Georges Sorel Essay - Critical Essays

Sorel, Georges


Sorel, Georges 1847-1922

French social and political theorist

While adhering to no organized philosophical or political schools of thought, Sorel's theories are credited with influencing such major twentieth-century movements as Russian Bolshevism and Italian Fascism, as well as inspiring many left-wing radical agitators of the 1960s. Sorel's theories combined socio-economic elements from the writings of Karl Marx with the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Henri Bergson, Benedetto Croce, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Believing that rational and empirical methods of thought failed to include humanity's nature beyond the logical, Sorel developed a system of belief that recognized human sexuality, religion, and nationality as integral factors in human social and political interaction. Sorel believed these basic human instincts form a timeless mythology governed by the desire for freedom of thought and action. This desire recognizes no systematic philosophical pattern, and is often and justifiably pursued through violent means as Sorel expressed in his most popular work, Reflexions sur la violence.

Biographical Information

Sorel was born in Cherbourg, France, to a middle-class Roman Catholic family. Despite the revolutionary nature of much of his writings, he remained devoutly Catholic and firmly middle-class throughout his life. His father was a struggling businessman who attained only moderate success, and his mother was the daughter of the mayor of Barfleur. During his childhood, Sorel vacationed at the seashore with his family, which included his cousin, Albert Sorel, the future historian and president of France's Third Republic' Senate. Sorel graduated with distinction from the College de Cherbourg in 1864; attended the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris; and graduated from the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees in 1870, before embarking on a career as an engineer with the French Bureau of Bridges and Highways. Sorel worked mainly in the provincial areas of France, a factor that many critics believe encouraged him to develop his theories independent from Paris's prevailing schools of thought. Another source of Sorel's theories is his relationship with Marie-Euphrasie David. Nearly illiterate and two years older than Sorel, David became his common-law wife. Her impoverished back-ground caused Sorel's parents to refuse their consent for the pair to marry, wishes that were honored even after his parents's deaths. David's working-class status and staunch Catholicism raised Sorel's awareness of society's downtrodden. After her death in 1897, Sorel credited his intellectual life to his meeting David, and wrote that he "worked to raise a philosophical monument worthy of her memory." The inheritance he received upon the death of his mother in 1887 enabled Sorel to dedicate himself to a full-time intellectual life. He retired with the Legion of Honor and moved to Paris at the age of forty-five. In Paris, Sorel conducted impromptu lectures at the offices of Charles Peguy's Cahiers de la Quinzaine, an intellectual journal.

Major Works

Sorel's theories eschewed dogma, and were in a constant state of flux. At various stages of his life he championed Marxism, Socialism, monarchism, nationalism, Pragmatism, Fascism, and Bolshevism. His initial works are categorized as Marxist, and challenge the writings of Ernest Renan and Emile Durkheim, who claimed that the ideal society adheres to rational empiricism. In Le Proces de Socrate, Sorel wrote that intellectualism as epitomized by Socrates ultimately results in an effete, ineffectual, and decadent society, and disregards the true, physical desires of humankind. He believed that humanity's instinct to survive is the source of all human thought, and that all reality is a subjective experience dependent upon imagination and creativity. He disparaged what he called the era's esprit de systeme, le petit science, which he blamed for stifling the elan vital and inspiring mediocrity. In Les Illusions de progres Sorel decried the increasing mechanization of society, believing that machines exacerbated the sterility of modern life. He also attacked capitalism as an exploiter of the working class. Reflexions sur la violence reflects Sorel's view that labor unions would unite France's working class against the oppression of the capitalist bourgeoise, using violence as necessary to attain their goals. He argued that the capitalist State kept the working class submissive through the threat of police or militia violence, and this legitimization of violence justified the use of counter-violence by the labor unions. Sorel encouraged the unions to view the class war in mythological terms, and to employ "heroic violence" against the State's potential for violent protection of its capitalist principles.

Principal Works

Insegnamenti sociale della economica contmporanea (political theory) 1906

Les Illusions de progres (political theory) 1908

Reflexions sur la violence (political theory) 1908

Le Decomposition du marxisme (political theory) 1908

La Revolution dreyfusienee (political theory) 1909

From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy (essays) 1976


A. O. Lovejoy (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: A review of "Reflections on Violence", by Georges Sorel, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. X, No. 1, February, 1916, pp. 193-95.

[In the following excerpted review of Sorel's Reflections on Violence, Lovejoy identifies key differentiators between Sorel's socialist concepts and traditional socialist theories.]

Whatever the future of revolutionary syndicalism in Europe, the movement will at least continue to have interest for the historian as a type of social agitation, based upon novel and distinctive theories, which had attained somewhat formidable proportions at the moment when "le régime bourgeois" eventuated in an outbreak of "violence" more atrocious and more widespread than any of which the syndicalist had dreamed. An English version of [Reflections on Violence] the principal book of the chief philosopher of the movement is therefore to be welcomed. The translation, it may be said at once, is clear and idiomatic, and for the most part accurate. There are occasional errors, such as the rendering of moeurs by "customs" (29, 44, 57), and of cléricaux by "clergy" (249). This last makes nonsense of the passage in which it occurs. "Worthy progressives" is an overtranslation of braves gens.

To be rightly understood the book needs to be read backwards. For it is concerned with two questions, that of the ends to be accomplished by the social revolution, and that of the means by which it can be effectually brought about. The latter question is discussed first and at much greater length; but the spirit of this discussion, and the main premises of it, are sure to be missed by readers who do not bear in mind the ethical ideal of the syndicalist revolution, as set forth in the concluding chapter on la morale des producteurs. It is primarily, though not solely, Sorel's conception of the ends to be accomplished, that prescribes the choice of those means to which he gives the sensational and partially misleading name of "violence."

The moral ideals which inspire Sorel are highly dissimilar to those which have animated most of the older Socialism. His hostility to the existing régime is not chiefly due to a demand for justice in the distribution of the produce of industry, nor to a humanitarian sympathy with the victims of capitalistic 'exploitation,' nor to a sense of the waste and disorder involved in the competitive system. The morale des producteurs is a sort of 'gospel of work.' Its ideal will be realized only when productive industry is freely and joyously carried...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

Bernard Bosanquet (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: A review of "Reflections on Violence", by Georges Sorel, in Social and International Ideas, Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1917, pp. 183-88.

[In the following excerpt, political philosopher Bosanquet admires Sorel's thesis in Reflections on Violence, but takes exception to translator and philosopher T. E. Hulme 's interpretation. ]

I may say at once that M. Sorel appears to me to have worked out for himself a fine philosophy of life and social forces. Whether or no he has seen to the end of it, either as a gospel of humanity or as a motive in social process, at all events his attitude is one which commands respect.

In his preface of seven...

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A. L. Orage (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Sorel, Marx, and the Drama," in Selected Essays and Critical Writings, edited by Herbert Read and Denis Saurai, Stanley Nott, 1935, pp. 110-13.

[In the following review of Reflections on Violence, economist and philosopher Orage credits Sorel with providing a necessary mythology to socialist philosophy, and declares Sorel a worthy disciple of Karl Marx.]

Sorel's Reflections on Violence is one of the few works upon Socialism that can be, and deserves to be, read by the non-professional student. Socialist authors for the most part are for Socialist readers exclusively. They are usually economic dissenting parsons addressing a conventicle of the...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

James Burnham (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "The Function of Myth," and "The Function of Violence," in The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, The John Day Company, Inc., 1943, pp. 119-32.

[In the following excerpt, Burnham examines what he perceives as Sorel's contempt for political science.]


Georges Sorel cannot be considered in all respects a Machiavellian. For one thing, he was a political extremist. Though Machiavellian principles are not committed to any single political program, they do not seem to accord naturally with extremism. Further, Sorel partly repudiates, or seems to repudiate, scientific method, and to grant, in certain connections, the...

(The entire section is 4276 words.)

Max Nomad (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "The Evolution of Anarchism and Syndicalism: A Critical Review," in European Ideologies: A Survey of 20th Century Political Ideas, edited by Feliks Gross, Philosophical Library, Inc., 1948, pp. 328-342.

[In the following excerpt, Nomad examines Sorel's philosophical history, identifying Sorel's links with Marxism, democratic socialism and Bolshevism as key to understanding his body of work.]

It is a truism that in all political movements a distinction must be made between what their participants profess and believe, on the one hand, and what subconsciously they are actually striving for, on the other.

This distinction is rendered somewhat...

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James H. Meisel (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Disciples and Dissenters," in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. XLIX, No. 2, April, 1950, pp. 159-74.

[In the following excerpt, Meisel examines how Sorel' s contemporaries reacted positively and negatively to his theories.]

There are the honorable titans of the spirit, the good masters who hold our admiration, whose every word we endorse and file away for reference because it is the truth. But, as the years go by, we find that something has been happening to us. Our esteem of the masters has not changed; we would not dream of casting doubt upon their findings; only, we no longer care. Our integral assent has come embarrassingly close to boredom, whereas...

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E. H. Carr (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Sorel: Philosopher of Syndicalism," in Studies in Revolution, Grosset & Dunlap, 1964, pp. 152-65.

[In the following excerpt, Carr identifies the intellectual sources of Sorel's most important writings.]

Born at Cherbourg on November 2, 1847, Georges Sorel was, from the early twenties to the age of forty-five, a blameless ingénieur des ponts-etchaussées. Then in 1892 he abandoned his profession to devote himself to his newly found hobby of writing about socialism. He helped to found two reviews and contributed to many more, wrote several books (of which one, Reflections on Violence—the only one of his works to be translated into...

(The entire section is 3404 words.)

John Bowle (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Georges Sorel: Myth and Anarchy," in Politics and Opinion in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 398-413.

[In the following excerpt, Bowie attempts to discredit Sorels by tracing an unflattering connection between Sorel's absorption of the theories of Marx and Nietzsche with the rise of Fascism. ]

When Pope Leo XIII restated Catholic political principles and Acton developed the idea of commonwealth as the expression of conscience, both were adapting traditional ideas to a new mass society. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century great urban industry and world-wide expansion had altered the scale of Western civilization and...

(The entire section is 5798 words.)

S. P. Rouanet (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Irrationalism and Myth in Georges Sorel," in The Review of Politics, Vol. XXVI, 1964, pp. 45-69.

[In the following excerpt, Rouanet examines the European political and cultural landscape in which Sorel wrote and thought.]


The First World War is sometimes credited with the dissolution of the well-ordered universe of the nineteenth century. In fact, by 1914 there was very little left to destroy, for most of the essential work had already been accomplished. The aftermath of the war merely helped to make the collapse of order and stability more visible. But the post-1918 atmosphere of gloom, later crystallized in the "Lost Generation"...

(The entire section is 9552 words.)

Neal Wood (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Some Reflections on Sorel and Machiavelli," in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. LXXXIII, No. 1, March, 1968, pp. 76-91.

[In the following excerpt originally written in 1965, Wood expands on James Burnham's (excerpted above) thesis that Sorel was a Maciavellian thinker.]

The comparison of Georges Sorel and Niccolò Machiavelli is not without precedent. Some twenty years ago James Burnham maintained that Sorel (along with Mosca, Michels, and Pareto) shared in a tradition of thinking called Machiavellism.1 The principal tenets of the tradition consist of a faith in an empirical science of politics, and a conception of politics as a struggle for power...

(The entire section is 5598 words.)

Robert A. Nisbet and John Stanley (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An introduction to "The Illusions of Progress", by Georges Sorel, translated by John and Charlotte Stanley, University of California Press, 1969, pp. ix-xxxix.

[In the following excerpted foreward and introduction to Sorel's The Illusions of Progress, Nisbet and Stanley, respectively, examine Sorel's view of virtue as action, and attempt to put his work in perspective.]



Georges Sorel is known to English and American readers mainly through his Reflections on Violence which, aside from one small work,1 is until now the only one of his dozen books to have been...

(The entire section is 12987 words.)

J. L. Talmon (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Legacy of Georges Sorel: Marxism, Violence, Fascism," in Encounter, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, February, 1970, pp. 47-60.

[In the following excerpt, Talmon examines Sorel's legacy on such European contemporaries as Hulme, Lenin, Wyndham Lewis, Ramon Fernandes, and Benedetto Croce.]

At a time when words like violence, "direct action," "confrontation," "the bourgeois world," "cleansing," "total destruction," etc. are shouted into our ears with obsessive persistence, there is every justification for (and there may even be some intellectual profit in) taking another look at the most famous European apologist of violence—Georges Sorel. The more so, if one wishes to...

(The entire section is 11744 words.)

Isaiah Berlin (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Georges Sorel," in Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy, The Hogarth Press, 1979, pp. 296-332.

[In the following excerpt, Berlin assesses Sorel's work as incendiary and disorganized, while declaring him one of the century's foremost political thinkers.]

Sorel remains an anomalous figure. The other ideologists and prophets of the nineteenth century have been safely docketed and classified. The doctrines, influence, personalities of Mill, Carlyle, Comte, Darwin, Dostoevsky, Wagner, Nietzsche, even Marx, have been safely placed on their respective shelves in the museum of the history of ideas. Sorel remains, as he was in his...

(The entire section is 15334 words.)

Richard Vernon (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Rationalism and Commitment in Sorel," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XXXIV, July-September, 1973, pp. 405-20.

[In the following excerpt, Vernon draws distinctions between traditional interpretations of Marxism and Sorel's interpretation.]

In this essay I shall explore Georges Sorel's thought in the light of two contrasting conceptions; the idea that history forms an intelligible whole, knowledge of which provides criteria for political action, and the idea that no valid criteria exist for evaluating our actions, which rest on nothing more than a personal decision. The former idea is what Sorel thought of as "rationalism"; it is not what is thought of as...

(The entire section is 6831 words.)

D. C. Band (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Question of Sorel," in Journal of European Studies, Vol. 7, No. 27, September, 1977, pp. 204-13.

[In the following excerpt, Band declares that Sorel is more important as a populizer of ideas rather than as an original thinker.]

The publication of Professor John L. Stanley's splendid collection (From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy) affords students of Sorel and, indeed, of modern European social thought an opportunity to address themselves to the question of Sorel's "place"—the question, that is, of the sources and importance of his system. Tracing intellectual influences is an exercise of about the same degree of difficulty as...

(The entire section is 4264 words.)

Jack J. Roth (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Georges Sorel: On Lenin and Mussolini," in Contemporary French Civilization, Vol. II, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 231-52.

[In the following excerpt, Rot h examines the influence of the writings of Marx, Prudhomme, Vico, and Bergson on Sorel's system of beliefs.]

The noted littérateur Daniel Halévy, for some years a close associate of Georges Sorel, tells a story about Sorel that is too good to be true.1 In the early 1930s, about a decade after Sorel's death; the ambassadors of Soviet Russia and fascist Italy in Paris, upon hearing that Sorel's grave was in disrepair, independently and almost simultaneously informed the director of the...

(The entire section is 8066 words.)

David Gross (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Myth and Symbol in Georges Sorel," in Political Symbolism in Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of George L Mosse, edited by Seymour Drescher, David Sabean, and Allan Sharlin, Transaction Books, 1982, pp. 100-17.

[In the following excerpt, Gross traces the treatment of myth and symbolic images in Sorel's body of work.]

Every student of modern political symbolism must sooner or later confront the work of Georges Sorel (1847-1922). As one of the more engaging minds of his generation, Sorel made a number of original and important observations about the nature of symbolic images and their relationship to political action. These observations are not always easy to...

(The entire section is 8470 words.)

Wilfried Röhrich (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Georges Sorel and the Myth of Violence: From Syndicalism to Fascism," in Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineteenthand Twentieth-century Europe, edited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Gerhard Hirschfeld, Berg Publishers, Ltd., 1982, pp. 246-56.

[In the following excerpt, Rohrich examines French historical events during Sorel's lifetime that influenced his conservative political thinking.]

Wyndham Lewis believed himself to be justified in saying: 'Georges Sorel is the key to all contemporary political thought'.1 This dictum appears extreme and yet it contains a grain of truth. After all, Sorel did provide very disparate movements of his day with...

(The entire section is 5450 words.)

John L. Stanley (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: An introduction to "Social Foundations of Contemporary Economics", by Georges Sorel, translated by John L. Stanley, Transaction Books, 1984, pp. 1-34.

[In the following excerpt, Stanley examines the influence of the writings of Henri Bergson, William James, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon on the writings of Sorel. ]

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Georges Sorel's political and social thought is the difficulty one has in attempting to classify it. Just when we think we have Sorel conveniently pigeonholed into some tidy little category (protofascist being a recent favorite), he fools us by putting forth ideas which at first seem to be in complete contradition to all...

(The entire section is 14269 words.)

Michael Tager (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Myth and Politics in the Works of Sorel and Barthes," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 4, October-December, 1986, pp. 625-39.

[In the following excerpt, Tager compares the theses of Roland Barthes and Sorel.]

I. Roland Barthes once argued that in France the bourgeoisie lost its cultural voice during the Dreyfus Affair, when its writers and intellectuals released it.1 In the eighteenth century intellectuals had championed the cause of the bourgeois individual against aristocratic privilege, but grew increasingly ambivalent about the triumphant bourgeoisie during the nineteenth century, and finally at the end of the nineteenth century...

(The entire section is 6357 words.)

K. Steven Vincent (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Interpreting Georges Sorel: Defender of Virtue or Apostle of Violence?" in History of European Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, pp. 239-57.

[In the following excerpt, Vincent examines previous critical interpretations of Sorel's workand categorizes him as a cautious pessimist.]

Georges Sorel has never failed to evoke strong reactions. From Sartre's dismissal of Sorel's Réflexions sur la violence as 'fascist prattle',1 from G.D.H. Cole's contemptuous characterisation of him as a pessimist 'moaning for blood',2 to Croce's recommendation that Marx and Sorel were the only original thinkers socialism ever had,3 and to a recent...

(The entire section is 9299 words.)

David Ohana (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Georges Sorel and the Rise of Political Myth," in History of European Ideas, Vol. 13, No. 6, 1991, pp. 733-46. '

[In the following excerpt, Ohana identifies apparent inconsistencies in Sorel's philosophy, which he attributes to the rapidly changing cultural mileau within his lifetime.]


Georges Sorel (1847-1922) continues to be a problem for many researchers and ideologues of the Right and the Left. He has become a litmus paper by which thinkers, researchers, and political activists shape their own beliefs and try to formulate their own ideas. An international colloquium on Sorel which was held in 1982 at the Ecole Normale Supérieure...

(The entire section is 6882 words.)

Michael Tratner (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Mass Minds and Modernist Forms: Political, Aesthetic, and Psychological Theories," in Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 21-47.

[In the following, Tratner links Sorel with Gustave Le Bon, author of The Crowd, to examine the modernist works of Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats.]

Two French political theorists set the terms for most analyses of the mass mind in the early twentieth century: Gustave Le Bon, in The Crowd (1895), and Georges Sorel, who extended Le Bon's ideas into a method for inciting mass movements in Reflections on Violence (1906)....

(The entire section is 13680 words.)

Further Reading


Greil, Arthur L. Georges Sorel and the Sociology of Virtue. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981, 249 p.

Examines the consistency of Sorel's ethical arguments and moral positions.

Hughes, Henry Stuart. "Georges Sorel's Search for Reality." In Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought 1890-1930. New York: Vintage, 1958, 433 p.

Explores such influences on Sorel's subjectivism as Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson.

Humphrey, Richard. Georges Sorel: Prophet without Honor, A Study in Anti-Intellectualism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,...

(The entire section is 457 words.)