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The Religion of Liberal Democracy

How the Dreyfus affair inspired sociologist Émile Durkheim, who died 102 years ago today, to develop an original, provocative, and optimistic view of the French Republic and the rights-bearing individual

Blake Smith
November 15, 2019
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia
Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Library of Congress; Wikipedia

The end of the 19th century, as the Dreyfus affair shook France and anti-Semitism surfaced as a political force, was not an obvious moment for a French Jew to rediscover optimism. Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), the country’s foremost sociologist, was an especially unlikely candidate for hope. He had spent the last decade in a state of well-informed anxiety. His research seemed to show that economic tensions and cultural fragmentation were unraveling the conditions for collective existence in France and throughout the world.

The 1894 condemnation of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus by a French military tribunal on false evidence, and the ensuing partisan, virulently anti-Semitic efforts to prevent a retrial, might have confirmed Durkheim’s despair. Instead it revitalized his faith in France and its liberal democracy. This faith was not metaphorical. Durkheim insisted, to the chagrin of allies and opponents ever since, that democracy was a religion, and the rights-bearing individual its god. A century later, as individual rights and popular sovereignty are increasingly embattled, Durkheim’s intellectual legacy challenges defenders of liberalism to embrace emotion, community, and faith.

A rabbi’s son, Durkheim left the religion of his childhood to study philosophy in Paris. At 29, he began to teach, offering courses on political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These forebears, he found, had made a fatal error. Basing their theories on the notion that individuals, naturally endowed with liberty, had been brought together in an artificial “social contract,” they saw “society as something extrinsic” to human nature, and philosophical speculation as something prior to empirical research. They devised ideal constitutions in which a general will, embodied by a monarch or a majority opinion, would dominate the selfish desires of individuals. Yet these philosophers seemed to know little about individuals, society, and the state as we find them in the world. If we want to know about “the nature of things or the rules for living,” Durkheim chided, we must “go back to things themselves, and thus to science.”

Durkheim became one of the founders of sociology, a budding discipline meant to provide scientific knowledge about topics that had long been the preserve of speculation and belief. In the following decade of the 1890s, he wrote a manifesto, The Rules of Sociological Method (1894), that called for empirical research into human behavior and the evolution of social structures—only after this kind of study, he argued, could political and ethical theorizing proceed on a sound basis. However Durkheim’s research for The Division of Labor (1893) and Suicide (1897) brought him to a precipice of despair.

Inspired by biology, Durkheim tried to explain why people in capitalist societies, bound by complex networks of exchange, seemed to be drifting ever further apart. Think, he asked readers, of the finches Charles Darwin had studied in the Galapagos Islands. Under the pressure of competition for resources, the members of a single species separated into a variety of new ones, each with physical features adapted to different sources of food. In what seemed to be an impeccably “scientific” analogy, Durkheim argued that people and societies evolve in just the same way. Members of traditional, pre-modern societies, like the original finches, are more or less identical to each other. The pressure of capitalist competition introduces a principle of differentiation, as people divide themselves into increasingly specialized economic roles, with finely tailored lifestyles, identities, and values to match.

In its economic form, as the division of labor, this growing specialization permits a vast increase in society’s productive powers—but with dire social and psychological consequences. Traditional bonds of religion and family collapse, and individuals, ironically isolated by the economic forces that overwhelm them all, take refuge in illusory communities, which are too frail to bear the weight of human fate. “The anarchist, the aesthete, the mystic and the socialist revolutionary,” he warned, all hasten society’s demise.

Durkheim saw little remedy for this crisis. Modern capitalist societies like France were losing the shared sets of values and points of reference that make life bearable, breaking down into fleeting, fragmentary tribes whose members were aggressively narcissistic and desperately lonesome. Even if “by some incomprehensible miracle” there appeared a moral code to reunite society, the competitive logic of the capitalist system would drive its members again into self-centeredness and division.


While Durkheim was researching his way into hopelessness, the 1894 condemnation of Dreyfus was transforming French politics. By 1898, many of the country’s most eminent writers, artists and scholars had come to Dreyfus’ defense. The more politically savvy of Dreyfus’ defenders, the Dreyfusards, saw his unjust sentence as an opportunity to defend the principles of human rights and to weaken the army, a bastion of conservatives who seemed to be waiting for their own chance to sabotage the Third Republic, France’s liberal democratic regime. But the republic’s enemies also sensed an opportunity.

Founded in 1870 after decades of authoritarian rule and frequent coups, the republic appeared to many French observers as a creation of Jews, Protestants and nonbelievers. These minorities were accused of using the forms of liberal democracy, such as an emphasis on individual rights, to protect themselves from—and indeed to oppress—France’s Catholic majority.

The grain of truth in the anti-republic perspective was that minorities did have good reason to see the republic as their best defense against intolerance. The Dreyfus affair offered anti-republicans a chance to exploit anti-Semitic prejudice, charging that Dreyfus’ defenders treacherously insisted on the rights of the accused in order to undermine France’s national defense. If Dreyfus’ name were cleared, conservatives warned, military morale would plummet, leaving the nation vulnerable to a rising Germany. The rights of a single individual—especially a Jew—could not be allowed to imperil the needs of the entire country. This argument, bruited by many anti-Dreyfusards, was delivered with particular flair by literary editor Ferdinand Brunetière in an 1898 article, “After the Trial.”

Brunetière argued that the affair had revealed a fundamental conflict within the Third Republic between responsible people who accepted that the needs of the community must overrun individual rights, and the anarchists, socialists and radical “individualists” who were willing to risk the very existence of France for the sake of a single person’s freedom. This was an argument that Durkheim could understand, one that might have appealed to his own concern about the pernicious individualizing forces of modern society. But Durkheim had changed his mind. In a series of essays written in 1898 and 1899, he answered Brunetière, defended the Dreyfusards, and outlined a vision of society and politics that shattered his earlier pessimism.

Durkheim’s thinking was transformed by an empathetic and critical engagement with the anti-Dreyfusards. In an essay on anti-Semitism, he dismissed the idea that Dreyfus’ opponents were motivated by hatred and prejudice. Anti-Semitism, he insisted, was an expression of capitalist societies’ “economic troubles and moral distress,” phenomena he had documented himself. Ordinary people, no less than sociologists, seek explanations for the bewilderments of modernity and, too often, find scapegoats.

In Suicide, written only a few years earlier, Durkheim saw the ideologies that arose in response to contemporary capitalism as mere continuations of its atomizing tendencies. Now, reflecting on the French response to Dreyfus’ convinction in 1894, Durkheim recalled a “surge of joy on the boulevards.” The French crowds had been delighted, Durkheim suggested, not because they had an excuse to persecute a member of a despised minority, but because they had been relieved to find themselves gathered together before an explanation and an answer to their sufferings. The structure of anti-Semitism suggested a way out of the troubles and distress of modern society: a shared longing for a comprehensible world.

‘The anarchist, the aesthete, the mystic and the socialist revolutionary,’ Émile Durkheim warned, all hasten society’s demise.

In a companion essay on militarism, Durkheim deepened his analysis of the anti-Dreyfus camp. Like anti-Semitism, militarism now appeared to him as a distorted form of a vital social imperative. He argued that the French people, seeing the army as their defense against Germany, had made it the object of “a cult … something untouchable and sacred.” By sacrificing the innocent Dreyfus, they were trying to appease their god.

Durkheim could have lingered on the cruelty and irrationality of this sacrifice. Instead, he suggested that the task of liberals was to find a better “cult.” The French needed “other ideas … in which they can commune with each other, other ends to pursue in common.” The Dreyfusards would have to offer not only political principles, such as individual rights, but also a sense of belonging, a form of collectivity organized around transcendent values and directed toward the realization of concrete ends. Dreyfus would be saved not by mere appeals to due process, but by a “cult of justice,” a collective passion for individual rights.

Such a religion of individual rights could hardly be whipped together for the occasion, Durkheim noted. But in an 1898 essay, “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” he argued that this religion was in fact already the common faith of France.

In another paradoxical argument, a match for his claims that the anti-Dreyfusards were motivated by a misguided love of truth and community, Durkheim set out to prove that the Dreyfusards’ insistence on the rights of a single person was an act of worship that united the members of the French nation to their countrymen and to a shared past. In doing so, Durkheim confronted Brunetière’s critique of individualism, which so resembled his own earlier assessments of modern society. Brunetière had argued that liberal democracy weakened the nation by emphasizing individual rights over the needs of the group: Countering Brunetière, Durkheim paradoxically traced the history of these rights, beginning with the Enlightenment philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who first conceived of them.


The Dreyfus affair had given Durkheim a new, ironic perspective on the Enlightenment project. Years before, the theories of Rousseau and his colleagues had struck Durkheim as shallow and idealistic. They had suggested that society was only a kind of contract to protect the rights of the individuals who composed it, but, as Durkheim the sociologist had showed, it was society that created individuals, not the other way around. The philosophers had been wrong about human nature and the relationship between individuals and society—yet, however mistaken, their ideas had entered into the repertoire of beliefs and prejudices shared by most French people, and so in the process attained an unexpected kind of truth.

The key ideas of liberalism—that society is founded by and composed of originally isolated rights-bearing individuals, and that the legitimacy of the state is based on its offering protection to individuals’ rights—are false from a scientific or philosophic point of view, Durkheim argued, in that they are unable to stand up to critical scrutiny. But they have become, as it were, effectively true, or true enough. French people believe in the existence of the liberal individual and see their history as the story of his triumph.

It was the religious fervor of the Dreyfusards that seems to have set Durkheim on this path of thought. After all, Durkheim observed, it should surprise us that thousands of people could be so committed to the defense of a single stranger. What mere individual can be worth risking the safety of a whole country? Something more than scientific or philosophical rationality must be at work. When we are horrified by violations of someone’s rights, Durkheim argued, we are experiencing the disgust and fear that religious believers feel when something “sacred and inviolable” is being transgressed—though we are not much concerned about the actual person whose rights are being violated, “the particular being that constitutes himself and carries his name.”

Thus it was not really Dreyfus whom the Dreyfusards wanted to defend, but an “impersonal and anonymous” individual, an abstract humanity in which all members of liberal democracies share. As Durkheim said: “man has become a god to man … each individual mind has within it something of the divine, marked by a characteristic which renders it sacred and inviolable.”

Liberal democracy, Durkheim argued, is therefore best understood not as an accurate or even rational set of claims about the proper relationship between individuals and society, but rather as a religion that enshrines and celebrates the rights of the ideal, abstract individual, who is its god.

Against Brunetière’s charges that an exaggerated respect for individual rights was endangering the French nation, Durkheim countered that it was this religion that was its “very soul.” For this reason, Durkheim warned, the goal of a cosmopolitan order in which the nation-state might disappear was an illusion—liberal norms can only be sustained by a community of believers rooted in shared patterns of life and circuits of feeling. Until the end of his life, despite the growing influence of international socialist movements, Durkheim hoped that French socialists would “return to French traditions” and abandon the dream of a global revolution; liberal democracy is a religion, but it is a national, not a universal belief system.


After the deceptions of his father’s Judaism, Enlightenment philosophy, and the scientific study of society, Durkheim had found what he recognized to be a new faith. For the next two decades, until his death in 1917, he would devote himself to proving that all societies have a religious basis (in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1913) and to providing French teachers with the courage to embrace their role as priests of the republic. They must instill in children a “democratic morality,” built of respect for individual rights and love for the nation. History, for example, should be taught as the achievement of the former by the latter: “the child, and later the adult, will learn that the rights that are granted to them, the freedom that they enjoy, the moral dignity that they believe themselves to possess, all of these are the creation … of that personal but impersonal being we call France. Only by confronting rigidly enforced rules will children learn to respect something greater than themselves—the basic attitude required for all religions, including that of liberal democracy.

While he did not argue that the state should limit religious freedom, Durkheim did not imagine that it could be possible to separate church and state in the sense usually understood by defenders of France’s particular form of secularism, laïcité. Religion is the foundation of politics, he insisted. The Third Republic could only thrive if its defenders accepted it for what it was: the true church of the French, the institution through which they worshipped the rights-bearing individual.

Durkheim’s idiosyncratic calls for the state to shape individuals on society’s behalf, and to manage their education as a religious enterprise, alienated potential allies, like liberal Jewish and Protestant intellectuals, who fought for a public sphere that could accommodate many forms of religious practice. Anti-Semites didn’t care for Durkheim, either. In 1911, the nephew of Gabriel Tarde, a rival sociologist, co-authored a pamphlet suggesting that Durkheim’s conception of society was a “Jewish God,” a “tyrannical” entity ruling humanity through a caste of priests.

Later generations of French Jewish intellectuals, including Durkheim’s own nephew, Marcel Mauss, have not been much kinder. In the 1930s, as they watched the Nazi party take power in Germany through quasi-religious public rituals, it seemed to Mauss and Durkheim’s former colleague Léon Brunschvig that the sort of collective faith Durkheim celebrated was serving fascism, not democracy.

But the dangers posed by the Third Reich—anti-Semitism, militarism, contempt for individual rights—were dangers Durkheim knew. It had been precisely by meditating on their social and psychological causes that he had found his controversial faith in liberal democracy. And indeed, the case of Germany, seen through Durkheim’s eyes, shows that what threatens democracy most is too little, rather than too much, faith in the individual.

In a 1915 pamphlet, The German Mentality and the War, Durkheim laid blame for the outbreak of World War I on German thinkers such as Heinrich von Treitschke who had doubted the capacity of individuals for moral collective action. Taking to heart the philosophical sketch of individuals offered by the Enlightenment tradition, and by social scientists like Durkheim, Treitschke saw them as essentially self-interested, isolated beings unable to form authentic social bonds that could transcend their egoism. He reasoned accordingly that instead of worshipping an ideal individual, who is never actually found anywhere, German thinkers rightly worshipped the state—which had the advantage of actually existing. The German state, thus worshipped, was given free rein to oppress its subjects and invade its neighbors. Germany’s authoritarianism and aggression were the consequences of its thinkers’ faith in a visible god—the state.

It might seem that by endorsing a religion of the ideal individual, Durkheim was inviting readers to embrace a “noble lie” about individuals, who can be dreadful. Yet far from choosing to ignore the darker aspects of human nature, Durkheim in his post-Dreyfus perspective appears to have become a more sensitive observer of its paradoxes.

Days after his son was killed in action on the Balkan front of WWI, Durkheim wrote to his nephew Mauss, “life triumphs over death.” He told Mauss that his grandmother, after her son had died, spent a week mourning, but on the eighth day couldn’t stop herself from asking about neighborhood gossip. She had not forgotten her grief—but to be alive is ever to be pulled away from reckoning one’s own pains and pleasures and to be drawn into the lives of others. What seem like the hardest things religion can demand—the overcoming of self-interestedness and of the terror of death—are in fact sublimely ordinary.

Every feature of human nature that might inspire hope, Durkheim knew, can be put to evil use. Our desire to stand together in a comprehensible world, our longing for community, and our readiness to project idealized visions over unsatisfactory realities may lead us to commit horrible deeds. But it is these enduring emotional structures that also lead us to connection with other people and offer the only possible foundation for a decent political order.


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Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.