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Sorel, Georges

Sorel, Georges

WORKS BY SOREL

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Georges Sorel, French political thinker, was born in Cherbourg in 1847 and died in Boulogne-surSeine, near Paris, in 1922. A graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, he was a successful engineer in the government department of Fonts et Chaussees until 1892. He then retired to the suburbs of Paris and for the next thirty years lived modestly, taking no active part in politics. He devoted himself exclusively to writing on a great variety of subjects: religion, history, economics, ethics, and political theory. The bulk of this work, lacking in system and varying in quality, remains hidden in the volumes of many French and Italian periodicals.

Sorel‘s education as an engineer gave rise to his lasting concern with problems of technology and the philosophy of science. In such works as D‘Aristote è Marx (1894a), Les préoccupations métaphysiques des physiciens modernes (1907), and De I‘utilité du pragmatisme (1921), he adhered to a relativistic and pluralist conception of scientific truth, but was by no means antirationalist. Science to him meant the harnessing of nature by industrial technology, and he often cited Vico‘s dictum: “Man knows only what he makes.”

Sorel was brought up as a Jansenist, and although he had no personal religious faith, he al-ways retained from Jansenism the sense of original sin, the idea that greatness must be painfully and precariously earned, and the notion that there is a natural trend toward corruption. This is the back-ground for his constant opposition to the optimistic belief in progress that characterized the philosophy of the Enlightenment, expressed principally in Les illusions du progrès (1908a).

Sorel‘s first political views were those of a liberal conservative in the tradition of Tocqueville, Taine, and Renan; Le procès de Socrate (1889) was written in this spirit. However, his discovery of Proudhon, whose moral aspirations fascinated him, and then his discovery of Marx around 1893—as well as the feeling that bourgeois values were in a state of crisis—brought him ever closer to socialism.

After a period of qualified support of Marxism, which included very active involvement with two journals, first, in 1894, L‘ère nouvelle and then, from 1895 to 1897, Devenir social, Sorel became increasingly critical and revisionist with respect to the then dominant militant interpretation, as shown in Saggi di critica del marxismo (1903) and “The Decomposition of Marxism” (1908c). These commentaries on Marxism, which had more influence in Italy and Germany than in France, may well be the most original and permanent portion of Sorel‘s work. They manifest strong opposition to the schematic, deterministic, and dogmatic conceptions of Kautsky and, in line with the views of Bernstein, they stress the voluntarist and ethical aspects of the doctrine.

Both Sorel and the French poet Charles Peguy, fervent supporters of Dreyfus from 1897 on, were badly disappointed and even embittered by the way the socialist and radical politicians of the bloc républicain exploited the Dreyfus affair. The man whom both Sorel and Péguy unjustly blamed for this degeneration of the “mystique” into “politics” was Jean Jaures. Thereafter Sorel‘s thought became more radical: he shifted from right-wing Marxist revisionism, of social-democratic inspiration, to left-wing revisionism. He became an enthusiast of revolutionary syndicalism, a movement with a strong tinge of anarchism, committed to the spontaneity of the struggle of the working class and to its independence from any party leadership. Between 1905 and 1908 he wrote primarily for the Mouvement socialiste, the organ of the movement, and his two best known works, Reflections on Violence (1908b) and Les illusions du progres (1908a), first appeared there.

Reflections on Violence is the work of Sorel‘s which aroused by far the greatest response. This book is chiefly a philosophical commentary on revolutionary syndicalism, a commentary strongly inspired by Bergson‘s thought. In it Sorel developed the notions of “myth” and “violence.” The model for a myth was the syndicalist vision of the general strike, which he interpreted as a moral commitment based on nonrational beliefs, as contrasted with a “utopia” which is constructed, however arbitrarily, on discursive reason. He also pointed out the creative role played by a kind of violence that appears above all in the class struggle and that constitutes a state of mind, a moral rejection of any concessions. He was careful to distinguish this violence from “force,” the mere exercise of the state‘s power of coercion, and he never tired of denouncing the abuse of such force, especially as it occurred in the Jacobin reign of terror.

In Sorel‘s last years, his thought was uncertain and bitter. Disappointed by revolutionary syndicalism, he hoped, not without embarrassment and hesitation, to find a new source of energy in certain monarchist and nationalistic trends; then, disappointed yet again by World War i—which appeared to be the consequence of these same trends—he became enthusiastic about the Bolshevik Revolution (1919), chiefly because he believed it was a lost cause.

Sorel is often erroneously said to have played an ideological role in the advent of the modern dictatorships. His influence on Lenin, who quoted him only once and with complete contempt, was nil. He always denounced anything that might give socialist action a Jacobin or Blanquist cast, anything that might subject it to the authoritarian rule of a party and a fortiori to that of a man. Mussolini did frequently claim ideological descent from Sorel, but to do so he had to interpret the theory of the myth as an apologetic for the blind unleashing of passions and the theory of violence as a justification for brutality; these interpretations are far removed from Sorel‘s intentions. For all Sorel‘s shifts and uncertainties, he was always a passionate defender of liberty and an enemy of arbitrary government.

Georges Goriely

[For the historical context of Sorel‘s work, seeANARCHISM; SOCIALISM; SYNDICALISM; and the biographies ofPROUDHON; BERNSTEIN; KAUTSKY; MARX.]

WORKS BY SOREL

1889 Le procès de Socrate: Examen critique des theses socratiques. Paris: Alcan.

(1894a) 1935 D‘Aristote è Marx (L‘ancienne et la nouvelle metaphysique). Paris: Rivièere. → A series of articles originally published in L‘ère nouvelle as “L‘ancienne et la nouvelle métaphysique.”

(1894b) 1925 La mine du monde antique: Conception materialiste de Vhistoire. 2d ed. Paris: Riviere. → A series of articles originally published in L‘ere nouvelle as “La fin du paganisme.”

1899 L‘éthique du socialisme. Revue de metaphysique et de morale 7:280-301.

1903 Saggi di critica del marxismo. Milan: Sandron.

1907 Les preoccupations metaphysiques des physiciens modernes. Paris: Cahiers de la Quinzaine.

(1908a) 1947 Les illusions du progres. 5th ed. Paris: Riviere.

(1908b) 1950 Reflections on Violence. Translated by T. E. Hulme and J. Roth, with an introduction by Edward Shils. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → First published in French as Reflexions sur la violence. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

(1908c) 1961 The Decomposition of Marxism. Pages 207-254 in Irving Louis Horowitz, Radicalism and the Revolt Against Reason: The Social Theories of Georges Sorel. New York: Humanities Press. → First published as La decomposition du marxisme.

1909 La religion d‘aujourd‘hui. Revue de metaphysique et de morale 17:240-273, 413-447.

(1911) 1922 Introduction a I‘economie moderne. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Paris: Riviere.

(1919) 1950 Appendix 3: In Defense of Lenin. Pages 303-311 in Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → First published as an appendix, “Plaidoyer pour Lenine,” in the 1919 edition.

1921 De I‘utilité du pragmatisme. Paris: Rivière.

SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Andreu, Pierre 1953 Notre maitre, M. Sorel. Paris: Grasset.

Delesalle, Paul 1939 Bibliographic sorelienne. International Review of Social History 4:463-487.

Devenir social: Revue Internationale d‘economie, d‘histoire et de philosophic. → Published from 1895 to 1898.

Freund, Michael 1932 Georges Sorel: Der revolutiondre Konservatismus. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Goriely, Georges 1962 Le pluralisme dramatique de Georges Sorel. Paris: Riviere → A bibliography ap-pears on pages 225-238.

Horowitz, Irving Louis 1961 Radicalism and the Revolt Against Reason: The Social Theories of Georges Sorel. London: Routledge; New York: Humanities.

Humphrey, Richard D. 1951 Georges Sorel, Prophet Without Honor: A Study in Anti-intelledualism. Harvard Historical Studies, Vol. 59. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Mouvement socialiste: Revue de critique sociale, litteraire et artistique. → Published from 1899 to 1914.

Pirou, GaËtan 1927 Georges Sorel: 1847-1922. Paris: Riviere.

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Georges Sorel

Georges Sorel

The French philosopher and political and social thinker Georges Sorel (1847-1922) has been said to have inspired both Communist and Fascist ideologists.

Georges Sorel, born into a bourgeois family in Normandy, became a civil engineer working for the government. At the age of 45 he retired on a small pension and spent the remainder of his life living in the suburbs of Paris studying, reflecting, and writing.

Sorel belonged to the generations of Frenchmen who were greatly affected by the French defeat of 1870 and the civil war of the Paris Commune in the following year. He meditated on the ways whereby society could be held together. His first published work was on the Bible and on the educational value of the biblical story. Then he wrote about Socrates, the arrogant intellectual who by his questioning undermined the certainties of others, and about the decline of the ancient world. During the 1890s Sorel fell under the influence of Marxism and admired a philosophy which he considered to be objective. But he was quickly caught up in the Dreyfus Affair and with the movement which sought to put right the injustice which had been committed in imprisoning a Jewish army officer, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, as a spy. This led him to proceed to a revision of Marxism and reappraise socialism in terms of action.

In Sorel's two most famous works, Reflections on Violence and The Illusions of Progress (both 1908), he expressed his scorn for the bourgeoisie and for bourgeois values. He believed that the proletariat was now ready to seize power, not through Socialist politicians or parliamentary and trade union politics, since these were a part of bourgeois deceit and decadence, but through the general strike. However, they would have to isolate themselves, indulge in class war, and engage in physical clashes with employers and with the state authorities. In this way the workers would become pure and heroic, would be held together by their struggle, and would found a new civilization.

Thus Sorel emphasized violence, emotion, and myth as the means of overthrowing the prevailing decadence and demoralization. On the type of society which would emerge after the general strike had made its break-through, Sorel was vague. But he believed that once the organized workers had succeeded, their cohesion and enthusiasm would engender further cooperation and progress.

Before 1914 Sorel became interested in the movement of monarchist nationalism; he admired Lenin; and he made some equivocal references to Benito Mussolini, who came to power within a few weeks of Sorel's death.

Further Reading

Studies of Sorel include Richard D. Humphrey, Georges Sorel: Prophet without Honor (1951); James H. Meisel, The Genesis of Georges Sorel (1951); and Irving L. Horowitz, Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason: The Social Theories of Georges Sorel (1961). Also useful is H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (1958).

Additional Sources

Meisel, James Hans, The genesis of Georges Sorel: an account of his formative period, followed by a study of his influence, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982, 1951.

Portis, Larry, Georges Sorel, London: Pluto Press, 1980. □

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Sorel, Georges

Sorel, Georges (1847–1922) After a long career as an engineer in France, Sorel resigned to become an independent scholar, and in the thirty-five years before his death published a stream of books and articles on social theory, Marxism, and the philosophy of the social sciences (most notably Reflections on Violence, 1908, and The Illusions of Progress, 1908). As editor of Le Devenir social, he introduced theoretical Marxism into France, and sided with Eduard Bernstein in rejecting Marxism's pretensions to be scientific. However, rather than abandon revolutionary activity for reformism, he argued for an extreme form of anarcho-syndicalism. His significance for sociology lies in his writings on myth and violence. His analysis of the functions of myth in society complements Karl Mannheim's later writings on utopia. There is, in fact, a developed (though largely unacknowledged) theory of ideology in his writings. According to Sorel, many of the central tenets of Marxism were themselves myths, aimed at, and capable of, mobilizing working-class mass action against capitalism (most notably in the case of the ‘myth of the general strike’). His arguments that violent confrontation can be noble and civilizing, that the future is unknowable, and that there is nothing to suggest civilized men and women will ever wholly renounce violence to advance estimable causes, punctured the Edwardian belief that progress would necessarily lead to peaceful settlement of all disputes, and more generally are still a powerful counter to the tendency among some social theorists towards an optimistic historicism.

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Sorel, Georges

Georges Sorel (zhôrzh sôrĕl´), 1847–1922, French social philosopher. An engineer before he devoted himself to writing, Sorel found in the political and social life of bourgeois democracy the triumph of mediocrity and espoused various forms of socialism, chiefly revolutionary syndicalism. In his best-known work, Reflections on Violence (1908, tr. 1912), which became the basic text of syndicalism, Sorel expounded his theory of "violence" as the creative power of the proletariat that could overcome "force," the coercive economic power of the bourgeoisie. He supported belief in myths about future social developments, arguing that such belief promoted social progress. Sorel supported at various times such disparate alternatives to the existing order as extreme French monarchism and the Bolshevik Revolution.

See J. J. Roth, The Cult of Violence: Sorel and the Sorelians (1980); J. R. Jennings, Georges Sorel (1985).

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