Friday, October 28, 2011

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

[Continued from Part 1 yesterday] As one may imagine, this lead to a lot of conceptual and rhetorical hair-splitting. This can be seen in his most famous work, the Reflections on Violence (1908), first published as a series of newspaper articles. Sorel railed through various political transformations against philosophical idealism and utopianism. Yet in Reflections, he spells out a theory that sounds like some mixture of Utopia, Christian eschatology and idealism (at least in the more colloquial sense).

He contrasts two kinds of general strikes. One is the "political" general strike, which he views as bad because in the end it preserves and strengthens some form of the existing system of law and the Socialist Party politicians, who he denounces as a bunch of careerists and cynics in terms that an employers' association could easily adapt to their distinctly non-socialist, non-syndicalist purposes.

The "proletarian" general strike, on this other hand, he sees as virtuous in the extreme. The working class will conduct this happy event in the most highminded way, without the normal human failings of leaders and political movements:

The Syndicalist general strike presents a very great number of analogies with the first conception of war: the proletariat organises itself for battle, separating itself distinctly from the other parts of the nation, and regarding itself as the great motive power of history, all other social considerations being subordinated to that of combat; it is very clearly conscious of the glory which will be attached to its historical rôle and of the heroism of its militant attitude; it longs for the final contest in which it will give proof of the whole measure of its valour. Pursuing no conquest, it has no need to make plans for utilising its victories: it counts on expelling the capitalists from the productive domain, and on taking their place in the workshop created by capitalism. (From the authorized translation by T. E. Hulme; 1914)
This tract could be read – and was – as a glorification of redemptive social violence. But when you start digging into Sorel's arguments, it can quickly come to feel like an infinite spiral that leads nowhere. Violent doesn't actually mean committing acts of violence. All systems of law are based on violence, and replacing them will another system of law is violent, even if the change doesn't require acts of violence, because all law is based on violence. But the eschatological Proletarian General Strike is nonviolent even if it is accompanied by acts of extreme violence, because it will abolish all law and produce a golden age of disciplined cooperation, and because it abolishes law that is inherently violent, the Proletarian General Strike is in its very essence nonviolent.

Freund notes, "Schon Sombart nannte die Syndikalisten die Gourmets der sozialistischen Theorie. Sie erschienen als die sozialistische Gnosis." ("Sombart had already called the syndicalists the gourmets of socialist theory. They seemed to be the socialist Gnosis.")

If this were the only place Sorel made such arguments, one might wonder if it weren't some kind of convoluted way to avoid official censorship. But as Freund’s account makes very clear, he argued this way all the time. Thus, in the last few years of his life, he admired Lenin as the regenerator of the Russian nation and admired Mussolini for much the same reason, though he heavily criticized key aspects of both phenomena.

Some of this may have been an over-cautious attitude of the intellectual and polemicist in him, trying to work lots of alibi arguments into his texts to make it difficult for critics to pin down particular weaknesses. But it's hard to avoid the impression that the result is a confusing eclecticism. As Freund discusses, even though Mussolini described Sorel as a direct and important influence on his Fascist political outlook, it's impossible to say definitively what Sorel's view of Italian Fascism really was. Because there are places in his postwar work where he seems to argue for Fascism, and other places where he seems to be arguing against it.

Freund's argument about Sorel's core conservatism gives us the unifying threads: a sentimental notion of the virtues of Old France; opposition to progress accompanied by a horror for the decadence of civilization; reverence for the role of Catholic Church in French history; belief in the need for a heroic national myth to motivate a country’s people to discipline, modesty and sexual chastity.

A dusty-minded thinker, in other words, who nevertheless couldn’t help being fascinated and engaged by the social dynamics of the world in which he lived. As Freund writes:

Sorel war ein konservativer Denker. Der Verkünder des Ruhmes Lenins war vielleicht der größte konservative Denker unserer Zeit. Der konservative Untergrund Sorels ist unzerstörbar.

[Sorel was a conservative thinker. The herald of Lenin’s glory was perhaps the greatest conservative thinker of our time. The conservative underground of Sorel is indestructible.]
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