Alain Touraine (1925-2023)



Considerations on the intellectual trajectory of the recently deceased French sociologist

The death of Alain Touraine deprives France of one of its last great intellectuals. These figures so characteristic of French public life were described by Michel Winock in an award-winning book, The century of intellectuals.[I] Defined by their importance in the world of ideas, they were influential in politics without necessarily occupying positions in the political system. They came from literature and the publishing world, like André Gide, or from philosophy, like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The particularity of Alain Touraine was that he built himself as a great intellectual from a peripheral discipline, sociology.

He was a tireless sociologist. The importance he attributed to field work protected him, in most cases, against the detachment of great ideas from the concreteness of social life. Georges Friedmann – pioneer of the sociology of work and guide of the young Alain Touraine's first steps as a researcher – was described by him as an old communist who escaped dogmatism by doing field work.[ii]

He was influenced by Marx and the centrality of class struggle in Marxist thought. But instead of studying the class struggle in history, he empirically studied the class consciousness of workers, placing it within the process of transforming labor relations.[iii] Unlike Marx, he did not consider this struggle from the perspective of a revolutionary rupture. He did consider it in the perspective of a central conflict, with an impact on the distribution of power. An internal conflict within democratic institutional frameworks.

Unlike those who studied the mechanisms of domination – and Michel Foucault was, in his eyes, the most important – he was primarily interested in the movements through which domination was contested. Understanding the terms of this contestation, its difficulties and dilemmas, would allow shedding light on domination itself – such was its main hypothesis.

He was long-lived (he was going to turn 98 next August) and intellectually active until the end. His last book was published in 2022.[iv] Sensitive to the great historical changes he witnessed, he undertook a permanent re-reading of his own sociology so that it would not lose its power of interpretation. Like Georges Friedmann, he had a horror of dogmatism and therefore did not hesitate to readjust his ideas, always within a spirit of exploration and adventure.

His career began in post-war France, when factory work and industrial conflict were still central. About that moment he said, in an autobiographical book: “If someone asked me to draw society, there would be a factory or a mine at its center. For me, the working-class world was fire (and I never lost that image that has now become archaic)”.[v]

Early research allowed him to highlight the double face of working-class consciousness: resistance to domination, but also what he called “proud” consciousness: worker identification with work and its works. Recognition, as in the poem by Vinicius de Morais, that he was the one who built houses where before there was only ground.

May 68, with students and workers on the streets, changed his way of understanding the world. The demonstrations, the occupations of universities, the liberated word surprised the small world of sociology. Alain Touraine identified with those struggles, defended them (he was a professor at Nanterre and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, his student) and tried to see there the sign of a new great social movement, distinct from the labor movement, imagined by him as the bearer of the new conflicts of a nascent society[vi].

The feminist struggles of the 1970s – in a context of ebb of student action – had a more lasting influence on him. The presence of an important movement was evident there – but radically different, in its forms, from what the labor movement had been and even the student struggles in May 68. Women brought the problems of private life into public life – sexuality, care for children, care for health, relationship with men, relationship with other women, relationship with the world of work. And nothing was ever the same again.

Touraine then decreed the end of social movements – as he understood them: as resistance to class domination exercised in terms of labor relations. They would have lost centrality. He proposed moving on to talk about cultural movements. This implied not only a shift in the field of contestation – from the socio-economic level to the cultural level; it also implied a shift in patterns of change.

The feminist movement was indeed a powerful cultural movement. Although male domination remains in increasingly decomposed forms, there have been significant changes in this process. Men began to occupy positions in the private sphere, claimed their part in caring for children, learned to express themselves through affective categories – in short, absorbed at least part of what had characterized female culture. All this had an impact on male sexuality itself, which became more open to experimentation, expanding, in public life, the space for the emergence of a gay movement, today LGBTQIA+. Note how the charts began to affirm the importance of gay “pride”.

The cultural revolution of the last third of the XNUMXth century led Alain Touraine to make explicit a new category of analysis: the “personal subject”. In fact, this category existed, latent, from the beginning: before becoming a collective and historical subject, the worker, identified with the creativity of work and his works, was a “personal” subject. But this became more palpable in the context of cultural movements. And Alain Touraine said: what is at stake in these movements is the affirmation of oneself as a subject, the right to be a subject. Subject of his own body, of his own sexuality – affirmation of a non-social principle of freedom.

Globalization arrived with force at the end of the XNUMXth century. And again, nothing was ever the same. Immediately visible was the impact of the socio-technical networks generated by the popularization of the Internet. Impact on the destruction of national borders, on human mobility and on the profound transformation of labor relations. Impact also accelerated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe to capitalism. That is to say, the impact on the entire institutional framework on which European democracies had been based in the second post-war period.

All this had been preceded by the formation of islands of neoliberal economy, in Chile, England and the United States. But globalization has turned these islands into models for the planet. The verticality of class conflicts that previously opposed “those at the top and those at the bottom” was replaced by the opposition between “those outside and those inside”. The theme of “exclusion” and “social inequalities” entered the European debate. And the idea emerged that Europe was becoming Latin American. Touraine responded to this moving story with two books.

In 1988, after a long stay in Chile, he published La parole et le sang, also released in Brazil the following year.[vii] The central thesis of the book is that there would be a Latin American development model, but that it would come up against a separation between those inside and those outside, citizens and those excluded. Separation that would translate into an unavoidable weakness of collective action.

Mutatis mutandis, this situation was also, increasingly, that of Europe, affected by a significant increase in poverty and exclusion. Hard to be optimistic. The movements had gone out of the picture. In 1992, it was published Critique of Modernity[viii] – a book at once erudite and disturbing. Disquieting because it seals the death of societies as they had been until the recent past: historical forms of domination, but also a condition for the formation of subjects. No mediation now seemed to intervene between the global market, the pure uprooted economy – disembodied, as Polanyi would say.[ix] – and the insane effort of individuals to construct themselves as subjects of their own lives. An unsettling situation, as Polanyi himself taught, looking at another historical moment: a situation capable of leading to fascism.

There were, in the following years, many books that it will not be possible to comment here. Critique of Modernity it was, however, the last really important theoretical milestone, because it set the bases for analyzing the historical situation that we are still going through. The most significant affirmation since then was probably that of the centrality of women as a figure in a possible recomposition of the world: for the capacity that she demonstrated in breaking with the separation between the public and the private, for the effort in bringing together the two previously separated halves of what life is made of – the sphere of care and affection, the home and participation in the economy, the response to the demands of professional life, the street. Two books recorded this idea of ​​recomposing the world: A new paradigm – for understanding today's world, published in Brazil in 2007; and the following year the world of women.

In Latin America and Brazil in particular, Alain Touraine was recognized as a great intellectual, in the French sense of the word. But the influence of his ideas on the university was modest. His books were translated but not read. They are difficult to read and, in this last phase mainly, they dialogue with processes of decomposition of European societies, a reality that is strange to us and that we have difficulty apprehending.

On this fiftieth anniversary of the coup against Allende, I could not end without remembering that Alain Touraine was a great friend of Chile. He married a Chilean, Adriana, mother of his two children. And he lived in Santiago the collapse of the UP, which he reported in a logbook: Life and death of popular Chile.[X]

Angelina Peralva is a professor of sociology at Université Toulouse Jean Jaures. Author, among other books, of Violence and democracy: the Brazilian paradox (Peace and Earth).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul.


[I] WINOCK, Michel. 1997. Le siècle des intellectuels. Paris: Seuil.

[ii] Interview with Ricardo Festi. 2019. New Moon, No. 106, p. 198.

[iii] TOURAINE, Alain. 1966. La Conscience ouvriere. Paris: Seuil.

[iv] TOURAINE, Alain. 2022. Les Sociétés modernes. Paris: Seuil.

[v] TOURAINE, Alain. 1977. Un désir d'histoire. Paris: Stock, p. 45.

[vi] TOURAINE, Alain. 1968. Le Movement de Mai. Or le communisme utopique. Paris: Seuil.

[vii] TOURAINE, Alain. 1989. Word and Blood. Politics and Society in Latin America. Campinas: Cultural Trajectory/EDUNICAMP.

[viii] TOURAINE, Alain. 1994. Critique of Modernity. Petropolis: Voices.

[ix] POLANYI, Karl. 1980. The Great Transformation. The Origins of Our Time. Rio de Janeiro: Campus.

[X] TOURAINE, Alain. 1977. Life and Death of Popular Chile. July/September 1973. Lisbon: Bertrand Bookshop.

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