Mohammed Bamyeh

Interview completed: 01/24/2019

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

As a young man studying German in Vienna: when my language was good enough to read a newspaper, I picked up a popular tabloid, which featured a story about an anarchist protest somewhere. The anarchists were described as violence-prone, ready to destroy property, because of guru of theirs called Bakunin once said: “property is theft”! For many years after that, the only references to anarchists I came across associated them with violence, lack of reason, impulsiveness, and absence of effect. I began exploring anarchism only after a decade of teaching, in my own way and to seek answers to a variety of problems for which I found no solution in existing knowledge systems. But anarchism was not part of my early educational or political formation.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

The concern for the social is shared. However, how to express that concern differ, as well as how to answer the question of one’s responsibility toward the social.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?

It depends on what counts as anarchism in sociology. There is little self-conscious anarchism, but a lot more of what I would consider intuitive anarchism. Anywhere we see contributions that aim at human emancipation that do not put forth statist or vanguardist propositions, we have anarchism, even if the term is not used. In that sense, we can say that C. Wright Mill expressed an intuitive anarchism in his conception of sociological knowledge as itself a tool of liberation. Of course, we should not forget that an enormous part of sociology is anti-anarchist. That is for two reasons. First, many of those sociologists who are deeply moved by social problems, look only for what they consider to be an “effective solution,” which for them is what the state promises. Second, the conception of sociology itself as a “science” encourages some practitioners to attach themselves to an elitist notion of scientific practice, a notion that results in the “science” becoming more and more distant from life, rather than part of it. We all know that professional sociology journals do their best to make sure that what they publish is as lifeless as possible—meaning that it could only be read by a select club.

What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

Like any other social science, for example political science or anthropology, sociology could be a tool in the hand of tyranny, or an aid to human emancipation. Social sciences have a long enough history to show how they may house different goals and agendas. In principle, any subfield of sociology could be approached from an anarchist perspective, so long that one analyzes processes, structures, and agents in ways that reveal innate capacities for unimposed order. One also should be aware that one cannot impose solutions, even if one feels confident that one is aware of what those might be.

What classical sociologists were the most anarchistic?

Probably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, even though technically he is not an anarchist—the term was not in use then. I do not think that any of the classical sociologists was an anarchist: classical sociology emerged as a science of total systems, and its surrounding modern context was one of total systems. The very idea of “society” is itself totalistic, even if we think of it as an imagination or abstraction. One can push it further: “society” is an authoritarian idea.

What anarchist(s) (whether classical age or contemporary, individuals or a group) seem(ed) to have the strongest sociological imagination?

Definitely Peter Kropotkin; perhaps also Colin Ward.

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

I think it has to do with the sociologists’ self-understanding as “scientists,” coupled with an understanding of what they call “science” as authority. They analyze social problems or social issues, but they do not understand people as conversation partners, only as “data” or “categories” or “populations” or statistics. What tends to be prevalent in sociology are not certain schools of thought, but specifically those strands that highlight the authority of science (and by implication of the scientist) in society, rather than a dialogic relationship between researcher/educator and the social world.

How could sociology (as a discipline, a practice, etc.) be more anarchist?

To me, sociology is half science, half art. If it is understood only as science, it will be authoritarian. The art of sociology, by contrast, makes it more attuned to processes of life, less distant from people and social phenomenon, less full of itself as a specialized private language that outsiders cannot engage.

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

I moved more into anarchy largely because of my students. I used to mention anarchy in the passing whenever I taught classes that dealt with such topics as globalization or civil society, and the students typically wanted to find out more. Therefore I found myself compelled to study anarchy in my own way, in order to fill in what I thought were important gaps, both in my own thinking about the world and in existing anarchist literature.

Is it possible (to say nothing of desirable?) for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Especially within the academy?) What are the concerns or challenges?

Of course, and there are challenges. It works best when one avoids heroic posturing (“anarchy will save the world: I know how!”); learns to communicate with different communities (and not just with one’s colleagues); respects knowledge for its own sake (and not simply as authority and “science”); and be open minded, not a prisoner to doctrine. Being anarchist, after all, is not about practicing any specific profession. It is about practicing one’s own humanity.