Howard Ehrlich on Social Anarchism

Howard J. Ehrlich was a sociologist who founded and edited the journal Social Anarchism.

These are clips taken from an interview recorded in February 2011 in Baltimore, for a documentary never finished by its original producers, which hoped to show anarchism in all its forms around the world today and in history. But, I think it succeeds even better at that task as a video catalogue for those interested enough to find the clips that piqued their curiousity.

To see the full catalogue of interviews click here.

Here’s a little bit of background on Howard, who passed away on February 2nd, 2015:

Howard Ehrlich, of Baltimore, Maryland, was an American sociologist and anarchist activist. Formerly a professor at University of Iowa, he was co-founder of Research Group One that conducted research on behalf of activist organizations in the US. Subsequently, he co-founded a collective that produced a successful syndicated radio program called the Great Atlantic Radio Conspiracy, a free school, and in 1980 he co-founded a peer-reviewed journal called Social Anarchism, of which he was Editor-in-Chief until his passing.

After years of teaching in higher education, he became the Director of the Prejudice Institute, a sociological research organization that studied ethnoviolence. In his later years, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Dementia.

Ehrlich was the author or editor of the books: “The Best of Social Anarchism”, “Reinventing Anarchy”, “Reinventing Anarchy, Again”, “Hate Crimes and Ethnoviolence: The History, Current Affairs, and Future of Discrimination in America”, “The Social-Psychology of Prejudice”, “Race and Ethnic Conflict: Contending Views on Prejudice, Discrimination, and Ethnoviolence”, and “Intergroup Tensions and Ethnoviolence in the Workplace: A Manual for Trainers”.

Howard Ehrlich on Social Anarchism

Full Transcript

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Howard J Ehrlich, I was born in a log cabin in NY. I came to anarchism in a strange way. I was at a peace rally when a group of people waving a black flag ran up to the lectern, yelled some things that were incomprehensible and left. And I turned to the person I was with and said what was that. He said, those were the anarchists. I said, who are they? And he said, you mean you don’t know Marx and Bakunin? Marx and Bakunin I said? I was embarrassed I said. I’ve never heard of Bakunin. And he said, their correspondence is famous. And so I ran to the library to look for the Marx and Bakunin correspondence and there wasn’t any, but in the process I had read an awful lot of anarchism and decided, hey, there was something to this. And that’s sort of how I came to anarchism.

What campaigns do you remember most fondly?

As an anarchist, I think my major work has been in my later years, as a writer and an editor, I’ve edited several anthologies and I am the editor of the magazine of social anarchism.

Earlier, I was strongly involved in the peace movement against the vietnam war, I was a regional traveling organizer for a while and I helped organize what was the national organization called the new university conference one of the more anonymous but really powerful organic anti-war organizations.

How does sociology influence your politics?

I have in my work as an anarchist never been able to forget nor did I want to that I trained as a sociologist and social psychologist and the reason why I mentioned that is that no matter what I look at from a political standpoint i’m also looking at as a social scientist and so I have a very different view I think of both social science and anarchism

What role do socioligists play in the anarchist movement?

The best way I can talk about combining an anarchist perspective with a social science perspective is to talk about what it is I think a radical social scientist ought to be doing I think we can still go about the process of testing hypotheses and building theories but we have to understand that we’re building theories for a reason and that reason is is to build a new and better society and so as a sociologist what I want to do is to test propositions that confirm or disconfirm our way about building a new society.

What is one feature you miss from campaigns in the 60s era?

We compiled reinventing anarchy um as a means of introducing people to the various dimensions of energism and I think we did a good job uh we sold several thousand copies of the of that book but to me the thing that was and is most intriguing is about 10 years later we decided to put out a new edition and not to use things that were more than not use articles that were more than 10 years old so that it would still be quite contemporary in fact 80 of the second anthology was new but the interesting thing about it from a political standpoint is that there were very different books that um the reinventing anarchy again which we called it was deadly serious whereas reinventing anarchy was fun but if you look at the two books side by side you’d see that there were all these cartoons flyers clever little pieces if you look at reinventing anarchy again there was the humor was gone and it and it reflected the times the first in the late 60s and the second 10 years 10 years later and anarchism had couldn’t escape the change in the times from the anti-war activities the mass organizations like sds students for democratic society the new university conference science for the people all of these came together with great humor and good propaganda subsequently uh the propaganda is still there if you want to call it which I think we can but the humor isn’t and I felt there was nothing we could do about it we were trying to represent the field and that’s the way it stood.

How do people react to you being an anarchist?

When I would tell people who asked what is anarchism they’d often laugh. How can you be an anarchist? Anarchists have no organisation and you’re one of the most organised people I know. And I tried to tell them, one of the things about anarchism is that it is a theory of organisation; in fact I argue that anarchism is a theory of organisation, a theory of radical social change…and a personal philosophy. And people have a great deal of difficulty comprehending that. In fact, tell you a story…tells story about how he loaned magazine to woman who kept thinking people were staring at her when she tried to read it…

Of course people always want to joke about anarchism and organisation, but when they see that I’m serious about it, they usually turn it into conversation.

What does anarchism mean to you?

I think it’s important to…look at the various components of this ideology, this set of beliefs we call anarchism, and one is to understand that it’s a way of life…anarchism is a way of life. It’s a way in which we deal with people in terms of how we live, in terms of violence and non-violence, in terms of…stop there.

I believe that…I have to…any anarchist has to…put together anarchism as a way of life, to understand it as a theory of organisation…And as a theory of organisation, people often have a great deal of difficulty with it, because the stereotype of anarchism is of course chaos…not to mention violence. So when you begin to talk about someone who is naïve to the area, those are the two things that come up: how can you be serious, given the violence that anarchists have manifested. And often they’ll point to Berkman and Goldman – Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman – Berkman who thought by assassinating one of the big capitalists of the day, that this would motivate people to join in the anti-capitalist movement. He was of course mistaken, it was not…mumbles.

And then there was the anarchist who shot McKinley. And so these remain, these are sort of the iconic symbols of anarchism; iconic from the standpoint of…of people who are…rejecting the idea of…

When I talk about anarchism as a theory of organisation I let people know that hierarchy and the absence of hierarchy are theories of organisation themselves, and that, nobody laughs when you talk about anarchist…when you talk about organisation from an anarchist standpoint, but…they can’t conceive, they simply can’t conceive of a group, of an organisation, of a city, being run on non-hierarchical principles. Note in the recent Egyptian struggle: none of the commentators talked about this, none of the commentators except maybe Al Jazeera – not sure about that – none of them talked about this as an anarchist-like uprising. It was a spontaneous uprising, it was a mobilising that tried to maintain a non-violent perspective…but anarchism is written out of the dialogue

What role does power play in anarchist philosophy?

I maintain that the central concept of anarchist theory is power. That, um…we need to understand that power is manifest in many different ways, um, for example, class, gender…policing, violence and so on. That…all of these are the, the oppression of women, the oppression of persons by class, these are ways of maintaining power and dominance over them, and that to understand the different theories of anarchism you have to understand the way in which um, power gets played out. And what happens is that a lot of anarchists focus on the dimensions like class and gender to the, I think, mistake of ignoring the higher order construct, namely power.

What’s the main reason we need an anarchist world?

If we believe that people are truly equal, then we need a world that reflects…that kind of…mumbles. That reflects egalitarianism…I know of no political ideology that does this other than anarchism. People will talk about democracy, but typically democracy goes only so far. We need an anarchist world because we won’t, I don’t think we’ll survive, both from a political, a political or economic or ecological standpoint, unless we can deal with each other in a manner that recognises ourselves as being equal, and being equal means that we need to build organisations which are non-hierarchical. Hierarchy is a form of manifestation of power and the worst form of hierarchy is of course bureaucracies.

What is the anarchist critique of majority rule democracy?

Anarchism probably had some of its roots in democratic theory…but…if you’re going to have a society in which a minority of – I’m sorry – in which a majority can determine the relations of people and institutions, that means that somebody’s going to be on top and somebody’s going to be on bottom. And that is antithetical to the notions of anarchism. The…when we’re talking about the economy and building a participatory economy, as opposed to building a capitalist economy, whether we’re talking about voting for somebody for political office as opposed to a collective decision and collective decision-making, democracy simply is still a main way of maintaining power and hierarchy.

What is the anarchist critique of beurocracy?

We need to look at the mechanisms by which people maintain power and control over others. I think that possibly the most violent institutional form is a bureaucracy. It’s violent because it legitimates hierarchy; it’s violent because, um…it tells people that they’re not responsible for their actions. That is to say, one acts of bureaucracy according to the rules of bureaucracy, but the rules of bureaucracy are ones we say, listen, um, you’re not accountable for this, this is the way we do things. So one of the things that happens is that people get socialised into actions and mechanisms which maintain the power base in the society. It also comes about with respect to maintaining levels of discrimination, particularly where race and ethnicity and gender are involved. Discrimination I would say, and I’ve tried to persuade my sociological colleagues, discrimination is the underlying basis of ethno-violence.

Is violence justified in order to bring about an anarchist world?

I think when it comes to violence anarchists are divided…and…I think that’s okay. We don’t have all the answers. But we need, I think, as we build an anarchist theory as a sketch, that’s not to think we have a full-blown theory, we have a sketch of a theory…Sooner or later as a population engages in insurrectionary activities, um, they move in some cases to violence, but, was the Egyptian revolution we just witnessed violent? Well, many people are pointing to it as a non-violent revolution, but, um, both the police, the military and the protesters were doing things that were violent. So I say, what we need to do is to minimise as much as we can the exercise of violence. Um…And understand that has to be the absolute last resort. We can’t build a peaceable society on the basis of violent revolution. I just don’t think that can happen. On the other hand, how we go about building a society of people at peace is something that we have to work at and work at I think, really hard.

What is one example of an important anarchist principle?

Well the first principle, I think, for anarchists, um…is a principle of egalitarianism. We have to, um, be able to build institutions in which hierarchy and, hierarchy and the maldistribution of power are central to organising. I think that we need to learn how to live and work collectively and that collective work is one of the principles that is subsumed under power, that is, once we can, um, minimise, reduce, do away with power differentials, I think we can live a different kind of life.

I think, and excuse me if I’m just sort of random but this is a tough question, um, I think we need to be able to deal with our technology differently. That is to say, we need to build, as Murray Bookchin put it, a liberatory technology of…so for example, um…Wind power or solar may be construed as a liberatory technology, whereas, um, fossil fuel burning plants require a high degree of concentration of, um…dealing with, with resources which won’t last – oil, coal, for example, particularly oil – and nuclear power, which is now being pushed once again, even at the level of the presidency of the US, um, nuclear power is a centralising form of energy and so we need to work on that.

We need to work on dealing economically and to developing a kind of participatory economics in which the people who are affected by economic decisions have a legitimate role in helping to make those decisions.

We probably need to work hard at building…um…We probably need to work hard at building egalitarian institutions. I don’t think…I have a poster upstairs that says there can’t be a revolution without women, or as Mao put it, quoting Mao in an anarchist documentary is ? …women hold up half the sky.

We need to be able to…deal with race and ethnicity in a manner we have not yet been able to do.

How do anarchists make sure their organizations are welcoming to people from all kinds of backgrounds?

When talking about race, ethnicity and so on…People say…that’s the way we were born. That prejudice is an inborn characteristic. And I think they say that, and this is where social science and anarchism intersect, I think they say that because children learn so early the basic dimensions of race and ethnicity. That by the age of three children in most Western societies have already learned some of the basic stereotypes. So it comes so early it deludes us into thinking that it is almost instinctive. Of course at one time what is believed to be instinctive now is a little iffy…How it impacts on anarchism particularly is a fact that…even as anarchists we can’t escape the fact that we live in a racist society, and so everything we do, is coloured by the fact that either one time we act out a stereotype and at another type we act out with due diligence an egalitarian social form. We have to work at…mumbles…we have to work at fighting against racism, prejudice, bigotry, however you want to label it. And I think that one of the ways we do it – and I guess in part this is a principle of anarchist organisation – we need to have systems of internal education. That is, for an anarchist organisation to really survive, they’ve got to be able to come together at regular intervals and literally have, not necessarily an alternative school – although that would be great – but literally have a regular time and place in the everyday activities of the organisation in which one acts out in an egalitarian, non-racist, non-sexist manner. And I think that the failure of many groups, including anarchist groups, to maintain themselves together, is the fact that they have not been able to educate themselves, if you will, as to the basic principles of anarchism.

Take for example something like a food coop. You can bring people together, and anarchists have been involved in food coops and other alternative institutions, you can bring people together and help them purchase food more cheaply. You can bring people together and have them purchase more nutritious food, but unless there’s also an understanding of the whole process of the growing of food, of the processing of food, of the way in which food is distributed around the world, unless you can have that there’s no politics here. And in that regard, anarchists have to maintain their politics upfront.

Why is there so much unproductive infighting within anarchist circles?

There are many different styles of anarchism…and I don’t think that’s bad. I would like to see greater cooperation than there is, but…for example, the class war anarchist versus the anarchist syndicalist versus the social anarchist and so on. All these are different modes of expression which are really trying to do the same thing, namely to build a society based on equality…It…seems to me, many different paths to an anarchist community. As long as we don’t allow ourselves to fight with each other because we’ve chosen a different path, and I think there has been a little bit of that, coming from places where they should have known better. That is to say, um, I don’t see why I can’t live with an anarchist syndicalist, but I know they’re wrong. I don’t see why I can’t live with a class war anarchist, but I think they’re too Marxist. And so I have objections to all but my own variety of social anarchism, which I think is the right path to take, but I certainly will not allow that to assault anarchists who, who want to walk on a different path.

Where did the term social anarchism come from?

I’m not exactly sure where the term social anarchism originated. I think it comes from an Italian work by Giovanni Baldelli, in a book entitled Social Anarchism. We selected the name social anarchism, we spent a lot of time when we were starting up our magazine, and, we selected, we had several choices. One was, we thought of calling it Broccoli – I’m serious! We thought of calling it broccoli because nobody would know what it meant and that would give us the opening to talk about this. We thought of calling ourselves White Rose because there was a collective at that time in Cambridge called Black Rose and the White Rose in Germany…There were already too many roses there. Um…We had some other titles in mind, but we chose social anarchism once one time because it confused people. That is it went, the notion of social anarchism went against the stereotype of anarchism as violent and chaotic and we figured that might make people talk, and it did, it does to this day when I tell people I’m a social anarchist they’re ready to talk about it, assuming they don’t walk away giggling, um…I don’t know of when people started using social anarchism since we adopted it from Baldelli. This was what, 1978 I think, so, and then when Murray Bookchin came out with his book on social anarchism, it had nothing really to do with social anarchism, but it popularised, among anarchists, it popularised the term.

Why do anarchists who are small in number not for now simply spend all their time helping larger organizations succeed?

One of the central mechanisms we have not yet talked about is that of the alternative institution…By alternative institution I mean some institution that deals with a vital resource, that operates under principles of non-hierarchy, anti-authoritarianism if you will, um, that has a process of internal education, and that these, put together, participatory decision-making on all of the issues that, um, are important to the group you’re working with, and in opposition to the straight, narrow, capitalist group presumably you’re opposed to, um, put them all together and you have an entirely different form of organisation. And it’s that organisation that I think is one of the central to building a revolutionary transfer culture. That is, transfer culture in the sense of raising the question, how do we get from here to there? And building alternative institutions I argue is one of those ways that we get from here to there.

Isn’t anarchism simply against human nature?

The response to critics of anarchism who believe that somehow or other hierarchy and violence are part of human nature…the response is two-fold. One is that it, um…there’s no evidence for that. That is to say, um, anything that you can point to and say this is part of human nature, I can point to its contradiction. So that human nature becomes an ideological tool…I can attack you because you’re violating principles of human nature and you can attack me because I don’t know what I’m talking about when I’m saying human nature is, basically good. That human nature is a function of the way in which we raise our children, it’s a function of the way in which we treat each other, um, and it’s a level of abstraction I hate to get caught up in.

How optimistic are you that we will reach an anarchist world?

Well I don’t want to answer a question about how optimistic or pessimistic I am because it depends on what day it is. But I also, um…am willing to say that I don’t want to think in terms of building a world on anarchist principles. I’d like to start out by thinking of building an alternative institutions, by building a community, by building a network of workers in the same area. In other words, um, I want something more modest as a goal than, um…the world in which everybody is wonderful. And furthermore, I have a feeling that if we were able to build an anarchist community we would discover all kinds of things that we didn’t think of before, and so we’d still be building an anarchist community that in fact there’s maybe no end to that.

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