Imagining the Worker’s Revolution: The Case of Georges Sorel

By Eric Brandom

By the end of the 19th century, Marx’s legacy was attached to political parties that sought to win power democratically, indeed that to a great degree identified revolution with the electoral victory of socialist parties. Many anarchists militated for a competing purely negative vision of revolution—only the destruction of the state, capitalism, and doubtless much else would bring about a new and better world. Georges Sorel’s syndicalism was different yet again. His was not a conservative revolution, but a revolution that would conserve.

Portrait of Georges Sorel.
Georges Sorel, 1847-1922

This idea is articulated in Sorel’s 1898 pamphlet, “L’Avenir socialiste des syndicats,” which, if we keep in mind that the fin-de-siècle French “syndicat” is a more open and flexible institution than 20th century trade unions, we can call “The Socialist Future of the Unions.” Sorel retired in 1892 from a successful career as civil engineer, moved to Paris, and soon became one of the most respected Marxist theorists in France. His writings cover a staggering range, from ancient history to William James. He described his own work as “philosophical history” in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville; he is often, perhaps dismissively, called a moralist. Sorel is still best remembered for his Reflections on Violence, published in book form in 1908, primarily because this book found a much greater echo on the so-called Right than it did on the Left from which it was written. Without dismissing the importance of this later text as an inspiration for those who wished to be neither Right nor Left, it is worth our time to look more closely at the logic and resources Sorel employed in this earlier intervention. Indeed, when the time came in the fall of 1922 to write obituaries for Sorel, the most thoughtful and balanced of them suggested that “L’Avenir” shaped Sorel’s legacy as much as the Reflections. This was perhaps because “L’Avenir,” while not exactly a work of vulgarization, nonetheless has a clearer argument than most of Sorel’s writing, expressed lucidly in the final line of the text: “the whole future of socialism rests in the autonomous development of the worker syndicats” (60).

Title page of L'Avenir Socialiste des syndicats by George Sorel.

This slogan, to be sure, requires some explanation. The place to begin is with Sorel’s interpretation of historical materialism. By this date he had been reading and arguing with Marxist figures like Karl Kautsky, Antonio Labriola, and the young Benedetto Croce, and also confronting Marx with non-Marxist thinkers, most notably Giambattista Vico and Emile Durkheim. Here, though, Sorel draws all of this into the claim that historical materialism, while certainly demanding close attention to economics, means most deeply that “the development of each system provides the material conditions to undertake effective and durable changes in the social relations within which it [the system] was transformed” (3). Or, in less tortured language, that “the working classes will have acquired juridical and political capacity before they are able to triumph” (4). Jacques Julliard has suggested seeing this pair of assertions as an attempt to combine Marx with Proudhon, although the term “capacité” might also point back, for instance, to Guizot’s liberalism. Already, for Sorel, attention must be paid to the internal development of the proletarian institution. We have here not a totality riven by internal contradictions, as later Marxists would perhaps frame it, but institutions that develop according to their own logics.

We cannot know what form economic crisis will take, or when revolution will erupt, or even what form it will take—but we can gauge preparation. Sorel does “not think that the social revolution will look like a scene from the Apocalypse” (38), because the main foreseeable content of the revolution, in good Marxist terms, is that the proletariat will seize control of the productive capacity of modern industry. This does not mean that the proletariat will step into bourgeois roles, but it does mean that it is possible in principle to judge, in the present, whether or not the working classes have the capacity to run the machines of industry without the bourgeoisie. And here Sorel means literally the machines. Technical knowledge is required, of course, but there is every reason to believe that the working classes already possess it to great degree, or can learn. Sorel rails against the cult of science, scientism, which he regards as essentially a screen for class domination and a ploy of the intellectuals, who understand as a class that they will be rendered largely superfluous by the revolution—they may be offered jobs by the proletariat, but can have no directive role in its activities. The intellectuals—Kautsky’s Intelligenz—are a natural enemy of the proletariat because they will experience the revolution as an enormous lock-out.

So the workers must organize themselves. Echoing Durkheim’s terms, Sorel writes that “to organize is not simply to put machinery up on boxes! Organization is the passage from a mechanical, blind, externally imposed order to organic, intelligent, and full accepted differentiation; in a word, it is moral development.” Such development must be the result of long practical experience: “All institutions shape themselves in the same way; they are not the result of decisions made by great statesmen, nor the calculations of scientists; they make themselves in embracing and condensing all the elements of life. What would allow the proletariat to avoid the necessity of making itself in this way?” (36-37). The contrast Sorel draws here is with socialist parties beginning to experience some measure of success on the electoral level and perhaps too willing to claim that a socialist majority in the chamber of deputies would simply equal the revolution.

Indeed the late 1890s was a moment of debate within socialism about the relationship between “economic” labor organizing and “political” action through electorally-oriented parties. The French delegation to the London Congress of 1896 had split over whether or not political, which is to say electoral, action was a necessary element of socialist activity. In this pamphlet, far from the meeting hall, Sorel presents something like a compromise vision. He does not reject political action—at this point Sorel expresses no hesitation about social legislation improving the lives of the working classes—but he also refuses to make elections the priority. In principle, “to reduce the syndicats to being no more than resistance societies [des sociétés de résistance] is to put a formidable barrier in the way of the development of the proletariat…it is…to refuse it the possibility of becoming a class for itself.” (35-36). The syndicats have a socialist future—they are the future of socialism, because proletarian civilization is simply the full and free development of the new forms of sociability with which the workers surround and manage productive labor. This new civilization would be, Sorel argued, egalitarian, but would not ape the forms of bourgeois democracy. Hierarchy would be task-based, constrained, temporary.

“L’Avenir” is a crucial resource for understanding Sorel’s trajectory across the political field of the pre-WW1 years. But even without that context, we ought to consider carefully the attempt Sorel made to follow the development of proletarian institutions within democracy. The first step is to measure the distance between his moment and what might be ours. Perhaps most immediate is Taylorism. Patrick Gaud has argued that Sorel’s Marxism, and therefore his interpretation of the potentialities of the labor movement, was deeply marked by a French economy that was, in important ways, “behind” the English and Germans. Certainly, Sorel speaks as though he is well aware of the gap between craft labor, for instance, and the mass worker. But it is also true that Taylor’s innovations in labor control would decisively shift the terms of debate—it is not too much to say that it is Taylor, as much as the war, that stands between Sorel and Gramsci or Trotsky.

The revolution that Sorel had in mind was neither the “grand soir” of the anarchists nor the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat. Today, when hardheaded thinking about the conditions of possibility for autonomy takes place, subsistence agriculture is at least for some an imaginative horizon. For one influential group, in fact, “the factory system is not the kernel of a future society, but a machine producing no-future.” Like Marx, Sorel had enormous appreciation for certain achievements of industrial capitalism. The workers, Sorel believed, could have the industry without the capitalism, but only if they could, in fact, run the factories better than the capitalists themselves. This was not implausible, since he believed that the real creativity rested with the workers and that management tended to be parasitical. For Sorel, the factories, the technology of production, was a window into a future of substantive autonomy and practical egalitarianism, at once the fulfillment and the overcoming of liberalism. It was an idea of revolution that would not survive the early 20th century primarily because it rested on the foundation of a liberal state that was, even as Sorel wrote, already in the process of becoming something quite different. The transformations of state structures sometimes called neoliberalism open the way, it seems to me, to a reconsideration of this once obsolete moment.

Eric Brandom is a James Carey Fellow in the History Department at Kansas State University and is at work on a book, Autonomy and Violence, Georges Sorel and the Problem of Liberalism. He is a contributing editor at JHIblog, and tweets at @ebrandom.

Suggested Readings

The resurgence of French interest in Sorel in the 1980s is best represented, but certainly not exhausted, by the collections of essays edited by Michel Charzat and by Jacques Julliard and Shlomo Sand. In English, the works of Jeremy Jennings and John Stanley are standard. For the state of scholarship on Sorel in French, see the 2014 Mil-neuf-cent, formerly the Cahiers Georges Sorel. Despite its age, Isaiah Berlin’s 1970 essay on Sorel, republished in Against the Current, remains an excellent starting place.

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