Interview completed: 03/12/2014 (and extended 01/29/2019)
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
This question can actually take one down two separate paths. One path is related to the surface question about the objectified academic enterprise of “anarchism”. The other path is about the less tangible process of learning to think like an anarchist. While these are two separate paths there is always the potential that one can experience both of them at different times and that at some point the two paths can merge into one. The merging of the two paths frequently results in the identification of one’s socio-political framework and possibly defines one’s activism.
I first started thinking like an anarchist in my early teens. Someone gave me a present that was a book of short stories by Leo Tolstoy. Most likely few people who have read his intriguing novels realize that Tolstoy saw himself as a champion of the peasants and a critic of the governments that were controlled and used by the wealthy. As someone who came from wealth, he knew very well the unspoken function of large state governments: control and exploit the peasants to increase the wealth of the landowners. His message was not always explicitly about that issue, but if one reads his works carefully one finds that the anarchist thinking is difficult to deny.
Even before I was reading Tolstoy I was influenced by a very radical peasant father. No, I’m not talking about a priest. I do mean my biological father. He and my mother came to the United States as adults from a small mountain village in Calabria, the southern-most tip of mainland Italy. They were both completely uneducated peasants who were among the millions of post “unification” victims. Until the so called “unification of Italy” the South, especially Calabria, was largely an anarchist region made up of extended families living off of tiny farms (basically terrace gardens on the sides of hills) surrounding small villages. After the “unification” the central government of Italy made that way of life almost impossible – thus the Southern Italian diaspora. What labor recruiters in the United States didn’t realize was that the Southern Italians had anarchism in their veins, and even though they were not educated people, they were not stupid. In fact, my father did teach himself to read and write in English and Italian. But that is not what made him smart. My parents were both highly intelligent people because they knew so much about life, the earth, and the environment. And they understood fully, partly from their own experiences, the nature of the state and the politics of exploitation. Thus my father, like so many Southern Italian immigrants, became a labor exploitation resistor and union organizer. Hence, we had the Palmer raids of Italian neighborhoods, and the deportations – the motivation of which was dramatically manifested in the Sacco and Vanzetti case.
While not deported themselves, my parents lived through all of this and saw it all unfolding. Meanwhile, I was a “marginal” boy, in the sociological sense, and was learning in school all about the wonderful benefits of the capitalist corporate state. I would come home and argue with my father, who as a practical person identified mostly as a socialist anarchist – albeit he rarely called himself anything. We had some knock down drag out fights that seldom ended well. Sadly, he probably had no idea that he was having a significant impact on me, which is why I had to argue so vehemently. School for the son of Italian immigrants was difficult enough without being confused about the true nature of reality. My father’s socialist anarchist thinking could be seen throughout my educational career: in my speeches, in my term papers, and correspondingly sometimes in my grades. I hope he knew and understood how much of an impact he had on my thinking.
This brings me to the first path mentioned above: the objectified academic path. As my educational life evolved within Sociology I became a Marxist, which was the socialist part of the socialist-anarchist identity of my father and so many other anarchist leaning people. At that time, in the 1960’s, for anyone who had any kind of a critical/alternative perspective there was only one option in Sociology: Marxism. And you were fortunate if you could find a professor who taught Marxism. There was only one such professor in the department at Loyola University of Chicago at the time I was there attaining my undergraduate education. With the massive purging and cleansing of Sociology Departments during the 1980’s one would think that all sociologists were Marxists, but that simply was not the case. They were seldom a controlling force within departments, and the tendency as I saw it was that each department had basically one token Marxist. So, I became a Marxist and wrote what was basically a Marxist master’s thesis. There were no anarchists in Sociology Departments that I knew of, and the word anarchism was seldom, if ever, mentioned among sociologists.
It was not until I was working on my doctorate that I encountered the anarchist literature. I was working on a paper for a social control seminar during the same semester that I was studying the family. And I was trying to come to grips with the contradiction in my own thinking about: 1) the importance of the family for the socialization and primary care of developing humans, and 2) the Marxist view of the family as an unnecessary interceptor of human loyalties to the socialist state. It was during the writing of this paper that I began to realize that the anarchists and the Marxists saw fundamental aspects of reality in the same way. They both understood the basic function behind the evolution of the state and the problems associated with that function and corresponding evolution. Until I started reading the anarchist literature, I didn’t know about the extent to which Kropotkin influenced Marx. The primary difference between them was in response to the question of what do we do about the capitalist corporate state. Marxists thought the answer was in taking the state over for the good of the masses, and the anarchists thought, and presumably still do think, that the Marxist solution was a mistake. Exactly what to do with the nation-state has been a source of disagreement among anarchists themselves, but maintaining it in any form was clearly not part of early anarchist thinking.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
The critique of the nation-state is the most common part of both Sociology and anarchism. Anarchism was purged from the vocabulary of both academia and the public media while Marxism was not. This was because until very recently the wealthy have badly needed the state to protect their interests. That dependency has decreased somewhat with the development of international trade agreements that, in effect, have the ability to trump the nation-states. Marxism did not promote the elimination of the state, only a change of who controls it and for what purpose. While this is threatening to the wealthy, it is not nearly as threatening as the nation-state’s elimination.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
I don’t believe anarchism has been studied very much by sociologists. I have the Shantz and Williams book (Anarchy & Society), and they make some good connections. I don’t have the book with me as I write this in Calabria, Italy, but I recall disagreeing with some of their perceptions of the relationship between the two. It is difficult for anarchism to contribute anything to sociology when mainstream sociology does not even acknowledge its existence/relevance.
What could anarchism contribute to sociology?
At this critical time of social unrest around the globe there is a great deal that anarchism could be contributing to sociology. No perspective, in my opinion, informs about the function of the nation-state and its dysfunctional consequences better than anarchism. And no discipline, in my opinion, informs the world about social reality more effectively than sociology. Something about anarchism should be a part of nearly every sociology course as a means of sensitizing the public to the root causes of our problems related to the maintenance of nation-states.
Sociology should also be drawing on the anarchist literature to address the importance of sustainable communities: how can people develop and live in truly democratic aggregations that transcend nation-state politics and control. There is a lot of movement toward anarchist living today in the United States and sociology is not sufficiently involved in helping or studying this important social movement. Yet, the wealthy are on it! They can see what is happening. That is why we have people like the Koch brothers getting involved in local politics. They see that, from the standpoint of public involvement and energy, the locus of control is shifting away from the nation-state to the independent states and local communities. Cities are making laws to protect themselves from multinational corporations and putting out arrest warrants for people like George Bush and Dick Cheney. There is a lot going on out there that sociologists are missing. Thoroughly integrating anarchism into sociology as a legitimate theoretical perspective might help change that.
What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?
Herein lies the problem. None of the well-known classical anarchists were ever embraced by sociology. Marx’s background and work is so varied that he is claimed, not only by sociology, but by philosophy, history, political science, and even some economists. Yet, Marx is considered by sociology as a classical sociologist. Why isn’t Kropotkin or Proudhon considered a classical sociologist? The answer seems to be that sociology, as a discipline, has protected and lived comfortably within, the nation-state model.
I am reluctant to mention any of the classical sociologists as being compatible with anarchism for fear of being misunderstood or misleading. Of course, Marx understood the origin and function of the state, but so did Max Weber, who is despised by many Marxists. And the focus on Marx’s work in sociology has not been on the origin and early function of the nation-state as much as it has been on stratification within the nation-state and how that stratification would be eliminated.
Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g. Marxism, feminism)?
As I alluded to in my response to the earlier questions, Anarchism is the biggest threat to the nation-state because it does not recognize its legitimacy in any form among democratic populations of people.
How could academic sociology be more anarchist?
Sociology could become more anarchistic by: 1) recognizing and studying the classical and contemporary anarchists; 2) using anarchist models for identifying and studying what is happening in the world; and 3) using the information from that research/teaching to better inform the public and promote social change that will improve conditions for all life on the planet.
Ever encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?
I have no recollection of encountering anarchists in any of my classes – either as a student many years ago, or as a professor during the many years that I taught.
Is it possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Esp. within the academy?)
It is certainly as possible for anarchists to work as sociologists as it is Marxists – in fact, even more so. But generally, there is a need for local community employees (organizers) who understand the nature and importance of small democratic living arrangements, because that tends to be the direction in which things are going. Once the public is better educated about what anarchism means there should be positions available among non-profit change organizations and progressive small cities and other progressive communities that are looking for ways of surviving with relative democratic autonomy within a world of militarized corporate nation-states.
There is no such thing as pure anarchism – especially among anarchists. So, different versions of anarchism can be adopted in different contexts. But it is extremely important that contemporary anarchists overcome the notable shortcomings of some of the classical anarchists, which is also true of many of the currently recognized classical sociologists. Patriarchy, sexism and speciesism are serious problems that some contemporary anarchists are trying to deal with in their writings, and that needs to be addressed more effectively – not that the other isms are not continuing to be important as well.
Finally, sociologists, whether they are structural functionalists or Marxists, work in all kinds of positions that are only tangentially related to their ideological perspective. For the most part, employers and colleagues are not fully aware of what a person’s ideological perspective is. That could be, and is, certainly true of anarchists as well. That doesn’t mean the ideology doesn’t influence their work in some way – whatever that work might be. It is surprising how true this is even in academia, where people have for decades hidden or subdued their ideological perspectives until after they have received tenure and promotion. The same could be done by anarchists. I did it… albeit not without some consequences along the way.
I didn’t hide who I was as much as simply develop other aspects of my intellectual interests until after I was tenured and promoted. This approach was taken after I lost a position early in my career for organizing faculty to resist an oppressive provost. The point is, despite my great admiration for the late Utah Philips, I think anarchists can make a much bigger impact on the world if they have “legitimate” positions from which to operate. Attaining and holding such positions takes some skill and practice. Purism among anarchists is a death wish. Some compromises have to be made in order to bring anarchist thinking into mainstream sociology and mainstream society.
John C. Alessio has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Southern Illinois University. Writing on diverse subjects, such as exchange theory, inequality, gender discrimination, anarchism and animal rights, he has presented many papers at professional conferences in the United States and Canada. He has also published numerous papers, some of which appear in the most widely recognized Sociology Journals, including Social Psychology Quarterly, Social Forces, and The American Sociological Review. Dr. Alessio is the author of Social Problems and Inequality (2011) and The Intentional Dean (2017), both with Routledge. He is Professor Emeritus in Sociology and a former academic dean at two universities. Since retiring in 2012, he has become heavily involved in political activism. Dr. Alessio currently lives part of the year in Calabria, Italy where he enjoys writing, cooking, studying Italian, and traveling the beautiful Calabrian countryside with his wife, Dr. Julie Andrzejewski. (firstname.lastname@example.org).