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Georges Sorel

Georges Eugène Sorel (1847-1922)

Georges Eugène Sorel (2 November 1847 in Cherbourg â 29 August 1922 in Boulogne-sur-Seine) was a French philosopher and theorist of revolutionary syndicalism. His notion of the power of myth in people's lives inspired Marxists and Fascists. It is, together with his defense of violence, the contribution for which he is most often remembered.[1] Orson J. Hale writes:

"Anyone assessing the significance of Georges Sorel will reflect long on whether to classify him with the abstract thinkers or the social philosophers and reformers. He was, in fact, a mixture of both, but since he was a spectator in the workers' movement and not in any way a direct participant, he is best placed with the thinkers. He is remembered for one book -- Reflections on Violence -- and for his later intellectual linkage with Communism and Fascism. Sorel, like Gabriel Tarde, had two distinct careers. Bourgeois in origin, and an engineer by training and profession, he resigned from state employment after twenty-five years to devote his time to study and writing...He did not absorb and systematize the ideas of others but analyzed and reacted to all that he read. Original in his thought, he was an intellectual eccentric and very nearly a crank." [2]


[edit] Biography

Sorel was born in Cherbourg, son of a bankrupted wine merchant. In 1865, he entered the École Polytechnique in Paris. He became chief engineer with the Department of Public Works. He was stationed briefly in Corsica, and for a longer period in Perpignan. In 1891, he was awarded the Légion d'honneur.[3] He retired in 1892 and moved to Boulogne-sur-Seine, near Paris, where he stayed until his death.

Beginning in the second half of the 1880s, he published articles in various fields (hydrology, architecture, physics, political history, and philosophy) displaying the influence of Aristotle, as well as Hippolyte Taine and Ernest Renan. In 1893, he publicly affirmed his position as a Marxist and a socialist. His social and political philosophy owed much to his reading of Proudhon, Karl Marx, Giambattista Vico, Henri Bergson (whose lectures at the Collège de France he attended), and later William James. Sorel's engagement in the political world was accompanied by a correspondence with Benedetto Croce, and later with Vilfredo Pareto. Sorel worked on the first French Marxist journals, LâÈre nouvelle and Le Devenir social, and then participated at the turn of the century in the revisionist debate and crisis within Marxism. He took the side of Eduard Bernstein against Karl Kautsky. Sorel supported acquittal during the Dreyfus affair, although, like his friend Charles Péguy, he later felt betrayed by what he took to be the opportunism of the Dreyfusards. Through his contributions to Enrico Leone's Il Divenire sociale and Hubert Lagardelle's Mouvement socialiste, he contributed around 1905 to the theoretical elaboration of revolutionary syndicalism. In 1906, his most famous text, Reflections on Violence, appeared in this last journal. It was published in book form in 1908, and was followed the same year by Illusions du progrès.

Disappointed by the CGT, Sorel associated himself for a period in 1909-1910 with Charles Maurrasâ Action française, while sharing neither its nationalism nor its political program. This collaboration inspired the founders of the Cercle Proudhon, which brought together revolutionary syndicalists and monarchists. Sorel himself, with Jean Variot, founded a journal in 1911 called LâIndépendance, although disagreements, in part over nationalism, soon ended the project.[4]

Ferociously opposed to the 1914 Union sacrée, Sorel denounced the war and in 1917 praised the Russian Revolution, calling Lenin "the greatest theoretician of socialism since Marx." He wrote numerous small pieces for Italian newspapers defending the Bolsheviks. Sorel was extremely hostile to Gabriele DâAnnunzio, the poet who attempted to re-conquer Fiume for Italy, and did not show sympathy for the rise of fascism in Italy, despite Jean Variot's later claims that he placed all his hopes in Benito Mussolini. After the war, Sorel published a collection of his writings entitled Matériaux dâune théorie du prolétariat. At the time of his death, in Boulogne sur Seine, he had an ambivalent attitude both towards Fascism and Bolshevism.

Although his writing touched on many subjects, Sorel's work is best characterized by his original interpretation of Marxism, which was deeply anti-determinist, politically anti-elitist, anti-Jacobin, and built on the direct action of unions, the mobilizing role of mythâespecially that of the general strikeâand on the disruptive and regenerative role of violence. Whether Sorel is better seen as a left-wing or right-wing thinker is disputed: the Italian Fascists praised him as a forefather, but the dictatorial government they established ran contrary to his beliefs, while he was also an important touchstone for Italy's first Communists, who saw Sorel as a theorist of the proletariat. Such widely divergent interpretations arise from the theory that a moral revival of the country must take place to re-establish itself; yet whether this revival must occur by means of the middle and upper classes or the proletariat is a point in question. His ideas, most notably the concept of a spontaneous general strike, have contributed significantly to anarcho-syndicalism.

[edit] Political writings

"Sorel began his writing as a marginal Marxist, a critical analyst of Marx's economics and philosophy, and not a pious commentator. He then embraced revisionism, became for several years the "metaphysician of syndicalism", and as Jaures called him, flirted ardently with royalist circles, and then reverted to his commitment to the proletariat. When the Bolsheviks came to power, he completed his cycle of illusions by saluting Vladimir Lenin as the leader who had realized his syndicalist myth."[5]

"The syndicalist or militant trade union movement, which burst into prominence in France around 1900, inspired Sorel to write his "Reflections on Violence. The turmoil engendered by strikes was universally condemned even by parliamentary socialists, who favored negotiation and conciliation. To justify the militancy and to give syndicalism an ideology, Sorel published the series of articles that became, as one of his biographers calls it, "a famous and infamous book."[6] Indeed, it was Sorels only successful book of about a dozen published.[7]" This book was published in Italian, Spanish, German, Japanese and English.

Two of its themes have become a part of social science literature: the concept of the social myth and the virtue of violence. To Sorel the Syndicalist's general strike, the Marxist's catastrophic revolution, the Christian's church militant, the legends of the French Revolution, and the remembrance of June Days are all myths that move men, quite independent of their historical reality. As one of Sorel's disciples (Benito Mussolini) said, men do not move mountains; it is only necessary to create the illusion that mountains move. Social myths, says Sorel, are not descriptions of things, but "expressions of a determination to act."[8]

Myths enclose all the strongest inclinations of a people, of a party, or of a class, and the general strike is "the myth in which Socialism is wholly comprised."[9]. For Sorel the general strike was a catastrophic conception of socialism, the essence of the class struggle, and the only true Marxist means of effecting the revolution. Nowhere does Sorel endorse indiscriminate, brutal violence; only violence "enlightened by the idea of the general strike" [10] is unconditionally defended; only violence in the Marxist class war, as Sorel conceived it, is fine and heroic and in the service of the "immemorial interest of civilization." In fact, Sorel makes no justification of violence by philosophical argument, but uses long excursions into past history and current events to demonstrate that ethical codes are relative to their time and place. In essence demonstrating that all our moral codes demonstrate moral relativism. Consistent with his position he could describe the Declaration of the Rights of Man as "only a colorless collection of abstract and confused formulas, without any practical bearing." [11].

[edit] Relation to Marxism

Sorel had been politically monarchist and traditionalist before embracing orthodox Marxism in the 1890s. He attempted to fill in what he believed were gaps in Marxist theory, resulting in an extremely heterodox and idiosyncratic view of Marxism. For instance, Sorel saw pessimism and irrationalism at the core of Marxism and rejected Karl Marx's own rationalism and "utopian" tendency. Sorel also saw Marxism as closer in spirit to early Christianity than to the French Revolution. He did not view Marxism as "true" in a scientific sense, as orthodox Marxists did, but believed Marxism's "truth" lay in its promise of a morally redemptive role for the proletariat, within a terminally decadent society.

Sorel's was a voluntarist Marxism: he rejected those Marxists who believed in inevitable and evolutionary change, emphasizing instead the importance of will and preferring direct action. These approaches included general strikes, boycotts, and constant disruption of capitalism with the goal being to achieve worker control over the means of production. Sorel's belief in the need for a deliberately-conceived "myth" to sway crowds into concerted action was put into practice by mass fascist movements in the 1920s. The epistemic status of the idea of "myth" is of some importance, and is essentially that of a working hypothesis, with one fundamental peculiarity: it is an hypothesis which we do not judge by its closeness to a "Truth", but by the practical consequences which stem from it. Thus, whether a political myth is of some importance or not must be decided, in Sorel's view, on the basis of its capacity to mobilize human beings into political action; the only possible way for men to ascend to an ethical life filled by the character of the sublime and to achieve deliverance. Sorel believed the "energizing myth" of the general strike would serve to enforce solidarity, class consciousness and revolutionary élan amongst the working-class. The "myth" that the fascists would appeal to, however, was that of the race, nation, or people, as represented by the state.

[edit] Anti-nationalism, and anti anti-capitalism

In his most famous work Reflections On Violence (1908), Sorel warned about the political trend that conservatives and parliamentary socialism could become allies in a common struggle against capitalism. Sorel's view is that the conservatives and parliamentary socialism had common goals, because they both want the nation to be a centrally controlled, organic unit where all the parts are working together as a whole. Also, the parliamentarian socialism of the left wants economic nationalism, and huge tariff-barriers in order to protect their interior capitalists and this works well together with the cultural nationalism of the conservatives. Sorel warned about the creation of corporatism, where the workers movements and the employers organizations would be forced to merge with each other, thus ending the class-struggle, and because he felt that parliamentary democracy was moving in that direction at the beginning of the last century, Sorel said that the workers had to stay away from the socialist parties, and use strikes and violence as their primary weapon against the middle and upper classes in parliament. That way, the workers would not only fight harder for their share of the values produced by capitalism, but also help to protect capitalism against the semi-feudal, corporative dystopia and oligarchy that the socialists and the conservatives are working towards.

[edit] Thoughts on economics & parliamentary democracy

In his "Reflections on Violence", Sorel says that parliamentary socialism, and its middle-class of bureaucrats and newspaper-intellectuals does not understand social science, economics, or any other matter important for good rule as well as the traditional liberalist and capitalist elite that ruled before the mediocre middle-class became a powerful force in parliament. "How did these mediocre and silly people become so powerful?" Sorel asks. His theory on this is that the mediocre middle-class became powerful when the working-classes, people without property, were given the right to vote at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Thus, the working classes now created a problem for themselves by creating a political elite that is more stupid and less competent than the people who had a monopoly of power before them. He proposed that this problem could only be fixed by a collective withdrawal and boycott of the parliamentary system by the workers. Thus, the workers must return to strikes and violence as their main political tool, so Sorel says. This gives the workers a sense of unity, a return to dignity, and weakens the dangerous and mediocre middle-class in their struggle for power, and their attack on capitalism.[citation needed]

[edit] Anti-elitism

Sorel rejected political elitism because the middle-classes tend to co-opt all organizational hierarchies, and turn them into gentlemen's clubs for people who like to talk theory and write long newspaper articles. This point was made by Sorel in "Reflections on Violence", and was later developed further by Robert Michels and his "Iron Law of Oligarchy."

[edit] Sorel's antirealism

Isaiah Berlin identifies three anti-scientific currents in Sorel's work.

[edit] Science is not reality

He dismissed science as "a system of idealised entities: atoms, electric charges, mass, energy and the like â fictions compounded out of observed uniformitiesâdeliberately adapted to mathematical treatment that enable men to identify some of the furniture of the universe, and to predict andâ control parts of it." [1; 301] He regarded science more as "an achievement of the creative imagination, not an accurate reproduction of the structure of reality, not a map, still less a picture, of what there was. Outside of this set of formulas, of imaginary entities and mathematical relationships in terms of which the system was constructed, there was ânaturalâ nature â the real thingâ" [1; 302] He regarded such a view as "an odious insult to human dignity, a mockery of the proper ends of men", [1; 300] and ultimately constructed by "fanatical pedants", [1; 303] out of "abstractions into which men escape to avoid facing the chaos of reality." [1; 302]

[edit] Science is not nature

As far as Sorel was concerned, "nature is not a perfect machine, nor an exquisite organism, nor a rational system." [1; 302] He rejected the view that "the methods of natural science can explain and explain away ideas and valuesâor explain human conduct in mechanistic or biological terms, as theâblinkered adherents of la petite science believe." [1; 310] He also maintained that the categories we impose upon the world, "alter what we call realityâthey do not establish timeless truths as the positivists maintained", [1; 302] and to "confuse our own constructions with eternal laws or divine decrees is one of the most fatal delusions of men." [1; 303] It is "ideological patterâbureaucracy, la petite scienceâthe Tree of Knowledge has killed the Tree of Lifeâhuman life [has been reduced] to rules that seem to be based on objective truths." [1; 303] Such to Sorel, is the appalling arrogance of science, a vast deceit of the imagination, a view that conspires to "stifle the sense of common humanity and destroy human dignity." [1; 304]

[edit] Science is not a recipe

Science, he maintained, "is not a âmillâ into which you can drop any problem facing you, and which yields solutions", [1; 311] that are automatically true and authentic. Yet, this is precisely how too many people seem to regard it.

To Sorel, that is way "too much of a conceptual, ideological construction", [1; 312] smothering our perception of truth through the "stifling oppression of remorselessly tidy rational organisation." [1; 321] For Sorel, the inevitable "consequence of the modern scientific movement and the application of scientific categories and methods to the behaviour of men", [1; 323] is an outburst of interest in irrational forces, religions, social unrest, criminality and deviance - resulting directly from an overzealous and monistic obsession with scientific rationalism.

And what science confers, "a moral grandeur, bureaucratic organisation of human lives in the light ofâla petite science, positivist application of quasi-scientific rules to society â all this Sorel despised and hated", [1; 328] as so much self-delusion and nonsense that generates no good and nothing of lasting value.

Above quotations from:

  • [1] Sir Isaiah Berlin, Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, London: Pimlico, 1997

[edit] Works

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ See, for instance, Kract, Klaus Gross. "Georges Sorel und der Mythos der Gewalt." Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History n 1, 2008.
  2. ^ page 108-110 The Rise of Modern Europe "The Great Illusion 1900-1914" by Oron J. Hale, Harper Torchbooks copyright 1971, Standard Book Number 06-131578-8
  3. ^ Jennings, Jeremy. Georges Sorel: The Character and Development of his Thought. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985. Pg 16.
  4. ^ Roman, Thomas. "L'Independance. Une revue traditionaliste", Mil-neuf-cent. n. 20, 2001.[1]
  5. ^ Hale, page 109.
  6. ^ James H. Meisel, The Genesis of Georges Sorel (Ann Arbor, 1951), p 125
  7. ^ Hale page 109
  8. ^ Ibid page 109
  9. ^ refers to page 50 of Reflections of Violence (Georges Sorel, New York, 1961)
  10. ^ Reflections of Violence page 127
  11. ^ Reflections on Violence page 210

[edit] External links

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