Marx and Durkheim on the problems of industrial capitalist society

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French, arguably quintessential, sociologist with his assertions that ‘society sui generis’ is the subject matter of sociology.

“Treat social facts as things” is a famous dictum of Durkheim by which he means social phenomena is an objective realm, external to individuals.

“Social facts are ways of acting, thinking or feeling that are external to individuals, having their own reality outside the perceptions and lives of individuals” (Giddens, 2001, p9). These social facts exercise a coercive power over individuals.

Durkheim considered sociology as a new science. By examining traditional philosophical questions empirically, sociology could be used to elucidate these questions.

“Durkheim was intensely concerned about the social pathology of contemporary industrial society” (Anderson et al, 1987, p47). Durkheim was also particularly interested in social and moral solidarity and so studied what holds society together and what keeps society from descending into chaos. “Durkheim approached modernity and the industrial revolution through the study of the division of labour” (LaCapra, 1972, p82).

In 1893 Durkheim wrote his first major works, “The Division of Labour in Society” in which he contrasted ‘mechanical’ and ‘organic’ solidarity and related them to the growth of distinctions between different occupations – the division of labour. Durkheim argued that primitive societies were characterised by a mechanical solidarity with a limited division of labour. Social solidarity was based on shared values, all individuals performed similar tasks and were bound together by a common collective conscience.

After a gradual move towards an organic society with an advanced division of labour, individuals had different occupational roles and social solidarity was based on moral individualism and cultural pluralism.

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Social integration was based upon the division of labour.

Although Durkheim rejected ideas of both Comte and Saint-Simon, “Durkheim did believe that the organic division of labour could provide the basis for individual freedom and social co-operation if the pathological features of contemporary society were eliminated” (Anderson et al, 1987, p47).

Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie to sociology, which literally means ‘without norms’. Anomie exists when society fails to provide a limiting framework of social norms, resulting in unhappiness and social disorders.

Durkheim aimed to establish sociology as a science and to establish the requirements to maintain social order in modern societies.

After witnessing the growth of industrial production and the inequalities that resulted from this growth, Karl Marx (1818-1883) sought to explain the changes that were occurring in society during the Industrial Revolution era.

Marx saw the new and old societies, capitalism and feudalism, in stark contrast. Feudalism was based on the agricultural, rural society, the opposite of industrial capitalist society.

“Industrial capitalism is dominated by the market. In the production of goods for the market their intrinsic worth plays little part; the worth of any commodity is its exchange value. Everything in society is dominated by the cash ‘nexus’, including labour which becomes another commodity to be bought and sold” (Anderson et al, 1987, p5).

Marx argued that the capitalist property-owners form a ruling class, whom Marx called the bourgeoisie, employers of wage-labour, the property-less working class, whom Marx labelled the proletariat.

As industrialisation developed, large numbers of peasants moved to expanding cities and so aided the formation of an urban-based industrial working class. “The middle class of merchants and manufacturers (or “capitalists”) were bourgeois, as distinguished from the remnant of the feudal class, from the “proletariat” of industrial labourers, and from the peasantry” (Smelser et al, 1976, p54).

Marx argued that “Capitalism is inherently a class system in which class relations are characterised by conflict” (Giddens, 2001, p12).

In Marx’s view, the bourgeoisie were able to generate profit by exploiting the proletariat through oppressive devaluation of skilled labour and its’ experience. Ultimately, for Marx, this led to “alienation” – the degradation of the workers to become a “most miserable sort of commodity” whose misery “is in inverse proportion to the power and size of his production” (Marx, 1848, p77). This ‘commodity’ would become the social class, called the proletariat by Marx.

Labour was organised solely with regard to efficiency and the pursuit of profit. These factors led to inequalities of the working class which increased dramatically the gap between the capitalists and the working class, as well as the wealth and lifestyles of property-owners. Shopkeepers, independent craftsmen and so on were undermined as capitalist production developed a competitive appetite.

“Marx claimed that it is not acquisitive and competitive individuals who produce capitalist society. It is capitalist society that produces competitive and acquisitive individuals” (Hughes et al, 1995).

Marx and Durkheim often had conflicting ideas. However, they did share similar views about some sociological ideas. Both believed that scientifically based knowledge of society could be used to improve the conditions of humanity. Both believed their task was to discover the laws that governed the organisation of the social order and draw parallels with the ways in which the natural sciences had revealed the laws of nature.

When looking at the nature of the problems of industrial capitalist society, Marx and Durkheim share the argument that the individual and collective were in opposition to one another. They both believed that the individual is a naturally self-interested being “which flourished only when exempt from any kind of control by society was a manifestation of modern society and, indeed, of the most pathological features of that society” (Anderson et al, 1987, p132).

Marx and Durkheim both viewed the individual as a being with a need for society. However, Marx suggested that “Man has a nature that will eventually assert and fulfil itself and will do so at the expense of a decadent social order” (Smelser et al, 1976, p123).

Durkheim claimed that Man’s need for society is “met less by substantive principles of justice and more by social ties and normative limits” (Smelser et al, 1976, p123).

Marx and Durkheim argued that we live in societies, called ‘organic’ by Durkheim and ‘capitalist’ by Marx, in which people are increasingly, individually, able to do what they want to do but less and less part of social groups.

The idea that people should be free from external constraint was opposed by neither Durkheim nor Marx but both believe that in modern societies, extreme freedom can be a bad thing for the individual. Marx and Durkheim tried to disclose the concept of ‘freedom of the individual’ in western societies of the nineteenth century as an illusion. “The freedom of the individual was, Marx argued, only apparent, a superficial kind of freedom” (Anderson et al, 1987, p132).

Although Marx and Durkheim showed agreement about the problems of industrial capitalist society they disagreed about the causes, as we have seen, and solutions, of this society.

Durkheim displayed a particular avoidance of much of Marx’s work. Durkheim did relatively little to build upon the integration with the work of Marx.

“The Marx whom Durkheim particularly abhorred was the Marx who advocated class conflict and violent revolution in modern society” (LaCapra, 1972, p23). Durkheim believed that the conception of modern society proceeded through a pathological state of rapid transition, developing into normality. Durkheim was optimistic that modern society possessed the ability to resolve the severe problems produced by industrial capitalist society.

Like the political and social theorist Rousseau, Marx desired a means to vanquish the inequalities and divisions of the society of his time and to constitute a true community. “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx, 1848, p31).

Marx, also like Rousseau, pinpointed the obstacle to attainment in the circumstantially developed divisions among people, particularly the division of labour. Marx argued that social change is primarily prompted by economic influences. Class conflicts provide the drive for historical development and change. Marx called this idea the ‘materialist conception of history’.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx, 1848, p222). In accordance with his view of history, Marx argued that just like the bourgeois had united to abolish the feudal society, so too would the bourgeois be ousted and a new society installed.

Marx believed that the proletariat would develop the capacity and the will overtime to revolt, resulting in the downfall of the capitalist system. This would enable a new society to evolve in which there would be no classes and so no vast divisions between rich and poor.

Marx believed that inequalities would no longer contain the split of the mass of the population that were exploited by the ruling class who, in their small minority, monopolised the economical and political power. The revolution that would overthrow capitalism would lead to communism. This political ideology, derived from socialism, aimed to create a society in which private productive property, social classes and the state are absent.

With the revolutionary defeat of capitalism, Marx envisaged the emergence of “socialist societies” in which the state would still play a role but only with the transformation of all property relations.

“Whereas Marx saw the solution to social problems in terms of direct political actions, Durkheim took a more ‘Clinician-cum-managerialist’ view by emphasising the effective treatment of the pathological conditions which can afflict society through the deliberate reorganisation of its institutions” (Hughes et al, 1995).

“Durkheim believed modern society would naturally evolve in the direction of “normality”, certainly without violent revolution” (LaCapra, 1973, p22).

Durkheim argues that individuals need to integrate forms of behaviour. Individuals now pursue varied lines of work, are not self-sufficient and must engage in multiple exchanges with others. The mechanical society, where individuals performed similar tasks and experienced shared values, is not enough for the individual, who wants to pursue different roles and experience freedom to do what the individual wants to do.

The view of human nature held by Durkheim was that there is no natural limit to the desires, ambitions or needs of the individual. This view stands in the tradition of the English philosopher and political theorist, Thomas Hobbes. Durkheim argued that the required limits must be socially produced.

Durkheim’s concept of anomie is “a condition of society….. in which there exists little consensus, a lack of certainty on values or goals, and a loss of effectiveness in the normative and moral framework which regulates collective and individual life” (Jary, 2000).

Durkheim sees anomie as an ‘abnormal’ social form, resulting from the failure of modern societies to move fully from a mechanical society to an organic society.

What Durkheim called an ‘anomic division of labour’ existed because occupations were not allocated according to skills or experience and so were obliterated. Economic activity in these societies remained unregulated by a coherent value system.

Not only did Durkheim criticise the anomic character of the division of labour but also its forced and excessive character. “It was forced because the inheritance of private property meant that individuals were not free to find the work most suited to their skills and talents; it was excessive because workers often had insufficient work to keep them occupied in a way that produced job satisfaction” (Anderson et al, 1987, p48).

Durkheim argued that these factors of the modern divisions of labour led to class conflict.

Durkheim’s solution to the problems of industrial capitalist society was to properly regulate the division of labour. This would end class struggles, “achieved through economic co-operation among modern guild associations and through the overall political and moral guidance of a liberal republican state whose power could be checked as necessary through these same guilds”(Anderson et al, 1987, p48).

Durkheim proposed that the organisation of intermediate groups, such as professional and occupational groups, would enable the individual to bind into the community.

Both conflicting and confirming each other at various stages of their writings, Marx and Durkheim, when analysed, attract similar conclusions as to the nature of the problems of industrial capitalist societies.

The theorists seem to recognise that capitalism is inevitable and both agree that inequality is the foreseeable outcome.

Both Marx’s and Durkheim’s work have attracted criticism and opposition. Marx’s class analysis has been opposed for not sufficiently considering the rise of new ‘middle class’ groups, or affluence.

This suggests that Marx’s theory of social change and revolution is wrong, although Marx never set a time scale for revolution.

Durkheim’s work has attracted criticism for “overstating general normative and social structural influences at the expense of individual agency, although it was always Durkheim’s intention to leave scope for the latter within his sociology” (Jary, 2000).

“Marx developed a theory that generated specific predictions about the future of capitalism” (Smelser et al, 1976, p259).

Marx argued that society is a human product, that men’s thinking and acting shape the social world, although he also claims that man is a social product.

“Marx’s theory helped to shape sociology even as it was changing the world; Durkheim’s influence on sociology is unparalleled” (Smelser et al, 1976, p70).

Despite criticisms and opposing theories, Marx and Durkheim have left a major impression on the sociological world that has shaped and influenced modern sociology and its theorists.

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Marx and Durkheim on the problems of industrial capitalist society. (2017, Dec 13). Retrieved from

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