Reflections on Violence



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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

war.jpg

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.


  1. 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.”


futurist manifesto.gif

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.


1 Quoted from Frederick Brown, The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 (New York: Knopf, 2014), 13.

2 “Jaurès assassiné,” L’Humanite (1 August 1914). Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BnF), Droit, Économie, Politique. Grand folio, Lc2-6139.

3 Photo from Brown, Embrace of Unreason, 18.

4 Cited in Daniel Halévy, Charles Péguy and the Cahiers de la Quinzaine (New York and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947; first published in 1918), 134.

5 Charles Péguy, Temporal and Eternal, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958; first published 1932), 22-3.

6 Gustave Hervé, My Country, Right or Wrong?, trans. G. Bowman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1910; first published 1906), 157.

7 Paul B. Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens: Antimilitarism in France, 1870-1914 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 201-12.

8 Charles Péguy, “Eve” in Cahiers de la Quinzaine 15th series, no. 4 (1913).

9 H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930 (New York: Knopf, 1958), 344. See also Eugen Weber, The Nationalist Revival in France, 1905-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968); Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Jean-Jacques Becker, The Great War and the French People, trans. Arnold Pomerans (Dover: Berg, 1985; first published 1983).

10 “L’Antimilitariste et le Tambour-Major,” Le Petit Journal. Supplément illustré (11 April 1909). BNF, Philosophie, Histoire, Sciences de l’homme, Fol-Lc2-3011.

11 Rene Avord (Raymond Aron), Les Dictateurs et la mystique de la violence (New Delhi: Bureau d’information de la France combattante, undated), 3, 13.

12 Isaiah Berlin, "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will," in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, ed. Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 575; Judith Shklar, "Bergson and the Politics of Intuition," The Review of Politics 20, no. 04 (1958), 634-656, at 635.

13 Mark Antliff, Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909-1939 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Pierre Rosanvallon, Le peuple introuvable: Histoire de la représentation démocratique en France (Paris: Gallimard, 1998); Pierre Birnbaum, “Catholic Identity, Universal Suffrage and ‘Doctrines of Hatred,’” in Zeev Sternhell, ed., The Intellectual Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, 1870-1945 (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1996), 233-51.

14 Maurice Barrès, “Les Enseignements d’une Année de Boulangisme,” Le Figaro, February 2, 1890; Eugen Weber, The Nationalist Revival in France, 1905-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

15 Quoted from Charles Péguy’s Notre jeunesse (1910) republished in Péguy, Temporal and Eternal, 21.

16 Lawrence Wilde, "Sorel and the French Right," History of Political Thought 2, no. 2 (1986): 361-374; Mark Antliff, "Bad Anarchism: Aestheticized Mythmaking and the Legacy of Georges Sorel," Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 2011, no. 2 (2011): 155-187; Jack J. Roth, "The Roots of Italian Fascism: Sorel and Sorelismo," The Journal of Modern History 39, no. 1 (1967): 30-45; Shlomo Sand, “Legend, Myth, and Fascism,” The European Legacy 3, no. 5 (1998), pp. 51-65. 

17 Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, trans. David Maisel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996; first published 1983).

18 Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, ed. Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; first published 1908), 72. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text as RV.

19 Jacques Donzelot, L’invention du social: essai sur le déclin des passions politiques (Paris, 1984); Rosanvallon, Le peuple introuvable. For a good approach to resituating Sorel within republicanism, see Eric Brandom, "Georges Sorel, Émile Durkheim, and the Social Foundations of La Morale," Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 38 (2010): 201-15.

20 Susanna Barrows, Distorting Mirrors: Visions of the Crowd in Late Nineteenth Century France (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), 26.

21 After trade unions were legalized, they were eventually brought together in the Confédération Générale du Travail in 1895. Alongside the CGT were to be the bourses du travail, spearheaded by Sorel’s close friend in the syndicalist movement Ferdinand Pelloutier. Bourses du travail functioned as labor exchanges and places for political organizing. Although the mid 1900s were the height of syndicalist activism, major defeats exhausted its momentum and by 1909 support for a general strike had declined considerably. For a brief discussion, see Jeremy Jennings, Georges Sorel: The Character and Development of His Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 116-21.

22 Georges Sorel, “Lettre de Georges Sorel à Charles Maurras,” 6 July 1909. Published in appendix of Pierre Andreu, Notre Maître, M. Sorel (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1953), 325-6.

23 Gerald C. Friedman, "Revolutionary Unions and French Labor: The Rebels Behind the Cause; Or, Why Did Revolutionary Syndicalism Fail?" French Historical Studies 20, no. 2 (1997), 155-81; for a broader political account of this alliance, see Gabriel Goodliffe, The Resurgence of the Radical Right in France: From Boulangisme to the Front National (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 115-96; David M. Gordon, Liberalism and Social Reform: Industrial Growth and Progressiste Politics in France, 1880-1914 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 171-94.

24 Mark Antliff, Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993; Hughes, Consciousness and Society; Malcolm Vout and Lawrence Wilde, "Socialism and Myth: The Case of Bergson and Sorel," Radical Philosophy 46 (1987): 2-7

25 J. W. Burrow, The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); Irving Louis Horowitz, Radicalism and the Revolt Against Reason: The Social Theories of Georges Sorel (New York: The Humanities Press, 1961); Brown, The Embrace of Unreason.

26 S. P. Rouanet, "Irrationalism and Myth in Georges Sorel," The Review of Politics 26, no. 1 (1964), 45-69, at 45.

27 The program of the journal is described by Sorel in “Le syndicalism révolutionaire,” Le mouvement socialiste 17 (1905), 267-80.

28 Michel Prat, ed. “Lettres de Georges Sorel à Daniel Halévy (1907-1920),” Mil neuf cent: Revue d’histoire intellectuelle 12 (1994), 151-223.

29 Georges Sorel, “Morale et socialisme,” Le Mouvement socialiste, March 1899, 209-11.

30 “L’affair des fiches” was a scandal where efforts to “republicanize” the army and administration included using Freemasons to collect information on the religious activity of officers. It occurred discretely for years until it broke in 1904. Sorel’s fullest statement on the collapse of Dreyfusism is in his La Révolution dreyfusienne (Paris: Rivière, 1909).

31 Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left, 16. See also Jennings, Georges Sorel, 118.

32 See the editorial board’s “La Crise du Socialisme français,” in August 1899, 129-31; Hubert Lagardelle, “Le Socialisme et l’Affaire Dreyfus,” in Le Mouvement Socialiste, February 1899, 155-66 and May 1899, 285-99; Edouard Bernstein, “Démocratie et Socialisme,” trans. Albert Lévy, Le Mouvement Socialiste, April 1899, 321-37. On their self-understanding as the “Bergsonian Left,” see also Shklar, "Bergson and the Politics of Intuition,” 645-6; James Jay Hamilton, "Georges Sorel and the Inconsistencies of a Bergsonian Marxism,” Political Theory 1, no. 3 (1973): 329-340; Vout and Wilde, “Socialism and Myth.”

33 Rosanvallon, Le people introuvable, 223.

34 From Steven Lukes, Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work (Middlesex: Penguin, 1975), 542-5.

35 Sorel actually makes this case in “Socialismes nationaux,” Cahiers de la Quinzaine, 3rd series, no. 14 (April 22, 1902).

36 Proudhon even appeared in a regular column of L’Action française entitled “Our Masters” in July 1902, praised for his pastoral turn of mind and prudish views on the family. Other “masters” included Fourier and Baudelaire. See “Nos maîtres,” L’Action française, 1, 15 July 1902, 63-75, 145-52.

37 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, ed. Stewart Edwards, trans. Elizabeth Fraser (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 202.

38 Georges Sorel, “Essai sur la philosophie de Proudhon,” Revue philosophique de la France et de l’Etranger, 33 (1892), 622-9.

39 Halévy, Péguy, 131.

40 The dispute within the circle came to a head over Halévy’s publication of Apologie pour notre passé (1910), which defended his disillusionment with Dreyfusism. It solicited in the Cahiers Péguy’s famous (and vicious) reply, Notre jeunesse (1910). For Sorel’s appreciation of Péguy’s “mystique,” however, see K. Steven Vincent, “Citizenship, Patriotism, Tradition, and Antipolitics in the Thought of Georges Sorel,” The European Legacy 3, no. 5 (1998), 7-16, at 12. 

41 Alice Yaeger Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 63. For a broader discussion of “political Bergsonism” as a cultural event, see Antliff, Inventing Bergson. For a more complete account of Bergson’s influence on Sorel, see Vout and Wilde, “Socialism and Myth”; Hamilton, “Georges Sorel and the Inconsistencies of a Bergsonian Marxism.”

42 Halévy, Péguy, 74. Bergson’s praise of Péguy was mutual. Eulogizing Péguy after the war, he writes: “He had a marvelous gift for stepping beyond the materiality of beings, going beyond it and penetrating to the soul. Thus it is that he knew my most secret thought, such as I have never expressed it, such as I would have wished to express it.” Cited from Charles Péguy, Basic Verities: Prose and Poetry, trans. Anne and Julian Green (New York: Pantheon, 1943), 9. Like Halévy’s Apologie pour notre passé, Benda’s essay solicited a defensive response by Péguy in his Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne (1914).

43 Shklar, "Bergson and the Politics of Intuition,” 646, 635.

44 Julian Benda took an unusual place within the circle. Despite being the member who stayed the longest, Benda was also the thinker who fit the circle least; he was also a Jew, a committed rationalist, and largely intellectually incompatible with Péguy. It was a dispute over Benda’s
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