Chamsy el-Ojeili

Interview completed: 02/13/2014

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

I first came across anarchism seriously when I was about 19, in 1989. I had already become a convert to socialism of a standard communist party cast, after which—when I looked a little more closely at “really existing socialism”—I’d drifted in a more Trotskyist direction. However, there were still major questions for me, because I could see that there were problems from the early days after the Russian Revolution. It was in trying to get answers to these questions that my encounter with anarchism was very important.

I discovered an anthology of Marcus Graham’s journal Man at the university library and worked my way through it at every opportunity. Alexander Berkman’s What is Communist Anarchism? was also very important to me, and, on the question of the Russian Revolution, Maximoff’s The Guillotine at Work was transformatory. These works, followed by a dedicated reading of a whole raft of other anarchist thinkers, ensured that whatever kind of socialist/communist I was going to be, it wasn’t going to be a Leninist kind.

I should also mention punk, which, of course, was often connected to anarchism, even if this was more as feeling than it was explicitly articulated, and the bands Crass and Dead Kennedys were a good part of my initial political education. In a way, though, punk also pushed me slightly away from anarchism. Because looking at what I could see of the anarchist scene in NZ and elsewhere, it was clear to me that it had quite a lifestyle-ish sort of flavour to it. On the one hand, this was all good—living the revolution now, revaluation of all values, a politics of everyday life, etc.—but it definitely raised doubts, for me, as did a certain anti-intellectualism I thought I detected in the anarchist milieu.

With the lifestyle issue, it just looked to me as if, often, anarchism and punk music and style got completely bound up as a single package, and that seemed like a very narrow and restrictive line. It looked like anarchism was the property of a subculture, and, surely, I thought, anarchism was for everyone and not the possession of something as fleeting and contingent as a sub-culture, however anti-establishment it might be. On the anti-intellectualism question, becoming more and more attached to political and social theory, I started to feel that anarchism just often didn’t have the rigour, scope, systematicity that the Marxian tradition did, and was too often simplistic in its attempts to describe and explain the social world. And, sometimes, this has been something that anarchists are proud of—that anarchism is not confined to the academy and is instead a useable theory or an assortment of theories. I understand this, and think it’s a quite vital anti-elitist warning, because there is a real sense in which Theory, including Marxian theory, becomes largely something like a club or subculture for certain types of middle class men. But, whether it was an “intellectualist deviation” of mine or not, I wanted some quite subtle, coherent tools for thinking about the stuff that was happening before me (neo-liberal restructuring, major changes in the workforce, globalization, for instance), as well as to help me comprehend history in a systematic and totalizing way.

At this point, I was discovering the non-Bolshevik Marxists—Korsch, Pannekok, Castoriadis, the “impossibilists” of the world socialist movement, and so on. These people seemed, to me, to offer a lot of what could be found in anarchism, but with a more systematic theory and a very rich tradition of debate and clarification, as well as always preventing any slide into a libertarian perspective of purely atomistic negative freedoms, sometimes of an unpleasantly Nietzschean register, which I could see as a threat in some of the anarchism I was encountering.

Ultimately, I now see these people—both the communist anarchists and the non-Bolshevik Marxists—as on the same page, as doing the same thing, and I count them all as part of my intellectual-political family. It’s probably a question of temperament, which side and which particular thinkers you end up leaning towards, your favourite uncles and aunts, or something. For instance, when, in 1991, I encountered the Situationists and their two great works of 1967—Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life—from the start, I liked Debord’s book a lot more. I have a very special place in my heart for Vaneigem’s book, but it’s just that, temperamentally, I tended to lean towards the social critique (a focus on inequalities, poverty, exploitation, and the negative consequences of egoism) rather than the artistic critique (the critique of domination, uniformity, the emphasis on authenticity and individual autonomy), to use Luc Boltanski’s characterization of the divide here.

What was my encounter with anarchism like, then? It was like falling in love—life-changingly exhilarating, and full of endless productive disorientation, agitation, and feverishness!

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

As I say, my own leaning is towards a libertarian socialism/left communism, which includes the communist anarchists, syndicalists and others, but I tend to think out of the Marxian tradition, first and foremost, rather than out of anarchism. Anarchism, as a wide-ranging tradition, is, though, profoundly sociological: it wants to describe and explain the constitution, maintenance, and transformation of whole social orders. It’s a critical analysis and a utopian commitment, as is most sociology, but it has a particular inflection that is very valuable, in pointing to polyvalent forms of domination as crucial to the present, with the overcoming of this domination, of hierarchy, and of the state as its explanatory and utopian engine.

Again, a more Marxian positioning is just somehow more immediate for me. Here, I really like Goran Therborn’s idea of the “Marxian triangle”—a historical social science, a philosophy of contradictions, a socialist/working class politics. The anarchist tradition has a plurality of versions of the same sorts of points of the triangle, but it’s just a lot more variable and chaotic, I think, and, with anarchism, I’m always leaning towards the stuff that looks more Marxian (Bookchin, for instance).

So, to me, anarchism is a sociology, as conceived of by Ruth Levitas in her great work on utopia and sociology (see her latest book, Utopia as Method, for example), but it’s obviously not had the sort of presence within the university that Marxism has had, because it’s a much less tight and univocal research programme. This is obviously well in the process of changing, with an avalanche of great reconsideration and retrieval of anarchism in the past decade or so. It’s interesting to note, on a vaguely connected note, that I’ve had a whole bunch of really smart anarchist students through my courses over the past 10 years, and, very often, their sociology is driven by a firm anarchist vision, but they use a great variety of theories quite pragmatically—Foucault, Latour, complexity analysis, post-colonial thought, Deleuze and Guattari, and much more—rather than thinking from a steady canon of works, thinkers, concepts. I feel torn between admiration and slight concern (which is possibly just a silly generational lament) when I see this.

It seems to me, another reason for this marginal and delayed anarchist influence, even if anarchism is immediately sociological, is that sociology has been tied, from the early days, to the state and, especially, the welfare state and to a statist socialism of some variety. Of course we could show that there are major exceptions to this—Spencer in Britain or Sumner in the US—but I think Peter Wagner is completely right to link sociology to the “organization of modernity”, a science and a post-liberal (“liberal” in the European rather than American sense) political project that is erected in a period of major political and epistemological uncertainty, the socialist challenge, mass society, and mounting statism.

Here, anarchism looks like one of those outside voices that can fruitfully challenge the dominant modalities of sociology. And on this score, obviously, many of the big challenges for sociology since the 1960s—feminism, the critique of Eurocentrism, scepticism towards the naïve view of progress and technological development, the questioning of positivism, and so on—look most hospitable to anarchism. And the wave of anti-foundationalist thinking that has swept through the human sciences from around the 1980s—Foucault, Derrida, the challenges of post-modernism—these quite often, at best, seem to have strong anarchist resonances, rather than Marxist ones. I could sense this reading, say, Foucault and Anti-Oedipus in the early 1990s, and then I encountered Todd May’s book, which points this out very clearly. Since then, of course, we have the big discussion around “post-anarchism”, where anarchism’s contemporaneity is asserted on this basis; anarchism’s pluralism, critique of all forms of power, suspicion of state and intellectuals—all this is viewed as having crucial affinities with more up-to-date social scientific thought.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology? What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

In the ways I have alluded to above, I think anarchism contributes to sociology, but often not in an explicit, acknowledged way—even if many sociologists have been seriously aware of anarchism (Durkheim, for instance, on syndicalism). It is there in critiques of various forms of domination and in a perspective that places collectivities of ordinary people at the forefront of progressive social change, rather than calling for state- or intellectual-led solutions. There’s lots of sociology around that is potentially very welcoming to anarchist thinking, and, as I say, over the past decade or so, there’s been a ton of work that seeks to develop a more explicit anarchist presence within the disciplines. I think this stuff is really stimulating and really promising—I think, for example, of the great questions David Graeber raises in his little book on anarchist anthropology. This is obviously largely the expression of a real movement, because the surge of interest in anarchism is intimately connected to alternative-globalization and its successors and the clear anarchist affinities (horizontalism, prefigurative politics, wide-ranging critique of a multiplicity of dominations, anti-militarism, and so on) of this movement of movements.

Here, my only concern is that anarchism doesn’t get too tied to post-foundational thought. I’m really influenced, in this, by one of my supervisors Gregor McLennan who has spent a lot of time unpacking and critiquing the post-modern turn. What he’s saying, in essence, is that we can’t really get rid of essentialism, universalism, determinism, and so on, without sacrificing crucial sociological values and, particularly, holism and explanation. So, sometimes, I get a little nervous when I see too much emphasis in the contemporary literature about how anarchism is relevant in the human sciences because it was always already post-foundational or it’s perfectly compatible with it, etc. For a start, I don’t think this is true of all of anarchism. Second, is it really that great to reject all forms of essentialism, at a time when the dominant ideology is that we’re competitive, self-interested beings who are driven to pursue power, wealth, and status? Isn’t a more positive characterization of human essence and flourishing pretty damn important? Third, I’m much more traditionalist on this, and while I think the challenges of the post-modern moment have been really important in all sorts of ways, I also think we should be beyond the negativity and paralysis of those debates now, and head in a more positive direction, where (I’m paraphrasing McLennan in all of this) we try to actually say something of substance about the shape of the world and the values that are best for shaping the future. Anarchism should be damn good at this.

Some of the best stuff in the newer literature, for me, is around teaching, because anarchism has a long proud history of trying to rethink education in an emancipatory way, including lots of practical attempts to do a different sort of pedagogy. On this, I reckon anarchism is a lot less encumbered than the Marxian tradition, because, throughout, anarchism has challenged the position of leaders, multiple forms of domination, rigid vanguardist parties, the privileging of intellectuals, and so on. Of course, Marxism is closely connected, particularly through the Leninist tradition, to the importance of parties and the vital role given to theoretical knowledge, which sets it up, anarchists charge, for substitutionism—leaders/parties as representatives of the people/class. And you can see some of these kinds of problems in the reinvigorated Leninism of Zizek and Badiou, who are very much in vogue here at the moment. Anarchism provides us with an inoculation against some of the issues with this, I think. Because anarchists are really good at having lots of faith in ordinary folk, in pointing out just how anarchistic/communistic and bloody creative people are day-to-day, in their practical, down-to-the-roots commitment to equal liberty. Not only does this make for a good outlook on teaching, with an inclination to partnership and mutual learning, but it clearly has some rather radical implications for research involving flesh and blood people, with a whole raft of scrupulous cautions about not being the sort of intellectual bringing truth from without, philanthropically going to heal the people’s wounds, brutally destroying their “idols”, or writing about them as if reporting on the running of rats through mazes. It potentially upsets a whole lot of typical assumptions underpinning much of the sociology of the past, what Bauman has called a sociology tied to a “gardening” impulse, which, in turn, is deeply connected to normalization, certainty, expulsion of ambivalence, and the like.

In sum, I think anarchism has a lot of quite distinctive material to offer sociology, but, to me, this needs to be constantly rubbing against and brought into dialogue with a still vibrant Marxist tradition, just so we don’t go using just one investigative torch, without understanding just what we might then be illuminating and what we might be leaving to the shadows. To me, this isn’t just important as far as sociology is concerned, but also with respect to what Santos calls a new global left in formation.

What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?

Oh, that’s a hard one, but I’m tempted to immediately respond with a surprise answer—Weber. It’s hard, of course, because anarchism’s a very plural tradition, and I reckon you could make a case for just about any of the figures in the classical phase as anarchist-leaning in some ways. But there certainly seem like some reasonable elective affinities with Weber—causal pluralism, methodological individualism, the analysis of power as multiple, the importance of cultural factors, his evaluative concerns about the effects of rationality, his critique of aspects of Marxism. But there’s obviously heaps there, too, that just doesn’t look anarchistic in the slightest—his elitism, his nationalism, his general anti-utopianism (which you might see as built from a rather jaundiced view of human beings), his advocacy of leadership democracy (i.e., his very restricted view of popular participation in political life), and so on.

Obviously, for me, the real answer would be Marx, because I’m of that tradition that says that there’s profound discontinuity between Marx and Lenin. This involves, of course, emphasizing certain aspects of Marx over others—the emancipation of the working class as the work of the working class itself, the use of “party” only in the “great historical sense” of all of the working class, his comments on the Paris Commune as the directly democratic form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so on.

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

As I suggested above, one reason might be the statism of much of sociology, the particular political project it is from early on, and the fact that, from the discipline’s institutionalization until the 1970s at least, anarchism seems quite out of step with “organized modernity” (this is Peter Wagner again).

Another possible thought is that in the period sociology really expands, anarchism had dwindled somewhat after the 1930s, as opposed to the big presence of Marxism in what Wallerstein calls the anti-systemic movements—national liberation, communism, social democracy—which are big power players in size and ideas, 1945-1968.

And another linked response would be to attend to the question of the victory of a particular organizational doctrine, Marxism, which, as Donald Sassoon noted in his history of socialism, won out against its competitors with an attractive set of useable, necessarily vulgarized axioms—capitalism is unfair (exploitation); history moves through stages dominated by a particular ruling class (the materialist conception of history); and workers are a unitary group in terms of interests (a theory of political transition). I’m not arguing an Eric Hobsbawm-type line that anarchism just didn’t produce any interesting, serious thinkers, merely “hedge preachers”; I’m quite simply saying that, for whatever reasons, Marxism successfully captured socialism and was able to attach itself in quite a powerful way to general efforts at progressive, emancipatory social change. This victory and those useable axioms have allowed a really good, wide-ranging, multiple-stranded, and morally forceful research programme, a worthy competitor to bourgeois social science projects, at least until the 1980s.

The question of feminism would be much more complex probably, and I don’t feel quite as qualified and up-to-date with the literature to comment, but my sense is that feminism, as a central strand in the counter-cultural ‘60s and ‘70s, contains many dimensions that are really quite compatible with or close to anarchism—consensus, consciousness raising, epistemological questioning, rethinking power beyond simply state and capital, prefigurative politics, and so on—and that this intellectual challenge was intimately connected to and driven by a movement of some significance, giving it an opening into the world of the university.

How could academic sociology be more anarchist?

Maybe we are in a period that is more propitious for anarchism in the academy, and our practice is already leaning in a more anarchistic direction. Everyone, it seems, now is for pluralism, and the post-modern moment has prepared us for a more welcoming attitude to many voices, difference, otherness, a more relativist approach to knowledge (Paul Feyerabend explicitly described his epistemological approach as Dadaist or anarchist, and the post-structuralist view of knowledge tends to follow in a very similar line), the focus on power in its more capillary forms, encouraging a real scepticism about organized modernity and, especially, the faith in states, experts, science, big-scale utopian ideologies. So I’m saying, maybe we’ve become a bit more anarchistic, or that there’s more room for it today, somehow.

And a related issue is that if it’s true, as some people suggest, that there’s maybe been something of a retreat from the high theoreticism of earlier decades, this could allow more room for a typically less theoretically puffed-up but morally compelling stream of thought like anarchism to get more space at the sociological table, especially when it has obvious connections to the alternative globalization movement, Occupy etc.

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

Yes, as mentioned, I’ve been surprised at just how many anarchists I’ve had through my classes—far more than young Marxists. They’ve tended to really like the critical inflexion of the sociology we tend to do here. I particularly had a number on my course on globalization when I first started about a decade ago, and they obviously often had ties to the alternative globalization movement.

And, as I mentioned, I have found that while they’ve largely been among the best students I’ve seen, they are less “familiar” to me because they aren’t as desperately invested as me and students I went through with in being housed within particular theoretical paradigms; and so much of the sectarian social theoretical debates, especially the historical ones, don’t seem to light their fires as much as they did mine. Instead, they seem to be much more pragmatic—what can this conceptual tool do for me in illuminating this question? It doesn’t matter if it came from a reactionary like Pareto, say, or from Goffman who I would’ve seen as too little concerned with structures and too much like a good novelist rather than a theorist to be useful. And this pragmatism means they aren’t as likely to declare themselves as part of this or that school of theory, but instead find their home in particular substantive areas, where they can draw on a range of thinkers, and be pushed along by their anarchist political commitments in realms of study that fascinate them.

They seem to be ironically amused by my more rigid Marxian views, open to elements of it, but not at all compelled to take it on or pretend to take it on out of respect or pity, which I really enjoy and find quite challenging. It’s challenging because then I’m forced to be a bit more explicit about why this Marxian tool rather than something else, in what exact ways does it help us?

Interestingly, I’ve also had a bunch of anarchistic Christians coming through my courses. They also tend to be great writers, deeply involved in particular, situated struggles, but much more bookish and theoretically inclined than the non-religious anarchists, it seems to me, especially around the “post-secular” turn in social theory (which, again, Gregor McLennan writes about in a very interesting, challenging, more traditionalist way). I’m not sure if this is happening as much in the US, but this post-secular turn is described by Gregor as a softening from within sociology towards religious modes of knowledge, a new reluctance to sharply separate science and other ways of knowing, and the migration of a more religious-sounding language into social theory. Examples would include people like Hardt and Negri, Badiou, Habermas, and Zizek. Gregor doesn’t like this stuff at all and insists on the necessity of a methodological atheism in sociological work, but this stuff has really caught the imagination of a number of students I’ve seen, and they’re very interesting, smart and engaged, and quite autonomous and impressive in the directions they’re taking.

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

I think it is. There are a number of them around, and probably a growing number. The university is still, as Edward Said noted, a quasi-utopian space, not completely tied to power and money, where you get quite a bit of freedom in terms of what goes, what counts as disciplinary teaching and research. As I said, there’s obviously a steep rise in academic work on anarchism over the past few years, so things would seem to be alive and kicking for academic anarchism.

At the same time, I reckon anarchists are probably much more likely than Marxists to see this as a moment full of danger. I can see this concern running through the academic work on anarchism that’s appeared in the last few years. The university is clearly tied to the state, and anarchists might feel that we might end up with a bunch of professorial anarchist gods. Marxism had this debate as well, but after the 1920s, so many big Marxist thinkers were increasingly in the universities rather than at the core of socialist parties (as Perry Anderson points out in his little book on Western Marxism). Also, from a situationist perspective, what might happen, here, is “recuperation”, the most radical gestures becoming part of the spectacle, and so on.

In fact, a couple of the best anarchist students I’ve seen cut their academic life short for fear of this sort of thing, which I understood, but felt sad about. Because, when all is said and done, you can still do the sort of work that is important to you here. We’re hardly saving the world with what we do, but it’s a craft that gives you a lot of autonomy, you can contribute to the debate with your writing and teaching, and you don’t have to have academic matters as the alpha and omega of your political life—there’s an accessible outside. Despite everything, this is a space we can and must occupy, because our enemies sure as hell would like to.

What, if any connections, exist between “critical theory” (a la Frankfurt School) and anarchism?

It’s been at least a decade since I really was immersed in the Frankfurt thinkers, so my response might be full of all sorts of forgettings and blind spots. For me, the Frankfurt folk belong in that same left communist current, alongside Pannekoek, Castoriadis, the communist anarchists, and so on. For instance, they were interlocutors of Karl Korsch and Paul Mattick, among others, the workers’ councils experience was important for Horkheimer and Marcuse at least, and they were well versed with the various critical Left interpretations of Russian communism. I remember being disappointed, though, at their explicit statements on “really existing socialism”, especially Marcuse’s book in the late ‘50s, because it is so inconclusive and seems to be setting aside so much of the Left work on the question. But, of course, this was a hugely difficult conjuncture they’re working in, full of weighty consequences in terms of the position you held to on this question—it’s all very well for me to sit here in New Zealand (“marshmallow land”, as my Scottish friend memorably put it), 50 years on and say they should’ve been more explicit, firmly committed to the Left communist position, made table thumping condemnations of the state capitalism in the USSR, and so on.

For Perry Anderson in that book on Western Marxism, the Frankfurt thinkers exemplified the defeat of socialism after the early 1920s—super-academic, unattached to real movements, full of despair and isolation, drifting off into European idealism and cultural analysis, rather than doing the bread and butter Marxian work on economics and political strategy. But, to me, this cultural turn and the rethinking of Marxism by way of other thinkers and traditions is precisely a way of understanding what’s gone wrong—the catastrophe of the Great War, the failures of the European rebellions 1919-21, the disappointments with the Russian experiment, the rise of fascism. It’s an open Marxian attempt to get to grips with a whole lot of things that Second International Marxism (including Lenin) wasn’t providing much help with.

So this non-dogmatic, courageous attempt at open rethinking is important, to me—although, from memory, this didn’t include much if any openness to anarchism. I think many, many Leftist academics who are attentive to libertarian socialism/anarchism couldn’t help but find still useful the Frankfurt thinking on culture, its critique of traditional theory, and those formulations about what critical theory seeks to do.

In terms of the way anarchists have drawn on the Frankfurt School, I couldn’t give you a really detailed account of a reception history. But, clearly, there are some pretty important connections, or at least coherences, between the Frankfurt thinkers and anarcho-primitivism—Jacques Camatte, Fredy Perlman, John Zerzan. Zerzan is the most obvious case and the presence of Dialectic of Enlightenment and other Frankfurt work has an important place in his work. Camatte, too, sounds an awful lot like Marcuse after his break with Bordigism in the late 1960s.

I really quite like this primitivism, in many ways, but there’s stuff in there that worries me, too. I don’t go with everything Murray Bookchin had to say about it—and I especially object to the un-comradely tone that that debate takes on, on both sides—but primitivism can get kind of one-sided and “Grand Hotel Abyss-ish” (Lukacs’ characterization of Adorno) about our utterly contaminated present, which seems in desperate need of a good old dose of anarchist optimism about the seeds of the emancipated future being visible right here and now.

Chamsy el-Ojeili is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Beyond Post-Socialism (Palgrave, 2015). Contact details: