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Man and Society in Calamity

by Pitirim A. Sorokin, Copyright 1942

Summary Copyright 1999,2004 by
Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.
The following summary is for fair use and educational purposes only.

Can history help us understand what might happen in the future? If we don't fall into the trap of focusing on names, dates, and places, then the answer is yes. The names, dates, and places never repeat but the cycles society go through repeat on a regular basis. How can this be? Because the cycles normally take between 80 to 100 years to repeat and that exceeds the life span and the experience of most people.

Russia had a serious famine between 1918 to 1922. During this time anyone who disagreed with the government was imprisoned or executed. One of the men who survived this period eventually escaped to the United States.

After he reached the United States he carefully researched how different societies reacted when they were faced with famine, pestilence, war, and revolution. His research covers about 4000 years of human history and he discovered that society, in general, responds to these calamities in almost the same way regardless of race, creed, religion, or national origin. He published his findings in his book, Man and Society in Calamity, Copyright 1942. It has been out of print for a very long time so copies are not easy to find. However, I have included a small sample of some of the more interesting sections from his book below.


Man and Society Cover

The life history of any society is an incessant fluctuation between periods of comparative well-being and those of calamity. For a given period the society enjoys peace, order, prosperity, and freedom from notable catastrophes. Again, its life is darkened by calamities which, singly or en masse, assail it and destroy its previous well-being. Sooner or later this catastrophic phase is succeeded by a new stretch of well-being, which is replaced, in turn, by a further period of calamity. And so this alternation goes on, throughout the entire duration of the society in question. (13)


Starvation "has a tendency to direct ... our attention toward food phenomena and to distract it from everything unconnected therewith." (28)

Food images and ideas forcibly obtrude themselves upon the field of consciousness, driving out all neutral ideas and images, regardless of, and often in spite of, our desire and volition. ... Since the whole field of consciousness is thus occupied by food topics, it is natural that starving persons should speak (orally or in written form) mainly of food and related topics. However different may be the initial topic, they very quickly - and often to our own annoyance - find themselves discussing food. Even though they try deliberately to change the subject, very soon they revert to the same inescapable point. Thus, in a starving society not only do its members talk principally of food, but its newspapers, magazines, sermons, lectures, fine arts, philosophy and religion, science, and public meetings (including those of government bodies) are dominated by food topics, which occupy ever-increasing space and time, to the detriment of other considerations. ... What has been said of famine may be said (with the proper qualifications) of pestilence, war, or revolution. (29-30)

As to human beings, the recent mass starvation in Soviet Russia and the present famine in Poland, Greece, and many other countries afford unlimited corroboration of the changes described. ... The grown-ups were inattentive to most things except food rations and other food phenomena, to which they gave extraordinary attention. In spite of the difficulty of obtaining information, owing to the chaotic conditions which prevailed, they were excellently informed as to where, when and what food was given by the government, as to the possibilities of obtaining bootlegged rations, and scarcely ever overlooked even the chance of buying a chunk of horse meat. (31)

Still more clearly is this stressed by staving Arctic explorers.

"The pangs of hunger are worse, increasing every minute and causing us physical pain. For my own part, I can think of nothing but food. ... We do not say much [to one another], and what we have to say is of food - food in any shape or form. ... One's whole consciousness becomes concentrated on one importunate demand for food - food - food." (32)


The weakening or elimination of sex activities by prolonged and acute starvation is effected through enfeeblement of the sexual appetite, through an increase of apathy toward indirect sex activities, and through the suppression of those activities which happen to be irreconcilable with food-seeking efforts. ... Such a change is only to be expected, because under famine conditions the organism is weakened, and the expenditure of its energy in sex activities would merely weaken and endanger it still further. (60)

Next form of modification of sex activities generated by hunger is that of prostitution. Starvation or the threat of starvation forces many a woman to become a prostitute in order to obtain food. ... Even in normal society, according to different investigators, from 27 to 58 per cent of its prostitutes become such under the pressure of poverty and hunger. (62-63)


The most striking example of this desocialization and demoralization of a fraction of the starving population is furnished by the fairly frequent emergence of acts of cannibalism on the part of persons who would otherwise view such acts with extreme abhorrence, and who resort to cannibalism only when demoralized by long and maddening starvation, sometimes under the stress of mental derangement. ... In the Bible we read, "And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and daughters ... in the siege and in the straitness." During major famines cannibalism occurred in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, Persia, India, China, Japan, and elsewhere. ... The same tragic story of parents' killing and eating their children and vice versa, of wives' slaying and devouring their husbands and vice versa, of the snatching of corpses from cemeteries or the gallows, or the professional ambushing, killing, eating of passers-by - this is monotonously repeated in connection with numerous major famines. (66-67)

Such actions as cannibalism apply to only an infinitesimal proportion of the population - a maximum, perhaps, of 1 per cent. (79)


In similar terms this recrudescence of antisocial behavior is described by a Russian chronicler of famine in the Novgorod province. "Mutual irritation grew apace: brother was pitted against brother; fathers showed no pity for their sons; mothers lost all sense of mercy toward their daughters; neighbors denied one another a crumb of bread. Charity became dead among us; only sadness, gloom, and hopelessness reigned within and without our dwellings. Crying children were seen begging in vain for bread and falling dead like flies." (69-70)

Before the famine years in Russia many members of the upper and middle classes would have preferred death to the scandal of standing for hours in an illegal market, trying to exchange a pair of old trousers or a dress for food. But during the years of 1918-1922 they took this as a matter of course. Multitudes of persons, under normal circumstances, would "rather die than beg." But let them face starvation, and they extend their hands for alms -- at first reluctantly and with a sense of shame, then habitually, as a matter of routine; and finally artfully, employing all the tricks of the profession. (74)

Let us cite several concrete illustrations. Suppose that we are confronted by a dry loaf of bread of poor quality, or by a piece of somewhat putrid meat. If we are not hungry, we respond to these stimuli by speech reactions such as: "Nobody, not even a dog, would eat it. It is nauseating!" But after prolonged and acute starvation our reaction is as follows: "Excellent! Delicious! Wonderful!" and we avidly seize the bread or the meat. The half-rotten flesh of horses that had died of starvation was eagerly, even greedily sought by most of the Russian population during the famine, and it was eaten with as much relish as well-nourished people eat the best steak. The same was true of the flesh of dogs, cats, and even mice and rats. Mikkelsen and Iversen, under the stress of starvation, decided to try the liver of a dead dog which even their own dogs would not eat and which they knew was to some extent poisonous. After cooking it, "We taste it critically . . . ; but the first little mouthful is speedily followed by one considerably larger, and two broad grins of delight with inarticulate murmurs of satisfaction, announce that we find it delicious." What is "tasteless" or even nauseating under normal circumstances becomes "delectable" to a famished person. (76-77)

In a more complicated form a somewhat similar change occurs with more complex convictions and ideologies and their respective speech reactions. A well-nourished person says, "Private property is sacred." But a victim of famine is likely to exclaim, vis a vis the possessions of others, "To hell with your property!" or, "Property is a theft. Long live the expropriation of the exploiters." or the like. On the one hand, the speech reaction is "Theft is inexcusable"; on the other, "Theft is excusable." (77)

In Soviet Russia one could observe these changes ad libitum in the behavior of millions toward the Soviet authorities upon whom they depended for food. Journalists, authors, scholars, artists, musicians, doctors, engineers, and persons in all walks of life, though they despised and hated the Soviet bosses, nevertheless tried the way of captatio benevolentiae of the Soviet food-givers now by silence, masking their real ideas and opinions, and now in the form of flattery and eulogies (written and oral), contrary to their true convictions. Others, having obtained satisfactory rations through their hypocrisy, speedily convinced themselves of the sincerity of their alleged convictions and remained faithful "converts" to the Soviet faith as long as the food privileges continued. This self-deceit, with its high-sounding phrases, is but a screen behind which the food factor pulls the strings. A few pounds of bread, a cup of sugar, or a steak is enough to turn the trick. This does not mean that everyone undergoes this transformation of ideas, beliefs, opinions, convictions, and speech reactions. A part of the starving population remains unchanged or changes in the opposite direction. But another - and possibly larger - part undergoes this "adjustment" (as it is called) of convictions and speech reactions. When such an "adaptation" is sincere, its moral value is even less than that of the clever and cynical hypocrisy of flatters; for they at least do not fool themselves. (78)


In brief, pestilence tends to modify the behavior of the healthy portion of society in the same manner in which starvation modifies it, the main difference being that the comparative power of the fear of pestilence and the desire to remain healthy may be different from the comparative power of the fear of starvation and the desire to escape it, and that the concrete activities attacked or reinforced by pestilence may differ in part from those attacked or reinforced by starvation. (85-86)

What has been said of famines applies with a slight variation to pestilences. Great epidemics depopulate a region not only directly, by killing a part of its population, but also by forcing another part to flee from the infected centers to other places held to be safer. (109)


In contradistinction to the gradual, orderly, and voluntary character of migration and mobility in normal times, catastrophes render these processes sudden, violent, chaotic, largely involuntary, and essentially tragic. ... Multitudes of human beings are uprooted from their native soil, separated from family and friends, and forced to leave most or all of their property behind. As a rule, they are unprovided with transportation facilities and do not know their destination. Frequently they lack not only adequate shelter but even food and other minimum necessities. Many - especially the children and elderly persons, the weak and the sick - succumb to the rigors of the exodus, with fatal results. (106-107)

In both wars and revolutions a part of the population flees voluntarily from the fighting zones and from those occupied by the enemy. Another part is forcibly removed by the authorities, some being arrested and banished. (109-110)

The extraordinary migration and mobility attending major disasters result, as we have seen, in a drastic disruption of social relationships and social institutions. When the members of a family are suddenly separated from one another by war or revolution, by pestilence or famine, the family unit is seriously undermined. When some of its members are killed, its unity is still further disrupted. It is weakened even more fundamentally and organically by the attitude of "everyone for himself," which results in the abandonment of children by their parents, or wives by their husbands, and vice versa. Hence what was before an institution with a definite pattern of social relationships, with a clear-cut distribution of functions, rights, and duties, is now a mere shadow of its former self. (119-120)

Government Regulations

In addition to the factors of migration, mobility, and disruption of social relationships discussed in the preceding chapter, the main uniform effect of calamities upon political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. (122)

Totalitarianism masquerades under a variety of slogans and shibboleths, such as government "by the grace of God," "by the people," "by the proletariat," and "by the will of the Revolution," all of which constitute merely a smoke screen designed to conceal the basic depostism and autocracy whereby the liberties and inalienable rights of the citizenry are trampled underfoot. This elemental truth seems not to have been generally apprehended, in spite of the fact that it has been repeated stressed by social thinkers from Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine up to Le Play and Herbert Spencer. (123)

Finally, the transformation of the regime in response to major catastrophes depends very little upon the personnel. No matter who is at the helm, and no matter how strongly the leaders dislike totalitarianism, an expansion of governmental regulation is as inevitable as the rise of temperature in influenza or pneumonia; otherwise the particular incumbents will be ousted from office and replaced by more amenable officials. ... Totalitarianism is not created by Pharaohs, monarchs, and dictators; the Lenins, Stalins, Mussolinis, Hitlers, and other Fuhrer are merely the instruments of deeper and underlying forces that decree an increase of totalitarianism during signal calamities. (124)

More rigid governmental control at once takes place in the form of martial, siege, and other emergency laws. Private property ... is requisitioned; curfew and sanitary measures are introduced; part of the population is evacuated; and penalties for the violation of the prescribed orders become more drastic. (125)

Other things being equal, the greater the contrast between the rich and the poor, the sharper the increase of governmental regulations. (127)

This expansion of governmental control has sometimes amounted to almost complete totalitarianism, in its communistic, socialistic, state-socialist, fascist, or other forms. (128)

The ideologies and speech reactions that justify such transformations differ: the totalitarian trend is covered now by "communist" ideology; now by a Nazi "philosophy." The alleged motive is now to defend religion, now to carry the banners of civilization and progress to the "infidels' or barbarians." But in spite of the disparity of the ideologies and slogans, the central phenomenon remains essentially constant; namely, the expansion and tightening of government control - that is, a shift toward totalitarianism. (136)

In spite of the comparatively short period that has elapsed since the entrance of the United States into the war, the greater part of our industry and finance is already managed by Washington. Most factories now produce what they are ordered to produce, and operate under the direct or indirect control of the Federal government. As to consumer goods, the following list of articles either "frozen" or rationed is highly significant.

The following have been placed under rationing, with the date of the application of the ration order:
Jan. 5 - New tires.
Feb. 23 - Recapped tires for trucks.
March 2 - New automobiles.
April 13 - New and used typewriters.
May 4 - Sugar.

The following have been limited in production or delivery:
Gasoline and fuel oils;
straight and safety razors and razor blades;
metal cosmetic tubes;
steel desks,
paper clips.

Production has been ordered stopped on these household electrical appliances:
April 22 - Radios and phonographs.
April 30 - Refrigerators.
May 31 - Toasters, waffle irons, flatirons, roasters, grills, percolators, cigarette lighters, dry shavers.
March 30 - Crude rubber banned in 20 household products and restricted in 50 others.

These goods have been "frozen"; that is, their sale is stopped:
Dec. 30 - New automobiles and tires. (Later rationed.)
April 2 - Bicycles of adult size.

If this has happened in what is in many ways the most democratic country in the world, one can readily imagine how swift and far-reaching has been the growth of government regulation in less democratic countries! (140-141)


The increase of economic misery manifests itself more concretely in a variety of ways. In practically any striking calamity, commodity prices go up without a corresponding increase in the income of the population. The attempt by the government to control the situation by establishing fixed prices usually - indeed, almost without exception - fails. When it does succeed in imposing fixed prices, commodities progressively disappear from the market and cannot be bought at the prescribed prices. Under these conditions people turn to illegal "black markets," in spite of severe penalties involving even capital punishment. The prices prevailing in the illegal markets are usually many times higher than the fixed prices. Hence the bulk of the population either cannot buy their goods at all or else can purchase only insignificant amounts. The problem is still further aggravated by an increasing scarcity of commodities. (146)

Again, as has been said, more often than not the government cannot enforce its prices, and inflation ensues. Money loses much of its purchasing power. In Soviet Russia in 1918-1922 and in Germany in 1923, a million rubles or a million Reichmarks, respectively, scarcely sufficed to buy a pound of bread. (146-147)

When the government resorts to "all-out" regimentation of economic life by abolishing money and replacing it with commodity rations, and by controlling exports and imports, the production and distribution of goods, and so on, the results are still worse. ... Besides there is endless red tape, as well as interminable "bread lines" (for the distribution of bread, milk, and other necessities). In Soviet Russia, in the years 1918-1922, when everything was "communized," one had actually to expend a greater number of calories to procure the government dole than the food itself contained! (147)

This "all-out" economy has been repeatedly resorted to in the history of human society, and almost invariably it has failed either to maintain the normal economic level or to provide even the most rudimentary requirements. At best it has served merely to ensure the comforts of life for a small minority - namely, the ruling class and its satellites - at the expense of unutterable misery on the part of the huge army of slaves or serfs who have had to minister to the needs of the totalitarian aristocracy. (147-148)

This brief survey of the foremost ventures in totalitarian economy leaves no doubt as to the validity of the general conclusion. Although many still believe that the recent economic experiments are something new, as a matter of fact they are in essence very old. ... The gist of the matter is that no full-fledged totalitarian economy has ever succeeded in abolishing misery, raising the material plane of living of the masses, and creating economic well-being for the bulk of the population. (149-150)

Good versus Evil

Calamities generate two opposite movements in different sections of the population: one is a trend toward unreligiousness and demoralization; the other is a trend toward extreme religious, spiritual, and moral exaltation. (161)

Calamities split up the bulk of the population - which in normal times is neither very sinful nor very saintly - into three different groups: first, the moral heroes and intensely religious persons; second, the morally debased and intensely irreligious; third, the remnants of the previous more or less balanced majority, who remain at about the same ethico-religious level as before. (161)

Finally, the "balance" group consists of those who render unto God that which is God's and unto Caesar that which is Caesar's (though as a rule they give to Caesar much more than to God). (162)

Even in normal times two extreme currants exist in the average society. But under the impact of catastrophe they are greatly intensified, and the membership of the "left" and "right" wings grows enormously. Persons hitherto only slightly inclined to be religious or irreligious now manifest an exaggerated trend in one or the other direction. Similarly, an erstwhile moderately sinful person becomes an unbridled profligate. (162)

In the foremost crises, consisting of great and long famines, pestilences, wars, revolutions, and the like, the polarization is so pronounced that it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another in the life history of the society and culture in question. (163)

Many squeezed the uttermost farthing out of the anguish . . . of the homeless men, women, and children. Truckmen charged exorbitant prices for the transferring of goods and baggage. Merchants boosted prices. A small shopkeeper asked a little starving child thirty cents for a loaf of bread. (170)

Analogous contrasts have already been noted in the present war - in bombed city like London, and, in general, in the invaded countries. During blackouts and air raids certain individuals and groups have exhibited highly criminal tendencies, knifing, robbing, or raping women, and so forth. A portion of the youth under fourteen years of age have manifested a criminal record 41 per cent in excess of their pre-war record, and part of those between fourteen and seventeen years of age a rate of excess amounting to 22 per cent. On the other hand, the same air raids have produced a host of moral heroes bent on helping their fellows at the risk of their own lives, to say nothing of the innumerable persons who have willingly sacrificed their property and other advantages on behalf of those in need. (171)

Later on we shall see that in the acute crises where pestilence is one of many calamities, the most notable progress toward the ennoblement, purification, and spiritualization of religion takes place. As a matter of fact, the most important steps in the refinement of all the outstanding world religions have invariably occurred in periods of social catastrophe - rarely, if ever, in periods of prosperity and material well-being. (179)

The concrete factors are numerous and diverse, especially in connection with minor calamities. In crucial, epoch-making catastrophes there is one which is rather decisive - namely, the fundamental character of the culture that is already in a process of decline. If the disaster occurs at the close of a sensate, or "this-worldly," period of culture, during the initial stages of the crisis the reaction of demoralization and irreligiousness tends to prevail over the opposing trend; but with the prolongation of the emergency (provided the society in question does not meanwhile succumb) it generally loses ground in favor of its opponent - the movement of religious and ethical regeneration. (233)

When this point is reached, the catastrophic transition is over, and the society enters upon the next epoch in its life career. Shaped by the intense religious and moral forces that have been released, the fresh culture becomes more ideational and idealistic, permeated in all its main compartments (including the sciences and fine arts, philosophy, and the various forms of social organization) by transcendental religions and ethical norms, and oriented toward God and His commandments as the supreme end values. (234)

However, under the stable condition of this epoch, the intensity of the religious and moral movement generated during the period of catastrophe begins to decline, and settled forms of organization, credos, and dogmas progressively emerge which are now unchallenged, being sustained by the prestige gained in the early fighting stage. For this reason, even an ideational or idealistic culture, in its dominant and settled phase, tends to grow complacent, moderate, and luke-warm in its religious and moral aspects as compared with the movement that produced it under stress of calamity. (234)

Summary and Conclusion

But as a rule any great famine has almost invariably been followed by pestilence, and not infrequently by war or revolution. (288)

All famines have been terminated either by the removal of their necessary and supplementary causes or by the catastrophic exhaustion of the famine after it has taken its full toll of suffering and death. (296)

The same is true of war. At least for the vanquished party war does not end but intensifies the famine and death toll. In this sense war also terminates famine mainly by elevating the death toll to appalling levels. Finally, famines have been brought to a close in many societies by the terrible mortality of the population, not only from starvation, but also from epidemics and other satellites of extreme poverty. The great losses from death and from frequent reductions in the birth rate bring the surviving part of the population into an equilibrium with the available food supply. (298)

The bulk of the population will divide increasingly into sinners, libertines, profligates, downright criminals, atheists, and cynicists on the one hand, and into Stoics, saints, moral heroes, sublime altruists, intensely religious prophets, martyrs, ascetics, mystics, gnostics, and the like on the other hand. (316)

During the early stages of calamities, the movement of irreligiosity and moral cynicism will be dominant; but with the continuation of the crisis the movement toward religion and moral heroism will increasingly prevail, progressively curbing atheism and depravity. (317)

Such are some of the developments which we must be prepared to meet as observers, actors, and victims of the age of calamities and crisis. Since the trends are already in operation they cannot be prevented or averted. (318)

It is up to us which of the ways out we select. (319)


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