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Michael Harrington

Books in Review

An Evasive Dissent

(Spring 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 120–122.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Functions of Social Conflict
by Lewis Coser
Free Press, $3.50

The very fact that this book by Lewis Coser is published is important. For over a decade now, the theme of “conflict” has been becoming more and more tabooed. Part of the conservative mood has been an ideology of class collaboration, an image of America as a unified society in which there is a give and take of ‘“interest-groups,” but never a struggle between classes.

In the introduction, Coser records how this has affected the academic community. After a description of the past, in which American sociologists did concern themselves with the problem of social conflict, he writes:

“... the majority of sociologists who dominate contemporary sociology, far from seeing themselves as reformers and addressing themselves to an audience of reformers, either have oriented themselves toward purely academic and professional audiences, or have attempted to find a hearing among decision-makers in public or private bureaucracies. They center attention predominantly upon problems of adjustment rather than upon conflict; upon social statics rather than upon dynamics. Of key problematic importance to them has been the maintenance of existing structures and the ways and means of insuring their smooth functioning.”

Coser’s description is apt, and his determination to break with this academic mood merits praise. His method is to discuss various propositions which arise out of a reading of Georg Simmel’s Conflict. However, he does not limit himself in any sense to a scholarly discussion of Simmel. Rather, he uses Simmel’s classic work as a point of departure, and introduces his own insights gained from Marx, Freud, contemporary political history, and from a wide range of historical and sociological reading.

Coser’s conclusions are as important as his determination to write this book in the first place. He thinks of conflict as having positive (but not necessarily positive) results. And he attempts to handle it in terms of rational description, dealing with labor, the army, the family and so on. Indeed, much of what he writes is extremely relevant to current politics—his thesis, for example, that rigid, totalitarian structures lead to an internal development of strong conflicts is obviously related to the current events in Russia.

But one serious criticism must be made, and it is a difficult one to handle. It is not so much a question of what Coser did write, but what he didn’t write. And in making such a charge, one is always open to the counter-assertion on the part of the author that it is unfair to take him to task for not having done the book which the reviewer would like to read. And yet, I think the criticism still has to be made.

Precisely because Coser is dissenting from a dominant mood, I think that he is under a responsibility to deal with some of the questions which that mood raises even if they are on a tangent from his scholarly purpose. The point should be obvious: a crucial focus of the whole problem of social conflict is the issue of class conflict in America. It is here that the lines have been drawn (a point which Coser recognizes in the section quoted from his introduction). And yet Coser, though often referring to the struggle of the working class, does not meet the issue head on.

There are, to be sure, occasional theoretical references, but they are not developed. For example, Coser writes:

“It may be that one reason for the relative absence of ‘class struggle’ in this country is the fact that the American worker, far from restricting his allegiance to class-conflict groupings and associations, is a member of a number of associations and groupings which represent him in diverse conflicts with different religious, ethnic, status and political groups.”

One can’t quarrel with such a statement since it is too fragmentary. If Coser intends the description of “the relative absence of ‘class struggle’ ” to refer to the last decade, and if his other qualifications can be taken as an assertion of the theory that, in times of prosperity, “status conflicts” take on a greater significance relative to “class conflicts,” then I would tend to agree with him. But if his “relative absence” is an account of American history, or a projection of the future, then I would emphatically disagree.

The point is that Coser doesn’t take the question up in systematic fashion. And I think he was obliged to do so, that it was an error to conceive a book on “The Functions of Social Conflict” without an open confrontation of this crucial point. And this, as was mentioned before, is all the more true because of the situation in the academic community today.

My criticism is a serious one, yet it should not obscure the value of Coser’s book. There is a wide range of evidence cited here, and it is handled in a sane, calm fashion. That is certainly to the good, and it makes Coser’s book worthwhile. I only wish that he had gone into the underlying problem, or that he will in the near future.

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Last updated: 18 February 2020