Goran Therborn's Conception of Sociology

Goran Therborn suggests a rather different view of sociology's historical role than that offered here. Instead of viewing it as centered on civil society, Therborn regards sociology as primarily committed to the study of the "ideological community" and as emphasizing the importance of shared moralities and values.

At first, says Therborn, sociology took its inspiration from the naturalistic tradition, especially the biological sciences. Beginning with a confident evolutionary determinism, however, it subsequently turned into a "desperate elitist voluntarism in the age of imperialism.''1

This conception of sociology's development is borrowed, without critical evaluation or for that matter without indicating its source, from Talcott Parsons's main thesis2 concerning sociology's evolution in his The Structure of Social Action (1937). Therborn adds correctly that "in its naturalistic emphasis sociology paralleled the efforts of Marx and Engels, who were also working toward a natural science of society, were also admirers of Darwin, and were also hostile to theology and moral philosophy."3 Therborn, however, overemphasizes the importance of the biological sciences, misses the early importance of the Newtonian mechanical model for French sociological positivism, and how it contrived to conflate the mechanical with the organismic models.

Therborn is also historically disoriented, arguing that early sociology's deterministic naturalism "paralleled" Marxism. Rather, the reverse is the case, Saint-Simon's naturalism preceded that of Marx and Engels. Indeed, Saint-Simon's own path-breaking "Essay on the Science of Man" was written in 1813, five years before Marx was born. As Lenin noted, Marx s work was grounded, in part, on utopian socialists such as Saint-Simon.  Through his father-in-law, Baron von Westphalen, and through the lectures of Eduard Gans at the University of Berlin, Marx was early exposed to Saint-Simonian doctrine. In short, Marxism stood on the shoulders of Saint-Simon, not the other way around. Therborn maintains a stony silence about the fact that Marxism and sociology thus have at least one ancestor in common, Henri Saint-Simon.

The unexpected outcome of sociology's early naturalism, claims Therborn, was the reassertion of traditional idealism, which he mistakenly equates with (desperate, elitist) voluntarism. Citing Durkheim, Westermarck, and Max Weber, Therborn argues that sociology then made "the community of values and norms the basic phenomenon of every society."4 One notes again Therborn's repeated (but unacknowledged) reliance upon the prior scholarship of sociologists. (Since Therborn's entire discussion hinges on his polemical effort to draw a line between sociology and Marxism, invidiously condemning the former as an idealism and exalting the latter as a materialism, he remains silent about his own borrowing from sociologists.) As he had earlier but discreetly borrowed from Parsons, concerning sociology's turn to voluntarism, Therborn here borrows from my own Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. One of the central, repeated, and carefully documented claims of this volume is that sociology made the study of values central, although The Coming Crisis scarcely reduced sociology to this, as Therborn is prone to do.

As I have shown above, even though Durkheim accented the importance of value elements in society, he also emphasized that morality was grounded in society. Durkheim's studies of primitive societies, for example, held that the tribal totem, god, or godhead, was the symbol or flag of the clan that worships it, and that religious ideas emerge out of society. It was Durkheim's central object to show the factors that shape and sustain moral or religious beliefs, and not only what they in turn sustain. This accounting system, I have shown elsewhere5 is fundamentally convergent with Marx's basic model, premising a social infrastructure from which moralities and religions arise. I have also shown above that Durkhelm acknowledged that there were various requisites of society, many of which were not moral. Both Saint-Simon and Durkheim attached considerable importance to the division of labor as a distinct source of social solidarity, and only one of Durkheim's two basic forms of social solidarity (i.e. "mechanical solidarity") is grounded in the existence of common values.

Therborn also f:ails to focus on the most obvious interest of early French sociologists: being militant positivists, they saw modern society as defined by the emergence of modern science. Saint-Simon's whole object in calling for a social science, which Comte took over from him, was to release modern society from remnant, old regime traditionalism; to establish the basis for a scientific politics; to bring popular thinking about society into line with modern scientific thought; and to establish a new scientifically grounded belief system which—being scientific, hence certain, hence "positive"—would be given consent voluntarily by persons and which would, therefore, be consensual, hence serving as the new basis of social order. It was Saint-Simon who first began to use science and technology as the basis of a new ideology; but his new ideology and morality was to rest on the new science. For Saint-Simon, then, the key to modern society was its new system of knowledge, founded on science's secular new epistemology which rejected religious and other traditional authorities' control over beliefs, and which promised a new technology to release society from ancient scarcities. It was precisely this that was taken to define the new, modern, "positivist" era.

Therborn, however, is prone to a "Freudian forgetting" about the central nature of sociological "positivism," and he argues that early sociology did not see society as having a self-healing principle. Obviously, however, these sociologists (like any positivist) saw that self-healing principle as science. If it was naive of them to think so, it remains a fact that the positivists expected a new morality appropriate to the new industrialism to be grounded in the new sciences. In their new positive society, however, science was not only to be the grounding of morality but the basis of a greater economic productivity which, eliminating hunger, would newly reintegrate society, dissolving the animosity of the poor.

Therborn vacillates between asserting that sociology was only later corrupted with idealism, and a different view which holds that this was its original sin: "Indeed, the first two sociologists even founded new religions, the New Christianity of Saint-Simon and Comte's religion of humanity."6 What this formulation hides is that the foundation of the new religions was to be science, and its new priests were to be scientists. Therborn never mentions that the new sociological religions were sharp critiques of conventional religions, especially Catholicism and Protestantism in its various sects. Saint-Simon regarded them as once useful but now obsolescent institutions, out of tune with the new industrial civilization. Arguing that the old church had been founded on the principle of "rendering unto Caesar," Saint-Simon states that his new church would have a new social base, one seeking the "improvement of the conditions of the poorest classes."

In short, Saint-Simon begins to resituate social theory in the proletariat, beginning that historically radical break with theory's former reliance on the "prince" that Marx accentuates. Saint-Simon thus not only sought a new epistemological, but a new class base for religion. None of this, however, makes any appearance in Therborn's inflated account of the differences between sociology and Marxism.

Like his analysis of Durkheim and the early French positivists, Therborn's critique of Max Weber as an "idealist" is greatly oversimplified. There are at least three things wrong with it.

First, Therborn conflates idealism and voluntarism, and does not seem to grasp their difference. Voluntarism stresses the importance of internalized norms and values in determining outcomes but only in interaction with other conditions of action, while the idealist does not and tends to drop the latter and rely more exclusively on the former. Weber's General Economic History with its complex and painstaking discussion of the great variety of conditions entering into economic development in general, and the rise of capitalism in particular, indicates that Weber was a voluntarist not an idealist.

Second, Therborn appears to think that Weber surrendered evolutionary thinking when, in fact, there were various levels on which he clearly manifested a neoevolutionism which, while not determinist, was no less evolutionary and multilinear at that. Thus Western European societies were seen as relinquishing passivity for the assumption of active control of the environment, moving from given "natural" bonds, kin or traditional, to chosen universalistic relationships in the modern purpose-centered association, and moving away from the coercively dominated patriarchy. "This society-wide movement toward voluntarism constitutes one major reference for Weber's concept of 'rationalization,'" observes Jeffrey Alexander, which involves "the ability for groups and individuals to assert self-conscious control in the modern world."7

Third and finally, Therborn misses the distinction between the voluntaristic assumptions, often important in Weber's historical studies of earlier societies, and the quite different premises of much of his analysis of contemporary society. Far from stressing the importance or even existence of communal ethics, moralities, or values today, Weber stresses their decline and this is the basis of his pessimism about modernity. Therborn forgets Weber's well-known remark that "the Puritans wanted to work in a calling, we are forced to do so." In short, voluntary and spontaneous commitment is being supplanted by externalized constraint, and the social system has become a juggernaut, an "iron cage," overriding individual purpose rather than expressing it, and society is increasingly held together by impersonal bureaucracies dominated by gray faceless men. Rather than affirming the importance of values and moralities in the modern world, Weber argued that "technical and economic conditions . . . detemine the lives of all the individuals . . . with irresistible force."8

Having bowdlerized sociology, Therborn summons his final indictment, concluding that "sociology thus became in many ways a modern, scientifically oriented equivalent to theology and moral philosophy." It would seem, however, that those who dwell in the glass steeples of a churchly Marxism should not play bull-in-the-china-shop with others' religions.9 The essential point he ignores is that sociology's focus on common valtles was aimed at understanding the spontaneous, self-maintaining (i.e., self-healing) mechanisms of civil society, partly as a way of limiting the spreading powers of the modern state and externally imposed political solutions. In the latter nineteenth century, sociology's attention to moral beliefs was, also, an effort to counter Marxism's accent on "material" conditions. In short, sociology's "idealism" emerged partly as a counter to the state and as an effort to oppose Scientific Marxism's economism and its neglect of ideology and consciousness.

Indeed, that economism is repeatedly exhibited in Therborn's own work. For example, there is his offhand definition of "Society" as those "social arrangements determined in the last instance by a specific combination of forces and relations of production."10 Needless to add, Therborn never provides a clue as to how we may know when that fateful "last instance" has struck.

One may also note Therborn's economism in his discussion of how capitalist societies maintain themselves, which he says depends mainly on their economies: "the relative political success to date of the rulers of this world has been basically determined by the elasticity and capacity for the growth of the advanced capitalist economies, which has rendered the mechanisms of the economic and social integration of the ruled unexpectedly pervasive and powerful." Therborn adds that "the most important political institution of advanced capitalist societies has proved to be . . . bourgeois democracy. Yet a true theory of bourgeois democracy has never been developed in sociology—nor even for that matter in what is celled 'political science.' Even in historical materialism there are only a few general and crude beginnings of one."11 Be it noted, however, that Therborn will not allow political science or sociology even these few "crude beginnings."

It is also characteristic that Therborn fails to mention that his critique of sociology is no less applicable to Critical Marxism, which (like sociology) accents the role of ideology. Therborn's critique of sociology thus has an invisible mooring: it is grounded in the vendetta of his Scientific Marxism against its traditional foe, Critical Marxism.

Sociology's own critique of Marxism—for almost a century now—has not, it needs stressing, been aimed at Marxism-in-general but, far more specifically, at a more limited reading of Marxism, at Therborn's economistic brand; and, conversely, sociology's own development has tacitly converged with the Critical Marxism that is Therborn's adversary. Thus, one of the founts of Critical Marxism, Georg Lukacs, learned much (and not always for the better) from his intimate association with Max Weber, his studies under Georg Simmel, and his close connection with Karl Mannheim. Therborn is thus misguided in persistently obscuring the convergences between Marxism and sociology, in jeering at suggestions concerning such convergences, and in ignoring the fact that Marxism and sociology had a common ancestor in Saint-Simon, who was not only father of positivist sociology but of utopian socialism.

As an economizing Scientific Marxist, Therborn is committed to the view that the mode of production dominates society, in the magic "last instance," of course. He is, therefore, confident that the elimination of the proprietary class will automatically suffice to solve social ills, that no special efforts need to be developed to cultivate persona' consciousness, or to strengthen a civil society that might defend the working class and others from "their own" state.



1. Ibid., p. 219.

2. See Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (New York: McGraw-Hill & Co., 1937), esp. pp. 81-82. "Interest will be focused in the process of emergence of a particular theoretical system, that of the 'voluntaristic theory of action'" (p. 12). "This study is meant to be a monographic study of one particular problem in the history of recent social thought . . . the 'voluntaristic theory of action'" (p. 14). Moreover and as distinct from idealistic social theories, "the voluntaristic system does not in the least deny an important role to conditional and other non-normative elements, but considers these as interdependent with the normative" (p. 82).

3. Therborn, Science, Class and Society, p. 22.

4. Ibid., p. 221.

5. Emile Durkheim, Socialism and Saint-Simon (Le Socialism), ed. Alvin W. Gouldner (New York: Collier Books, 1958), esp. pp. 22ff.

6. Therborn, Science, Class and Society, p. 221.

7. Jeffrey C. Alexander, "Theoretical Logic in Sociological Thought," (to be published in 2 vols. by the University of California Press, Berkeley in 1979). Part 2 of vol. 1 contains what is in effect a thorough answer to Therborn's bowdlerization of Weber as idealist. I have drawn heavily on the manuscript in my remarks here.

8. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958). This and the previous quotation from Weber are from p. 181.

9. Even in this Therborn again relies upon the prior (but unacknowledged) analysis of sociologists. Thus The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology had, six years earlier than Therborn's Science, Class and Society, pointedly noted "the muted religious impulse of sociology, its present piety as well as its earlier full-fledged religious form" and had critically discussed sociology's link to church and religion. Therborn never asks why sociology focuses on shared values and moralities. See my The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (New York: Basic Books, 1970), p. 260, 258ff. See also Eisenstadt, Form of Sociology, p. 68.

10. Therborn, Science, Class and Society, p. 73.

11. Ibid., p. 218.


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From Alvin W. Gouldner,  The Two Marxisms.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 1980,  Chapter 12 Appendix - "Goran Therborn's Conception of Sociology,"  pp. 374-379.

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