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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Forgotten Russian Exile: Pitirim Sorokin

Published Monday, January 4, 2021 By Joshua Pauling

The Cold War dissidents are currently hot commodities. Rod Dreher has been documenting their lives for years now, especially in his new book Live Not by Lies, which tells the stories of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain and found “within [themselves] and [their] community the means to live in the dignity of truth” (xiv). The book clearly has struck a nerve. Dreher, the author of three New York Times bestsellers, recently noted, “Live Not by Lies is by far the fastest seller of them all.” Certainly it’s being read by thoughtful Christians of all denominations, but it has also found a hearing with secular liberals who are finding inspiration from those who resisted communism.

Of course, there is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the GULAG survivor and Russian exile, who has become an icon of truth across the ideological spectrum and whose writings have found new relevance with conservatives and classical liberals alike. Then there is Vaclav Benda, the Czech Roman Catholic, and senior member of the anti-communist organization Charter 77, who developed the concept of the parallel polis, which is gaining more traction with a growing number of thinkers on the right and the left who are challenging woke ideology. And so too, there is Vaclav Havel, the Czech author and first president of the independent Czech Republic, whose advice in Power of the Powerless for living in truth amidst a world of lies finds more applicability with each new cultural clash. But one who preceded them all was Pitirim Sorokin. Sorokin’s bold resistance to the Bolshevik Revolution and his insights into the structures and cycles of culture are especially relevant. With all of the cross-pollination and resurgence of interest in Russian dissidents, Sorokin’s work deserves a fresh look.

Sorokin’s Life and Work

I first heard of Pitirim Sorokin while in seminary, where I was fortunate to have the late Harold O. J. Brown as professor. The seemingly obscure and forgotten Sorokin was one of Brown’s favorite thinkers and was frequently referenced in class. Brown’s The Sensate Culture (1996) built upon the sociological framework for cultural analysis that Sorokin developed years before in his The Crisis of Our Age (1941). Brown wrote, “Sorokin’s analysis has proved so reliable [as] virtually every detail of Sorokin’s predictions has been fulfilled.” That is, except for his hopeful “expectation that our culture will finally find the way out of its system-wide crisis and instead of a fiery dies irae (day of wrath) will experience a new dawn” (7). Sorokin’s narrative was not one of inevitable cultural decline; he found it possible, nay perhaps even likely, that there was a way out. “Changes of direction are possible, and the future of any particular society is not foreordained,” Brown noted, and “one dares to hope he is right” (7).

As the American Sociological Association (ASA), of which Sorokin served as president in 1965, records, Sorokin was born in 1889 in Russia’s isolated and frigid northern region. By the time he was eleven, he and his older brother were on their own, working as itinerant artisans. Yet Sorokin’s sharp intellect landed him at St. Petersburg University. As political and social turmoil in Russia spread, he was no stranger to acts of resistance, being jailed multiple times, and even sentenced to death twice. The ASA explains, “Because he was a highly vocal and persuasive anti-communist, during his last incarceration, Lenin ordered him shot. Only pleas from former political allies persuaded Lenin to exile him instead.” That was 1923 (Solzhenitsyn was only five years old; Benda and Havel weren’t even born yet). Sorokin and his wife Elena fled to America, where they successfully entered the world of academia and raised two children. Sorokin brought his experiences of deep poverty, rebellion, revolution, communism, imprisonment, and massive world wars to the classroom and served as professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and Harvard University, figuring prominently until his death in 1968.

While Sorokin wrote prolifically across a wide range of topics, his works on culture and society from the 1930s and 1940s are, in the words of Brown, “some of the most comprehensive and diligent analyses of cultural systems and their development” (xii). To Sorokin, culture was an integrated whole, a “sociocultural supersystem.” The supersystem had an overarching principle upon which everything within it—art, politics, religion, science, family, law, economics, etc.—functioned. Sorokin saw three driving forces of these supersystems historically, what he termed “ideational, idealistic, and sensate” (30). As Brown explained, “an entire culture is situated in one or another of three major phases, or occasionally, in transition between them” (8).

In an ideational culture, Sorokin explained, “the true reality-value is God” (31). Brown elaborated, “God and the divine world are the highest and truest realities; the good is what God wills. …A culture in its ideational phase is willing to sacrifice pleasures and immediate goals for the sake of its high principles. Self-denial, asceticism, and martyrdom are natural behaviors from the ideational point of view” (9). Sorokin contrasted that with sensate culture, which “lives and moves entirely in the empirical world of the senses” (32). Brown added, a sensate culture “seeks the imposing, impressive, the voluptuous; it encourages self-indulgence” (9).

Sorokin certainly acknowledged that cultures do not always fully represent one system or the other, and may exhibit aspects of both at the same time. He called this idealistic culture, “an intermediary between the ideational and the sensate forms” (33). As Brown summarized, “idealistic culture rates spiritual truth and values above all others, but it also appreciates the realities and values of the sensory world and does not treat them as meaningless or nonexistent….But because it is open to the material values and attractions of the sensory world, the idealistic mentality tends to develop into the sensate form” (9).

These three cultural phases form the backbone of Sorokin’s well-researched and compelling analysis. In Social and Cultural Dynamics, which was written after World War I, Sorokin noted, “every important aspect of life, organization, and culture of Western society is in the extraordinary crisis…The oblique rays of the sun still illumine the glory of the passing epoch. But the light is fading, and in the deepening shadows it becomes more and more difficult to see clearly and to orient ourselves safely in the confusions of the twilight” (535).

When the war to end all wars and make the world safe for democracy was over, there was an overwhelming mood of optimism and progress. But Sorokin was not so sure, perceiving that in the waning twilight of sensate culture, a tenuous transitional period between further degeneration and ideational renewal was underway. Sorokin noted in The Crisis of Our Age, “In such a mental atmosphere my statements and warnings were naturally a voice crying in the wilderness” (14). Then came World War II, and Sorokin remarked, “the ‘sweet’ theories of my supposedly competent critics are pitilessly thrown by history into its ash can. The prevalent optimism of that time has evaporated. The crisis is here in all its stark and unquestionable reality” (14).

Sorokin’s earlier prognostications proved right, and as World War II ended, Sorokin again charted his own course. He avoided the extreme pessimism and cynicism that jumpstarted postmodernism, but also saw through the progress and prosperity narrative that increased consumer culture and framed everything as a battle between democracy and communism. He argued, “both these diagnoses are grossly inaccurate” (17). Sorokin continued,

Contrary to the optimistic diagnosis, the present crisis is not ordinary, but extraordinary. It is not merely an economic or political maladjustment, but involves simultaneously almost the whole of Western culture and society, in all their main sectors. It is a crisis in their art and science, philosophy and religion, law and morals, manners and mores; in the forms of social, political, and economic organization, including the nature of the family and marriage. …More precisely, it consists in a disintegration of a fundamental form of Western culture and society dominant for the last four centuries. (17)

But neither was Sorokin convinced of the looming, inevitable decline argument either. He explained, “Contrary to its 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.…There is no uniform law requiring that every culture and society should pass through the stages of childhood, maturity, senility, and death” (23-24). Instead, Sorokin suggested,

More valid seems to be the third diagnosis. It declares that the present trouble represents the disintegration of the sensate form of Western culture and society, which emerged at the end of the twelfth century and gradually replaced the declining ideational form of medieval culture. For the past four centuries it has been dominant…[and] wrote one of the most brilliant pages in human history. However, no finite form, either ideational or sensate, is eternal….So it has happened several times before…and so it is happening now with our sensate form, which has apparently entered its decadent stage. Hence the magnitude of the crisis of our time….A change from a monarchy to a republic, or from capitalism to communism is utterly insignificant in comparison with the substitution of one fundamental form of culture and society for another—ideational for sensate, or vice versa. Such shifts are a very rare phenomena….We have the rare privilege of living, observing, thinking, and acting in the conflagration of so great an ordeal. If we cannot stop it, we can at least try to understand its nature, its causes, and its consequences. (29)

Sorokin’s mid-20th century diagnosis was that Western culture had entered “the transitional period from its sensate supersystem into either an ideational or an idealistic phase” (315). At the dawn of the 21st, Brown echoed, “our culture is one that is in transition, a transition so painful that it is not incorrect to call it an agony” (8).

Sorokin’s Advice

Now twenty years into the 21st century, the agony surely remains, perhaps with even more sting. This makes Sorokin’s prescriptions all the more relevant. At the close of The Crisis of Our Age, he offered five steps for “averting tragedy” and “making the transition as painless as possible” (315).

  • 1. Realization of the extraordinary character of the contemporary crisis of our culture and society….This is not one of the ordinary crises which happen almost every decade, but one of the greatest transitions in human history from one of its main forms of culture to another.
  • 2. Recognition that the sensate form of culture…is not the only great form of culture and is not free from many defects and inadequacies.
  • 3. Shift to another basic form of culture—in our case, from the agonizing sensate to the ideational or the idealistic or integral. Only such a shift can save it from a complete disintegration or mummification.
  • 4. Reexamination of the main premises and values of sensate culture…[and] recognition that sensory reality and value are but one of the aspects of the infinitely richer true reality and value….Man is not only an organism but also is a bearer of absolute value…[and] cannot be degraded to mere instrumentalities for purely sensual enjoyment or utility.
  • 5. Transformation of social relationships and forms of social organization…by replacing the present compulsory and contractual relationships with purer and more godly familistic relationships. (315-321)

These five steps are daunting. Sorokin admitted as much: “such efforts are incomparably more difficult than a mechanical tampering with economic, political, biological or other conditions. But easy half-measures will always fail” (321). He elaborated, “the more we tampered with economic conditions, the worse they became. The more we outlawed war, the more disastrous it grew. The more social security we tried to establish, the more insecurity we obtained. It is high time to stop deluding ourselves with these easy measures; they have not stopped and cannot stop the process of disintegration. The remedy suggested here is infinitely more difficult, but it is the only one that will prove helpful” (321).

Seventy years hence, it seems we might still be at the crossroads. Sorokin hoped “that we may choose, before it is too late, the right road.” But he feared that it would be impossible “without any fundamental reorientation of values, any thoroughgoing change of mentality and conduct, any persistent personal effort to realize man’s divine creative mission on earth instead of acting merely as a ‘reflex mechanism,’ or an organism endowed with digestive and sex functions and controlled by its…‘drives’” (326). Perhaps we still have the chance to heed Sorokin’s call.

Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Front Porch RepublicMere OrthodoxyPublic DiscourseSalvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • Joshua Pauling

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