Emile Durkheim, 1858-1917: A Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography

By Emile Durkheim; Kurt H. Wolff | Go to book overview

INDIVIDUALISM AND SOCIALISM IN DURKHEIM

JOSEPH NEYER

Emile Durkheim's first efforts in sociology were directed toward identifying his own position in relation to the socialism of some of his fellow students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Marcel Mauss informs us that De la division du travail social was first conceived as a work to be entitled "Relations between Individualism and Socialism."1 This projected work was never written, but from some of Durkheim's less-known writings, we can derive his conception of individualism and its relation to socialism; and by so doing we may be able to convey something of his image of modernity. At the same time, we may be able to contribute toward the demise of an interpretation of Durkheim--now happily on the wane--which has made him out to be a reactionary, a disciplinarian in education, and one who upheld the rights of the group mind and limited the free expression of individual reason.

The fact is that Durkheim vigorously defended the same values of freedom which John Stuart Mill espoused in his Essay on Liberty. However, he did not share the conception of man and society in terms of which Mill and other liberals formulated these values. His polemic against that conception has too readily been taken as an attack upon those values. In Durkheim's view, it does not follow from the fact that one must go to society, which is a "reality sui generis," in order to understand the development of individual reason, that this reason ought not to be freely expressed--expressed especially against those forces which seek to return to a type of society in which the reason of the individual has very little place. Nor does it follow from the fact that all communication of the cultural heritage from one generation to another necessarily involves an element of discipline 2--or even of "constraint"--that our system of education must cease to create "autonomous" personalities, whose ideal of social relationship shall be that of "free co-operation."3

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