The Myth of the Patrie
Sorel’s redefinition of violence as a mythic, war-like practice connected the ongoing moral revisionism of socialism to a specific political practice. This “cunning of violence” resonated with broader critiques of republicanism and was frequently appropriated by several movements both within and outside of France. Amid these appropriations and adaptations, there was a clear pattern of displacing the revolutionary role the Reflections assigned to the working class with that of “the nation”—by Sorel himself included. Indeed, whatever appropriation the Reflections enjoyed appeared intertwined with its adaptation into a nationalist idiom.
For example, members of Action Française invited Sorel and Eduard Berth—a regular at Péguy’s Cahiers and one of Sorel’s more dedicated followers—to found a magazine called La Cité Française. Its opening statement, which Sorel signed, stated that the group’s goal was to “liberate French intelligence” from the “ideologies which have taken over in Europe for the past century.” To that end,
It is necessary to awaken the conscience which the classes ought to possess themselves and which is presently smothered by democratic ideas. It is necessary to awaken the proper virtues of each class, and without which each will not be able to accomplish its historical mission.84
The allusion to the Reflections was unmistakable, with its call for proletarian violence as a means of cultivating the ethos of the working class necessary for historical development. Yet the manifesto was immediately followed by Sorel’s own addendum that added a clarion call “to restore to the French a spirit of independence” by taking the “noble paths opened by the masters of national thought [la pensée nationale].”85 After La Cité Française failed to take off, its participants took their “Sorelian royalism” into several splinter tendencies.86 Berth would help found the Cercle Proudhon. Founded by George Valois, a member of Action Française, the Cercle was an ultra-nationalist league whose 1912 manifesto declared democracy the greatest threat to the modern world, for democracy substituted “abstract” liberties for “concrete” ones. In so doing, it endangered the individual, the family, and society. The group was charged with “reawakening the spirit,” to defeat “the false science” underlying democracy and capitalism, and to resuscitate the patrie and its “laws of blood.”87 In its pages and in Valois’s speeches, Sorel was repeatedly referred to “our master.” Jean Variot, an artist and journalist who first met Sorel at Péguy’s Cahiers, subsequently founded L’Independence, an intellectual outlet for Sorel where he published nationalist and anti-Semitic essays that alienated many of his former allies on the left while winning him new followers on the right.88
In L’Independence, the former Dreyfusard now suggested that the affair was a Jewish conspiracy and repeated xenophobic platitudes long associated with the French right. In particular, his writings now focused on the Jew as “anti-artist,” revealing that his attempts to reinfuse politics with an aesthetic dimension implied real social content: Sorel’s redefinition of citizenship on the basis of productive labor (understood as the objectification of a mysterious, inner creativity of the will) served as an alibi for the political exclusion of those whose social ascriptions marked them as incapable of participating in this new sociality of instinct, intuition, and creative production. Moreover, Sorel published two essays in L’Action française: a review of Péguy’s book on Joan of Arc, praising it for its patriotism, and an essay critiquing parliamentary socialists and their complicity in state-led repression of strikers.89 This move towards a militant nationalism was shared by many participants of the former “Bergsonian Left.” Lagardelle, disaffected by the failures of revolutionary syndicalism, would abandon his anti-patriotism and eventually become the minister of labor under Petain’s Vichy; Hervé, for his part, abandoned antimilitarism, discovered in national tradition a remedy for social division and fragmentation, and became a Mussolini enthusiast. Péguy’s fate was short-lived. As literary types are wont to do, he performed his own theory. Increasingly enchanted with death as a form of spiritual redemption and rebirth, he enthusiastically rushed into war in August 1914 only to die on September 4th with a bullet to the head.
The same appropriation and adaptations occurred outside of France. In Italy especially, “Sorelismo” encouraged the reorganization of working class energy into nationalist forms of collectivism. The Italian futurist, Filippo Marinetti, published his infamous and widely read “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism” in the French literary magazine Le Figaro on February 20, 1909. It was a screed against history and the past, both deeply anti-establishment and ultra-nationalist. It exalted, among other things, the existential rebirth of a “new man” into the rebellious masses: “We shall sing of the great multitudes who are roused up by work, by pleasure, or by rebellion; of the many-hued, many-voiced tides of revolution in our modern capitals.”90 Touched by Sorelismo, he would soon claim that war was “the sole cleanser of the world,” and that “I believe that a people has to pursue a continuous hygiene of heroism and every century take a glorious shower of blood.”91 Marinetti was, moreover, only the most bombastic of those influenced by Sorelismo.92 As Shlomo Sand explains, “Sorel’s presence in Italian culture from the end of the nineteenth century onward was too important to be ignored. The French friend of [leading Italian intellectuals] was known as an important philosopher, not only in
Figure 9: An illustration in the magazine Epinal in 1915, Thor—“the old Germanic divinity” and avatar of barbarism—is crushing the emblems of “civilization”—French churches. Besides seeing Germany as the hereditary enemy of France, it construes the battle for civilization not in the secular terms of republicanism, but of a battle against paganism by the Church. Paris, BNF, Estampes et Photographie, Li-59 (17)-Fol.
Figure 8: Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto appeared in the French paper Le Figaro, announcing the cult of war, intuition, movement, industry and speed. In it, Marinetti writes, “We wish to glorify war—the only cleanser of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.”
syndicalist circles and not just on the political fringes, but also among an entire generation of university graduates in the second decade of the twentieth century.” So widespread was Sorel’s influence in Italy that Sand compares it to the influence of Sartre and later Foucault in the sixties and seventies in Latin America.93 Sorel’s canonization as part of fascism’s intellectual pantheon was assured with Mussolini’s proclamation that “Who I am, I owe to Georges Sorel.” Finally, despite the fact that Sorel’s engagement with the right actually only lasted a few years, he was nevertheless mythologized as one of the intellectual forebears of fascism in France, too. Sorel was included by Vichy’s Information Services in a 1941 list of the political thinkers who constituted its pedigree: Sorel and Péguy stood aside Joseph de Maistre, Barrès, and Maurras.94
The almost effortless displacement of the working class by the nation helps bring into view how, rather than representing alternative political programs, the irrationalist anti-republicanism of the mid-1900s and the nationalist, populist republicanism on the eve of war might be theoretically continuous. They shared a common way of thinking about how political freedom and social cohesion were related, where the latter became a condition for the former. Sorel himself approved of this “discovery,” writing of Mussolini that his genius consisted in discovering “the union of the national and the social, which I studied but which I never fathomed.”95 War’s reconceptualization as an answer to the social question—because it drew out individuality, creativity, and moral uplift in ways compatible with collectivism—itself transformed the meaning of the Republic. No longer the guardian of social harmony and economic progress that the elite social theorists of the Third Republic had defined it as, it was now a mythic source of authority and in the name of which a higher (and inward) freedom could be experienced. In obedience to the myth of the Nation, men would fight not for egoism or instrumental considerations, but civilization, morality, and “life” itself.
For sure, part of the broad conversion from anti-republicanism to enthusiastic nationalism was spurred by the weakening of syndicalism more broadly, which after 1908 witnessed violent repression by the state and lost momentum. But the circumstantial reasons for this conversion contain theoretical significance. The aestheticization of violence thus needs to be understood in this context as a theoretical catalyst for reorganizing working class energies into a larger politics of nationalism. Sorel’s notion of myths and sublime violence clearly gratified a widespread urge on the eve of World War I for an intellectual orientation that could unite the political, the aesthetic and the moral in ways that answered the perceived crisis of France. Fragmented by republicanism and lacking experiential grounds for social cohesion that were organic and spontaneous rather than procedural or mechanical, Sorel’s arguments paved the way for war to be viewed as far more than security maneuvering. To enter into war with Germany was to defend transhistorical, indeed “mythic” sources of authority—the patrie, progress and civilization.
For those swayed by Sorel’s arguments, to defend mythologized authority in war was the condition of modern freedom. It was as if for Sorel and his generation, democracy erased freedom from the world in the moment that it promised it to all individuals as self-evident and axiomatic. If only the relativism and utilitarianism of French political culture could be overcome, we could finally have in our possession the proof of our freedom: that was the desire that the turn to intuition, “sublime” violent self-renewal intended to gratify. What violence supplied was not factual datum but psychological conviction in our freedom that the empirical world refused to yield through “rational” reflection. The resurrection of political freedom thus depended on an enchantment of violence.