Reflections on Violence

PDF EBook by Georges Sorel

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(131k words; download; 3h; WP) Prompted by my old lack of understanding of China Miéville's Iron Council, and an interesting mention in Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:

This was, it appears, because he identified anarchism mainly with the figure of Georges Sorel, an apparently quite personally distasteful French anarcho- PDFsyndicalist and anti-Semite, now mainly famous for his essay Reflections sur le Violence. Reflections on Violence PDF EBook Sorel argued that since the masses were not fundamentally good or rational, it was foolish to make one's primary appeal to them through reasoned arguments. Politics is the art of inspiring others with great myths. For revolutionaries, he proposed the myth of an apocalyptic General Strike, a moment of total transformation. To maintain it, he added, one would need a revolutionary elite capable of keeping the myth alive by their willingness to engage in symbolic acts of violence - an elite which, like the Marxist vanguard party (often somewhat less symbolic in its violence), Mauss described as a kind of perpetual conspiracy, a modern version of the secret political men's societies of the ancient world. In other words, Mauss saw Sorel, and hence anarchism, as introducing an element of the irrational, of violence, and of vanguardism. It might seem a bit odd that among French revolutionaries of the time, it should have been the trade unionist emphasizing the power of myth, and the anthropologist objecting, but in the context of the '20s and '30s, with fascist stirrings everywhere, it's understandable why a European radical - especially a Jewish one - might see all this as just a little creepy. Creepy enough to throw cold water even on the otherwise rather appealing image of the General Strike - which is after all about the least violent possible way to imagine an apocalyptic revolution. By the '40s, Mauss concluded his suspicions had proved altogether justified.

I decided to check the book out.

It turns out to be an indigestible rambling mass of venomous ranting, insults, airy abstractions, and endless picayune detail about French politics that must have been exhausting even at the time, adding up to less than its sum, and of minimal value now. As I went through, expectations deflating, I slowly realized what Sorel was: he was that most pitiable of things - an aging crank (civil) engineer. Engineers and doctors, technicians who overrate their expertise, seem particularly prone to falling into strong ideologies, having strong opinions on any and everything, and excoriating everyone as failures & sellouts, particularly anyone who ever accomplished anything. (Sorel's enmity towards Jaures is breathtaking & it is not far from the truth to say that he belittles Jaures on every other page.) That he is French and of a century ago makes no difference - his type is instantly recognizable.

The core argument about the general strike & myths can be condensed down into a paragraph, it seems (as Graeber has done, and saved me the trouble of reading the whole book, if only I had known), and Sorel can provide little more evidence for it than mention some other movements benefited from ideology and fanaticism (early Christianity, the French Revolution, reunification of Italy), and try to go on and justify thuggery and violence in the pursuit of one's ends. The mountain gave birth to a mouse: did anyone really need to be told that propaganda and dreams are useful to movements? Is that why Sorel is supposed to be so important? It is an apt demonstration of the worthlessness of most Marxist thought if that's true. The discussion of violence is obscure and particularly ironic given his own denunciations of the 'utopians' and noting that disaster would surely have resulted - as indeed they have - and his faith in abstraction ('the people', whoever that is) and disinterest in 'the day after' baffling. If one is going to waste good time reading this book, drink it down to the dregs and be sure to read "Appendix III: In defence of Lenin", where he fawns over Lenin and the Russian Revolution and his own possible assistance. Indeed, the USSR did prove the value of myths and violence in propagandizing the masses and helping starve millions of people to death or sending them to the gulag. ("But comrade, anarchism has never been truly tried!" Shut the hell up.)

There are few books I can say are all of boring, worthless, and evil; Reflections on Violence is one of them. Like this book? Read online this: Genocide and Mass Violence, His Reflections.

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