Sorel’s ‘Reflections on Violence’ and the Poverty of Voluntarism

by Donald Parkinson on March 11, 2014

George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence is a maddening work, giving the reader an insightful portrait of the chaotic and conflict ridden French workers movement. For this reason alone it is worth reading as a historical document, despite the authors dodgy politics. Sorel brilliantly depicts the tensions between revolutionaries and reformists, as well as the complexity created by the petty-bourgeoisie and religious institutions. This is actually quite surprising given his economistic vision of class struggle, where syndicates that are formed at the point of production will wage battle through strikes and then eventually a cataclysmic general strike (which Sorel likens to a Napoleonic battle). Sorel in many ways is simply responding to what is going on around him and the ongoing crisis of the French workers movement, in which divisions are increasingly antagonistic and old orthodoxies are being ruthlessly critiqued in a search for new ideas. I also found his vitriolic attacks on reformist figures quite entertaining and hard not to sympathize with.

This book is also fairly controversial, given that Mussolini declared Sorel to be one of his most important influences. In a 1937 interview Mussolini claimed “George Sorel has been my Master” when asked if he was influenced by Reflections on Violence. As a result Sorel is often dismissed as a harbinger of fascism or simply a fascist. For example in Jean-Paul Sartre’s intro to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth Sorel’s work is dismissed outright as “fascist chatter”. Now to be clear I have no interest in defending Sorel’s actual politics, which do have elements that were quite easily appropriated by fascism. Yet it is quite reductive and ignorant to simply dismiss Sorel as a fascist, at least from what is contained in Reflections on Violence. Sorel is clearly a syndicalist, and while he consistently bashes anarchists in this work his politics have more in common with the likes of Bakunin. In fact anarchists that are viewed as completely acceptable by the left today had ideas that have influenced and been appropriated by fascists (for example Proudhon’s integralist nationalism). The fact of the matter is that fascism was not a purely right wing phenomena, but a fusion of ideas from both the right and left.

Reflections on Violence more than anything is an attempt to theorize syndicalism as a political practice which can serve as a viable alternative to the reformist Marxism of the Social-Democrats. Consistent targets of Sorel’s polemics are the French Social-Democrat Jean Jaures and Karl Kautsky. By the time this book was published political rifts already existed between the revisionists, centrists and mass-action left in the Second International and Sorel seems to have little to say about the more radical leadership of social-democracy like Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek. Yet as far as his critiques pertain to the reformists and center they are often quite dead on.

For Sorel the tactics of Parliamentary Socialism inherently lead to opportunism. In order to get votes and gain influence in the bourgeois state the Parliamentary Socialists seek to win the favor of classes other than the proletariat:

Parliamentary Socialists can only obtain great influence if they can manage, by the use of a very confused language, to impose themselves on diverse groups. For example, they must have working-men constituents simple enough to allow themselves to be duped by high-sounding phrases about future collectivism; they are compelled to represent themselves as profound philosophers to stupid middle-class people who wish to appear well informed about social questions; it is very necessary also for them to be able to exploit rich people who think that they are earning the gratitude of humanity by taking shares in the socialist politician.

In the process of trying to win the favor of the middle classes the Parliamentary Socialists have to suppress the more radical and violent acts of the proletariat. This generally makes sense; as the opportunist social-democrats appeal to the favor of the populace in their election campaigns they must present themselves as keeping the public order and having the interest of the middle class at heart. Yet ultimately the middle-class have interests alien to the workers because they want to become the future administrators of society and so the workers party develops a caste of politicians who hold back the class struggle. This brings to mind the recent election campaign in Seattle of Trotskyist Kshama Sawant, who appealed to small business owners while claiming to run a “working class campaign”. I generally agree with this aspect of Sorel’s critique and prefer it to Kautky’s rants about how capitalism civilizes proles to use democracy instead of violence. Yet it is also a very limited critique that is more based on ethics than on a historical materialist understanding of how reformism is generated.

For Sorel the Parliamentary Socialists fear the general strike because it is an event they are incapable of controlling in which the middle class has nothing to gain. “With the General Strike,” says Sorel, “all the fine things disappear; the revolution appears as revolt….and no place is reserved for sociologists, for fashionable people who are in favor of social reforms, and for Intellectuals who have embraced the profession of thinking for the proletariat.” The general strike is raised to a cataclysmic event, where proletarian violence reaches a “Napoleonic level” and workers syndicates raise themselves to become the only authority in society. All other questions on how to organize society and develop socialism are gleefully ignored by Sorel, since he believes that the act of the general strike will morally purify the workers into a class capable of running society on its own. He claims that the entire content of socialism is contained in the general strike, “that by concentrating the whole of socialism in the drama of the general strike there is no longer any place for the reconciliation of contraries in the equivocations of professors; everything is clearly mapped out, so that only one interpretation of socialism is possible.”

This is frankly quite ridiculous stuff, and of course with Sorel it gets more ridiculous. But essentially what we have here is classic syndicalism, nothing much different from what Sol-Fed or IWW espouse these days. While Sorel correctly critiques the opportunism of the Parliamentary Socialists he fails to see how his own tactics can lead to opportunism. By simply only organizing syndicates at the point of production and refusing to engage with the bourgeois state Sorel believes that capitulation to opportunism can be avoided. Of course history has proven this to be wrong, and discussing the complex history of syndicalism will have to be done elsewhere. But ultimately Sorel fails to see how workers syndicates can also become incorporated into bourgeois order by their role as mediating the relations between employers and workers. He also fails to see how bureaucracies similar to parliamentary bureaucracies can develop in the workers syndicates, and how the short sighted nature of syndicalist tactics can lead to opportunism. Anton Pannekoek’s description of opportunism from his World Revolution and Communist Tactics pamphlet here is very useful, an in many ways is a perfect description of Sorel’s political strategy:

Opportunism does not necessarily mean a pliant, conciliatory attitude and vocabulary, nor radicalism a more acerbic manner; on the contrary, lack of clear, principled tactics is all too often concealed in rabidly strident language; and indeed, in revolutionary situations, it is characteristic of opportunism to suddenly set all its hopes on the great revolutionary deed. Its essence lies in always considering the immediate questions, not what lies in the future, and to fix on the superficial aspects of phenomena rather than seeing the determinant deeper bases.

For Sorel the workers simply need to form syndicates until the entire class is organized and then carry out the general strike. The general strike will allow for the bypassing of  the political power of the bourgeoisie and the reformists, so therefore only an economic struggle against the employers is needed to prepare for the final cataclysmic event. Yet Sorel is perceptive enough to realize that the Parliamentary Socialists have a grip upon the mentality of the proletariat, and this is a hamper on their revolutionary potential. So what exactly will animate the proletariat into revolutionary action despite their reformist tendencies? Sorel rejects the thesis that capitalism has inherent contradictions that lead to collapse as overly positivistic, expressing disdain for rationalism and science. For Sorel the crisis theory of Marx is a source of complacency. Rather than crisis what will drive the proletariat into action is “myth”.

Sorel compares Marxism to early Christianity, claiming that the growth of Christianity was made possible by its proliferation of the myth of the second coming of Christ. While the myth wasn’t objectively true it inspired its followers to take action and make Christianity a dominant world power. For Sorel the ideology of the general strike is essentially the same. Capitalism isn’t going to collapse, but if we proliferate the myth that capitalism will collapse it will inspire the proletariat to act upon it an then cause the myth to become a reality. Hence the proletarian vanguard must spread the myth of the general strike as effectively as possible in order to compel it to act. While Sorel claims to be protecting the true marxist doctrine of class struggle in his often quite ludicrous rants it’s obvious that his ideas are fundamentally anti-marxist. Not only do they reduce the problems of revolution and class struggle to a matter of will to power and voluntarism they also make ideas the driving force of history. Communism is also not a matter of myth. It is in fact quite the opposite. Communism aims to demystify human society and break down ridiculous myths by destroying the material conditions that create them. Communists cannot trick the proletariat into acting in its own interests by creating myths, but instead must present their positions in as clear and honest of a way as possible.

It is most likely Sorel’s idea of myth that influenced and inspired Mussolini. Before fascism Mussolini was a member of the more radical wing of the Italian Socialist Party and was a proclaimed Internationalist, even getting arrested in a riot protesting Italian war with Tripoli in 1910. Yet when WWI came around Mussolini diverged from his internationalist position. After mingling with Italian syndicalism and the ideas of Sorel WWI showed Mussolini the effectiveness under which the masses could be mobilized in the name of nationalism. Ultimately the Sorelian myth that was actually utilized was not the general strike but the myth of the nation. While Sorel had ended his flirtation with nationalism by 1914 and returned to an internationalist stance Mussolini on the other hand aimed to turn the workers syndicates into a basis for mobilizing a revolutionary nationalist movement. Mussolini was able to convince the leadership of the Italian Syndicalist Union, or USI, to follow his nationalist politics and split from the USI to form purely nationalist union, the Italian Labor Union or UIL. In the workers syndicates Mussolini not only saw a basis for violent mobilization in the streets but also a corporatist reorganization of society that would unite workers and employers. This gives truth to Bordiga’s claim that “fascism steals from the proletariat its secret: organization.”

From what I am able to find there is no evidence that Sorel ever supported Mussolini’s politics after this point. My intention here is not to blame Sorel for the rise of fascism, which was a complex phenomena that cannot be understood purely in terms of ideas. Fascism ultimately develops because capitalist crisis and class struggle make the democratic form of the state less viable as means to secure the conditions for capital accumulation. Yet fascism is not simply a conspiracy on the part of the bourgeoisie or more specifically finance capital. While fascism certainly survives and finds a material basis to function in support from big business and the petty-bourgeois it ultimately develops through spontaneous mass movements which often strive for autonomy from capital. The masses are not inherently internationalist or class conscious, which is a flawed assumption that many syndicalists and councilists make. By diverting anti-capitalist sentiments into nationalistic channels fascism by default valorizes capital, regardless of its proclaimed intentions for “national socialism” or rantings against the evils of finance. Fascism would exist regardless of Sorel and ultimately he is as much to blame for fascism as Proudhon, Bakunin, Stirner or Nietzsche.

However this is not to say that there is maybe something positive to learn from Sorel’s ideas on the myth. Ultimately Reflections on Violence and those it influenced exposes the poverty of voluntarism and demonstrates how attempts to force consciousness upon the working class ultimately fail and lead to reactionary politics. Today in many ways we are faced with the same difficulties that Sorel was responding to. Class consciousness and subjectivity are in a process of decomposition from the victory of capitalist counter-revolution, and as a result both reactionary and reformist ideas greatly influence the working class. In many ways we face a crisis of class consciousness. While Sorel’s conditions were vastly different he was dealing with similar problems of consciousness, responding to the dominance of reformist ideas in the French workers movement. For Sorel the proletarian vanguard would be able to use myth of the general strike to awaken the other workers from their Menshevik-slumber. Rationalism could not be used, for the workers could not be convinced by the bookish doctrines of scientific socialism. Instead the irrational would have to be tapped into, and hence the general strike would carry its own power as an idea.

For foolish militants eager to organize the proles today this idea may sound tempting. But ultimately this strategy cannot work to mobilize workers for communism. Communism is not a myth, it is a material necessity for humanity to continue its development. A Sorelian mass only driven by myth and irrationalism will not create communism but will only be a tool for capitalist reaction to manipulate. Resorting to myth-making or just populist demagoguery to somehow make our ideas more popular ultimately leads to the opportunism and reaction provided by the Parliamentary Socialists that Sorel so deeply despises. As Communists we should take the opposite approach, which is to explain our positions with clarity and engage the class in a principled manner no matter how difficult it is. There are no shortcuts to class consciousness that we can force upon workers. Yet at the same time questions of consciousness cannot be ignored in hope that the eventual crisis will fix everything and put the proles in their place. Sorel bravely attempts to explore the problems of consciousness in Reflections on Violence but turns to irrationalism in order to offer solutions that only lead to opportunism.

  • Carl Davidson

    Re: Your swipe at Savant. Her campaign was mainly aimed at workers, and any smart working class campaign would also make an appeal to small producers and small business, ie, as in ‘not a trade-union secretary, but a tribune of the people.’

  • Farans Kalosar

    The fact of the matter is that fascism was not a purely right wing phenomena, but a fusion of ideas from both the right and left. [Emphasis mine.]

    Why this all-American insistence on ideas in the abstract as a foundation for political practice? It’s beyond naive to represent fascism as the product of ideas–precisely the point was that fascists had contempt for ideas, merely used them as devices to manipulate the weak. And while Mussolini could point to elements of genuine theory (Sorel, and others, the concept of corporatism) the real clinchers were the antics of actual fascists jumping through hoops of fire and performing other stunts to show what he-men they were. The ideas of fascism were so many smashed eggs.

    When Ezra Pound visited Mussolini and was introduced, he told the great man that he was going to Rapallo to get his ideas in order. Mussolini shot Pound a piercing glance and said, “Why do you wish to put your ideas in order?” Pound thought that was great.

    When it comes to Nazism, there is no intelligible foundation of ideas at all. At best, it’s a convenient jumble. Indeed, unlike Mussolini, Hitler was, despite his pretensions and a functioning knowledge of German history, in many ways nearly as illiterate as an American Senator, and his sources (Houston Chamberlain, the futile Alfred Rosenberg, Hess) laughable at best, intellectually.

    The “fusion of . . . . right and left” was simply a tactic, in times when the Left had a vast constituency, for splitting off workers from that constituency and confusing the hell out of them in order to make use of them. No real fascist gave a damn about anything but power. They all served the ruling classes of their time and place.

    How strange it is to have to make this point here of all places.

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