Home » Matter of Roots. The Legacy of Pitirim Sorokin in Today’s Transnational Conservatism

Matter of Roots. The Legacy of Pitirim Sorokin in Today’s Transnational Conservatism

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Excerpt from: Dmitry Uzlaner and Kristina Stoeckl, 2017. "The legacy of Pitirim Sorokin in the transnational alliances of moral conservatives." Journal of Classical Sociology 18 (2): 133-153. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468795X17740734. This excerpt was prepared by Vera Pozzi.

In his 1925 study, the sociologist Karl Mannheim described conservatism as a style of thinking born out of a specific historical and sociological constellation. In this way, he identified the ‘nodal points’ that gave coherence to conservative thought; among them individual writers, intellectual schools and even publishing outlets. In this article, we aim to lay a few bricks on the groundwork for an analysis of twenty-first-century moral conservatism by analyzing one of its nodal points, namely Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889–1968), a Harvard sociologist from the Russian émigré. As a scholar, Sorokin has been relegated to the margins of his discipline, but his legacy as a public intellectual has persisted in the United States and has soared in Russia in the last three decades. The United States and Russia are the two poles between which we span our analysis of twenty-first-century moral conservatism as a transnational phenomenon. In America, moral conservatism is associated with the Christian Right, which has mobilized over issues such as the family, traditional gender roles, opposition to abortion and questions of religious freedom. In Russia, moral conservatism is a relatively new phenomenon that draws upon both Orthodox Christianity and late-Soviet moral codes. 

Sorokin was born in Tsarist Russia and spent time in prison due to his resistance to the Bolshevik Revolution, eventually being exiled and finding his way to the United States and the halls of the elite institution of Harvard University. Not only was Sorokin a ‘professional sociologist’, but his legacy also has an additional facet that draws together the recent American and Russian reception of his work. Conservatives in both countries read Sorokin’s works as authoritative ‘public sociology’ that speaks to our times just as well as to the mid-twentieth century. The most important titles: The Crisis of Our Age (1941), S.O.S.: The Meaning of Our Crisis (1951), and The Basic Trends of Our Times (1964). In this article, we argue that it is this public and engaged side of Sorokin that is most alive today, thus making him a nodal point for twenty-first-century moral conservatism.

Sorokin’s fame as a prophet of social and moral crisis is on the rise. His early sociological research on rural society has played an important role in turning him into an author of reference for moral conservatives. Together with Carle Zimmerman, Sorokin developed a particular perspective on rural-urban sociology, according to which only a rural lifestyle based on a traditional model of the family, an economy of manual labour and home-based business, and a strong link of the individual to the inhabited territory is sociologically, demographically and economically sustainable. Drawing on this idea, the historian and pro-family activist Allan Carlson turned Sorokin into a ‘nodal point’ in American-Russian moral conservative relations. Carlson is the founding director of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, a non-governmental organization that engages in pro-family lobbying the United States government and the United Nations. He was also instrumental in founding the World Congress of Families (WCF) together with Russian sociologists (see digest 2). Carlson’s influential ‘manifesto’ on the ‘natural family’ in twenty-first-century America takes practical cues from the work of Sorokin and Zimmerman on rural- urban sociology. Moreover, Sorokin abhorred communism and bolshevism his entire life; in his autobiographical writings, he condemned the moral decay under communism, which he had witnessed firsthand before leaving Russia. In Carlson’s works that are critical of European social-democratic welfare systems, the reader can easily detect the influence of Sorokin’s negative judgment of communism. Sorokin also inspired other authors of the Christian Right and even the former forty-eighth Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, who was outspoken in his pro-life and pro-family positions, cited Sorokin in public speeches.

An author of reference for moral conservatives in the United States, Sorokin has also inspired the conservative turn in post-soviet Russia. Sorokin is one of the towering Russian figures who fled Bolshevik Russia to the West and whose legacy became important both in the Western intellectual landscape and in the Russian intellectual landscape following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another relevant figure in this context is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who played a role in the formation of late-twentieth-century American conservatism. One author has even called Sorokin a ‘noble forerunner’ to Solzhenitsyn. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first decade of social transition, Russian society has undergone a turn towards a conservatism that is associated with Orthodox Christianity, political authoritarianism and traditional values. This turn towards traditional values was not entirely homegrown but was influenced by contacts between Russian conservatives and like-minded actors in the West. Sorokin occupies a special place in this context, since he is a ‘native’ intellectual source for both Americans and Russians. Carlson actually acted as a bridge-builder between American and Russian pro- family activists when he travelled to Moscow in 1995 to meet demographer and sociologist Anatoly Antonov. Antonov was among those Russian scholars who had already been attracted to Sorokin in the Soviet period, when his name and the study of his works were still forbidden. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sorokin gradually became an authority for Russian sociologists. In 2008, Vladimir Dobrenkov, at the time the dean of sociology at Moscow State University, together with the controversial radical conservative thinker Alexander Dugin, established the “Pitirim Sorokin Foundation” at Moscow State University. 

We identify four aspects of Sorokin’s work that are determinant for his reception among today’s moral conservatives: his emphasis on values, his notion of the ‘sensate culture’, his ideas about the family, and his hope for moral revival. First, Sorokin belongs to the ‘idealistic’ tradition in sociological theory; according to his view, the core of any socio-cultural system and its dynamics lay in its ‘mentality’, and values are an important part of these premises. The types of values that are prevalent determine the type of ‘cultural supersystem’ we are dealing with. Sorokin famously distinguished between three types of cultural systems: (1) ideational culture, (2) sensate culture, and (3) idealistic (or integral) culture. Each phase is associated with corresponding sets of values. Cultural change occurs when one set of values is exhausted and is then replaced by another set of values. Every period of transition is marked by chaos. Although we can rarely find a direct reference to Sorokin’s theory of culture, it is still clear that his writings have helped to create the language of today’s culture wars by shaping moral conservatives’ vision of social processes and dynamics. Secondly, the concept of the dying sensate culture is the most visible Sorokinism in recent American conservative discourse. It is also the most attractive aspect of his work for Russian conservatives. They not only recognize traces of Russian Slavophilism in his diagnosis of a deep cultural crisis in the West, but they also interpret their own situation of post- Soviet transition in a Sorokian sense, as the doomed demise of sensate culture. Thirdly, Sorokin’s experience of the Russian Revolution was a strong source of inspiration for making the argument that sexual licence led to social unrest. In The American Sex Revolution (1956) Sorokin warned of the effects of the liberalization of moral norms for the future of Western culture. His basic position was that at the root of almost all social ills lay ‘sexual anarchy’ and ‘familial degeneration’. Moral conservatives, who share this narrative, insist on the superiority of the traditional or ‘natural’ family model. Moreover, they will consider even the most sensitive measure for improving the lives of families unacceptable so long as the value of sexual liberty stands behind such a measure. This principled stance explains why the current debates about the family in international forums like the United Nations Human Rights Council only result in standoffs, despite convergence on some practical aims. 

Whereas Sorokin’s ideas about the family have allowed moral conservatives from the United States and Russia to recognize each other in a common fate and a common set of shared goals, another aspect of Sorokin’s work reveals the difference in their self- perceptions. Sorokin predicted that at the end of every fading ‘sensate culture’, a new idealistic or integralist culture would appear, with new religious values. This is where Russian and American conservatives differ. Russian conservatives believe that the ‘sensate culture’ has managed to touch only the superficial layers of their culture; for this reason, it can be easily eradicated along with the liberals who are the bearers of moral decay. In contrast, American conservatives believe that the ‘sensate culture’ has managed to penetrate too deeply into the nation’s soil, to the point that there may no longer be any hope of converting the whole culture back to a more idealistic orientation. 

We earlier referred to Sorokin as a ‘prophet’ of sorts, not in the sense that he was accurate when he foretold the end of the West and the coming crisis of the sensate culture. Rather, he was prophetic in that he laid the groundwork for today’s transnational coalitions between moral conservative groups. In a word, he developed aspects of the conceptual framework, the logic, and the language used by today’s conservatives in their discussions of current socio-cultural transformations.

Ph. The facade of the main building of the Federal State Budget Educational Institution of Higher Education «Syktyvkar State University named after Pitirim Sorokin» © Andrey Shuktomov from Wikimedia Commons

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