Carrol on Durkheim

Carrol Cox cbcox at
Tue Dec 26 10:34:16 MST 2000

[Note: I wish all mail programs indicated the sender of posts being
responded to. I didn't know the source of the question Hinrich
posed and thought it was coming from a defense of religion, thus
misinterpreting it.]

George Snedeker wrote:

> my question about what would replace religion under socialism was poorly
> stated. I meant what would replace the formation and maintenance of
> collective identity and the role of the transcendental moral signifier that
> Durkheim attributed to religion?

I think we can historicize George's question a bit more and move
towards a more nuanced version of my original reply. As George
has now posed the question, it is really quite similar to the question
of what would replace the Monarchy for the English or what would
replace the Flag for Usaians. (It would be interesting to have a social
history of the use or uses of the Confederate Flag from the defeat
of the slaveocracy in 1865 to the present.) And I think the answer to
this (as to many questions re the future) is contained in Marx's
_Theses on Feuerbach_, and in particular the third and the sixth.

In the process of overcoming the pseudo-unity signalized by
Crown or Flag, in "_revolutionising practice_" workers would
build a new unity on firmer grounds. And in that same process
the illusion of many that religion answered to some deep need
for "religion" embedded in an eternal human nature would be
dissipated as they would find their unity in the conscious
recognition that what united them was not some mystical
human essence but, rather, the "ensemble of the social relations."

> it is not enough to say that relations
> between people and between people and nature will be clear under socialism.
> how will they get so clear.

As to the "how," again I point to the Theses. But the relation of people
to nature is, I think, _already_  so clear as not to demand a religious
mystification. The phrase "conquest of nature" has had many meanings,
including productivist ones, but it also refers to the origin of science
(the understanding of nature) in the practice of manipulating natural
forces. To the really primitive potter (hand made pottery) the lump
of clay is a living being, the process of pot-making a process of
imposing one's will on a potentially hostile will. With wheelmade
pottery the clay dies, clay in general (abstract clay) appears, subject
to formulable rules which all its particular instances manifest. The
voice in the pot is replaced by the abstract skill (itself still mystrious)
which is imparted to humans by a god or goddess. With modern
science and technology even that mystery disappears -- potentially!

For all too many, obviously, the mystery has not disappeared -- but
the reasons for that remaining mystery is to be found in social, economic
and social processes, not in the relation of humans to nature. The bizarre
belief of such large numbers of Usaians in evolution is a social and political
phenomenon. When I attended a rural grade school in the '30s and early
'40s no one suggested that evolution was not a given. In the past 50
years social processes have become more not less mystified, with one
result being the growing gap between potentially available scientific knowledge
and that actually available to masses of people.

> it is true that what we commonly call religion
> is a limited historical phenomena.Old Emile tended to see it as a universal
> problem.  I am not arguing that Durkheim was correct, only that the question
> I drew from him is of interest.

Yes. Clearly it is of interest.. My responses above are probably
inaccurate or incomplete in various ways -- but I think they point
to the route to follow (as opposed to Durkheim's ahistorical


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