Thursday, October 27, 2011

Georges Sorel (1847-1922) (1 of 2)

Georges Sorel (1847-1922) was a French philosopher primarily known for his social and political philosophy whose influence flowed many different ways:

Sorel, Konservativer, Marxist, Revisionist, revolutionärer Syndikalist, Nationalist, Bolschewist, Antiklerikaler, Verkünder der Wiederkehr Gottes nacheinander, schien alle Bewegungen der Zeit zur durcheilen, um nur einmal der reinen Flamme glühender Leidenschaft zu begegnen.

[Sorel, conservative, Marxist, Revisionist, revolutionary syndicalist, nationalist, Bolshevist, anti-clericalist, herald of God’s return, one after another, seemed to have rushed through all movements of the time in order to encounter the pure flame of fervent passion at least once.]
That description if from Michael Freund in Georges Sorel.Der revolutionäre Konservativismus (1932) [Georges Sorel: Revolutionary Conservatism]. In another summary reaching to the end of his life, Freund writes: "So ist er nacheinander Konservativer, Sozialist, Revisionist, Syndikalist, Nationalist, Bolschewist gewesen. Die Überzeugengen jagen sich." ("So he was, one after another, a conservative, a Socialist, a Revisionist, a syndicalist, a nationalist, and Bolshevist. The convictions chased each other.") As Freund also discusses, Sorel's work was influential for Benito Mussolini and other Italian Fascists.

Georges Sorel (1847-1922)
Sorel retired from a civil-service position as an engineer in 1892 and devoted himself for the remainder of his life to writing and research. His ideological periods in his publications can usefully be broken down as follows:

  • 1886-92: Conservative, published books on the Bible and the trial of Socrates
  • 1893-95: Marxist, then the mainstream position in European Social Democracy
  • 1896-1901: Advocate of the anti-Marxist Revisionist school of Social Democracy advocated by Eduard Bernstein
  • 1902-10: Revolutionary syndicalist and bitter critic of Social Democracy in France and elsewhere; syndicalism is a variety of anarchism and is also known as anarcho-syndicalism
  • 1910-14: Nationalist in the general sense of Action Française, a French nationalist organization that contributed significantly to fascist thinking
  • 1914-17: Opponent of French participation in the Great War, hoped for a German victory
  • 1917-22: Admirer of Lenin and of Bolshevism; at the same time an admirer of Mussolini and the Italian Fascist movement
The Dreyfuss Affair engaged him intensely at its height in 1897-8. He was appalled at the demagogic anti-Semitism used by Dreyfuss' opponents but also by what he say saw as the narrow opportunism of the French Socialist Party. Later, in his nationalist phase, he engaged in anti-Semitic polemics himself.

How do we explain such seemingly erratic shifts in the emphasis of Sorel's work? Or, if we want to be put it more obscurely but generously, what accounts for the remarkable plasticity of his constantly evolving views? Had he, like Alfred Döblin's Friedrich Becker, "herumschlug, um die Wahrheit und den guten Wind zu finden, der sein Schiff treiben sollte" ("floundered around to find the truth and the favorable wind that would drive his ship")? (November 1918: Karl und Rosa [1950] p. 720)

Freund seems to have made his way through Sorel’s works patiently and attempted to "get into his head" to understand this question. And Freund’s narrative makes a plausible case that Sorel's perspective throughout these many ideological metamorphoses was essentially conservative. Sorel's conservatism was defined through by his fear and hatred of democracy, which he viewed as "das Übel der Übel" ("the evil of evils"). (Freund)

Sorel admired the old, aristocratic ruling elite of pre-Revolutionary France. He saw the Catholic Church as an essential defining aspect of the Old France he admired, and Catholic Christianity providing a valuable pessimism toward life that rejected the idea of progress as such. One of his books was called Illusions of Progress (1908). He saw the elite of Old France as providing a heroic attitude toward life, which was part of a broad and effective myth by which the French people had lived. His concept of political myth, by which he meant an inspiring framework for understanding the common political life of a given nation, was one of his most influential and enduring concepts.

This calls to mind elderly men sitting in front of dusty bookshelves in an English gentleman's club, reading old books that were dull and largely irrelevant even when they were new. Yet Sorel's own dusty mind insisted on engaging with the tumult going on outside the men's club.

The fall of Napoleon III in 1870 was a defining moment in Sorel's understanding of politics and philosophy. He saw the Second Empire as having been a form of Caesarism, in which a charismatic figure established his power with broad public support in order to establish his own authority. Sorel believed that too much democracy led to such a result. With the fall of Napoleon III and the establishment of the French Republic, the ruling bourgeois class had lost its competence, and the Republic as it existed would not be able to return to the imagined virtues of Old France.

The Paris Commune of 1871 was also for Sorel a horror show of democracy. Freund explains that Sorel maintained the notion that a "slave revolt" like those in ancient Rome was absolutely destructive to a civilization. He saw the Commune as another of the slave revolts. His decades-long journey through various ways of understanding himself as an advocate for working-class and mass movements was based on his belief that the working class (proletariat) was the rising force of history and civilization and that its rise was simply a fact of modern life that he needed to recognize. But he also carried through that journey an essentially conservative notion that the working class had to take power in the right way so they could become the right kind of people. A slave revolt just wouldn't do.

[Continued tomorrow in Part 2]

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