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Georges Sorel

Georges Eugène Sorel (November 2, 1847 in Cherbourg–August 29, 1922 in Boulogne-sur-Seine)

2,012 words

Editor’s Note:

In commemoration of the birth of Georges Sorel on November 2, 1847, we are publishing this anonymous translation of Alain de Benoist’s tribute.

Although violence is always the order of the day, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Georges Sorel would have passed unnoticed if Éditions Marcel Rivière did not have the idea of republishing Réflexions sur la violence [Reflections on Violence] (Paris: Éditions Marcel Rivière, 1973).

“Sorel, enigma of the twentieth century, seems to be a transplant of Proudhon, enigma of the nineteenth,” wrote Daniel Halévy in his Preface to M. Pierre Andreu’s book, Notre maître, M. Sorel (Paris: Grasset, 1953). Enigma, indeed: an ideologue built like a giant, ears flat against his skull, strong nose, clear eyes, white beard. Enigma: this tenacious socialist who was ill at ease with the Russian Revolution, sympathetic to the Action Française, and an admirer of Renan, Hegel, Bergson, Maurras, Marx, and Mussolini.

Georges Sorel was born at Cherbourgon November 2, 1847. He was doubly Norman: by the Manche and the Calvados. His first cousin, Albert Sorel, would become the historian of the Empire and of the Revolution.

A graduate of the École polytechnique, an engineer of bridges and roads, Sorel devoted himself to social problems only after 1892. His books, which are hardly read any more, have nevertheless retained their value—notably Les illusions du progrès [The Illusions of Progress], Réflexions sur la violence [Reflections on Violence], De l’Église et de l’État [On Church and State], De l’utilité du pragmatisme [The Utility of Pragmatism], La décomposition du marxisme [The Decomposition of Marxism], D’Aristote à Marx [From Aristotle to Marx], La ruine du monde antique [The Ruin of the Ancient World], Le procès de Socrate [The Trial of Socrates], etc.

Published for the first time in 1908, Réflexions sur la violence has therefore been republished in 1973, in the collection “Études sur le devenir social,” whose director is M. Julien Freund, a professor at theUniversity ofStrasbourg.

The book immediately appeared as a fundamental work of revolutionary syndicalism.

Hostile to parliamentary socialism and to Jean Jaurès, whom he accused of being nourished with bourgeois ideology, Georges Sorel opposed to them what he called the “new school.” He saw in the strike the essential form of social protest. It is by means of the general strike that society will be divided into enemy factions, and the bourgeois state will be destroyed. The strike is “the most devastating manifestation of individualist force in the insurgent masses.”

The strike implies violence. Contrary to the socialists of his time (Proudhon excepted), Sorel did not oppose work to violence. He refused to gloss over the “desire for peace of the workers.” Violence was for him an act of war. “An act of pure struggle, similar to that of armies on campaign,” he wrote.

“This assimilation of the strike to war is decisive,” indicates M. Claude Polin in the Preface of the new edition of Réflexions sur la violence, “for everything that war touches is done without hate and without the spirit of vengeance: in war, one does not kill the vanquished; one does not subject noncombatants to the same woes that armies may suffer on the field of battle.” Which explains why Sorel reproved the “violence-vengeance” of the revolutionaries of 1793: “It is necessary not to confound violence with bloodthirsty brutalities that make no sense.”

In the Beginning Was Action

Taking up the distinction, henceforth classic, between “just” and “unjust” war, he opposes bourgeois violence to proletarian violence. The latter possesses, in his eyes, a double virtue. Not only must it assure the future revolution, but it is the sole means possessed by the European nations, “stupefied by humanitarianism,” to regain their former energy.

The struggle of classes is therefore a clash of wills that are firm but not blind. Violence becomes the manifestation of a will. At the same time, it exercises a kind of moral function: it produces an “epic” state of mind.

“Violence,” Soreldeclared to his friend Jean Variot, “is an intellectual doctrine: the will of powerful brains which know what they want. True violence is what is necessary to follow ideas to their end” (Propos de Georges Sorel [Paris: Gallimard, 1935]).

Sorel would have approved this line from Goethe: “In the beginning was action.” For him, the man who acts, whatever he does, is always superior to the man who submits: “True violence displays, first and foremost, the pride of free men.”

To restore energy to the contemporary world, a “myth” is necessary, that is to say, a theme that is neither true nor false, but which acts powerfully upon the mind, mobilizes and incites it to action.

Georges Sorel saw 19th-century Prussia as the heir of ancient Rome.

In praising the “Prussian virtues,” he adopts a tone that is evocative of Moeller van den Bruck (Der preussische Stil). “Sorel, the artisan, had the cult of work done well,” remarks M. Claude Polin, “and work done well constitutes an end in itself, independent of the benefits that one draws from it. This disinterestedness is the quality of violence: there is, at the base of Sorel’s thought, this intuition that all work is a struggle and especially all work done well, and even that work is done well only if it is a struggle. This idea goes back to the intuition of the essentially promethean character of work. All true work is a transformation of things that entails the necessity of transforming oneself and others with oneself.”

Gradually, Sorel finished by denouncing democracy (the “veritable dictatorship of incapacity”) combining the accents of a Maurras, a Bakunin, and a Secrétan.

The dictatorship of the proletariat seemed equally delusional to him: “It is necessary to be very naïve to suppose that the people who profit from demagogic dictatorship will readily abandon its advantages.” He rejects in passing the vanguard role that intellectual Bolshevism claims to play: “All the future of socialism resides in the autonomous development of workers’ syndicates” (Matériaux pour une théorie du prolétariat). “Marx was not always very well inspired,” he continued. “His writing ended up repeating a lot of the utopian socialists’ rubbish.”

This conception of action is in complete opposition to “vanguardist” theories (for example, Trotskyism). But it is found in the propositions of revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism.

Finally, if Sorel defended the proletariat with such tenacity, it was not through sentimentalism, like Zola, nor due to a petty bourgeois feeling of guilt, nor even because he felt a “class consciousness.” It is because he was convinced that within bourgeois society, it was only from the people that one could still restore the energy that the ruling classes had lost. Conscious of the “illusions of progress,” he ascertained that societies, like men, are mortal. To this fatality, he opposed a will to live, of which violence is one of its manifestations.

Today, Sorel would denounce mercantile society as much as the leading dissidents of the New Left. “Marcuse would represent in his eyes,” writes M. Polin, “the typical example of man degenerated by the wide-eyed belief in progress, deceived by progress because he understands nothing and expects everything, incapable of putting his hope anywhere but in exacerbated and radicalized progress, in this dream of an abundance so automatic that it delivers Happiness and makes possible the random satisfaction of the most crazed passions: incapable, in a word, of comprehending that the source of evil is in the soul of man devirilized by the economic faith.”

The Name of the Old Antioch

Starting from 1907, Georges Sorel was the architect of a rapprochement between the anti-democrats of the Right and the Left. The organ of this rapprochement was the Revue critique des idées et des livres, where the nationalist Georges Valois published the results of his inquiry on the monarchy and the working class.

In 1910 the review La Cité française appeared, then from 1911 to 1913, L’Indépendance. One finds there the signatures of Georges Sorel, Jean Variot, Édouard Berth, and Daniel Halévy, as well as those of the brothers Tharaud, René Benjamin, Maurice Barrès, and Paul Bourget.

In 1913, the journalist Édouard Berth, author of Les Méfaits des intellectuels, saluted in Maurras and Sorel “the two masters of the French and European regeneration.” But, in September 1914, Sorel wrote to him: “We have entered an era that can be quite well characterized by the name of the old Antioch. Renan has very well described this metropolis of courtesans, charlatans, and merchants. We will very soon have the pleasure of seeing Maurras condemned by the Vatican, which will be the just punishment of his escapades. And what could correspond to a royalist party in a France that would be wholly occupied with enjoying the easy life of Antioch?

“Sorel,” explains the sociologist Gaëtan Pirou, “reproached Maurras for being too democratic, a reproach which, at first glance, can appear paradoxical. In reality, what Sorel wanted to say is that Maurras, positivist and intellectualist, had repudiated democracy only under its political aspect and not in its philosophical foundation” (Georges Sorel [Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1927]).

National Revolutionaries

Sorelwould influence Barrès and Péguy as well as Lenin. The latter, however, would denounce him as a “foggy thinker” in Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

After France, observed M. Alexandre Croix in La Révolution prolétarienne, Italy would be “the promised land of Sorelianism.” From the start, Sorel exercised a great influence on the Italian syndicalist school directed by Arturo Labriola, the future Italian minister of labor (1920–1921). Labriola, from 1903, translated L’avenir socialiste des syndicats in the Avanguardia of Milan. One of his lieutenants, Enrico Leone, wrote the Preface to the first version of the Réflexions, which would appear in 1906 in Italy under the title Lo sciopero generale e la violenza (The General Strike and Violence).

Subsequently, Sorel also influenced Vilfredo Pareto, Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile, and, by the intermediary of Hubert Lagardelle, Benito Mussolini.

In Germany, Sorelianism found a kind of continuation in the national revolutionary and national communist currents that manifested themselves, under Weimar, in the mid-1920s. (Cf. Michael Freund, Georges Sorel: Der revolutionäre Konservatismus [Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1932 and 1972].)

When Soreldied in 1922, the monarchist Georges Valois, in L’Action française, and the socialist Robert Louzon, in La Vie ouvrière, paid him tributes marked with the same admiration. Several weeks later, Mussolini, making his entry into Rome, declared to a Spanish journalist: “It is to Sorel that I owe the most.”

The Soviet government and the Fascist state proposed on the same day to assume the maintenance of his tomb.

Bibliographical Note

M. Jules Monnerot, in a collection of articles entitled Inquisitions (José Corti, 1974), has published a remarkable essay on “Georges Sorel ou l’introduction aux mythes modernes” (pp. 7–47). In it, he characterizes the “coherence of the Sorelian approach” as a constant search for the “sublime,” this term defining the source, collective and individual, “of the psychological motivations that are invincible at a given historical moment—invincible in the event.” For Sorel, the sublime is a “psychic sustenance” indispensable to Occidental societies. When it disappears, decadence appears. “The entire secret of Sorel’s passage from revolutionary syndicalism, then to activist nationalism, then to a kind of Bolshevism or European national socialism that death did not allow him to fully develop,” writes M. Monnerot, “the whole secret of Sorel’s work seems summed up in this phrase he wrote: ‘The sublime is dead in the bourgeoisie.’ . . .”

Since the beginning of the century, several books have been dedicated to Sorel, notably (in France) by Pierre Lasserre, Georges Goriély, Victor Sartre, J. Rennes, P. Angel, Édouard Berth, Gaëtan Pirou, Jean Variot, René Johannet, etc. In Italy, M. Paolo Pastori has recently published a short anthology of “anti-democratic” Sorelian texts: Le illusioni della democrazia (Rome: Giovanni Volpe, 1973).

Published for the most part by Marcel Rivière, Sorel’s works have become almost completely impossible to find. But several collections of texts are currently in preparation.

Source: Alain de Benoist, Vu de droite: anthologie critique des idées contemporaines (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 2001 [1977]), pp. 275–78.

 

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3 Comments

  1. rhondda
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I have just finished reading Reflections on Violence. It is one of those dense books that requires a second or even a third reading. (well, at least for me, duh)
    I quite enjoyed his sarcastic put-downs of parliamentary socialists and their fear of the “General Strike”.
    His juxtaposition of bourgeois force and proletarian violence was very enlightening. The way I read it was that bourgeois force is the conformist attitude that keeps everyone in line and the proletarian violence is the will of workers to take over what is essentially theirs. It is not about butchery, but the willingness to use violence if necessary. The real horde is the conforming bourgeoisie.

  2. rhondda
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    One result of reading Sorel is that I now feel a compulsion to know what Marx actually said, instead of relying on someone else’s interpretation. How can one argue against something, if you do not know what that something actually is? The danger of course might be that he is right. Horrors!

  3. Tim
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Sorel’s “Reflections on Violence” is my bible. I go to it regularly to reread it and be inspired. Sorel intentionally made all his work hard to read so that intellectual simpletons and ideological tourists would pass him by. He wanted those with the true violent perspicacious minds only. Violence as understood in Sorel’s day was much deeper and wider than the superficial interpretation we have today, so many current thinkers reject Sorel as a petty agitator rather than a spiritual (Elan Vital) instructor/motivator.

    My favorite comment from Sorel is that “Itellectuals are simply those have taken the career of thinking” which speaks volumes for today’s political pundit class (eg: Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanen etc.) .

    Everyone should read his “Illusions of Progress” that cuts like a knife today’s “Progressives” and their delusional optimism. I’m lucky enough to have a copy but if you don’t just go to Google books and you can read it online.

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