17 June 2020

Je suis Georges Sorel!

A Family Dinner, a French cartoon about the Dreyfus Affair

Unfortunately, quality control at The American Conservative has gotten a trifle lax these days under Arthur Bloom. They seem to be giving a platform to every corrupt careerist Reaganite, cult-apologist comprador and China-watching hack that is willing to pen a dishonest ‘populist’ screed against China. And of course it does, because Bloom has held a wet finger to the wind, and he’s now elbowing and jostling for a position of prestige among the rising-star set of barely-reconstructed neoconservatives and quasi-protectionist nouvelle-droite Republicans like Hawley, Cotton, Rubio and McCarthy. But in a welcome change of pace away from this trend, a recent op-ed by Will Collins, which compares our current cultural moment to the upheaval following France’s Dreyfus Affair, got me thinking again about Georges Sorel’s 1908 work Réflexions sur la violence. Indeed, the killing of George Floyd, the erosion of institutional trust that it highlights, and the conscription of two duelling forms of the national myth – all point to the prescient, if idiosyncratic, what might be called ‘Tory-anarchist’ interpretation of Marx that Sorel became famous for.

Sorel’s interpretation of Marx is controversial for a number of reasons. He went from being a far left-wing anarcho-syndicalist when he started writing, to a far right-wing integral nationalist aligned with Maurras, before finally recoiling in horror from that turn and ending his life as a Leninist supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia – very similar to the turn that the Coptic Orthodox Fabian Salâma Mûsâ took at the end of his life. And yet the substance of his political commitments actually didn’t change that much with all his radical swings of loyalty to movements. It is small wonder that the contemporary left, which has been sensitised by the history of WWII to any whiff of sympathy to the far-right, has largely treated the work of this seminal theorist of the general strike as radioactive and not to be touched. Even so, he offers some credible and necessary critiques of our current moment, particularly in light of Collins’s apt analogy to France’s past.

He is one of those thinkers whose political thought is ‘unclassifiable’ by conventional means, and yet it has an internal logic that – for the most part – holds up when examined on its own terms. Sorel was a perennial political ‘outsider’, and he tended to view what were then ‘normal’ political processes in France with mounting disgust. In his examinations of the state, he was quick to note the subtle turns to force and fraud. He was a caustic critic of intellectuals and political agents who joined the ‘workers’ movement’ in France, only to subtly assert their own bourgeois class interests and advocate for compromise and triangulation when they approached the parliamentary seats of power: we can justly say that Sorel, then, is an early critic within Marxist circles of what Barbara Ehrenreich called ‘PMC’ politics. At the same time, he upheld a view of personal morality which was much in line with what the Catholic Church (and, more importantly, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) had to say on matters of sexual comportment and defence of the nuclear family.

Sorel anticipated the libertarian-right critique of socialism as primarily motivated by envy, and the Christian-right critique that it is primarily motivated by materialism – and he moved accordingly to assert a noble, militant, master-moral anarcho-socialism that is motivated by a spirit of conquering heroism and martyric sacrifice to the glorious cause. In this he conscripted not only the existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche but also the élan vital of Henri Bergson – the theorist of durée réelle and evolutionary creativity whose thought captivated so many post-colonial theorists. For Sorel, the most important element in Bergson was his assertion of the intuition and the creative instinct, which Sorel interpreted to mean the refinement through praxis of the working class’s revolutionary consciousness. He articulated the power of myth in both revolutionary and reactionary politics, and in so doing elevated Marxist discourse out of mere analysis into something akin to a crusade. There is a utopian dimension to his thought that links his vision of the militant proletariat indelibly to Nietzsche’s overman: the forger of new values and new virtues. But most importantly: he posited a distinction between force and violence that would later become a staple of anarchist thinking about where and how violent direct action would be appropriate and justifiable.

For Sorel, force – which, along with deception, was one of the two tools of the state to enforce its will on the mass of people – means precisely that form of coercion which is institutionally justified and legitimised in the service of the élite class, and channelled through the state. Where Sorel uses the term violence, on the other hand, he uses it to mean those forms of violence that are not institutionally justified and which are the outbursts of the oppressed people. Sorel is often wrongly understood as justifying any and all violence, but this is precisely a wrong reading. For Sorel, violence is one possible tool, and possibly the most important tool, of revolutionary change – one which is to be used judiciously and in a targeted fashion to galvanise and inspire the working class to feats of heroism and self-sacrifice.

Georges Sorel would, in fact, look with an entirely understanding – but not necessarily approving – eye on the way the protests here have played themselves out. Sorel would almost challenge us to see the violence of the riots as the entirely-logical and entirely-predictable outcome of the display of brute force which the Minneapolis police used on George Floyd. At the same time, I’m sure that Sorel would condemn in no uncertain terms the directionless and leaderless aspect of much of the violence, and call on us to discern the instances of heroism from the instances of buffoonery, opportunism and provocation. It’s a foregone conclusion that he would decry and disown the opportunistic PMCs who have joined the protests, either to vent their anger at their parents or to position themselves into institutional leadership rôles and redirect the energies of a justifiably-outraged black community into the usual institutional cul-de-sacs.

And Collins’s comparison in the TAC of the current moment to the Dreyfus Affair, is also useful and illuminating. Sorel was an ardent and unapologetic Dreyfusard – a supporter of Alfred Dreyfus against the institution of the French Armed Forces. Georges Sorel, along with his younger contemporary poet and philosopher Charles Péguy, sincerely and rightly believed that Alfred Dreyfus was the wrongful victim of the bigotry of the French public, and a scapegoat who was singled out on account of his Jewishness. So why, then, did both Sorel and Péguy turn to the anti-Dreyfusards, like Maurras, after 1908? For both Sorel and Péguy, the answer lies in their visceral revulsion, not to Dreyfus himself, but to the opportunists and political hacks who leapt upon Dreyfus’s cause for reasons of image-conscious self-display: what we would now call ‘virtue signalling’.

The other dimension to Sorel’s turn away from being a Dreyfusard, involves his understanding of the importance of myth. Here we may take Collins up on the analogical terms he sets forth. The Dreyfus Affair conjured forth two rival conceptions of France, each conception reliant upon a myth of France: either as the confessional-monarchical France of 1631, or the revolutionary France of 1789. Georges Sorel was not only repulsed by the virtue signalling of Dreyfusard ‘buffoons’ like Émile Zola, but he was also repulsed by the ease with which fellow-Dreyfusards like Jean Jaurès linked Dreyfus’s cause to the glorious history of the Revolutionary Republic of 1789, and cynically used Dreyfus as a political symbol to corral the working class into giving him their political support. Collins likewise notices and remarks upon the parallel way in which George Floyd’s extrajudicial execution has conjured forth the two rival mythic conceptions of America, which are pegged to 1619 and 1776 respectively. Though I say so myself, he is entirely right to do so.

The rôles are somewhat reversed, admittedly. The Dreyfusards, in conjuring forth the spirit of 1789, were deliberately hearkening to a positive self-image of France that they felt themselves in danger of losing; while the Floydards of today in conjuring forth 1619 are hearkening to a negative self-image of America that they seek to tear down and rebuild from the ashes. But the class dynamics and the political motives are entirely the same! Are we truly to believe that the academic historians who contribute to the 1619 Project are entirely disinterested observers of American history, and that they have no stake in building their own brands and burnishing their academic credentials? Or are we truly to believe in the sincerity of the contrition of a New York Times, which has in the spirit of William Randolph Hearst supported each and every one of America’s imperial wars, colour revolutions and coups – from Yugoslavia, through Iraq and Honduras and Libya and Syria and Venezuela, most recently to Bolivia?

I have certain problems with Georges Sorel. First and foremost: I refuse to give in to anti-Semitic diatribes and canards, the way Sorel did during his intégriste days in Action française. Indeed, I have difficulties with intégrisme itself, on related but slightly different grounds. Second: I am not an anarchist and never will be one. Sorel may have certain commonalities with Christian – and specifically Roman Catholic – doctrines and values, for example in his advocacy of the stability of the family unit. But his conception of the state as thoroughly corrupt and corrupting, and his totalised denunciation of all state action, is explicitly and even deliberately anti-Christian. Indeed, though he thoroughly understands Christianity to have been a revolutionary and egalitarian movement from the beginning, he evokes the Christian response to the Roman Empire, and its ultimate takeover of the Empire under Saint Theodosius, as an example of the sort of relation to the state to avoid.

Even so, Sorel’s prescience here is valuable. It is necessary for us, as Americans, to construct counter-myths that are neither 1619 nor 1776, just as Georges Sorel articulated in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair the necessity of making new myths that are neither 1631 nor 1789. More immediately it is entirely possible – indeed, entirely necessary – to rightly honour George Floyd and seek for effective and immediate restructuring of the police. It is entirely possible to condemn, on moral grounds, the arbitrary state force which ended Floyd’s life for no good reason. At the same time, it is possible and necessary to denounce and lay bare the hypocrisies and grotesque self-interest of the hangers-on and political operatives, or the people who riot or burn or destroy just to vent. The pain and loss and devastation of black communities, the loss of life, the loss of years in incarceration, the loss of innocence – these are all real. But to cynically use this pain and loss to further careers among the commentariat, or to bolster places in think-tanks or foundations or the machine politics of the same imperialist-consumerist-carceral structure that produces it…! In this instance, I cannot help but say in response to Collins, in the context of our new Dreyfus Affair: ‘Je suis Georges Sorel!

1 comment:

  1. A lot of the commentary around Floyd tends to ignore the corona virus context. It's actually far more likely that the rage of looting/mob-violence is from the extreme (and probably worthless) measures of shutting down society (and impinging on basic civil liberties) and ruining most peoples means of living. Floyd's death sparked from a fake $20, a sign of desperation in a stalled out economy. $1200 Trump-bucks isn't enough, as corporate profiteering didn't skip a beat.

    Unlike the Dreyfussard affair, there really aren't two Americas, at least not politically in the way the 3rd Republic stood opposed to the countryside that never really sat well with the Revolution anyhow (c.f. the Vendee). 1619 is a vapid joke, especially as most regular people (black, white, whatever), don't care and don't understand. It's a completely unfitting comparison, of how ideologically drunk the American commentariat is. We're still living in the TINA epoch, where neoliberalism is the only thing on offer and the most radically disruptive presidency has most of its potential from its vacuity and pettiness (which gives me a small drop of hope for Trump doing something wild like trust-busting Amazon or declassifying all JFK or 9/11 docs or something).

    What's happening now is like the shadow image of 2008-09, a financial crash linked to an astroturfed movement of petit elites looking for their market share. Back then it was Tea Party, now it's DSA.