Karl Dietrich Bracher
The Age of Ideologies
Sorel's life spanned the period between the revolutions of the mid-century and the new-style seizures of power by Lenin and Mussolini. Like many of his fellow radical thinkers he oscillated between revolutionary socialism and extreme nationalism, between romantic and progressivist political concepts. Sorel was one of a long procession of disenchanted Marxists, hut his particular case was of one who had started at the extreme left. From Marx via Nietzsche and Bergson he arrived at an affirmative attitude to a revolutionary irrationalism which he held up against reformism and bureaucratization. Sorel's special importance lies in the fact that, emphatically as a socialist, he supported that irrationally-founded philosophy of action which, as a combination of nationalism and socialism, was to stand at the cradle of Italian fascism and German national socialism. Indeed two of their central ideas were already crystallized in his writings: the elitist idea as the structural principle of the power state, and of any rule which, to him, is based on violence; and the concept of the political myth, of that irrational emotional force, by means of which Sorel's elite would gain hold of the masses, in order to carry them along, by means of a general strike, by deeds instead of compromise, into action against bourgeois 'formal democracy.'
Once again it was primarily anti-liberalism, the critique of rationalism and materialism, the renunciation of the liberal and social idea of progress and its replacement by the true progressivism of revolution, no matter whether this was understood in (initially) a Marxist or (subsequently) a fascist sense. That required an irrational myth, an apocalyptic faith like the one formerly represented by Christianity. The myth of a new religion following the decay of the old one—that was the promise of true revolutionary socialism. Sorel wrote his works in the face of the great wave of strikes in France, when programmes of sabotage and direct 'action' against capitalism and simultaneously the state were directly threatening the Third Republic which was still in turmoil after the Dreyfus affair. To Sorel the 'myth of the revolution' was the general strike, a kind of final battle by the faithful, whose revolutionary inspiration, as a sort of integrating value in itself, replaced society's belief in reason and progress, the bourgeois and social-democratic 'illusions of progress.' To him, socialism was not a rational 'science,' as in orthodox Marxism, but simply a myth, a revolution. In practice this amounted to a form of syndicalist anarchism whose current forms, in Italy as in Spain and France, were a struggle of annihilation directed against society and the state itself. The only principle of order it was prepared to acknowledge was syndicalism, the action and self-government of revolutionary trade unions from below, on the basis of a working and production community: not peaceful anarchism of the Proudhon kind, but violence—self-liberation instead of state authority and oppression. And all this was predominantly aimed against 'democracy, the greatest mistake of the last century'; this had to be destroyed. On this point syndicalism and nationalism agreed.
The Utopian traits of Sorel's influential writings were unmistakable, no matter whether based on Marxist collectivism or Neiztsche's individualism. Inevitable too were the abuse and the distortions which Sorel had to experience. The theoretical ideologist was engulfed by the ideological 'men of action' whom he himself had extolled and encouraged: above all Lenin and Mussolini. The essential point, clearly, was not the political label, which in Sorel's case had become blurred beyond decipherability: he remains the prototype and classical example of left-right radicalism with totalitarian features. The real point was the ideological method of the myth of struggle and violence, a myth which the great critics and subverters of liberal and rational social and political thought were able to exploit.
Glorification of direct action and of the great deed, which subsequently seemed to be represented by Lenin's revolutionary vanguard and later still by Mussolini's fascist civil-war troops, was followed by Sorel's great disillusionment—first with the reformist trade unions, which had functioned no better as exponents of revolution than had the socialists, and then with the 'revolutions' of Lenin and Mussolini, both of whom he had praised. Both revolutions, of the left and the right, were effected in the name of popular rule by small militant minorities, in an utterly elitist and anti-democratic manner. Until then perhaps Sorel's 'myth' might still have been valid. But the outbreak of power, the new dictatorship with its authoritarian or even totalitarian intensification of state power, ran counter to his idea of the abolition of government after the victory of the revolution. Instead, however, the myth acquired an independent life, became crystallized, and was turned into the state religion—the fate of all revolutionary ideologies. His critique of the Duce Mussolini's cult of the state and nationalism or of Lenin's oppressive dictatorship came too late: the 'myth' had served its purpose, its author was expendable. Fundamentally, however, there was no misunderstanding. Sorel quite clearly belonged to the direct ideologists of the rising totalitarianism.' What other interpretation can one put on the myth, now proclaimed as the new religion, of a revolutionary elite which liquidates bourgeois society and its values by violence—and, what is more, in the name of a good, uncorrupted, 'proletariat,' of an ideal people arbitrarily definable, a people that was pure and unspoilt, yet also heroic and brutal? What other consequences could spring from this than the absolutization of a class, group or elite, and the legitimation of its new rule? Sorel's conviction that every society needed a faith, and that the lost liberal faith had to be replaced by the socialist creed, became, through the pseudo-religious glorification of revolutionary violence and its elitist champions, the tool of all future dictatorships.