(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.