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.
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.
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.
SOREL, GEORGES (1847–1922), French political and social philosopher.
Georges Eugène Sorel was best known for his condemnation of bourgeois society, his critical interpretations of Marxism, and his emphasis on the power of myth and direct action. While his concern for the moral decadence of European society and the prospects for moral renewal represent consistent themes in Sorel's work, many scholars have emphasized his shifting, sometimes inconsistent, political opinions. Some have claimed that Sorel's work was influential in the ideological development of both communism and fascism.
Sorel was born in Cherbourg in Normandy on 2 November 1847 to a bourgeois family. Upon graduating from the École Polytechnique with an engineering degree in 1866, he joined the French government's Department of Bridges and Roads. He retired in 1891 at the age of forty-four, after his mother died, leaving him a small legacy. He and his wife moved to the Parisian suburb of Boulognesur-Seine, where he spent the remainder of his life as an independent scholar.
Sorel's critique of European society revolved around the idea that Europe had become a morally decadent culture in which people were motivated only by the desire for individual economic and political gain. For Sorel, a moral society was one in which rewards were commensurate with effort and in which people acted virtuously out of a sense of duty and conviction. Sorel's moral concerns were evident in his first two books, both published in 1889. One of these was a textual interpretation of the Bible. The other was an analysis of the trial of Socrates, which concluded that, while Socrates may have been innocent of the specific charges leveled against him, his teachings did lead to a decline in respect for Athenian institutions and thus helped to bring about the downfall of Athenian democracy. Another essay, written in 1894, held the rise of Christianity responsible for the decline of the Roman Empire.
Sorel apparently discovered Marx around 1892, shortly after moving to Paris. The Marxism to which he was first exposed was the orthodox "Scientific Marxism" of Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, and his early Marxist writings, mostly book reviews and review essays, reflected this orientation. Beginning around 1897, however, as Sorel's knowledge of Marxism grew deeper, he became critical of several elements of Marxist orthodoxy, including its schematic conception of history, its determinism, its failure to pay sufficient attention to moral and legal issues, and its belief in the inevitability of a successful proletarian revolution.
For Sorel, the key question for Marxism was the question of the moral preparation of the proletariat. He thought the fall of capitalism could be expected to lead to a more just society only if the workers could acquire a superior level of moral culture. For a brief time (1897–1898), Sorel harbored the hope that participation in democratic institutions might be able to produce free producers of the future. Starting around 1898, as he came to see democratic institutions as hopelessly mediocre and corrupting, he began to look to Syndicalism with its ideology of direct action on the part of workers as the best chance for fostering the moral development of the proletariat. His most famous work is his sympathetic analysis of Syndicalism, Réflexions sur la violence (Reflections on violence), first published in 1908. This period also saw the publication of Illusions du progrès (1908; The illusions of progress), an animated critique of the idea of progress in Western culture, and of a book on the work of the French historian Ernest Renan.
It must be pointed out that Sorel was never involved in a practical way with the Syndicalist movement, nor did he have much influence on the ideology or strategies of Syndicalist leaders. Rather, Syndicalism and the enthusiasm generated by the Syndicalist idea of the general strike influenced Sorel to theorize about the morally rejuvenating power of myth and direct action. Sorel's ideas about the power of myth to stir people to heroic action are his best-known intellectual contribution and the reason he is sometimes seen as an intellectual precursor to both Soviet communism and fascism.
As Syndicalism's successes declined after 1907, Sorel became disillusioned with it and began searching for other sources of moral renewal. In the period from 1910 to 1914, he became associated with leaders of the Action Française, a conservative, nationalist group. Beginning around 1914, Sorel was frequently ill and began writing much less. As of 1918, Sorel began to express an interest in Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution. His last book, published in 1921, was an appreciative analysis of pragmatism.
Sorel, Georges. Reflections on Violence. Edited by Jeremy Jennings. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999. Translation of Réflexions sur la violence (1908).
Meisel, James Hans. The Genesis of Georges Sorel: An Account of His Formative Period, Followed by a Study of His Influence. Westport, Conn., 1982.
Arthur L. Greil
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.
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).
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. □