Sal Restivo

Interview completed: 03/05/2014

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

I come from an Italian-Sicilian American working class family (that alone might make me an anarchist as a birth right!). My father worked as a shoe cleaner in a shoe factory and my visit to the factory when I was about 10 years old instilled in me a sense of class consciousness that primed me for radical political thought and action. But I was a science nerd, and while my parents, especially my dad, encouraged in me a pathological love of independence that bordered on intuitive anarchism, I was fairly apolitical when I entered college as an electrical engineering major. Two courses stand out for me in terms of their impact on my political consciousness. One was a course on the major “isms”—communism, fascism, socialism, capitalism. We read excerpts from Marx to Mussolini, Hitler to Adam Smith. At this point, reading Marx resonated with me immediately. Somewhere along the line in that course I’m sure I encountered the anarchists. But I was hooked on Marx. The second course was in political philosophy and we read Max Nomad, Sorel, and others. Between these courses I learned about Kropotkin, Proudhon, Goldman, and others. I was hooked on Marx but increasingly on the entire radical tradition. I read everything I could get my hands on related to marxism, socialism, anarchism, and really immersed myself in the French and Russian revolutions.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

Sociology as a science can have different value, ethical, and political biases. I was early on drawn to radical sociology. Not all forms of anarchism are compatible with the general sociological imagination. Those that are (and Kropotkin stands out here) understand the Durkheimian and Marxian imperative of the social. I am at one with Kropotkin here; anarchism is one of the sociological sciences. General sociology is almost by definition Marxist and anarchist. General sociology is—or SHOULD be—radically structural and materialist, and grounded in the fundamental theorem of sociology, social constructionism. Given those scientific foundations, sociology is compatible with anarchism to the extent that it adopts the views that (1) Individuals have primacy over property, flags, nationalistic slogans, religious and other dogmas and mythologies and are opposed to all forms of capital-A Authority; BUT (2) individuals are understood to be functions of, reflections of, and embodiments of families, communities, social groups, organizations, institutions, and societies and cultures. Individuals – or, more technically, selves – are social structures.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?

To the extent that sociology has invited radical perspectives into its research programs, anarchism has—especially over the last few decades—encouraged sociology to strengthen trends that emphasize structure, materialism, social constructionism. I can’t speak authoritatively about this contribution because I follow sociology per se through the lens of science and technology studies.

What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

Here, I am going to take the path of least resistance and refer you to my Red, Black, and Objective (2011). However, perhaps one thing that stands out is that anarchism could make sociology less timid about tackling religion realistically. Durkheim’s discoveries about God and society and about religion and moral order should be emphasized in text books, for example, and not the white-washed versions we often get. Anarchism could also contribute more materio-realistic theories of power, and the ecological/umweltian embeddedness of self, society, and culture. It could help social scientists and others understand that capitalism is an ideological label and not a term that refers to an actual or even ideal economic system.

I have to emphasize again as I did in my book that I am a Kropotkinian anarchist. If you value the individual over the state and oppose all forms of Authority and God surrogates (e.g., The Cult of Truth), and understand the individual as a social structure you have the fundamental bases for the anarchist position. This makes Marx and Nietzsche as much anarchists arguably as Kropotkin and Bakunin. It would also help if anarchists could get the word out that anarchists leave rooms through doors and don’t jump out windows (see Feyerabend’s reply to Lakatos on this view of anarchists), and that no matter the upfront definitions of anarchism in the OED, anarchism is not about disorder but about a certain kind of order.

“I am an anarchist, like any other sensible person.”
~ Merlyn (T.H. White, The Book of Merlyn)

You were starting to hint at this a bit, but which classical sociologist is the most anarchistic? (And why?)

This is tricky, but if you accept my boiled down definition of an anarchist as someone who (1) understands the individuals or persons or selves are radically social (indeed the most social of all the social animals and always, everywhere, and already social—individuals do not band together to become social, they don’t contract out of the “war of all against all;” humans come onto the evolutionary stage already social); and (2) is opposed to any and all forms of capital-A Authority and all God surrogates (Neither Gods Nor Masters) then a great many radical intellectuals fall into the anarchist camp. Except for Marx and Nietzsche, I don’t think I can unequivocally identify clearly anarchistic classical sociologists. The reason is that anarchism is not just an intellectual or political category, it is a form of life. Now I’ve gone back and re-read your question and see that “sociologist” is singular, so now the choice is easy: Marx, relatively speaking.

What sorts of practical things–in addition to how it approaches religion–could academic sociology do to be more anarchist?

Anarchism is not an “ism” but rather a form of life (Wittgenstein). So the only way academic sociology could become more anarchist would be for sociologists to behave more anarchistically in their everyday lives. We sustain anarchism not by trying to make society, or sociology, anarchist overnight, but by “being” anarchists in our minds and in our lives to the extent that it is possible to do so within the constraints we have to face if we decide to be anarchists inside the “system.”

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

I have indeed encountered anarchists in the classroom, and there is currently (2014) a Ph.D. student in my old department at RPI who is very active in the anarchist community and came to RPI self-identified as a sociologist. He took one of the last seminars I offered before my retirement and was impressive but still a little raw. I was privileged during my tenure at RPI to have an office adjacent to the office of the anarchist philosopher David Wieck. Following his death, the office was occupied by another anarchist philosopher, John Schumacher who unfortunately passed away too soon due to pancreatic cancer. I was very close to both David and John. David was much more cosmopolitan and John more of a localite. I was also friends with the late C. George Benello, sociologist and anarchist and with me one of the founding members of the Association for Humanist Sociology.

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

If it has been possible for people like Richard Flacks, one of the key authors of the Port Huron Statement, and my dear friends Stanley Aronowitz, Jerry Ravetz, Les Levidow, and Hilary and Steven Rose among others to have academic careers being an anarchist in the academy shouldn’t pose problems not encountered by any academic with radical credentials. And here I can address your earlier question: “Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?” Anarchists, unlike other “radicals,” have to deal with the fact that anarchy, especially in the United States but also to some extent in the more enlightened European countries, is associated immediately and transparently in the public imagination not to mention among the so-called “intellectual class” with chaos, disorder, and skulking cloaked figures in black dropping bombs here and there. They are considered even more dangerous than Marxists even though Marxists can always be painted red, labelled communists, and cordoned off as revolutionaries. Marxists have managed to attain some serious intellectual credibility and academic status. Anarchists like atheists poll as among the most feared and hated persons in the public and private spheres.

There’re some varied ideas amongst anarchists (classic age ones, but also contemporary ones like Chomsky and Zerzan) about the nature and role of technology. Is technology liberatory? How to resist the surveillance state? Is it best to fight technology, embrace it, or develop a nuanced strategy? Can you speak to this issue?

As Soviet intellectuals lecturing in the US in the 60s often said when faced with troubling questions (usually political in their case), “That is Big Question” (with KGB agents watching from the wings). Let me begin by recommending David Dickson’s book [The Politics of Alternative Technology] which is still today one of the best introductions to the idea of technologies as social institutions. Technologies do not stand alone to be judged and evaluated. They are defined—and indeed are—constitutively the human (social) work that went into their construction. In this sense, everything humans manufacture—equations, buildings, teapots, sculptures, and even we ourselves (as organic machines) are technologies. Technologies are liberatory if they are constructed in liberatory societies, dangers to freedom if they are manufactured in totalitarian states. We build our values into our machines; we get the science and technology we deserve. The same can be said for knowledge or science. Some of my colleagues want to democratize science (or technology). Their proposals amount to extracting science (or technology) from the social order, democratizing it, and plugging it back in. This is an utter failure of the sociological imagination. If we transform our society—through reform, evolution, or revolution—into a democratic, socialist, communist, or anarchist form we will get democratic, socialist, communist, or anarchist science and technology.

Sal Restivo was born and raised among the working poor in Brooklyn, New York and was originally trained and educated in electrical engineering at Brooklyn Tech H.S. and the City College of New York. After four years in EE, he switched to sociology/anthropology and earned a degree in sociology/anthropology under the mentorship of Bernard Rosenberg, Aaron Noland, and B W. Aginsky. His PhD is from Michigan State where he studied with John Useem, Jim McKee, Frank Camilleri, and Bill Form). He was active in the early years of Science for the People and the Radical Science Movement and his research in the sociology of science eventually led him to argue for an anarchistic theory of science and more recently for an anarchistic theory of the brain-in-culture (brain/mind/culture/world). He is a founding member and former president of the Society for Social Studies of Science and a founding member of The Association for Humanist Sociology. He retired from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2012 and again from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering in 2017. He is Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Research Center for Philosophy of Science and Technology at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China (2007-). He is now fully retired and writing out of his apartment in Queens, New York. His Einstein’s Brain: Genius, Culture, and Society will be published later this year, to be followed by God-The Final Chapter (projected for 2020-21). His publications and career particulars are available at