Georges Sorel Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Sorel was the leading spokesman for revolutionary syndicalism in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Early Life

Georges-Eugène Sorel was born in Cherbourg, Normandy, in the coastal region of western France, on November 2, 1847. His parents were Catholic and middle-class; his father was the director of a business concern, and his mother was the daughter of an army officer. Georges, the second of three sons, had a traditional education with an emphasis on the utilitarian rather than the philosophical. School records indicate that he did especially well in mathematics. The capstone of this was his graduation from the École Technique in 1867. He then worked as a civil engineer for the government for the next twenty-five years in the Department of Roads and Bridges. Most of these years were spent outside Paris in Corsica, Algeria, and in Perpignan.

As was the case with most young men of his generation in France, Sorel was deeply disturbed by the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The crisis was compounded by the bloodshed and violence of the civil war that followed; the suppression of the Paris Commune had a lasting effect on Sorel’s concept of politics and society.

Sorel took early retirement from his government job in 1892, rejected his pension, and devoted the remainder of his life to writing at his home in Boulogne-sur-Seine near Paris. The ideas expressed by Sorel in the next thirty years were shaped by his own background in engineering, by his twenty-year association with Marie David, and by his reading of the works of Alexis de Tocqueville, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Karl Marx. Sorel, the student of the proletariat, got to know the proletariat intimately from 1875 until 1897 in the person of Marie David. She was, he once said, part of his existence as a socialist writer. His first work, published before his retirement, Le Procès de Socrate (1889; the trial of Socrates) was closer to the Tocqueville tradition, but in his second publication, D’Aristote à Marx (1894; from Aristotle to Marx), Sorel was moving toward socialism.

Life’s Work

The major crisis of French politics that attracted the interest of all writers in the 1890’s was the Dreyfus affair. Sorel joined with other radicals and socialists to defend Alfred Dreyfus, who was unjustly accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. After a ten-year struggle in the courts and in the press, Dreyfus was exonerated and his defenders triumphant. Sorel, however, did not see this victory in the same light as did Jean Jaurès and many other socialists. Socialist politicians were, Sorel believed, as corrupt and deceitful as bourgeois politicians. What was needed was a complete transformation of society through class war and the general strike. The working class was now ready to seize power for itself.

By the turn of the century, Sorel was a well-known Parisian, usually seen in the Bibliothèque Nationale, at the Sorbonne, or around the office of the Cahiers de la quinzaine, whose editor and founder was his friend, Charles- Pierre Péguy. The major theme in his own writings had become the decadence of bourgeois society. Sorel considered himself a Marxist but found himself at odds with both the orthodox Marxists and the revisionists. For Sorel, Marxism, though a useful analytical tool, was not a science. It was social poetry, a body of imprecise meanings couched in symbolic forms. The cure for modern society would not come from middle-class intellectuals such as Marx but from the syndicats, or trade unions. These themes are the basis of his two major works: Les Illusions du progrès (1908; the illusions of progress) and Réflexions sur la violence (1908; Reflections on Violence, 1912). Violence for Sorel was not simply method but morality. It was not to be confused with brute force that trampled liberty. Sorel saw violence as a creative force that rejected the immoral concessions made by most politicians.

Reflections on Violence remains the one successful Sorelian work out of some dozen publications. It went through several editions and printings before World War I and had considerable influence. This book stresses the importance of the “social myth”—legends of the 1789 revolution, for example, which contain the strongest inclination of a people to act. This he believed was now summed up in revolutionary syndicalism, a heroic struggle in the best interests of civilization. In this book, Sorel also labels his method of analysis, diremption, which is best translated as abstraction. Diremption was used to describe the relationship of institutions and society, keeping in mind that both are continually changing. This allows the investigator to isolate and examine an institution, but the distinctiveness discovered is somewhat...

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