Čtvrtek 25.07.2024, sv. Jakub Starší, sv. Kryštof, Jakub
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Talcott Parsons vs. Karl Marx

František Bublan

Seminární práce Františka Bublana „Talcott Parsons vs. Karl Marx“ psaná na Katolické univerzitě v Nijmegenu. Autor v ní analyzuje tzv. LIGA model amerického sociologa Talcotta Parsonse, jehož teorie spadají do strukturálního funkcionalismu. Liga model je teorie, v níž se Parsons snaží popsat společnosti na základě hodnot, které drží, způsobu integrace, úkolů, které si kladou a managementu, s pomocí jehož se snaží úkoly naplnit. Smysl jeho práce spočívá ve způsobu, jakým tyto 4 složky propojuje. Ve světle tohoto modelu autor nahlíží na teorie Karla Marxe a poukazuje na nebezpečí jeho východisek. Psáno anglicky. Rozsah originálu je 13 stran formátu A4.

Bublan, František: Talcott Parsons vs. Karl Marx, Katholieke Univeriteit Nijmegen, Nijmegen 2003


Frantisek Bublan

In this paper I would like to speak mainly about the theories of Talcott Parsons. I will deal with his theoretical view of society and the social institutions. The main topic of the first part will be the Parson’s theory of action, and in the second part I will try to apply these theories of society to the theories of Karl Marx. With regard to Marx, I will even focus on the theories of religion.


As I have stated before, Parsons became known because of his famous theory of action. And especially his LIGA model is well known in sociology. I will talk about this model, but first I will sketch the steps which Parsons made before he had developed the Liga model.

Parsons developed the theory of action at the beginning of his career. In his book The Structure of Social Action (1937) he first dealt with individual actor and he investigated this topic from various perspectives: the aim of the actor; the values and norms in which the aims of the actor are embedded; the methods that the actor uses to achieve the aims; and the situational restrictions the actor meets with.1 Parsons’s work was strictly empirical and research played crucial role in his work. This presumption is contained in his preface to The Structure of Social Action, and it is very important to bear this preface in mind if we want to understand to his approaches to sociology:

“This body of theory, the ‘theory of social action’ is not simply a group of concepts with their logical interrelations. It is a theory of empirical science the concepts of which refer to something beyond themselves. It would lead to the worst kind of dialectic sterility to treat the development of a system of theory without reference to the empirical problems in relation to which it has been built up and used. True scientific theory is not the product of idle ‘speculation’, of spinning out the logical implications of assumptions, but of observation, reasoning and verification, starting with the facts and continually returning to the facts.”2

The second step was that he came to realisation that the individual actors are not alone. He tried to fit this information in his theory and that is why he developed two insights. The first insight was that the action of individuals occurs in interaction with

1 Johannes A. van der Ven, ‘Ecclesiology in Context’, Cambridge, 1996, 66.

2 Talcott Parsons, ‘The Structure of Social Action”, Illinois, 1949, v-vi.

others. It refers not only to actions by individuals, but also to actions themselves. And the second insight was that action and interaction take place in social institutions.3

In the third step Parsons discovered that the action of individual actors not only takes place in interaction and institutions, but is itself subject to institutionalisation. And with regards to these three steps he discovered, that small groups always have to contend with certain problems and that they tried to solve these problems in definite ways. He distinguished four groups of people and this model became known as the Liga (or Agil) model.


2.1 Basic Explanation

Which groups did Parsons distinguish? In his book Structure and Process in Modern Societies he is speaking about four types of organisations4 (they are not exactly like the groups from Liga model, but I will use it for explanation). He distinguished these types of organisations according to their orientations: the first type of organisations is oriented to economic production. He beliefs production in economic sense is ‘adding value’ and it is by no means confined to physical production. But he does not mean that this kind of organisation is oriented only to economic production. He says, that: “…we can speak only of economic primacy, never of an organisation as being exclusively economic.”5 The second type of organisations are oriented towards political goals, it means that such organisations are aimed to achieving of valued goals and to the generation and allocation of power in society. The third type is about organisations, which see their aim in social level. It is contributing primarily to efficiency, not effectiveness. And finally, the last group is called pattern-maintenance organisations. The principal cases, which are here in the centre, are those with primarily ‘cultural’, ‘educational’, and ‘expressive’ functions.

This is a very schematic distinction, there are various groups and each group/organisation seems to be different. From this model we can see four main characteristics: pattern-maintenance (latent), integration, goal attainment and adaptation. And now let us apply this model to society and social systems. We can say that in each society small groups exist which are oriented to various problems. Hence, in each society

3 Ven 1996, 67.

4 Talcott Parsons, ‘Structure and Process in Modern Societies’, Illinois, 1960, 44-46.

5 Id., 45.

a group of people exist who ask themselves: What are our convictions, values, and norms? (pattern-maintenance – latency), What holds us together socially and what distance or proximity do we maintain with regard to each other? (integration), What are our aims, programs and projects? (goal attainment) and How do we find the necessary mean such as money and personnel? (adaptation).6

Parsons created a lot of tables, but I choose and adjusted (for my following explanation) this one:7

This table shows that these four components (latency, integration, goal attainment and adaptation) create integrative subsystem. Now I will start with explanation of each component of the table.

2.2 Latency

The latency, or moral commitments, is the most basic societal level. In this level, the bases of cultural legitimation are grounded. Parsons sees the hallmark of this level in the independence from considerations of cost, temporary advantages or disadvantages, and environmental exigency in the meeting of obligations.8 Such convictions, values, and norms are basic in the society, and Parsons proclaims very sharply, that: “The violation of

6 Ven 1996, 67.

7 Talcott Parsons, ‘The Evolution of Societies’, New Jersey, 1977, 134.

8 Id., 137.

a commitment is defined as illegitimate: its fulfilment is a matter of conscience, which may not be compromised without dishonour and/or guilt.”9 Perhaps we can say that this latency, such values, are making first and basic step to create a character of concrete society, because what associations are valued is a matter that varies among societies.

And because Parsons took one final step: he declared his Liga model to be applicable to society as whole, we can say, that he assigned to this first level, to latency, the cultural dimension of society. What does it mean? If a certain society has established in its cultural dimension things like values, norms and convictions, and if such values, norms and convictions play a main role in this society, then we can say that this society is standing on stout grounds. But unfortunately it is not so easy, because on the other hand we should say that for modern societies a differentiated cultural system is characteristic.10 There are many cultural systems, for instance religion, art, empirical knowledge that also become independent and differentiated cultural system. It is clear, that cultures became differentiated on the bases other than moral. I am afraid that because of these differentiations there will be infinite number of small societies. However, Parsons gives this conclusion: “The generalisation of value systems, so that they can effectively regulate social action without upon particularistic prohibitions, has been a factor of modernisation process.”11

2.3 Integration

The function of the societal community is to define the obligations of loyalty to the societal collectivity for the membership as a whole and for various categories of differentiated status and role within the society. What does it mean in praxis: the term loyalty refers to the readiness to respond to properly justified appeals in the name of the public interest.12 So the aim is to bind the force or the cohesion of the group. But with such definition many problems arise. For instance: What does ‘properly justified appeals’ mean? Are these appeals shaped by mutual social relations? What does ‘public interest’ mean? What is the leaders’ place in this? It is important to make a connection between latency and integration and what Parsons says, that latency guides integration. In such connection

9 Ibid.

10 Cf. Talcott Parsons, ‘Introduction’ to ‘Culture System’, in: Talcott Parsons et al., ‘Theories of Society’, Illinois, 1961, 963-993.

11 Parsons, 1977, 138.

12 Id., 135.

guidance means direction, regulation, channeling.13 If we make such a connection, it is much more easier to answer previous questions: for instance the question ‘what does properly justified appeals mean’ we can answer firstly with regard to convictions, values and norms and then we can consider, if these appeals are shaped by mutual social relations (in the framework of integration).

One of the principles of integration is, according to Parsons, that the self-interested motives of individuals are channeled into the social system through a variety of membership in the loyalties to collectivities. With regard to this we should respect (at least) two facts: a societal community is a network of interpenetrating collectivities and collective loyalties; and the second, the cultural legitimation of a society’s normative order occupies a super-ordinate position.14

2.4 Goal Attainment

Goal attainment implies what people strive after, what they want to achieve. Johannes van der Ven says, that these questions come to the surface when people start to consider the actions they wish to undertake and deliberate on the programs and projects that they wish to execute.15 This model should be seen again in the relation to latency and integration. Van der Ven says that latency guides integration, which guides goal attainment. It means that firstly we need to have some theoretical background (latency), secondly a certain target group, and finally this group could have some goals, or aims. Parsons is using the term political and this concept includes not only the function of government in its relation to societal community, but corresponding aspects of any collectivity. And he affirms that “a phenomenon is political in so far as it involves the organisation and mobilisation of resources for the attainment of the goals of a particular collectivity.”16 In other words we can say, that if we have latency and integration, it should lead to set of certain goals. Of course in that case we should also determine that business firms, universities, but even churches have certain political aspects.

I think it does not mean, that churches should join the political life but it leads to certain planning of goals, to systematic realising of such goals. If churches will be not political in such sense, they will become to be only organisations with noble doctrines, but

13 Ven 1996, 69.

14 Parsons 1977, 136.

15 Ven 1996, 68.

16 Parsons 1977, 139.

such organisations will be completely unuseful for the rest of the society and even for their members.

2.5 Adaptation

And finally, I would like to try to explain the last component of Parsons’s Liga model. Adaptation does not mean some passive acclimatisation or passive acceptance of the environment, but it contains also active components. Adaptation concerns matters of practicality, because for the life of groups even personal and material resources are necessary – and adaptation is just a way, how to find and discover these resources. So Parsons says, that “its obvious fields of application are the economic and technological; its governing principle is the desirability of efficient management of resources.”17

Now I have described (briefly) the Liga model. I must add, that even adaptation is in relation with other components of the model: latency guides integration, which guides goal attainment, which in its turn guides adaptation. But it is possible to turn the Liga model into the Agil model and then the relation will be following: adaptation conditions goal attainment, which conditions integration, which in turn conditions latency. Important is, that conditioning means that if the conditions of the lower levels are not fulfilled, then the higher levels are not brought about.18

The most important fact is (and especially with regard to Marx, as it will be noticed later), that when we are talking about the Liga model, we are using the term guidance, but with regards to the Agil model the term conditioning is used. It is very dangerous to change these terms – and in following text I will show why. But firstly I will notice one figure of the Liga model.

2.6 The interchange paradigm

There is lot of figures of Liga model, which describe the connections between each level of the model (and usually they are very difficult). I would like to place one easy model, also full of connections.

I have identified four basic components of the Liga model, but there are several components of each type in any complex system. Actors in such system command differential holdings of these media depending on their position both in the status structure

17 Id., 140.

18 Ven 1996, 69.

of the system and in its functional structure. Each actor in the system has a role set consisting of several roles specialised around the four functional levels of action.19 The figure,20 which I choose, (and little bit adjusted) is interesting because of using the terms ego and alter. This model is taking ego and alter in the abstract and assumes that even ego and alter has command over holdings of all four types of the Liga model to use in relation to each other.

This model is very useful because there is very clear, that for instance ego can use each of the types of components in exchange for any of the types alter is holding. It means that there are not only the connections in the framework of one system (ego or alter), but these systems are interactive. It is breaking the life in certain ‘secularism paradigm’ as Norbert Mette has described.21 This model is about sharing of the norms, values and about co-operation on goals and productivity.

19 Jan J. Loubser, ‘Action and experience’, in: J.J.Loubser et al., ‘Exploration in General Theory in Social Science’, New York, 1976, 255.

20 Ibid.

21 Mette, Norbert: Vom Säkularisierungs- zum Evangelisierungsparadigma. In: Diakonia 21(1990)420-429; Mette, Norbert: Kritischer Ansatz der Praktischen Theologie. In: J.A. van der Ven/H.-G. Ziebertz (Hg.), Paradigmenvechsel in der Praktischen Theologie, Weinheim-Kampen 1993, 201-224.


When I was concluding the explanation of the components of the Liga model, I determined that if we are talking about the Liga model, we are using the term guidance, but with regards to the Agil model the term conditioning is used and it is very dangerous to change these terms. Now I will try to show why.

I think, that a clear example of such changing of these terms is the theory of class struggle. I will try to explain it on the example of the Communistic Manifest. According to Engels is the basic proposition of Manifesto this one sentence:

“… that in every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained , the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind )since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolution in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class (the bourgeoisie) without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class-distinction and class-struggles.”22

Marx’s discovery was that people are not motivated by some “grand ideas” but by very basic material concerns, by the elementary needs of survival. And this needs which lead to class struggle, are becoming to be certain kind of propelling engine of the progress. It means that the Liga model is completely turned according to Marx. I think, that according to him the goal attainment (elementary needs of survival) would be the most important level. The second component is adaptation (establishment of the basics of new order). Integration would be the settlement of the society (for instance Capitalists, Feudalistic or Socialistic). This settlement depends on the power or group, which is actually the strongest in the society and which is the winner of the class struggle. And on the bottom would be latency (the theoretical background of the temporary settlement of the society). This latency is created by the strongest group, the inferior and defeated groups should accept it. If I would try to sketch a new figure, it could be like this (“Marx’s GAIL model”):

22 Friedrich Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party, Preface’, in: Max Eastman (ed.), ‘Capital, The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings[, New York, 1959, 318-19.

On the first position of this model are basic needs and as I said before these needs are elementary needs to survival. The characteristic aspect of level is a class struggle. In this class struggle is one group, which is stronger than the others. This group wins and whole process is coming to the second stage: adaptation. In this period the victorious group is trying to establish a new order of the society, because there is not a king without subordinates. The victorious group needs some people, who will work for them, like servants. I think that according to Marx it is necessary to start with the first stage – the ambitions to fulfil the basic needs. This stage guides (directs, regulates) the second stage – adaptation. And adaptation conditions the ambition to fulfil the basic needs.

This development is going on: there is a need to confirm this new order, to establish a certain system, where everybody has his own place with roles, aims and goals. It is some kind of creating of the structure in the society. And again it is clear, that the way of establishment of new order guides confirmation of such order and confirmation conditions establishment. And now we are coming to the most problematic part of whole model: latency. There is some political order, some structure and system. But now it is important to explain such a system, to find some theoretical background. It is very important to explain, why this system is the best of all. Hence, it is necessary to create certain doctrine. We cannot talk about divine doctrine, because we are talking about doctrine created by people. And it is not historical doctrine, but completely new doctrine created in contemporary times. The problem is, that such doctrine is usually labile, because it depends on the people, on the contemporary most powerful group of the society.

Now I will make a short explanation of relation between ‘ego’ and ‘alter’. In the previous figure (page 7) was the relationship between ego and alter full of cooperation. But in this figure we can see, that one group (ego) is only deriving benefit from the others groups. Marx calls it exploitation. But with regards to model of class struggle I affirm, that in such model exploitation is unavoidable.


The attitudes of Karl Marx to a religion are „not positive“. If we want to sketch out the Marx’s main opinions about religion, we can start with two statements. The first one is proposition that religion is pure illusion, illusion with most definitely evil consequences; the most extreme example of ideology, of a belief system, whose aim is to provide reasons for keeping things in society according to the will of oppressors. And the second opinion of Karl Marx is that religion is completely determined by economics. This statement has some consequences. Marx believed that religions do not have their own merits and also that belief in god(s) is a by-product of class struggle.23

We can explain these statements in the light of Liga model very easily. In previous chapter I said, that the last level of “Marx’s GAIL model” is latency. In the framework of latency it is important to create certain doctrine, which will be able to explain and legitimate contemporary political system. So now it is clear, that this level has a core function for Marx. I think, that Marx was completely right. In the framework of my previous model, Marx said that religion is pure illusion and it is the most extreme example of ideology. If we will take a religion as a certain doctrine, which is a result of Marx’s development, it should be only illusion. It will be only a doctrine developed by people. It will be the doctrine, which is created to a certain goal, with a certain aim. And in this light I think, that it is comprehensible, that Marx wanted to remove a religion and he wanted to put into this place something else – his own doctrine. But even in that case we should say, that this new Marx’s doctrine should be only illusion – because it is again a theory, which is developed with certain aim and goal. Its aim is to explain contemporary situation, and nothing more. If you want to elect a new king, you should remove the old one.

The same is applicable with regards to the statement that religion is determined by economic, it has not its own merit and it is a by-product of class struggle. I think, that Marx believed, that religion is not by-product, but product of class struggle. And it was necessary for him to say, that religion is, at least, by-product of class struggle. Marx believed to the development – I will use the terminology of Talcott Parsons – from Goal Attainment to Latency. And in that case it is necessary to say, that even religion is product (or by-product) of class struggle. Otherwise it will be clear, that Marx’s theory does not work. And because religion is product of class struggle, it should be determined by economic, because latency is completely determined by economics in the GAIL model.

Marx started with systematic critique of religion since the 1840s because of the theories of Ludwig Feuerbach, who wrote in 1841 a book called The Essence of Christianity (it was a hard attack on orthodox religion). Feuerbach is using the terms “consciousness” and “alienation”. What does it mean? He is criticizing Hegel and Christian theology, he said that they make one mistake – they are talking about God or the absolute – but these beings are alien beings. In fact, what are they really talking about is humanity and nothing more.

It means, that Christian theology is talking about some good characteristics of man, about some ideal qualities like goodness, beauty, wisdom, love etc; and Hegel is speaking about freedom, reason or goodness. They are both projecting these characteristics to some alien being – Christians to the God, Hegel to the absolute. So Feuerbach is criticizing, that Hegel and Christian theology are transforming human characteristics to something alien. Marx was excited with this theory and he called it “the real theoretical revolution”. One year after Feuerbach’s book, Marx wrote his own Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction. He wrote: “Man, who looked for a superman in the fantastic reality of heaven … found nothing there but the reflection of himself. (…) The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man.”24

Marx’s statement that man makes religion is clear because of the GAIL model. Marx is doing one thing – he is trying to clean the place of latency and put there his own

23 Daniel L. Pals, ‘Seven Theories of Religion, New York, 1996, 138-139.

24 Id, 140.

theory. Most probably he believed, that people could understand better to rational explanations rather than to some difficult theories of Hegel or Christianity. And in fact by this step he tried to remove all his enemies. But this step is also very dangerous – in the future somebody else can come with a better explanation and replace Marx’s theories. And moreover, it can be the theory of anybody – the success of the theory depends only on a scientific verification. But in fact, the same dangerous we can see even with the religion. But what is important – even such theories, like Marx’s theory, can become to be opium of the people.

Alienation is the most powerful weapon of Karl Marx. He is trying to find an answer, why people refuse to the alienation. He notices a striking parallel between religious and socio-economic activity. He says, that both are marked by alienation. Religious is marked because moral ideals are connected with the God, and socio-economic activity because capitalistic economies take another expression of natural humanity – productive labour – and transform it into a material object, which is bought, sold and owned by others. But because religion is formed by economic realities, the alienation in religion is only an expression of alienation of humanity, which is in fact economic and material rather than spiritual. That’ why Marx says:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real [economic] distress and the protest against real distress. Religion in the sight of the oppressed creature, the heart of heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”25

According to Marx, religion provides the ideology, the system of ideas. The goal of this system is to fix and protect social arrangement, which actually exists. The role of religion in history has been to offer a divine justification for the status quo, to establish that it is God’s will that there are owning rich and labouring poor people.

And it is exactly in the intentions of the GAIL model. Marx tried to remove Christianity and religion, because he wanted to give his own justification of new system, to fix this new system and protect new social conditions. To conclude sarcastically, Marx is

25 Karl Marx. ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, in: Niebuhr, ‘Marx and Engels on Religion’, Fredonia Books, 2002, p.42.

trying to remove religious, because it is a source of alienation, and put to free place instead God himself – because he is very well know, so there is not dangerous of alienation.


Karl Marx created some kind of ideology. On one hand he was fighting against ideologies, but he created a new one. His problem was, that in his theories there is no difference between the creation of religion and his theories. He is trying to explain religion by the words, which are well known to him and he included religion to his own world. Sometimes I have the impression that Marx was fighting against his image of religion. He created his own conception of religion – and that is why he was not successful at all. I am sure, that it is possible to fight against Karl Marx with his own weapons.


Friedrich Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party, Preface’, in: Max Eastman (ed.), ‘Capital, The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings,’ New York, 1959.

Jan J. Loubser, ‘Action and experience’, in: J.J.Loubser et al., ‘Exploration in General Theory in Social Science’, New York, 1976.

Karl Marx. ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, in: Niebuhr, ‘Marx and Engels on Religion’, Fredonia Books, 2002.

Norbert Mette, ‚Kritischer Ansatz der Praktischen Theologie.’ In: J.A. van der Ven/H.-G. Ziebertz (Hg.), Paradigmenvechsel in der Praktischen Theologie, Weinheim-Kampen 1993.

Norbert Mette: ‘Vom Säkularisierungs- zum Evangelisierungsparadigma.’ In: Diakonia 21(1990).

Talcott Parsons, ‘Introduction’ to ‘Culture System’, in: Talcott Parsons et al., ‘Theories of Society’, Illinois, 1961.

Talcott Parsons, ‘Structure and Process in Modern Societies’, Illinois, 1960.

Talcott Parsons, ‘The Evolution of Societies’, New Jersey, 1977.

Talcott Parsons, ‘The Structure of Social Action’, Illinois, 1949.

Daniel L. Pals, ‘Seven Theories of Religion, New York, 1996.

Johannes A. van der Ven, ‘Ecclesiology in Context’, Cambridge, 1996.

Bublan, František: Talcott Parsons vs. Karl Marx, Katholieke Univeriteit Nijmegen, Nijmegen 2003

Všechna práva vyhrazena římskokatolické farnosti a autorům příspěvků.