Thursday, May 17, 2012

The question of Georges Sorel

Which is how did he go from being a straight out socialist and syndicalist to adopting increasingly odd ideas? I mean, it's very strange to me that "Reflections on Violence" and other works are looked on as being syndicalist, because there's so much there that comes from other traditions and compartively little that comes from the syndicalist mainstream. But, there is a book out there called "From Georges Sorel", that contains extracts from works throughout his career, and it sheds light on the subject. First, in the essay "The Socialist Future of the Syndicates" and the first part of "The Ethics of Socialism", Sorel comes off as a pretty decent thinker. In fact, "The Socialist Future" has only a few small themes, like a mention of skilled syndicats as being the vanguard of syndicalism, that prefigure what is to come. In the last parts of "The Ethics of Socialism" he seems to change, beginning with the section where he quotes Ernest Renan. This is notable because Renan was a famous conservative. Looking at the editor's introduction, the timing of the break becomes obvious: it was about Dreyfus.

Sorel looks dismayed about the socialist-radical (liberal) Dreyfusard coalition that came to power in France in 1899, thinking that they were too Statist in their new social policies. But, instead of just sticking with regular syndicalism, or making a limited critique Sorel started taking cues from the writings of the conservative anti-Dreyfusards, obviously reading deeply in that tradition, integrating parts of their critiques into his thought.

Now, there's nothing wrong with being creative in what you believe or taking inspiration from lots of different places. Even stopped clocks are right twice a day, and there are more ideas from places outside of the traditional left that have value than are supposed. However, what's wrong, to me, is that while  writing as a syndicalist, while proclaiming himself totally in support of the orthodox syndicalist struggle, what Sorel was really advocating was a kind of pseuo-corporatist, decentralized, conservatism, that used the same ideas that the Action Francaise drew from and that influenced Mussolini and his Fascist movement. If Sorel has just come out and said what he really believed, and taken the hit for it, I would have more respect for him within the context of what he was really advocating, but instead he seems to be trying to square the circle. That attempt started in his writings of 1899, with "Reflections on Violence" coming out in 1906, a full seven years later.

Idiosyncrasy is fine, but you can't let yourself be regarded as an orthodox purveyor of the doctrine, as Sorel did after "Reflections on Violence" was published. It's rememered today because it came out at a high point in syndicalist strikes and protests, and was seen as somehow representing the movement as a whole. Also, if in your self declared idiosyncrasies you really do go far and beyond what you say you are, you really need to change the label, whether that means making up a new one or saying that you've changed philosophies on the whole.

*on edit: also, far be it for me to talk about any sort of ideological purity. My politics are definitely idiosyncratic,  self-declaredly so. They pillage from ideas near and far. However, I think my core beliefs are fairly intact.

1 comment:

Lori said...

I guess that would explain why Burnham counted Sorel among "the Machiavellians."