Note for readers: I realize this submission is a bit long – almost 50 pages (with photos), and that expecting folks to read the whole thing would be impolite and inconsiderate. It is the first draft of a chapter in my dissertation, which explains its length. So if you are pressed for time, I can recommend two ways of reading the chapter. If you are primarily interested in the historical work, I recommend reading only pp. 2-25, 44-51. If you are interested in a reading of George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, then just the introduction and middle section will be of interest, pp. 2-10, 25-44. I hope this makes it more manageable!
The Cunning of Violence:
Georges Sorel and the Reinvention of War,
It is impossible to express ideas about the patrie except in mythical form.
Georges Sorel, La Ruine du monde antique
They were to die by hundreds and thousands. They were ready, but not for death as a mere accident in
the bloody strife: they intended their death to be a sacrifice alight with the conviction of truth.
On January 22, 1914, a few months before the outbreak of World War I, Jean Jaurès exhorted to an audience of students,
Today, you are told: act, always act! But what is action without thought? It is the barbarism born of inertia. You are told: brush aside the party of peace; it saps your courage! But I tell you that to stand for peace today is to wage the most heroic of battles…Defy those who warn you against what they call ‘system’! Defy those who urge you to abandon your intelligence for instinct and intuition!1
Condemning a deformed intellectual culture that he believed motivated the cries for war, Jaurès would spend the next six months calling for de-escalation in the hopes of preventing war’s outbreak and the inevitable human catastrophe. But he fought a losing battle. Fellow political leaders across the political spectrum were increasingly seduced by the virtues of war against the German “hereditary” enemy, with the more bellicose seeking recompense for France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Jaurès could not undo this overwhelming compulsion for revenge: on July 31st, he was assassinated at a café by Raoul Villain, a revanchist.
As Jaurès was warning students of “those who urge you to abandon your intelligence” for war’s “instinct and intuition,” former critics of the Republic on both the left and right were now urging precisely that. Charles Maurras’s royalist Action Française and Maurice Barrès’s romantic hymns to “rootedness” grounded in “the soil and the dead” were calling upon young
Figure 1: Jean Jaurès, leader of the French socialist party, is assassinated. He founded L’Humanite.2
Figure 2: Jaurès funeral. Leaders from the left and right used it as an opportunity to praise the importance of French "unity" on the eve of war.3
men to vindicate their individuality and authenticity in battle, despite the fact that both had long understood their nationalism as a form of anti-republicanism. As Maurras once put it bluntly: “The republicans can choose: the Republic, or the Country?”4 Charles Péguy, who had written in his 1910 Notre jeunesse that the Third Republic stood for “those who believe in nothing, not even in atheism, who devote themselves, who sacrifices themselves to nothing…And who boast of it,” enthusiastically volunteered to march for a republic he once believed embodied “the sterility of modern times.”5 Even Gustave Hervé, who had for years worked as a committed antimilitarist and socialist, was pleading with authorities to conscript him on the eve of war. After proudly announcing in his 1906 Leur patrie that if faced with war “we [working class] shall not march, whoever be the aggressor,”6 the man who helped lead the most vibrant anti-patriotism movement in Europe became on the cusp of war a committed nationalist, even renaming his magazine La Guerre sociale to La Victoire.7
The trouble was that many of these critics rallied to the republic for reasons that went beyond strategic necessity. By their own accounts, they were also laying claim to a specific understanding of violence, one that positioned war as a means of repudiating the official intellectual culture of the Third Republic and its rationalism, cosmopolitanism, positivism, and belief in progress. Indeed, many of them believed they were spurning base instrumental or utilitarian considerations, which were said to be “egoistic.” They were searching, rather, for a loftier “individualism,” a return to reality and “concrete experience” as found in redemptive violence and collective struggle. Péguy gave poetic voice to this romanticization of war: “Blessed are those who die in great battles / Lying beneath the sun in the sight of God’s face. / Blessed are those who die in a high place / Surrounded by the trappings of great funerals.”8 Their nationalism, H. Stuart Hughes laments, combined “respect for authority with the cult of spontaneous creation.” It was why younger generations “greeted the outbreak of the slaughter with enthusiasm.”9 The effect was akin to an “enchantment” of violence. Critics registered with horror this prospect of violence embodying a value of its own standing. In linking together spontaneous action and creativity, violence somehow stood outside of reason. In that independence laid its mystique, its moral power.
Figure 3: An illustration of an "anti-militarist" being mocked for his anti-patriotism, and portrayed as a hooligan when compared to the nationalist drum major.10
Figure 4: "Agathon" was the pseudonym for two French intellectuals, Alfred de Tarde and Henri Massis. "Jeunes gens d'aujourd'hui" (1913) was an influential study—and really a defense—of the new nationalism and the renascence of a Catholic faith among France’s elite young men. It stressed a rejection of “intellectualism” and “rationalism,” an affirmation of the “classical spirit,” and an ode to Barres’s cult of “national energy.”
Why did war remake thinkers who were traditionally the first to attack the republic and its democratic institutions into its most strident nationalist defenders? What political problems did war’s enchantment of violence appear to solve? Liberal political theorists have long suggested that these events were a romantic and irrationalist turn to anti-democratic chauvinism. The “mystique of violence” found in fin de siècle Europe, according to Raymond Aron, amounted to “invectives against democracy” in the name of an “aesthetic of existence” and a “degraded romanticism.”11 Judith Shklar and Isaiah Berlin agreed: it was “the apotheosis of the romantic will” driven by an “escapist motivation” to return to “life and motion” and “the perpetual movement of reality.”12 Intellectual historians of the period have often offered a similar line of interpretation, with some deeming it a “romantic anti-capitalism” and an “alternative political tradition” from liberal democracy altogether.13
This chapter argues that such interpretations are mistaken. The rally to the Republic by many of its critics was neither reducible to strategic resignation in the face of geopolitical necessity nor a romantic escape from democratic politics. Rather, it was an effort to reconceive war as an answer to a perceived crisis of democracy that French republicanism and universal male suffrage seemed incapable of resolving. It was for this reason that the enchantment of violence was repeatedly linked to a reassertion of direct, popular action against a state seen to be corrupt, bureaucratic and unresponsive to the people. However perverse, many figures leading this nationalist revival like Maurras, Barrès, and Péguy understood themselves to be continuing the bottom-up, populist sentiments already underway during Boulangism in the late 1880s.14 Against the existing cosmopolitan, pacific and elitist republic and its abstract individualism and philosophical rationalism, they juxtaposed a spontaneous, “real” people grounded in the life and soil of the nation. As Péguy put it, they were searching for “the marrow” of France, everything that made up “the tissue of the people.”15 These alignments reflected more than just the legacy of the successive political crises of the Third Republic. They also marked a hard-won theoretical achievement, one that saw the enchantment of violence as part and parcel of re-envisioning popular power and social cohesion in the face of political stasis and moral entropy.
To understand this achievement, this chapter focuses on the most visible theorist of violence during this period, Georges Sorel. Admired by Carl Schmitt and Mussolini, and retroactively mythologized as the intellectual “father of fascism,” Sorel stood at the intersection of the network of intellectuals who led the way to this enchantment of violence.16 His Reflections on Violence (1908) was a key text for reconceptualizing violence during these years. This chapter uses an analysis of his Reflections to clarify the broader relationship between the enchantment of violence and the democratic theory and practice of the Third Republic. It argues that the enchantment of violence provided a remedy for two perceived problems with French democracy: its republican model of citizenship was seen to be atomizing rather than associating, and it was leading France into moral decline. The two problems were, moreover, thought to be grounded in the prevailing rationalism and moral skepticism of French political and intellectual culture. Unlike republican social theorists who turned to the state for a solution, however, thinkers on both the far left and right searched for a corrective in “lived” experiential grounds of collective belonging and national renewal, a means for unmediated collective self-constitution. Thus, rather than outright rejecting the traditional republican aspirations for social cohesion and moral improvement, they sought a specifically moral and anti-statist alternative. With Sorel’s aid, French thinkers across the spectrum found a solution in violence, but not by renegotiating the parameters of its employment—its moral justification or criteria of legitimate use—but by redefining what violence was: as a practice of reasserting the moral foundations of “the social.” This reconceptualization served as a pivot for critiques of the state by both the left and right during the 1900s to converge on the cusp of war into a nationalist defense of it, in the name of the patrie, the embodiment of the “real” people as opposed to its abstract substitute posited by French republicanism. It helps explain why many intellectuals who were traditionally the first to attack the republic and its democratic institutions became on the eve of war its most strident nationalist defenders, finding in war a means of collective salvation.
The chapter begins by first describing how intellectual tendencies on the far-Left and far-Right in France worked out a shared critique of the republicanism of the Third Republic in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair. These tendencies—especially Hubert Lagardelle’s Le Mouvement socialiste and Péguy’s Cahiers de la Quinzaine—helped formulate an “irrationalist” response to republicanism that helped define the crisis of democracy in France in moral terms. The chapter then reconstructs an interpretation of Sorel’s account of violence to chart how he formulated an ameliorative practice adequate to the moral reconstruction of “the social” on the basis of experiential grounds: the cunning of violence. I show that Sorel endorsed violence for its own sake, which he saw as sublime. Yet thanks to contemporary work in French philosophy and psychology, which was increasingly locating freedom in domains outside of reason, such sublime violence became repositioned as an anti-statist practice of freedom, capable of conveying the will beyond the constraints of instrumental or utilitarian reason. Positioned as a practical alternative to the prevailing state ideology of progressive universalism, violence reappeared as an engine of social cohesion and moral improvement.
In the final section, I describe how Sorel’s “cunning of violence” was adapted as a conceptual fulcrum and alibi for the reorganization of strands of socialist, catholic, and scientific thought into an irrationalist nationalism by 1914—what Zeev Sternhell has famously called a political synthesis “neither right nor left.”17 Although Sorel originally intended sublime violence to provide a practice for the working class movement, it was adapted towards new ends both within and outside of France. Its corresponding redefinition of the class struggle in mythic, aesthetic terms paved the way for the displacement of the working class as the revolutionary subject by the “nation” while binding the new nationalism to an enchanted notion of violence. As a result of his appropriation, Sorel’s conclusion that a corrupt and decadent France could only be restored by either “a great foreign war, which might reinvigorate lost energies” or “a great extension of proletarian violence” that would induce “disgust with the humanitarian platitudes with which Jaurès lulls [the bourgeoisie] to sleep,” exemplified broader reorientations of French political thought at the end of the Belle Époque.18
What is at stake is showing how neither Sorel nor the enchantment of violence to which his Reflections contributed should be dismissed as aberrations from the consolidation of a democratic political culture during the Third Republic.19 Rather, the enchantment of violence responded to a real contradiction contained within the latter’s republican ideology: its abstract vision of the social body was incompatible with its commitment to a popular will that was free, unified and self-grounding. Although the Third Republic sought to contain this contradiction through the construction of a modernizing state apparatus and a positivistic belief in progress, in so doing it actually opened up the conceptual space for its supposed “opposite,” a militant nationalism based on a return to “concrete experience,” a “real” non-abstract people, and eventually a one-sided particularism. In that sense, the enchantment of violence was the reverse image of the republican universalism of the Third Republic. The latter had inadvertently tasked an irrationalist nationalism with forming the bounded and cohesive people that its own idea of freedom presupposed. Rather than dismissing Sorel as a simple advocate of violence then, he needs to be interpreted diagnostically, as a figure whose repudiation of republicanism brings into view its contradictory shape.
Both Sorel’s efforts and the broader enchantment of violence would recall, if only half-consciously and against his intention, the legacy of democratic terror in the French political tradition that he so detested. That legacy sought the violent reconstitution of a disintegrating social body through a moral and aesthetic reconstruction of the will of the people. Even over a century after the French Revolution, then, the essential dilemmas of the modern reconstruction of peoplehood were recapitulated. But in this instance, the leading lights of French political thought flinched in the face of those challenges and, like so many in August 1914, found in war a means of bypassing them, only to dialectically tighten the grip of those historical dilemmas in more violent ways.
The Moral Crisis of Democracy in the Wake of the Dreyfus Affair
Along with Sorel’s Reflections, the enchantment of violence appeared at an inflection point in anti-republican discourse of the Third Republic. Up until the wake of the Dreyfus Affair—a watershed event of French history, dividing the country over the fate of a Jewish military captain falsely accused of treason—disputes over the proper form of French government typically divided socialists and republican political thinkers against their Catholic and royalist counterparts. Despite Pope Leo XIII’s 1892 encyclical calling for Catholic reconciliation with the republican regime, the divisions between the two continued to widen. Indeed, from the 1890s up until the publication of the Reflections in French in 1908, France experienced a steady intensification of the workers’ movement that roughly correlated with the rise of republican anticlericalism. Fear of a general strike on May Day 1890, for example, brought 38,000 members of the army and police into Paris—the most, Susanna Barrows notes, since the crushing of the Commune.20 Yet these events were followed by the repeal of Le Chapelier’s Law in 1884 by Waldeck-Rousseau’s republican government which finally legalized trade unionism. The 1890s further witnessed waves of working class and anarchist violence, including several bombings of judges and politicians and peaking with the killing of President Sadi Carnot in 1894; these were the same years that the Ferry Laws were passed, establishing free, compulsory, and secular education in France. The Dreyfus Affair followed by the official separation of church and state in 1905 further aligned republicans and socialists against royalism and reaction. It seemed to verify the affiliation between socialism and anticlerical republicanism. By the mid 1900s, when Sorel was embedded in revolutionary syndicalism, working class militancy had been steadily intensifying for almost two decades: the year that the Reflections came out in Italy—1906—was the year that the Confederation Générale du Travail (CGT) adopted the Charter of Amiens, which announced the dominance of revolutionary syndicalism within the workers’ movement and the tail end of its “golden age.”21
And yet, almost immediately after publishing Reflections, Sorel and his syndicalist companions on the left began to be solicited by the Catholic right. First George Valois (future founder of the ultra-nationalist Cercle Proudhon and then the Faisceau) and then Maurras (leader of France’s largest nationalist organ, Action Française) approached Sorel about the latent filiation they detected between revolutionary syndicalism and the royalist, nationalist movement. A member of Action Française even helped introduce Sorel’s work to the broader right: Paul Bourget, a playwright and contributor to Andre Gide’s Nouvelle Revue Française, based his 1910 play La Barricade on the Reflections. The acknowledgment of affinity did not go unreciprocated. In a letter to Maurras on 6 July 1909, Sorel thanked him for a copy of his Enquête sur la Monarchie, writing, “It appears to me certain that your critique of contemporary experience well justifies that which you’ve wanted to establish… I have long been struck by the madness of our contemporary authors who ask democracy to do work that none but royalists, full of the sentiment of their mission, could approach.”22
The reasons for this new alliance were not reducible to political convenience. Even if by 1908 the republican left had broken with the revolutionary working class movement, which was itself entering dire straits, that was by no means an obvious invitation for the far right to court the latter.23 The pivot, rather, was substantive. It lay in a new shared idiom of anti-republicanism, one that critiqued the Republic not only by calling on traditional platitudes of church and family, but also on contemporary work in French philosophy and psychology concerned with the irrational, intuition, life, and the will. These were the years, after all, in which virtually every major intellectual program in Europe was concerned with the irrational sources of human motivation and association. The study of crowd psychology, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, vitalism and “collective effervescence” found their origins between 1885 and 1914. In particular, French intellectual life was being swept up in the charismatic influence of the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose lectures at the College de France became society events that spurred a vogue fascination with irrationalism and Catholic spiritualism.24 So widespread was this cultural “crisis of reason,” a “revolt against reason,” or more recently an “embrace of unreason,”25 that one scholar concluded that by 1914 “nothing remained of the proud structure of European certainties. The demolition was systematic, and covered almost every field of culture.”26
The intersection of anti-republicanism with this broader intellectual reorientation shaped an irrationalist anti-establishment discourse that questioned whether a rationalist and positivistic political culture could successfully reconstitute the French social body. Its central thrust was two-fold: the Third Republic encouraged moral decline, and it was unable to secure the cohesion of the social body without an ever-expanding statism. It was this idiom of anti-republicanism that helped bridge the anarchist syndicalist movement with royalist, nationalist tendencies, both of whom came to see their generation as living through a crisis episode in a moral epic. And indeed, from the late 1890s to the mid 1900s, the intellectual networks surrounding Sorel had been refining a revisionist interpretation of Marxism as a science of morals rather than a critique of political economy that drew on these philosophies of irrationalism. This was especially true of
Figure 3: Georges Sorel (1847-1922)
Hubert Lagardelle’s Le Mouvement socialiste and Péguy’s Cahiers de la Quinzaine, both of which Sorel was involved and provided the immediate context for the Reflections.
Lagardelle’s journal was one of the central organs for elaborating revolutionary syndicalism’s political theory in France.27 It was in its pages that Sorel’s Reflections first appeared in French, serialized in its 1906 issues (after earlier appearing in its Italian analogue Il Divenire sociale). It thus provided the initial French audience for Reflections before the pieces were assembled into book form for publication in 1908 on his friend Daniel Halévy’s encouragement.28 Le Mouvement socialiste also provided a venue for Sorel’s highly original work on Marxism during these years, which by the early 1900s established him as one of its leading authorities.
Sorel originally became involved with the journal in 1899 during the heyday of the Dreyfus Affair. Like others who answered Emile Zola’s call for intellectuals to defend Dreyfus and safeguard the universal value of truth—even if it meant tarnishing the esteem of France’s military—Sorel joined Dreyfusism. He saw in it the sense of justice that he believed formed socialism’s essence.29 However, after Dreyfusism was exploited by petty electoral politics and virulent anti-clericalism, especially with scandals like “l’affair des fiches” and culminating with the separation of church and state in 1905, he abandoned it and parliamentary democracy generally.30 He was joined by other leading revolutionary socialist organizations, like Victor Griffuelhes’s CGT and Hervé’s La Guerre sociale. Disaffection from parliamentary politics was for many revolutionary socialists cemented when the former socialist-liberal alliance for republican defense turned on the working class: a violent repression of a miners’ strike in May 1906 by Clemenceau, which left hundreds dead, was for many a point of no return.
Though its readership was comparatively small, and despite the role its contributors would play in the rise of French fascism in the coming decades, even its scholarly critics admit Le Mouvement socialiste was “one of the best [journals] that had ever existed in Europe, and the influence of its contributors on the development of the syndicalist left was considerable.”31 The intellectuals who formed its core—Lagardelle, Sorel, Halévy, Griffuelhes, Marcel Mauss, Antonio Labriola—became known as the “nouvelle école” or new school of socialism. Under Lagardelle’s editorial direction, the “new school” called for a rescue of the spirit of Marx from Marxism and for an autonomous workers’ movement. They also disseminated revisionists like Eduard Bernstein and promoted the work of Bergson, even developing a reputation as the “Bergsonian Left.”32
The journal was particularly well known for its antagonistic stance towards parliamentary socialism, which was seen as a capitulation to the Third Republic’s representative democracy. As Pierre Rosanvallon puts it, they endorsed a “sociological socialism, derived directly from the activities of labor groups” against the doctrinal socialism “founded on a philosophical theory.”33 Lagardelle himself had debated Durkheim over the irreconcilability of the two, insisting against the latter that working-class consciousness was incompatible with support for the republic; Durkheim, in response, accused Lagardelle and his colleagues of leading an incoherent anti-social movement that threatened to abort any gains socialism might gradually achieve through institutional reform.34 This theoretical conflict intersected with the broader “crisis of Marxism” during these years. This crisis—can or should we modify Marx’s arguments in light of present conditions?—revealed geopolitical and nationalist anxieties. “Official” Marxism in France was sometimes seen as German in spirit and thus anti-French. In recovering Marx from social democrats in Germany and Jules Guesde in France, Lagardelle and his journal participated in a broader effort to find a distinctly French form of Marxism. To critique official Marxism—even if in the name of the true Marx—was a way of defending French exceptionalism.35 It identified the spirit of Marx with the French revolutionary tradition and France as the true home of socialism. Hence why thinkers associated with both nationalism and revolutionary syndicalism also latched onto Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: aside from being a moralist, anarchist, and anti-capitalist, he was French.36 Proudhon’s claim that war was a civilizing force, that war was “divine… primordial, essential to life and to the production of men and society” anticipated the link between violence and “the social” that many revolutionary syndicalists and nationalists would embrace on the eve of World War I.37 Perhaps unsurprisingly then, before Sorel even encountered Marx in the late 1890s he was already praising Proudhon, and much of his return to “the spirit of Marx” during his days at Le Mouvement socialiste is accented towards the latter.38
If the Reflections drew its distinctive revisionism from Lagardelle’s journal, its moralization of war and violence was tempered elsewhere: the circle surrounding the poet and essayist Charles Péguy, editor of the Cahiers de la Quinzaine. The Cahiers was a vibrant (and financially precarious) publication that gathered together strands of Catholic, irrationalist and socialist thought. Some of its members overlapped with Lagardelle’s journal. Péguy started the Cahiers after failing his agrégation at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) and opening up a bookstore in the Latin Quarter. The intellectuals who gathered there—Sorel, Péguy, Halévy, Julien Benda, Eduard Berth, Romain Rolland, and many others—worked to formulate an alternative political program to the official parliamentary socialism of Jaurès and Lucien Herr, the influential librarian at the ENS. As Halévy joked, Péguy’s bookstore became known as “a haunt of old Normale students more or less denormalized.”39
The trajectory of Péguy’s circle was as politically heterogeneous as it was morally unbending. Like Sorel, its members began as committed Dreyfusards. But whereas Halévy and Sorel abandoned the Dreyfusard movement after its cooptation by parliamentary politics, Péguy remained committed to its “mystique,” even as he acknowledged that corrupt politicians had derailed it.40 Further conflicts within the circle came over their attitudes towards Bergson. Sorel and Péguy adored Bergson, and it was with Péguy that Sorel began attending Bergson’s lectures in 1900—“the traditional activity of the aspiring French intellectual,” as Kaplan quips41—each Friday afternoon.42 Péguy, like many others, saw in Bergson “a new religious and philosophical inspiration for politics,” indeed “the last hope of a desperate age.”43 Benda found the philosopher insufferable, attacking him in Une philosophie pathétique (1913).44 A final divisive issue was Péguy’s spiritual conversion to Catholicism in 1908, which alienated both readers and fellow contributors to the Cahiers. Sorel found it peculiar himself. With that conversion, the Cahiers assumed an idiosyncratic place among the French right, a Bergsonian conservatism nudged between the integral nationalism of Maurras’s Action Française and the narcissistic individualism of Barrès in the pages of the Echo de Paris.
Péguy was not alone in turning to religious experience as an escape from what he imagined was a suffocating abstract intellectual culture. Even at the ENS, the number of students
Figure 4: Charles Péguy, Editor of the Cahiers de la Quinzaine.
Figure 5: People lined up outside of Henri Bergson's lectures, 14 February 1914.45
professing religious identification swelled during these years.46 Nevertheless, if the Cahiers circle split over the legacy of the Dreyfus affair, Bergson and religion, they were united by their common interest in a moral interpretation of socialism. It was that concern that more than anything motivated its members. That interpretation, Sorel argued, consisted in a “new evaluation of all values by the militant proletariat” (RV, 80), a return to the masculine virtues associated with producers in industrial society: heroism, contact with the “concrete,” work and struggle, and principled moral rectitude against mere political opportunism.
This set of values, perhaps independently haphazard, took on a polemical coherence against the backdrop of the Cartesianism and rationalism championed in places like the École Polytechnique (where Sorel received his engineering training). In its critics’ eyes, Cartesianism was antithetical to the moral sensibilities of the productive classes. It was cold and sterile; it knew no pain. That was why it could imagine the world as simply an object of contemplation. Because the perspective of the worker entailed pain and forbearance, however, it could never doubt the existence of the world or reduce it to an object of thought as “intellectuals” did. Instead, the workers’ perspective inclined towards philosophical naturalism.47 To contemplate the world as an object of skeptical doubt in the name of reason was ridiculous and proof of the bourgeoisie’s moral and intellectual decadence. It was the historical mission of the productive classes to clear this clutter away, to furnish a new value system for a modern industrial France. By embodying the virtues of men living “concretely,” rooted in industry, tradition, life and soil, producers provided a better template for modern citizenship.48
Thus, part of what was distinctive to these Left intellectual tendencies like Lagardelle, Péguy, Sorel, and the leaders of the CGT like Griffuelhes and Émile Pouget was their insistence that socialism was a moral point of view in addition to an economic science. It was for that reason that socialism was capable of supplanting republicanism as a science of morals. They believed that not only the terms of economic arrangement, but also the proper moral bases for a modernizing industrial society were at stake. As Sorel himself acknowledged in a letter to Benedetto Croce in 1907, “If I were to sum up the great concern of my entire life, it would be to investigate the historical genesis of morals.”49 Sorel remained committed to that approach throughout his shifting political affiliations and even after he fell out with Péguy and the Cahiers after 1912.
This moral interpretation of socialism bridged segments of revolutionary syndicalism and the royalist, nationalist movement, despite the fact that the value system of the former was explicitly proletarian (or what they imagined to be “proletarian”). On one hand, it could bridge them because, in portraying the social antagonisms of the Third Republic as above all moral struggles, it viewed society as a moral entity. Of course, the idea that society could be a moral achievement did not originate with Péguy, Sorel, Lagardelle, and their colleagues. It was a notion they already shared with Durkheim and the social theorists of the Third Republic in their efforts to reground republicanism in the wake of the Commune.50 But the republican sociology of morals that Durkheim, Frederic Le Play, and Hippolyte Taine developed was compatible with moral conventionalism. It had in its canon, for example, Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863), a text that sought to humanize, and so relativize, Christianity’s origin. Renan’s 1882 “Qu-est-ce qu’une nation?” lecture, which famously acknowledged the nation as constituted by shared mores and historical amnesia, did so to construct a theory of the nation that was emphatically conventional. Taine’s equally famous claim that society was a product of the “race, milieu and moment” triptych was, beyond its conservatism, also an ode to a historicist and relativizing social science.
This moral conventionalism was unacceptable to many political thinkers associated with both the royalist right and revolutionary syndicalism. They thought it was a covert justification for democratic statism. The insistence on the conventionality of moral and political association both deprived France of transcendental moral foundations and fragmented the social body, leaving it to be clinched together only “mechanically” through the state’s “top-down” instruments of integration like education and the family, civic nationalism, the standardization of a common language, and the creation of a modern welfare state.51 Indeed, Charles Gide, Le Play, Durkheim and others had largely abandoned the moral naturalism of revolutionary republicanism—what Dan Edelstein has called its original “cult of nature.”52 The new architects of liberal republicanism had reconceptualized the state, rather, as an agent of progress in the name of which it could “make the social [faire du social].” “Established elites, steeped in a liberalism that counted Tocqueville and Guizot among its progenitors,” Philip Nord explains, had finally “shucked off the Jacobin legacy.”53 They forged in its place a new republicanism that viewed “the social” as an artifact of state-sponsored instruments of cohesion, cementing together discrete social formations and transforming the state from a site of political sovereignty into an instrument of economic improvement and social harmony. The effect was that, as Jacques Donzelot has argued, state sovereignty was gradually redefined in terms of its role as guardian of social progress rather than an expression of popular will, and indeed he describes republican social theory as, essentially, an attempt to contain and then displace the field of politics.54 Violence, in turn, was defined as barbaric and whose transcendence was a marker of a well-constituted social fabric. Indeed, the repudiation of violence formed a core component of national identity, one that became increasingly central to the self-understanding of French republican ideology even as its civilizing violence abroad was becoming indispensable to French political and material culture (chapter 2).55
While agreeing with republican social theory that society was a moral phenomenon, then, the irrationalist anti-republican synthesis also insisted that the former, far from promoting cohesion and morality as it promised, actually amplified moral relativism, atomization and statism. Sorel complained, for example, of the “egoism” which it unleashed: “Egoism of the basest kind shamelessly breaks the sacred bonds of the family and friendship in every case in which these oppose its desire” (RV, 188). Indeed, because of that egoism, Sorel (quoting Proudhon) feared that “France has lost its morals” (RV, 216). For the implications, one had only to look to Barrès’s Les Déracinés or “The Uprooted” (1897), a popular novel, part of a trilogy on “national energy” and which told the story of young Frenchmen from Alsace and Lorraine alienated from their homelands by the pernicious influence of a Kant professor. Kant was a convenient stand-in for the political culture of the Third Republic: rational, cosmopolitan, universalistic, homogenous, an allergic-reaction—so Barrès thought—to life, instinct, intuition, individuality and everything “lived” and “concrete,” namely, la France profonde. (That Kant was German was an added benefit.) Though more subtle, Péguy was equally melodramatic. Influenced by Sorel, he called in Notre jeunesse for a return to French culture “before the professors crushed it,” to recover “what a people was like before it was obliterated” by the scientific or statist point of view. “We do not yet know,” Péguy mourned, “whether our children will reunite the threads of tradition, of the republican mystique.” Torn apart by a debased republicanism and “the sterility of our times,” we are “out of touch with the main body, the generations of the past.” And so, “the de-republicanization of France”—the displacement of a transcendent republicanism by its amoral and statist shell, i.e. the parliamentary Third Republic—“is essentially the same movement as the de-Christianization of France. Both together are one and the same movement, a profound de-mystification.”56 The mystical and therefore “real” Republic (Péguy), the lived experience of the patrie (Barrès), the “most noble sentiments” of concrete morality (Sorel): each were related attempts to reinterpret the social antagonisms of France in moral terms, as episodes of morality’s longue durée and driven towards relativism and conventionalism by the doctrinal republicanism of the regime.
What brought parts of revolutionary syndicalism and royalist nationalism into proximity, in turn, was their shared search for a morality not through the state, but—like the broader turn to irrationalism in European intellectual thought—in the immediacy of experience, particularly as it was available in the ethos of “ordinary” people. Such a morality was opposed to the elite intellectualism or skepticism of democratic ideology. As the Dreyfus Affair made clear, so long as the socialist left had been affiliated with republican anti-clericalism, there could be no rapport between the two. But thanks to irrationalist anti-republicanism forged by Péguy, Lagardelle and others, a political synthesis was possible on the basis of a reassertion of naturalistic morality, grounded in a vision of activity, industry and the normative family—a romantic radicalism grounded in what they called “life.”
Together, they downplayed the element of economic struggle in socialism and magnified its moral aspect, gradually recasting the class struggle as one between classes who were less defined by their place in the productive system than their moral convictions. It was out of this interpretation that groundwork for a shared critical diagnosis of democracy was put forward. But such groundwork did not answer the all-important question of how the moral foundations of the social could be reconstructed. It did not yet offer a set of ameliorative practices that could enact and bring forth moral order from within a relativistic, skeptical, and utilitarian political culture. The political thinker who most vigorously worked out a solution was Sorel. His Reflections, which finally appeared in book form in 1908, was to make the case that collective violence could be a practice of freedom and an instrument of moral improvement precisely because it defied the constraints of the abstract—whether that was of language or of parliamentary democracy.