Reflections on Violence – Georges Sorel

Georges Sorel (1847-1922)

Georges Sorel (1847-1922)

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.

Fiat factory occupation in Turin in 1920

Fiat factory occupation in Turin in 1920

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. ”

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