Reflections on Violence

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L’Ordination that led to Péguy and Sorel’s eventual break.

45 Photo from Mark Antliff, Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 5.

46 Hughes, Consciousness and Society, 342-3.

47 Georges Sorel, “Science and Morals,” in Georges Sorel, From Georges Sorel: Vol 2, Hermeneutics and the Sciences, ed. John L. Stanley, trans. John and Charlotte Stanley (New Brunswick: Transactions Publishers, 1990; first published 1900), 133: “pain is found in all manifestations of our activity… Perhaps we could better translate this observation by saying that pain is the primordial manifestation of life, the one that gives irrefutable proof (for our consciousness) of our immersion in the physical world and demonstrates our existence and the existence of the world simultaneously… Thus, the role of pain is very great in the world… In vain are these philosophies [based on pleasure] adorned with a grand scientific apparatus, for they offer no help in constituting the morals of society.”

48 For a broader discussion of Sorel’s “industrial” view of citizenship, see Vincent, “Citizenship, Patriotism, Tradition, and Antipolitics”; Richard Vernon, “‘Citizenship" in ‘Industry’: The Case of George Sorel," The American Political Science Review 75, no. 1 (1981), 17-28.

49 Letter to Croce, 6 May 1907. Published in Critica 26, no. 2 (20 March 1928), 100. 

50 Despite the common characterization of Sorel and Durkheim representing opposite ends of French intellectual life during the Third Republic, Eric Brandom has made a compelling case that it is their common interest in the moral dimensions of “the social” that bring them, on certain matters, surprisingly close together. See Brandom, “Georges Sorel, Émile Durkheim.”

51 Judith Surkis, Sexing the Citizen: Morality and Masculinity in France, 1870-1920 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Philip Nord, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); Eugen Weber, Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976). 

52 Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

53 Nord, The Republican Moment, 4.

54 Donzelot, L’invention du social.

55 Gary Wilder, The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude & Colonial Humanism Between the Two World Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

56 Péguy, Temporal and Eternal, 22-3.

57 Interpretative work on Sorel has occurred in roughly two waves. The first, classical interpretation of Sorel located him squarely in the prehistory of fascism and interpreted the Reflections on Violence extracted from his broader intellectual biography. Besides Sartre’s infamous reference to Sorel’s “fascist utterances” in his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, this was the view of Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt, as well as his scholarly interpreters like Jack Roth and later Zeev Sternhell, e.g. Isaiah Berlin, “Georges Sorel” in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 296-332; Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, 1970), 66-83; Roth, “The Roots of Italian Fascism; Sternhell, Neither Right Nor Left; Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, trans. David Maisel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994; first published 1989), 36-91; Horowitz, Radicalism and the Revolt Against Reason; Hughes, Consciousness and Society; Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality; Curtis, Three Against the Republic. Recently, political theorists and historians have sought to correct this initial canonization as a proto-fascist by turning to his philosophy of science, especially his scientific conventionalism. The result is that he has been redescribed as a liberal pragmatist or a radical democrat, e.g. Jennings, Georges Sorel; John Stanley, The Sociology of Virtue: The Political and Social Theories of Georges Sorel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); John L. Stanley, “Sorel’s Study of Vico: The Uses of the Poetic Imagination,” The European Legacy 3, no. 5 (1998), 17-34; Arthur L. Greil, Georges Sorel and the Sociology of Virtue (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981); Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (New York: Verso, 1985). For a more subtle account of how to situate Sorel historically, see K. Steven Vincent, “Interpreting Georges Sorel: Defender of Virtue or Apostle of Violence?” History of European Ideas 12, no. 2 (1990), 239-57. The problem with these two waves of scholarship is that, by correcting for the long-standing interpretation of Sorel as a proto-fascist by turning to his philosophy of science, the problem of violence in his writings was not revisited.

58 Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality, 61.

59 Shklar, “Bergson and the Politics of Intuition,” 648; Vincent, “Citizenship, Patriotism, Tradition, and Antipolitics.”

60 Dominick LaCapra, History and its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 97. This is by far the most prevalent view on Sorel. Three recent expositors are Corey Robin, who specifically characterizes Sorel’s myth of the general strike as action for action’s sake; Moishe Postone, who describes Sorel’s aimless violence as an escape valve from structural domination; and Martin Jay, who views it as a simple clarion call for revolutionary violence. See Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 217-245; Moishe Postone, “History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism,” Public Culture 18, no. 1 (2006), 93-110; Martin Jay, Refractions of Violence (New York: Routledge, 2003), 1. These interpretations are not wrong. But on my view, they simply take Sorel’s “subjective” analysis for the total account, thereby neglecting violence’s antinomian structure in the Reflections.

61 From Raymond Aron, see his Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. 2: Durkheim, Pareto, Weber (New Brunswick: Transactions Publishers, 1999; first published 1967), 167; or his pseudonymously published pamphlet, “Les Dictateurs et la mystique de la violence.” For Benjamin’s reading of Sorel as the emblem of “mythic violence,” which though a bit inscrutable is still action for its own sake, see “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1986). A good analysis of some contemporary readings of Sorelian violence can be found in Richard Bernstein, Violence: Thinking Without Banisters (New York: Polity, 2013).

62 Donzelot, L’invention du social; J.E.S. Hayward, “The Official Social Philosophy of the French Third Republic: Léon Bourgeois and Solidarism,” International Review of Social History, 6, no. 1 (1961), 19-48; Surkis, Sexing the Citizen.

63 Robert A. Nye, The Origins of Crowd Psychology: Gustave LeBon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic (London: Sage, 1975); Barrows, Distorting Mirrors.

64 Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848 - c. 1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 42-73; Jennings, Georges Sorel, 40-1.

65 Pick, Faces of Degeneration, 59-62; Robert A. Nye, Crime, Madness & Politics in Modern France: The Medical Concept of National Decline (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Donna Jones discusses this “cultural vitalism” in terms of a displacement within social theory of Marx and Hegel for Nietzsche and Bergson, see The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 8-9.

66 Sorel discusses Le Bon often sympathetically but critically; see his reviews of Le Bon’s work, compiled in Georges Sorel, "Sorel, lecteur de Le Bon: Huit Comptes Rendus (1895-1911)," Mil neuf cent. Revue d'histoire intellectuelle 1, no. 28 (2010), 121-54; for his relationship to Lombroso and criminal anthropology, see Jennings, Georges Sorel, 40-1.

67 Besides Sorel’s substantial “Etude sur Vico,” published in 1896 in Le Devenir sociale and published now as Etude sur Vico et autres textes (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2007), see his preface to Histoire des bourses du travail by Ferdinand Pelloutier (Paris 1902), republished and translated by Richard Vernon as “On revolution without politics,” in Commitment and Change: Georges Sorel and the Idea of Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 93-110. See also Stanley, “Sorel’s Study of Vico.”

68 “If…the bourgeoisie, led astray by the nonsense of the preachers of ethics and sociology, returns to the ideal of conservative mediocrity, seeks to correct the abuses of the economy and wishes to break with the barbarism of their predecessors, then one part of the forces which were to further the development of capitalism is employed in hindering it…” (RV, 76).

69 “Many philosophers, especially those of antiquity, have believed it possible to reduce everything to a question of utility; and if any social evaluation does exist it is surely utility… the moderns teach that we judge our will before acting, comparing our projected conduct with general principles which are, to a certain extent, analogous to declarations of the rights of man; and this theory is, very probably, inspired by the admiration engendered by the Bill of Rights placed at the head of each American constitution” (RV, 25). 

70 Georges Sorel, “La Science dans l’éducation,” Le Devenir Sociale 2, no 2-5 (1896).

71 Sorel makes this case earlier in an essay in La Riforma Sociale, reprinted in Saggi di critics del Marxismo (1902) and translated as “Necessity and Fatalism in Marxism” in Georges Sorel, From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy, ed. John Stanley (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987; first published 1976): “We should never lose sight of the fact that it is in the economic order and under the regime of free competition that chance furnishes ‘average’ results, capable of being regularized in such a way as to draw attention to tendencies analogous to mechanical processes; these average results can be suitably expressed in the form of natural laws” (123).

72 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge, 1990; first published 1930), 123.

73 Marinetti would repeatedly refer to “war, the sole cleanser of the world” as an expression of the “élan vital” and “healthy violence” in his infamous claim that “We believe that only a love of danger and heroism can purify and generate our nation.” See Filippo Marinetti, “Futurism: An Interview with Mr. Marinetti in Comoedia,” in Critical Writings, ed. Gunter Berghaus, trans. Doug Thompson (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux), 62. Leaning similarly on a vitalist reading of Darwin and equally alluding to Sorel, José Ortega y Gasset would soon write, “all utilitarian actions aiming at adaptation, all mere reaction to pressing needs, must be considered as secondary vital functions, while the first and original activity of life is always spontaneous, effusive, overflowing, a liberal expansion of pre-existing energies.  Far from being a movement enforced by an exigency—a tropism—life is the free occurrence, the unforeseeable appetite itself,” in “The Sportive Origin of the State,” in Jose Ortega Y Gasset, History as a System: and other Essays Towards a Philosophy of History, trans. Helene Weyl (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1941), 17.

74 Sorel adapts the notion of “determinism” from Claude Bernard, one of the leading philosophers of science in the Third Republic and an experimental physiologist. The best discussion of his influence on Sorel’s early writings is Jennings, Georges Sorel, 45-9.

75 Sorel, “On revolution without politics,” 93.

76 Georges Sorel, “The Socialist Future of Syndicates,” republished in Georges Sorel, From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy, ed. John Stanley (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987; first published 1976), 84. Originally appeared in Humanité nouvelle in March/April 1908.

77 “Bergson, on the contrary, invites us to consider the inner depths of the mind and what happens during a creative moment: ‘There are’, he says, ‘two different selves, one which is, as it were, the external projection of the other, its spatial and, so to speak, social representation. We reach the former by deep introspection, which leads us to grasp our inner states as living things, constantly in a process of becoming, as states not amenable to measure… But the moments when we grasp ourselves are rare, and this is why we are rarely free… To act freely is to recover possession of oneself, and to get back into pure duration.’” (RV, 26).

78 Sorel explains, “Socialism is necessarily very obscure, since it deals with production, i.e. with the most mysterious part of human activity… No effort of thought, no progress of knowledge, no rational induction will ever dispel the mystery which envelops socialism” (RV, 139-40).

79 Approvingly leaning on Durkheim’s “La Determination du fait moral” (1906), Sorel writes, "it would be impossible to suppress the sacred in ethics and that what characterized the sacred was its incommensurability with other human values" (RV, 205). On Lagardelle and Péguy, he says “The new school is rapidly differentiating itself from official socialism in recognizing the necessity of the improvement of morals” (RV, 223).

80 “There can be no national epic about things which the people cannot picture to themselves as reproducible in the near future; popular poetry implies the future much more than the past; it is for this reason that the adventures of the Gauls, of Charlemagne, of the Crusades, of Joan of Arc, cannot form the object of a narrative capable of moving anyone but literary people. Since we have begun to believe that contemporary governments cannot be brought down by riots like those of 14 July and 10 August, we have ceased to regard these days as having an epic character” (RV, 91).

81 As Sorel explains, “We might, in fact, be led to ask if our official socialists, with their passion for discipline and their infinite confidence in the genius of their leaders, are not the authentic heirs to the royal armies while the anarchists and the adherents of the general strike represent today the spirit of the revolutionary armies who, against all the rules of the art of war, so thoroughly thrashed the fine armies of the coalition” (RV, 243).

82 Again, Bergson is Sorel’s influence. The general strike "groups them all in a coordinated picture... it colours with an intense life all the details of the composition presented to consciousness. We thus obtain that intuition of socialism which language cannot give us with perfect clearness - and we obtain it as a whole, perceived instantaneously" (RV, 118).

83 Berlin, “Georges Sorel”; Pierre Rosanvallon, Le peuple introuvable: Histoire de la représentation démocratique en France (Paris: Gallimard, 1998); Josep R. Llobera, The Making of Totalitarian Thought (Oxford: Berg, 2003); Jacob Talmon, “The Legacy of Georges Sorel,” Encounter, 34, February 1970.

84 “Déclaration de la ‘Cité Française’” reprinted in appendix of Pierre Andreu, Notre Maître, M. Sorel (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1953), 327-8.

85 “L’ ‘Indépendance Française,’” reprinted in appendix of Pierre Andreu, Notre Maître, M. Sorel (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1953), 329-31.

86 Antliff, Avant-Garde Fascism, 65.

87 “Déclaration,” in Cahiers du Cercle Proudhon.

88 For a good discussion of his L’Independence writings, see Wilde, “Sorel and the French Right.”

89 Georges Sorel, "Le Réveil de l'âme Française," L'Action Française, April 14, 1910; Georges Sorel, "Socialistes Antiparlementaires." L'Action Française, August 22, 1909.

90 Filippo Marinetti, “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Critical Writings, ed. Gunter Berghaus, trans. Doug Thompson (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux), 14.

91 Marinetti, “Futurism: An Interview with Mr. Marinetti in Comoedia,” 19.

92 For a study of Sorel’s influence, see Jack Roth, The Cult of Violence: Sorel and the Sorelians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); Mark Antliff, Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909-1939 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

93 Shlomo Sand, “Legend, Myth, and Fascism” The European Legacy 3, no. 5 (1998), 51-65, at 56.

94 Eugen Weber, Action Française: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), 442.

95 Roth, The Cult of Violence, 186-7.

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