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Reflections on Violence
Reflections on Violence (Réflexions sur la violence) is a book by French revolutionary syndicalist Georges Sorel that was published in 1908. Sorel argues that the success of the proletariat in class struggle depended on the creation of a catastrophic and violent revolution achieved through a general strike.
One of Sorel's most controversial statements claimed that violence could save the world from barbarism. He equates violence with life, creativity, and virtue.
A major contention argued by Sorel in the book is on the importance of myths as "expressions of will to act". He supports the creation of an economic system run by and for the interests of producers rather than consumers. Sorel's philosophical influences for the material in the book derive from Giambattista Vico, Blaise Pascal, Ernest Renan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Eduard von Hartmann, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, John Henry Newman, Karl Marx, Alexis de Tocqueville and others
Georges Sorel, (born Nov. 2, 1847, Cherbourg, France—died Aug. 30, 1922, Boulogne-sur-Seine), French Socialist and revolutionary syndicalist who developed an original and provocative theory on the positive, even creative, role of myth and violence in the historical process.
Sorel was born of a middle-class family and trained as a civil engineer. Not until he reached age 40 did he become interested in social and economic questions. In 1892 he retired from his civil-service engineering post and devoted himself to a life of meditation and study. In 1893 he discovered Marxism and began writing the analytical critiques that constitute his most original and valuable achievement.
In 1897 Sorel was a passionate defender of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer who was wrongly convicted of treason, but he became disgusted with the way the parties of the left exploited “the Affair” for their own political advancement. By 1902 he was denouncing the Socialist and Radical parties for advocating democracy and constitutionalism as a road to Socialism. Instead, he enthusiastically supported revolutionary syndicalism, a movement with anarchistic leanings that stressed the spontaneity of the class struggle. His best known work, Réflexions sur la violence (1908; Reflections on Violence), first appeared as a series of articles in Le Mouvement Socialiste early in 1906 and has been widely translated. Here Sorel developed his notions of myth (modeled on the syndicalist vision of the general strike) and of violence. Violence for Sorel was the revolutionary denial of the existing social order, and force was the state’s power of coercion. (His theory was later perverted and utilized by the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.)
Sorelianism and French integral nationalism
Interest in Sorelian thought arose in the French political right, particularly by French nationalist Charles Maurras of Action Française and his supporters. While Maurras was a staunch opponent of Marxism, he was supportive of Sorelianism for its opposition to liberal democracy. Maurras famously stated "a socialism liberated from the democratic and cosmopolitan element fits nationalism well as a well made glove fits a beautiful hand". In the summer of 1909, Sorel endorsed French integral nationalism and praised Maurras. Sorel was impressed by the significant numbers of "ardent youth" that enrolled in Action Française. Sorel's turn to nationalism resulted in his disregarding of Marx and adopting support of the views of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In 1910, Sorel along with Action Française nationalists Édouard Berth and Georges Valois agreed to form a journal titled La Cité française that would promote a form of national-socialism, however this was abandoned. Afterwards, Sorel supported another nationalist newspaper, L'Indépendence and began writing anti-Semitic content claiming that France was under attack from "Jewish invaders". In 1911, on the issue of Sorelian syndicalism, Valois announced to the Fourth Congress of Action Française that "It was not a mere accident that our friends encountered the militants of syndicalism. The nationalist movement and the syndicalist movement, alien to another though they may seem, because of their present positions and orientations, have more than one common objective."
During his association with French nationalism, Sorel joined Valois in the Cercle Proudhon, an organization that Valois declared to provide "a common platform for nationalists and leftist antidemocrats". The organization recognized both Proudhon and Sorel as two great thinkers who had "prepared the meeting of the two French traditions that had opposed each other throughout the nineteenth century: nationalism and authentic socialism uncorrupted by democracy, represented by syndicalism". Cercle Proudhon announced that it supported the replacement of bourgeois ideology and democratic socialism with a new ethic of an alliance of nationalism with syndicalism, as those "two synthesizing and convergent movements, one at the extreme right and the other at the extreme left, that have begun the siege and assault on democracy". Cercle Proudhon supported the replacement of the liberal order with a new world that was "virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical—based on the sense of duty and sacrifice: a world where the mentality of warriors and monks would prevail". The society would be dominated by a powerful avant-garde proletarian elite that would serve as an aristocracy of producers, and allied with intellectual youth dedicated to action against the decadent bourgeoisie.
Sorelianism and Fascism
Benito Mussolini when he was a Marxist held various positions towards Sorelianism at times. Mussolini stated that he became a syndicalist during the 1904 Italian general strike; his close contact with syndicalists dates to 1902. Mussolini reviewed Sorel's Reflections on Violence in 1909 and supported Sorel's view of consciousness as being a part of protracted struggle, where people display uplifting and self-sacrificing virtues akin to the heroes of antiquity. Mussolini also supported the Sorelian view of the necessity of violence in revolution. He followed Sorel in denouncing humanitarianism and compromise between revolutionary socialists and reformists socialists and bourgeois democrats. By 1909, Mussolini supported elitism and anti-parliamentarism, and became a propagandist for the use of "regenerative violence". When Sorelians initially began to come close to identifying themselves with nationalism and monarchism in 1911, Mussolini believed that such association would destroy their credibility as socialists.
Upon Sorel's death, an article in the Italian Fascist doctrinal review Gerarchia edited by Benito Mussolini and Agostino Lanzillo, a known Sorelian, declared "Perhaps fascism may have the good fortune to fulfill a mission that is the implicit aspiration of the whole oeuvre of the master of syndicalism: to tear away the proletariat from the domination of the Socialist party, to reconstitute it on the basis of spiritual liberty, and to animate it with the breath of creative violence. This would be the true revolution that would mold the forms of the Italy of tomorrow."
Introduction to the First Publication 43
Class War and Violence 52
Violence and the Decadence of the Middle Classes 74
Prejudices against Violence 100
The Proletarian Strike 126
The Political General Strike 168
The Ethics of Violence 205
The Ethics of the Producers 252
EXCERPTS FROM GEORGES SOREL, REFLECTIONS ON VIOLENCE (1905)
Georges Sorel, Letter to Daniel Halevy (1907)
Renan asked what was it that moved the heroes of great wars. "The soldier of Napoleon was well aware that he would always be a poor man, but he felt that the epic in which he was taking part would be eternal, that he would live in the glory of France." The Greeks had fought for glory the Russians and the Turks seek death because they expect a chimerical paradise. "A soldier is not made by promises of temporal rewards: He must have immortality. In default of paradise, there is glory, which is itself a kind of immortality."
Economic progress goes far beyond the individual life, and profits future generations more than those who create it: but does it give glory? Is there an economic epic capable of stimulating the enthusiasm of the workers? The inspiration of immortality which Renan considered so powerful is obviously without efficacy here, because artists have never produced masterpieces under the influence of the idea that their work would procure them a place in paradise (as Turks seek death that they may enjoy the happiness promised by Mahomet). The workmen are not entirely wrong when they look on religion as a middle-class luxury, since, as a matter of fact, the emotions it calls up are riot those which inspire workmen with the desire to perfect machinery, or which create methods of accelerating labour.
The question must be stated otherwise than Renan put it; do there exist among the workmen forces capable of producing enthusiasm equivalent to those of which Renan speaks, forces which could combine with the ethic of good work, so that in our days, which seem to many people to presage the darkest future, this ethic may acquire all the authority necessary to lead society along the path of economic progress?
We must be careful that the keen sentiment which we have of the necessity of such a morality, and our ardent desire to see it realised does not induce us to mistake phantoms for forces capable of moving the world. The abundant "idyllic" literature of the professors of rhetoric is evidently mere chatter. Equally vain are the attempts made by so many scholars to find institutions in the past, an imitation of which night serve as a means of disciplining their contemporaries; imitation has never produced much good and often bred much sorrow; how absurd the idea is then of borrowing from some dead and gone social structure a suitable means of controlling a system of production whose principal characteristic is that every day it must become more and more opposed to all preceding economic systems. Is there then nothing to hope for?
Morality is not doomed to perish because the motive forces behind it will change; it is not destined to become a mere collection of precepts as long as it can still vivify itself by an alliance with an enthusiasm capable of conquering all the obstacles, prejudices, and the need of immediate enjoyment which oppose its progress. But it is certain that this sovereign force will not be found along the paths which contemporary philosophers, the experts of social science, and the inventors of far-reaching reforms would make us go. There is only one force which can produce today that enthusiasm without whose co-operation no morality is possible, and that is the force resulting from the propaganda in favour of a general strike. The preceding explanations have shown that the idea of the general strike (constantly rejuvenated by the feelings roused by proletarian violence) produces an entirely epic state of mind, and at the same time bends all the energies of the mind to that condition necessary to the realisation of a workshop carried on by free men, eagerly seeking the betterment of the industry; we have thus recognised that there are great resemblances between the sentiments aroused by the idea of the general strike and those which are necessary to bring about a continued progress in methods of production. We have then the right to maintain that the modern world possesses that prime mover which is necessary to the creation of the ethics of the producers.
I stop here, because it seems to me that I have accomplished the task which I imposed upon myself. I have, in fact, established that proletarian violence has an entirely different significance from that attributed to it by superficial scholars and by politicians. In the total ruin of institutions and of morals there remains something which is powerful, new, and intact, and it is that which constitutes, properly speaking, the soul of the revolutionary proletariat. Nor will this be swept away in the general decadence of moral values, if the workers have enough energy to bar the road to the middle-class corrupters, answering their advances with the plainest brutality.
I believe that I have brought an important contribution to discussions on Socialism; these discussions must henceforth deal exclusively with the conditions which allow the development of specifically proletarian forces, that is to say, with violence enlightened by the idea of the general strike. All the old abstract dissertations on the Socialist regime of the future become useless; we pass to the domain of real history, to the interpretation of facts--to the ethical evaluations of the revolutionary movement.
The bond which I pointed out in the beginning of this inquiry between Socialism and proletarian violence appears to us now in all it strength. It is to violence that Socialism owes those high ethical values by means of which it brings salvation to the modern world.
Georges Sorel (1847-1922) stated his theory of social myths most clearly in a letter to Daniel Halevy in 1907, from which these selections are taken. Sorel was a socialist, a syndicalist, and after 1917, a vigorous admirer of Lenin. His anti-intellectualism and his passion for revolutionary activity in place of rational discourse made him most influential in shaping the ultimate direction of fascism, especially in Mussolini's Italy.
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...Men who are participating in a great social movement always picture their coming action as a battle in which their cause is certain to triumph. These constructions, knowledge of which is so important for historians, I propose to call myths; the syndicalist "general strike" and Marx's catastrophic revolution are such myths. As remarkable examples of such myths, I have given those which were constructed by primitive Christianity, by the Reformation, by the Revolution and by the followers of Mazzini. I now wish to show that we should not attempt to analyze such groups of images in the way that we analyze a thing into its elements, but that they must be taken as a whole, as historical forces, and that we should be especially careful not to make any comparison between accomplished fact and the picture people had formed for themselves before action.
I could have given one more example which is perhaps still more striking: Catholics have never been discouraged even in the hardest trials, because they have always pictured the history of the Church as a series of battles between Satan and the hierarchy supported by Christ; every new difficulty which arises is only an episode in a war which must finally end in the victory of Catholicism.
In employing the term myth I believed that I had made a happy choice, because I thus put myself in a position to refuse any discussion whatever with the people who wish to submit the idea of a general strike to a detailed criticism, and who accumulate objections against its practical possibility. It appears, on the contrary, that I had made a most unfortunate choice, for while some told me that myths were only suitable to a primitive state of society, others imagined that I thought the modern world might be moved by illusions analogous in nature to those which Renan thought might usefully replace religion. But there has been a worse misunderstanding than this even, for it has been asserted that my theory of myths was only a kind of lawyer's plea, a falsification of the real opinions of the revolutionaries, the sophistry of an intellectual.
If this were true, I should not have been exactly fortunate, for I have always tried to escape the influence of that intellectual philosophy, which seems to me a great hindrance to the historian who allows himself to be dominated by it.
In can understand the fear that this myth of the general strike inspires in many worthy progressives, on account of its character of infinity, the world of today is very much inclined to return to the opinions of the ancients and to subordinate ethics to the smooth working of public affairs, which results in a definition of virtue as the golden mean; as long as socialism remains a doctrine expressed only in words, it is very easy to deflect it towards this doctrine of the golden mean; but this transformation is manifestly impossible when the myth of the "general strike" is introduced, as this implies an absolute revolution. You know as well as I do that all that is best in the modern mind is derived from this "torment of the infinite"; you are not one of those people who look upon the tricks by means of which readers can be deceived by words, as happy discoveries. That is why you will not condemn me for having attached great worth to a myth which gives to socialism such high moral value and such great sincerity. It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to refute it....
As long as there are no myths accepted by the masses, one may go on talking of revolts indefinitely, without ever provoking any revolutionary movement; this is what gives such importance to the general strike and renders it so odious to socialists who are afraid of a revolution....
The revolutionary myths which exist at the present time are almost free from any such mixture; by means of them it is possible to understand the activity, the feelings and the ideas of the masses preparing themselves to enter on a decisive struggle: the myths are not descriptions of things, but expressions of a determination to act. A Utopia is...and intellectual product; it is the work of theorists who, after observing and discussing the known facts, seek to establish a model to which they can compare existing society in order to estimate the amount of good and evil it contains. It is a combination of imaginary institutions having sufficient analogies to real institutions for the jurist to be able to reason about them; it is a construction which can be taken to pieces, and certain parts of it have been shaped in such a way that they can...be fitted into approaching legislation. While contemporary myths lead men to prepare themselves for a combat which will destroy the existing state of things, the effect of Utopias has always been to direct men's minds towards reforms which can be brought about by patching up the existing system; it is not surprising, then, that so many makers of Utopias were able to develop into able statesmen when they had acquired a greater experience of political life. A myth cannot be refuted, since it is, at bottom, identical with the conviction of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement; and it is, in consequence, unanalyzable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions. A Utopia, on the other hand, can be discussed like any other social constitution; the spontaneous movements it presupposes can be compared with the movements actually observed in the course of history, and we can in this way evaluate its verisimilitude; it is possible to refute Utopias by showing that the economic system on which they have been made to rest is incompatible with the necessary conditions of modern production.
For a long time Socialism was scarcely anything but a Utopia; the Marxists were right in claiming for their master the honor of bringing about a change in this state of things; Socialism has now become the preparation of the masses employed in great industries for the suppression of the State and property; and it is no longer necessary, therefore, to discuss how men must organize themselves in order to enjoy future happiness; everything is reduced to the revolutionary apprenticeship of the proletariat. Unfortunately Marx was not acquainted with facts which have now become familiar to us; we know better than he did what strikes are, because we have been able to observe economic conflict of considerable extent and duration; the myth of the "general strike" has become popular, and is now firmly established in the minds of the workers; we possess ideas about violence that it would have been difficult for him to have formed; we can then complete his doctrine, instead of making commentaries on his text, as his unfortunate disciples have done for so long.
In this way Utopias tend to disappear completely from Socialism; Socialism has no longer any need to concern itself with the organization of industry since capitalism does that....
People who are living in this world of "myths," are secure from all refutation; this has led many to assert that Socialism is a kind of religion. For a long time people have been struck by the fact that religious convictions are unaffected by criticism, and from that they have concluded that everything which claims to be beyond science must be a religion. It has been observed also that Christianity tends at the present day to be less a system of dogmas than a Christian life, i.e., moral reform penetrating to the roots of one's being; consequently, new analogy has been discovered between religion and the revolutionary Socialism which aims at the apprenticeship, preparation, and even reconstruction of the individual -- a gigantic task....
...by the side of Utopias there have always been myths capable of urging on the workers to revolt. For a long time these myths were founded on the legends of the Revolution, and they preserved all their value as long as these legends remained unshaken. Today the confidence of the Socialists is greater than ever since the myth of the general strike dominates all the truly working-class movement. No failure proves anything against Socialism since the latter has become a work of preparation (for revolution); if they are checked, it merely proves that the apprenticeship has been insufficient; they must set to work again with more courage, persistence, and confidence than before; their experience of labor has taught workmen that it is by means of patient apprenticeship that a man may become a true comrade, and it is also the only way of becoming a true revolutionary.
[Source: The full text of Sorel's Letter to Daniel Halevy is presented in his Reflections on Violence (1908), trans. T. E. Hulme and J. Roth, (New York: Collier, 1950), pp.26-56.]