Georges Sorel

The French philosopher and political and social thinker Georges Sorel (1847-1922) has been said to have inspired both Communist and Fascist ideologists.

Georges Sorel, born into a bourgeois family in Normandy, became a civil engineer working for the government. At the age of 45 he retired on a small pension and spent the remainder of his life living in the suburbs of Paris studying, reflecting, and writing.

Sorel belonged to the generations of Frenchmen who were greatly affected by the French defeat of 1870 and the civil war of the Paris Commune in the following year. He meditated on the ways whereby society could be held together. His first published work was on the Bible and on the educational value of the biblical story. Then he wrote about Socrates, the arrogant intellectual who by his questioning undermined the certainties of others, and about the decline of the ancient world. During the 1890s Sorel fell under the influence of Marxism and admired a philosophy which he considered to be objective. But he was quickly caught up in the Dreyfus Affair and with the movement which sought to put right the injustice which had been committed in imprisoning a Jewish army officer, Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, as a spy. This led him to proceed to a revision of Marxism and reappraise socialism in terms of action.

In Sorel's two most famous works, Reflections on Violence and The Illusions of Progress (both 1908), he expressed his scorn for the bourgeoisie and for bourgeois values. He believed that the proletariat was now ready to seize power, not through Socialist politicians or parliamentary and trade union politics, since these were a part of bourgeois deceit and decadence, but through the general strike. However, they would have to isolate themselves, indulge in class war, and engage in physical clashes with employers and with the state authorities. In this way the workers would become pure and heroic, would be held together by their struggle, and would found a new civilization.

Thus Sorel emphasized violence, emotion, and myth as the means of overthrowing the prevailing decadence and demoralization. On the type of society which would emerge after the general strike had made its break-through, Sorel was vague. But he believed that once the organized workers had succeeded, their cohesion and enthusiasm would engender further cooperation and progress.

Before 1914 Sorel became interested in the movement of monarchist nationalism; he admired Lenin; and he made some equivocal references to Benito Mussolini, who came to power within a few weeks of Sorel's death.

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Further Reading on Georges Sorel

Studies of Sorel include Richard D. Humphrey, Georges Sorel: Prophet without Honor (1951); James H. Meisel, The Genesis of Georges Sorel (1951); and Irving L. Horowitz, Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason: The Social Theories of Georges Sorel (1961). Also useful is H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (1958).

Additional Biography Sources

Meisel, James Hans, The genesis of Georges Sorel: an account of his formative period, followed by a study of his influence, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982, 1951.

Portis, Larry, Georges Sorel, London: Pluto Press, 1980.