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Pitirim A. Sorokin

Sorokin - The Person

by Lewis A. Coser

From Ikon Painter to Professional Revolutionary
Student and Scholar at St. Petersburg
The Revolution and After
The First Years in America
The Harvard Years

From: Lewis A. Coser [1977] Masters of Sociological Thought:
Ideas in Historical and Social Context
New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovitch. pp. 477-492.

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On February 27, 1917, the first day of the mass demonstrations that were to presage the Russian Revolution, an ardent young intellectual and rebel, who had twice been imprisoned by the Czarist authorities for his revolutionary activities, noted in his diary:

If the writer of this entry had written nothing else in his life, these sentences would stand as a classic example of the tortuous love affair between intellectuals and revolution, of the complicated tension between theory and praxis. The writer was Pitirim A. Sorokin.


From Ikon Painter to Professional Revolutionary
Sorokin was born on January 21, 1889, in a remote village in northern Russia's Vologda Province, inhabited by a non-Russian people of Ugro-Finnish origin, the Komi. The area consisted mainly of primeval forest stretching for many hundreds of miles in all directions. The small villages of the Komi were like tiny islands in a huge and engulfing forest vastness. The Komi spoke their own language but almost all were fluent in Russian as well.

Industrialization and urbanization had not yet come to their land, and they subsisted mainly by farming, supplemented by fishing, hunting, lumbering, and trapping. The Komi never knew the serfdom that had marked most of the rest of Russia for many generations. They managed their local affairs autonomously through village self-governments similar to the Russian mir or communal peasant community. Land was held in common by the village; from time to time it was distributed and redistributed among individual families according to their needs and size.

The houses of the village leaders and elders, of the priests, teachers, doctors, storekeepers, and village policemen were more spacious and comfortable than those of ordinary villagers, but otherwise the conditions of the inhabitants were nearly equal. Sorokin, the future analyst of social stratification had little to draw upon from childhood memories, except by way of contrast when he set upon this task many years later in a totally different environment, the state of Minnesota.

Sorokin was only three years old when his mother died — her funeral was the first conscious recollection etched in his mind. His father was of Russian origin, born in Veliki Ustyug, an ancient northern city that was a center of arts and crafts. He had served his apprenticeship in one of the artisan guilds and had gained his diploma as “a master of golden, silver and ikon ornamental works.” He subsequently moved to a Komi village and there married a young woman who bore him three sons — Vassily, Pitirim, and Prokopiy.

After the death of their mother, the two older boys, Vassily and Pitirim, lived with their father; the youngest lived with an aunt. At times their father presented the loving image of a conscientious, affectionate, and protective guardian who took great pride in his craftsmanship and his standing in the many villages through which he wandered in search of work. At other times, however, he was given to long sprees of drunkenness that often resulted in delirium tremens. During one of his drunken outbursts, depressed, violently irritated, and enraged at his sons, the father snatched a hammer and struck both brothers. As a result, Pitirim’s upper lip was somewhat misshapen for many years. Deeply affected, the ten-year-old Pitirim and the fourteen-year-old Vassily left their father’s house, never to return. They immediately decided to make use of their exposure to the father’s craft and to start independent careers as itinerant craftsmen, moving from village to village in search of customers. They never met their father again and heard of his death about a year later.

Young though they were, the boys managed to get commissions for painting and decorating churches, even a cathedral, gilding and silvering ikons and candelabras and making copper or gold ikon covers. Only sporadically did they attend various elementary schools. Nevertheless after a few years of this nomadic life, Pitirim, at the age of fourteen, secured a modest scholarship at the Khrenovo Teachers’ Seminary. Travelling to the seminary by steamer and railroad, the young country lad had for the first time an intimation of the characteristics of big cities and industrial regions. The world of peasant culture, of rural folkways, of religious custom and of semi pagan folklore now lay behind him, never to be re-entered except for short periods, but always to be retained in his imagination and memory. Though he was to go on to live in the rapidly evolving urban and industrial Gesellschaft of Russian, and later, American cities, his life work was shaped to a large extent by his formative years in the village Gemeinschaften of the Komi people of the northern forest.

The city people and their sons in the Khrenovo Seminary at first treated Sorokin as a yokel because he lacked urban polish and sophistication. While he suffered from their contempt, the youngster himself, still in his homespun clothes, was inclined to agree with their judgement of him. But it did not take him long to acquire urban ways and manners and to buy his first ready-made suit. He soon was the leader of his class, despite his previous nomadic life and his previous sporadic schooling. The seminary, which was run by the Russian Orthodox Church, was concerned primarily with training teachers for the Church’s elementary schools. But because it was located near sizable urban and industrial centers —and hence open to the winds of new doctrines— the school actually provided a quality of education more advanced than most other seminaries. Students and teachers freely interacted with towns people, with the local intelligentsia, and with leaders of political opinions of all shades, from monarchists to Social Revolutionaries and Social Democrats.

Immersing himself in the study of a variety of new books, journals, and newspapers that his newly won friends and acquaintances had thrust upon him, Sorokin soon shed his previous Orthodox religious and philosophical beliefs. The new ideas he was exposed to and his growing awareness of the miserable social and political conditions of Imperial Russia soon turned the peasant youth into an urban agnostic, a believer in scientific theories of evolution, and an active revolutionary. (The ferment created by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and the harbingers of the revolution of 1905 also contributed to this transformation.) Nevertheless, because he still clung to his earlier belief in self-help and individualism, he was repelled by the Marxist determinism of Social Democracy; young Sorokin became instead an ardent member of the populist Social Revolutionary party. Though now an urbanite, he was still powerfully attracted by the Gemeinschaft populism of the Narodniki, whose gospel he was helping to spread among students and factory workers, as well as the peasants of the surrounding countryside.

On the eve of the school’s Christmas vacation in 1906, Sorokin was scheduled to address a group of workers and peasants. As he entered the meeting hall the police arrested him, escorted him to a horse-and-sleigh, and delivered him to a local prison. Prison treatment during the last years of the Czar’s regime was no longer as harsh and inhuman as it had been in previous days. Prisons by now in fact became “graduate educational institutions” for revolutionaries, who gathered in interminable discussions of revolutionary theory and used their enforced leisure to read the works of Marx and Engels, of Kropotkin and Lavrov, of Tolstoi, Plekhanov and Lenin, as well as Darwin, Spencer, and other evolutionist and ‘progressive’ thinkers. Sorokin probably learned more in prison than he could have absorbed in an entire semester’s work at his Seminary.

Prison also afforded Sorokin his first acquaintance with common criminals and this led to his choice of criminology and penology as his area of specialization during his later stay at St Petersburg University. In addition, Sorokin transmuted his lived experience into academic knowledge his first book, Crime and Punishment, Service and Reward, was published seven years after his first imprisonment.

Sorokin remained in prison four months before he was released. Though discharged from his school, he was received by most teachers and students as a hero of the revolution; yet stigmatized as a revolutionary, he could not be admitted to another school nor could he find any type of employment in the region. He therefore resolved to become an itinerant preacher spreading the revolutionary message, not unlike his earlier experience with painted ikons. Pitirim Sorokin, sought by the police for escaping from their supervision in his place of residence, disappeared, and an anonymous ‘Comrade Ivan’ emerged as an organizer, speaker, and instructor among factory workers, students, and peasants throughout the Volga region. Most of the meetings he addressed and the demonstrations he led were peaceful affairs, but on one occasion, with a large group gathered together, Comrade Ivan, standing on a tree stump high above the crowd, fiercely denounced the regime. The meeting was broken up by the police with whips and sabers, which resulted in the deaths of two workers and a police officer and the wounding of several Cossacks, workers, and policemen. Thereafter, upon the urgings of his friends, Comrade Ivan retired to his aunt’s house in the Komi village of Rymia, where he stayed for two months, helping with the farm work and visiting with boyhood friends. With no hope of continuing his education or of finding employment, Sorokin resolved in the fall of 1907 to make his way to St. Petersburg.


Student and Scholar at St. Petersburg
It was easier for Sorokin to decide to go to St. Petersburg than it was for him to get there. The cheapest fare by steamer to Vologda and from there by train to St. Petersburg was approximately sixteen rubles; Sorokin had but one. He increased his funds to some ten rubles by painting two peasant homes, which paid for third-class accommodations on the steamer. But in Vologda he learned that the train fare to St. Petersburg was eight rubles, five more than he possessed. He therefore decided to buy a ticket to a point not far from Vologda and to travel the rest of the way as a stowaway — the ‘rabbit’ class, as it was then called in Russia. He was soon discovered, however, but fortunately by a kind and understanding conductor. Sorokin explained that he was travelling to the capital to pursue his education; the conductor, an older man endowed with the Russian respect for things of the spirit, allowed the young man to continue on the trip on condition that he would earn his fare by cleaning cars and lavatories and also assisting the engine-stoker. With the help of this Praxis, Sorokin was sped on in his search for theory; when he reached St. Petersburg he had an unexpended balance of fifty kopecks in his pocket.

Having managed to be hired by an upward-mobile employee of the central electric station as a tutor for his two boys (in exchange for room and meager board), Sorokin set out to gain admission to the University. This was by no means easy. Since he had been expelled from his seminary and had never even attended gymnasium, there was only one way to gain admittance. He would have to pass a stiff ‘examination of maturity’ for all eight grades of gymnasium and some additional materials required of ‘externs’ — those who had not graduated from gymnasium. Largely ignorant of Latin and Greek, French and German, as well as mathematics, Sorokin could pass the examination only by attending one of the night schools that offered such training. When he learned that one of the teachers at a well-known night school was the first man from Komi to become a professor at the university, Sorokin presented himself at the professor’s apartment and told the latter’s astonished wife that he had just arrived from the Komi people and would like to see the Komi professor. K. F. Jakov, the man in question, not only arranged for Sorokin’s free admission to night school, but opened up his own house to him, introduced him to some of the leading intellectuals, and thus paved his entree to several philosophical, literary, and artistic circles in the university. The Komi professor also played a major role in the personal life of his student, for it was at one of Jakov’s receptions that Sorokin met his future wife.

Through Jakov’s recommendations, Sorokin soon obtained additional tutorial work that enabled him to earn a small wage while attending three semesters of night school. This school, as was the case with so many throughout Russia, was a hotbed of revolutionary ideas; Sorokin learned much in the give-and-take discussions among his like-minded peers — probably more than he did in the formal course of instruction.

After two years of study and extensive exposure to St. Petersburg’s cultural offerings and intellectual stimulations, Sorokin returned to Veliki Ustyug, his father’s hometown, to prepare for the final examination. The reason for this move was not so much to return to his roots (as current conceit has it); rather, he could live more cheaply with his uncle and aunt than was possible in the capital. In May 1909 he passed the examination with the grade of ‘excellent’ in all subjects.

Back in St Petersburg, Sorokin first enrolled in the newly opened Psycho-Neurological Institute. A number of factors influenced his choice. First, the institute program was less rigid than that of the university; second, the university offered no instruction in sociology whereas two renowned sociologists, M. M. Kovalevsky and E. de Roberts, taught at the institute; finally, the institute’s student body was largely of peasant and lower-class origin, who were more open to revolutionary ideas than students at the university. During his first year at the institute Sorokin attracted the attention of several of his instructors and was considered one of the top students. However, since university, but not institute students were exempt from serving in the military, he had to leave the institute and enroll at the university in order to escape the draft. But throughout the next few years his ties to the institute remained so strong that he became secretary and assistant to his teacher M. M. Kovalevsky, and, in his first year of graduate work, he was appointed a lecturer in sociology at the institute.

Despite the fact that the university did not officially recognize sociology as a field for matriculation, the subject was taught in courses listed under law or economics, criminology or history. As most of these courses were given in the faculty of law and economics, Sorokin chose that department as his field of specialization and was exposed to the guidance of such internationally known scholars as M. I. Tugan-Baranovsky in economics and M. I. Rostovtzeff in the classics. Sorokin proved himself to be a brilliant student and managed, even as an undergraduate, to publish a number of studies in sociological, anthropological, and philosophical journals. His first substantial volume, the previously mentioned Crime and Punishment, Service and Reward, was published in his junior year.

Though it seemed evident even in his early years at the university that he was destined for a brilliant academic career and soon would be accepted in the various circles of St. Petersburg’s intelligentsia, Sorokin did not let his intellectual life interfere with his revolutionary activities. Indeed, his academic career was temporarily interrupted when the police raided his home to arrest him, but he happened to be away at the time. To escape the further attention of the police, Sorokin procured a false passport and the uniform of a student officer of the Military Medical Academy; he then went to the Riviera as a male nurse and companion to a fellow revolutionary who suffered from tuberculosis. These unusual circumstances allowed the young provincial from the northern forests to get his first glimpse of European upper-class culture. He even gambled at the Monte Carlo casino and won a few hundred francs. It may have been with those francs that he bought a copy of the recently published Soziologie by one Georg Simmel. After a few weeks, the student ‘disorders’ at the university had abated, and the police relaxed its vigilance so that Sorokin could return to the capital and resume his studies.

Having escaped police arrest in 1911, Sorokin was not so lucky in 1913. He had written a pamphlet about the crimes and the misrule of the Romanov dynasty as a counterpoint to the tercentenary celebrations of that dynasty’s reign. Thereupon he was betrayed by an agent provocateur and was arrested. The young revolutionary was placed in a relatively comfortable cell, had access to a good prison library, and simply continued his work. He also read a number of lighter volumes, among them Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. “It did not occur to me then”, he later wrote in his autobiography, “that sometime in the future I would be living on the banks of this river [in Minneapolis].” But that time was not yet. Having no proof that Sorokin had in fact written the incriminating pamphlet and being hard pressed by many of Sorokin’s professors, the police soon released him so that he could again devote himself to his formal education.

In 1914 Sorokin graduated with a first-class diploma from the university and was immediately offered the position of a “person left at the university to prepare for a professorship.” He gladly accepted the offer, especially since a fairly good stipend went with it. For the first time he was able to live in a style to which most of his peers had long been accustomed. The stipend was granted for a four-year period to allow him to prepare for the magister (master)degree and a position as a Privatdozent (lecturer). Since sociology was still not an approved discipline, Sorokin chose criminology and penology as his major subject and constitutional law as his minor.

The master’s degree was much more highly regarded in Russia than in the United States. In fact, most academicians held only such a degree; but a very few outstanding professors wrote distinguished dissertations that earned them a Ph.D. The oral examination for the magister degree took three full days, a fourth day being devoted to a substantial essay on a topic assigned by the body of examiners. It usually took at least four years to prepare for this examination but after only two, Sorokin passed in late 1916. He was now entitled to become a Pritvatdozent at the university; in order to receive the degree of ‘magister of criminal law’, however, he still had to submit a dissertation and to defend it in a rigorous dispute with all the official opponents appointed by the university, as well as with unofficial faculty opponents and public challengers. Sorokin had planned to submit his volume on Crime and Punishment, Service and Reward as his dissertation, and his professors had agreed tentatively to schedule the defence for some day in March of 1917. But the Revolution prevented this. After March 1917 all university life practically ceased for several years. Sorokin had to wait until April 1922 to defend two volumes of his System of Sociology as a dissertation for the degree of doctor of sociology.


The Revolution and After
During the war years Sorokin by no means ceased his opposition to the Czarist regime. Nevertheless, he agreed with the majority of his Social Revolutionary comrades, as well as such Social Democratic luminaries as G. Plekhanov, to support the war effort (if rather critically) and to oppose those on the Left who called for a speedy end to the war and a separate peace with Germany. Those on the internationalist Left now called him and his co-thinkers Social Patriots.

When the revolution broke out, most of the political leaders of whatever camp were caught by surprise. The Social Patriots greeted it with a high degree of ambivalence. They had hoped for it during many years of underground struggle, but were fearful that the revolutionary events would undermine Russia’s ability to continue the war at the side of its Western allies. Moreover, many intellectuals who had long been enthusiastic for revolution in the abstract found themselves repelled by many features of the revolution in the concrete. Sorokin’s diary of those days clearly exhibits his ambivalence. No question, he rejoiced at the fall of the old regime. Yet caught in the whirlpool of revolution-ary disorder, observing ‘unruly crowds’ and ‘wildly firing men’, witnessing manhunts for policemen, counterrevolutionaries, and informers, and learning of the massacres of officers, Sorokin could not suppress a deep repulsion about what he felt to be the rule of the mob in the streets of his beloved St Petersburg.

After the abdication of the Czar and the installation of a Provisional Government, Sorokin engaged in a frantic round of activities. He agreed to become an editor of a new Social Revolutionary newspaper, only to discover that the editors were split between Social Patriots and Internationalists. Thus the paper would print an article on page one that was mercilessly savaged on page two. He went from meeting to meeting, from conference to conference, trying desperately to hold the right wing of his party together. He helped organize an All-Russian Peasant Soviet to counterbalance the radical Workers#146; Soviet. It all seemed futile. He finally left for his northern homeland to try to convince the peasants there that support of the Provisional Government against its enemies on the Left was the only road to salvation. He then wrote in his diary: “What a relief to leave the capital with its constantly moving crowds, its disorder, dirt, and hysteria, and to be again in the tranquil places I love.” Having come face to face with the revolution he had so ardently desired in the past, Sorokin had fast become thoroughly disillusioned. How beautiful it had looked during the Czar’s reign and how ugly it had turned out to be. “I sometimes feel like a homeless dog”, he jotted down in his diary.

The frantic round of activities continued after Sorokin returned to Petrograd. He exhausted his energies in meeting after meeting, being alternately tired and weary, excited and alert. In the midst of it all, at the end of May, he married Elena Petrovna Baratinsky, a fellow student and botanist. After the church ceremony to which he had come from an important meeting, his new wife and some friends went to lunch, which could last no longer than half an hour, for the groom had to hurry off to another ‘cursed conference’.

In July 1917, in the midst of new riots and with the Provisional Government now headed by Kerensky fighting for its life, Sorokin agreed to accept the post of Secretary to the Prime Minister. There was little he could do. The Bolsheviks were waiting in the wings and could not be stopped. In a few months they succeeded in overthrowing the Kerensky government and proclaimed the Russian Soviet Republic. Sorokin and his friends continued a rear-guard fight in the short lived constitutional assembly and elsewhere but they knew that their cause was lost. They now were counted among the ‘former people’, not unlike the Czarist officials against whom they had battled for somany years.

During the Civil War and the period of starvation and exhaustion that followed, Sorokin, who had for a short period sat next to the seats of power, became one victim among many. Early in January 1918 he was arrested at the offices of the anti-Bolshevik newspaper which he was editing. Released after two months, Sorokin and his wife went to Moscow in hopes of revitalizing the coalition of anti-Bolshevist groups in that city. He helped to start another newspaper, only to see its presses smashed soon after the first copy had appeared. Soon after, he returned to the northern country, worked underground under an assumed name, and hoped that the Bolshevist regime could be defeated with the help of a British expeditionary force that had landed in Arkhangelsk. But the British provided only limited aid, and the anti-revolutionary forces, after some initial successes, were thoroughly routed. Sorokin was now forced to wander from village to village, his life in jeopardy, his name on the Bolsheviks’ »wanted« list as a counterrevolutionary. For several months he hid in the forest. Finally, he made his way back to his home town, where he found shelter with his family, but decided that a prolonged stay would endanger his kin. Sorokin went to the local office of the secret police, the Chekha, and gave him-self up. He was committed to the prison at Veliki Ustyug and fully expected to be executed any day. Instead he was released on December 12, 1918, on direct orders from Lenin himself.

A few days earlier, writing in Pravda, Lenin had announced a major change in the government’s policy concerning the intelligentsia, arguing that it was important to gain the allegiance of the educated, especially those from the peasant strata who had now turned against the new regime after valiantly having fought against the Czar. The Communists should cease to persecute them, Lenin argued, and attempt to convert them into allies. It was in pursuance of that new directive that Sorokin was released and sent to Moscow. It turned out that one of his former students, now a Commissar, had pleaded with members of Lenin’s cabinet who knew him well. They had agreed to talk to Lenin. Lenin was persuaded, wrote the Pravda article, revoked Sorokin’s death sentence, and ordered his release. At the end of 1918 Sorokin returned to Petrograd University and resumed his academic duties. The days of his activist involvement were over.

Half-starved, and living under the most trying personal circumstances, Sorokin not only managed to give regular courses of lectures at the reopened university, but to launch a series of major writing projects. Besides two elementary textbooks in law and in sociology, he finished the two substantial volumes of his System of Sociology. To get these volumes published required almost as much energy as writing them. The work could clearly not pass the strict Communist censorship. Some of Sorokin’s friends in a publishing house and at two nationalized printing presses managed to print the more than 800 pages secretly. The censorship permission on the title page was forged, ten thousand copies of each volume were published — all of which were sold within two or three weeks. When the government learned of the publication, it ordered all copies confiscated, but there was nothing left to confiscate. Shortly thereafter, Sorokin, who by then had been elected chairman of the newly founded department of sociology, submitted these illegally published volumes to the Juridical Faculty as his doctoral dissertation. After a typically extensive dispute, the faculty voted unanimously to accept the work as meeting all university requirements, and on April 22, 1922, Sorokin finally acquired his Ph.D. degree. It had been a long and tortuous journey; even so, Sorokin received his degree when he was only thirty-three years old, an age at which many American students of sociology will not yet have received theirs.

Having published two volumes of the planned three volumes of his System, Sorokin decided to postpone the writing of the last volume in order to do a first-hand study of mass starvation in the famine districts of Samara and Saratov. The book setting down the results of this inquiry, The Influence of Hunger on Human Behavior, on Social Life and Social Organisation, was published in May 1922, but only after the censors had severely mutilated it, cutting away many paragraphs and some entire chapters. The book has recently been republished in an English edition edited by Sorokin’s widow shortly before her death.

During 1922 a new wave of arrests of the non-Communist members of the intelligentsia hit Petrograd. Sorokin escaped by moving to Moscow, where he was less well known. When he learned that all those arrested were to be banished abroad, he voluntarily presented himself to the Chekha, and after the usual delays was given a passport. On September 23, 1922, he left Russia, never to return.


The First Years in America
After a year’s sojourn in Czechoslovakia where he had been invited to stay at the request of President Masaryk, whom he knew well, Sorokin accepted the offer of two prominent American sociologists, Edward C, Hayes and Edward A. Ross, to come to America to deliver a series of lectures on the Russian Revolution. Arriving in New York in October 1923, Sorokin first resolved to learn some English by attending lectures and meetings as well as various church services. Having gained a sufficient, though by no means full, command of the language, he gave his first lecture at Vassar College. In his early months in America, he also worked on his hook, The Sociology of Revolution and drafted major parts of his Leaves from a Russian Diary. Proceeding to the Universities of Illinois and Wisconsin, he delivered a series of lectures on the Russian Revolution and related matters.

Predictably, he encountered a great deal of opposition from younger academics who regarded him as a disgruntled political emigre who had forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Yet this opposition abated when a number of prominent sociologists, Cooley, Ross, and Giddings among them, came to his defence. Sorokin continued to lecture at various universities, and in 1924 he was invited by the head of the sociology department at Minnesota, F. S. Chapin, to teach a course during the summer session. This led to an offer of a visiting professorship for the next year at half the normal salary for full professors of the University. Soon after, he was given a full professorship, though still at a salary substantially below that given to his American colleagues. During his years at Minnesota, Sorokin trained a number of distinguished students, C. A. Anderson, Conrad Taeuber, T. Lynn Smithand, O. D. Duncan (the elder) among others, who later made major contributions, especially in rural sociology.

In the meantime, Sorokin’s wife decided to continue her graduate work in botany and received her Ph.D. in 1925. The University’s strict nepotism rules prevented her from receiving, a teaching position at the University, and so she accepted a professorship of botany at neighboring Hamlin University.

Sorokin’s scientific output during his six years in Minnesota was truly amazing. The Sociology of Revolution was published in 1925. Social Mobility, the pioneering work on which all subsequent research in the area has depended heavily, followed in 1927. Only a year later his monumental critical survey, Contemporary Sociological Theories, appeared. Collaboration with C. C. Zimmerman, who was to become his life-long friend, produced Principles of Rural-Urban Sociology, in 1929, and three volumes of A Systematic Source-Book in Rural Sociology, with Zimmerman and C. J. Galpin as co-authors, were published in 1930-32. When one considers that Sorokin was still not fully conversant with the English language, that he faced all the usual difficulties of adjustment in all unfamiliar academic environment, his is an astonishing achievement.

These books established Sorokin’s place in the forefront of American sociology, even though they received mixed reviews. Some reviewers harshly criticized them; others, including such leaders of the field as Cooley, Ross, Giddings, Chapin, and Sutherland, warmly praised them. As a result, Sorokin was offered professorial appointments by two major universities, which he declined. But when President Lowell invited him to accept the first chair of sociology at Harvard, he went to Cambridge where he taught from 1930 to 1955. He continued to direct his Research Center in Creative Altruism at the University until his full retirement at the end of 1959 at the age of seventy.


The Harvard Years
It was during his Harvard years that Sorokin made some of his most significant and creative contributions to American sociology. When he first arrived at Harvard, a Department of Sociology did not yet exist, and Sorokin’s chair was organizationally placed in the Department of Economics. But at the end of the first semester of the 1930-31 academic year, the administration finally approved a separate Department of Sociology and Sorokin became its chairman the next year. The man who had established the first Department of Sociology at Petrograd University in 1919-20 was given the opportunity to organize and guide Harvard’s first such department a dozen years later.

Although relatively small, the department soon acquired considerable renown. Sorokin induced his Minnesota friend Carle Zimmerman to come as an associate professor and Talcott Parsons, who was teaching in the Department of Economics, became a sociology instructor. Special lectures or courses were offered by such eminent Harvard men as A. D. Nock in the sociology of religion, Dean Roscoe Pound in the sociology of law, Sheldon Glueck in criminology, and Gordon Allport in social psychology. Sorokin also brought a distinguished array of outside lecturers, including W. I. Thomas, Howard P. Becker of Wisconsin and Leopold von Wiese of Cologne

Talcott Parsons, who was then working on his Theory of Social Action, had, next to Sorokin himself, the most powerful influence on the brilliant cohort of graduate students who flocked to the department soon after its inception. Many of the men who were to assume a leading position in sociology after their graduation from Harvard —for example, Robert K. Merton and Wilbert Moore, Kingsley Davis and Robin Williams— were influenced by both Sorokin and Parsons, though the Parsonian influence proved to be more enduring. Others, such as N. Denood, E. A. Tiryakian, and R. Dufors, followed more closely in Sorokin’s footsteps.

Sorokin was an unconventional teacher with a distinctive mode of presentation and style of delivery. He never lost his pronounced Russian accent, and when he ascended the platform and began speaking some of his auditors felt that they were listening to a rousing church homily rather than a classroom lecture. His best-known course for undergraduates, Principles of Sociology (officially listed as Sociology A), was commonly called Sorokin A by the Harvard Crimson Confidential Guide.

One of Sorokin’s students, Robert Bierstedt, has vividly described his way of teaching. He writes, “As a lecturer, Sorokin had no histrionic peer. A man of astonishing physical vigor he would mount huge attacks against the blackboard, often breaking his chalk in the process. One of his classrooms had blackboards on three sides. At the end of the hour all three were normally covered with hieroglyphics, and clouds of chalk dust hovered in the air. If he was dramatic, he was also often melodramatic. For no American sociologist did he have a word of praise —always, in fact, the contrary. … His response to George Lundberg was typical. He arrived in class one morning waved one of Lundberg’s recently published papers before us, and declaimed … ‘Here is a paper by my friend Lundberg on a subject about which, unfortunately, he knows nothing! It is a disease with him! He was not born for this kind of work.’ On another occasion [he said to me] ‘John Dewey, John Dewey, John Dewey! I read a book by John Dewey. I read another book by John Dewey. I read a third book by John Dewey. Nothing in them.’”

Soon after coming to Harvard, Sorokin set to work on the four-volume treatise entitled Social and Cultural Dynamics, eventually published between 1937 and 1941. To accomplish this immense task, Sorokin enlisted a number of Russian emigre scholars, as well as some of his students, such as Robert K. Merton and John H. Boldyreff, as collaborators. They did much of the spade work in gathering data, computing statistics, and consulting reference works. Harvard assisted the work by a four-year grant amounting to roughly $10,000.

Sorokin was now at the pinnacle of his career but even his Harvard years were accompanied by considerable stress. Departmental chairmen at Harvard as elsewhere in America were by no means as powerful as were their counter-parts in Europe, and Sorokin probably still hankered after the European model. Though firmly ensconced in his position he did not succeed in dominating the Department. Highly respected, even admired, by many of his students, he was not singular in the influence he had over them. That role he was forced to share with Talcott Parsons, despite the fact that Parsons was initially a young instructor when Sorokin held the only full professorial chair. Parsons and Sorokin shared a number of ideas, more particularly in regard to the central role of cultural symbols in the determination of social action, yet they never managed to reconcile their views. Their relations throughout the period could best be characterized as frigid competitive coexistence. It is fair to say that Sorokin indeed put Harvard’s Department of Sociology on its feet, but he did not succeed in giving it his own distinctive imprint.

Sorokin’s cast of mind in those years was conservative, and it is conceivable that this factor was instrumental in his being appointed to the Harvard faculty during a period of deep social crisis and the consequent ascendancy of a variety of Marxian or non-Marxian radical ideas. Yet the man from the Komi people was a conservative of a peculiar kind. As a conservative libertarian, a Christian anarchist, he never lost his peasant distrust of the centralizing state, a distrust that was reinforced by his experiences during the Russian Revolution. Thus, Sorokin had little in common with his American counterparts. Arthur Davis, one of his students, tells a revealing anecdote. Davis had been arrested by the Boston police for handing out leaflets for a CIO union during an organizing drive. The magistrate let him off, but one of his professors warned him that the arrest might have jeopardized his scholarship. When the matter came to Sorokin’s attention in his capacity as departmental chairman, he brushed it aside with the comment that he himself had been arrested six times, three times by the Czar and three times by the Bolsheviks …

Sorokin never relished his administrative duties. He has reported that his requests to be relieved of them were twice turned down by the administration. Finally in 1942, having served for ten years, Sorokin’s resignation as chairman was accepted. Soon after, the department was reorganized under Parsons’ leadership and became the Department of Social Relations. From that point on, Sorokin played only a marginal role in the development of Harvard sociology. I remember coming to the Department’s building in Emerson Hall in the early fifties, and, not finding Sorokin’s office where I expected it (namely on the floor where most of the activities went on), was told that Sorokin (and Zimmerman) had their offices on an upper (desolate looking, as I recall) floor. Nor is it pleasant to note, on the other hand, that after the publication of Parsons’ The Social System, Sorokin put under the door of the Department’s offices a mimeographed statement in which he attempted to prove that the major ideas of this book had been anticipated in his own work.

Sorokin’s alienation from the Department was at least partly compensated for by his establishment in the late forties of the Harvard Research Center in Creatitve Altruism. Sorokin had originally planned to carry on research in this field without financial assistance or a research staff. Quite unexpectedly he received a letter from Ely Lilly, head of a large drug company and a well-known philanthropist, expressing an interest in aiding Sorokin in this venture. There followed a grant of $20,000. After Sorokin had begun to publish some of the results of his investigations, Mr. Lilly said he would like to meet him. When Sorokin informed him that he had so far spent exactly $248 out of the $20,000 grant, Mr Lilly, with typical American impatience, queried, “Can’t you put more steam into the business?” Sorokin agreed, and he received an additional grant of $l00,000 for five years, which underwrote the Center’s expenses. I hesitate to say much about the value of the inquiries of the Center. Even though not all its results were as startling as the find that “altruistic persons live longer than egoistic individuals”, I do feel that little of enduring merit resulted from its labors.

Sorokin’s influence at Harvard had originally been strong. But what the British literary critic John Gross once said about his fellow critic F. R. Leavis seems also to have applied to Sorokin: “Good students welcomed him as an emancipator, and then found that they had to spend years to escape from his liberating influence.” This was especially true, perhaps, after the publication of Social and Cultural Dynamics, when Sorokin’s thought became increasingly rigid and dogmatic and when he largely veered in the direction of social prophecy and away from detached scholarly inquiry.

Two of his works in the forties, Sociocu1tural Causality, Space, Time (1943) and Society, Cu1ture and Personality (I947) still continued in the tradition of his earlier contributions, but the titles of other books published during and after the forties indicate his now prepotent inclination to serve as a prophet of doom and disaster: Crisis of Our Age (1941), Man and Society in Calamity (1942), Reconstruction of Humanity (1948), A1truistic Love (1950), Social Philosophies of an Age of Crisis (1950), Explorations in Altruistic Love and Behavior (1950), S.O.S. The Meaning of Our Crisis (1951), The Ways and Power of Love (1954), The American Sex Revolution (1957), and Power and Morality (I959). Whatever their value astracts for the times or as prophetic indictments of the sins and errors of his contemporaries, they do not warrant analysis in a work devoted to sociological theory.

Only twice in those late years did Sorokin return to more strictly sociological concerns. His Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences(1956) was a fierce indictment of practically all of contemporary sociology in general and of most empirical and statistical inquiries in particular. Though it made many telling critical observations on misuses and abuses of empirical research methods, it was couched in so all-encompassing and global terms that it missed its mark. The book also laid itself open to the fairly obvious observation that it hardly be hooved an author who had used statistical techniques throughout his work (and who had often used them in ways which seemed questionable to most statisticians) now to indict practically all contemporary sociology as having succumbed to »quantophrellia«, the madness of numbers. As a whole, the book proved an embarrassment even to Sorokin’s most devoted former students.

A sequel to his renowned Contemporary Sociological Theories, entitled Sociological Theories of Today received a more favorable reception. Though replete with many poisoned barbs directed at most of his contemporaries and predecessors, it nevertheless showed Sorokin’s capacity even in his old age, to deal in a serious manner with sociological ideas and theories that he personally rejected wholeheartedly.

Sorokin was never a man to underestimate his own merit. In fact, he occasionally was heard comparing his contributions to those of Aristotle. It is understandable, therefore, that he clearly suffered in his later years from the comparative neglect of his contemporaries. But he never lost confidence. The peasant lad from the Komi people had initially been rejected by the urban sophisticates of St. Petersburg and yet had come to surpass almost all of them; why should he now worry about being shunned by representatives of a decaying ‘Sensate’ culture? Sorokin plodded on, literally cultivating his own garden. He was probably as proud of the awards he received from horticultural societies for his magnificent flower garden in suburban Winchester as he was of all the honors, including the presidency of the American Sociological Association, which his colleagues bestowed on him. His two sons, both scientists like their mother, and his extended range of friends and admirers throughout the world, saw to it that Sorokin in his declining years was surrounded by the love which, so he had reiterated again and again, makes the world go around. When the old fighter died on February 11, 1968, even those he had attacked with his sharp strikes and his pointed arrows agreed that he was one of a kind — a kind that doesn’t seem to appear any more.

I shall never forget the gaunt old man standing erect on a platform in an ultra-modern lecture hall at Brandeis University, exhorting his audience to turn away from the lures and snares of a ‘Sensate’ culture, to recognize the errors of their way, and to return to the path of ideational righteousness. It was as close as I would ever come to understand what it might have been like to be addressed by an itinerant preacher who had come out from the wild forest to instruct the erring flock of peasant sinners in the true ways of the Lord.


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Editor dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Studies
University of Amsterdam
Created September, 1995
Last modified 21st January, 2017