Marx vs Durkheim: Social Change and Human Nature
Sociology is a science, which has a potential to excite and interest any person. Even without having a basic knowledge of sociology, it is possible to state that this discipline deals with society and its members. Current active social work is based on the principles of respect and understanding of people’s needs. With the formation of a civilized society, outstanding sociological research has developed. It expressed various ideas of how and why societies are formed. This paper compares the views of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, two prominent sociologists, and concludes that Durkheim’s views on social change and human nature proved to be more realistic.
The social theories of Marx and Durkheim were chosen for the investigation as both scientists made important contributions into understanding of what keeps a society united and which conditions are necessary for it to exist in the form of cooperation of its members. All aspects of Marx and Durkheim’s theories are interrelated and have a common foundation for development. Thus, discussing social changes and human nature, both Marx and Durkheim defined a framework for their research. “Marx was a positivist and attempted to apply the principles of the natural sciences to discover laws of development in the social world.” (Van Krieken et al. 2013: 209). In this context, the scientist believed that societies developed progressively like animals developed in the process of evolution. He had a strong tendency to overemphasize the meaning of the external social forces and to believe that they functioned independently of people, who in effect create them. Though Marx´s important role in the development of sociology is undisputable, his theory is subject to certain serious criticisms. Marx definitely overestimates the role of material factors in the development of social aspects. His statement that human society progresses in order to reach the aims of communism is an attempt to predict the future, which nobody can do (Van Krieken et al. 2013). Thus, it is important to be aware of the basis of Marx's theory, but not all people agree with his logical process.
Durkheim’s foundation for social investigations was quite different from Marx’s. He “argued that cooperation is made possible through the establishment of a moral order that members of society are socialised into accepting as normal.” (Van Kreiken et al. 2013: 213). Durkheim supported the point of view that people did not start a war against everything only because they were artificially limited by the society in which they lived. Marx, on the contrary, considered people to be naturally cooperative and tended to explain the nature of social conflicts. The legacy of Durkheim’s theory was discussed by a number of sociologists and criticized as well. Thus, Durkheim supported the ideas of Davis and Moore, who stated that stratification in a society ensures the fact that people are distributed among the areas they feel most comfortable to live in and occupy corresponding working positions as some persons have more skills and other persons have fewer skills to survive. Those people who were most talented performed duties requiring more responsibility and those who were not so skillful stayed with simple jobs. Durkheim also supported the theoretical aspect of fair rewards, which were more significant for those who worked at more demanding positions (Van Krieken et al. 2013). However, the ideas of all three researches lack consistency: they deny the idea of inherited privilege and the ability of wealthy people to transfer what they have to their offspring. The right point, highly reviewed by the critics, is the fact that Durkheim saw democracy as a suitable way for his ideas to be valid, because this regime gave all people equal opportunities for development and inequality was formed on the basis of how people worked. Generally speaking, Durkheim’s social theory has some limitations, just as Marx’s ideas do.
The theories of social change of both Marx and Durkheim are called revolutionary. It is important to note that Durkheim supported some positivistic views of Marx and also considered that sociology had enough potential to uncover specific laws of social development (Van Krieken et al. 2013). The scientist stated “that social development occurred as a result of increasing specialization and differentiation.” (Van Krieken et al. 2013: 214). Durkheim believed that the origin of social changes was due to the fact that societies became more complex. He introduced the concepts of “mechanical solidarity”, prevailing in traditional societies which had a low level of social differentiation and “organic solidarity” (Van Krieken et al. 2013: 214), which was present in modern societies with high levels of social differentiation. Durkheim studied traditional societies using the example of Australian aboriginal societies. He supposed that because of insufficient stratification people at that time had similar views and experiences. Religion was a common value system for them and bound together the members of traditional societies. Durkheim contrasted organic solidarity of modern societies with the mentioned mechanical solidarity of traditional communities. In his opinion, nowadays people have diverse views and values. The foundation of social cohesion can be a similarity of people’s views, which is substituted by the difference in people’s values from time to time. People in modern society are mutually dependent and nobody can exist without a certain contribution of all other members. This idea is doubtful because of the fact that Durkheim believed in the power of religion, which formed primitive societies, although religion was considered not to be social by many sociologists (Van Krieken et al. 2013). Therefore, his research of traditional societies cannot be applied to the modern communities.
Marx had a different opinion on a social change. He was sure that a society progressed as a result of conflicts, revolutions, and resolutions between different social groups, which he named “classes” (Van Krieken et al. 2013: 209). He thought that inequality appeared at the exact moment, when a society created a surplus of wealth, which was more than it needed. This surplus was the basis of exploitation. This monetary sum was returned to the bourgeois class as profit and workers did not receive what they deserved. Working classes had no other options other than selling their labor to satisfy their needs. This was an idea for revolution in Marx’s opinion. Working people would always try to become economically equal with the more privileged group. If they do it successfully – a new social order will be reached. If they fail to do it – the society will slowly disintegrate (Van Krieken et al. 2013). Marx named this principle of social change “dialectical materialism” (Van Krieken et al. 2013: 210). This class system was not accepted by some scientists and they stood correct. Working class did not manage to defeat capitalism and, as it was mentioned above, Marx’s attempts to predict the future failed. Therefore, Durkheim’s ideas of hierarchy as a necessary instrument of social changes proved to be more practical than Marx’s equality theory.
Marx and Durkheim’s points of view on human nature are different in their origin. Thus, Marx states that “human nature is the ability to produce and flourish within a community that serves the community and oneself in a mutually gratifying way.” (Byron 2012: 22). According to Marx, human nature cannot be separated from production. Humans have a natural desire to produce things for individual and social satisfaction. Marx was sure that when people produce something, this process brings them double pleasure as they reveal their own personal traits in the object they produce and, in consequence, they are delighted to see the satisfaction of other people who would use this thing. The class theory of Marx and this close connection of people to production were rejected, because of the working class becoming less powerful and production process less common (Van Krieken et al. 2013).
Being against Marx’s opinion, Durkheim supported the idea that society produces people and, in order to understand what unites it, individuals should examine their own nature. The sociologist believed that any human had a two-sided nature: the soul and the body. These two components “coexists in antagonism and conflict.” (Lehmann 2013: 74). Durkheim stated that the described duality has roots in people’s bodies and the social beginning is external and represents a simple extension of society (Lehmann 2013). The main criticism of Durkheim lies in the fact that the sacred and profane parts of an individual cannot always be separated in everyday life.
To conclude, it is important to state that social theories of Marx and Durkheim are very important in order to understand how sociology works in general and how a society came to exist. Though their ideas were similar in certain ways, both sociologists expressed different views on the forming forces of societies. The lass theory of Marx and his overestimation of the production process in the life of an individual did not prove itself true. Durkheim’s more progressive ideas of social hierarchy and dual nature of a person demonstrated that the researcher was correct in many aspects. The further investigation of the prioritized theory will open new clues about the existence of modern society.