The Cunning of Violence: The Argument of the Reflections
Sorel’s Reflections appeared at a time in which proletarian violence and militant agitation had been escalating, even as the Third Republic denounced them both as irrational and anti-social. Yet despite the fact that a reconceptualization of violence is the Reflections’ chief accomplishment, there is virtually no in-depth analysis of what Sorel meant by it. This neglect is likely the consequence of the Reflection’s stature. Its canonical status has led contemporary theorists to ignore it in favor of his minor writings, particularly in the philosophy of science, to better account for his overall intellectual portrait.57 The ironic result is that Sorel’s Reflections, its view on violence assumed to be familiar and settled, has received disproportionately little treatment. But as Alice Kaplan wryly notes, despite its relative neglect by recent academic scholarship, “the book least worth reading was the book most often cited and probably the only book the fascists knew much about.”58
The central symptom of this neglect is that scholars have consistently read the Reflections to endorse violence for its own sake. Shklar spoke for an entire generation of readers when she concluded that “what distinguishes [Sorel] from most other revolutionaries was that he was not at all concerned with a better future, or indeed with improving society in any way.” Strictly speaking, he could not even be classified as a political thinker.59 This view has persisted among contemporary readers like Corey Robin, Moishe Postone, and Dominick LaCapra, with the latter recently describing Sorelian violence as “left utterly void of content,” even a “blank utopia.”60 This view is not altogether wrong. Violence for Sorel is that, but only when viewed from one perspective: the political actor. A more careful reading shows, however, that the Reflections builds its account of violence from two simultaneous perspectives. On one hand, Sorel describes proletarian violence from a functionalist or Archimedean perspective: we need violence to redraw lines of class conflict at a time in which parliamentary democracy is erasing them through “social legislation” and mixing everything into a “democratic morass” (RV, 78). Into democratic homogeneity violence injects moral and social differentiation. On the other hand, for violence to accomplish this task, those who engage in it must do so in ignorance of its overall purpose; they cannot hold in their mind’s eye this “merely” strategic goal. To do so—to engage in violence for utilitarian reasons—would risk debasing their moral rectitude, reducing their sublime violence to the same utilitarian type wielded by raison d’état or what Sorel called “force.” Rather than differentiating the classes, it would remake proletarians in their enemies’ image. Popular accounts of Sorel conflate this latter view for his complete account,61 thus obscuring how Sorel built into his account of violence a distinction between its subjective and objective dimensions: disavowing its function is how it fulfills that function.
Thus, like Hegel’s cunning of reason, Sorel formulates something of a “cunning of violence” to serve as a motor for historical and moral development: “The striving towards excellence, which exists in the absence of any personal, immediate or proportional reward, constitutes the secret virtue that assures the continued progress of the world” (RV, 248). This “cunning of violence” prevents his valorization of sublime violence from succumbing to subjectivism. It is specified, moreover, in relation to Sorel’s own interpretation of France’s political situation, which also consisted in an “objective” and “subjective” aspect: it tended towards decadence, and it extinguished the will. Linking these elements together shows why, when confronted with a democratic society which could not bring about the form of freedom it presupposed, Sorel turned to violence as an ameliorative practice while at the same time reconceptualizing its essence in moral and aesthetic terms, as sublime.
In elaborating violence in its “objective” aspect, Sorel argues that proletarian violence counteracts the movement towards national decadence brought about by parliamentary democracy’s tendency to consolidate elite power while undermining the class struggle. Traditionally, he claims, French political culture has been hostile to the class struggle because of the rights of man: “Judging all things from the abstract point of view of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme, they said that the legislation of 1789 had been created in order to abolish all distinction of class in law.” For this reason, legislation tailored to the conditions of the working class—social legislation—has been opposed because it “reintroduced the idea of class and distinguished certain groups of citizens as being unfit for the use of liberty” (RV 51). It enshrined in law a formal distinction that the revolution was supposed to have abolished.
With the founding of the Third Republic, however, social legislation became palatable because it was recast as republican, i.e. a means of integrating disenfranchised classes into modern citizenship and resolving “the social question” in universal, progressive terms. Policy programs like Léon Duguit and Léon Bourgeois’s “solidarism” had helped create a state-run system of social security and insurance that could fulfill the demands of “social right,” enact a “social economics,” and secure cross-class solidarity in the name of progress while regulating anomie via the family and the workplace.62 It was this attempt to republicanize social antagonisms that Sorel disdainfully called “social peace,” and in the Reflections he specifically attacks Jaurès and Bourgeois as its sophists.
According to the Reflections, solidarism’s “social peace” has made parliamentary socialism effete and counter-revolutionary. Rather than standing firm in their convictions, socialist politicians seek compromises with the ruling class and become opportunistic. “Parliamentary socialism,” Sorel observes with loathing, “feels a certain embarrassment from the fact that, at its origin, socialism took its stand on absolute principles” (RV, 68). Remade as realists, parliamentarians become hypocritical calculators and strategists. The pursuit of social peace, moreover, cannot help but recapitulate asymmetries of power. This point is important, for Sorel is arguing that what we conventionally understand to be rational deliberation aimed at generating consensus on questions of public good can, in practice, rarely realize the political freedom of the dispossessed under exploitative capitalist conditions. Liberal democratic politics, in a situation of unequal social relations, will stage social conflict as tacitly organized by the question of what concessions are needed from the bourgeoisie to appease the working classes: “Such a discussion presupposes that it is possible to ascertain the exact extent of social duty and what sacrifices an employer must continue to make in order to maintain his position” (RV, 56). It is thus reformist in essence; it rotates the seat of capitalist power without ever superseding it. Negotiations turn on questions of social “duty” where fulfillment of this duty allows the bourgeois benefactors to feel a “supposed heroism,” one that is identified more accurately by its beneficiaries as barely concealed “shameful exploitation.” By making the class struggle a question of the proper relation between the classes, of what the ruling class owes the poor and what social legislation is therefore required by the state, such discussions cannot but take the form of special pleading. At its worst, it moralizes reformist politics so that its revolutionary counterpart appears not only practically unfeasible but morally repugnant, a violation of one’s duty to cultivate a national consensus enjoyable by all democratic citizens. Hence why “parliamentary socialists no longer believe in insurrection…they teach that the ballot-box has replaced the gun,” or why “parliamentary socialism does not mingle with the main body of the parties of the extreme Left” (RV, 49-50). By framing class struggle around civic harmony and duty through social legislation, such struggles entrench exploitative social relations and on those grounds alone are to be rejected as counter-revolutionary (RV, 55-62, 107).
According to Sorel, this displacement of violent class warfare for the pursuit of social peace has ushered France into a state of decline. On its face, this claim was not new. The concern with decline and decadence was a fixture of late nineteenth century European intellectual culture. Between conservative disciplines like crowd psychology63 and criminal anthropology,64 “decadence” and “degeneration” were concepts in widespread use, organizing an array of social ills like the declining birth rate, alcohol consumption, criminality and sexual pathology within a common framework that analogized the compulsive repetition of France’s revolutionary history to the intergenerational reproduction of the social body. Decadence linked biology and history together in a common national narrative of depletion, of vital life thwarted or suppressed.65
Sorel was intimately familiar with this discourse for reasons both personal and intellectual.66 Yet his understanding of decadence was distinct from the strictly historical-physiological notion. Drawing on his own studies of Vico and Proudhon, he portrayed decadence as a moral condition whose outstanding symptom was the substitution of intellectualism for heroism, and cunning for violence (RV, 184-9, 211-2).67 Indeed, earlier in Sorel’s career, in Le Procés de Socrate (1889), he had already insisted that philosophy ruined ancient Athens by destroying its spirit of heroism and the traditional family, replacing them with intellectualism and homosexuality. The former union of poetry and politics, and its enchanted understanding of nature, history, and the family, were supplanted by an enervating culture more interested in philosophical disquisition and pleasure than war and reproduction. Fatally, it had turned away from the egalitarianism of “life”—demonstrated by the complementarity of sexual difference and of soldierly fraternity in battle—for the hierarchies of “thought.” Ancient Greeks before their decline, Sorel extols, were not unlike the captains of industry in America, muscular in their pursuit of collective self-interest. But now there is nothing but “bourgeois cowardice” in France (RV, 62). The ruling classes have surrendered their historical mission as “creators of productive forces” for the pacific “noble profession of educators of the proletariat.” The consolidation of statism, decadence, and the loss of heroism by abstract philosophy—this is the objective situation and it is by all accounts a dim one.68
This objective situation for Sorel evinces a subjective side: it enervates and paralyzes our collective will.69 Rationalism and its belief in progress, born in the Enlightenment and now the credo of the Republic, gives rise to an intellectual culture that denigrates the practical bases of knowledge and privileges abstract reasoning. And like Péguy’s claim in Notre jeunesse that all things begin as “mystique” and are debased into “politique,” Sorel sees in this culture a fall from intuition and feeling into abstract formalism and prediction, that is, the emergence of a utilitarian culture he calls “probabilism.” This degeneration of thought—the subjective side of decadence—disempowers actors because it substitutes for the unconditional will a form of cognitive and moral reasoning fit only for deadened workers in capitalism, not citizens in a free society.70 Why, after all, would people commit to a revolution if they predicted that their actions would likely fail, particularly if their opponent was a social order backed by the state? “Theoreticians of democracy,” with their subsequent calls for reasonable and practical action, “greatly restricted the field upon which this absolute man may extend the action of his free will” (RV 262).
According to Sorel, Marx is the thinker who best grasps the consequences of orienting our wills towards prediction and calculation: a collection of free individuals maximizing self-interest will produce, in the aggregate, laws of social tendency, thereby dialectically transforming the sum of free actions into a determinate system governed by social compulsion. As Marx teaches us,
When we reach the last historical stage, the action of independent wills disappears and the whole of society resembles an organized body, working automatically; observers can then establish an economic science which appears to them as exact as the sciences of physical nature. The error of many economists consisted in their ignorance of the fact that this system, which seemed natural and primitive to them, is the result of a series of transformations that might not have taken place, and which always remains a very unstable structure, for it could be destroyed by force, as it had been created by the intervention of force... (RV, 168)71
Though this phenomenon was familiar enough to nineteenth century political and economic thinkers, it was only at the end of the century that it began to carry urgency as a crisis of freedom. Weber was to eventually supply its canonical formulation as the “iron cage” thesis. “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so,” he laments in 1930, for the duty towards economic progress was “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism…with irresistible force.”72 The disenchantment of the world, Weber understood, went hand-in-hand with the dialectical reversal of individual freedom into structural compulsion. It was a realization that alarmed an entire generation of European intellectuals, and many—as Sorel would—turned to vitalist mysticism as a metaphysical escape hatch.73
Central to Sorel, however, was how this dilemma represented a crisis of the will. Sorel’s work in the philosophy of science originally led him to see determinism—understood not as fatalism, but as a simple statement about the regularity of natural phenomenon under conditions held constant—as something that expanded the jurisdiction of man’s will since it guaranteed the natural world’s experimental manipulability by industry and technology.74 But in modern democracies populated with atomized citizens, utilitarian in spirit and locked into calculation rather than action, humans became a part of determined nature rather than standing above it as its willful experimenter and producer (like, say, an engineer). Parliamentary democracy, where a self-regarding politician jockeyed for votes as if at a Stock Exchange, was simply another instance of man despiritualized into determined nature; party politics, like the market, resembled a machine that viewed each citizen as quantitatively interchangeable with any other (RV, 221-2). A remedy was thus needed in the form of unmediated collective will, prior to both language and utilitarian reason, a will so primordial that it could not be captured by the forms of mediation that have ossified into a mechanical social system: man “must have in himself a powerful motive, a conviction which must dominate his whole consciousness, and act before the calculations of reflection have time to enter his mind” (RV, 206). Or as Sorel put it earlier in the preface to his friend Ferdinand Pelloutier’s Histoire des bourses du travail (1902), “Teaching the proletariat to will, instructing it by action—this is the whole secret of the socialist education of the people.”75
“It is here,” Sorel announces, “that the role of violence in history appears as of utmost importance” (RV, 77). Proletarian violence—“a very fine and heroic thing…at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization”—Sorel enthusiastically proclaims, “comes upon the scene at the very moment when the conception of social peace claims to moderate disputes,” it “confines employers to their role as producers and tends to restore the class structure just when they seemed on the point of intermingling in the democratic morass” (RV, 85, 78). It can undo the parliamentary rotation of power that cuts off revolutionary transformation. It can reverse the objective tendency towards decadence. “The danger which threatens the future of the world may be avoided,” indeed, violence “may save the world from barbarism” (RV, 85).
Sorel describes this turn to violence almost like an empirical discovery, as if in searching for an ameliorative practice for the extinction of the will and moral decadence he is simply taking up and examining whether the recent resurgence of proletarian violence in France could be an effective remedy. Indeed, the structure of exposition in the Reflections reflects this belief: the second half of the book is framed as a “test” of whether proletarian violence, in fact, contains within it all of the elements of a solution to France’s present crisis. In reality, however, what follows is Sorel’s effort to reconceptualize the meaning and nature of violence. Already theorized by republican social theory as irrational, political violence was implied to be anti-social and therefore something which undermined the conditions for republican freedom. But in Sorel’s hands, that non-rational attribution to violence—which he did not dispute—was revalued through the framework of Bergson’s intuitionism so that this irrationalist violence became a practice of freedom and, moreover, not anti-social at all, but centrally formative of the social.
Specifically, the Reflections argues that, thanks to proletarian violence’s “mythic” basis, it can reignite our faculty of collective willing (our shared powers of self-compulsion). Violence sustained by myths can call into being a will external to the system of law-like regularity that appropriates our individual freedom as a means of our subjection. It engenders the “sublime,” the moral and aesthetic quality of action that is proof of our freedom. These myths “are not descriptions of things but expressions of a will to act” (RV, 28). Specifically, they are “a body of images capable of evoking instinctively all the sentiments” of “war...against modern society,” a mental visualization of an “artificial world” that we hold to be irrefutable, not because there is no evidence against it but because it is not something to which epistemic procedures of refutation are relevant: “A myth cannot be refuted since it is, at bottom, identical to the convictions of a group…unanalysable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions” (RV, 118, 29). They are not empirical descriptions, or historical and sociological theses. Their aesthetic content is drawn, rather, from time out of mind. In fact, because “people who are living in this world of myths are secure from all refutation,” particularly the myths of revolution, it has “led many to assert that socialism is a kind of religion” (RV, 30). Yet simply because myths are “not astrological almanacs” does not mean they are religious, even as they remind us that what distinguishes religion from science is precisely the mythic element. The latter is what gives to religion its validity and binding compulsion, completely alien to modern positivistic reasoning and its withering skepticism. It was a fact neither Durkheim nor Renan could ever grasp no matter how much they sought to demystify religion by writing their histories. Indeed, Marxism contained a mythic aspect too, and in Sorel’s view the goal of revisionism was to recover that mythic core—the vision of catastrophe and revolutionary deliverance—from its disenchantment by the “scientific” Marxists of his day (RV, 122-9). After all, the falsity of myths “does not prevent us from continuing to make resolutions,” to act on their behalf (RV, 116).
What is important to Sorel is not the true but banal claim that humans can be motivated by the irrational or the fictitious. What matters, rather, is that an appeal to the aesthetic is the means by which a voluntarist freedom is redeemable. When we act on mythic grounds, “our freedom becomes perfectly intelligible” (RV, 27). To act independently of rational or cognitive considerations is to come to know the deep psychology of our inner life, “our willing activity” and its “creative moment” that rationalist sciences confuse and obscure by viewing our actions from the outside and the standpoint of their completion (RV, 25-27). Or he put in Humanité nouvelle around the same time, “to organize does not consist in placing automatons on boxes! Organization is the passage from order which is mechanical, blind and determined from the outside, to organic, intelligent and fully accepted differentiation; in a world, it is a moral development.”76 The moral regeneration of society requires wrestling a politics of will out of a deterministic and atomized social order. While Sorel draws this redefinition of freedom as an inner subjective experience, as willing and invention, largely on the basis of his reading of Bergson,77 modeling freedom on creativity was also Sorel’s way of insisting on the moral superiority of the productive classes over intellectual ones. And because creative production was a mystery of the interior life, it made sense that socialism had mythic elements since it was a doctrine for producers.78
The classic examples of myths, according to Sorel, were the myths of deliverance that motivated Greek soldiers, the Jews and Christians of antiquity, and the leaders of the Protestant reformation (RV, 115-6). In each case, images of imminent catastrophe and redemption motivated the will of the persecuted, and no amount of empirical and worldly persuasion could touch their conviction. Such myths exaggerated every conflict, so that every struggle bore world-historic weight (RV, 58-63). According to Sorel, the history of social movements teaches that all great historical transformations are motivated by such myths, and even if none of the myths are realized in their details, it does nothing to the accomplished fact that, moved by such myths, political actors have reshaped the world.
It is no accident that Sorel often associates myths with the religiously persecuted. For Sorel, myths are not only sources of motivation. Fear of the state works just as well, after all. What is distinctive about myths is that assert an ethics. Turning from Bergson to Nietzsche and Proudhon, he puts the problem thus:79
At the beginning of any enquiry on modern ethics this question must be asked: under what conditions is regeneration possible?… And if the contemporary world does not contain the roots of a new ethic, what will happen to it? The sighs of a whimpering bourgeoisie will not save it if it has forever lost its morality (RV, 224).
If political actors are to regain contact with their “willing activity,” but in a way that does not exacerbate degeneration and decline, they must be guided by myths that can furnish to the world a new system of valuation that breaks with that of the existing social arrangements. They need myths that isolate the persecuted from their societies (like the Christians and Jews of antiquity), allowing them to act in ways exonerated from the mediations of existing political society. In other words, they need myths that can inspire “sublime” action, aestheticized conduct that is non-instrumental and pre-reflective, sustained by absoluteness of conviction and belief in vindication. “When working-class circles are reasonable, as the professional sociologists with them to be,” Sorel scornfully remarks, “there is no more opportunity for the sublime than when agricultural unions discuss the subject of the price of guano with manure merchants” (RV, 210). Sublime violence is violence at once moralized and aestheticized, guided by images of catastrophe and redemption. It is conducted without traces of utilitarianism. It is at once free and morally uplifting—precisely the type of behavior Sorel believes parliamentary democracy discourages with its emphasis on “social peace,” realism, compromise, and “reasonable” debate. Indeed, Sorel practically chokes with rage at the prospect of politicians joining a social movement, as happened in the Dreyfusard movement (“no more heroic characters, no more sublimity, no more convictions!”) (RV, 213).
Until the founding of the Third Republic, Sorel believed that the most significant modern myth that could sustain sublime violence was that the French Revolution’s “wars of liberty.” That revolutionary myth, an image of newly sovereign people in need of defenders against a jealous Europe, motivated generations of soldiers while protecting their sublimity from base utilitarian considerations. Like the Christians of antiquity acting on faith in redemption, the revolutionaries fought and died independently of the outcome: win or lose, their souls would be saved. But, alas, the historians of the Third Republic—especially Jaurès and Taine—have disenchanted the French Revolution (RV, 90-1). By writing its history, by rendering it as if it were any other event, they have destroyed the mythic element, revealing the revolution for what it was in fact: a “superstitious cult of the State” (RV, 99). “The prestige of the revolutionary days” has been badly damaged. They can no longer sustain free action.80
With the myth of the revolution’s wars of liberty disenchanted and exhausted, a new myth is now needed to rekindle the mythic in society, the better to resurrect the faculty of willing. That myth is the catastrophic general strike, the modern heir to the mystique of the French Revolution and thus its latest iteration.81 For democracy’s disenfranchised, “the war of conquest interests them no longer. Instead of thinking of battles, they now think of strikes; instead of setting up their ideal as a battle against the armies of Europe, they now set it up as the general strike in which the capitalist regime will be destroyed” (RV, 63). The myth of the general strike “awakens in the depth of the soul a sentiment of the sublime,” it inspires action undaunted by victory’s implausibility and thus “brings to the fore the pride of free men” (RV, 159). It brings together the need for a collective will with a new system of values that repudiates the intellectualism and decadence of a dying France.82 From its sublime violence will arise an “ethic of the producers for the future” (RV, 224).
At once anti-republican and non-rational, the practice of violence was singularly capable of reasserting a total moral vision of society in catastrophic conflict with the existing one. And because of the cunning of violence, it would not be mere subjective assertion, but a real motor of moral and historical change: by refusing instrumental considerations, violence for its own sake would rescue from democratic homogeneity the moral absolutes of social antagonism. It was both “violence for violence’s sake” and a technical instrument for the realization of moral progress. Citing Nietzsche and Renan freely, Sorel believed he had effected a transvaluation of violence’s value, tearing it away from its denigration by effete parliamentarism. No longer destructive, violence was productive; not nihilistic, it was value creating; the opposite of selfishness, it was a means of suppressing egoism for collective moral improvement: “it is the birth of a virtue, a virtue that the Intellectuals of the bourgeoisie are incapable of understanding, a virtue which has the power to save civilization” (RV, 228). Or again, “It is to violence that socialism owes those high ethical ideals by means of which it brings salvation to the modern world” (RV, 251).
With this argument, Sorel effectively redefined violence. What distinguished the essence of violence from crime or mere force, he argued, was that it took sustenance from an aesthetic ideal which, in virtue of being the self’s inner creation, was untouched by reason’s corrosive abstraction. For that reason, it stood for an ethical practice of value creation. For a generation of Frenchmen in search of individuality and the immediacy of fraternity, however, this intertwinement of the moral and the aesthetic became much more than an idiosyncratic intellectual synthesis. It provided the most sophisticated argument for why violence could be a fountain of “concrete” or communal values with which to redefine the relationship between the individual and the collective in ways that overcame the atomizing force of democratic ideology. It made the case for violence as a practice of freedom.
It is important to stress that this argument was not automatically “fascist” or “totalitarian,” as political theorists who narrate Sorel as part of the prehistory of fascism frequently insist.83 There were affinities to be sure, which Sorel’s historical appropriation and canonization demonstrates. But to call Sorel fascist is to deliberately obscure how his aestheticization of violence was embedded in an already existing republican project of searching for a moral solution to the seemingly intractable dilemma at the heart of French democratic modernity: in the wake of disincorporating the people into free and equal citizens, how do we reconstruct its social body? If fragmentation was the enabling condition for a deterministic society governed by quasi-natural social laws, how can the refounding of “the social” be accomplished, the better to ground the freedom of a collective will of the people? There were, moreover, major theoretical obstacles to a fascist appropriation. For one, Sorel’s Reflections is uncompromisingly anti-statist. For another, the cunning of violence posits the agent of historical and moral improvement to be the working class as distinct from the nation, and indeed the former’s separation from the latter was a condition for progress. The Reflections actually critiques patriotism as a smokescreen for democracy’s statism.
Nevertheless, these obstacles were conjoined to invitations to appropriation. This was especially true in the way Sorel thought about authority: because of how he construed the cunning of violence, Sorel was often compelled against his own inclinations to portray the workers in ways that frequently undermined his own stated anti-authoritarianism. On one hand, Sorel believed that the myth of the general strike contained within it an image of a future society with no masters (RV, 238-9). The whole point, after all, was to unravel the structures of authority that sustained worker exploitation, whether it was in the State or the factory, and to replace it with a fantasy of spontaneous, organic fraternity. Hence the Reflection’s status as a canonical text for the French anarchist federalism. Yet in Sorel’s own descriptions, the workers were repeatedly analogized to people enthralled by a mystique: God, nature, revolution and redemption. They were soldiers in battle—possessed of a will, to be sure, unlike their enemies who were deadened “automatons”—but participating in what were essentially military maneuvers. Inwardly free and individual, they were nevertheless obedient to a greater authority.
For example, Sorel states that “Proletarian acts of violence” are “purely and simply acts of war; they have the value of military maneuvers and serve to mark the separation of classes” (RV, 105). Rather than acting from jealousy or a sense of self-regard, proletarian violence is dispassionate and soldierly. At the same time, such individuals are not dissolved into a collective. They retain their individuality. “In the wars of Liberty,” Sorel cites as an example, “each soldier considered himself as an individual having something of importance to do in battle, instead of looking upon himself as simply one part of the military mechanism entrusted to the supreme direction of a leader.” During these wars, Sorel is struck by the contrast between the “automatons of the royal armies,” and the revolutionary army, a “collection of heroic exploits by individuals who drew the motives of their conduct from their enthusiasm” (RV, 240-1). What convinced the French revolutionary soldier of his irreducible individuality was the myth of the revolution, which guaranteed his vindication. His violence was thus immune to corrupting qualifications or compromises. Sublime violence was perhaps the only way that the will could appear in the world prior to any mediation that would deaden in, making of it a machine. And yet Sorel wanted both soldiers motivated by their own enthusiasm rather than an overall plan, and military leaders attuned to that enthusiasm enough to let it alone and channel it towards strategic victories. The cunning of violence made that possible.
Many of the intellectuals who would go on to support or collaborate with fascism were beholden to this fantasy. Repudiating the liberal assumption that the individual and the community were in tension, that fantasy insisted on a qualitative form of individualism that was constitutive of the collective. What gave irreducible worth to the citizen-as-soldier was that the battle’s outcome could depend on any one of them. All individual elements were simultaneously world-historical, indeed mythic.
If we wished to find, in these first armies, what it was that took the place of the later idea of discipline, we might say that the soldier was convinced that the slightest failure of the most lowly soldier might compromise the success of the whole and the life of all his comrades—and that the soldier acted accordingly. This presupposes that no account is taken of the relative values of the different factors that go to make up victory, so that all things are considered from a qualitative and individualistic point of view (RV, 241-2).
Sorel saw in the experience of revolutionary war the “most striking manifestation of the individualistic force in the rebellious masses” (RV, 243). These were not automatons following orders, interchangeable with one another as parliamentary democracy sees each vote or capitalism sees each worker. They were also not utilitarian, rational skeptics, positivists and intellectuals, but individuals. They had faith.
Perhaps the best way to describe the implications of Sorel’s “cunning of violence” is that the condition of freedom for Sorel requires one to be situated at the intersection of two forms of authority: a horizontal and collective authority generated bottom-up, which was at the same time subservience to the authority of the mythic. To be free is to be beholden to a myth and its corresponding ethos, one that draws out the sublime action that can constitute a new “social,” a kind of primordial fraternity outside of language, institutions, and reason. And because of the intellectual context in which Sorel was embedded, the turn to the mythic was seen as a return to reality. For it was in the immediacy of “concrete” experience that reality was touched. Not myth, but “reason” and its abstracting tendencies divorced us from our own reality. To aestheticize violence was thus to return to the reality and spontaneity of our free will, vouchsafed to us by metaphysical fiat. We were always free. If we have forgotten, it is only because of the flights of reason; myths, by returning us to the inner duration of our selves, act as an emancipatory corrective.
Sorel seemed largely unconcerned with this two-fold authority that his account of freedom requires, clinging as he did to the notion that he had discovered a horizontal politics without masters. It was a vision of a spontaneous democratic society without any of the corrupting mediations of the existing one. The danger of this anti-authoritarianism and anti-statism was that it was so wary of authority, so infatuated with images of disruption and transgression, and of finding a point outside of mediation (the precognitive will) to reconstitute the social, that it simply could not imagine any viable form of authority that was not mythic. Indeed, Sorel implied that no authority could reconstitute modern freedom except mythic ones. He had made a virtue out of authority that was ahistorical and decontextualized.