Running through the literature of classical late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century sociology are themes of isolation, of the poverty of life lived in isolated cells, of the fragility of a life in which we can almost never make authentic connections with other people, in which we are lost even to ourselves. We have -- and this "we" includes the entire population of the industrialized world, or at least most of it -- have raised the act of rationalism to an art form, but along the way we have lost so much of our humanity that we can no longer form or maintain a community. Four of the major social critics of the twentieth century took up these themes for essentially the same reason: To argue that while ailing human society could be transformed in ways that would give it meaning once again. They differ significantly, however, in what the nature of that transformation should and what meaning humans should be intent on seeking.
Karl Marx has received almost all of the credit for the outlines of Communism, a social philosophy that posits that all of human history can be understood as a series of conflicts between those who have more and those who have less. Since the beginnings of modern history, Marx argued, the primary struggle has been between those who hold capital and those who do not. In simple terms, capital for Marx was whatever was required in a society to extract labor from other people. This might be farm equipment or the ownership of land, or the ownership of a factory.
Marx wrote widely -- including his lengthy and best-known work, Capital -- but in many ways Friedrich Engels served as his amanuensis, "translating" Marx's ideas and writings for a wider audience. Engels made Marx's writings simpler, more accessible to those who were interested (or might be interested) in Marx's ideas but were unable or unwilling to wade through Marx's dense writing. Engels also finished some of Marx's writings after the latter's day.
The Marx-Engels Reader presents some of these joint projects of the two, although the selections in the reader suggest that there was more accord between the two than was the case. As is so often the case when one person helps to translate (either literally or in a more metaphorical sense) the works of another, the translator/editor imposes some of his or her own beliefs on the original texts. Engels sought to make Marx's ideas seem more scientific, perhaps motivated by his desire to make Marx's ideas less subject to criticism by those who wished to reject the arguments about class warfare.
Engels's reading of Marx (which is thus the reading that most of us have) framed it in rational terms. His rendering of Marx's idea of historical materialism placed it within the spectrum of scientific studies of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century such as those of Darwin and Freud. Historical materialism was Marx's summary of the ways in which economic activity in human society changed over the centuries and the ways in which purely economic activity gave rise to all other aspects of society, from military structure to cultural activities.
While Marx certainly supported this model, Engels made it far more central to Marx's model than Marx seems to have intended. Moreover, Engels's reading of the concept of historical materialism phrased in the most rational terms possible: Engels and Marx's vision of society was one in which irrefutable social and economic laws controlled the destiny of individuals through all eras of human history.
Scientific rules were the way in which to understand human nature, and these rules could be used by those who were both enlightened and concerned with justice could use these rules to remake society in a way that destroyed the class structure. Marx's vision of society was bastardized by Communism, but its roots were planted in the scientific virtues of rational discourse.
French sociologist Emile Durkheim was more descriptive than the other three writers, although this does not mean that he was enamored of the ways in which society as he knew it in nineteenth-century France constructed itself. Although his work was contemporaneous with that of the other social critics examined here, he was not particularly interested in the scientific paradigms of rationality and orderliness that others were advocating for society.
Durkheim wrote that the problems with then-contemporary society were not based in the fact that there were too many rational rules but rather that individuals had become too distanced from each other and that the traditional aspects of society that had once provided the necessary glue had been dissolved by the great shifts in the nineteenth century from an agrarian to an urban and industrial world.
Durkheim's concept of "anomie" summarized this idea of a society falling into fragments (creating along the way fragmented individuals). Individuals who lived in a society that no longer had a sense of common purpose or common values -- that had no social norms, which is the literal meaning of 'anomie' -- produced in individuals at all levels of societies a sense of alienation from each other and the belief that life had no meaning on either the personal or the societal level.
Durkheim argued that in more traditional societies -- before the division of labor brought about by the Industrial Revolution made the value of egoistic values popular -- people were bound together by religion. France by the time he was writing was an increasingly secular nation, and Durkheim saw a clear and causal relationship between this fact and the alienation that he saw as existing between people. Religion had given people meaning to their lives, and the rise of secularism had removed this traditional glue. But Durkheim did not argue that this was a bad thing, merely that it was true.
Durkheim recognized the essentially social nature of meaningfulness of human experience:
Man's characteristic privilege is that the bond he accepts is not physical but moral; that is, social. He is governed not by a material environment brutally imposed on him, but by a conscience superior to his own, the superiority of which he feels. Because the greater, better part of his existence transcends the body, he escapes the body's yoke, but is subject to that of society.
But he also recognized that society changed in ways that were not under the control of individuals, no matter what their ideologies might be.
Max Weber combined many of the ideas of the previous three writers, taking up a discussion of the role of religion in creating -- or denying -- meaning to individuals. Weber focused on the changes that came about when the twin energies of Protestantism and capitalism swept over Europe. These influences pulled people apart from each other, pushing people to follow their own self economic interests. But while Durkheim saw the push toward economic self-interest as overcoming the role that religion had once held in society, Weber argued that Protestant societies found ways to understand these two forces as proceeding in parallel lines that complemented each other.
To demonstrate the ways in which religious ideas and a dedication to gaining personal wealth, Weber borrowed ideas and metaphors from Benjamin Franklin, pointing out how this quintessentially American man wrote about the pursuit of worldly wealth in religious terms.
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.[...]Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can…