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The Threat of Marx

In response to:

Gilding the Iron Cage from the January 24, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

Had Sheldon Wolin, in his review of Parsons’s and Platt’s The American University (NYR, January 24, 1974), not taken such delight in emphasizing the authors’ “omissions and innocence,” I would not feel constrained to point out the following error by the reviewer. Wolin, in arguing that Max Weber and Emile Durkheim failed to examine the question of revolution systematically, states that “Durkheim even attempted a history of nineteenth-century socialism which omitted Marx.”

This is wrong. As Marcel Mauss, Durkheim’s disciple, made clear in his introduction to Le Socialisme, this book only contains the first part of a planned multi-volume history of socialism. The very subtitle of Durkheim’s work makes this plain: Sa définition, ses débuts, la doctrine Saint-Simonienne (Definition, Beginnings, The Doctrine of Saint-Simon). Durkheim was long aware of the problems presented by Marx and his followers and, according to Mauss, “he always regretted his inability to continue or resume” his history of socialism.

Terry M. Perlin

Williams College

Williamstown, Massachusetts

Sheldon S Wolin replies:

Perlin has not read Mauss very carefully or critically and he has not grasped my point. Mauss nowhere stated that Durkheim had “planned a multi-volume history of socialism.” He wrote that Durkheim had “drafted” a “History of Socialism” in the form of a three-year course of lectures. Since only the first year’s lectures were given and the surviving manuscript of it is rough, even incomprehensible, in many parts, and never gets beyond Saint-Simon, one may respect the piety of Mauss, who was Durkheim’s nephew, but still doubt the extent to which Durkheim had formulated the project or had been committed to it. Mauss also says (and all of Durkheim’s writings confirm it) that Durkheim rejected notions of class war, politics founded on the working classes and aimed primarily at their welfare, and revolutionary violence. Now, in the lectures which Mauss edited into the book Le Socialisme, Durkheim sought to relate Saint-Simonian ideas to the concerns of social science as Durkheim understood the latter. Therefore, socialism comes primarily to mean the effort to cope with social disorganization produced by economic individualism. He saw (Saint-Simonian) socialism as “extending to social sciences the method of the positive sciences, out of which sociology has come”; as promoting “religious regeneration”; and as seeking to overcome social disorganization by “connecting economic functions.”

If we combine Durkheim’s view of socialism with some of his basic ideas—such as his preoccupation with social solidarity, occupational groupings, the need for a unifying moral system, the privileged position of religion as a source of moral conduct and belief, and the assignment of economic factors to a “secondary and derivative” status—and ask what it would mean for him to confront Marx, then it becomes clear why he shied away from analyzing Marx’s thought and from discussing revolution. To deal as seriously with Marx as with Saint-Simon would have required Durkheim to deal with a writer with far more serious claims to being “scientific”; a writer who viewed systems of collective belief, such as religion, as systems of illusion which masked class domination and helped to maintain the powerlessness of the workers; a writer who spent much of his life trying to demonstrate the fundamental and determining role of material conditions and the futility of reforms based on the hope of moral regeneration. Durkheim could write on Saint-Simon because he was a precursor; he avoided Marx because he was a threat.

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