Saturday, April 11, 2009

Georges Sorel - Reflections On Violence (pt. 3)

In the third and final of this short series of posts on revolutionary firebrand Georges Sorel, I examine the relations between his work and that of the father of modern ethnology, Marcel Mauss. The relation between the two is relevant, because Georges Sorel's belief in the need for a deliberately-conceived "myth" to sway crowds into concerted action was inspired by contemporary ethnology and sociology, and specifically by the works of Marcel Mauss's uncle Émile Durkheim.

Moreover, not only were both Sorel and Mauss active militant Socialists, they were acqainted personally. The revolutionary and the ethnographer and attended classes together at the Sorbonne in 1895. At the time, Mauss was 23; Sorel was 58 and already retired. Mauss described Sorel as "an older comrade, an astute critic of everything but himself."

Even if Durkheim and Mauss were Leftists, they were not Marxists. Nonetheless, Sorel saw in Durkheim a potential ally. In April and May 1895, in the first two issues of Devenir Social (an international journal of economics, history and philosophy published in Paris),

"...Sorel published a long article titled 'Mr. Durkheim's Theories". At the time, Mauss thought Sorel had 'a penetrating mind, if not a learned and judicious one.' Against the 'babblers who rant on about social questions,' Mauss was to side with the '(overly) scientific minds.' The tone of Sorel's articles was respectful, except when he evaluated the political ideas of the author of The Rules of Sociological Method and The Division of Labour in Society: 'The author takes a forceful stand against socialism. He maintains that all the research done heretofore on value is not truly scientific. ... One must not conceal that socialism is facing an adversary of the first order.' This criticism did not prevent Sorel from inviting Durkheim to 'embrace socialism': 'Perhaps he will manage to cross the line separating him from us: it would be a happy event for social philosophy; I would be the first to acclaim him as my master. No scientist is better prepared than he to bring Marx's theories to higher education'." (sourced here)

But around 1904-1905, when revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism developed, the relationship between Sorel and the French sociologists cooled down considerably. Georges Sorel, Mauss wrote, "vents his filthy bile on his best friends, on the people he respects most." In 1906, Georges Sorel published a series of articles in the magazine Le Mouvement Socialiste. These articles appeared in book form as Reflections on Violence in 1908. The rift between Sorel and Durkheim's sociological school is made abundantly clear by the many disparaging remarks on sociologists in Reflections on Violence. Nevertheless, Sorel's book proves that the revolutionary was still actively following Durkheim's work, as it refers to a 1906 lecture by the sociologist.

Eight years later, the First World War broke out. From Edward A. Shils' excellent introduction: "The First World War horrified [Georges Sorel], not because it was a war, but because it was fought by the Entente in the name of democracy, and because it was conducted on such a large bureacucratic scale that the heroism of a small group seemed impossible. The Russian Revolution raised his hopes again, and he thought to see in the Bolshevik party the small zealous elite of heroic warriors who would precipitate the great moral transformation of human society for which he always lived. He died in 1922, a little before the March on Rome by his Italian admirers and their barbarous cohorts, and before the Russian Revolution had settled into a repellent routine. For him, the apocalypse seemed imminent."

Marcel Mauss volunteered for the duration of the war on September 3, 1914, serving in the trenches as an interpreter. Many of Mauss's close friends died in the war, including the ethnographer Robert Hertz. After Émile Durkheim's son André was killed in action op December 18, 1915, Durkheim suffered from severe depressions and finally died from grief on November 15, 1917. It was a a harrowing time. When the Russian Revolution broke out, Mauss initially supported the overthrow of the Russian aristocracy. However, he did not share the delirious enthusiasm of his Socialist comrades. In 1921 Mauss wrote ironically: "The comrades have wanted to join with Moscow go there as if on a pilgrimage. They are moved by an act of faith. For them, it's like the star rising in the east. They are guided by the star. Christ is born. Socialism has become a reality in Russia: Bethlehem is Moscow."
"In 1923, Mauss published a series of five long article in [the political weekly] Vie Socialiste called 'Observations on Violence'. Why had Russia been swept away by a 'sort of mass hysteria'? Mauss sought to understand the Russian people, who had been 'fiercely boycotted by almost the entire world,' and who were not 'isolated, starving, bankrupt, deserted by most of their best elements.' The (historical and sociological) explanation was simple: here was a country that, like Italy, was 'poor, backward and unlucky.' According to Mauss, the tyranny developing there was proof of 'the political incompetence of this people'. Bolshevism and Fascism attested to the 'regression' of modern societies; they were 'political episodes in the life of politically uneducated peoples.' Because there was no public opinion, the political realm was left to 'activist minorities'. It was therefore not surprising that the 'Kremlin brutes' with their 'adventuristic practices' had prevailed.

Mauss's series of articles, subtitled 'Fascism and Bolshevism,' was presented as a response to George Sorel's Reflections on Violence, which had been published in 1908. Mauss was not unhappy to engage in a polemic with his old comrade, whom he had met in 1895 and whom he presented as 'an embittered old man with no concern for the consequences of his acts, with no mandate, and with no scientific scruples.' Sorel had become the apostle of violence and 'direct action,' announcing the 'victory of minorities over majorities.' For Mauss, it was particularly important to criticize that 'ideology of so-called realists,' because he considered Sorel to be Lenin's and Mussolini's 'sponsor'. But beyond polemics, what Mauss wanted was to better understand the Bolshevik Revolution, certain aspects of which he had already harshly criticized in Populaire [the organ of the SFIO). His diagnosis was merciless. Of course, 'certain claims to glory' and 'a few benefits' of the Bolshevik Revolution could be identified: it had destroyed the bureaucracy and the Russian aristocracy, had ushered in federalism, had emancipated 'a few tyrannized populations,' and had returned land to the peasants after 'a few years of abberation'. But on the whole, the liabilities were 'awful'.

For Mauss, Bolshevism would be known for 'the poverty of ideas and of its legal and administrative accomplishments.' What was his criticism of the Russian communists? First, they believed 'that it is possible to establish laws and rights by decree, by violence, that it is possible to oversee various interests without the consent and confidence of the interested parties.' Second, they had 'destroyed everything' in the economy, had abolished all private commerce, had eliminated all markets, all stock exchanges, all speculation. Third, an even worse, they had 'dried up the very source of any social life: confidence and good faith.' Finally, they had waged social revolution 'against the most active classes in the country, against the institutions most dear to it and those that would be most essential to its success.' For Mauss, this was a historical paradox: 'In Moscow, the dictatorship of the proletariat has become the dictatorship of the Communist Party over the proletariat.'

A defender of the doctrine of 'activist majorities', Mauss condemned violence. In Russia and Italy, it was 'pointless and mad.' From his standpoint, the best administration was one that was least intrusive. 'In our nations, the more mighty a regime, the less it needs to use its might.' (sourced from Marcel Fournier's excellent biography of Marcel Mauss)
In 1925 Marcel Mauss published an article, "A sociological assessment of Bolshevism", in which he held Sorel responsible for Bolshevik misdeeds:
"Elsewhere I have set out at length the observations that can be drawn from the systematic use that the Bolsheviks have made of violence. All I have to add to this here is to note its failure. The Communists, here followers of Georges Sorel, have turned it into a true political 'myth', an article of faith. Not only does the whole Third International regard it as the revolutionary means pas excellence; not only do the Communists advocate it as the means of conclusively establishing the Revolution that has already been made and of applying the laws laid down by a dictator proletariat, it has also become for them a kind of end in itself. They have set up a kind of fetish figure in honor of force, the 'midwife of societies' (Marx). As the Communists seized power violently, as anyway it was always part of the Bolshevik programme and not an improvisation, they have made the excersice of violence the infallible sign of proletarian power and of the Revolution. They only recognize Communism where they see violence and terror." (sourced here)

Post scriptum

For The Great Baarsini.


Dominic said...

Does your copy of Sorel have T. E. Hulme's introduction? What do you make of it?

valter said...

No it doesn't, the introduction in my copy is by Edward Shills.