Friday, April 03, 2009

Georges Sorel - Reflections On Violence


Georges Sorel's 1908 book 'Reflections On Violence' is an ugly, hate-filled book.

The author was a socialist war monger. He harbored a ferocious desire for violent class warfare and apocalyptic revolution. In fact, Sorel was so belligerent that he consistently used the word 'peacemaker' in a pejorative sense. 'Reflections On Violence' is seething with vituperative rhetoric against those social democrat politicians who wanted to decrease socio-political tensions in pre-WWI France.

The terrorist doctrines expounded in 'Reflections On Violence' were a decisive influence on the two most bloodthirsty ideologies of human history: fascism and Leninism. Mussolini said: 'I owe most to Georges Sorel. This master of syndicalism by his rough theories of revolutionary tactics has contributed most to form the discipline, energy and power of the fascist cohorts.' Thus, the author bears a part of the responsibility for the millions of deaths caused by the totalitarian regimes of the interbellum which were based on these ideology. Even if Sorel's part of the responsibility is small, it is still too great.

Thankfully, the historical role of these murderous regimes is played out. Why not consign Sorel's book to the place where it belongs - the dustheap of history? Why read the book at all?

I myself read the Sorel's 'Reflections On Violence' because its theory of social renewal brought about by an vanguard through the use of a violent myth formed an antecedent to the activities of dissident Surrealists in the mid-nineteenthirties. Sorel's thought contributed to the formation of Acéphale, a secret society created by Georges Bataille and others.


For Sorel, the highest good is aggressive action performed with a sense of impersonal consecration to the ends of a restricted, delimited group bound together in fervent solidarity and impelled by a passionate confidence in its ultimate triumph in some cataclysmic encounter.

Sorel wanted society to be a Manichaean struggle between the poor and rich classes. In his view, a socialist revolution could only be brought about by instilling into the working class a hatred of the bourgeoisie, not just hidden rancor and bitterness but open aggression. And rather than a middle class willing to compromise and negotiate, Sorel wanted the bourgeoisie to be self-confident and unashamed of their privileged situation. Why? Because only if the ruling class was unafraid to govern brutally, could the social tensions be maintained which instill vengeful revolutionary fervor in the proletariat. Parliamentarian democracy, philanthropy and humanitarianism were dangerous because they might pacify the proletariat and thereby prevent socialism fulfilling its historical role.

To inspire revolutionary passion in the proletariat, Sorel proposed that "...use must be made of a body of images which, by intuition alone, and before any considered analyses are made, is capable of evoking as an undivided whole the mass of sentiments which corresponds to the different manifestations of war undertaken by Socialism against modern society." In order for socialism to succeed, it was necessary to inspire the proletariat with a mythology which extolled revolutionary violence as adventurous, glorious, superior. For Sorel, the myth which which was to enthrall the working class, was the general strike. The general strike, which Sorel conceived of as a complete catastrophe of violence, enclosed all the strongest inclinations of the working class and all its anticipations of the future; it gave " aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action by which, more easily than by any other method, men can reform their desires, passions, and mental activity."

These myths were to be inspired in the proletarian masses by an revolutionary ideological elite. Basing himself on the history of the Catholic church, 'Reflections On Violence' had declared that "... the syndicates must search less for the greatest number of adherents than for the organization of vigorous elements; revolutionary strikes are excellent for effecting a selection by weeding out the pacifists who would spoil the elite troops."

From Edward A. Shils' excellent introduction: "Sorel's ethic is the ethic of a political sect living in the midst of a continuous crisis, with all the stress on purity and all the fear of contamination by the affairs of this world which mark the sect. It is the ethic of crisis, and it is of a piece with the expectation of an ever deepening crisis which is resolved ultimately only by an apocalyptic transformation in which everything is totally changed."


In 1936 Georges Bataille created a secret society called "Acéphale" - Headless. Members were Georges Ambrosino, Pierre Klossowski, Patrick Waldberg. Probable members were Michel Leiris, Jacques Chavy (a sociologist, translator of Max Weber), René Chenon, Henri Dubief (a historian), Pierre Dugan, Dussat, Jean Dautry and Colette Peignot. Whether Roger Caillois was a member is disputed. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was aware of Acéphale's existence and purposes, but in all probability not a member. Acéphale's members were well aware of Sorel's doctrines. Both Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois mention 'Reflections On Violence'.

Like Sorel's mythico-political sects, Acéphale was a restricted, delimited group, into which one one was ritually initiated and whose members were sworn to secrecy. The group was bound together by the performance of rituals, such as the commemoration of the beheading of Louis XVI on the Place De La Concorde on the 21st of January.

Acéphale is most notorious for a violent ritual, albeit a ritual that was never performed. Acéphale's ultimate goal was to enact a sacrifice of one of it's members. "There was another idea, hatched by Bataille, that the action of a group could be fully efficacious only if the initial pact of alliance among it's members was truly irremediable. And he was convinced that to bind their energies together, it was necessary to perform a human sacrifice. (...) I am not at all sure what transpired with regard to this projected human sacrifice. What is clear, though, is that it was easier to find a volunteer victim than a sacrificer, and so things went no further" (Caillois). The activities of Acéphale were directed towards a total transformation of society. Through the mediation of the sacrificial victim a means of communication would be established through not only between the members of the secret society, but also with society. Through this mythico-political act, social life would be stimulated and society reinvigorated. Human desires, passions, and mental activity would be reborn.

The activism of Acéphale must be seen in the light of the great political crisis of the interwar period: the rise of fascism. A fanatic struggle against fascism dominated Bataille's political life from the mid-nineteenthirties onwards. In September-October 1935, Bataille instigated Contre-Attaque, which can be seen as an anti-fascist movement related to Surrealism. Contre-Attaque was "virulently hostile to any tendency, whatever form it takes, that harnesses the Revolution to the advantage of ideas of nation or country." Acéphale was created when the Contre-Attaque fell apart, in the spring of 1936. The sacrifice that was at the center of Acéphale, should be seen as a strategy which was to bring about the triumph of Bataille's sacrificial Surrealism over National Socialist and fascist Caesarisms. Bataille's conception of sacrificial death as a tragedy was opposed politically to fascism, which denies what death is, turning it into a glamorous patriotic solution. Acéphale was a revolutionary ideological elite - but an elite of Surrealism, not of Socialism.

Like the political sects of Sorel, Acéphale was focused on violent action performed with a sense of impersonal consecration to the ends of a restricted, delimited group bound together in fervent solidarity and impelled by a passionate confidence in its ultimate triumph in some cataclysmic encounter.

When Surrealism proved to be unable to stem the tide of fascism and the triumph turned into a debacle, Bataille turned inwards. Mytho-political activism was replaced by inner experience.


Damien said...

Great post.
This is a terrific overview of powerful political mythologies, a dark mainstay for the inter-war period in Europe.

For similar discussions of totalitarian violence and role of mythology and mysticism in ideology ,check out any of Roger Griffin's books on Fascism.

valter said...

Thank you, Damien!