Georges Sorel  

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"Proletarian violence, carried on as a pure and simple manifestation of the sentiment of class struggle, appears thus as a very fine and heroic thing; it is at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization; it is not perhaps the most appropriate method of obtaining immediate material advantages, but it may save the world from barbarism." --Reflections on Violence, p.85

"History, for Sorel, [...] was an endless struggle against decadence. Opposite the forces of degeneration, one always found the agents of resistance: Anytus, representing the heroic society, confronted Socrates and the Sophists, those intellectuals of the Athenian democracy and first corrupters of martial values. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Pascal opposed Descartes and Voltaire, but religious feeling was no longer able to stem the rising tide of materialism or to prevent the collapse that followed. Fortunately, Nietzsche, Bergson, and William James heralded a movement of renewal capable of repairing the damage caused by Rousseau and Diderot, Condorcet and Auguste Comte."--The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989) by Zeev Sternhell

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Georges Eugène Sorel (2 November 1847 – 29 August 1922) was a French philosopher and theorist of Sorelianism. His notion of the power of myth in people's lives inspired anarchists, Marxists, and Fascists. It is, together with his defense of violence, the contribution for which he is most often remembered. He is the author of Reflections on Violence.



Sorel was born in Cherbourg, son of a bankrupted wine merchant. He studied in the École Polytechnique in Paris. He became chief engineer with the Department of Public Works and retired in 1892. He was active on the side of Dreyfusards during the Dreyfus Affair.

Sorel had ties of friendship to Antonio Labriola and wrote a preface to the French translation of Labriola's Essays on the Materialist Conception of History. Although Labriola attacked Sorel's work, his books were praised by other Italian thinkers such as Vilfredo Pareto and Benedetto Croce, and he had links to the Italian nationalist-syndicalist movement from which Fascism branched.


Sorel had been politically monarchist and traditionalist before embracing orthodox Marxism in the 1890s, but throughout his career continued to support values more commonly associated with conservatism. In his earliest writings he attempted to fill in what he believed were gaps in Marxist theory, but ultimately created an extremely heterodox variation of the ideology. He criticised what he saw as Marx's rationalist and utopian tendencies, believing them to be out of keeping with the pessimistic and irrationalist core of Marxism - a philosophy he considered closer in spirit to early Christianity than to the French Revolution. He rejected Marxist theories of historical materialism, dialectical materialism, and proletarian internationalism. He did not see Marxism as 'true' in a scientific sense, as orthodox Marxists did; rather, it was 'true' in that it promised a redemptive role for the proletariat within a terminally decadent society.

Sorel came to favour the anarcho-communism of Bakunin. Like Proudhon, he saw socialism as primarily a moral question. He was also heavily influenced by Henri Bergson who developed the importance of myth and criticized scientific materialism, by the cult of greatness and hatred of mediocrity found in Nietzsche, and by the ability to recognise the potential corruption of democracy found in liberal conservatives such as Tocqueville, Taine and Renan. Despite his disdain for social democracy, Sorel also held great respect for Eduard Bernstein, and agreed with many of his criticisms of orthodox Marxism.

Sorel's was a voluntarist Marxism: he rejected those Marxists who believed in inevitable and evolutionary change, emphasising instead the importance of will and preferring direct action. (He may even have coined the phrase, "direct action".) These approaches included general strikes, boycotts, sabotage, and constant disruption of capitalism with the goal being to achieve worker control over the means of production. Sorel's belief in the need for a deliberately-conceived "myth" to sway crowds into concerted action was put into practice by mass fascist movements in the 1920s. The epistemic status of the idea of "myth" is of some importance, and is essentially that of a working hypothesis, with one fundamental peculiarity: it is an hypothesis which we do not judge by its closeness to a "Truth", but by the practical consequences which stem from it. Thus, whether a political myth is of some importance or not must be decided, in Sorel's view, on the basis of its capacity to mobilize human beings into political action; the only possible way for men to ascend to an ethical life filled by the character of the sublime and to achieve deliverance. Sorel believed the "energizing myth" of the general strike would serve to enforce solidarity, class consciousness and revolutionary élan amongst the working-class. The "myth" that the Fascists would appeal to, however, was that of the state.

He echoed the Jacobin tradition in French society that held that the only way for change to occur was through the application of force. Sorel praised Charles Maurras, Action Française, Lenin and Mussolini for attacking bourgeois democracy. At the time of his death, in Boulogne sur Seine, he had an ambivalent attitude both towards Fascism and Bolshevism. Whether Sorel is better seen as a left-wing or right-wing thinker is disputed: the Italian Fascists praised him as a forefather, but the dictatorial government they established ran contrary to his beliefs, while he was also an important touchstone for Italy's first Communists, who saw Sorel as a theorist of the proletariat. Such widely divergent interpretations arise from the theory that a moral revival of the country must take place to re-establish itself; yet whether this revival must occur by means of the middle and upper classes or the proletariat is a point in question. His ideas, most notably the concept of a spontaneous general strike, have contributed significantly to anarchosyndicalism.

Sorel is an important component of the history of European politics in that his thought reflects the cross-fertilization (and even confusion) of ideas among anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, communists, Marxists and nationalists in the time period of about 1830-1930.

Sorel's Antiscience

As political theorist Isaiah Berlin has demonstrated, the French philosopher, Georges Sorel was clearly a holder of antiscience views.

Science is not reality

He dismissed science as "a system of idealised entities: atoms, electric charges, mass, energy and the like – fictions compounded out of observed uniformities…deliberately adapted to mathematical treatment that enable men to identify some of the furniture of the universe, and to predict and…control parts of it." [1; 301] He regarded science more as "an achievement of the creative imagination, not an accurate reproduction of the structure of reality, not a map, still less a picture, of what there was. Outside of this set of formulas, of imaginary entities and mathematical relationships in terms of which the system was constructed, there was ‘natural’ nature – the real thing…" [1; 302] He regarded such a view as "an odious insult to human dignity, a mockery of the proper ends of men," [1; 300] and ultimately constructed by "fanatical pedants," [1; 303] out of "abstractions into which men escape to avoid facing the chaos of reality." [1; 302]

Science is not nature

As far as Sorel was concerned, "nature is not a perfect machine, nor an exquisite organism, nor a rational system." [1; 302] He rejected the view that "the methods of natural science can explain and explain away ideas and values…or explain human conduct in mechanistic or biological terms, as the…blinkered adherents of la petite science believe." [1; 310] He also maintained that the categories we impose upon the world, "alter what we call reality…they do not establish timeless truths as the positivists maintained," [1; 302] and to "confuse our own constructions with eternal laws or divine decrees is one of the most fatal delusions of men." [1; 303] It is "ideological patter…bureaucracy, la petite science…the Tree of Knowledge has killed the Tree of Life…human life [has been reduced] to rules that seem to be based on objective truths." [1; 303] Such to Sorel, is the appalling arrogance of science, a vast deceit of the imagination, a view that conspires to "stifle the sense of common humanity and destroy human dignity." [1; 304]

Science is not a recipe

Science, he maintained, "is not a ‘mill’ into which you can drop any problem facing you, and which yields solutions," [1; 311] that are automatically true and authentic. Yet, this is precisely how too many people seem to regard it.

To Sorel, that is way "too much of a conceptual, ideological construction," [1; 312] smothering our perception of truth through the "stifling oppression of remorselessly tidy rational organisation." [1; 321] For Sorel, the inevitable "consequence of the modern scientific movement and the application of scientific categories and methods to the behaviour of men," [1; 323] is an outburst of interest in irrational forces, religions, social unrest, criminality and deviance - resulting directly from an overzealous and monistic obsession with scientific rationalism.

And what science confers, "a moral grandeur, bureaucratic organisation of human lives in the light of…la petite science, positivist application of quasi-scientific rules to society – all this Sorel despised and hated," [1; 328] as so much self-delusion and nonsense that generates no good and nothing of lasting value. In essence, something of a Romantic like Blake, Sorel would say, "the artist creates as the bird sings on the bough, as the lily bursts into flower, to all appearance for no ulterior purpose." [2; 196]

Above quotations from:

  • [1] Sir Isaiah Berlin, Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, London: Pimlico, 1997
  • [2] Sir Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality - Studies in Ideas and Their History, London: Pimlico, 1996



See also

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