Interview completed: 7/13/2019
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
I didn’t hear about anarchism. I had written in the 1960s a doctoral dissertation about freethought in the USA. Finding no publisher, (who’s interested in freethought?), I had noticed that Marxists and anarchists had first started as freethinkers, belonging to freethought groups (extremely rare of course in those times). That’s how I thought of writing my Ph.D. thesis (Doctorat d’État) on anarchism in the US. That type of doctorate (which no longer exists), was supposed to resume one’s thought at the end of one’s long engagement in some university. And you were supposed to read everything that existed on your subject.
In those times, I just had entered the university as associate lecturer. Social change was in those times the main choice by students in sociology who were working on a doctorate. I chose anarchism because there wasn’t much to read, just two or three books. But of course, plenty of nineteenth century pamphlets, newspapers, etc.
I had to find a director for my dissertation. Claude Fohlen was the specialist in American studies, then a new discipline. I asked him if he would accept. He told me yes, but that he was not competent on the subject. He added: on any subject about the US, you’ll find an American specialist. So look for him. In those years when anarchism was non-existent in France, academic conservatives could be very open minded to some anarchist ideas, especially if they expected an “objective” point of view. Nevertheless, when I submitted my doctoral dissertation on American Anarchism (in the 19th century), my colleagues considered me as an anarchist. But I wasn’t conscious then, in those times, that I now was one…
In my first readings, I had found out that there was an international research center on anarchism, the CIRA [Centre International de Recherches sur l’Anarchisme] in Switzerland. So I went to see them and, indeed, they gave me the name: Professor Paul Avrich. They also asked me if I intended to meet some anarchists. Such a simple idea had never come to my mind. My research was about anarchist thought, not anarchist people. The question took me by surprise and I answered: “that’s a good idea”. And indeed, when I arrived in New York and met with Paul Avrich, he had organized a party with some anarchists. That’s how I met some important figures such as Sam and Esther Dolgoff and others.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
To begin with, sociologists and anarchists have to try to think by themselves, that is to say to get rid of social prejudice, clichés, and feel free from any creed. Anarchism for me is not a creed. It’s a combination of hypotheses. And it happens to be for me the world view that satisfies me the most. And I’m ready, of course, to change my mind if I find out that it’s a mistake. This is also why, contrarily to outsiders who imagine that all anarchists believe in the same creed, I can see that each activist has his or her personal views which are different from those of many other comrades.
Sociological concepts are very useful. I wouldn’t say the same thing about sociological methods. To know the percentage of car accidents in my city doesn’t tell me if any of my friends will have one.
Nevertheless, it’s true that a collectivity is not just a sum of its members. It has its own attributes. And that’s particularly precious for an organization to find out what are its sociological problems, for instance how members relate to one another.
But each group, like each person, is unique. And there’s a moment when one must make “the jump”. Get rid of sociological descriptions to explain what is unique about a particular group at a particular moment.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
I don’t think that such a thing has really been the case: scholars are not interested in anarchism. I remember how my colleagues dissuaded my students from writing a dissertation under my guidance. They just said: “Ronald has already written everything on the subject”!
But there have been sociologists—and anthropologists—who were close to anarchists or even had some anarchist ideas. After all, anarchist concepts are not necessarily stupid or unscientific. But fiction writers, philosophers, have often been very anarchistic in their views—and more rarely in their actions.
What could anarchism contribute to sociology?
The problem with group observation is that all these works end in the Ministry of the Interior (in the US, the Secretary of the Interior). And of course statists consider that anarchists are more dangerous than Islamists and any sort of terrorist. Infiltration, cooptation, repression may be the result of a sociological analysis of an anarchist collective which is not “purely philosophical” or, as in the US, anarcho-capitalist.
What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?
Perhaps Marcel Mauss. But I must say that some of the people I met in France where quite open minded: George Gurvitch, Roger Bastide, and even conservative Raymond Aron, whom I totally contradicted during an oral examination and who nevertheless did not fail me. And I would mention René Schérer who is a philosopher.
What anarchist(s) (whether classical age or contemporary, individuals or a group) has the strongest sociological imagination?
I don’t know enough people to have an opinion: as usual, the best known people are not necessarily the best in their field. But I must say I was very impressed by James C. Scott, who is not an anarchist, and also, at times, by David Graeber. One may find some interesting articles in quite a few anarchist journals or reviews, though many of the authors prefer to take a broader view which also includes psychoanalysis, psychology, philosophy, etc.
Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?
Most academics believe or need to believe in a state system. And for quite a long time those on the left were mostly Marxists or Socialists. But this is changing with the disruption of the Soviet Union and the contemporary distrust of politicians
How could academic sociology be more anarchist?
I don’t think there’s a uniform answer because each university has its own specificity which one must take into account. And the same is true for each sociologist. However, there are fields that ought to be opened for research, for instance the area of state secrets, left wing ideology, secular religions like patriotism, alternatives to wars that occurred in the past, sociological mechanisms of state repression (e.g. mindset change within police and armed forces), communication warfare against the population (fake news, spin doctors, pressure groups, etc.). These are but a few examples.
Is it possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Esp. within the academy?)
There is no single answer, but of course if you have published some best seller in the field of sociology and have the proper relations…
Ronald Creagh is Professor emeritus, Université Montpellier 3 (France). Director of the Centre d´Information et de Recherche sur les Cultures d´Amerique du Nord (CIRCAN). Member of the Institut Français d´Histoire Sociale, Paris and of several learned societies and editorial committees in France, Great Britain and the United States (was a member of the Board of the Société d’études nord-américaines (SENA), Paris, of the advisory board of Utopian Studies, and presently a member of the editorial board of Anarchist Studies, Réfractions, etc.). A member of the Laboratoire d’Etudes et de Recherches en Sociologie et en Ethnologie de Montpellier. Former director of a seminar at the College International de Philosophie (Founded by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, etc.), Paris. In charge of the “Research on Anarchism” websites (English, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese), Dissertations on anarchism, Elisée Reclus. Founder of the web journal Divergences, he has also created a multinational discussion list on the Internet, the “Research on anarchism list” which had a membership in over 20 countries.