Neil McInnes
The Western Marxists

Marx had described it in general terms in this way:
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of a society find themselves opposed by existing relations of production, or, if one takes the juridical point of view, by the properly relations within which they had progressed till then. Instead of being form of development of productive forces, those relations become chains on them. Then begins an era of revolution. With the change in the economic base, all the gigantic superstructure is, more or less rapidly overturned.
That was Marx's account of that crucial moment in the dialectic when the objective institutions that till then have expressed social labor begin to throttle it and are cancelled out. The communist Manifesto gave an account of the previous historical instance:
The means of production and exchange on which the bourgeoisie based its formation were engendered in feudal society. At a certain stage of development of these means of production and exchange, the relations within which feudal society produced and traded, the feudal organization of agriculture and manufactures, in a word feudal property relations, no longer corresponded to the productive forces that were already developed. They were limiting production instead of promoting it. They had become chains. They had to be broken. They were broken.
This formula, which is at once a translation into ordinary language of the Hegelian dialectic and a suggested sociological law, will find its application, Marx implies, in the transition from one to the other of the 'pre-historical' economic forms: the asiatic, the antique classical, the feudal, and the bourgeois. So it will apply also to the next transition, from capitalism to socialism.

Sorel could show that in fact Marx had only one case that answered his description, and that was the French Revolution, which Marx described, moreover, in a singularly tendentious way so as to suggest an analogy between it and his own day, and thus enhance the plausibility of another, similarly profound revolution. Marx was saying that bourgeois property relations, like feudal, had unleashed productive forces that they could not contain and which they were restraining. This period of contradiction could not long endure but would end in the passage to new property relations, to a new form of society.

So the revolution schema, Sorel said, eventually came down to an analogy between 1789 and 1847. That analogy was false from start to finish. The ancien regime with its chaotic tax system, feudal vestiges and meddlesome regulations did often restrain productive forces, but that situation bore very little resemblance to a system in which production was brutally cut back by depressions occurring perhaps once a decade and due (on Marx's theory of the business cycle) to prior over-production. Depressions created poverty, unemployment, and bankruptcies—but not in the way, or even in the sense, that the ancien regime did. Permanent restraints on enterprise were not comparable with cycles of boom and slump. Sorel supposed, for his part, that the alternation of prosperity and depression was due to the vagaries of consumption in a market where consumers were free; at all events, it was not due uniquely to the private property relations of the bourgeoisie in the way feudal property relations could be held to have trammeled European men of business enterprise.

Secondly, the French Revolution, on Marx's peculiarly limited account of it, consisted in getting rid of useless, obstructive idlers who stood in the way of independent and experienced entrepreneurs. A proletarian revolution in Marx's day would have consisted, or the contrary, in getting rid of experienced industrialists in favor of a class so far innocent of any acquaintance with the direction of economic affairs. That was not striking analogy but blank contrast.

Finally, Marx had reduced the French Revolution for the sake of his argument to the expropriation of feudal privileges in restraint of enterprise. The disproportion between the feudal vestiges of 1789 and the immense structure of contemporary capitalism was so enormous as to make it adventurous to speak of 'suppressing' the one as readily as the other. The minor economic transaction of the night of 4 August 1789 was no precedent for the assignment of destroying capitalism. Besides, noted Sorel, if the French Revolution really consisted in that act of liberation from feudalism, then the French bourgeoisie would seem to have chosen an extremely costly way of freeing itself. In other countries the bourgeois could easily afford to buy feudalism out, so great were their gains from free enterprise. Should one, then, draw the analogy with a socialism that buys out private capitalism, as has often been urged for the past century?

With the revolution schema reduced to a single dubious analogy, the succession of social forms had lost the specific mechanism or the hidden spring that could have distinguished Marx's historical theory from Hegel's gallery of national portraits or from historical evolutionism. The dialectic, the successive cancellation of social reifications by social labor, had lost all necessity. Unless Marx could show how, by a recurring automatism, each type of society developed all its potentialities (occupied every position on its orbit) until, for that reason, it had prepared the successor-type of society (touched off the next automatic cycle)—unless he could show that, he was simply relying on a disguised Weltgeist, hidden under the language of that evolutionism for which the older Marx came to have a taste.

Despite this rejection of Marxism as the science of historical determinism, Sorel remained a student of Marx. He felt that although a doctrine was not science it could still be instructive, in that it might contain a rationalized, striking, and influential formulation of the mentality of a social movement. Therefore, on Sorel's account of how social science arose, it might be of great interest as foreshadowing the possibility of a new social order exhibiting enough regularity to be described in a science like economics. It would then be a 'myth': a dramatic account of the future of a movement. Sorel claimed that the very people who 'believed' a myth did so in a curious way; they cared for it strongly and yet they did not bother to establish its
plausibility. They treasured it not as demonstrably true but as an inspiring picture of what the world would look like if one day their ethic won all men's allegiance. Myths were a present morality stated in the future tense. It followed that intellectualist criticism of them was not only socially ineffectual (people would not give them up because of contradictory evidence) but presumptuous, because intellectuals did not know any more than myth-makers what the future held. Their 'social science' on which they based their forecasts of the future, was bogus because there was no regularity in history except when great, violent myth-making movements put it there. It was the myth-makers who fashioned the future, because their myth epitomized the aspirations of an enthusiastic mass, and thus it could well be the shadow of things to come. On the contrary, the sociologist's scientific blueprints for the future preceded nothing but ridiculous disappointment.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.