French Syndicalism: The Myth and Legacy of Georges Sorel

 

Georges Sorel is probably one the most influential thinkers of the early 20th century. Now despite calling himself a Syndicalist and a Marxist, Sorel actually differs from Marxism in many ways not only in his rejection of the dictatorship of proletarian but also by having many anarchistic and even conservative elements to his writings. This diverse mixture of ideas ends up making Sorel influential in many different political spheres, from Anarchist to Marxist to Conservatives to Nationalist to Fascist. Therefore, Sorel could be seen as a man who may write in Marxist language, but his theories aren’t Marxist (More on this later).   

Georges Sorel for most of his political career would identify with Syndicalism which is a revolutionary ideology that believes that trade unions or worker unions would lead the workers into revolution via general strikes, at which those very unions would run the economy and society. While Syndicalism is not inherently anarchist, it was nevertheless, at least in its early years, very much in line with Libertarian Socialism. As a matter of fact, Syndicalism’s origins begin with Anarchist thinkers like Pierre Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. And it was Sorel who took immense influence from them.

Sorel was originally a liberal conservative but by the 1880s he would go on to embrace Marxism and then Social Democracy until finally in the 20th century settling upon Syndicalism which Sorel would live by for the rest of his life. What made Sorel move to Syndicalism was social democracy’s lack of action and its failure in making sure that the workers control the means of production. What attracted Sorel to Syndicalism was its orientation to action, the general strike, and its rejection of parliamentarian politics.

These concepts would be major points of Sorels writings and books like Reflections on Violence and The Decomposition of Marxism. What Sorel would also stress in his writings were the ideas of Heroism, Martyrdom and Myth. Sorel believed that these ideas would motivate the working class into committing and supporting revolution. What Sorel meant by Myth is not something that wasn’t real but rather a narrative or idea that would inspire the working class into revolution and to a greater future.  While it had been a few decades since Sorel had abandon Liberal Conservatism, he would always have social conservative tendencies and influences. 

Throughout his writings like Reflections on Violence and Decomposition of Marxism Sorel would always give examples of the early Christians as examples to get his points across on the importance of Myth and Heroism. Along with how their strong beliefs, Heroism, and martyrdom always helped to bring the church back and expand its influence. Sorel would also write a book after Reflections on Violence called The Illusion of Progress where Sorel would state The Theory of Progress is a “bourgeoise doctrine” that is used to justify bourgeoisie rule and the suppression of the old system. Instead, Sorel believed that Cyclical history was more accurate due to societies rising then declining, which then necessitated Syndicalism. Sorel was also very critical of the centralization of capitalist society, its destruction of family ties and religious/ traditional moral values.

According to Historian and Social Critic Christopher Lasch, Sorel believed “the superiority of syndicalism to socialism lay in its appreciation of proprietorship, dismissed by socialists as the source of “petit-bourgeois” provincialism and cultural backwardness. Unimpressed by Marxian diatribes against the idiocy of rural life, the syndicalists, Sorel thought, valued the “feelings of attachment inspired in every truly qualified worker by the productive forces entrusted to him.” They respected the “peasant’s love of his field, his vineyard, his barn, his cattle, and his bees.”

Lasch would also go on to write that Sorel, Syndicalists and Guild Socialists critiques of capitalism carried real weight “because it rested on the insight that capitalism could not deliver on the promise that made it morally attractive in the first place—the promise of universal proprietorship. Syndicalists and guild socialists saw that slavery, not poverty, was the real issue, as G. D. H. Cole put it. They saw that the reduction of labor to a commodity—the essence of capitalism—required the elimination of all the social bonds that prevented the free circulation of labor. The destruction of the medieval guilds, the replacement of local government by a centralized bureaucracy, the weakening of family ties, and the emancipation of women amounted to “successive steps in the cheapening of the raw material of labor,” all achieved under the “watchword” of progress. Whereas Marxists accepted the collectivizing logic of capitalism and proposed simply to collectivize production more thoroughly, syndicalists, populists, and guild socialists condemned modern capitalism for profoundly conservative reasons—because it required (in the words of A. R. Orage, editor of New Age) the “progressive shattering to atoms of our social system.”

These more conservative tendencies in Sorel’s ideas would lead him to eventually collaborate with the French Nationalist/ Monarchist Charles Maurus who was the leader of French Action. This interaction between the two and their followers would lead to a synthesis between Nationalism and Syndicalism. Along with the creation of Cercle Proudhon which supported and expanded upon this synthesis. According to late historian James Gregor these ideas would also go on to influence many of the early Italian Fascist intellectuals like Giovani Gentile, Ugo Sprito, Enrico Corradini and even Benito Mussolini himself who would state this on Sorel.

“I owe most to Georges Sorel. This master of syndicalism by his rough theories of revolutionary tactics has contributed most to form the discipline, energy, and power of the fascist cohorts.” – Benito Mussolini

Sorel would also have many supporters from Marxist and Anarchist circles to such as Antonio Gramsci, Edouard Berth, William Z Foster, and the French illegalist anarchist gang called the Bonnot Gang.

When World War 1 broke out, however, Sorel would abandon his nationalist sympathies, and would go on to support both Vladimir Lenin and Benito Mussolini stating, “Mussolini is a man no less extraordinary than Lenin.” Georges Sorel would pass away on august 22nd 1922. However, his influence never truly died and still lives on to this day, despite being a lot more obscure now.

Even decades after Sorels death, you can still see numerous political groups talk about him from the German Conservative Revolution to the Frankfurt School to the European New Right, American Populist like Christopher Lasch, to even the early American Conservative intellectuals such as James Burnham who wrote a book on Sorel and Robert A. Nisbet who wrote a forward for the English translation of Illusion of Progress. However, Sorel has become a controversial figure as well due to many seeing him as “Proto Fascist” such as the Post Structuralist Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.  While there are similarities, there are certainly a lot of differences as well for example, Sorel was firmly anti-bureaucracy, and he supported class struggle and while also rejecting the history of progress. While Fascists have been largely pro state, pro class collaboration and for the Hegelian view of progress with some exceptions.

Sorel can arguably be seen as the first person to synthesize revolutionary socialism and conservatism, along with being the father of Revolutionary Conservatism and Conservative Socialism. Many Marxists such as Italian Marxist Amedeo Bordiga took notice of these conservative and anarchist tendencies and said that Sorel wasn’t a real Marxist stating this

              “Sorel and his fol­low­ers are ac­tu­ally far re­moved from Marx­ist de­term­in­ism, and the in­ter­ac­tion which oc­curs between the eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al spheres is a dead let­ter to them. Since they are in­di­vidu­al­ists and vol­un­tar­ists, they see re­volu­tion as an act of force which can only take place after an im­possible act of con­scious­ness. As Len­in demon­strated in What is To Be Done?, they turn Marx­ism on its head. They treat con­scious­ness and will as though they came from the in­ner self, from the “per­son”, and thus, in one deft move­ment, they sweep away bour­geois State, class di­vi­sions, and class psy­cho­logy. Since they are un­able to un­der­stand the in­ev­it­able al­tern­at­ive — cap­it­al­ist dic­tat­or­ship or com­mun­ist dic­tat­or­ship — they evade the di­lemma in the only way that is his­tor­ic­ally pos­sible: by rees­tab­lish­ing the former. And wheth­er this is done con­sciously or not may be a burn­ing is­sue for them but, frankly, we are not that in­ter­ested. We are not really in­ter­ested in fol­low­ing the lo­gic­al evol­u­tion of Georges Sorel’s think­ing after that: ideal­ism, spir­itu­al­ism, and then a re­turn to the womb of the Cath­ol­ic Church.”

Sorel despite his Marxist rhetoric and his belief in class struggle, is not a Marxist because of not only his anarchist tendencies but also because of his rejection of progress, support for nationalism and social conservatism. This makes Sorel one of the first Revolutionary Conservatives of the 20th century and an intellectual that almost any group can take something from. A man that needs to be study more on by the modern dissident sphere.

                                          Work Cited Page

                       The Illusion of Progress by Georges Sorel

                        Reflections on Violence by Georges Sorel

                      Decomposition of Marxism by George Sorel

                     Conservatism Against Itself by Christopher Lasch

                     Mussolini’s Intellectuals by James A. Gregor

                                      Bordiga on Sorel

                       The Bonnot Gang by Richard Parry

                    The True and Only Heaven Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch

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