His underlying interest was to understand the basic forms of religious life for all societies. In Elementary Forms, Durkheim argues that the totems the aborigines venerate are actually expressions of their own conceptions of society itself. This is true not only for the aborigines, he argues, but for all societies (ibid).
Religion, for Durkheim, is not "imaginary," although he does deprive it of what many believers find essential. Religion is very real; it is an expression of society itself, and indeed, there is no society that does not have religion. We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves, which is our social life, and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, which then creates a reality of its own (ibid).
It follows, then, that less complex societies, such as the Australian aborigines, have less complex religious systems, involving totems associated with particular clans. The more complex the society, the more complex the religious system. As societies come in contact with other societies, there is a tendency for religious systems to emphasize universalism to a greater and greater extent. However, as the division of labor makes the individual seem more important (a subject that Durkheim treats extensively in his famous Division of Labor in Society), religious systems increasingly focus on individual salvation and conscience (ibid).
Durkheim made by a tremendous impact upon other revolutionaries Marxists and Fascists among them, although indirectly through the work of French anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel. Both Lenin and Mussolini credit a great deal of their thinking to have been inspired by Sorel, who was in turn influenced greatly by Durkheim's qualitative approach to sociology. In addition, he had a great influence upon French Democratic Socialism via the agency of French Socialist Jean Jaures (Gane, M. 1992, p.138). Sorel directly quoted Durkheim in his Reflections on Violence when he referred to a speech by Durkheim to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie in 1906. In the speech, Durkheim maintained "that it would be impossible to suppress the sacred in ethics and that what characterized the sacred was its incommensurability with other human values…" (Sorel, G. 1999, p205)
The influences were not always positive. Those who condemned Fascism such as M. Mitchell in 1931 saw a connection between Durkheim's ideas and the "integral nationalism of right-wingers such as Charles Maurras. Svend Ranulf, Elie Halevy and Marcel Mauss by 1939 had seen Durkheim as a scholarly forerunner to Fascism. It took until after the Second World War for Durkheim to be rehabilitated as a liberal scholar and for him to fully take his place as a liberal scholar and as a contributor to Democratic Socialism (Gane, M. 1992, p139). The charges of Fascism would also seem to be bizarre considering Durkheim's activism on behalf and defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and a solid body of publications in defense of human rights (Strenski, I. 2006. p205).
Criticism of Durkheim has also been more standard. He has been characterized as a determinist and an idealist who flip-flopped and whose views were inconsistent throughout his career (Cotterrell, R 1999, p243). Certainly, it seems as though Durkheim is one of those thinkers that can not be easily classified and appears differently to different people.
As we saw earlier, religion has been a baseline of Durkheim's sociology as well as an advocacy of human rights that came out of it. In addition, his dialectical positing of society and individuality as diametrically opposed but related entities is necessary to understanding his sociology. Only when both ends of Durkheim's spectrum are perceived can he be truly understood and not misperceived in the eyes of the beholder. Then, his status as a contributor to Democratic Socialism and human rights can be fully appreciated.
Cotterrell, R. (1999). Emile Durkheim: Law in a Moral Domain. Sanford, CA: Stanford
Univ. Press. p243.
Emile, D. (1947). Extract from the Division of Labor. New York, NY: The Free Press.