Bill Gamson

Interview completed: 08/07/2014

How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?

My father-in-law told me a scary story about being arrested in a demonstration after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti and being taken to Ellis Island and threatened with deportation. He was born in Odessa in 1903 and was brought to the U.S. at the age of nine but his parents had never taken out citizenship papers. He described the hysteria about anarchists and it seemed to me at the time a precursor of the McCarthy era red scare stuff with which I was familiar. It struck me as a case of persecuting members of a movement for their ideas rather than their actions.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

I think of there being two categories of anarchists: anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists. I have sympathies with the latter, not the former, and feel that this branch of anarchism has contributed much to sociology. The anarchist group that fell into my probability sample in The Strategy of Social Protest was the Social Revolutionary Clubs—that is, anarcho-communists. They were blamed—unfairly—for the bomb thrown in the Haymarket in Chicago on May 4, 1886. They were practical enough to embrace short-term goals such as the 8-hour workday but their general objective was to overthrow the U.S. regime and replace it with a Communist regime.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?

Anarcho-syndicalism, on the other hand, was concerned with issues of organization and leadership. They were wrestling with the issues of hierarchical organization and favored highly decentralized leadership structures which I felt made sociological sense if one was interested in maximizing and maintaining grassroots participation. Their ideas were reflected in many social movement books and essays that focused on the advantages and disadvantages of decentralization. The best example of this is the discussion sparked by Jo Freeman’s classic article on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

What about anarcho-syndicalism do you see as the most relevant to sociology? Is it a topical overlap, a stylistic sympathy, shared theoretical concerns? Do you have any examples in mind? (Also, what do you think makes anarcho-communism less relevant to sociology?)

There is a strong interest in the most effective way of organizing for change. The topical overlap and shared theoretical concerns are with organizational issues and, in particular, with the danger of oligarchy. I do not see a stylistic sympathy. If anything, the style of anarchist writing is an obstacle to its influence on sociology. Anarcho-communists, in contrast, did not really address the strategic issues of organizational strategy.

What “could” anarchism contribute to sociology?

It could be useful for anarchists to answer the following questions: What anarchist principles should be embedded in the organization of contemporary states that wish to maximize citizen engagement in the polity? What anarchist principles should be embedded in the organization of contemporary social movements in different countries that are attempting to achieve a culture and social institutions that are more just than the present ones?

What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic? And why?

Robert Michels in his writing on the “iron law of oligarchy.” This seems to me the clearest and most influential example of anarchist thought in sociology.

How about anarchists… who do you consider to be the most sociological?

I don’t really know the writings of non-sociological anarchists.

Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g. Marxism, feminism)?

I don’t accept the premise that anarchism has had less impact in sociology than Marxism. In fact, I think it has had much more and is reflected especially in the sociology of organizations and the central concern with the problem of oligarchy. Sociologists seem very fond of the idea that “power corrupts” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What could be more anarchist than that?

How could academic sociology be more anarchist?

Academic sociology has already thoroughly absorbed the lessons of anarchist thought and has paid a lot of attention to potential critical weaknesses. The classic “push back” essay against the anarchist distrust of social structure is the classic Jo Freeman article on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

Ever encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?

I encountered many students who were strongly committed to participatory democracy. They never would have labeled themselves “anarchist”—for them a movement from the past—but they shared many central anarchist beliefs, including especially a distrust of top-down hierarchical authority structures and a strong commitment to decentralizing and dispersing power.

Is it possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Esp. within the academy?)

Definitely yes. Proof is the recent symposium on anarchist thought in Contemporary Sociology (July, 2014, Vol.43, Number 4) featuring a review of the work of three academic sociologist who considered themselves anarchists (Paul Goodman, Colin Ward, and James C. Scott).

Last question: What is the significance of anarchism for the sociological study of social movements?

Its challenge to oligarchy and hierarchical forms of social movement organization.