Kevin Wehr

Interview completed: 02/02/2015

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

This question is difficult to answer, but not in the way that some of the other questions are difficult. I was born and raised in Berkeley, California. I went to my first protest (anti-Contras, with CISPES, Citizens in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) when I was about 12 or 13. It was the first time that I saw police brutality up close. The cops were pounding with their batons on a guy who was curled up in a fetal position. They were intentionally aiming for his kidneys—the only internal organs that were partially exposed. So I’ve had my suspicions about “authority” for quite some time. It was not ingrained by my parents, who are best described as good, moderate, Democratic Party liberals. They are scientists, not activists. But this experience early on, and growing up in the Bay Area must have contributed to my anti-authoritarian stance.

Of course CISPES and other groups I was involved with early on were not at all anarchistic. I don’t know precisely when I came to terms with that label. It was certainly in the air and part of the common parlance in the 1980s in the Bay Area. But much of this was what I would call a “cultural anarchism.” It was the anarchism of punk rock. It was the circle A graffiti that was around. It was a “fuck authority,” “fuck the police,” “fuck the establishment” mentality that was just part of the worldview of the people I hung out with. I’m pretty sure that a lot of those folks did not discern this cultural anarchism that was “cool” and “edgy” from anarchism as a social theory, as a political tactic, as something both intellectual and activist.

I think that the recognition of anarchism as a movement tactic and a coherent social theory did not gel for me until I got to college. That was at UC Santa Cruz, when I started reading Angela Davis and Mikhail Bakunin and Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky and Murray Bookchin and so many others. This coincided with my increased activism with avowedly anarchistic groups working on environmental concerns and anti-capital projects. This was essentially my own response to what I saw as “failed” movements due to activists seemingly locked in to a particular line of thinking and not being willing to broaden the analysis to embrace a diversity of tactics, and not acknowledging the ways in which their own hierarchical thinking might influence the outcome of the actions. So for me, it was very much a theory and practice nexus of reading certain things (both for coursework and on my own) and engaging in action that was evolving based both on my reading and reflection and with the action and interaction with others.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

Sociology, as the discipline that takes the group level analysis of human behavior is the appropriate approach to studying anarchist actions, groups, behaviors, and tactics. But anarchism and anarchistic actions are two different things. Anarchism, from my perspective, is a social and political philosophy, or theory. As such, and especially as one that takes quite seriously issues of social power, it rightly belongs in the pantheon (pardon the pun) of social theories that should be taught within a classical social theory course (which, in fact, I do.)

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

Anarchism and anarchists have contributed greatly to sociology. Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman (to name just a few) are in my mind exceptional social theorists in their own right. Bakunin in particular is and should be taught as a critic of Marx. Goldman should be taught as one of the first radical feminists. Kropotkin should be taught as a counterpoint to classical economic sociologists.

Outside of theory, anarchist social groups are and should be taught as an example of non-hierarchical communities. Anarchist social movements are and should be taught as a counterpoint to the received wisdom about non-violence

What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?

I take the question to mean the classical theorists of Marx, Weber, Durkheim.

I think Marx had some very anarchistic ideas at the core of his thinking regarding class, labor, and communism. The section in the German ideology that I always come back to on this is where he discusses the division of labor under communism: hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, philosophize in the evening as one has a mind to do, but without ever becoming “hunter,” “angler,” or “philosopher.” He was wrong about the state, though. Bakunin was right in his critique of Marx on this.

Weber had little to add to anarchist thought. As a theorist of the state and nationalism he seems not to have much thought for self-organized communities.

Durkheim had some anarchist tendencies that show in his proto-pragmatism. But mostly his theorizing was naive to power.

You hinted a bit at this already. But, what anarchist(s) (whether classical age or contemporary, individuals or a group) has the strongest sociological imagination?

I think Bakunin and Goldman win the prize here. Bakunin especially in his insight about the flower of the proletariat. Goldman with her insights about sex/gender as additional inflections of power as well as class, the state, and religion.

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

This one comes down to politics and power. In particular, I come back to Marx’s notion of false consciousness and Bookchin’s analysis about habits of mind. Anarchism has been labeled as synonymous with chaos. Of course it is not, but this notion is so firmly established in many theorists’ minds (as well as generally in the population) that it is not seen clearly and as such is not considered an option or an alternative. Like “socialism” in mid-twentieth century American ideology, anarchism is a “bad word” that is derogated and not taken seriously. I believe that this comes about precisely because it is so powerful as an opposing radical line of thinking and action that it has been de-clawed ideologically. Similar to Bookchin, the class-based revolution did not happen in part because of the development of habits of mind in the workers—habits of obedience to authority on the shop floor, in politics, and in daily social life.

How could academic sociology be more anarchist?

I’m not sure it could be. There are those of us who teach anarchist theory as part of social theory courses, but mainstream sociology is far too complicit with the forces of the status quo to ever offer a radical alternative. I’m thinking here of [Ben] Agger’s critiques repeated often, but most recently in “public sociology” as well as Dorothy Smith’s insights back in the 80s in “the everyday world as problematic” and Raewyn Connell’s “southern theory.” Simply adding in anarchism is not enough to change the canon. It is about how sociologists think and discipline ourselves as a group.

Have you ever encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?

Yes, and my experience is that they are suspicious that radical ideas could be inculcated from inside a system as hierarchical and authoritarian as the institutions of higher education are. But they come around after a bit when they see that there are relatively few other safe havens for real critique in our society.

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

It is, and we do. But we always have to sacrifice our ideals. I get paid by the state, after all. And my institutional pension is invested in the stock market. We are all wrapped up in and beholden to systems of oppressive authority. We can fight for small victories of hearts and minds, as per Gramsci. But in the end we are as coopted as the rest of those who would try to live within such a system, regardless of our critiques of it.