The Cult of Violence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Georges Sorel (1847-1922) has been associated with several different extremist movements, and extremists of all kinds have praised his work. What was the nature of his political affiliations? What was the impact of his work? Jack J. Roth attempts to answer these and other questions in this interesting and detailed study of Sorel and Sorelians. Roth, Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University, is a recognized authority on the subject. He feels that an understanding of Sorel and his followers may mean a better understanding of the cataclysmal character of twentieth century history.

Sorel sought a drastic renovation of the existing social and political order. He seemed to be in perpetual search of extremist movements that would be capable of the requisite political and spiritual conquest. The four significant political movements with which Sorel maintained an affiliation were revolutionary syndicalism, integral nationalism, bolshevism, and fascism. Roth discusses each of these systematically in terms of the man, the idea, and the impact. Obviously, Sorel’s views changed substantially over more than two decades of writing and theorizing, but his conception of the crucial role of violence remained unaltered. His impact initiated a “cult of violence.” Sorel and those in his train abandoned the idea of democracy and pursued a politics of the “sublime” in which “heroic” violence was a key feature. Although Sorelismo died with the demise of fascism, the Sorelian vision of the role of violence in history may be a continuing matter of concern in our time.

Sorel was born into a Catholic, middle-class family and had a rather conventional upbringing. He attended the elite École Polytechnique, where he studied civil engineering. Upon graduation in 1867, he became a civil engineer in the French civil service. Everything seemed to point to a distinguished career as a government official. An important change in his life occurred, however, when he met Marie-Euphrasie David, a young woman who nursed him back to health when he lay ill in the city of Lyon. Sorel credited her for starting him on his “apprenticeship” as a social critic. His first publications appeared in 1886. In them he expressed his worry about France’s moral decadence and called for a return to “heroic times.” It was a theme which he would pursue with constancy.

At age forty-five, he resigned his comfortable post as chief engineer, in order to have complete independence as a political writer. He had converted to Marxian socialism, joining the editorial staff of the Marxist periodical Ère nouvelle. Reflected in his writings was his adherence to the moralism of Pierre Proudhon and the economic determinism of Karl Marx. A powerful influence was exerted by Henri Bergson, whose lectures at the Collège de France Sorel attended. Bergson derided the pretensions of scientific intelligence to be the source of truth. Only intuition could directly apprehend the world as the creative force it really was. Bergson taught irrationalism, which was really quite a rational effort to undermine reason. Sorel applied Bergson’s philosophy especially in his best-known work Reflections on Violence (1908). Although leaning toward Marxism, he was not at all the determinist and the rationalist Marx was. Rather, Sorel viewed the class struggle as a manifestation of sheer “creative violence.” It was part of the creative evolution Bergson had talked about. Bergson’s appeal to intuition, moreover, invited a kind of mysticism. The political ideology that would move people to build a better society had to be a myth, a vision that could unite and inspire. It was not to be a guide to action, but an incitement to fanatical determination and blind devotion.

Sorel’s correspondence with Benedetto Croce in Italy, begun in 1895, may have contributed to his gradual dissociation from the socialists. In France, he found a kindred spirit in Charles Péguy, who established the magazine Cahiers de la quinzaine. Through this publication, Sorel was able to reach many young...

(The entire section is 1676 words.)