I ended up reading this book when I found it in a give-away library in one of Amsterdam’s social centers. I had heard of the book before, it’s one of those influential classics that probably almost nobody reads. As I’m quite interested in the question of violence for achieving social change, Sorel’s book on the functions of violence seemed relevant. Plus Sorel wrote about the role of myths in converting and motivating people, which sounded quite intriguing. And also the fact that Georges Sorel was supposedly Benito Mussolini’s favourite philosopher actually made me only more curious.
Now after reading it seems to be a hard one to review. I do think it was certainly worth the effort of reading. It is written in 1906, before the world wars and before the Bolshevik revolution, but it is still easy enough to follow, especially after reading up Wikipedia on the Dreyfus Affair and characters as Jaurès. Sorel is also rather convincing. In fact, I’m quite sure this book may have turned me into a syndicalist from one day to the other if I had read it somewhere between 1900 and1930, but the world has drastically changed and we live under completely different conditions now. Sadly, there are (for as far as I know) no books around now that would have such a convincing answer of what needs to be done in order to achieve lasting social change. For me, the struggle with this book is determining in which ways Sorel’s ideas and concepts can be made relevant to today’s world. Consider this review to be an attempt.
Let me first start by explaining why Sorel may have turned me into a revolutionary syndicalist before 1930. It is actually the purity of his revolutionary strategy that I really like. There is nothing like it today. The puritanism of Vaneigem seems just to be about following his own egoistic individual desires, while for Sorel there are also no compromises, but there is still a coherent strategy that is logically deduced from Marxist theory. It is the myth of the general strike that reflects the fundamental principles of Marxism. Firstly, it intuitively shows how society is divided into two antagonistic blocs, namely the proletariat (the producers) and the bourgeoisie. No philosophical explanation is necessary, the general strike makes all oppositions extraordinary clear. Secondly, it entails that rebellion is necessary for capitalism to disappear. Workers could be tempted to the capitalist order of things, through capitalist philanthropists and parliamentary socialist promises, but the myth of the general strike will keep them in a state of revolt, plus the class war perspective will prevent the masses from turning to other reactionary forms that could help them loose their anger. Thirdly, to partisans for the general strike, even the most popular social reforms will look silly. Finally, the brilliant thing is the anti-elitist implications. With the myth of the general strike there is no need for intellectuals thinking for the masses, no party line, no leaders.
“These results could not be produced in any very certain manner by the use of ordinary language; use must be made of a body of images which, by intuition alone, and before any considered analyses are made, is capable of evoking as an undivided whole the mass of sentiments which corresponds to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by Socialism against modem society. The Syndicalists solve this problem perfectly, by concentrating the whole of Socialism in the drama of the general strike; there is thus no longer any place for the reconciliation of contraries in the equivocations of the professors; everything is clearly mapped out, so that only one interpretation of Socialism is possible. This method has all the advantages which “integral” knowledge has over analysis, according to the doctrine of Bergson.”
A problem for relating Sorel’s myth of the general strike to the Netherlands in 2013 is that for Sorel the proletariat is only the producers. And what Sorel in 1906 categorizes as producers does not include retailkeepers, and also not the foremen that are less likely to join the strike. I certainly don’t think that class analysis is no longer relevant. You can certainly still divide society into two antagonistic blocs, those who control the wealth and means of production and those who have no control over the means of production and have to work for a wage. But limiting the possibility for social change (through the general strike) to what Sorel uncompromisingly and narrowly defines as ‘producers’ is no longer relevant for 21st century developed nations. It’s hard to imagine how syndicalism on itself can lead to revolutionary change. As for the historical record, revolutionary syndicalism did have quite the impact and potential. Having recently read a bit on Gramsci’s involvement in post-WW1 Italy, Turin was a hotbed of lengthy general strikes that were beyond control of the Italian Socialist Party (and subsequent Communist Party) or intellectuals that wanted to think for the masses. Similar events transpired all over Europe. But everywhere, they were in fact beaten down by the freikorps and similar paramilitary fascist organizations. It seems that the myth of the general strike and proletarian violence was not enough for the producers to actually win the revolution. Unfortunately, if we look in history (with some exceptions) it seems that labour militancy at best achieved social reforms and led to fascist reaction every time the masses demanded more than just a piece of the cake.
Now let’s progress to the question of violence. It is first worthwhile to remark that Sorel makes a distinction between violence and force. Force is what the governing minority uses to impose the social order, violence are the acts of revolt to destroy that order. He then notes how violence is also useful for parliamentary socialism. Without exceptional circumstances created by striking and rioting, the parliamentary power of socialists is reduced. It is in these exceptional circumstances that parliamentary socialists (/social-democrats) take up the role of peace-makers, scare the middle-classes into conceding reforms to restore order. Also without the consent of socialist leaders*, “[workers] endeavour to intimidate the prefects by popular demonstrations which might lead to serious conflicts with the police, and they commend violence as the most efficacious means of obtaining concessions. At the end of a certain time the obsessed and frightened administration nearly always intervenes with the masters and forces an agreement upon them, which becomes an encouragement to the propagandists of violence. ”
Violence for Sorel is not about achieving some sort of military victory/control, the role of violence can be better understood in its emancipatory potential. Violence can lead to self-confidence and political independence, the development of skills and abilities necessary for self-management of workers. Violence helps to separate the classes, firstly by making existing conflicts between them clear and out in the open, and secondly by increasing antagonism between them. At one point, Sorel actually encourages violence specifically against philanthropic employers and upper-class do-gooders in order to show them that workers are ungrateful and that the social peace cannot be maintained. These things may sound rather unsettling, Sorel is controversial for a reason, but there’s obviously something to it. There is a reason that some groups opt for terrorist tactics; it’s not just desperation, they can work as well. Just watch Battle of Algiers for a good illustration. The FLN brutally blowing up innocent French citizens did convince many that there was no future for them in Algeria.
One of the most interesting things of Sorel is his writing on the need for “social myths” for inspiring the masses to action. Considering our current inability to get the masses out on the streets this is highly relevant. It’s not objective facts and rational arguments that bring the masses into action; you have to strike some emotional chord. Sorel looks back in history and notes that “men who are participating in a great social movement always picture their coming action as a battle in which their cause is certain to triumph.” He calls these constructions “social myths” and outlines myths constructed in the past by for example primitive Christianity, the Reformation, the French Revolution and the followers of Mazzini.
Social myths help to frame a possible future and help to reform the desires and passions of the masses: “And yet without leaving the present, without reasoning about this future, which seems for ever condemned to escape our reason, we should be unable to act at all. Experience shows that the framing of a future, in some indeterminate time, may, when it is done in a certain way, be very effective, and have very few inconveniences ; this happens when the anticipations of the future take the form of those myths, which enclose with them all the strongest inclinations of a people, of a party or of a class, inclinations which recur to the mind with the insistence of instincts in all the circumstances of life ; and which give an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action by which, more easily than by any other method, men can reform their desires, passions, and mental activity.”
Myths of catastrophe worked out in Christian faith to inspire many. “Catholics have never been discouraged even in the hardest trials, because they have always pictured the history of the Church as a series of battles between Satan and the hierarchy supported by Christ; every new difficulty which arises is only an episode in a war which must finally end in the victory of Catholicism.” And, as he notes, when look in Catholic history there appear not to be many martyrs at all. It’s not that much violence is actually necessary for myths to do their work. When the myth of the general strike is maintained for revolutionary socialism, small conflicts can be enough to maintain the notion of class war**.
“As long as there are no myths accepted by the masses, one may go on talking of revolts indefinitely, without ever provoking any revolutionary movement; this is what gives such importance to the general strike and renders it so odious to socialists who are afraid of a revolution; they do all they can to shake the confidence felt by the workers in the preparations they are making for the revolution ; and in order to succeed in this they cast ridicule on the idea of the general strike — the only idea that could have any value as a motive force. One of the chief means employed by them is to represent it, as a Utopia; this is easy enough, because there are very few myths which are perfectly free from any Utopian element.”
But there is an enormous difference between utopias and myths according to Sorel. Myths not only describe an ideal, but try to reach it. While utopias detach yourself from the world, myths help to transform it. The question is of course where our myths are and what could they be?
* History shows that reforms have often been preceded by rioting. Mainstream history may talk of wise and benevolent Monarchs making social reforms, but usually these masses did not give them much of a choice. In regard to rioting in for example London 2011, you could argue that due to the lack of political leadership on the Left (of both social-democratic parties and trade-unions) that gives a voice to social grievances, rioting while political remains politically incoherent.
** That 21st century Islamic fundamentalism could just as well be used as an example is of course again rather unsettling.