Georges Eugène Sorel (2 November 1847 – 29 August 1922) was a French philosopher and theorist of revolutionary syndicalism. His notion of the power of myth in people's lives inspired anarchists, Marxists and Fascists. It is, together with his defense of violence, the contribution for which he is most often remembered.
Born in Cherbourg as the son of a bankrupted wine merchant, Sorel entered the École Polytechnique in Paris in 1865. He became chief engineer with the Department of Public Works, stationed briefly in Corsica, and for a longer period in Perpignan. In 1891, he was awarded the Légion d'honneur. 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, L’Ère 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 saw as 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 Maurras’ 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 L'Indépendance, although disagreements, in part over nationalism, soon ended the project.
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 D’Annunzio, 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 d’une Théorie du Prolétariat. At the time of his death, in Boulogne sur Seine, he had an ambivalent attitude towards both 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 myth—especially that of the general strike—and 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, saving it from decadence; yet whether this revival must occur by means of the middle and upper classes or of the proletariat is a point in question. His ideas, most notably the concept of a spontaneous general strike, have contributed significantly to anarcho-syndicalism.
"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", 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."
"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." Indeed, it was Sorel's only successful book of about a dozen published." 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."
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." 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 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 history and current events to suggest that ethical codes are relative to their time and place. 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.
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 among 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.
Zeev Sternhell mentions frequently Sorel as one of the men who led the way to the fusion of the left-wing revisionnists and of the right-wing ultranationalists into what later became Fascism. Sorel's vision of Socialism was "a-marxist, antimarxist, eventually post-Marxist revisionnist". Sternhell says that "the socialism designed as "ethics socialism" by Sorel, Robert Michels and Arturo Labriola [...] will play a huge role in the evolution of the socialist nationalist synthesis, in the eve of 1914 and in the Interwar".
Shlomo Sand and Zeev Sternhell agree that Sorel was anti-Semitic. Sternhell says in "Neither Right nor Left" (Ni droite ni gauche, l'idéologie fasciste en France) that anti-Semitism was a cornerstone of Sorel's revolutionary syndicalism. Sand says that Sorel can be legitimately said to be anti-Semitic, as he proved his judeophobia through his writings and public declarations.
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.
Thoughts on economics and 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 liberal 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 be fixed only 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.
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.
Isaiah Berlin identifies three anti-scientific currents in Sorel's work, but Sorel's attack on science is neither general nor piecemeal. Rather than "attacks", as is clear from the quotations below, Sorel explains how we should view "science" in relation to what he called "the real thing".
Science is not reality
He dismissed science as "a system of idealised entities: atoms, electric charges, mass, energy and the like – fictions compounded out of observed uniformities... deliberately adapted to mathematical treatment that enable men to identify some of the furniture of the universe, and to predict and... 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 ‘natural’ nature – the real thing…" [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]
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 values…or explain human conduct in mechanistic or biological terms, as the…blinkered adherents of la petite science believe." [1; 310] He also maintained that the categories we impose upon the world, "alter what we call reality…they 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 patter... bureaucracy, la petite science... the Tree of Knowledge has killed the Tree of Life... human 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]
Science is not a recipe
Science, he maintained, "is not a ‘mill’ into which you can drop any problem facing you, and which yields solutions", [1; 311] that are automatically true and authentic. Yet, he claimed, 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 of…la petite science, positivist application of quasi-scientific rules to society – all this Sorel despised and hated", [1; 328] as so much self-delusion and nonsense that generates no good and nothing of lasting value.
- Contribution à l'Étude Profane de la Bible (Paris, 1889).
- Le Procès de Socrate, Examen Critique des Thèses Socratiques (Paris: Alcan, 1889).
- Questions de Morale (Paris, 1900).
- L'avenir socialiste des syndicats (Paris, 1901).
- La Ruine du Monde Antique: Conception Matérialiste de l'Histoire (Paris, 1902).
- Introduction à l'Économie Moderne (Paris, 1903).
- La Crise de la Pensée Catholique (Paris, 1903).
- Le Système Historique de Renan (Paris, 1905–1906).
- Les Préoccupations Métaphysiques des Physiciens Modernes (Paris, 1907).
- La Décomposition du Marxisme (Paris, 1908); translation as The Decomposition of Marxism by Irving Louis Horowitz in his Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason; The Social Theories of Georges Sorel (Humanities Press, 1961; Southern Illinois University Press, 1968).
- Les Illusions du Progrès (1908); Translated as The Illusions of Progress by John and Charlotte Stanley with a foreword by Robert A. Nisbet and an introduction by John Stanley (University of California Press, 1969, ISBN 0-520-02256-4).
- Réflexions sur la Violence (1908); translated as Reflections on Violence first authorised translation by T. E. Hulme (B. W. Huebsch, 1914; P. Smith, 1941; AMS Press, 1975, ISBN 0-404-56165-9); in an unabridged republication with an introduction by Edward A. Shils, translated by T. E. Hulme and J. Roth (The Free Press, 1950; Dover Publications, 2004, ISBN 0-486-43707-8, pbk.); edited by Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-521-55117-X, hb).
- La Révolution Dreyfusienne (Paris, 1909).
- Matériaux d'une Théorie du Prolétariat (Paris, 1919).
- De l'Utilité du Pragmatisme (Paris, 1921).
- Lettres à Paul Delesalle 1914-1921 (Paris, 1947).
- D'Aristote à Marx (L'Ancienne et la Nouvelle Métaphysique) (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1935).
- From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy edited with an introduction by John L. Stanley, translated by John and Charlotte Stanley (Oxford University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-19-501715-3; Transaction Books, 1987, ISBN 0-88738-654-7, pbk.).
- From Georges Sorel: Volume 2, Hermeneutics and the Sciences edited by John L. Stanley, translated by John and Charlotte Stanley (Transaction Publishers, 1990, ISBN 0-88738-304-1).
- Commitment and Change: Georges Sorel and the idea of revolution essay and translations by Richard Vernon (University of Toronto Press, 1978, ISBN 0-8020-5400-5).
- Social Foundations of Contemporary Economics translated with an introduction by John L. Stanley from Insegnamenti Sociali dell'Economia Contemporanea (Transaction Books, 1984, ISBN 0-87855-482-3, cloth).