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Sorel, Georges (1847–1922)

SOREL, GEORGES
(18471922)

Georges Sorel, the French pragmatist philosopher and social theorist, was born in Cherbourg and was trained at the École Polytechnique. He served as an engineer with the French roads and bridges department for twenty-five years in Corsica, the Alps, Algeria, and Perpignan before retiring at the age of forty-five to devote himself to scholarship. In the following thirty years he produced a series of highly curious books on the philosophy of science, the history of ideas, social theory, and Marxism, of which one, Réflexions sur la violence (1908; Reflections on Violence ), immediately became world famous. Before and after his retirement Sorel's life was quite uneventful, for despite his hatred of the bourgeois, his conduct was a model of provincial respectability. Nevertheless, he never married his lifelong companion, Marie David, to whom he dedicated his work after her death in 1897. Sorel's Roman ideas on the importance of chastity, marriage, and the family were no match for his family's objections to Marie's proletarian origins.

Economics and Political Views

Sorel's first books, on the Bible and the trial of Socrates, were written while he was still in charge of irrigation around Perpignan. They are works of erudition, marked by a streak of passionate eccentricity. Soon after retiring to the suburbs of Paris, Sorel discovered the work of Karl Marx and edited (18951897) a magazine, Le devenir social, that introduced theoretical Marxism to France. At the same time Sorel collaborated with Benedetto Croce and Antonio Labriola in propagating Marx's ideas in Italy. (Italy was always Sorel's second intellectual home, although he never visited it or even left French territory, and much of his work has been published only in Italian.) Sorel soon became dissatisfied with Marxism's scientific pretensions and joined with Croce, Eduard Bernstein, Tomáš Masaryk, and Saverio Merlino in precipitating the revisionist crisis. The other revisionists drew reformist conclusions from their critique of Marxism and abandoned revolutionary activity, but Sorel did the opposite. He transferred his interest from orthodox socialism to the most revolutionary wing of the French labor movement, the anarchosyndicalists. He argued that this was consistent because the syndicalists did not use Marxism as science but as myth. It was to account for this mythical character of extremist social doctrines that Sorel elaborated one of his most influential theories.

By the eve of World War I, Sorel had lost faith in syndicalism, and for a time he associated with such extreme right-wing groups as the monarchists and ultranationalists, as well as with groups of Catholic revivalists. Silent during the war, Sorel emerged after the Bolshevik Revolution to devote his last energies to the defense of the cause of V. I. Lenin, as he understood it. He supposed that it meant transfer of power away from central authority to the workers' and peasants' soviets and thus that it was in the federalist spirit of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon rather than in the spirit of Marx.

Years earlier, Sorel had predicted an important political career for Benito Mussolini, who, in turn, called Reflections on Violence his bedside book. Yet despite tenacious legend, Sorel had no influence over either fascism or communism. He himself disclaimed any part in Mussolini's nationalist doctrines, and Lenin denied drawing ideas from "that confusionist." Apologists of later revolutionary movements, notably African and Asian nationalism, have echoed Sorel's doctrines, and students of all such movements still find useful his conceptions of myth and violence. Croce said that Sorel and Marx were the only original thinkers socialism ever had.

Philosophy of Science

Sorel accepted Jean-Joseph-Marie-Auguste Jaurès's scornful description of him as "the metaphysician of socialism," for he thought of himself as primarily a philosopher, though not of socialism alone. Socialism engaged no more of his attention than the philosophy of science or the history of Christianity. Sorel's philosophy of science was technological rationalism: Scientific laws were accounts of the working of experimental machinery into which a part of nature, after being purified to make it homogeneous with the manmade mechanism, had been incorporated. There was no cause to suppose that such machines were models of nature's hidden mechanisms, and in fact there was no sign that determinism of any sort operated in nature left to herself. Determinism existed only where men created it, in machines that did violence to nature by shutting out chance interference. Thus, science is concerned with "artificial nature," the manmade phenomena of experiment and industry. It has nothing to say about "natural nature," where hazard, waste, and entropy are uncontrolled, where our knowledge is limited to statistical probability and our intervention to rule of thumb. Sorel accepted the pessimistic conclusions often drawn at that time from the second law of thermodynamics, to the effect that there was absolute chance in nature and that the universe was "running down" to heat-death.

It was against that malevolent nature of chance and waste that humanity struggled in a hopeless effort of "disentropy," seeking to establish regions of determinism (experimental science) and of economy of forces (productive industry). Being a professional engineer, Sorel could work out these ideas in great technical detail. He even applied them to mathematics, saying that geometry was about architecture, not nature.

Social Theory

Sorel's social theory derived from his philosophy of science. There are "entropic" trends in society comparable to those in nature. Culture is constantly threatened by a relapse into barbarism and disorder that would make history sheer meaningless succession. Against perpetual decadence men struggle heroically to establish limited zones of law, order, and cultural significance. To succeed in this for a time, they must do violence to their own natures by imposing on themselves a hard discipline and accepting moral isolation amid their mediocre fellows. This means living in conformity to "the ethic of the producers" and seeing the good life to be a cooperative creative enterprise carried on in a self-reliant spirit. Against this ethic stands "the ethic of the consumers," which takes the good to be things to be obtained rather than a way of acting. In the consumers' view typical goods are welfare, prosperity, distributive justice, and the classless society, things to be aimed at for the future and enjoyed if secured. Sorel replied that enterprises undertaken in that spirit were based on envy and inevitably fell under the control of adventurers (usually intellectuals) who duped the masses. He cited as instances slave revolts, peasant wars, Jacobinism, anti-Semitism, and contemporary welfare-state socialism.

In contrast, producers' movements concentrated on building the independent institutions that embodied their morality of productivity and solidarity. Such movements might be concerned with religious, artistic, scientific, or industrial activities, and Sorel took capitalism and syndicalist socialism as successive and equally admirable types of an industrial producers' movement. The workers were in revolt against capitalism not because of exploitation or inequality of riches (such matters concerned consumers only) but because the bourgeoisie had become unenterprising, cowardly, hypocriticalin a word, decadent. Until some more youthful, vigorous movement wrested social preeminence from the bourgeoisie (and Sorel did not think that socialism was the only contender), Western history would be a meaningless sequence of parliamentary deals and predatory wars. All movements "ran down" in the end, as their nerve failed, even (or especially) without challenge from a new movement. This succession of periods of heroic creativity and decadent barbarism did not constitute a true historical cycle, but Sorel adopted the accounts of the heroic and decadent phases of society given by Giambattista Vico in his cyclical theory. Sorel and Croce stimulated the revival of interest in Vico, and Sorel regarded his own social theory as a Viconian revision of Marxism.

Violence

Sorel is remembered less for his general philosophical system than for two notions lifted from it, violence and myth. Sorel found the syndicalists using violence during industrial strikes, and he set out to answer the common charge that a movement that resorted to violence was ipso facto evil and retrograde. He pointed out that Christianity and French republicanism, for example, had welcomed violent confrontations in order to mark clearly their rejection of the social milieu and their refusal to compromise. In such cases violence was a sign of moral health that frightened away lukewarm supporters and gave notice of earnest determination to adopt a new way of life. Physical violencehead breaking and bloodshedwas only one extreme of a range of vehement attitudes of which the other extreme was "a violence of principles," such as parading the least acceptable part of one's doctrines (in the Christian religion, miracles) to discourage one's "reasonable" friends. Sorel's theory of violence was intended to cover that whole range of attitudes, and the only special stress on physical violence was the statement that without being at all typical of social relationships, physical violence is a logical extreme from which no rising movement will shrink in certain unfavorable circumstances. Such circumstances would be confrontation with the armed force of a state that preached pacifism and social unity while it sought to smother a rebellious minority. The classic case was primitive Christianity, which could have secured tolerance within Roman polytheism but enthusiastically courted violent persecution to mark its unbridgeable differences with paganism. Parliamentary democracy was an even greater threat to independent social movements than polytheism had been to Christianity, because it claimed to have devised, in parliament, a perfect market where all social demands could be reconciled by elected representatives, thus ensuring social harmony. A movement that refused to come to that market because it wanted things other than parliamentary seats and budget subsidies would have to be unequivocal, vehement, and even violent to escape from the nets of democratic prejudice. Most shocking of all, violence might be exercised not only against supposed enemies but against the men of good will, the peacemakers sent to befriend the minority and corrupt it into conformity.

Sorel's theory of violence caused scandalized misunderstanding among respectable people and some morbid enthusiasm among protofascists. Yet Sorel had not defended indiscriminate violence. He had said that since violence is ubiquitous in society, in the form of war and the enforcement of law and order, one could not selectively deplore violence on the part of an opposition without first looking to see who that opposition was. One should ask if it were associated, as so often in the past, with a progressive and heroic morality obliged to be ruthless to force recognition of its independence and to signify its rejection of mediocrity. Sorel noted that such movements built up sanguinary legends about how much violence they had known. Just as strikers exaggerated police brutalities committed on "our martyred dead," so the early Christians had endured far too little persecution to justify the tradition that the church was nourished by the blood of martyrs. Such violent tales were only symbolically true; a few clashes that proved a willingness to go to extremes had revealed the Christian community to itself and its enemies.

Last, Sorel argued (in 1908, when the seeds of world war, Bolshevism, and fascism were germinating) that Edwardian democrats were deluding themselves in thinking that civilized men had progressed beyond the stage at which they would use violence to promote or oppose causes. Violence would never be outgrown (and if it were, that would not be progress) because it was not, absolutely and in itself, brutish. It could be lucid, noble, and applied to the defense of high purposes; it could mark the birth of a new civilizing agency. Of course, it could also be bestial and oppressive, in which case Sorel called it force.

Myth

Sorel found that myth was being used by the syndicalists, and he recalled similar uses from history. In no sense did he urge political activists to adopt extremist beliefs they knew to be false. That ambiguity, of which Sorel was accused, was really in the sociological facts themselves, he said. One found movements uttering views about the future without trying to establish their prophecies as scientifically plausible, without even caring to argue whether the forecasts were sound. They cared for those visions of the future passionately, but they cared for them only as inspiring pictures of what the world would be like if the new morality won all men's hearts. Such visions were myths, a present morality stated in the future tense. The case in point was the general strike. Syndicalists said socialism would come if all workers went on strike at once, whereupon the capitalist state would be paralyzed. Parliamentary socialists replied, reasonably enough, that for the workers to strike all at once and successfully defy the state, they would have to be ardent socialists to a man and the regime ripe for overthrow. But in that event socialism would already have arrived, and the general strike would not be needed. It was not a means to anything because it presupposed that all the problems were solved. Precisely this, answered Sorel, is the social function of the general strike. It is the dramatic picture of a morality triumphant. It is not a plan or scientific forecast, and therefore rational criticism of it is pointless. Besides, intellect has nothing better to put in its place, because the future is radically unpredictable and there is no science of the unknowable. A myth, being the expression of the aspirations of an enthusiastic mass of men and women, could well foreshadow something like itself, at least something equally sublime, whereas scientific blueprints for the future foreshadowed nothing but disappointment, the rule of intellectual planners, and the spread of the consumer outlook among those who waited for the planned good time to start. Granted that prevision is impossible, there are only two sorts of attitude toward the futuremyths and utopias. Myths command respect as the product of intense social wills that could achieve something in history; utopias deserve scorn as the divagations of solitary intellectuals.

Sorel's tolerant view of myths and his anxiety to protect their improbabilities from rational examination were dependent on his conviction (drawn from Henri Bergson's philosophy) that the future is undetermined and thus totally unknowable. Few philosophers accept that position, and they would thus feel entitled to be more critical of myths than Sorel allowed. Yet he provided social theory with a valuable new conceptthe galvanizing mass faith about which even its own believers are ambivalent, half admitting it to be improbable and yet clinging to it as the dramatic epitome of the cause they live for.

See also Bergson, Henri; Continental Philosophy; Croce, Benedetto; Labriola, Antonio; Lenin, Vladimir Il'ich; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Masaryk, Tomáš Garrigue; Myth; Nationalism; Philosophy of Science, History of; Philosophy of Science, Problems of; Political Philosophy, History of; Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph; Socrates; Vico, Giambattista; Violence.

Bibliography

works by sorel

Contribution à l'étude profane de la Bible. Paris: Ghio, 1889.

Le procès de Socrate. Paris: Alcan, 1889.

La ruine du monde antique. Paris: Jacques, 1901.

Essai sur l'église et l'état. Paris: Jacques, 1902.

Saggi di critica del marxismo. Palermo: Sandron, 1902.

Introduction à l'économie moderne. Paris, 1903.

Le système historique de Renan, 4 vols. Paris: Jacques, 19051906.

Insegnamenti sociali della economia contemporanea. Palermo: Sandron, 1907.

Réflexions sur la violence. Paris: Librarie de "Pages Libres," 1908. Translated by T. E. Hulme and J. Roth as Reflections on Violence. New York: Huebsch, 1914.

Les illusions du progrès. Paris: Rivière, 1908. Translated by John and Charlotte Stanley as The Illusions of Progress. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

La décomposition du marxisme. Paris: Rivière, 1908.

La révolution dreyfusienne. Paris: Rivière, 1909.

Matériaux d'une théorie du prolétariat. Paris: Rivière, 1919.

Les préoccupations métaphysiques des physiciens modernes. Paris, 1921.

De l'utilité du pragmatisme. Paris: Rivière, 1921.

D'Aristote à Marx. Edited by Édouard Berth. Paris: Rivière, 1935.

Propos de Georges Sorel. Edited by Jean Variot. Paris: Gallimard, 1935. Sorel's conversations.

From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy. Edited by John L. Stanley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

From Georges Sorel, Vol. 2: Hermeneutics and the Science. Edited by John L. Stanley; translated by John and Charlotte Stanley. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1990.

works on sorel

V. Delesalle, Bibliographic sorélienne (Leiden, 1939), lists hundreds of articles and reviews by Sorel scattered through dozens of journals, including material of philosophical interest, and records the extensive literature on Sorel up to 1939; J. H. Meisel, The Genesis of Georges Sorel (Ann Arbor, MI: Wahr, 1951), adds later items. Of the many hundreds of studies, the most instructive are Richard Humphrey, Georges Sorel, Prophet without Honor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951); Victor Sartre, Georges Sorel (Paris, 1937); Michael Freund, Der revolutionäre Konservativismus (Frankfurt, 1932); Giuseppe Santonastaso, Georges Sorel (Bari, Italy, 1932); Pierre Andreu, Notre maître, M. Sorel (Paris: Grasset, 1953); Jean Deroo, Le renversement du matérialisme historique (Paris: Rivière, 1942); Max Ascoli, Georges Sorel (Paris, 1921); Georges Guy-Grand, La philosophie syndicaliste (Paris: Grasset, 1911); Gaétan Piron, Georges Sorel (Paris: Rivière, 1927); Georges Goriely, Le pluralisme dramatique de Georges Sorel (Paris: Riviere, 1962); Fernand Rossignol, La pensée de Georges Sorel (Paris, 1948); various authors, special issue of Fédération (November 1947).

additional sources

Berlin, Isaiah. "Georges Sorel." In Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Jennings, Jeremy R. Georges Sorel; The Character and Development of His Thought. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Kolakowski, Leszek. "Georges Sorel: A Jansenist Marxism." In Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. 2, translated by P. S. Falla. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Stanley, John L. The Sociology of Virtue: The Political and Social Theories of Georges Sorel. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

Vernon, Richard. Commitment and Change: Georges Sorel and the Idea of Revolution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Vincent, Steven K. "Interpreting Georges Sorel: Defender of Virtue or Apostle of Violence?" History of European Ideas 12 (2) (1990): 239257.

Neil McInnes (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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