For the majority of our contemporaries, the mention of Georges Sorel most often recalls the analysis of the theorist of violence. His most famous work, “Reflections on Violence” (1908), constitutes an irreplaceable contribution to the revolutionary myth. We know the importance that the concept of “myth” held for this exceptional thinker. The Sorelian revolutionary myth was inspired by a polemological vision of social relations. Violence informs revolutionary action and invests it with a realist conception of history. As the means to act upon the present, the proletarian myth is a tool in the service of the anti-bourgeois revolution. It’s also a conceptual tool that must firstly oppose both socialist utopianism and liberal conservatism. This very original discourse, an activist discourse par excellence, gives Sorel’s work a privileged place in our conception of socialism.
Before addressing the analysis of the myth of violence as the idea-force of Sorel, it is useful to present the man and his work. Starting from this recognition of the ideological environment we can, in the second part, present the characteristics of this “violence” as myth, and the conclusions that derive from our own position.
I. Sorel: Man and Work
Georges Sorel (1847-1922) began his career in 1889. It was the era of the first French translations of Marx’s work. One could already find “Capital” and “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” in the library; though one had to wait until 1895 for the publication of the famous “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In France, it is a fact that Marxism constituted an ideological movement much more than a revolutionary party in 1889. And it was in 1893 that Sorel converted to Marxism. Sorel’s rapprochement would mark his entire work. That doesn’t imply any blind attachment to Marxist values. His character was too independent for his thoughts to be inscribed within a total system. But incidentally, who was Sorel? His character has been the subject of numerous analyses as brilliant as they are contradictory. For some, Sorel is a thinker attached to the rationalist school. For others, he would be a remarkable advocate of the irrational. In his political opinions, he appears to some as a revolutionary conservative (a rare species in his time); for others, he is a neo-Marxist. And the works abound that seek to definitively prove the scientific basis of one opinion or another. For our part, we will not enter into this debate.
We will follow a chronological analysis, split into successive phases, where each layer supports a part of the following thought. It is undeniable that Sorel was seduced by the radical novelty of Marxist texts at a moment of his evolution. How could an intellectual of his era, open to new ideas, in correspondence with numerous European intellectuals of all tendencies (we cite for the record Roberto Michels, Benedetto Croce), not have been attracted by a revolutionary discourse proposing a “scientific” reading of history and misery. But we must not believe in the “Marxism”, orthodox or not, of Sorel. Likewise, we don’t believe in the so-called “fascism” of Sorel, which is difficult to attach of the (historical) contemporary idea that we’ve made of it today, where 66 years have elapsed since Mussolini’s seizure of power. The work of Sorel is much more complex.
According to Paolo Pastori (Rivoluzione e continuita in Proudhon e Sorel, Giuffre, Roma, 1980, 244 p.), the work of Sorel constitutes “an alternative to reactionary conservatism and revolutionary progressivism.” He adds that Sorelian thought surpasses the traditional oppositions of modern thought, between, on one hand, theories of natural law, and, on the other, subjective theories of law, absolute rationalism and free will. The political conclusion of the ideology is a “pluralist” revolution, which restores an open society, if only to counter the threat of capitalism’s social entropy. Modernity is not denied, it is integrated into an organic communitarian whole. Closer to Proudhon than Marx, Sorel adhered to the ideological foundations of the French socialist thinker. Namely:
1) A plural conception of reason. Marxist in an absolute and monist rationalism which, like capitalism, prescribes a desiccated social project.
2) A multidimensional vision of man. Marxism is a dangerous reductionism for man (due to its economic determinism) and society (the mechanics of the class struggle). Taking into account a social dialectic that refuses the capitalist worker/entrepreneur dualism and recognizes a richer set of social relations.
3) A project of social synthesis, where the sense of equilibrium of (emerging) social classes underlines the authority/freedom, individual/community, past/present dialectic.
Sorel and Proudhon: A Relation of Continuity
There is without a doubt a relation of continuity between Sorel and Proudhon. Sorel was a student of Proudhon, who actualized his thought during different phases of his investigations. According to Pastori, Sorel was first a liberal conservative (1889-1892, then a “strict obedience” Marxist (1893-1896); this second phase lead to a period of revision of deterministic and scientist Marxism, to end up in a return to Marx’s thought in 1905-1908, which would ultimately be abandoned in 1910-1911. This latter phase constitutes a point of return to Proudhon’s thought for Sorel. So we will understand Sorel better if we attach ourselves to the task of a serious study of the author of “La Guerre et la paix” and “La capacité politique des classes ouvrières”…
Proudhon was a revolutionary thinker in the 19th century of the bourgeois reason. Attached to the idea, Proudhon could not be considered a “rationalist” in the common sense of the term. Proudhon distinguishes many categories of the concept of reason: human reason, natural reason, practical reason, on one hand, and, on the other, public reason and particular reason. Human reason is the superior faculty of conceiving “the ideal that is the expression of the free creative capacity of historical groups and persons.” Contrasted to the rationalism of bourgeois thought and the scientific pretension of Marxism, Proudhon strongly claims the space of freedom of historical thought for social groups and man, who is conceived as a being of culture unconditioned by absolute determinisms.
This first reason is limited in turn by the reason called, in Proudhonian language, “natural reason” or “the reason of things.” It is objective necessity, which restrains the demiurgical aspirations of man within certain unsurpassable limits. Practical reason is the final synthesis of the preceding two. Through it one can understand the confrontation of the 2 reasons, that of the free man not determined by material mechanism, and that of the reality which is the frontier of human creative powers. Proudhon drew from a pragmatic conception. The second category breaks into public or general reason, and particular reason, the reproduction of “the instance of universality” (necessity) and that of particularity (freedom). The non-coincidence of the mentioned reasons implies a radical critique of “absolutist” systems of thought, totalitarian systems of thought (Marxism, Jacobinism, and democratic Rousseauism). Proudhon, the militant anti-totalitarian, privileged particular reason. This “pluralist rationalism” thus informs Proudhon’s socio-political concept.
The Serial Dialectic of Proudhon
The theory of series is a necessary element to understand his thought. Proudhon distinguishes two separate movements in every process: the first is division-individuation (the constitution of simple series), the second is the recomposition of unity – totality (the constitution of composite series). Proudhon also affirms the independence of the series’ orders and the impossibility of a universal science (De la création de l’ordre dans l’humanité). Paolo Pastori speaks of Proudhon’s “serial dialectic”, which opposes the Hegelian dialectic, and is similar to the Croce’s dialectic of instincts. This serial dialectic confirms Proudhon’s refusal of all reductionist analysis. Social existence cannot be reduced to a single reference point, universal and determinant. Proudhonian sociology, which Sorel reprised in turn, is a “sociology of composition” (the division of labor and organization, the recognition of rural and industrial economies, central functions and decentralization).
This aspect of Proudhon and Sorel’s thought is opposed to the uni-dimensional tendencies of capitalist society. It’s historical form, liberal economics, confuses freedom and free competition, creating a “new anti-organic and anti-political feudalism.” Proudhon was not the enemy of individual initiative. He subjected it to his theory of series. Namely: the subjective moment of individual initiative, and the objective one of submission of the collective aims of the people.
The concomitant apology for the rural world constitutes, among French socialists, a veritable critique of the “economic reduction of human reality” (Idée générale de la Révolution). But this apology should not be confused with any reactionary attachment to the peasant world. The socialist ideology of Proudhon defends agricultural production without attaching it to the values of the right, as the French state did between 1940 and 1944. Earth and industry are two factors of labor and production bound by an encompassing system of federations. And the revolution is “the refusal of the multidimensional social order’s reduction to a single economic purpose” (P. Pastori, op. cit.).
The revolution is not a simple movement of destruction or class contestation (the French Revolution was the movement of the overly restricted bourgeoisie in a traditional society where the dominant values were those of the aristocracy – social values – and the monarchical state – political values). Against this misguided idea of revolution, the French socialists (Proudhon and Sorel) had a revolutionary conception of balance. Synthesis of apparently contradictory values: individuality and community, private property and public interest.
Concerning property, for example, the French socialists opposed both its radical elimination (communism) and its current condition. The bourgeoisie denies the social meaning of property. Socialist property recognizes it. Thus the constant valorization of justice among these thinkers, as the focal point of the new society they envisioned. And, with Proudhon, and then Sorel, the development of a federalist, anti-economic and anti-bourgeois (including the parliamentary socialists in this latter category) discourse.
Seductive Marxist Discipline and Deterministic Rigor
One must remark that Sorel remained in a critical position regarding the work of Proudhon, which accused of tendencies towards a “systemic mind.” The “ontologization” of Justice is the philosophical foundation of the apology for balance. Beyond this criticism, Sorel nevertheless remained a faithful student of Proudhon. He joins Proudhon in his reflections on liberty, which is the Gordian knot of the socialist ethic. Faced with bourgeois individualism, Sorel turned towards a radical socialism, a socialism of combat. Marxism then represented a seed of order in the face of the chaos created by the bourgeoisie’s capitalism. The world of production then underlies this cultural revolution proclaimed by Sorel. Sorel is the partisan of practical – political reason, shadowed by a historicist conception.
Starting from 1896, Sorel underwent an evolution that distanced him from this determinist reason. His philosophical critique of positivism extended itself to a political discourse where “absolute reason” held the sovereign role. There was, Pastori writes, “a radical rupture with the rigid materialist schema of orthodox Marxism.”And, in 1898, Sorel turned again towards Proudhon more seriously: he then wrote “L’avenir socialiste des syndicats.” The revolution that establishes the dictatorship of the proletariat was rejected by Sorel. He accused this project of masking the dictatorship of intellectuals. Behind the final and properly “apocalyptic” conception of proletarian revolution, understood in the Marxist sense, one easily recognizes an economic – intellectual tyranny, a despotic ideocracy. Sorel proposes a revolutionary first act to the proletariat: definitively reject the dictatorship of intellectuals, which reproduces the external discipline of capitalism. In its place, it is necessary to establish an internal discipline, that Sorel would qualify as “moral.” According to Pastori, in 1903 Sorel finally rejoined Proudhon once and for all, leaving the dangerous ground of orthodox Marxism. He then wrote his “Introduction à l’économie moderne.” On two points Sorel was especially Proudhonian: private property must be conserved, which is a serious guarantee of the citizens’ freedom. This social property challenges the bourgeois form of “abstract property” where the owner of the means of production is not the producer. The second point: restore the ideal of a “harmonious interplay of individual, familial, and social interests” that animated Roman antiquity. Sorel also proposes a judicial order quite distant from “political rationalism.” It proclaims the emergence of new “social authorities.” Finally, he gives the role of mediator and initiator to the state.
Myth: The Spiritual Tool of Mobilization
Furthermore Sorel developed a theory of social myths. Myth is the necessary synthesis between reason and “that which is not rational.” Myth is a symbolic translation of the real, which authorizes and fosters a total mobilization of the masses. In this sense, myth is the opposite of intellectual rationalism, for example the intellectual rationalism of the Marxists. Without contesting this “reason of things” of which Proudhon spoke and the “objective gravity” that results from it, Sorel retains myth as the spiritual tool of mobilization. The social order and its ideological dependencies (like law) are founded upon a common conception of the world, a vision of the social and the political that doesn’t reduce to a pure rational discourse. Order is the joint result of this ensemble of images (myth) and popular will (mobilization).
This position would be the object of a new revision provoked by the “Dreyfusard revolution” of 1905-1908. For Pastori, there is a return to a “dichotomous” conception: Sorel was split between the ongoing relationship between the rational and the irrational and revolutionary rupture as a total and irrational explosion. We find this division in his writings collected under the title of “Reflections on Violence.” Sorel distinguishes the general syndicalist strike (the creation of a new order) and the general political strike (we will prefer to say: political – partiocratic), that is to say, exploited and directed by social-parliamentary politicos. Revolution is a creative spirit, that the strike conveys and which consists of a total critique of the existing order. The figure of the revolutionary hero emerges: the syndicalist is the virtuous warrior of this revolution, driven by the values of sacrifice, by the desire for overcoming. Sorel analyzes certain traditional institutions as exemplars of a revolutionary structure: for example the Catholic Church, both as a secular actor and as an institution whose members are devoted to an absolute. Transcendent idealism and direct and permanent action on history are the two qualities of a revolutionary party. In 1910, Sorel wrote that the Church was an elite one.
This was also the era where Sorel reflected upon the questions of Roman law and the historical institutions that composed the ancient social order. Namely and principally patriarchy. He distinguishes three sources of the juridical spirit: war, family, property. War is one of the dimensions of the dialectic of social relations. And revolution must use this plurality of relations to its benefit, not in the name of a catastrophic finality (the final revolution of orthodox Marxism), but for the reestablishment of this “subsidiary justice,” the foundation of the juridical order. Sorel uncompromisingly excluded relations with the party of the bourgeois who “reduce everything to an economic tool.” This a certain fascination for the Bolshevik revolution, which was not the residue of any ideological attachment to Marxism, but a recognition of a revolution whose acts were total. Perhaps it was also a desire to really demarcate his thought from the social- reformism that he execrated above all (Sorel spoke of the “hyper-legalistic socialism of our doctors of reformist high politics” in “Introduction à l’économie moderne”, cited by Marc Rives : À propos de Sorel et Proudhon in Cahiers G. Sorel n°1, 1983).
II. Socialism and Violence
Sorel is a great thinker not so much for his works as for the originality of his reflections and the “marginality” of his positions. Who was Sorel? A traditionalist, a Marxist, a Dreyfusard, a champion of revolutionary syndicalism and voluntarist nationalism, or a Leninist in heart and mind? Certain men are resistant to any classification. Labels cannot manage to hold them in one case and masters of classification have insurmountable difficulties “normalizing” this type of man. Yet certain researchers have tried to better identify Sorel. We cite for the record: “Georges Sorel, Der revolutionäre Konservatismus” by Michael Freund (Klostermann, 1972) ; “Notre maître G. Sorel” by Pierre Andreu (1982) ; and finally “Georges Sorel : het einde van een mythe,” by J. de Kadt (1938).
For Claude Polin, the question is clear: is a man who was in turn an admirer of Marx, Péguy, Lénine and Le Play, Proudhon, Nietzsche, Renan, James, Maurras and Bergson, Hegel and Mussolini, etc. muddle headed? His response was just as direct: this is where apparent chaos hides a logic off the beaten path of academic thought. Sorel is a man of intuitions. At the same time he was one who refuses total systems of the thought, which many of his contemporaries wanted to impose as the “unsurpassable horizons of their time” (for example Comte’s positivism and Marxism). Sorel expressed this freedom of thought, this desire to not enclose his thought on the world and society in a frozen and mechanical ideological framework in one of his strongest works: “Reflections on Violence.”
In his work on the “revolutionary right,” following “Ni droite, ni gauche,” the historian Z. Sternhell titles one of his chapters: “The revolution of the moralists.” Sorel is presented in this chapter as one of the most remarkable representatives of this “moralist” current. Faced with the liberal revisionism of Bernstein and Jaurès, attached to traditional liberal values (regarding these values, Lafargue spoke of “metaphysical prostitutes,” cited by Sternhell p.81), the “moralists” were the men who refused any dishonorable compromise: comprise with the values of bourgeois society, compromise with materialism in all its forms, that is to say Marxist or bourgeois (we find this same sentiment regarding materialism in other European groups of the era: Congrès de Hoppenheim (1928), Congrès du Parti Ouvrier Belge (the manifesto of July 3rd 1940), where De Man evokes a spiritual and ethical revolution before the delegates.) One finds the myth of violence at the origin of this “ethical socialism.”
Violence, The Proletariat, and the General Strike
Firstly it is useful not to confuse Sorelian violence with the physical forms of violence that our modern societies expose us to. With Sorel, the notion of violence is linked with two other equally essential notions: that of the “proletariat” (the monopolist of this violence) and that of the “general strike,” which is the arm of the revolution. There is actually an intimate link between the general strike and the exercise of violence. The general strike is the privileged and singular expression of the violence of the proletariat in contemporary history. It is, Sorel wrote, an “act of war,” similar to that of an army on campaign. The general strike occurs without hate and without the spirit of vengeance. Sorel wrote: “In war, one doesn’t kill the vanquished.”
The effective and present day use of physical violence is not equivalent to the violence of the general strike. This violence is a sort of “military demonstration” of proletarian force. The death of others is only an accident of violence, it is not its essence. Sorel contrasts bourgeois military violence and limited warlike proletarian violence. Thus Sorel’s violence is an attitude, an attitude of determination against the adversary. Violence is an idea that promotes mobilization and the action arises from it. Sorel also wrote: “We have to act.”
This viewpoint also explains the Sorelian contempt of the intellectual class, incapable of all offensive action, ignorant of the terrain of combat. On the contrary, one can remark that these same intellectuals who refuse reality’s contact with the real are bloodthirsty leaders. The “violence” of intellectuals in power (Sorel perhaps thought of the revolution of 1791 and the repression of 1870) is erratic, cruel, and terrorist. The violence that they exercise is pathological. It transcribes their inability to unify the masses around their values. Sorelian violence is opposed to this violence – one thinks of the violence of the Jacobins in 1791, the Leninist violence of the NEP against the peasants of Ukraine, etc. – because it has full understanding of its dignity, its generosity. Sorel refers to a warrior’s violence, which, as with Clausewitz, is the mark of a will. Violence is a manifestation of determination, of surety in its objectives and its ideal.
This idea of “creative violence” unfolds in a historical myth for Sorel: the general strike. Willed violence is an idea that must present itself as a historical act. The idea animates a will and the myth mediates the relation between the real (the general strike) and the idea. Myth, wrote Sorel, is the realization of hopes in actions, not in the service of a doctrine, because doctrines and systems are intellectual speculations beyond the field of action and the interests of the proletarians, Violence is doctrine as deed, it is pure will and not the representation of thought. The idea of the general strike is “an organization of images,” a collective instinct and a general feeling that manifests in the war of modern socialism against bourgeois society. And Sorel returns to this notion of intuition, which is not reducible to a clear, precise, essentially mechanical classification of aligned and normalized ideas. With Sorel, violence is similar to the Bergsonian idea. Polin wrote: “In violence, the myth becomes what it is.” The notion of confusion between becoming and intuition plays the same role with both our authors.
Revolutionary Syndicalism Against Social Reformism
Finally, violence is the womb of a proletarian socialism. Sorel’s socialism is born from this violence, it is not social reformism. Sorel puts his confidence in revolutionary syndicalism to build this socialism. The syndicate is what binds the living forces of the proletariat. Sorel’s socialism refuses the socialism of the dream or parliamentary eloquence, the socialism of the parties and the intellectuals who lead the proletariat to a hollow socialism. We cite Sorel again: “The syndicate: the entire future of socialism resides in the autonomous development of workers’ syndicates” (Matériaux pour une théorie du prolétariat). And Polin accurately notes that the syndicate is “the Cogito of the proletariat” in Sorel ideas.
Sorel considers the syndicate as the linchpin of the revolution. The syndicates are the natural groupings of the proletariat. They are the crucible of its manifest will of liberation. The syndicate, which excludes intellectuals and parliamentarians, is an authentic community of combat. Sorel also said to the Marxists that the true Marxist is one who understands that Marxism is useless for the working masses. The syndicate acts for itself, for those who are its members. It doesn’t follow party programs and professionals of thought. The latter, who Sorel called “doctors of the little science”, had a corporatist reaction to this judgment that Sorel mocked. Sorel put the intellectuals of the bourgeois parties and the intellectual of proletarian pretensions back to back. He denounced their inherently parasitic nature. The utopia of their speeches is reactionary. The intellectual blocks the revolutionary movement and alienates the thought of the workers. The revolution is thought in action. The revolution of the intellectuals is pure image.
But we must not confound “violent action” and “action for action’s sake.” Sorel, Polin summarizes, is not a nihilist thinker. Agitation is not revolution. Violence doesn’t limit itself to a series of shocks. Violence engenders actions that Sorel calls “epic actions.” The revolutionary epic is not negativist, it is negative social entropy. Violence is the highest form of action, because it has the ultimate ability to create. In this sense, it is the empowerment of actors, the nobility of combatants, the overcoming of the self. It awakens “the sentiment of the sublime”, and “reveals at the highest level the pride of the free man” (Reflections). We can liken this creative, inherently Faustian aspect of violence to the new values of “philosopher with a hammer” of Sils-Maria.
Violence is a means to create, it is not an ends in itself. This creativity invests it with an unequaled value. It is in the service of socialism because it wants to transform the world and not only to understand it, according to the famous phrase of Marx. Sorel thought socialism was a new idea. It had this youthfulness that refuses programs and clear and distinct ideas. Enclosed within a discourse, it loses all vitality. It becomes old, identical to its adversaries. Socialism is an idea in deeds, it’s a spontaneous product. It is evident that socialism has little relation with the social-democratic parties currently existing in “Western democracies.” The only common denominator is the name “socialism.” As for the rest …
A Socialism Foreign to World of Sophists, Economists, and Calculators
We have mentioned the thesis of Sternhell according to which Sorel is a thinker of “moralist revolution.” Polin mentions that Sorel is a “pessimist by temperament.” Thus for him, progress transcribes a bourgeois notion above all. He is against Hegel and thinks that “human nature always seeks to escape into decadence.” Man is subjected to the eternal law of combat. He must avoid the obstacles that contrast nature and his own nature (spinelessness, cowardice, mediocrity, etc.) The great danger of entropy hangs over man. Sorel wrote: “It is likely that collectives are attracted towards a complicated magma whose basis is disorder.” Violence then reveals its creative energy that fights entropy.
Sorel is a philosopher of energy. Man, thought Sorel, satisfied himself with a feeling of struggle. In this viewpoint, effort is more than positive, sought as an end in itself. Violence gives man a salvific energy that restrains him from being mediocre (Polin compares the Sorelian energy expressed through violence to the Stoic thumos.) Man ultimately links himself with morality through the violence emerging from his creative individuality. Violence is the permanent form of morality. So morality is a struggle against impoverishing entropy. We can refer to Nietzsche again. The new moral table of the German philosopher is close to the values of struggle and overcoming that Sorel reclaims for the workers.
With Sorel, morality equals self sacrifice, abnegation, heroism, selflessness, effort. The worker is the Roman warrior, the conqueror of the 20th century; he must possess the moral qualities that ennoble him and assure his superiority against the bourgeoisie. Sorel speaks with sympathy of this race of men “who consider life as a struggle and not as pleasure.” His keywords are: personal energy, creative energy, effective energy. This type of man is the student of the Greek warrior. He refuses the world of intellectuals who weaken him. Like Burke, he is foreign to the world of sophists, economists, and calculators. And Sorel goes further when he wrote: “The sublime is dead in the bourgeoisie” and this sublime is the prerogative of violence in history. It’s the source of revolutionary morality. The syndicate reconnects with the world of morality, thus the world of the sublime and heroism. It’s a place, a school of collective moralization. The syndicate is autonomous and its morality is a total conception of the world.
But Sorel is an apostle of violence because he believes in the new figure of the worker. Sorel identifies work for us. He rejects the war/work dichotomy of Auguste Comte. Work is a creative act that doesn’t bow to the dirty calculations of the capitalists in essence. Work is selfless. Like violence. The general strike is also an act free from any quest for material profit. Likewise, Polin feels that the notion of work is struggle in its own right. Work is, according to Sorel’s intuition, a Promethean act. Work is not only the act of transforming things, it acts on itself and the entire collective. Violence ennobles the consciousness of work; in other terms, it gives form to the act of creation and transformation.
Work, which is not a simple “factor of production” as the thinkers and economists of the liberal school pretend, nor a source of profit for the worker and surplus value for the entrepreneurs as Marxists in the strict sense believe, is a sublimated form of creation. It is quite evident that Sorelian violence is a quality that is inherent to the world of producers; the reduction of violence to the domination of man by man is the opposite of Sorel’s proletarian violence. Sorel even adds that at the heart of labor itself, one finds violence as the inner motor. Thus the notions are linked: labor, violence, morality. And socialism is then the result of this “emerging virtue” (Reflections). Work is a struggle, where the producer is roused by an absolute violence from which the historic creative act follows.
Violence, Antidote to the Baseness of the Soul
For Sorel, it is evident that this emergence of the socialism of violence will be to detriment of this old bourgeois world. If violence is a positive notion because it is creative, we must expect fierce opposition. Sorel proposes to define the territory of the conflict and situate the enemy against it. Civilization is the number one enemy of the emerging socialism, an enemy that relies on two other instances of the old world: democracy and the state. The troops that defend these citadels are varied and often apparent enemies: the camp of the bourgeoisie (liberals, radicals, partisans of capitalism outright, the conservative right) and the pseudo-socialists (the members of reformist parties, the democratic “left”, progressives of all tendencies).
Behind these abstractions (democracy, civilization, the state), Sorel unflaggingly combats the very common values of the ideology of mediocrity. With Sorel there is the sense of cultural war, the sense of the combat of values. He doesn’t believe in the labels that bourgeois discourse likes to attribute to the actors in its game. Words in the political game are only appearances. Sorel sought to scour the roots of these discourses. To be “socialist” means nothing if one is not aware of a conception of the world that breaks with merchant society. Laziness, baseness, hypocrisy, incompetence, cowardice are the common traits of the official parties.
Sorelian violence is actually very conscious of the real and historical stakes of the struggle. The non-values, which subjugate the producers and hold their freedom hostage, are concentrated in the economic conception of man, that Maurrassians called “economism.” The principles of this economism are twofold: the belief in material progress, the reduction of man to materialist values. Man benefits from both material comfort and an intellectual “comfort.” Man is an enormous stomach, destined for social and political submission. Consumer society is then the greatest camp of intellectual normalization. One can think that Sorelian violence would be in a state of rupture with the Western world, and all that this world carries behind it. Likewise, he would have a hard time recognizing himself in certain progressive critiques of consumer society, whose foundation resides in an even greater requirement of comfort. The philosophy of happiness is anti-Sorelian and Marcuse would be considered as a typical case of bourgeois utopianism by Sorel. The man who proclaims the end of work, who refuses struggle, who contests social war, this man that our 1970s philosophers summon from all their wishes, is very distant from the producer with the warrior mentality of “Reflections on Violence.”
The Illusions of Progress
As for “progress,” Sorel felt the need to devote an entire work to it as it seemed to him that this concept was an emblem of the bourgeois mentality. This was “Illusions du progrès.” The supreme illusion of an earthly paradise found at the end of time made Sorel cringe. Sorelian pessimism is the conclusion of an observation: man doesn’t fundamentally change. Sorel approves acts of material progress but for him it meant an admiration for the “creativity” of which these acts are the manifestations. Likewise, he believed in the proletariat, not like Marx who believed in the “chosen class of history”, but because he noted that the bourgeoisie no longer had the energy to continue the eternal struggle.
For Sorel, history is a succession of manifested energies in limited groups. The captain of industry is a positive figure. He’s an idea of his era. Furthermore, mercantile values are values of degeneration. War against modern (implicitly mercantile) society is a common starting point of Sorel and Maurras. Hate for the bourgeois, wrote Polin, is a meeting point between Action Française and Sorel. It’s a class without will, without honor, without dignity. The democratic regime suits it because it conserves, not because it is the source of creation. Sorel spoke harshly of the bourgeoisie because he noted a “degradation of the sentiment of honor” among them.
Sorel vituperates this democracy, he wrote: “(democracy) is the charlatanism of ambitious and pleasure seeking leaders” (Reflections). It matters little if this democracy is conservative or popular, it conserves and promotes the same decadence. The democratic socialists are “merchant politicians, demagogues, charlatans, manufacturers of intellect.” Moreover, not content to keep the people under an oppressive regime (where the workers are to work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week?), democracy established the reign of money. It’s a tyranny, a plutocratic tyranny, directed by the men of money, who want to preserve their own interests. Sorel wrote: “It is likely that their interests are the only motivations for their actions.” As for the leadership of the Worker’s International, Sorel denounced them as apprentice dictators. Their objective was the establishment of a “demagogic dictatorship.”
Sorel did not want state socialism. He demonstrates anarchist tendencies in his critique of the state, hardly compatible with the state dictatorship of the proletariat desired by the Marxists. The state (even socialist) is an “artificial state,” the bearer of a “marvelous servitude.” In history, the democratic state ends with the September Massacres. And what C. Pollin calls, like Sorel, the “ideological cortege” of democracy (human rights, humanitarianism, charity, pacifism, etc) changes nothing about the oppressive character of this regime. Sorel is the author of a famous quote on democracy: “Democracy is the dictatorship of incapacity” (Reflections). The two words that strike us: dictatorship, incapacity.
The anti-democratic critique of Sorel should not be confused with the reactionary ideology of the authoritarian current nor with the conservative discourse of law and order. Furthermore, we see a rejection of two camps with Sorel: the camp of the bourgeoisie, where cowardice dominates, and the camp of social reformism directed by corruption. Sorel believes in the class struggle, that makes him incompatible with social-democratic or conservative labels. The violence that this class struggle manifests is also a factor of energy in action. Like Pareto, he believed that the class struggle gives birth to new elites from the corpses for the fallen classes. Social peace is the state of absolute social entropy for Sorel. Yet, Sorel can not be Marxist because he doesn’t adhere to Marx’s final vision of the world. Struggle is the normal activity of humanity. It has no meaning if not to circulate elites in history. In summation, by becoming infinite, violence is the bearer of a project of creation, the bearer of a moral conception of life, the source of the producers’ organization.
In his introduction to “Reflections”, Sorel wrote: “I am not a professor, nor a popularizer, nor an aspiring party leader; I am an autodidact who presents the notes that I have used for my own instruction to a few people.” Thus “Reflections” constitutes an ensemble of practical observations. Sorel repeats: he does not want to create an academic work. Instead, it’s a pedagogical work for the use of free syndicalists, who are ready to receive a revolutionary message.
Sorelian violence is the purely moral and creative dimension of Sorel’s socialism. The message of Sorel is that socialism is not a political program, nor a political party. Socialism is a moral revolution; in other terms, socialism is primarily a reversal of mentalities. One could speak of “spiritual revolution.” And violence informs this brutal change of mind. Socialism without violence is not socialism. Only the use of violence assures a positive revolution. Sorel doesn’t recognize a creative violence in the acts of the French Revolution. He rejects all that aims to destroy for the sake of destruction. Violence gives socialism the mark of its nobility. It constitutes an essential value for the progressive and independent organization of producers.
For us, it is certain that socialism is not a rigid discourse. We do not desire to recognize a socialist regime or ideology in social democracy. Socialism is not an ersatz bastard of Western liberalism. Western regimes that claim socialism today are, with perhaps the exception of Austria in matters of foreign policy, shamefully, or “happily” compromised by social liberalism (on this subject, read in Le Monde Diplomatique of February 1984, the article entitled “A French socialism with the colors of liberalism”). Sorel predicted this involution towards a mixed discourse, where socialism and liberalism are “a good match.”
Sorel’s socialism is not a compromise. It presents itself as a cultural revolution. His objective is not to manage capitalism through a new division of power (what difference is there between a left wing and a right wing technocracy?) but to offer the true values of the revolution. Violence is a guarantor of fidelity to revolutionary values. It doesn’t mean smashing the windows of the big stores or practicing terrorist violence. True violence consists of overturning taboos. We must denounce the intellectual blockages of the West. We must not hesitate to question the system. That is the true violence of Sorel: intellectual autonomy … So, Sorel, a radical alternative?