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The Politics of the Future

An Unknown Text by mile Durkheim


Jennifer Mergy
In April 1917, the daily newspaper La Dpche de Toulouse The Toulouse
Wire published Durkheims response to a survey entitled The Politics of
the Future.
1
Along with a number of politicians, economists and intellectu-
als, the sociologist was asked to give his opinion on party politics after the
end of the war, and specically on the countrys economic reconstruction.
We know that in the previous year, Durkheim met one of the eras great-
est journalists, La Dpches co-editor and radical republican, Arthur Huc,
2
who offered him a regular contribution to the Toulouse daily. Durkheim
declined,
3
without excluding the possibility of preparing a piece on the re-
publican party and how it might open up to socialism (1998a: 518). During
the war, Durkheim set out to renew socialist tenets because he was con-
vinced that Marxist socialism and a certain sort of internationalism had
moved away from the foundations and traditions of French socialism (ibid.:
543). He also offered his help to an organization that regrouped represen-
tatives from leftist movements, the S.F.I.O (Section franaise de lInterna-
tionale ouvrire), in particular its general secretary, Louis Dubreuilh.
4
In this context and shortly after Arthur Hucs visit, Durkheim wrote to
Mauss and in reference to Huc, He has written to me again since then, to
ask me to write something to show the republican party the direction it
should go in, to prepare it in advance for a revision of its programme
(ibid.: 518)
Durkheim did not hesitate to contribute to surveys,
5
but it is known that
he seldom wrote for a newspaper.
6
Durkheims text for La Dpche is prob-
ably the last one published during his lifetime.
7
As to when it was actually
written, it is possible to situate it in MayJune 1916, accordingly well before
its publication. He had fewer obligations at that time, his health was rela-
tively stable, and his work allowed him temporary relief from the shock of
his sons death; life triumphs over death (ibid.: 507).
8
Writing from Biar-
ritz on 27 April 1916, Durkheim told Mauss: So I feel fully ready to resume
active life. I regret having almost nothing very much in view to occupy me,
Durkheimian Studies, Volume 15, 2009: 714, Durkheim Press
doi:10.3167/ds.2009.150103 ISSN 1362-024X
except my collaboration with La Dpche (ibid.: 519). A week later, Durk-
heim conded to his nephew:
But in fteen days, the book containing the letters will be printed, my com-
mission on foreigners will have nished its work at the end of May. I shall then
have a lot of chores and long hard labour off my hands. It must not be like that.
Perhaps now I should try to write for La Dpche. (ibid.: 521)
9
In February 1917, La Dpche published the rst responses to its survey,
which had two questions. Like others questioned, Durkheim did not
respond to the rst, considering the exercise impossible from a scientic
standpoint or imprudent for political reasons:
10
(1) Is it necessary to antic-
ipate a profound change after the war in the political situation? (2) Is there
not reason to suppose that the economic issue will have to be placed at the
forefront of party programmes?
Durkheims analysis of The Politics of the Future resembles his re-
sponse to the enquiry on The School of the Future (1916c). In this article
he takes up again the idea of Frances moral greatness to illustrate the im-
portance of attachment to the group, respect for rules and discipline, but
also to mobilize the action of the French around a common goal, the war,
which has become the objective of all individual acts. Moreover, in the
immediate post-war period, collective action will not be able to make do
with material interests; a great nation measures itself by the degree of its
moral conduct.
11
The morality of the future must base itself on membership
in the nation, provided that it takes into account on a priority basis the
weight of history, with its ideals of justice and humanity.
Part of the interest of this text is that we rediscover in it other themes
present in Durkheims early works. He returns to the issue of occupational
groups that play the intermediary role between the State and private indi-
viduals in encouraging the latter to participate in social life. In his previous
writings,
12
Durkheim insists on the practical necessity of groups to organize
and circumscribe economic activity, as the State is unable to manage every-
thing. In 1917, the organization of the modern economy developed on a
national and international scale does not cease to be a concern. However,
the town-based corporative system seems little adapted to cope with the
new needs of the market of large industrial enterprises.
14
The experience of the war led Durkheim to highlight the role of the State
equally in both the French and English cases. Once again he criticizes the
classical economists for their false antagonism between individual and
State, in his insistence that economic organization is a vehicle of social
interests; in coming about, it is hardly according to the motives of an ego-
istic and utilitarian individualism.
15
The States social obligations in eco-
nomic matters, which gave rise to numerous debates since the French
Revolution, will more than ever be on the agenda after the war. In 1917, the
Jennifer Mergy
8
issue for Durkheim was not therefore an increase in production, but rather
a re-organization of economic activity and a better distribution of prots so
as to return to the principles of Saint-Simonian socialism.
16
To that end, socialism consists in a linkage of industrial functions to the
State ([1928a] 1971: 61). To link
17
and not to subordinate economic activ-
ity to the State, since the latters function consists in organizing and regu-
lating, via centralization, the disparate mass of individual activities.
18
The
Durkheimian conception of the State explains this position: the State
should not have its own interests, unlike a Colbertian or mercantilist State,
or a State set above civil society as according to Heinrich von Treitschke. In
sum, it is necessary to place politics (the State) and the economy at the ser-
vice of society.
In this text, the centralizing function of the State opens the way to the
nationalization of enterprises,
19
so as to make them public services, an idea
dear to his former colleague at Bordeaux, the jurist Lon Duguit. This inter-
ventionist approach was already present in the unnished study, History of
Socialism, a course given by Durkheim at Bordeaux in 18951896,
20
and its
theoretical framework is taken up again in The Politics of the Future. In it
he observes that the development of a state apparatus is relatively recent
and is in line with a historical movement that follows on from the forma-
tion of national societies and from economic and political centralization
([1928a] 1971: 7072). The State, without becoming more absolute, plays
an ever more active role in the organization of economic activity. The war
has only reinforced this tendency, in expanding the role of the State.
However, if Durkheim attributes to the State the function of a social in-
stitution, it is only in the name of collective utility that it becomes central
for regulating the distribution of capital. Durkheim subordinates economic
to social ends, because the former involve individual appetites that are
insatiable, hence morbid (ibid.: 225). On this point, the author sets him-
self apart from Saint-Simon and his disciple, Armand Bazard, who founded
the society for a would-be religion having for its theology, science, and
industry as a cult (ibid.: 257). Above and external to the individual, it is nec-
essary that moderating forces of a moral order serve to neutralize and dis-
cipline individual caprices (ibid.: 223).
In post-war France, what is to be this moral foundation? At the begin-
ning of his text, Durkheim evokes the transition from a critical period, in
which the traditional structure must adapt itself to new national aspira-
tions, sometimes unconscious.
21
It contrasts with an organic period, to
take up the Saint-Simonian distinction developed by Bazard and that Durk-
heim discusses in Socialism(ibid.: 224). If the critical period is one of ques-
tioning, of destruction, of conicting individual activities cf. a sort of
decline (ibid.: 238) the organic period is characterized by reconstruction
and co-ordinated social activity thanks to a maximum of order and com-
The Politics of the Future: An Unknown Text by mile Durkheim
9
mon beliefs that serve as the moral basis. However, Durkheim separates
himself from both Saint-Simonian and Comtian thought by his conception
of modern society in which the critical and organic periods co-exist and
one extends into the other. The situation after the war would be a paradig-
matic case of an intermediate period, which would see systems of belief
being born and dying off, in which new forces would oppose themselves to
the established order, in which criticism and faith would co-exist (ibid.:
238240, 247250).
The work of re-organizing society is not just a sociologists recommen-
dation ([1890a] 1970a: 225); this is borne out by the experience of the war,
which has brought home to the entire population the role of the social con-
science. The sense of solidarity is no longer unique to sociologists. The
European conict is proof that individuals can subordinate their interests to
those of society through the sacrices they make, something that makes the
war a unique experience or without parallel. Durkheim explains that with-
out this constant, generalized effort, the sense of the social returns to a
latent state. Hence the necessary effort to maintain national solidarity in
peacetime; moreover, this idea is also found in many other responses to the
same survey taken by La Dpche, for example that of Lon Bourgeois.
A year and a half after he wrote this text, Durkheim died on 17 Novem-
ber 1917, that is, immediately following Georges Clemenceaus accession to
power after a wave of defeatism and pacism and the disintegration of the
Sacred Union. The philosopher Gabriel Sailles, Durkheims former col-
league at the cole Normale Suprieure, wrote in La Dpche:
M. mile Durckheim
22
has just died France not only loses in him a distin-
guished scholar, who was an honour to her throughout the world, she loses a
good citizen, who never dissociated himself from public affairs. Concerned
about the aftermath of the war, he saw the necessity, more pressing than ever,
to organize our democracy by giving it a sense of order in the practice of lib-
erty. Social science led him to politics, like theory to its applications, and he
had undertaken a commitment to explain to the readers of La Dpche the ideas
that came to him through command of the laws of human society. (Sailles
1917: 1)
Notes
1. This article was translated by J. Mergy and W. Watts Miller from: La Poli-
tique de Demain: Un texte inconnu dEmile Durkheim, Durkheimian Studies/
Etudes durkheimiennes, n.s. 5, 1999, 17. An extract of Durkheims response
is cited by Louis Narquet (1918: 634), picked up on and translated by Steven
Lukes (1973: 554), who does not give details about the original article. We
have rediscovered the text by going through La Dpche, at the time La
Dpche du Midi (Toulouse). See also Lerner (1975).
Jennifer Mergy
10
2. Together with his sister-in laws husband, the radical-socialist senator Maurice
Sarraut, Arthur Huc ran La Dpche de Toulouse, a regional daily newspa-
per that was highly regarded at the time both at a local and national level. A
close friend of Marshal Joffre and of Gambetta, Huc was a free-thinker, an
anti-clericalist and a free-mason, who signed many of his articles under the
pseudonyms Homodi or Pierre et Paul (Man of God or Peter and Paul).
Founded in 1870 [the year of the collapse of Louis-Napoleons so-called Sec-
ond Empire (translators note)], La Dpche had the sub-title Journal of
Democracy and was the oracle of radical thought. Among its columnists were
many distinguished intellectuals, politicians and economists: Alphonse Aulard,
Clestin Bougl, Joseph Paul-Boncour, Edouard Herriot, Paul Painlev, Albert
Sarraut (Maurices brother), Aim Berthod, mile Borel, Gaston Jze and
Georges Scelle.
3. According to Mauss, Durkheim was always consistent on the issue of party
politics, from the Dreyfus Affair up until the war. He did not belong to a party
and opted for aligning with the middle ground. Nevertheless, he was not apo-
litical: for example, he criticized the idea of an international working class. See
Mauss ([1928] 1971: 29).
4. In January 1915, on the advice of the socialist, Marcel Sembat, Durkheim
made contact with the Jauresian socialists and editors of LHumanit, Pierre
Renaudel (the leader of the majority) and Jean Longuet (one of the leaders of
the minority, and Karl Marxs grandson). He wanted information that would
help with the spread of socialist views to neutral countries, specically in his
Qui a voulu la guerre? (1915b). To discuss the Socialist Party, Durkheim also
linked up with Marious Moutet, deputy for the Rhone. In August 1916, he
again conrmed his availability to Dubreuilh, Renaud and Moutet, at the same
time expressing the need to maintain the unity of the S.F.I.O. and to exclude
the idea of an international working class from the countrys socialism. See
Durkheim (1998a: 426, 430, 437, 446, 449, 492, 498, 540543, 547).
5. Durkheim (1897f, 1899b, 1899c, 1899d, 1902d, 1904e, 1905b, 1907c, 1908e,
1908f, 1916c).
6. We have located three cases: 1901h, 1907e, 1915g.
7. According to Lukess bibliography, the only text to appear in 1917 before
Durkheims death was the obituary for his son, Andr, but we do not know
the month in which it appeared (1917a). In the case of posthumous publica-
tions, we can cite one of these: 1917b. The pages on ethics, written between
March and September, represent probably the last text that Durkheim worked
on before passing (1920a).
8. The death of Andr Durkheim was conrmed to his father on 24 February 1916.
9. Durkheim had nished his contribution to Lettres tous les Franais (1916a).
At the time, he was a member of the Commission for the review of residence
permits and of the Committee on the situation of Russian refugees. This was
organized by the Ministry of the Interior, for whom he made a report in Feb-
ruary 1916 (1990a), as well as the one completed in July 1916 (1993a). See
Durkheim (1998a: 499, 537538).
10. The majority of those who responded to the surveys rst question reected
on the experience of the Sacred Union as it was called by Raymond Poin-
The Politics of the Future: An Unknown Text by mile Durkheim
11
car, and which was the term given to the politics of national reconciliation
adopted in 1914 by the leader of the government, Ren Viviani.
11. Moral concern with the idea of the nation appears in other responses to the
survey, for example that of Charles Richet.
12. Durkheim (1902b; 1921a: 4748; [1928a] 1971: 201, 229; 1950a: 4651).
13. Durkheim ([1893c] 1970a, [1921b] 1971: 49). On the moral aspect, see Durk-
heim ([1893c] 1970a: 229230, [1921b] 1971: 223234, and also 1897a, book
3, ch. 3).
14. On the growth of an international corporative spirit, see Durkheim ([1928a]
1971: 201).
15. Durkheim ([1898c] 1970a: 262; [1899e] 1975b, III: 171; [1958a] 1975b, III:
177178).
16. Emphasis on the organization of production appears in two other responses to
the same survey. This idea is evoked in Durkheim ([1893c] 1970a: 232, 235).
17. Durkheim ([1893c] 1970a: 231, 235; [1928a] 1971: 48, 61, 69).
18. Durkheim ([1893c] 1970a: 230231; [1928a] 1971: 4849, 51).
19. Although how monopolies operate in practice is not necessarily socialist see
Durkheim ([1928a] 1971: 43).
20. Socialism is especially present in Durkheims work in the years 18931898,
after which the undertaking of the Anne sociologique takes centre stage see
Mauss ([1925] 1969, III: 483, 505).
21. On the emergence of new national aspirations but in an unconscious
process, see Durkheims article on the French Revolution ([1890a] 1970a: 216).
22. Durkheims contemporaries often wrote his name in this way.
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