Marx and Durkheim: Exploring Their Conceptions of ‘Human’ and Analyzing Contemporary Capitalist Social Formation

Durkheim and Marx perspectives
on human

Karl Marx (1818-83), German philosopher and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), French sociologist are among the classical thinkers of sociology. Both of them, being the product of their own times, were influenced by the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution. While Marx is called the father of the conflict school of thought, Durkheim’s work forms the basis for the functionalist school of thought. 

Marx was a radical thinker who believed that ‘conflict and division are typical features of society’ (Nagel & Piero, 2016 : 24) and believed that the Capitalist way of production alienates ‘being’ from ‘social being’, the concepts he introduced through ‘being vs social being.’ According to him, human nature has two aspects, one is variable and is defined by a particular mode of production which is ‘social being’ or ‘social consciousness.’ Second is ‘being,’ which is the constant aspect and is creative and free. In capitalist society ‘Social being’ dominates the ‘being.’ 

Quoting Marx, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence. It is their social existence that determines their consciousness”  (Marx, 1859). Thus, he believed that one’s thinking depends on their place in the mode of production. 

He used the term species being, differentiating humans from other species by forming a relation between labor and human nature, that a person imagines before creating something in reality and ‘our production reflects our purpose’ (Ritzier, 2011 : 48-52). And human potential is ‘modified in each historical epoch,’ with respect to the change in needs and desires and development of resources.

In the same form, Durkheim formulated the concept of ‘homo duplex,’ recognising ‘the conflict between the instincts of the individual and the demands of society’ (Royece, 2015 : 87). In contrast to Marx, he believed that society guides the ‘social being’ in a moral direction, rising above ‘private interests’ and ‘egoistic tendencies.’ Distinguishing the body and soul as ‘sacred’ and ‘profane,’ he presented the soul as the symbol of ‘the social nature of an individual’ having a ‘moral conscience’ guided by social ideals. He had proposed that religion is the expression of self-creation and autonomous development of society. Incorporating both thoughts, thus, producing a base for belief that ‘an individual dies, society lives on.’ Individual being and Social being contest with each other through thought processes and experiences, the former is ‘purely personal’ and antisocial while later operates at ‘higher level of intelligence’ by following and interacting with ‘moral rules’ and ‘collective sentiments’ laid out by society. Functionalist perspective of Durkheim can be seen in the statement, ‘By virtue of our membership in society, we are capable of morality and reason.’(Royece, 2015 : 88)

Marx believed that in capitalist society, one alienates from the ‘self’ or ‘being.’ Due to pre-designed production processes, a person only serves as a ‘cog in the machine’ with no individual or creative identity. They start doubting even their own existence, barely have time to interact with family, and their salary is low. While they are free to sell their labor, the freedom is deceptive simply because in order to survive in a capitalist economy, they have to work. According to Marx, the system dominates capitalism and a person loses a sense of control over their own will. 

Durkheim was of the opinion that society transforms ‘physical being into a social being.’ And the school system in modern industrial society is responsible for this ‘socialization’ through education , the role which was earlier performed by the family (Royece, 2015 : 88). While he recognized society as a powerful force, he also reiterated the importance of individuals. During the process of socialization, one ‘individualizes’ the beliefs and values of society “from its own point of view and its own manner” (Royece, 2015 : 89). Thus, individuals get influenced by social norms and beliefs while molding societal teachings according to their own circumstances, experiences and thought processes.

Marx viewed society consisting of conflicting forces which is expressed through the formation of divisions among who owns resources and who got exploited for their ‘labor.’ In his theory ofmaterialistic conception of history,’ he stated that ‘forces of production’ (FoP) and ‘relations of production’ (RoP) are in constant interplay which results in ‘mode of production.’ He called it ‘social formation,’ which includes not only FoP and RoP but other aspects like family, religion, culture etc. which are byproducts of this interplay. The social formation consists of two parts of society, ‘economic infrastructure’ (includes FoP and RoP) and ‘social superstructure’ (includes religion, family, values, law, education, art etc) which aids in the functioning of each other and continuously shapes one another. 

This can be seen in the conception of contemporary capitalist social formation, where economic infrastructure is made of capitalists, laborers and a new managerial class can be added which formulates the link between owners and workers as relations of production. 

While formerly tools, machinery and factories were included in the forces/ means of production, information technology (and scientifically advanced production technologies) can also be added in the same. 

Marx was of the view that economic infrastructure serves as the base for social superstructure and is generally dominant. And in capitalist social formation, it is evident in the changes that occurred through decades. Education system modified in accordance with the need to produce workers and laborers who can work in companies and factories. ‘Skilled labor’ became an important factor with advancement of technology, computers became a part of schools as an equipment as well as a discipline and IT education became a necessity to gain administrative positions in companies.  With the rise of social media, businesses modified their marketing strategies and new positions for public relations and media marketing can be witnessed to come into existence. 

Complemented by modernity, capitalism saw a rise in individuality and the need for ‘individual expression.’ Art became possession and luxury goods became status symbols, which Marx had reflected in his theory of ‘fetishism of commodities.’ Marx stated that creativity of an individual would be alienated from them in capitalist society, contemporary capitalism turned it into a currency, a skill which can be exploited to make money. Creativity transformed into a medium to earn livelihood. 

Class struggle took complex forms with formation of  ‘middle / managerial class’ and decomposition of capital and ownership. The class antagonism did not disappear but transformed and became much more complicated. 

Durkheim’s central idea in sociology is that ‘patterns of human behavior form established structures and institutions.’ He used the concept of division of labour to analyze the functioning of society (Nagel & Piero, 2016 : 31). According to him, it is not an economic but a social concept/ fact. To explore the question , ‘In modern society where heterogeneity, complexity and differentiation is found, what holds the society together?’ He initiated historically and analyzed that primitive societies held togeby mechanical solidarity based on likeness, norms and values. 

And modern societies such as the Industrial capitalist society are based on differences and characterized by organic solidarity, where while there is low collective conscience and increased individuality, members are united by functional interdependence. ‘Organic solidarity is where social relationships are based on specific forms of specialization that unite members’ (Nagel & Piero, 2016 : 31).

Modern capitalist social formations have organic solidarity with moral individualism where individual conscience is not equal to societal conscience. ‘Individual, while becoming autonomous, comes to depend more heavily on society.’ Contemporary society is highly differentiated with every task assigned to trained professionals. We buy things from the market but we do not know the manufacturers or the people involved in the process of making those products available but indirectly we are dependent on them to meet our daily needs. For services there is extensive interdependence, such as transportation, education, health and internet. In modern times, individual freedom has increased from nuclear families to independent earners but each person came to be indirectly dependent on a network of people working to deliver products and services occupying positions in  factories or companies. Indirect consumption of products and services is a major characteristic of modern capitalism with the advent of advanced technology. With the invention of social media, networking has become much more prominent with highly specialized skill oriented jobs. 

In contemporary society, more focus is on the social being whether it is through the perspective of Marx or Durkheim. Marx argues about modification of human potential according to times of history and the same has happened with capitalism with worldwide web and entrepreneurship. ‘Entrepreneurship is the process of developing, organizing, and running a new business to generate profit while taking on financial risk.’ It gives opportunity to the middle class to enter the business world through creation of new ideas, unique products and inventions. The capitalist market is always in search of new ideas to develop business and capitalists in search of investments to maximize profits, thus the trend of entrepreneurship has led to creativity in advanced capitalism. Arguably, the claim to wealth is not exclusive to inherited rich class. Making ‘art and expression’ a form of money making through inventions of social media and increasing value of fashion and entertainment, capitalism has provided a new dimension to human creativity. Though Marx’s concept of ‘fetishism of commodities’ argued about products having more value than individuals in capitalist society and which is true in the modern world of luxury brands and show-off culture. But it is also true that by exploiting one’s creativity and art in the market, they can raise their economic position and thus social status too. 

Coming to Durkheim, with increased individualism in modern times, socialization has changed through school or through society in general. There is more emphasis on development of skills and personality to gain a place in society where one’s status is determined by their work, ability and wealth. With globalization and attraction towards liberalism, individuals are able to grasp new ideas and opportunities from around the world and thus put their own perspective on societal norms, values and practices. 

Durkheim argues that ‘just as society is not reducible to the individual, neither is the individual reducible to society, and the more advanced the society, the more this is true.’ According to Durkheim, in modern society, ‘the sacred authority of collective ideals is not diminished because individuals put their own mark on them’ but instead ‘each individual consciousness embodies the beliefs and values of society’ from their own perspective. (Royece, 2015 : 89). With advancing technology and commercialisation of creativity, individuals carve out new ways to understand things, grab or create opportunities and tackle problems that arise in capitalist societies. Companies acquire various levels and complicated processes of working and managing. Division of labor and the role of ‘income’ has moved the play in favor of capitalism.

Thus, it can be argued that though Marx and Durkheim had differing opinions, their objective was the same : ‘to understand the world for the purpose of changing it’ (Royece, 2015 : 55). Marx was focused on the conflicts between classes as the engine of history and understanding capitalism through the lens of conflict. Durkheim’s response to industrial society differed from Marx’s in crucial ways. His functional perspective can be seen in analyses of solidarity. He was of the view that ‘solidarity is crucial to keep society together,’ while Marx argued that conflict and division are the main characteristics of modern society. Their starting points were the same but the conclusion entirely different. With respect to points mentioned above, it can be concluded that both of their work is important in understanding contemporary capitalist society and changes occurring in modern times.


  1. Dahrendorf, R. 1959. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford.
  2. Nagle, J & Piero. 2016. Sociology A graphic guide. Icon Books Ltd. 
  3. Ritzer, G. eds. 2011. Sociological Theory. Maryland. 
  4. Royece, E. eds. 2015. Classical Sociological Theory and the Modern Society. New York: Rowman and Littlefield. 
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Tamanna Nandal, a passionate master's student in Sociology with a keen interest in human experiences, completed her graduation from UoD. She is currently enrolled at Ambedkar University. When not immersed in academic pursuits, she ventures into the artistic world through poems and photography. Tamanna finds solace in the pages of fiction, fantasy, and short stories, making literature an integral part of her life.