Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sorel on Pessimism, Part 2

This is the first post that discusses topics that I will be addressing in my talk at the Radical Philosophy Association's conference on Violence: Systemic, Symbolic, and Foundational, which takes place November 11-14, 2010 at the University of Oregon.

Last week I finished reading Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence (1908). In my first post about his work, I could really only suggest that he's a figure who is difficult to place politically (and I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment) due to a particular set of concerns that he ties together within a philosophy of the general strike, in which he appropriates Bergsonian intuition, parts of Nietzsche's genealogy of morals and Marx's Capital. [1] From a biographical standpoint, after the turn of the 20th century Sorel wavers, depending on the moment, somewhere between anarcho-syndicalism and fascism, although his final works focus on William James.

The purpose of this post is to complete my sketch of Sorel's pessimism. As I wrote in the first post, he proposes that pessimism has three primary characteristics:
  • First, pessimism refuses to deny the wretchedness of mankind, and the constant threat of pain and suffering.
  • Second, "the pessimist regards social conditions as forming a system bound together by an iron law which cannot be evaded...and which can only disappear through a catastrophe which involves the whole." As much as he condemns all Marxism after Marx, Sorel takes up the fatalist current that fixated on the iron laws of development.
  • Which is why the third element, which he calls the "most fundamental," is the "path towards deliverance." Despite the necessity of catastrophe, the pessimist still proposes a way to end the tyrannies of "wretchedness or of fate." For Sorel, the contemporary form of deliverance with be the proletarian violence of the general strike.
Now our typical image of a pessimist precludes what Sorel calls 'deliverance.' Does not the idea of deliverance suggest the spectre of optimism lurking-- in a telling reversal-- in the shadows? As I've already mentioned, Sorel rejects the comparison of optimism and pessimism, arguing that they have distinct kinds of the metaphysics of morals (and different genealogies). While he doesn't say much about optimism, it's clear that he thinks the metaphysics of optimism rests on the presupposition of progress, that is, it assumes that history is an unbroken development of civilization in a progressive direction. Pessimism, by contrast, recognizes (as he would say) that history takes qualitative leaps through revolution or catastrophe (which in the general strike mean the same thing).

In the rejection of the idea of progress, Sorel is not unique, which makes it important to place him across the spectrum of the critics of necessary historical progress. On the left, I think a good but under-appreciated figure (in this regard) is Marx, because his confidence in proletarian revolution is often mistaken for a Victorian confidence in progress. [2] On the right, the critiques predominantly attack and lament European decadence and nihilism (a civilization which just they argue just can't be as heroic as it should be,  followed with the idea that one particular nation could pull it out of its morass), providing a moral critique. 1930s Heidegger dabbled in this kind of 'search for heroism.'

And Sorel? He argues that only way for the proletariat to avoid the decadence of the bourgeoisie is to reject all its intellectualizing ideology in favor of the "ethics of the producers." The latter holds, first, that all the morality required for proletarian rule can be found in the process of production (after the proletariat seizes the means from the bourgeoisie) [3], and, second, that the path to this deliverance is through the general strike. Rather than organization and education, Sorel argues that the general strike provides the much stronger intuitive forces of myth and heroism, which makes it "the most striking manifestation of individualistic force in the rebellious masses."

The general strike, he argues, is the myth or the "drama" that gives an intuition of the totality of socialist practice. The selfless heroism of proletarian strike contributes both to the ethics of the producers, and to preventing the moral decline of the workers. And this is where it becomes clearer that Sorel is utilizing some critical moves more often associated with the right, or even (later) with fascism. For Sorel, the central problem is to animate the proletariat with an epic sense of heroism and confidence to guarantee its success, so that it does not fall into decline and decadence as did the bourgeoisie, who no longer recognizes its honor and its duty. Hence the secondary purpose of the general strike: "It is here that the role of violence in history appears as of utmost importance; because in an indirect manner it can operate on the bourgeoisie so as to reawaken them to a sense of their own class interests." If so, proletarian violence serves the purpose of dividing society between the last two warring classes, dividing society for the struggle from which the proletariat will emerge victorious.

This argument, however, aestheticizes politics: class struggle takes on epic and mythical proportions as both an economic and moral struggle. The valorization of heroism is, indeed, a slippery slope, and arguing that proletarian violence has the important purpose of reawakening the bourgeoisie to its class interests mistakes the hegemonic weakness of the ruling class for economic weakness; for Sorel should have seen (I realize that this 'should have' has a touch of anachronism) that concessions won by the working class could contribute to cracking the hegemonic bloc of the bourgeoisie. The problem is that Sorel blurs the distinction between the parliamentary socialists and the bourgeoisie in general, even if each group requires different combat tactics (as is clearly shown, for differing reasons, by Luxemburg or Lenin).

Nevertheless, I don't want to suggest that one shouldn't read Sorel. Reflections on Violence, and its emphasis on the spontaneity of the masses, had some influence on Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, and, it must have been at least an implicit reference for Georges Bataille and several figures in French syndicalism and, later, the popular front. Nor can the book be reduced to the outline that I have given here, given his defense of violence (in distinction to state force), and his interest in Bergson. If one of our intellectual tasks is to rethink the revolutionary history, especially the vicissitudes of the debates over spontaneity in struggle, Sorel is an important and challenging figure.

1. I should also mention that he has the unfortunate and offensive habit of comparing his opponents' intelligences to those he assumes are possessed by non-European peoples.
2. A good example can be found in Capital, Volume 1, when he cites the rates of consumption (not consumer consumption either) in modern domestic industry in order to attack the ideologues of progress, noting that the "advance in the rate of consumption" between 1852 and 1861 in women who produced lace "ought to suffice for the most optimistic advocate of progress."
3. Interestingly, he suggests that art is an anticipation of "the highest form of production," in which future producers innovate because they will not be content with "the unending reproduction of models which are not [their] own."

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