Translated by Greg Johnson
Part 1 of 3
Violence is not merely a matter of arms. For half a century, a world system has been imposed, the system of “soft commerce.” Soft as bombs. It dominates peoples under the guise of democracy, breaking down the most sacred customs. This new violence reigns thanks to the drugs of consumption and guilt. It is not, however, without resistance.
Georges Sorel is famous for having published his often reprinted Reflections on Violence in 1906. A partisan of revolutionary socialism read by Lenin and Mussolini alike, Sorel made himself the apologist of violence as the motor of history.
In his essay, he worried about an anemic dearth of social violence that he thought he observed in Western Europe and in the United States:
Education is dedicated to so attenuate our tendencies to violence that we are instinctively led to think that any act of violence is a demonstration of a regression towards cruelty. . . . One has to wonder if there is not some silliness in the admiration of our contemporaries for softness.
These remarks, going back one century, could be from today. They certainly grab one’s attention and interest.
Less than ten years after Sorel’s morose report, the Great War commenced, showing something quite different from a general penchant for softness. This war was followed in Russia and Europe by a series of revolutions and civil wars, whose dominating feature was not peace. And the Second World War which followed, together with after-effects like the generalization of terrorism, was also not a demonstration of peaceful tendencies.
Europe in Dormition & Repentance
In other words, one is often misled by forecasts that imagine the future as an extension of the present. Under the effect of unexpected emotions or collective commotions, the softness or flabbiness of one time can suddenly be cast off in irresistible violence. The history of peoples and societies is not governed by a principle of continuity, but by unforeseeable accidents.
In Europe today (but not elsewhere), everything leads one to suppose that history with its violence and politics has reached its final end. Those who have read my Siècle de 1914 (Century of 1914) know that I have interpreted the time that followed the Second World War as Europe’s entry into dormition after half a century of violent follies. This dormition is not unrelated to a project of culpabilization and demoralization without parallel.
With courage and clarity, this project was analyzed in 2003 by intellectuals worried by the rise in France of anti-Semitism because of Maghrebian immigration. According to these authors, this immigration had been supported by certain Jews who, “making a tragic mistake, believed in a possible alliance between the assertion of Jewish identity and the celebration of minorities and localisms, in short, of ‘the Other’ against the nation.” Intense immigrationist propaganda was seen as an error.
But, the authors said, it was necessary to go back to the 1960s to find the roots of French and European demoralization, when the memory of the “Shoah was imposed as . . . a decisive reference mark of a culpability that does not concern just the Nazis but . . . everyone in Europe, the people as a whole.” For “the Shoah forbids the European people any historical hope and locks up them in remorse.” A disturbing report. Fifty years after, Europeans doze on, crushed by remorse, “outcasts of history.” For how long? That we do not know. But it cannot be forever.
Dreams of Happiness, “Soft Commerce,” & Violence
In Europe, the anticipated end of history and dreams of hedonism cannot be isolated from a public discourse nourished by the myth of “soft commerce” invented long ago by Adam Smith.
What were its practical effects on lived history? The experience of the last two centuries shows that “soft commerce” is rarely a guarantee against violence. Least of all because it replaces politics (reason) with morality (emotion). Emotion sells more than reason. But, in addition to daydreams, it is often the purveyor of slaughter, both religious wars and in the ideological wars of the twentieth century.
In spite of Adam Smith’s promises, the intensive exercise of “soft commerce” on a global scale was accompanied by not exactly moderate amounts of violence. If one looks at the nineteenth century, there were, inter alia, the Opium Wars (1840–1842, 1858, 1860) in which France and Great Britain forced open the frontiers of China. This was necessary to give China the benefit of biblical morality and opium traffic, at the cost of the destruction of thousand year old traditions. Carried out for the profit of “soft commerce,” the Franco-British armed interventions eventually led China to a series of revolutions, which were preludes to the great slaughters of Maoism.
One can chalk up many more colonial and national conflicts to the benefit of “soft commerce.” It played a large role in the two World Wars, which were not free of economic motives. Globalizing the Anglo-American “free market” was not done without a little breakage . . . One of the more recent instances of damage, masked by moral and democratic justifications (a redundancy), is the war in Iraq begun in 2003. The control of an important source of hydrocarbons necessary to “soft commerce” is the likely reason that Saddam’s Iraq, a regime that was rather brutal (which is nothing unusual) but also stable, was put to fire and sword.
1. One of the contributions of Georges Sorel (1847–1922) to political thought is the concept of myth to designate the mobilizing images around which great historical movements are constituted (Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire, no. 13, pp. 20–22).
2. Article published in Le Monde, December 30, 2003, under the signature of Gilles Bernheim, chief rabbi and philosopher, Elisabeth de Fontenay, professor of philosophy, Philippe de Lara, professor of philosophy, Alain Finkielkraut, writer and professor, Philippe Raynaud, professor of philosophy, Paul Thibaud, essayist, Michel Zaoui, lawyer.
3. See La Chine et l’Occident, Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire no. 19, July–August 2005.
4. Georges-Henri Soutou, L’or et le sang. Les buts de guerre économiques de la Première Guerre mondiale (Paris: Fayard, 1989). We have discussed this subject in many issues of Nouvelle Revue d’Histoire, notably in nos. 14 and 32.