The aim of this paper is to critically analyze the ideas of two prominent sociological thinkers, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim in order to point out similarities in their ideas. To do so, it is pertinent to have an insight into their background and early life.
Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a French philosopher from a middle-class Jewish home who later studied sociology. He is best known for his major published works “Suicide” and “The Division of Labour in Society” in which he introduced the concept of “Anomie” – the breakdown of the influence of social norms on individuals in a society. He was most interested in the glues that hold society together. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), on the other hand, was a German philosopher who became interested in social change later in his life. Just like Durkheim, Marx came from a Jewish background but later broke away from the faith. He is best remembered for his famous published work “The Communist Manifesto” where he attempts to explain the objective of Communism. Marx brought to light the theory underlying the exploitation of one class by another. In contrast to Durkheim’s life, which was quiet, hardworking and productive, Marx had an adventurous, poverty-stricken, and conflict-filled life. Despite their contrasting views on human existence, both thinkers’ involvement in social changes capture the main issues in human existence.
With this background knowledge of the two thinkers and the commonalities in their early lives, I can now explore their different theories about society and find similarities between the two views that still apply in today’s contemporary society. Marx and Durkheim had contrasting perspectives on how to understand human society. Marx used a historical and dialectic approach to understand how political economy shaped human history, while Durkheim, a structural
functionalist believed that different institutions brought together a cohesion of society. Both thinkers believed that structure imposed itself on individuals in a society, even though both explored their theory from different angles. While Marx’s theory focused on social critique and conflict, Durkheim’s focused on social facts. For Marx, he focused on historical materialism. He talked about human needs and how dissatisfaction leads to new needs. This school of thought is like Durkheim’s on human desires being endless; that the more one has the more one wants. In my reflections on the reading of both thinkers, three major commonalities stand out in their theories in the following areas; social system and stratification, religion and division of labor.
Social system and Class stratification
Social stratification refers to a ranking of people or groups of people within a society. Marx, like Durkheim, saw society in a holistic manner. He saw society as a structurally interrelated whole. Durkheim saw these structures as social facts which exist independently of the use of them, and which was developed to ensure solidarity of society which leads to cohesion. Even though Marx shared the opinion that society needed this structural interconnectedness, he strongly believed that conflicts are bred through class stratification. It is evident that they both had similar thoughts on how the structures of society work together in parts for the benefit of the whole, however, they differ in the outcomes that are created when members of society work together. Durkheim argues that society is driven better by harmony as opposed to conflict. This still applies to societies today depending on how industrialized they are. In rural areas where norms and values are important, and people are bound by common consciousness, we see the mechanical solidarity Durkheim talked about; while in more industrialized, urban areas, there is the class
conflict of the upper- and lower-class Marx referred to. This is more because of the individualistic nature of society. Comparatively, these two thinkers believed in the division of society into two classes for it to function.
Another similarity between Durkheim and Marx is in terms of religion. Like Marx, Durkheim believed that traditional, social and religious ties were no longer assumed, rather new social institutions take the place of religion. Marx expressed his belief that religion is a set of doctrines intended to stabilize, while at the same time bring into servitude the working-class people. In addition to that, he argued that the society’s inclination towards religious excitement serves to represent a reaction to disaffection. Also, he believed that since religion causes human beings to feel delusive happiness it makes an erroneous mental representation in as well as of itself. Indeed, to him, it is an instrument utilized to sustain cultural systems together with ideologies that in most cases encourages oppression in the society. Hence his famous quote religion is the “opium of the people” (Craib 1997, p. 71). “Marx’s opinion is that religion is an illusion that provides reasons and excuses to keep society functioning just as it is. Much as capitalism takes our productive labor and alienates us from its value, religion takes our highest ideals and aspirations and alienates us from them, projecting them onto an alien and unknowable being called a god” (Cline 2017) Durkheim adopted the idea that religion gave birth to everything essential in society. Thus, Durkheim chose to view religion as a function which can strengthen social bonds whilst also integrating individuals into society. “Religious beliefs are representations -collective representations- of the power a society has over each of its members” (Craib 1997, p. 71). They both felt that religion played a vital role in the proper functioning of society. For Durkheim it maintains and reinforces social cohesion while for Marx it helped to sooth people in society that were suffering due to exploitation and alienation. We see what Marx was referring to in today’s contemporary society where some members of society especially poor societies use religion as a means of escaping their sufferings and struggles, “an opium” while some see it as a sense of belonging, a sort of “collective effervescence” that Durkheim talked about. What they both failed to consider the role of secularisation in society.
Division of Labour
Marx and Durkheim both believed that the advancement and growth in society have led to the need for division of labor and that this was possible by the decimation of the old social order. To Durkheim, division of labor relies on individual and collective consciousness, but Marx believed that this individual consciousness depends on the social strata a person belongs to. The distinction between these two thinkers here is that Marx felt that the division of labor brought about alienation. Marx argued that less skilled workers are created through the division of labor. He believed that a worker’s enthusiasm is dampened, and overall skill set reduced as a result of specialization. He envisioned a society where no one felt alienated because there was no alienated production. Marx believed that social classes are a product of the division of labor and this ultimately disharmonizes humanity. As for Durkheim, he argues that specialization through division of labor is critical for society because it develops the skill set of workers and creates a sense of solidarity amongst workers. Durkheim believed that society functioned better when labor is divided according to the workers’ specific skills set. He was concerned with the
binding force in society which he termed as “collective consciousness”. Durkheim suggested that society moves in sync, yet distinctively when there is organic solidarity, that is, social unity based on a division of labor that results in people depending on each other. This type of solidarity can be seen in today’s modern society, where there is a high level of technological advancement. Industrialized societies are bound together by organic solidarity. Unlike mechanical solidarity which can be seen in primitive societies were solidarity is usually based on kinship and family ties. This type of solidarity is more dominant in traditional communities where solidarity is marked by uniformed beliefs. The interdependence of workers and cohesion is brought about by the homogeneity of the people.
For Marx, he believes that the structures or law, power, dominant beliefs, and bureaucracy are instruments used by the ruling class for domination and oppression of the non-ruling class. Durkheim, on the other hand, sees them as key elements of a functioning society. Hence, Marx views functionalism in a negative light as opposed to Durkheim who sees functionalism as a positive thing for society. In as much as they both had contrasting views about the division of labor; a similarity can be drawn from their views based on their assertion that division of labor can lead to a crisis in society. In Durkheim’s case, he termed this crisis anomie (a state of normlessness), while in Marx’s case he termed it exploitation and alienation. Marx’s most extensive discussion is carried out in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 where he writes that “estrangement appears not only in the fact that the means of my life belong to another and that my desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in the fact that all things are other than themselves, that my activity is other than itself, and that finally – and this goes for capitalists too – an inhuman power rules over everything. (Marx 1844, p. 366). While Durkheim argues that overregulation–in the form of forced division of labor–will lead to fatalism, a kind of anomie. Anomie resulting from excessive demands on individuals from the market is like Marx’s notion of alienation, although Durkheim does not use the terms alienation or exploitation.
Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim both come from structuralist, positivist approach looking at society from a macro view-point rather than a micro point of view. They both viewed people as mono-causal and deterministic and that they readily accept the labels they are given and play that role in society, but as evident in today’s contemporary society this is not the case. Above all they both believed that society exists above and over the individual and that even though society was created by human action, it acts back upon individuals as an external power. (Craib 1997, p. 59).
Cline, Austin. (2018, October 1). Religion as Opium of the People. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/religion-as-opium-of-the-people-250555
Craib, I. (1997). Classical social theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marx, K. (1844b), ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)’, in Early Writings (1975: 279-400), (originally in German).