As used in classical sociological theory, the concept of modernity has its roots in the attempt to come to grips with the meaning and significance of the social changes occurring in Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, namely, the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and political democracy on essentially rural and autocratic societies. The term "modernity" was coined to capture these changes in progress by contrasting the "modern" with the "traditional." The theme, if not the concept, of modernity pervades sociology and the work of its founding fathers, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. In their work modernity was meant to be more than a heuristic concept. It carried connotations of a new experience of the world. Modernity referred to a world constructed anew through the active and conscious intervention of actors and the new sense of self that such active intervention and responsibility entailed. In modern society the world is experienced as a human construction, an
experience that gives rise both to an exhilarating sense of freedom and possibility and to a basic anxiety about the openness of the future.
This is how modernity was understood in classical sociology. One theme that stands out in this account of social change and its effect on human experience is the development of a new sense of self, of subjectivity and individuality. This idea distinguishes the modern individual from the traditional one. The sociological account of this difference is based on changes in the understanding of the relationship between man and the supernatural, changes in property relations, and the demographic changes that accompanied industrialization. In this chapter I focus on the latter changes. Industrialization involved more than the development of a new means of producing the necessities of life; it involved the centralization and coordination of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods. It drew masses of laboring individuals from rural communities and farm labor to centralized urban workplaces. This uprooting of relatively stable populations was interpreted both positively and negatively—as liberating, alienating, or both—by sociologists and the people whose experience the sociologists sought to capture.
Liberation and alienation, however they were interpreted and experienced, involved both a physical and a mental break with the rural, family-based community. They meant that the traditional social networks that formed the basis of social identity no longer had direct control over the migrating individual. Alienation from the traditional community and its forms of identity and control meant that the alienated individual was open to new influences. The social changes associated with modernity thus made possible the formation of new social networks and political identities, for example, the rise of "voluntary associations" (which stood in contrast to those traditional associations into which one was born and that one took largely for granted). Such voluntary associations, which provided the basis for new social and political identities for the recently uprooted individual, could be work-related, such as trade unions, or neighborhood-based, such as community and religious groups. Often these voluntary organizations overlapped and competed for the attention of individuals in their attempt to refocus political and social orientations.
The break with tradition and the rural community meant the break with established identity-giving authority. The new individuals, freed from the traditional collective, were free to reorient themselves and to reconstruct their world: to "make history," as Marx put it, "but not under conditions of [their] own choosing." The social changes associated with modernity, industrialization, and especially urbanization were neither chosen nor directed by the individuals involved in these demographic changes. They were its victims, not its instigators. Once in motion, however, these shifts opened new possibilities. The social movement that
began "behind the backs" of actors could be transformed into a positive social force, into a social-political movement for Marx or into new forms of social solidarity for Durkheim.
Marx concerned himself with the new forms of political identity created by modernity and the possibility of forming a collective will, but Weber and his associates, such as Simmel and Michels, turned their attention to the effects of modernity on the individual and the new forms of organization that this entailed. For Weber and Simmel modern society is constituted of as well as by individuals; it is a product of their interactions rather than a traditional form of social organization. Thus modernity entails new possibilities for the expression of human subjectivity in forms of social interaction that are not entirely a product of tradition. Of course Weber and Michels also studied the new forms through which human action could be institutionalized and guided by systems of rules that could be just as effective as traditional forms in constraining human freedom even though they were not traditional in the sense of being based on longstanding cultural patterns. Weber's studies of bureaucracy, together with his ambiguous interpretation of its "rationality," and Michels's study of political parties provide examples of modern forms that constrain individual freedom of expression and action. Both, however, interpreted modernity as a break with the traditional bonds of rural society that entailed the possibility of a new freedom of action and expression for the individual and thus a new relationship between the individual and the collective.
This new sense of freedom associated with modernity included an awareness and an experience of time. For the modern individual time involves process and duration; it also involves a sense of dynamic change that turns attention to the future rather than to the past. The modern individual is aware of himself or herself not only as an individual, that is, as a creator of self and society, but also as an individual with a future. This experience, together with its ideological expression in sociological theories and political tracts, varies according to social class.
This new sense of time and future orientation applies as much to the arts as to social and political relations. In fact, the concept of modernity used in social theory and the concept of modernism used to describe movements in the arts and literature have a common basis. Both focus on the new sense of individuality, future orientation, and creative possibility and identify these attributes with both the individual and collective movements. Like the modernist painter or writer, social theorist of modernity—I think primarily of Simmel in this connection—attempted to capture the dynamism of the modern experience in the very form of their writing. Simmel's vivid descriptions of the city and the new-found relationship between the individual and the group in modern society
remind one of the attempts by expressionist painters and by authors such as Joyce to capture the dynamism of the modern experience in forms that match its content.
This attempt to match modern content with modern form permeates the classical sociological interpretation of modernity. Modern sociology, like modern society itself, faces the problem of organizing the dynamism of modernity in efficient ways. The modern concept of efficiency means getting the most out of energy expended and harnessing forces already in motion. Again, one can point to Weber's study of bureaucracy as an example of an attempt to come to grips with how best to organize modernity. Marx's and Durkheim's studies of the division of labor can be understood in the same way.
This problem of organizing the forces of modernity is directly political in its interest and its implications. This is true not only for the conflict that still defines modern political theory—the conflict between individual freedom and collective responsibility or, as, expressed in the notion of modernity itself, between freedom and alienation—but also in the reorganization of social and individual identity that the processes of modernity make necessary. Cut loose from the relatively secure and stable networks of the rural community, the modern individual is forced to reconstitute a sense of self that includes new ways of acting politically and defining the political community. How and in which direction this redefinition of the political community occurs is a matter of great theoretical and practical concern. The Marxist theorists Luxemburg and Lenin had competing ideas about the role of organization in harnessing the energies of modernity and developing the political consciousness of the modern individual. In their well-known debate about the nature of political organization in relation to the spontaneity of mass movements and the role of the party and the professional politician in the development of political consciousness, these two Marxists differed in their interpretation of the type of organization and the amount of guidance necessary to attain the goal they held in common: the creation of a modern society based on a new balance between the individual and the collective. Both took for granted that modern politics was a matter of harnessing newly freed energies and directing mass movements, but they disagreed about what form the harnessing and directing was to take. Lenin stressed the role of a tightly knit organization and a politically conscious intellectual leadership, whereas Luxemburg stressed the necessity of participation in collective struggles. She held that a mass movement was itself a form of political socialization in which individuals gain a new sense of self and a new awareness of the political nature of modern society.
More to the center of the modern political theory, Weber was concerned
about how the dynamic forces of modernity would form themselves politically. That modern politics would be class was accepted by Weber as much as it was by the Marxists. In political terms modernity meant class conflict and interests defined through class-related political parties. Weber also concerned himself with the significance of social movements in modern politics and the role of leadership and organization in these movements. More like Hegel than Marx, Weber viewed mass movements with trepidation rather than expectation. It was politically important to him (as well as to Durkheim) that the development of "the masses" be a transitory and temporary phenomenon and that the reconstitution of individual and collective political identity take place as quickly as possible. Without this reconstitution he feared that modern democracy might not survive. Thus political parties and other voluntary organizations were important in mediating between the individual and the collective and in transcending the formation of mass movements. Weber thought that mass movements were dangerous because the individual who participated in them lost that independence of thought and action that constituted the great positive potential of modernity, becoming instead subject to irrational impulses and charismatic leaders. This could easily lead to a restoration of premodern forms of authority and organization.
Although Weber saw mass movements as necessary to the transition from traditional to modern society, he believed that these movements were a stage to be transcended as quickly as possible. Transcendence took the form of reconstituting the relationship between the individual and the collective in modern organizations and institutions. Modern organizations were those that could balance the newly won freedom of the individual with a sense of collective responsibility. Mediating voluntary organizations, such as political parties, that could reconstitute individual political identity in progressive forms were the means to this end. The modern nation-state in which these political parties were organized formed the framework and the object of this new, modern political identity. The state was another term for the reorganization of political life. It constituted a new balance between individual freedom and collective responsibility and was the ultimate object of individual and collective political identity. Recognizing oneself as a member of a nation and having a sense of nation identity was the highest form of political identity for Weber and thus an important aspect of modern political socialization. The question of how to reconstitute the political identity of the modern individual into a national identity was central to Weber's sociological and political theory.
The same can be said for Michels. Although his classic Political Parties (1959) claims to be an empirical study of the German Social Democratic
party (SPD), it is really a treatise in modern political theory. The central issue is the reorganization of modern political identity and the formation of political interests in modern society. Michels begins with the claim that modern politics demands organization and that organization, although necessary, eventually undermines its democratic ideals. This is his famous "iron law of oligarchy." One can immediately see, however, that it is mass movements and the alienation of the modern individual that make this reorganization necessary. In other words, Michels takes Weber's discussion of the meaning of modernity as the starting point of his analysis: the newly freed individual and the new masses require organization. Thus, for Weber and Michels "democracy" essentially means mass rule. The dangers inherent in mass rule have already been mentioned; these dangers also make the reorganization of the masses necessary. Michels's point is that organization can never be democratic because it is the antithesis of the mass movement and mass rule.
Before turning to the issue of social movements and their relationship to modernity and modern politics, one further theme connected to modernity needs to be mentioned: social mobility. If modernity means the physical mobility of masses of individuals, it also connotes the possibility of upward social mobility. In contrast to tradition, which is usually characterized as having a fixed and static social structure, modernity, at least at the outset, is characterized as being more fluid and open. Mass demographic movement implies fluidity and the possibility of moving up as well as out; at least this is how it is usually portrayed. Much sociological analysis has gone into investigating this claim associated with modernity. It is not my intention to review this literature but merely to point out that social mobility is part of the ethos of modernity, both for sociologist and for everyday actors.
This aspect of modernity also has direct political implications, both in its social-science formulations and in its political theory and practice. For many contemporary Marxists social mobility is a form of false consciousness and thus a hindrance to the formation of a collective political will. For liberal theorists social mobility, both individual and collective, is a central assumption and aim of politics and political theory. Liberals connect mobility with individual freedom, thus making it a cornerstone of the promise of modernity and their interpretation of it. For conservatives social mobility and modernity are equally threatening and are identified with one another as a threat to freedom, which is associated with the stability that hierarchy is said to provide.
To summarize, modernity refers to the constitution of subjectivity, the social construction of the modern self, and the political and cultural expressions of these phenomena at both the individual and the collective level.