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Socialism and Myth

Socialism and Myth: The Case
of Sorel and Bergson
Ma/co/m Vout and Lawrence Wi/de

Georges Sorel (1847-1922) continues to exert a fascination
for some radicals, as recent books and articles indicate
[1]. This attraction is perhaps understandable, but in our
view mistaken. It stems from his support for revolutionary
syndicalism and his notion of the myth of the general
strike, energetically expressed in Refle<;tions on
Violence, by far his most popular work [2]. It is
understandable because Reflections provides an
alternative to both the reformist and vanguardist forms of
socialist politics, which have apparently failed to realise
democratic socialist aspirations in Europe. Sorel's
virulent hatred of centralised state authority, and his
condemnation of socialists' acceptance of it strikes a
chord among those favouring radical decentralisation and
a maximisation of autonomy. His unrestrained contempt for
the bourgeoisie may appeal to those seeking a responsible
subject to hold to account in the face of the injustices of
contemporary society. His rejection of all forms of
compromise appears to represent a refreshing defence of
principle in the 'struggle for socialism. His attempt to
free Marx from rigid, deterministic interpretations was
original and at times insightful. In addition, in The
Illusions of Progress, written in the same period m, Sorel
produces a powerful criticism of the over-confidence and
absurdity of Enlightenment rationalism which anticipates
some of the themes taken up by the Frankfurt School,
particularly by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of

However, we would like to point out the weaknesses
and dangers inherent in Sorel’s outlook, which owes much
to the philosophy of Henri Bergson 0859-1941} and which
should be understood as part of what has been called the
‘anti-intellectualist wave which broke out over Western
philosophy towards the end of the last century’ [4]. Antiintellectualism rebelled against the mechanistic,
Newtonian cosmology which believed in the machine-like
regularity of nature, against Kantian philosophy,
Darwinian biology, and the cultural authority of inductive
sciences. Interest in psychical research, mystical
experience, and the unconscious are also expressions of
anti-intellectualist approaches during this period. This
perspective was not a singular, identifiable intellectual
movement in the history of European ideas, but a diverse
range of attitudes and beliefs which attacked
metaphysical causality and mechanical determinism in
science and philosophy, in order to reconstitute and
revitalise the relationship between philosophy and
science. It pictured the universe as a more fluid place
than mechanical determinists would have us believe, and
it advanced the use of concepts such as instinct, intuition,
impulse and feeling in discussions of the structure and
changing nature of human society.


In philosophy, Bergson was a key figure in this
somewhat disjointed network; in 1900 he was appointed to
the Chair of Greek Philosophy at the College de France,
and in 1904 he succeeded Gabr iel Tarde to the Chair of
Modern Philosophy. Stuart Hughes has described his

Bergson’s lectures became major events. Tourists
and society ladies flocked to them, as to one of the
sights of the capital… People left the auditorium
with a sense of liberation. They felt uplifted in the
spirit as in the mind. Of all the intellectual
innovators of the 1890s, Bergson was the one with the
greatest charisma, the one whose direct personal
influence was the most compelling [5].

Sorel was a regular attender at these weekly lectures for
a number of years from 1900. He consider~d Bergson to be
a ‘genius’ [6], and his explicit acknowledgements of
Bergson’s ideas in Reflections and Illusions indicate the
strength of the influence. It was Bergson’s early works,
Time and Free Will (1899), ~atter and ~emory (1896), and
An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903), which made their
impression on Sorel. Bergson’s famous work, Creative
Evolution, appeared in 1907, the year after the
publication of the articles by Sorel which later formed
the text of Reflections and Illusions. Sorel’s detailed
reaction to Creative Evolution has been discussed at
length in recent books by Stanley and Jennings, but they
pay only passing attention to the influence of Bergson’s
earlier pbilosophy on Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalism
[7], and we believe that this relationship warrants closer

We hope to make clear in our discussion the strength of
the influence of Bergson on Sorel during this period, but it
would be quite wrong to suggest that his was the only
influence. Sorel’s eclecticism is well known, and he
made no secret of his enthusiasms. The moralism evident
in his earliest works owes much to Proudhon, as does the
disdain for the state and representative institutions in
general, and these convictions are evident throughout the
various political allegiances which he made. We shall
try to show that Sorel’s rejection of a ‘scientism’ which
sought to reduce our understanding of the human world to
a set of objective facts owes much to Bergson and is vital
for our understanding of the nature (and dangers) of his
support for revolutionary syndicalism, but there is no
doubt that Sorel’s reading of Vico is also important in this
respect [8]. Certainly this movement away from the view
that one could scientifically ‘know’ the world represents
a change of heart from his earlier enthusiastic embrace of
Marx’s ‘science’ in the early 18905, and Sorel’s use of
Marx in the revolutionary syndicalist phase has nothing to

do with Marxian method, despite that shared emphasis on
the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. Vico’s concept
of ricorso or moral renewal is used by Sorel in two essays
supportive of revolutionary syndicalism which appeared
before Reflections, the preface to Fernand Pelloutier’s
Histoire des Bourses du Travail (1902) and ‘Revolutionary
Syndicalism’ (1905). Trl the latter Sorel suggests that
r’icorso occurs when ‘the popular mind returns to primitive
states, when everything in society is instinctive, creative
and poetic’ [9]. This appeal for instinct, creativity and
poetry is also resonant of the philosophy of Bergson, for
whom poetry attained a ‘fuller view of reality’ by means
of ‘so powerful an effort of inner observation’ [10].

Revolutionary Syndicalism
We would like to discuss Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalist
period in terms of its negative and positive aspects. By
‘negative’ we mean Sorel’s raging antipathies to the state,
to democracy, and to parliamentary socialism. Sore I
associated democracy with the prevailing rationalism in
philosophy, claiming that the reverence for science
engendered in education and the media had an ideological
effect, and speaking of the ‘barbaric illusions which
democratic rationalism spreads among workers in the
magical role which the people attribute to science’ [11].

He argues that advances in the natural sciences and in
mathematics had encouraged a general confidence in the
idea of a lineal progress of society, and in The Illusions
of Progress he cites examples in the fields OTlaw,
education and administration where attempts were
constantly being made to apply analytical techniques
which he considered appropriate only to the non-social
sciences. This confident rationalism, dating from the 18th
century and flourishing after the great French Revolution,
generated the illusion of progress and concealed the
reality of a society in decline.

Sorel was not against ‘science’ ~ se, but merely
opposed to its misuse. Science, he claimed, ‘permits us to
avoid a lot of errors but creation is not within its
competence’ [12]. The democratic era, which ‘systematised
certain methods’ but which ‘invented nothing’ [13],
demonstrated corruption and mediocrity. Above all it was
hypocritical, for it held out the possibility for each
individual to better himself, but only in order to preserve
the superiority of the bourgeoisie, who, through their
control over the educational system, cultivated a
deferential attitude among the workers [14]. Sorel was
embittered by the various false conceptions of social life
which had developed from the Enlightenment period in the
name of rationalism, and his venom was directed at its
beneficiaries, the bourgeoiSie, and their political system
of control, democracy.

Sorel denounced parliamentary socialism for being
statist, hypocritical, and potentially repressive; its
leaders accepted the declarations of Marx and Engels
that the state should be abolished, but in practice they
were thoroughly statist [15]. He maintained that state
socialism led to ‘rule by a demagogic oligarchy,
oppressing the producer to the profit of political cliques’

[16], and he advised Marxists to battle against state
socialism ‘much more than against capitalism’ [17]. At
this time revolutionary syndicalism dominated in the
syndicats, loosely organised combinations of workers
unencumbered by the hierarchical bureaucratic
organisations of the parliamentary socialists. For Sorel,
this movement represented a rejection of hypocrisy and
compromise, and gave an honest expression to class
antagonisms. It was not a movement on behalf of the
oppressed masses, it was their movement and must express
itself in a truly revolutionary way if it was to fire the
imaginations of its members. Sorel loathed professional
politicians of any hue, and he also despised ‘intellectuals
who have embraced the profession of thinking for the

proletariat’ [18], a criticism which he hopes to escape by
refraining from specifying the particular forms which the
revolutionary movement should take.

The Myth of the General Strike
Let us now look at the positive side of Sorel’s
revolutionary syndicalism, in which he looks at the forces
present in the movement which offer it the chance to
succeed. The loose organisation of the syndicats enabled
the movement to resist the ‘pull’ of statism and
compromise, but Sorel was not much interested in the form
of the movement. His chief concern was with the
consciousness of the movement, and here his concept of
‘myth’ comes into its own. A myth provides ‘a body of
images capable of evoking instinctively all the sentiments
which correspond to the different manifestations of the
war undertaken by Socialism against modern society’ [19].

Sorel is not talking here of a myth as a distortion of truth,
but rather as a vehicle for realising aspirations, however
vague or unrealistic they might be. The power of the myth
lies in its ability to revivify society, ‘to produce an
entirely epic state of mind’, as the closing passages of
Reflections make clear [20].

The myth of the general strike constitutes an ‘undivided
whole’ [21] and is therefore not susceptible to an analysis
which would divide it into forms and stages, strategy and
tactics. Consequently, any attempt to specify details of
the general strike would vitiate the myth by depriving it
of its essential spontaneity. The general strike was the
ultimate weapon in the class struggle, and workers would
rally to it not in order to win concessions but in order to
throw off the burdens of exploitation and injustices which
they had suffered over many years. Sorel contends that
‘we hardly ever take action except When propelled by
memories often more vivid in our mind than immediate
reality’ (22rThe necessityotVagueness and the emphasis
on feeling rather than knowledge leaves us very short on
detail when considering the general strike, and Sorel has
nothing at all to say about the sort of social se~tlement
that might follow a successful revolutionary action ‘socialism is very obscure,’ he says, and the passage from
capitalism to socialism must be conceived ‘as a
catastrophe, the development of which baffles
description’ [23]. This is a frankly non-rationalist
approach, not simply in the sense that it emphasises the
power of non-rational forces, but in the sense that he
believes that reason alone is incapable of grasping this
revolutionary experience.



Sorel does make some comments about what the genera
strike ought not to be, and from these we can gather, a
blurred picture of the character of the movement he was
encouraging. He distinguishes the proletarian general
strike from the political general strike, to which it is
‘diametrically opposed’ [24]. Here his terminology
presents some difficulty, for the proletarian general
strike appears to be quintessentially political, in that it
strives for the wholesale destruction of existing power


relationships rather than seeking any short-term economic
gain. However, Sorel uses ‘political’ in the ‘statist’- sense
of negotiation and compromise about the allocation of
resources within existing power relationships.

Parl~amentary socialists might support a political strike
to wrest concessions from the government, or even to
replace the government with one more favourable to
improving the material conditions of the workers, but such
strategies were anathema to Sorel and the revolutionary

Referring to the major strike movements in Russia and
Belgium in 1905, Sorel diminished any momentary
successes by indicating that the concessions had in fact
suited the liberal politicians [25]. He was particularly
critical of the Belgian movement, which, in his opinion,
contained few syndicalists and was closely controlled by
the reformist Socialist Party. Sorel’s allusions show no
sound knowledge of events in either country, and it is
interesting to compare his vague, sketchy treatment with
Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘The Mass Strike, The Political Party
and the Trade Unions’, which was written in the same years
as Reflections. Her pamphlet contains a much fuller and
more knowledgeable analysis of events in Russia. She
shares some of Sorel’s enthusiasm for spontaneity, because
‘revolutions do not allow anyone to play the
schoolmaster with them’, but she also insists that the
political organisations of the labour movement would
have to intervene and play a leading role if the mass
strike was to succeed:

If, however, the direction of the mass strike in the
sense of command over its origin, and in the sense of
the calculating and reckoning of the cost is a matter
of the revolutionary period itself, the directing of
the mass strike becomes, in an altogether different
sense, the duty of social democracy and its leading
organs… The social democrats are called upon to
assume political leadership in the midst of the
revolutionary period [26].

It might well be remarked that Sorel had a more accurate
assessment of the non-revolutionary nature of German
Social Democracy than did Luxemburg, but his refusal to
contemplate any form of political intervention amounted
to ignoring the vital question of power.


Sore I was not interested in adapting the theoretical
framework enunciated by Marx in his 1859 Preface to ~
Contribution to the Critigue of Political Economy or in
the specific analyses contained in Capital. Sorel
recommends us ‘not to take the text literally’ but to
acknowledge that we are in the realm of ‘social myth’

[32]. At this point Sorel had to concede that Marx did not
consciously deal in myths, but ‘he was sometimes so
impassioned that this passion prevented him from viewing
reality clearly’ [33]. Sorel considered that the German
socialists had failed to perfect Marxism because of the
‘superstitious respect’ paid to ‘the mere text of its
doctrines’ [2=34], whereas it was the ‘symbolic portions’

which ‘constitute the definitive value of his work’ [35],
irrespective of Marx’s intentiqns. In generating the idea of
‘apocalypse’ the revolutionary syndicalists had ‘purged
Marxism of all that was not specifically Marxist’ and
thereby ‘assured the glory of Marx’ [36]. In the closing
pages of Decomposition Sorel reiterated his assertion that
the revolutionary movement can never follow a ‘predetermined direction’, and that everything about it must be
‘unpredictable’, citing Bergson in denouncing the utopian
‘illusion’ that we can anticipate the future by fuJly
understanding the present [37].

Sorel’s recruitment of Marx to the banner of
revolutionary syndicalism is certainly not at the level of
method, but rather at the level of passion and fury – the
spectre of Marx.

Sorel’s Marx
Sorel enlisted Marx’s name to support the myths sustaining
revolutionary syndicalism, devoting a section of
Reflections to try to show that ‘there is a fundamental
identi ty between the chief tenets of Marxism and the
coordinated aspects furnished by the picture of the
general strike’ [27]. Sorel admires the emphasis on class
struggle, the view that the emancipation of the
proletariat must be achieved by the proletariat itself, and
the rejection of the state. In Reflections and another
book written in the same period, The Decomposition of
Marxism, he fired broadsides at those who claimed to
represent the true Marxian heritage by acting either as
reformists or advocates of state socialism. He rejected
utopianism as based on intellectual fantasies rather than
the class struggle [28], and as guilty of avoiding the truly
‘terrible’ nature of the forthcoming revolution· [29]. He
also rejected the idea of a vanguard party, which he
associated with Blanqui, on the grounds that it might
operate without a genuinely mass movement and would
inevitably lead to a new form of statism [30]. Although
he cited Marx and Engels in support of his anti-statism,
Sorel failed to mention their conviction that a
transitional state would be necessary, and this omission
typifies his determined avoidance of the question of a
revolutionary political settlement. Revolutionary
syndicalism, the ‘new school’ [31], was the only movement
which could claim to be implacably revolutionary, based
on the class struggle, opposed to any form of the state,
and so loosely organised that it could not be called a


8ergson’s Anti-Rationalism
If we want to understand the distinctive elements of
Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalism – and also understand
its dangers – we must look to Sorel’s use of Bergson’s
early philosophy. Two key areas of Sorel’s apocalyptic
doctrine bear the imprint of Bergson’s philosophy of
intuition: first, the rejection of analysis in the
development of the revolutionary movement; second, the
idea of social myths which will contribute decisively to
spiritual rebirth in France, led by the proletariat. What
we have is an attempt to make a social application of the
philosophy of intuitionism, an attempt which Bergson
neither encouraged nor repudiated. While Sorel
maintained his appreciation of Bergson’s work, despite
some criticisms of the latter’s views on labour and science
contained in Creative Evolution [38], Bergson was more
circumspect in his attitude towards Sorel. He
acknowledged that Sorel had a thorough knowledge of his
work and had not distorted it in any way, but he denied any
responsibility for the products of Sorel’s ‘independent’ and
‘original’ mind [39]. He also claimed that there was
nothing revolutionary or syndicalist in his philosophy,
adding that he was satisfied that Sorel had never made
such a claim [40]. Bergson’s philosophy contained no
social theory, but the immense acclaim which his
philosophy received encouraged some sort of social
application, and it supplied Sorel with the inspiration and
confidence to make such an attempt.

Bergson’s intention was to direct our attention away
from the prison of analysis and scientific rationality. He
aimed to reconstruct the separation between metaphysics
and science typical of enlightenment philosophy in terms
of a ‘spiritual realism’. His philosophy, which defies
categorisation by conventional labels such as ’empiricist’,
‘idealist’, or ‘positivist’, requires the examination of
knowledge in relation to the hidden, inner reality of
human consciousness. He attacks the extremist viewpoints
of materialism and idealism, which generate only barren
scholastic debates, and seeks to replace these abstract
divisions of inquiry and understanding with a philosophical
perspective in line with the vital, changing nature of
human personality and consciousness. He wanted to
reconstruct our image of philosophy itself so as to
reconstitute rather than overthrow the existing
dichotomies between science and metaphysics, space and
time, matter and spirit. Bergson believed he had
discovered a new mediation, an alternative intellectual
compromise between rationalism and romanticism, which
was not transcendental, but realistically based upon a
common sense, simple act of intuition. Mobility, fluidity,
and continual flux are the essential features of this
common sense, felt reality, and they can be identified and
understood through the indivisible realm of metaphysics
(philosophy) rather than analysis (science).

The metaphysics promoted in Bergson’s writing dispenses
with symbols [41], and lets the reality of inner life ‘live’

in our consciousness, so that we ‘catch’ that sense of
mobility and flux which is a natural part of human
personality. This ‘inner reality’ has escaped the nets of
the dominant methods of Newtonian science, empiricist
philosophy, and psychology. However, it could be
understood and grasped through the reconstruction of
philosophy away from the artificial world of conceptual
representations – ‘to philosophise is to invert the habitual
work of thought’ [42]. The habitual, analytical
demarcations of science and metaphysics, space and time,
were illusory, and doomed to failure and mutual reproach:

Is it astonishing that, like children trying to catch
smoke by closing their hands, philosophers so often
see the object they would grasp fly before them? It
is in this way that many of the quarrels between
schools are perpetuated, each of them reproaching
the others with having allowed the real to slip away

Bergson’s distrust of schools of thought and his scepticism
towards the apparently universal appeal of analysis was
based on a belief that the history of modern philosophy
had shown a tendency to avoid the necessary fluid and
mobile features of human intellect and personality. He
dissociated himself from theories of mind and matter which
rely upon Newtonian physics, asserting that attempts to fix
our understanding of the world in terms of static
categories alone can lead to illusion and error. He
wished to overcome what has been described as the
‘Cartesian Anxiety’, namely, ‘that dread of madness and
chaos where nothing is fixed, where we can neither touch
bottom nor” support ourselves on the surface’ [44].

Sorel’s Bergson
We have seen that Sorel expressed a similar scepticism
towards the universal claims of the prevailing scientific
rationality in The Illusions of Progress. However, he went
beyond Bergson in seeing this prevailing rationality as
part of a wider socio-political ideology defending the
interests of the democrats, and asserted that it is this
political aspect which invokes such hostility to
alternative approaches, such as those of Bergson:

Today the idea that everything can be SUbjected to a
perfectly clear analysis is about as strong as it was
in Descartes’ time. If someone considers making a
protest against the illusions of rationalism, he is

immediately accused of being an enemy of
democracy. I have often heard people who pride
themselves on working for progress deplore the
teachings of Bergson and point to them as the
greatest danger confronting modern thought [45].

To reject the universal claims of rationalism without
reverting to romanticism; this was a project shared by
Bergson and Sorel, the former on the level of
metaphysics, the latter on the level of social theory.

Bergson is far more than a tootnote in Sorel’s history of
social myth expounded in Reflections on Violence. The
references to Bergson’s philosophy of intuition are central
and explicit, and the style is imbued with Bergsonian
traces. Sorel insists that the body of images which
comprise the myth can be produced by ‘intuition alone’, in
such a way that ‘the soul of the revolutionaries may
receive a deep and lasting impression’. The whole of
socialism is reduced to the drama of the general strike,
and this method ‘has all the advantages which “integral”
knowledge has over analysis, according to the doctrine of
Bergson’. Sorel considers that there could be no finer
example of Bergson’s views [46]. A few pages later on he
quotes Bergson in order to support his idea that a whole
body of thought, for example socialism, can be truly
grasped only if a myth acts as a catalyst; ‘true and
fruitful ideas are so many close contacts with currents of
reality’, and ‘we do not obtain an intuition from reality that is, an intellectual sympathy with the most intimate
part of it – unless we have won its confidence by a long
fellowship with its superficial manifestation’ [47]. This,
according to Sorel, was what the ‘new school’ of
revolutionary syndicalism had done, by being a movement
of the people rather than simply for the people. In the
introduction to Reflections, written in the form of a
letter to Daniel Halevy in July 1907, he approvingly
quotes Bergson’s idea of the rare moments of deep
introspection in which we achieve true freedom and ‘get
back into pure duration’. He then extends this idea to the
social realm, employing the concept of myth to describe
the moment when the masses are deeply moved, a
phenomenon equivalent to the ‘free act’ of Bergson’s
individual, and, furthermore, a phenomenon which is a
necessary prerequisite in the building of a socialist
movement. Without myths there will be nothing more than
a succession of revolts, and ‘this is what gives such
importance to the general strike and renders it so odious
to socialists who are afraid of a revolution’ [48].

We have seen that Bergson believed in an inner reality
beyond the grasp of analysis, and now we will try to put
some flesh on the bones of the Bergsonian concepts which
attracted Sorel’s interest – intuition, integral knowledge,
pure duration, and the free act. Let us first look at pure
duration, which Bergson introduced in Time and Free Will.

Pure duration is that form of consciousness in which our
ego refuses to organise perception in terms of spatial,
symbolic representation of phenomena. It is a feeling
similar to ‘the notes of a tune, melting so to speak into
one another’ [49], where the past and present are formed
into an ‘organic whole’. This ‘organic whole’ is the
‘integral knowledge’ referred to by Sorel. Duration
involves memory:

I cannot escape the objection that there is no state of
mind, however simple, which does not change every
moment, since there is no consciousness without
memory, and no continuation of a state without the
addition, to the present feeling, of the memory of
past moments. It is this which constitutes duration

Pure duration is the continuity of consciousness or memory
whereby the past survives into the present, not as tradition
but as reflexive consciousness, aware of the force of
intuition which is able to grasp violently the integral
experience of inner life. The task of the philosopher is to
encourage the mind to do itself ‘violence’ [51] in order to
set itself free from a kind of thinking which gives ‘a


mechanical explanation of a fact, and then substitutes the
explanation for the fact itself’ [52].

The doctrine of intuition celebrates the intellect which
can take possession of a constantly changing, mobile
reality outside the boundaries of analysis or the ordinary
functions of positive science. Bergson defines intuition as
‘the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places
oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is
unique in it’ [53]. Metaphysical intuition is the simple act
of seizing reality, but being prior to analysis it ‘is quite
other than the mere summary or synthesis of that
knowledge. ••• In this sense metaphysics has nothing in
common with a generalisation of facts; and nevertheless
might be described as integral experience’ [54].

Human action takes place in space and time and Bergson
considered that the legacy of Kantian philosophy and
scientific rationality involved considering time as a fourth
dimension of space, measurable and divided into equal
portions like the face of a clock. Consequently, ‘science
cannot deal with time and motion except on condition of
first eliminating the essential and qualitative element of time, duration, and of motion, mobility’ [55]. In spatial
form, consciousness can be ‘localised’ through symbolic
and conceptual differentiations which are, in effect,
diagrammatic representations of psychic states. This
approach failed to recognise that time is a wholly
qualitative medium objectively constituted through

Just as there are two conceptions of time, the spatial
conception and the qualitative conception (duration), so
there are two aspects of the human personality
appropriate to each. Bergson describes a self that needs
to separate, quantify, and organise; a consciousness
‘adapted to the requirements of social life in general and
language in particular’ [56], for language ‘makes us
believe in the unchangeableness of our sensations’ [57].

profession – and as a social commentator who considered
the methods of positive science wholly inappropriate to
understanding human life. Bergson was not reverting to
transcendental philosophy, for he believed that intuition
was part of a felt reality of everyday human experience,
that there was ‘nothing mysterious in this faculty’, and
that ‘everyone of us has had occasion to exercise it to a
certain extent’ [60]. Sorel, searching for moral renewal
on a national scale, saw the possibility of the proletariat
intuitively experiencing its class ‘soul’ by acting on the
myth of the general strike. For him, too, there was
nothing mysterious about such action, for it was a revolt
whose spontaneous power would be propelled by the vivid
memory of past oppression. We have seen that Bergson
viewed memory of the past as part of the present in
duration, and this theme is developed in Matter and
~emory, in which he declares that memory–rS”notslmplY a
mechanical process of ‘motor mechanisms’ but also a
psychical state of ‘independent recollections’ [61]. This
vivid form of memory was spontaneous and capricious [62]
and could not be summoned by will.

Bergson’s views on the ‘socialising’ effects of language
also leave their imprint on the revolutionary syndicalist
writings of Sorel, whose calls for a return to the
‘sublime’ and the ‘epic’, and whose stress on ‘violence’ and
‘catastrophe’ are intended to indicate a rupture in the
communication of ideas, just as Bergson had stated that the
mind must do itself violence in order to escape from the
imprisonment of orthodox thinking. In the 1908 conclusion
to The Illusions of Progress Sorel is sure that the ‘war’

which the proletariat should conduct against its master
will develop in it ‘noble sentiments that are today
completely lacking in the bourgeoisie’, and he exhorts the
sympathetic reader ‘to prevent bourgeois ideas from
coming to poison the rising class’ [63].

Sorel Today

He considers that language, which is stable and common,
covers over the fluid, inexpressible features of human
personality, and so directs and restricts our consciousness.

But there is also a fundamental self, lying below our
social self, existing through consciousness of duration,
grasped by the simple act of intuition. Intuition cannot be
derived from analysis [58]. It is the unconditioned, free
act which Sorel so admired. Bergson insists that the
social practical self and the intuitive self are dimensions
of the same human personality, reflecting the demarcation
and potential mediation between space and time, analysis
and intuition, science and free will. He demands that we
restore a psychological dimension to philosophy and
science, so that ‘a truly intuitive philosophy would
realise the much desired union of science and metaphysics’

[59]. The new science of metaphysics, both progressive and
indefinitely perfectible, does not dig tunnels beneath
reality, or construct elegant bridges over experience, but
positively, violently, dives into the moving stream of

Bergson’s philosophy of intuition does not reject
science, but reminds us of the limitations of its methods
and seeks to enrich it with metaphysics. This was well
suited to Sorel’s concerns as a scientist – an engineer by


As we indicated in our introduction, radicals. today may be
attracted to the Sorelian approach for a number of good
reasons, and certainly his demand for a rupture with
prevailing ideology anticipates concerns which remained
underdeveloped for decades after the period under review.

However, there is a danger in an approach which builds on
a philosophy of ‘spiritual realism’ and which seeks to
kindle a ‘social spiritualism’, and this lies in the
necessary vagueness about the effects of any action which
holds out the hope of moral renewal. For moral renewal
is Sorel’s overwhelming concern, rather than the social
relations of production of an alternative society. He is
consistent in rejecting the ‘democratic mediocrity’ of the
status ~, but such a rejection, based on the vague call
for moral resurgence, could come just as easily from the
extreme right as from the extreme left. In those passages
in which he makes his explicit references to Bergsonian
concepts he makes it clear that the specification of aims is
incompatible with the generation of the myth necessary to
accomplish the revivification of society. In this way he
makes a principle out of vagueness, and this opens the way
for the startling vacillation in his commitment to
political movements. By the time of the second edition of
The Illusions in 1910 he had already concluded that’ the
present time is not favourable to the idea of grandeur’,
and he advises sympathetic individuals to cultivate ‘the
most noble qualities of their souls’ [64].

The revolutionary wave had ebbed and left Sorel
stranded, and he began an association with the extreme
right in France which lasted until 1913 and saw him make
a number of nationalistic and anti-semitic contributions to
his journal, L’Independance [65]. This was followed by a
period of despair and inactivity until after the war, when
he became an enthusiastic publicist for the Bolsheviks,
who had awakened ‘the sentiment of the sublime’ in the
‘popular soul’ [66].

These shifts are explicable only when we understand
his overwhelming commitment to moral renewal as a
substitute for socialist politics. His appropriation of
Bergson led him to shun politics, in so far as politics
involved working out strategies and tactics based on
analyses, aiming for the conquest of state power with
clear ends in view. In this sense Sore I was not a political
theorist but rather a critic and a chiliastic agitator. What
Bergson and Sorel did was to create theories out of purely
negative criticism of existing methods and philosophies of
method [67]. Bergson sought to redirect our understanding
of the essential qualities of human exper ience to a higher,
aesthetic realm of contemplation, where intuition is
separate and superior to analysis. Sorel reaffirmed the

superiority of intuition over analysis and his frenzied
exhortations forbid serious consideration of the central
social questions. In celebration of the vital, the
passionate, and the ultimately unknowable, both writers
lose sight of the actual conditions in which these
experiences are lived. This blindness is dangerous because
it creates the possibility of the manipulation of passions,
and this is quite likely to be managed by demagogues
without reference to any specific social aims. Many of
Sorel’s supporters in France and Italy lent their support
to fascism [68], and perhaps this is the strongest testimony
to the dangers of the irrationalist approach to social







In particular, M. Charzat, Gerges Sorel et la Revolution au XXe
siecle (Hackette, Paris, 1977; L. Portis, ~eOrges Sorel (PlUto-Press,
London, 1980); R. Vernon, Introduction to R. Vernon (ed.>, Commitment
an~ Change: Georges Sorel and the Idea ~ Revolution (Universi””i’YOf
Toronto Press, Toronto, 1978); J. L. Stanley, !~ Sociology ~ Virtue:

The Political and Social Theories ~ Georges Sorel (University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1981); Conclusion, E. Laclau and C.

Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso, London, 1985), pp. 3742.

G. Sorel, Reflections on Violence, trans. T. E. Hulme and J. Roth
(Collier Macmillan, London, 1974). The original articles which
comprise the text were published in Le Mouvement Socialiste in 1906.

The first book version appeared in 1908,-and went to six subsequent

G. Sorel, The Illusions ~ Progress, trans J. and C. Stanley (University
of California Press, London, 1972). The original articles which
comprise the text were published in Le Mouvement Sociaiste in 1906
and, like Reflections, the first book verSion appearediill908.

W. B. Gallie, Pierce and Pragmatism (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1952),
p. 12.

1-1. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (Random House, New York,
1958), pp. 114-15.

G. Sorel, Preface (1913) to E. Berth’s Les Mefaits des Intellectuels
(Riviere, Paris, 1926), p. ii.

— – – J. R. Jennings, Georges Sorel: The Character and Development of His
Thought (Macmillan, London, 1983), pp. 139-42 and 134-35; Stanley,
~.£!.b pp. 133-52. Stanley writes: ‘Sorel did not follow Bergson
very far before deviating from his ideas’ (p. 66). It is this short but
eventful journey which concerns us in this paper.

See J. R. Jennings, ‘Sorel, Vico, and Marx’ in G. Tagliacozzo (ed.),
Vico and Marx: Affinities and Contrasts (Macmillan, London, 1983).

G~r~ ‘Revolutionary Syndicalism’ in R. Vernon, ~.£!.b p. 115.

H. Bergson, ‘Laughter’ in W. Sypher (ed.), ~omedy (Doubleday Anchor,
New York, 1956), p. 169.

G. Sorel, ‘D’un ecrivain proletaire’ in L’lndependance, March 1912, p.



Illusions, p. 27.

Ibid., pp. 63-64.

Reflections, pp. 86 and 121.

G. Sorel, Preface to S. Merlino, Formes ~ ~ du socialisme, in
Vernon, ~.£!.b pp. 91-92.

Illusions, p. 207n.

Reflections, p. 138 (the emphasis is Sorel’s).

Ibid., p. 127.

Ibid., pp. 248-49.

Ibid., p. 157 and p. 123n, where he relates it to Bergson’s theory of

G. Sorel, ‘The Decomposition of Marxism’ in I. L. Horowitz, Radicalism
and the Revolt Against Reason (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London,
1960, p. 242. The book first appeared in 1980, and is based on a
speech delivered in Paris in April 1907.

Reflections, p. 148.

Ibid., p. 155.

Ibid., pp. 1511-57.

In Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. M. A. Waters, trans. P. Lavin
(Pathfinder, New York, 1970), pp. 188-89.

Reflections, p. 129ff.

‘Decomposition’, p. 240.

Reflections, Introduction, part four. Utopias are regarded as
intellectual products focusing on the analysis of imaginary
institutions and implicitly begging reforms whereas myths are merely
determinations to act, and as such are irrefutable and unanalysable. __







‘Decomposition’, pp. 242-43.

Ibid., p. 251, and Reflections, p. 131.

‘Decomposition’, p. 248.

Ibid , p. 2118n.

Ref jections, p. 131.

‘Decomposition’, p. 251.


Ibid., p. 253.

G. Sorel, ‘Critique de l’Evolution creatrice’ in Le Mouvement
Socialiste, October, November, December 190iilnd January and
February 1980. See also his ‘A Critique of Creative Evolution’ in J. L.

Stanley (ed.), From Georges Sorel (Oxford University Press, New York,
1976), p. 284ff.

H. Bergson to G. Maire, published in L’lndependance, No. 39-40,
November 1912, p. 167.

Bergson to Le Bon, July 1090, quoted in R. A. Nye, ‘Two Paths to a
Psychology of Social Action: Gustave Le Bon and Georges SoreI’, in
the Journal ~ ~odern History, 450), 1973, p. ‘l32n.

H. I~ergson, An Introduction1£ Metaphysics, trans. T. E. Huhne
(Macmillan, London, 1913), p. 8.

Ibid., p. 59
Ibid., p. 47.

R. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (Blackwell, Oxford,
1983), p. 18.

Illusions, p. 22.

Reflections, pp. 122-23 (emphasis is Sorel’s).

Ibid., pp. 130-31.

Ibid., p. 49.

H. Bergson, Time and Free !.!.!1 trans. F. L. Pogson (Alien and Unwin,
London, 197I),” p-:-rO~
Metaphysics, p. 6.

Ibid., p. 48 and p. 54.

Time and Free !.!.!1 p. 181.

Metaphysics, p. 6.

Ibid~ pp .78-79.

Tim.!:. and Free !.!.!1 p. 115.

Ibid., p. 128.

l~ p. 131.

Metaphysics, p. 41.

Ibid., p. 63. Bergson considered that this union would lead the poslttve
~ciences ‘to become conscious of their true scope, often far greater
than they imagine’. Since then, of course, the theories of Heisenberg
and I}ohr and the development of quantum physics have thrown into
doubt the high abstractions of measurable space and time.

Ibid., p. 76.

H:ilergson, Matter and Memor y, trans. N. M. Paul and W. Scott Palmer
(Alien and unwlil, London, 19 l 3), p. 87.

Ibid., p. 102.

Illusions, p. 157.

Ibid., p. 186.

See L. Wilde, ‘Sorel and the French Right’ in History ~ Political
Thought, 7 (2), Summer 1986.

Illusions, p. 213.

See G. Lukacs, The Destruction of Reason, trans. P. Palmer (Merlin,
For Lukacs, irrationalism reacts to the new
London, 1980),–‘;:questions posed by science and philosophy ‘by designating the mere
problem as an answer and declaring the allegedly fundamental
insolubility of the problem to a higher form of comprehension’.

See J. J. Roth, The Cult of Violence: Sorel and the Sorelians
(University of California Press, London, 1980), chs. Ti”;'””12,l3. Also
Roberts, The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism, (University of
ManchesterPress, 1979). – – – – – – – – – – – –


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