Edward Avery-Natale

Interview completed: 07/07/2014

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

Though I do not remember the precise moment at which anarchism made its way onto my radar, I do know that it would have, in some way, have come through music, most likely punk rock and I would have been 15 – 16 years old (though it is possible that I would have heard it from Rage Against The Machine, who are a band I liked a great deal before I got into punk and who were indirectly responsible for my interest in politics more generally and for my introduction to punk rock). What I do remember is that when I first encountered the idea of anarchism, I did not have a very complex approach to it. I understood enough to know that it included the opposition to government, but I remember believing at the time that, while an ungoverned society would be lovely, people “weren’t ready” for such a thing and thus needed government in the here-and-now (an idea that I have since discovered is prevalent among some anarchists). Therefore, my politics were primarily liberal/progressive/socialist in some way, shape, or form but were only anarchist in a more abstract way.

Perhaps just as importantly as Rage Against The Machine to my introduction to punk rock, a friend in high school also played a role in my introduction to punk, politics, and ultimately anarchism. He had been into punk rock for much longer than I, and he was definitely dedicated to the political component of punk: he was (and is) vegan, attended protests regularly, wore t-shirts and patches that portrayed political (and often anarchist) messages, and spoke out against various injustices in the world. So although I have trouble remembering the precise moment at which anarchism may have been brought up from him, I do remember that it was something he would have mentioned to me and I know we had a number of conversations on the topic.

However, though I did gain an interest in anarchism at that point in time, my identification as an anarchist wavered off and on for a while. Though I never deviated from some sort of left-leaning identity, this did shift between anarchism, communism, socialism, “liberal,” progressive, leftist, green, utopian, social-democrat, and so on down the line of generally left of center ideologies. This ambiguity lasted until some point in college. If I remember correctly, this would have been during my senior year of college, but I am not entirely certain about that point. However, I do know that I had been identifying as a communist or socialist of some sort for a while. I had since high school (and continue to be) influenced by Karl Marx and other communist and socialist thinkers, and this (among other things including my interest in punk, atheism, critical thought, and so forth) had led to a double major in sociology and philosophy at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. Both of these disciplines helped to sharpen my critical insights and expose me, in sociology, to the injustices of the world and, in philosophy, to critical thinking abilities and perspectives that further honed by thinking and opinions. I specifically remember one day in an environmental philosophy class we were discussing why individuals do not seem to work to protect the natural environment on which they rely and claim to care about. The idea occurred to me, which I brought up in class, that a part of the explanation may be that people believe that there are individuals, experts, and groups for whom that is a responsibility, often specifically government groups. I remember explaining this in class and starting my explanation with a statement something like, “This may be a bit anarchist, but…” and then indicating that perhaps if people were encouraged to be responsible for their personal and social environments, and not to rely upon coercive forces (government), then perhaps we would concern ourselves with the health of the nearby rivers, etc. Though today I would find a certain naivety and over-simplicity to the point I made, it’s a point that I still think has some value. However, more importantly, it got me thinking more and more about the problems of state-communism and state-socialism as I understood them and thinking more and more about anarchism (which I had never absolutely lost interest in). This led me to a community on LiveJournal. At the time, LiveJournal was a popular social media site based more or less on interactive blogging and conversation, but it also had “communities” including an anarchist community (which I remained a member of for years before losing interest in the flame-happy anarchist trolls who liked to attack anyone and everything for simply having an opinion). My first post in that community indicated that I considered myself a communist but was interested in anarchism and was looking for people’s opinions. Though I’m sure I must have received plenty of responses, the only one I remember is being told, basically, that anarchism and communism could be synonymous, but that anarchism was communism without the government (today I would say without the state). I remember that this idea quite appealed to me at the time, though I still doubted its pragmatic position in the immediate place and time.

From there, I delved more into anarchist thought through reading and conversation. I read many websites and articles about anarchy, I read books about it, and I generally worked to educate myself on the topic. Though my exact identity in relation to anarchism (be it anarcho-communuism, anarcho-socialism, green anarchy, syndicalist-anarchism, and so on) has bounced around a little as I’ve learned and read more, I did settle on anarchism as a political identification from that point and “anarchist” remains the way I would identify my politics to this day even though I also continue to support some aspects of government intervention in the here and now (social welfare policies, for example). This is primarily pragmatic though. I would no longer use a phrase like I did in high school: “People aren’t ready” or some such potentially vanguardist or condescending nonsense. Though I am quite inspired by Antonio Gramsci in many ways, I disagree with his perspective on the educative function of the communist state, and I ideologically reject all government, including some dictatorship of “The Proletariat.” Instead, I would simply stress the pragmatism of it: anarchism will come about when we make it come about. It is not a matter of people being “ready for it” or not; people will construct the new systems in the very revolutionary making of those systems. I see this happening around me every day in workers’ collectives, cooperatives, anarchist info-shops, and other cooperative and autonomous spaces. Anarchism is being put into action all day, every day if you know where to look for it. I see this as revolution in practice and praxis. However, while that revolution is ongoing, I suspect that many could do with a little more help, and if that help comes from the government… well, so be it for now. In part this comes from a general rejection of the libertarian-capitalist position that has always, to me, privileged “small states” without justification. Historically, I see little evidence to believe that small and weak governments create a revolutionary people. Instead, small and weak governments have all too often brought forth dictatorships. By the same token though, I do not suspect that anarchism will come about from dictatorships either. Therefore, the libertarian-capitalist obsession with the “size” of government rather than a focus on justice and overall liberty seems willfully naïve. Therefore, I would suggest that government size has little to do with anarchism’s potential, which is an idea that seems to tie my early ideas about anarchism to my current ones, perhaps.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

I believe there is a great deal of compatibility between the two. However, what this compatibility looks like will certainly differ based on the heterogeneous schools of thought that exist under the umbrella of each. In other words, socialist and communist anarchism will have a different relationship to sociology than would individualist anarchism, and so on (I don’t want to focus too much on individualism, as it’s not the school of anarchist thought that I find most intriguing, but perhaps we could suggest that, from sociology, rational choice theory and functionalism might find some common ground with anarchist-individualism). Firstly, I think it is important that both anarchism and sociology have a tendency to look at social and, to some greater or lesser degree, structural explanations for behaviors. For example, both anarchists and sociologists have a tendency to see criminal behavior less as a result of the “lone individuals” making “bad choices,” but instead as a result of institutionalized discrimination, poverty (read: capitalism), alienation, joblessness, and the “leftover” populations of global capital’s increased exploitative productivity. In this way, I suppose anarchism, sociology, and Marxism or other schools of communism tend to share this view of behaviors without fully separating themselves from the possibility of agency (which I consider a good thing, as I value free will). As many know, sociology has a tendency to trace the roots of the discipline to Karl Marx. However, I think that some of the Marxist contributions to sociology could just as readily correspond to anarchist theory (more on this in answer to questions below). In fact, in some cases, the anarchist position could serve as an important corollary to the Marxist position in sociology. For example, the Marxist position on The State sees it as a part of the superstructure determined by the base and assumes that the state emerged primarily with The French Revolution. However, the anarchist position developed in the same time period did much better at recognizing that The State has at least some autonomy from the ruling class and from economics (which helps us understand why a dictatorship of the Proletariat would not be likely to eventually “whither away”). This latter position, without fully rejecting the importance of economics, falls more readily in line with sociological positions on the autonomy of The State (such as those developed by Theda Skocpol among many others).

Overall, I think that in both anarchism and sociology (and Marxism in its best incarnations) we see a significant concern for social justice and human betterment, as well as betterment of the rest of the world. This is not unique to any of these schools of thought, but it is something that is shared between them. Coupled with their similar views of responsibility and behavior, I think we can see that they share a good deal and encourage similar perspectives on the world and how to change it.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?

I am certain that it has, though I think this contribution has been latent. For example, it’s been noted that C. Wright Mills once described himself as “a goddamned anarchist.” With that in mind, it would be hard to believe that whatever anarchist ideals he harbored might not have influenced his sociological ideas, especially when we consider his influential work on “the power elite.” Furthermore, it is well known among anarchists, but less well known among sociologists, that Pierre Joseph Proudhon was an early influence on Karl Marx. Of course, Marx denied this influence and claimed that his work on “the German school of socialism” was in direct contrast to the “French school,” which is commonly recognized as an attack on Proudhon. However, when analyzing the ideas of Proudhon’s that Marx directly critiques, it becomes rather clear that at least some of Marx’s ideas were borrowed from Proudhon and that he had to bastardize the work of Proudhon in order to hide their similarities. This is, of course, not to imply that Marx was secretly an early anarchist—far from it!—but only to point out that Proudhon’s influence on Marx, and Marx’s subsequent influence on sociology necessarily indicate that there is some lineage in which sociology has been influenced by anarchism. This is what I mean why I say that the relationship is “latent” though: few sociologists are aware of this connection; few are even aware of Proudhon’s work, even though it could clearly been seen as an early sociology (as some authors in the early 1970s began to notice in articles such as “Proudhon: Socialist as Social Scientist,” “Proudhon’s Sociology of War,” and the book The Sociology of Pierre Joseph Proudhon).

I do not believe that Proudhon was the last anarchist to have an influence on sociology, or that sociology has not influenced anarchism. However, in think the connection between the two has remained subdued and latent. It seems to me that most anarchist thinkers have had a kind of sociology behind their work, which I will address more in the next question.

What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

As I stated in the previous question, it seems to me that most anarchists have had a kind of sociology behind their work. This was obviously the case with Pierre Joseph Proudhon, but we could also see this with subsequent anarchist thinkers. For example, Peter Kropotkin clearly developed some early ideas in relation to socio-biology in his development of evolutionary ideas. Furthermore, his work in Siberia with the local communities there that helped to influence his ideas of mutual aid would have to be understood as sociological (and perhaps ethnographic) in nature. Kropotkin especially, but also Bakunin, also wrote about the origins of the modern nation state in a way that diverges from Marx’s perspective and could offer alternative perspectives to the usual approach in political sociology. I think that we also see the sociology of gender and early imaginings of what would today be called “third wave feminism” or “sex positive feminism” in Emma Goldman, and these ideas have had an impact on contemporary feminist sociology (though usually without recognizing Goldman’s ideas). I think that we could follow the trajectory of anarchist thinkers through Bookchin and the primitivists as two different takes on sociology of the environment, and post-anarchists as linked to the sociology of social movements (in fact, many anarchists could be linked to political sociology and the sociology of social movements, but post-anarchists have something particularly valuable to offer through their focus on identity, which is one of the most important topics in sociology today; their approach to social movements mirrors some of the existing sociological work as well as the philosophical work on this topic that is already influential to sociology, such as that by Žižek, Hardt and Negri, Foucault, Agamben, etc.).

Ultimately, I think that sociology usually begins our theoretical lineage with Karl Marx. This is a valid starting point in many ways, and no one should try to write Marx and Marxist thought out of sociology. However, it is far from the case that Marxism is the only valid starting point or that the usual group of “founding fathers” (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) is the only path to follow. Theorists not from the global north and non-white theorists have long emphasized that there are many other paths that we could follow into sociology that are not so dominated by white, European-descended men of America and Europe (and even within these geographic boundaries, WEB DuBois is too rarely recognized alongside the other founders). We could do something similar with anarchism by showing an alternative trajectory of sociology that is influenced by anarchism. This could begin with Proudhon, or perhaps even Godwin and move forward to our present day.

What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic (maybe outside of Marx)? And why?

It’s hard to say. In my opinion, none of them were explicitly anarchists (unless we count Proudhon as a classical sociologists, which I wish sociologists did, but we tend not to, and so I don’t think that’s what we should be talking about here). Therefore, it might be better to ask whose ideas could be given an anarchist spin, if we so desired. In that case, excluding Karl Marx, maybe we should consider Durkheim. Certainly some of his work encourages a more social vision of society that might be in line with certain aspects of anarchism. Durkheim believed that social problems were the result of societal pathologies (anomie, for example). If that is the case, and if capitalism and government could be understood to produce certain pathologies, couldn’t we derive a Durkheimian version of the old idea that “anarchy is order”? Furthermore, in The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim famously argues that in modern societies we are unified through “organic solidarity” while in tribal societies humans were unified through “mechanical solidarity.” Obviously, I suspect this would inspire some anarcho-primitivists. However, just as importantly, if organic solidarity functions in our society, is government really necessary? Unfortunately, I am afraid this could easily lead toward anarcho-capitalism (a term I really hate, since I don’t think it’s anarchist at all) or perhaps libertarian-capitalism. However, perhaps we could also find some room for syndicalism in there too?

Ultimately, these thoughts are more or less off the top of my head. I don’t think that any of the early sociologists who are usually touted as the “founders” were anarchists. Instead, what I mean to imply is that they did develop ideas that perhaps anarchists could make use of. I’m using Durkheim as an example of that, but I’m sure others could be used similarly.

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

That’s a really good question. I suspect that there are a lot of reasons. Firstly, I think that Karl Marx developed a much more supposedly “scientific” and far reaching approach to sociology than did the early anarchists, and he did so as a single thinker (or with Engels) rather than spread across generations of thinkers. Proudhon worked to do something similar as an anarchist, but as inspiring as his work was and is, it did not reach the level of Marx’s and was not as “scientific” as Marx’s. Because early sociologists were committed to the positivist vision of creating something like a natural science of humans, the scientism of Marx may have been intriguing. Of course, subsequent anarchists had similar ideas (Kropotkin may be thought of as an early socio-biologist in his methodological writings, for example), but I suspect that Marx’s writings being done by a single person (again, or with Engels) with a unified voice of sorts might make it more appealing.

I also think that we should not ignore the degree to which the anarchist tradition, especially in America, lost a great deal of its influence everywhere, not just in academia. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Left seemed to embrace state-communism and to forget for too long about anarchism and libertarian-communism. Of course, this is very ironic, as anarchists were a major part of the Russian Revolution and had inspired many communists before the USSR, but I do think that once that happened, and especially during the Cold War, communism came to mean Marxism and Marxism was the antithesis of capitalism, and so those on the Left were Marxists, which included those in the academy. In other words, I think that global politics played a major role overall.

Furthermore, and perhaps this will relate to feminism, when the 1960s and 1970s “New Social Movements” emerged, many were linked to Marxism or communism in various ways and many academics came out of this. Similarly, many academics came out of the feminist movements of this time as well, which might explain why both have such a presence. Though there were certainly anarchists present in these movements and I do believe that a door was reopened to anarchism during this time, it seems that Marxism, feminism, Third-Worldism, and so on were more influential.

Similarly, these not-explicitly-anarchist ideas were more influential to folks like Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, and other philosophers who became very influential to at least some sociologists. Therefore, it may have followed from their influences, even though many were also critical of Marx (Deleuze, for example). However, this may be changing. For example, Judith Butler has recently indicated that she is sympathetic to anarchism.

Overall, I guess I’m trying to say that I think Marxism became more prevalent worldwide than anarchism. That this was as true in academia as elsewhere is unfortunate, but not necessarily surprising. However, we are seeing a change in this, especially since the Occupy movement and the alter-globalization movement have reintroduced anarchism into the lexicon.

How could academic sociology be more anarchist?

I think this is perhaps more simple: academic sociologists should take the history of anarchism more seriously, as well as its more contemporary developments. Sociologists should look into anarchism not as just a school of political thought encouraging a “different world,” but as a sociology. I suspect that this could change our way of viewing the world. For example, in any introduction to sociology class students will be introduced to “conflict theory” (which I always think is a rather naïve approach to more complex ideas, but it works for intro). We can trace this idea more or less to Marx, I think. However, if we looked to Kropotkin and perhaps Proudhon, among others, couldn’t we develop “cooperation theory” too? And in doing so, wouldn’t we develop new visions of what humans are like? In addition, some sociologists like to talk about the ways in which their work can better the world. Taking that in an anarchist direction rather than a social-democratic one (which seems more common) might be interesting to pursue.

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

To be honest, I probably have (I can think of one or two students I’ve had over the years), but not often, or at least not openly. I do suspect that anarchists would find a lot of interest in sociology though for many of the reasons that I outlined in my last set of answers.

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

I hope so! If not, I’m sure wasting my time! More seriously though, I think the answer is yes. On the one hand, anarchists can find a home in academia the same way anarchists can find a home anywhere else. The simple fact of the matter is that we live in a capitalist, authoritarian, bureaucratic society and this permeates most workplaces. Whether you work in academia, a kitchen, or in one of the trades, or anywhere else, you are likely to encounter these realities to some greater or lesser degree. Though academia is no exception to this, it is certainly better than some others: academics tend to have more personal freedom, decisions are often made collectively in committee (though approved by some bureaucrat who really has the power in too many cases), and we are often free to write about, research, and teach what we want, and in my experience that has included anarchism, which no one has complained about yet. All too often I think some anarchists get wrapped up in being “anti-intellectual” because intellectualism can be just another hierarchy (and it really can be!), but I don’t think we should do that. Why shouldn’t anarchists be intellectuals? Why shouldn’t we be educators? Why shouldn’t we be scholars?

There may be some academic institutions where an anarchist could not find a home, but overall I think it’s not a bad place to be as long as you’re willing to make similar compromises to those an anarchist would have to make in pretty much any workplace. Even in cooperatives, collectives, unionized workplaces… we still face similar problems, so unless you’re going to drop out completely and live off of capitalism’s refuse, I don’t see why academia should be different than any other profession. I know anarchists who are lawyers, who are in medical professions, who work construction, who work in kitchens, who wait table or tend bar, who teach outside of academia, who do social work, who are artists… the list goes on and on. Why should academia be different?

Edward Avery-Natale: I am a Professor of Sociology at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, New Jersey where I specialize in the study of race, racism, and ethnicity. My Ph.D. is in Sociology from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I also live. I am the author of the book, Ethics, Politics, and Anarcho-Punk Identifications: Punk and Anarchy in Philadelphia (Lexington, 2016) and articles such as, “We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Anarchists: The Nature of Identification and Subjectivity Among Black-Blocs” (2010), and other articles both related and not directly related to anarchism. I also co-organized a symposium on “Race and Anarchy” at The University of Connecticut with Louis Gordan, Jane Gordon, and George Cicarello-Maher in 2017. Most recently, I have been working with Dr. Pablo Vila at Temple University on the application of Deleuzian affect and assemblage theory to the understanding of identification processes. This has lead to the recent publication, “Catholicism, Protestantism and Mexicanness on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Discourses, Narrative Identities, Habits and Affect” in the Journal of Contemporary Religion and a presentation titled “Moshing and the Mosh Pit as Identitarian Articulation: Deleuze and Laclau in the Pit” at the 5th Annual Conference of the Punk Scholars Network in collaboration with the International Society for Metal Music Studies. In addition, I am also currently working on a book titled, Teaching Against Fascism: An Early 21st Century Imperative for which I have not yet found a publisher.