historians to determine exactly what this means. Hobsbawm argues that social banditry is only possible at a certain stage in the growth of a society - before the government can effectively enforce the law over all its territory, but at the same time at a transition in the way farming and land rights are handled. Although Hobsbawm considers them to have reactionary goals, he believes social bandits a revolutionary force. Other, non-Marxist historians have found different ways of looking at social banditry, but it still remains a powerful tool for comparative historians. Social banditry provides framework for comparing at first seemingly unrelated cases of criminal activity in different countries, regions or eras.
Some information taken from Hobsbawm's "Bandits."