Pitirim A. Sorokin, The Greatest Sociologist You’ve Never Heard Of

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These days, you would be hard-pressed to find a person who does not feel the stirring, rising tension of the modern day boiling up from deep down in their animal gut. The omnipresent sense of demoralization, destabilization, polarization and impending (or at the very least, inevitable) doom is felt near-universally, yet nonetheless, it is discussed only superficially in the media, academy, and living room alike. The great schisms between people grow in number and depth by the day, even as our industrial and technological powers continue to skyrocket. All too often, we misunderstand the root cause of these divides as being merely political, or merely economic, racial, religious, or otherwise of a singular origin. Indeed, it is easier and less worrisome to convince ourselves that the healing of an artificial, abstract left-right divide would mend the rifts in society than it is to accept that we are in the midst of a great transition. We are in a state of crisis.

One Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin — heralded by his friend and colleague Carle Zimmerman as “The World’s Greatest Sociologist” upon his death in 1968 — would be stunned to hear that we did not see this crisis coming. Indeed, his works now come across as prophetic, having predicted the decline of those materialist ideologies and worldviews that have dominated the modern age in lieu of those that, as in the past, focus on the spiritual side of the human experience. Sorokin, a Russian scholar from what is now the Komi Republic, was deeply interested in the trajectory upon which “the utilitarian, hedonistic, pragmatic, operational, and instrumental character of the science and philosophy, pseudo-religion, and ethics of sensate culture” have put us. He wrote extensively about the macrosociology of society and civilization, and in particular, their triadic cycle of degeneration and regeneration.

His works, once banned in the Soviet Union, are now gaining popularity and influence as his diagnosis of our present crisis and sagacious advice on how to confront it have found amiable audiences in his native Russia and the United States alike. That being said, despite being the founding chairman of Harvard’s sociology department, a position that would ostensibly be held in high esteem, Pitirim Sorokin and his contributions to sociology and philosophy remain critically under-discussed in contemporary academic circles. Indeed, he is the most significant sociological thinker you have probably never heard of, until now.

Sorokin self-identified as a “conservative, Christian anarchist” thinker. However, this categorization is misleading given the modern association of conservatism with the interventionism, corporatism, and hyper-individualism of American conservative ideology in contrast to the anti-state, anti-war, pro-social worldview held by Sorokin. These beliefs place him more in the libertarian camp than the conservative one. The elements of Sorokin’s thought most relevant to socio-political theory and philosophy can be essentialized as follows : 1) a skepticism of linear progress, infallible reason, and rigid, ideological thinking; 2) an organic view of the state and civil society that analogizes them to living entities, insofar as they both undergo a cyclical process of disintegration and regeneration; and 3) a belief in the necessity and efficacy of suffering in the world, that is to say, anti-utopianism. Sorokin’s analysis of the present global cultural and political order provides policymakers and academics alike with a useful understanding of what role each individual and institution ought to be playing in light of our present crisis. Additionally, his vehement case for the creative power of altruism and love energy lays the foundation for overcoming our crisis and venturing forth into the great human unknown.

In order to attain a full appreciation for Sorokin’s social and political thought, one must have a solid understanding of his personal history, from his upbringing in rural villages, to his participation in revolutionary activities, to his career, life, and death in the United States. Pitirim A. Sorokin was born in 1889 to a peasant mother and icon-maker father in the Turya Yarensky district of what was then the Vologda province of the Russian Empire. He is widely considered one of the area’s most notable figures, as his new scientific orientation “is attracting an increasing number of philosophers, sociologists, cultural scientists, psychologists, and historians both in [Russia] and abroad.” After losing his mother at the age of five and running away from his oft-drunk and sometimes abusive father (who he nonetheless felt a great deal of love and admiration for) at the age of eleven, Pitirim ended up leaving the area with his older brother and working odd jobs in small towns around Russia and the Komi Republic, eventually ending up in the capital city of Saint Petersburg, where he would earn an advanced degree in criminology.

Sorokin, “having engaged in active revolutionary activity in the party of social revolutionaries since his youthful years, participated in the events of 1905, and then again in 1917…[He] perceived the [two] Revolutionary events of 1917 differently: February — with enthusiasm, October — sharply negatively. Speaking out against the Bolshevik government, he experienced more than one prison sentence. At the end of 1918, in view of the threat of execution hanging over him, he abandoned political activity and took up teaching work at the Petrograd University.” This time period would come to have a great influence on his life and academic work, alienating him from Marxism and communism while simultaneously reaffirming a deep desire to change the world for the better, albeit through a cautious yet unapologetically- radical approach.

Sorokin finds himself firmly in the Russian tradition of intellectuals like Dostoevsky before him and Solzhenitsyn after him, having faced the very real prospect of execution for the crime of independent thinking. Indeed, Sorokin’s first exposure to the field of sociology was Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. “Eventfulness” was the primary feature of his life; In an autobiographical piece on the sociology of his mental life, Sorokin wrote:

“I have passed through several cultural atmospheres… I have subsequently been a farmhand, itinerant artisan, factory worker, clerk, teacher, conductor of a choir, revolutionary, political prisoner, journalist, student, editor of a metropolitan paper, member of Karinsky’s cabinet, an exile, professor… I have lived through six imprisonments; and I have had the unforgettable experience of being condemned to death.”

Eventually, Sorokin managed to get himself to the United States, where he worked as a professor of sociology at various institutions, namely, the University of Minnesota and Harvard, where he helped found their first sociology department. After ending his teaching career at Harvard in 1959, Sorokin continued to remain active and prominent in academic circles. His status as a Russian emigre during the Cold War made him all the more significant during international gatherings of sociologists, and in 1962, he attended the Fifth World Congress of Sociology in Washington, D.C.. Following the event, he personally hosted a part of the Soviet delegation at his family’s home in Winchester, MA, where by his own account, “the meetings were friendly and the conversations were frank.” The question as to why he never attempted to return to his native Russia remains unknown, and a point of inquiry among scholars.

However, Sorokin’s status as a well-known academic and intellectual in the United States did not remain long after his death in 1968. Sociology was a rapidly evolving field, especially in the late 1960’s, and as such, much of Sorokin’s work was left forgotten on the bookshelves of professors and academic libraries around the world during the late 20th century. Fast forward to the present day, and we find ourselves in the midst of a great resurgence in the popularity of his ideas. His absence from the mainstream may not have been entirely unintentional, though, for his thought ran contrary to “the monopoly controlling research agendas in the 1990’s… the underlying theoretical approach [to which] was modernization and the idea of progress.” Regardless, Sorokin’s revival is, in part, due to the fact that “[a]fter two decades of living without communism, the euphoria surrounding the neo-liberal way to build a new society has disappeared among the people. Likewise, pressure to create a sociology based on a monopoly of modernistic paradigms has strongly subsided. Now the social sciences in Russia are facing the problem of searching for their identity once again.” Having reintroduced the man behind the ideas, let us explore the ideas themselves, as well as their relevance and application to right-wing political philosophy in the 21st century.

For those unacquainted with the works of Pitirim Sorokin, there are few better places to start than his 1941 book The Crisis of Our Age. In it, he thoroughly analyzes the historical precedings to our present crisis, the reality and implications of our present crisis, and what we ought to anticipate for the future in light of our present understanding of this crisis. Sorokin was concerned about turmoil and regression in an era of unparalleled growth and advancement because he understood that our current order and age of relative success are impermanent, and not without good reason:

Sorokin did not subscribe to the dominant Whig version of history, with its emphasis on those ‘principles of progress’ … [He] realized that while the Whig version of history may serve as a plausible guide to the history of technology and the natural sciences, it cannot be trusted as an interpretation of broader developments in culture. To explain the movement from past to present, an honest mind often needs dark concepts such as decay, apostasy, and corruption — not just the cheery concept of progress.

It was not only his intellectual prowess that led him to such a conclusion, but his personal life experiences as well.

In many ways, Sorokin was a “proto-Solzhenitsyn” — a Russian intellectual who, upon clashing with Soviet leadership, fled the country for the United States where he could have greater freedom and influence. While Solzhenitsyn was heavily influenced by the Second World War and implementation of the GULag system in the Soviety Union, it was the early happenings of the 20th century, most notably the First World War and the Russian Revolution, that had a profound impact on Sorokin’s worldview:

“[World War One] had already started to make some fissures in my optimistic Weltanschauung and in my conception of the historical process as progress. The Revolution of 1917 enormously enlarged these fissures and eventually broke this world outlook, with its system of values and its ‘progressive,’ rational-positivistic sociology. Instead of the increasingly enlightened and morally ennobled humanity, these historical events unchained in man ‘the worst of the beasts’… This unexpected world-wide explosion of the forces of ignorance, inhumanity, and death in the supposedly civilized and enlightened humanity of the twentieth century, forced me, as it did many others, to reexamine sternly my ‘sweet and cheerful’ views of man, society, culture, and values… There was too much hate, hypocrisy, blindness, sadistic destruction, and mass-murder to leave my ‘cheerfully progressive’ views intact.”

In other words, Sorokin began to doubt the capability of human beings to achieve self-perfection, to progress forever onwards into utopia using only our scientific, rational, sensory brains. Much like in the archetypal story of the Buddha, it was a series of encounters with the suffering and the unattractiveness of human existence that caused him to completely restructure his worldview.

With the loss of his faith in linear progress and human perfectibility came the demand for a new, cyclical conceptualization of history and progress. Having completed several extensive meta-analyses of Western history, Sorokin arrived at the conclusion that most societies phase their way in and out of three distinct cultural aspects: ideational, idealistic, and sensate. These three cultural aspects (which will soon be explained in further detail) shape the way in which human beings perceive and interact with their living system e.g. family, community, society, humanity, etc… All three aspects have their benefits and their detriments, bringing humankind different forms of truth to connect over the ages. As Sorokin put it, “The reason for the oscillations [between systems] is readily comprehensible. No single system comprises the whole of truth; nor is it, on the other hand, entirely false.” For this reason, it is neither natural nor healthy to remain stagnant in one particular system, or to fight against the natural fluxes in cultural aspect. Imperfect humans make imperfect systems that regardless of their imperfection, coalesce into a very real source of truth.

Ideational cultures, for starters, view society “not [as] a conglomeration of various cultural objects, phenomena, and values, but [as] a unified system — a whole whose parts articulate the same supreme principle of true reality and value: an infinite, supersensory, and superrational God, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, absolutely just, good, and beautiful, creator of the world and of man… the only true reality.” Think of the culture of druidic or pagan societies. In contrast, sensate cultures focus on the sensory world as opposed to the supersensory world. Their strict emphasis on empiricism and the “truth of the senses” leads to the “progressive obliteration of the boundary line between sensory truth and falsehood, reality and fiction, validity and utilitarian convention.” Considering this, Sorokin contends that its “temporalistic, relativistic, nominalistic, [and] materialistic traits lead to an increasing relativization of sensory truth until it becomes indistinguishable from error.” We presently live in such an era. Lastly, there exists idealistic cultures that result from the synthesis of the two systems, and consequently, they often occur briefly during the transitory period between the other two aspects; for example, there was the ideational culture of Medieval Christian Europe (5th-15th Century), the idealistic culture of the Renaissance (15th-16th Century), and then lastly, the sensate culture of the Enlightenment and Modernity (16th Century-present).

These macrosociological paradigm shifts (to analogize Sorokin’s cultural aspects to Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts as outlined in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) are the primary force driving human society and progress. Although each system generates and degenerates, making human history an ebb-and-flow path, they are all nonetheless critical to our advancement and continuing as a truth-seeking species. This worldview comes with several important implications in the realm of politics, most notably, how political systems are secondary manifestations that reflect broader cultural aspects; as the favorite saying of the late Andrew Breitbart goes, “politics is downstream of culture.”

Those on the political right and political left alike find themselves and their respective ideologies stuck within the framework of the present sensate culture. They are concerned first and foremost with materialist matters, thus their common affinity for economics. They both suffer from the relativization of truth that stems naturally from a reliance on the empirically-verifiable, sensory world. And just as sensate culture enters its twilight years, so too do the current iterations of these political persuasions. Libertarians and conservatives would be wise to make haste and subordinate their focus on economics to a focus on culture, sociality, and spirituality in light of the coming transition in aspect.

In a time of rising social tension and political polarization, Sorokin’s analysis of the present crisis makes the polemical nature of politics seem insignificant, or at the very least, understandable: “the main issue of our times is not democracy versus totalitarianism, nor liberty versus despotism; neither is it capitalism versus communism, nor is pacifism versus militarism, nor internationalism versus nationalism, nor any of that current popular issues daily proclaimed by statesmen and politicians, professors and ministers, journalists and soapbox orators. All these popular issues are but small side-issues — mere by-products of the main issue, namely, the sensate form of culture and way of life versus another, different form.” While this does not make the crisis of our times any less real, there is some solace to be found in the fact that our inability to remedy it may have simply been due to a misunderstanding of the cause and nature of the phenomenon. By embracing this shift in culture early-on, those on the political right may make the pertinent adjustments to their ideology before those on the political left, and all thanks to a rediscovery of sociology.

Pitirim Sorokin was not just interested in the study of crises and degeneration, and in fact, dedicated much of his career to the study of regeneration and the theory and practice of altruism. Having rejected the pessimistic views of thinkers like Oswald Spengler (author of The Decline of the West and a contemporary of Sorokin) who emphasized how just like all organic beings, civilizations too must die for good, Sorokin instead emphasized that in addition to degeneration, organic beings, societies included, undergo processes of rebirth, regeneration, and the continuation of life through posterity. Sorokin argued against Spengler directly, writing:

“Contrary to [Spengler’s] claim, the present crisis is not the death agony of Western culture and society, nor does it mean their irretrievable disintegration or the end of their historical existence… Not only is the meaning of the death of Western culture not clearly elucidated, but no evidence for it is really given… the present crisis represents only a disintegration of the sensate form of Western society and culture, to be followed by a new integration as notable in its own way as was the sensate form in the days of its glory and climax.”

The question, then, arises: what exactly is to follow the death of sensate culture in the West?

In his work The Reconstruction of Humanity, Sorokin begins to address both what he thinks is the proper response to the crisis, and just as importantly, what he considers to be “quack cures” for the situation. In sum, Sorokin predicted that the next cultural integration to occur would return humankind to a pre-modern, low-density setup, having observed alongside Carle Zimmerman that, “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.” Such an organization does not presuppose unlimited human and economic growth as a norm, unlike neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Additionally, it does indicate a preference towards demographic and economic sustainability/stability — a value characteristic of traditional social conservatism and environmentalism alike.

However, the opening chapters of Sorokin’s Reconstruction make his exact political position unclear. In them, he denounces democracy, fascism, capitalism, communism, science, and religion as entirely inadequate when it comes to minimizing international and domestic conflict. Sorokin straightforwardly rejects the idea of the United Nations or any other sort of world government while also being critical of the contemporary configuration of nation states. He was even bold enough to assert (in 1948 nonetheless) that, “republican and democratic nations have been no less belligerent or more peaceful than monarchic and autocratic ones.” This position foreshadows the one taken by famous paleolibertarian theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his book Democracy: The God That Failed.

Sorokin did not see what he was looking for in any of the aforementioned systems of human organization. From a sociological perspective, they were all inadequate. What he was looking for were systems that investigated “the forces which render human beings, groups, and social and cultural institutions altruistic. [For] only by understanding these forces and conditions can we draft an adequate plan for the elimination of social conflicts and for the establishment of a harmonious and creative social and cultural order.” If there is one takeaway from this section, it is that an investigation into the nature and causes of altruism ought to be the central sociological mission of the political right.

One factor that may have been working against the broad dissemination of Sorokin’s ideas was the lack of a typological, categorical name for this philosophy. Considering this, I propose the formation of “anarcho-altruism,” a name that properly reflects the fact that ideas and positions of both the political right and left ought to be considered, so long as they are anti-coercive and serve to promote the altruistic tendencies of mankind. As opposed to the atomization and hyperindividualism of neoliberal capitalism or the compulsory collectivism of communism, Sorokin’s anarcho-altruism is syncretic, being open to a number of social, political, and economic arrangements, with the only qualifier being that they help to foster maximal altruism among individuals and their communities without the use of aggressive force. It rejects the self-centeredness of Randian objectivism and egoism that emphasize individual pursuits and material acquisition as the foremost force in society. Instead, it emphasizes a different variety of human action: the voluntary acts of altruism and active love that occur invariably across the whole of humanity, and when produced in great excess, cause societies to flourish.

The foremost way to develop altruistic networks is to foster those relationships that cause the greatest intensity of love and commitment, in other words, those relationships based on the sacrifice of one or two “I’s” for one “We”. While this is likely to be off-putting to many individualists on the political right, it is in no way antithetical to the rights of the individual, and in fact, helps to guarantee and enhance them without the use of government. Sorokin places social relationships into one of three dynamics: familistic, contractual, and compulsory. As the names suggest, “familistic relationships [are] permeated by mutual love, devotion, and sacrifice; free contractual agreements… for [the parties’] mutual benefit; and compulsory relationships [are] imposed by one party upon the others, contrary to their wishes and interests.” Of these three categories, Sorokin considers familistic relationships to be the noblest type, most closely resembling the selfless love of God Himself. As is predictable, he places contractual relationships over compulsory ones on the grounds that they are not rooted in force and coercion, although they lack depth and holistic solidarity between parties, being limited and specified in their nature. Compulsory relationships, then, are the least desirable and most harmful when it comes to the construction of a loving, altruistic society. In this sense, Sorokin may find quite the amiable audience among many anarchists.

The rise of our great sensate culture has been most notably linked to the supremacy of contractual and compulsory relationships, reflected by the dominant modes of democratic capitalism and socialism. While Sorokin is sincere in his praise of all that modern capitalist democracies have achieved, that does not prevent him from being critical of their underlying presumptions and trajectories. With a contract-based, liberalized, sensate society comes a particular conception of liberty — one that glorifies and depends upon growing consumption, production, and expansion (all in the material sense). In an age of environmental concern and demographic imbalance, such a trajectory is not only unpersuasive, but likely untenable. Indeed, this is not the only way to conceptualize liberty. Sorokin derived a general formula of liberty as simple as Sum of Means/Sum of Wishes, with the rule being that so long as the numerator exceeds the denominator, one is “free.”

Considering this, there are two ways one can go about achieving a state of personal liberty: “decreasing [one’s] wishes to make them equal to or smaller than the means of their satisfaction, or by expanding [one’s] wishes and increasing proportionally the means of their satisfaction.” He refers to this latter conception as sensate liberty, and the former, as ideational or aesthetic liberty. In the view of Sorokin, sensate liberty preoccupies itself with external forces and factors of society, being primarily interested in acquisition and distribution of material goods and services. In contrast, aesthetic liberty is primarily concerned with internal control over our desires and wants, having little interest in the external multiplication of sensory wishes. Aesthetic liberty, then, is arguably more individualist than its sensate counterpart.

Anarcho-altruism is rooted in this ideational, aesthetic conception of liberty, as well as the reinvigoration of the familistic relationship as the cornerstone of community and society. In the twilight years of our sensate culture, it is necessary to begin engaging with non-sensate ways of thinking and understanding the complex systems all around us, and in doing so, initiating a sort of archaic revival. The ways in which humanity must go about reconstructing our living systems ought to be focused not on the production of material, physical energies, but rather, on the production of love energy.. Although such a concept may sound anti-scientific and hokey, it is merely the modern sensate mode of thought that places such a concept on the outside of sanctioned thinking. In many ways, it is synonymous with the idea of social capital introduced in the previous section, as it is the bonding energy which allows all areas of human action to flourish.

According to Sorokin, “[love energy] is not a mere figure of speech… Love, solidarity, and peaceful relationships in any group do not fall by themselves from the heavens; like food and other material necessities, they have to be produced… The main difference between the production of love and of other more tangible energies is that in technologically advanced societies, an enormous amount of time, means, and collective effort are devoted to the organized production of physical energies.” Presumably, a community centered around an ideational liberty and familial relationships would have less want and need of mass-produced, organized material energies, allowing for an expanded focus on the organized production of love energy. While contemporary libertarians and conservatives are focused on the how’s and why’s of material production in an economic market, they could stand to integrate ideas about how so-called love energy is produced in the social marketplace.

The inevitable and perennial question among libertarians is how to ensure and guarantee universal adherence to the non-aggression principle. It is my contention that compliance to the NAP cannot be legislated and cannot be guaranteed even by the implementation of a genuine stateless, free-market society. Indeed, the only hope of libertarians and anarchists is to use the sociological concepts of altruism and love energy (i.e. social capital) to help secure a society in which such a principle may function successfully.

While achieving universal adherence is impossible to the point of being a utopian pipe-dream, figuring out how to maintain adherence among smaller, localized communities is much more achievable. In fact, the verifiability of anarchism as a practically-achievable mode of social organization depends on its ability to develop near-unanimous recognition and adherence to the non-aggression principle without the use of force or coercion (lest we be committing a performative contradiction). Fostering altruism and the increased production of love energy is, undoubtedly, the most promising way of going about this task. As Sorokin points out, the intensity of love decreases as its extensity increases, thus making local and regional community-building and self-governance the obvious first step when it comes to initiating a paradigm shift towards anarcho-altruism.

What we have to learn from this “World’s Greatest Sociologist” is this: although we may be in a state of crisis, transformation, and upheaval, there is no need for panic. There is no need to surrender our freedom and the production of love energy to forces that promise stability and the production of material products and energies. There is no need to latch onto the sensate culture when the intangible rewards of the idealistic and ideational days lay close ahead. Pitirim A. Sorokin was truly a man ahead of his time. His theories may have been briefly lost in the explosive growth of sociology since his departure from this world, but their resurgence reaffirms his central contention — progress is inevitable, but it does not look like infinite growth; there is no end of history, but rather a great, looping, cyclical spacetime in which we develop; and that at the end of the day, the love energy that binds all of our beings and existence ought to be the foremost area of inquiry for those looking to propel us forward into the next great crisis.

Essays on politics, philosophy, and culture by Ethan Charles Holmes, Russianist and Researcher.

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