We Can’t Understand Émile Durkheim’s Sociology Without Discussing His Conservative Politics

University courses present Émile Durkheim as a “value-free” sociologist who gave us timeless insights. But Durkheim’s sociology is inseparable from the bitter class conflicts of the French Third Republic and his profound hostility to revolutionary change.

Some of the key concepts of Émile Durkheim’s sociology clearly reflect his political positions. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

All over the world, sociology departments teach students the theories of Emile Durkheim. He is generally regarded as a “founding father” who elevated the discipline to the status of an objective social science.

His most famous book, Suicide, focused on a highly personal decision yet showed that there were stable social patterns behind it. While Durkheim’s precise explanation can be challenged, his recognition of social reality stood out. This insight is all the more important in an age when neoliberal ideologues like the late Margaret Thatcher proclaim that there is “no such thing as society.”

However, there is a major problem with the way Durkheim is taught. Western universities present themselves as spaces for free thought and objective, unbiased knowledge. Their courses invite students invite to read textbooks that assume that Durkheim’s ideas contain some timeless insights. This approach considers Durkheim’s blatant sexism, or his enthusiastic support for French imperialism during World War I, to be extraneous to the sociological endeavor.

Yet some of the key concepts of Durkheim’s sociology clearly reflect his political positions. Identifying the political thrust behind his ideas does not mean we have to reject those ideas lock, stock, and barrel. We can still learn a lot from Durkheim, but only if we place his sociological thought in the right context.

The Third Republic

Some historical background may be useful here. The defeat of France by Prussia in the war of 1870 ushered in the Third Republic. Durkheim supported republican policies and was close to the political elite of the new order.

After he graduated, the key architect of French higher education reform, Louis Liard, urged Durkheim to go to Germany to report on how social science had contributed to its national regeneration. He was later appointed to his first academic position in the University of Bordeaux by ministerial decree.

At the time, the French state was integrating social science into a wider system of training for future teachers. The aim of republican leaders such as Léon Gambetta and Jules Ferry was to displace the monopoly that the big landowners and the wealthy bourgeoisie held on state power and patronage. Gambetta summed up their ambition for the France of the near future: “The rich financier who lives today withdrawn behind his formidable signature will see his son acknowledge the grocer around the corner who has become a millionaire.”

This vision was particularly appealing to the broad layers of the petty bourgeoisie in France. Members of this class, which numbered about eight or nine million people, belonged neither to the million-strong “authentic bourgeoisie” nor to the working class or the peasantry. The republicans wanted to establish a property-owning democracy underpinned by meritocratic ascent.

Challenges From Right and Left

However, French republicanism faced two major challenges. On the one hand, there was a neomonarchist right, which despised the legacy of the French Revolution, and which enjoyed the vigorous support of the Catholic Church. These were the main forces behind the antisemitic attack on Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who was framed for espionage in the 1890s. Their wider target was the secular agenda of French republicanism.

On the other hand, there was a rising labor movement in France. The memory of the massacre of 20,000 Parisian workers that followed the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 drew many toward Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas. Whereas, in the 1880s, there was an average of about one hundred strikes per year, this rose to over a thousand per year in the 1900s.

The republican regime responded to labor militancy with outright repression. In 1906, for example, the republican politician Georges Clemenceau flooded Paris with troops and arrested the leaders of the radical CGT (General Confederation of Labor).

Durkheim believed that any return to the clericalism of the eighteenth century would stifle individual liberty and destroy French society. He also thought that revolutionary socialists were preaching class hatred and endless struggle when they should be uniting citizens in social partnership.

The solution to these twin evils, Durkheim believed, was to revive a benign form of civic patriotism that he associated with the Third Republic. While political leaders focused on developing rituals and monuments to help bind the French nation together, Durkheim laid down the theoretical framework for inculcating a secular morality that would underpin a new patriotism.

Social Morality

According to Durkheim, the republican tradition based itself on a concept of citizens who were equal before the law. However, the abstract nature of the citizenry hid the fact that they were deeply divided according to social class and political orientation. This meant that, on occasion, the citizens might endorse political positions that were either to the right or the left of the republicans.

For Durkheim, the answer to this conundrum was to put resources into educating the population so that they would become “proper” citizens able to take a responsible part in democracy. The sociologist was an enthusiastic supporter of this project from the very outset, expressing his viewpoint in the following terms:

All good citizens had the same idea; we must rebuild the country. In order to rebuild it we first had to educate it. A country that aspires to governing itself needs “enlightenment” above all else. A democracy would be untrue to itself if it did not have faith in science.

Scientific education, he thought, could help promote social bonds. However, his concern was not just with such bonds in the abstract. He thought that a common education system grounded in a scientific outlook could help reawaken French patriotic feelings. Its purpose would be

to awaken in ourselves a taste for collective life. What we need to understand above all is the reason for the existence of national feelings and patriotic faith; we need to know if they are grounded in the nature of things or whether, as doctrinaires argue . . . they are no more than prejudices and barbaric survivals.

One of the major concepts in Durkheim’s sociology is the role that morality plays in holding society together. This stands in contrast to the British utilitarian school, which claimed that social cohesion arose from the pursuit of individual interest.

This focus on social morality lay at the heart of the republican project in France. In 1869, one of its main intellectual progenitors, Charles Renouvier, published a book on the “science of ethics.” Morality, he argued, was not based on religion or metaphysical concepts but rather arose from a positive feeling that emerged between two individuals when they realized that duty to the self must also become duty to the other.

Solidarity and the State

Durkheim subsequently took up Renouvier’s call for a science of ethics, seeking to root morality in society itself rather than God or the ruminations of philosophers. He stated that his “major concern” was to “free morality from sentimental subjectivism.”

This was a coded reference to philosophers who started with an ideal of justice, for example, and tried to deduce their own system of morality for society. As a result, according to Durkheim, such thinkers had been “revolutionaries or iconoclasts” instead of adopting a “scientific” approach based on an empirical study of moral facts. Durkheim’s approach differed both from the revolutionaries who wanted to develop a moral critique of existing society and from the Catholic Church, which wanted to root an absolute morality in belief in God.

However, if morality for Durkheim arose spontaneously from social groups, it by no means ran counter to the interests of the French state. The state’s role was to prize open the close-knit local groups which surrounded individuals and thus create the conditions for their own freedom. Were it not for the state, he insisted, the individual would be “absorbed” into clans or local groups and would possess little concept of their individual rights. Durkheim’s conclusion was as follows:

Our moral individuality, far from being antagonistic to the State, has on the contrary been a product of it. It is the State that sets it free. And this gradual liberation does not simply serve to fend off opposing forces that tend to absorb the individual: it also serves to provide the milieu in which the individual moves, so that he may develop his faculties for freedom.

This argument about the way that morality and respect for individual liberty arose from society and the state clearly had important ideological implications. While Durkheim stated the argument in his sociological writings in general, abstract terms, it led him toward a seemingly benign form of patriotism that expressed itself in gratitude to la patrie. If patriotism was weakened, he argued, where was the individual to find his moral authority?

He ignored the dark side of this patriotic sentiment in an age of imperialism, even after the outbreak of World War I. Indeed, Durkheim marshaled his talents for the propaganda effort of the French state after 1914.

The other major theme in French republican thought that featured strongly in Durkheim’s sociology was the concept of solidarity. This was also a core element for the new secular system of education.

One of the textbooks used in secondary schools at the time, Petit Traité de Morale Sociale by Pierre F. Pécaut, devoted six out its twenty chapters to solidarity. It featured various conceptual subdivisions such as physical solidarity (based on one’s hereditary characteristics), economic solidarity (based on a division of labor), scientific solidarity (based on collective labor), and moral solidarity (based on respect for the rights of others).

Durkheim’s book The Social Division of Labor developed these themes as if they were abstract, timeless concepts. It made a distinction between the mechanical solidarity that, according to Durkheim, prevails in “primitive” societies, and the “organic” solidarity that develops in modern society. In contrast with the more pessimistic critiques of modern society advanced by Karl Marx or even Max Weber, Durkheim offered a cheerier account of how social solidarity was possible in a society rent by class conflict.

Explaining Suicide

Durkheim’s wider political stance was also evident in his work Suicide. He chose the subject matter primarily as an indicator of the moral health of society. His stated aim was to move beyond generalized speculations and arrive at “real laws” that would demonstrate a link between suicide and other social phenomena such as marriage, religion, and family life.

He focused on the higher rates of suicide in single men. His explanation of the gender difference in this field was blatantly sexist:

Woman’s sexual needs have less of a mental character because, generally speaking, her mental life is less developed. . . . Being a more instinctive creature than man, woman has only to follow her instincts to find calmness and peace.

He also placed a particular premium on large families, claiming that they gave rise to benefits for men because they increased collective interaction. Here, Durkheim’s scientific sociology dovetailed with the pronatalist policies of the republican government, whose leaders were concerned about the falling French birth rate.

Durkheim’s fundamental concept for analyzing suicide was anomie, which referred to the lack of moral regulation in society. He used this concept to point to a “social malaise” that was caused by the time lag between moral regulation and the market. The rapid growth of industry had, he argued, brought about social changes with such “extreme rapidity” that “the interests in conflict have not yet had time to be equilibrated.”

“Morbid disturbance,” he suggested, resulted from the uprooting of social institutions of the past and a failure to replace them. His specific target here was the weakening of the institution of marriage. Lacking regulation, Durkheim claimed, the passions of men went astray, there was little restriction on their desires, and so rates of suicide increased.

The clear implication of this argument was that there was no need to question the economic fundamentals of society. It was only a matter of adding new social supports for them. Adjustment rather than fundamental change was what was required.

The same concern was evident in the way Durkheim advocated moral regulation to restrain the growing aspirations of the working class. He wanted there to be an “upper limit to which a workman may aspire in his efforts to improve his existence.” If this limit was too low, workers would make little effort to improve themselves; on the other hand, if aspirations were allowed to grow too high, class conflict and social problems would emerge.

Society therefore needed, according to Durkheim, “a regime which fixes with relative precision the maximum degree of ease to which each class may legitimately aspire.” If such a regime existed, and if each person in it followed the rules and was “docile to collective authority and a wholesome moral constitution,” they would not ask for more. This relative limitation, Durkheim suggested, would make men contented with their lot, and the rate of suicide would therefore decrease.

However, when society was disturbed by painful crises, this regulation broke down. In such a context, “all classes contend among themselves because no established classification any longer exists.” Society would then move to a state of anomie where suicide rates increased — all of which helps to explain why Durkheim defined himself as an opponent of “the anarchist, the aesthete, the mystic, the socialist revolutionary . . . who have in common . . . a single sentiment of hatred and disgust for the existing order.”

The Complete Sociologist?

This political background to Durkheim’s thought is rarely discussed in sociology textbooks, because it would undermine the abstract, timeless nature of the theories those textbooks encourage students to use. Durkheim has instead become the lynchpin of a sociological canon originally shaped by the anti-Marxist ethos of McCarthyism and the Cold War.

Talcott Parsons, the most influential US sociologist of the twentieth century and a staunch opponent of Marxism, hailed the Frenchman as a founding father of sociology because his primary concern was with order and stability. The writings of Robert Nisbet, a sociology professor who was affiliated to the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, give us a flavor of the discourse about Durkheim.

According to Nisbet, Durkheim was hailed as the “complete sociologist” who was “first among equals” because of his insistence on rooting sociology in scientific objectivity. Yet Nisbet wanted to have it both ways, simultaneously praising Durkheim for a sociology that drew on a conservative tradition that stretched back to Edmund Burke in its “profound stress upon the functional interdependence of all parts of society” and the “collective representations” that held society together. Thus Durkheim was a “value-free scientist” who nonetheless viewed science as a tool for maintaining conservative social cohesion.

Highlighting the way that Durkheim’s sociology grew out of problems posed to French republican intellectuals in the nineteenth century does not mean we should simply dismiss him. His sociology generated many insights that we can still use today. However, by examining how a French republican project shaped his sociological thinking, we can deconstruct the ahistorical, timeless image of his work and highlight its political implications for today.