Georges Sorel

Georges Sorel

Georges Eugène Sorel (2 November, 1847 – 29 August, 1922) was a French philosopher and theorist of revolutionary syndicalism.


Sorel was born in Cherbourg, son of a bankrupted wine merchant. He studied in the École Polytechnique in Paris. He became chief engineer with the Department of Public Works and retired in 1892. He was active on the side of Dreyfusards during the Dreyfus Affair.

Sorel had ties of friendship to Antonio Labriola and wrote a preface to the French translation of Labriola's "Essays on the Materialist Conception of History". Although Labriola attacked Sorel's work, his books were praised by other Italian thinkers such as Vilfredo Pareto and Benedetto Croce, and he had links to the Italian nationalist-syndicalist movement from which Fascism branched.


Sorel had been politically monarchist and traditionalist before embracing orthodox Marxism in the 1890s, but throughout his career continued to espouse values more commonly associated with conservatism. In his earliest writings he attempted to fill in what he believed were gaps in Marxist theory, but ultimately created an extremely heterodox variation of the ideology. He criticised what he saw as Marx's rationalist and utopian tendencies, believing them to be out of keeping with the pessimistic and irrationalist core of Marxism - a philosophy he considered closer in spirit to early Christianity than to the French Revolution. He rejected Marxist theories of historical materialism, dialectical materialism, and proletarian internationalism. He did not see Marxism as 'true' in a scientific sense, as orthodox Marxists did; rather, it was 'true' in that it promised a redemptive role for the proletariat within a terminally decadent society.

Sorel came to favour the anarcho-collectivism of Bakunin. Like Proudhon, he saw socialism as primarily a moral question. He was also heavily influenced by Henri Bergson who developed the importance of myth and criticized scientific materialism, by the cult of greatness and hatred of mediocrity found in Nietzsche, and by the ability to recognise the potential corruption of democracy found in liberal conservatives such as Tocqueville, Taine and Renan. Despite his disdain for social democracy, Sorel also held great respect for Eduard Bernstein, and agreed with many of his criticisms of orthodox Marxism.

Sorel's was a voluntarist Marxism: he rejected those Marxists who believed in inevitable and evolutionary change, emphasising instead the importance of will and preferring direct action. These approaches included general strikes, boycotts, sabotage, and constant disruption of capitalism with the goal being to achieve worker control over the means of production. Sorel's belief in the need for a deliberately-conceived "myth" to sway crowds into concerted action was put into practice by mass fascist movements in the 1920s. The epistemic status of the idea of "myth" is of some importance, and is essentially that of a working hypothesis, with one fundamental peculiarity: it is an hypothesis which we do not judge by its closeness to a "Truth", but by the practical consequences which stem from it. Thus, whether a political myth is of some importance or not must be decided, in Sorel's view, on the basis of its capacity to mobilize human beings into political action; the only possible way for men to ascend to an ethical life filled by the character of the sublime and to achieve deliverance. Sorel believed the "energizing myth" of the general strike would serve to enforce solidarity, class consciousness and revolutionary élan amongst the working-class. The "myth" that the Fascists would appeal to, however, was that of the state.

He echoed the Jacobin tradition in French society that held that the only way for change to occur was through the application of force. Sorel praised Charles Maurras, Action Française, Lenin and Mussolini for attacking bourgeois democracy. At the time of his death, in Boulogne sur Seine, he had an ambivalent attitude both towards Fascism and Bolshevism. Whether Sorel is better seen as a left-wing or right-wing thinker is disputed: the Italian Fascists praised him as a forefather, but the dictatorial government they established ran contrary to his beliefs, while he was also an important touchstone for Italy's first Communists, who saw Sorel as a theorist of the proletariat. Such widely divergent interpretations arise from the theory that a moral revival of the country must take place to re-establish itself; yet whether this revival must occur by means of the middle and upper classes or the proletariat is a point in question. His ideas, most notably the concept of a spontaneous general strike, have contributed significantly to anarchosyndicalism.

Sorel is an important component of the history of European politics in that his thought reflects the cross-fertilization (and even confusion) of ideas among anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, communists, Marxists and nationalists in the time period of about 1830-1930.

Sorel's Antiscience

As political theorist Isaiah Berlin has demonstrated, the French philosopher, Georges Sorel was clearly antiscientific.

Science is not reality

He dismissed science as "a system of idealised entities: atoms, electric charges, mass, energy and the like – fictions compounded out of observed uniformities…deliberately adapted to mathematical treatment that enable men to identify some of the furniture of the universe, and to predict and…control parts of it." [1; 301] He regarded science more as "an achievement of the creative imagination, not an accurate reproduction of the structure of reality, not a map, still less a picture, of what there was. Outside of this set of formulas, of imaginary entities and mathematical relationships in terms of which the system was constructed, there was ‘natural’ nature – the real thing…" [1; 302] He regarded such a view as "an odious insult to human dignity, a mockery of the proper ends of men," [1; 300] and ultimately constructed by "fanatical pedants," [1; 303] out of "abstractions into which men escape to avoid facing the chaos of reality." [1; 302]

Science is not nature

As far as Sorel was concerned, "nature is not a perfect machine, nor an exquisite organism, nor a rational system." [1; 302] He rejected the view that "the methods of natural science can explain and explain away ideas and values…or explain human conduct in mechanistic or biological terms, as the…blinkered adherents of la petite science believe." [1; 310] He also maintained that the categories we impose upon the world, "alter what we call reality…they do not establish timeless truths as the positivists maintained," [1; 302] and to "confuse our own constructions with eternal laws or divine decrees is one of the most fatal delusions of men." [1; 303] It is "ideological patter…bureaucracy, la petite science…the Tree of Knowledge has killed the Tree of Life…human life [has been reduced] to rules that seem to be based on objective truths." [1; 303] Such to Sorel, is the appalling arrogance of science, a vast deceit of the imagination, a view that conspires to "stifle the sense of common humanity and destroy human dignity." [1; 304]

Science is not a recipe

Science, he maintained, "is not a ‘mill’ into which you can drop any problem facing you, and which yields solutions," [1; 311] that are automatically true and authentic. Yet, this is precisely how too many people seem to regard it.

To Sorel, that is way "too much of a conceptual, ideological construction," [1; 312] smothering our perception of truth through the "stifling oppression of remorselessly tidy rational organisation." [1; 321] For Sorel, the inevitable "consequence of the modern scientific movement and the application of scientific categories and methods to the behaviour of men," [1; 323] is an outburst of interest in irrational forces, religions, social unrest, criminality and deviance - resulting directly from an overzealous and monistic obsession with scientific rationalism.

And what science confers, "a moral grandeur, bureaucratic organisation of human lives in the light of…la petite science, positivist application of quasi-scientific rules to society – all this Sorel despised and hated," [1; 328] as so much self-delusion and nonsense that generates no good and nothing of lasting value. In essence, something of a Romantic like Blake, Sorel would say, "the artist creates as the bird sings on the bough, as the lily bursts into flower, to all appearance for no ulterior purpose." [2; 196]

Above quotations from:
* [1] Sir Isaiah Berlin, Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, London: Pimlico, 1997
* [2] Sir Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality - Studies in Ideas and Their History, London: Pimlico, 1996


* "Contribution à l'étude profane de la Bible" (Paris, 1889)
* "Le Procès de Socrate, Examen critique des thèses socratiques" (Paris: Alcan, 1889)
* "Fondements scientifiques de l'entendement" (Paris, 1893)
* "La Ruine du monde antique: Conception matérialiste de l'histoire" (Paris, 1898)
* "Questions de morale" (Paris, 1900)
* "Introduction à l'économie moderne" (Paris, 1903)
* "La crise de la pensée catholique" (Paris, 1903)
* "Le Système historique de Renan" (Paris, 1905-1906)
* "Les préoccupations métaphysiques des physiciens modernes" (Paris, 1907)
* "La Décomposition du Marxisme" (Paris, 1908); translation as "The Decomposition of Marxism" by Irving Louis Horowitz in his "Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason; The Social Theories of Georges Sorel" (Humanities Press, 1961; Southern Illinois University Press, 1968).
* "Les illusions du progrès" (1908); Translated as "The Illusions of Progress" by John and Charlotte Stanley with a foreword by Robert A. Nisbet and an introduction by John Stanley (University of California Press, 1969, ISBN 0-520-02256-4)
* "Réflexions sur la violence" (1908); translated as "Reflections on Violence" first authorised translation by T. E. Hulme (B. W. Huebsch, 1914; P. Smith, 1941; AMS Press, 1975, ISBN 0-404-56165-9); in an unabridged republication with an introduction by Edward A. Shils, translated by T.E. Hulme and J. Roth (The Free Press, 1950; Dover Publications, 2004, ISBN 0-486-43707-8, pbk.); edited by Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-521-55117-X, hb)
* "La révolution dreyfusienne" (Paris, 1909)
* "Matériaux d'une théorie du prolétariat" (Paris, 1919)
* "De l'utilité du pragmatisme" (Paris, 1921)
* "Lettres à Paul Delesalle 1914-1921" (Paris, 1947)
* "D'Aristotle à Marx (L'Ancienne et la nouvelle métaphysique)" (Paris: Marcel Rivière, 1935)
* "From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy" edited with an introduction by John L. Stanley, translated by John and Charlotte Stanley (Oxford University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-19-501715-3; Transaction Books, 1987, ISBN 0-88738-654-7, pbk.).
* "From Georges Sorel: Volume 2, Hermeneutics and the Sciences" edited by John L. Stanley, translated by John and Charlotte Stanley (Transaction Publishers, 1990, ISBN 0-88738-304-1).
* "Commitment and Change: Georges Sorel and the idea of revolution" essay and translations by Richard Vernon (University of Toronto Press, 1978, ISBN 0-8020-5400-5)
* "Social foundations of contemporary economics" translated with an introduction by John L. Stanley from "Insegnamenti sociali dell'economia contemporanea" (Transaction Books, 1984, ISBN 0-87855-482-3, cloth)


* "Georges Sorel and the sociology of virtue" by Arthur L. Greil (University Press of America, 1981, ISBN 0-8191-1988-1, ISBN 0-8191-1989-X pbk.)
* "Georges Sorel, Prophet without Honor; A study in anti-intellectualism" by Richard D. Humphrey (Harvard University Press, 1951)
* "Georges Sorel: The Character and Development of his Thought" by J.R. Jennings; foreword by Theodore Zeldin (St. Martin's Press, 1985, ISBN 0-312-32458-8)
* "The Genesis of Georges Sorel : an account of his formative period, followed by a study of his influence" by James H. Meisel (G. Wahr Pub. Co., 1951; Greenwood Press, 1982, ISBN 0-313-23658-5)
* "Georges Sorel" by Larry Portis (Pluto Press, 1980, ISBN 0-86104-303-0, pbk.)
* "The Cult of Violence : Sorel and the Sorelians" by Jack J. Roth (University of California Press, 1980, ISBN 0-520-03772-3
* "Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason: The Social Theories of Georges Sorel" by Irving Louis Horowitz. With a translation of his essay on The decomposition of Marxism (Humanities Press, 1961). A later edition contains a preface relating Sorel's theories to American thought in the 1960's (Southern Illinois University Press, 1968).
* "Three against the Third Republic : Sorel, Barrès, and Maurras" by Michael Curtis (Princeton University Press, 1959; Greenwood Press, 1976, ISBN 0-8371-9048-7)
* "The Birth of Fascist Ideology" by Zeev Sternhell with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, (Princeton University Press, 1994; ISBN 0-691-03289-0), esp. Chapter 1: Georges Sorel and the Antimaterialist Revision of Marxism
* "Biographical Dictionary of the Extreme Right Since 1890" edited by Philip Rees, (Simon & Schuster, 1991, ISBN 0-13-089301-3)
* "Main Currents of Marxism, vol. 2: The Golden Age" by Leszek Kolakowski (Oxford University Press, 1978)
* Berlin, Isaiah, Georges Sorel, in "Against The Current: Essays in the History of Ideas", London: Pimlico, 1997
* "L'illusion du politique. Georges Sorel et le débat 1900", by Shlomo Sand, Paris, La Découverte, 1984.
* "Georges Sorel en son temps", by Jacques Julliard, Shlomo Sand (eds.), Paris, Le Seuil, 1985,
* "Georges Sorel", Cahiers de l'Herne, 1986.
* "Naissance du mythe moderne. Georges Sorel et la crise de la pensée savante (1889-1914)", by Willy Gianinazzi, Paris, Ed. de la Maison des sciences de l'Homme, 2006.
* "Georges Sorel. Het einde van een mythe" by Jacques de Kadt,1938.
* "Propos de Georges Sorel recueillis par Jean Variot", Paris, Gallimard, 1935

See also

*Charter of Amiens (1906), a cornerstone of French workers' movement

External links

* [ Georges Eugène Sorel, 1847-1922]
* [ "Cahiers Georges Sorel"-"Mil neuf cent. Revue d'histoire intellectuelle"]

NAME = Sorel, Georges
SHORT DESCRIPTION = French political theorist
DATE OF BIRTH = 2 November 1847
PLACE OF BIRTH = Cherbourg-Octeville, France
DATE OF DEATH = 29 August 1922

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