Interview completed: 09/18/2014
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
I don’t really know how I first heard about anarchism, so I can’t say what the encounter was like. It was probably in the 1960s, and it was undoubtedly something I read. It might have been George Orwell’s description of the Spanish political scene in the 1930s on the republican side, in his Homage to Catalonia. I think I also came across Kropotkin pretty early.
What I became interested in was not individualist anarchism, which I find hard to distinguish from selfishness, but the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, or anarcho-socialism. (Yes I know that’s paradoxical to many, but I was in the New Left where it made sense.) Anyway, the currents of direct democracy; do-it-yourself collectivism; wariness of the state, corporations and private property equally; and belief in equality of respect, resources and responsibility, were what interested me—then, and now.
I’m impatient of the marxist fetishism of the texts and concepts of Marx. He seems to me not so much the epochal founder of scientific socialism as one bright intellectual among others of his generation who were trying to systematize the common ideas of mid-C19 European radicalism.
And I feel ill when I read supposedly anarchist texts written by highly literate, highly privileged men (it’s usually men) justifying private property and indifference to the interests of everyone else. I prefer the IWW! Not to mention agricultural collectives, worker-run factories, local direct democracy, consciousness-raising groups, etc.
Of course there are serious problems in this tradition too. For instance the massive sexism in many forms of worker militancy; the appeal to violence in some situations; and the tendency (not unknown among the Trotskyites and the Presbyterians too!) to form factions and split at the slightest provocation.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
This is a bit of an apples-and-oranges question. Sociology is a knowledge project, anarchism is a political agenda, movement and (perhaps) sensibility.
Anarchism can make use of sociological knowledge in a number of ways. Industrial sociology for instance illuminates power in workplaces. Educational sociology documents obstacles to self-managed learning projects. The sociology of gender illuminates the embedding of power and violence in everyday life.
Anarchism could be of use to sociology in calling attention persistently to the creativity and capacity of people spread across the whole spectrum of social situations; in questioning the simplified social outlooks of privileged groups and hegemonic discourses; in creating an expectation of plurality and cooperation rather than conformity and domination.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
One of the roots of twentieth-century theories of hegemony is Bakunin’s brilliant critique of Marx and Marxism, around the time of the demise of the First International. “New class” theories also have this anarchist lineage, largely forgotten now. Sorel’s analysis of political myth in industrial society is part of the lineage of cultural sociology. One could argue that North American eco-anarchism has fed into the environmental sociology that concerns itself with the way whole social structures have environmental effects.
How far do we want to take the meaning of anarchism in this question? Do we stick with the familiar European and US conception, or do we include Mohandas Gandhi as an anarchist in a different cultural tradition? If so, the Gandhian tradition is certainly something that can influence postcolonial sociology. Has anarcha-feminism influenced the sociology of gender? I don’t think so in a doctrinal sense, but in practical terms maybe yes. Think of the amazing influence of Our Bodies, Ourselves, produced by a classic autonomous collective.
What could anarchism contribute to sociology?
More than anything else, models of new social forms. The more that anarchist movements experiment and create, the wider the boundaries of sociological reasoning are pushed. What about collective child care, one of the most widespread autonomous-cooperative practices in the world? This is not much studied as a social practice or set of institutions, but is rich in implications about gender, power, generations, and human social development.
Beyond this, anarchism can contribute sustained skepticism about the theories and perspectives generated by dominant social powers and discourses. Anarchism points to the multiple sources of social creativity, including the creation of ideas. This is most valuable for overcoming the insistent discourse-fetishism of poststructuralism in sociology, and the persistent hierarchical tendencies within sociology, such as the privileging of a small group of canonical texts and writers as the source of the main ideas current in sociology. Not only is the world richer, but the range of valuable ideas is richer too.