On George Sorel’s Critical Anti-Utopianism and its Theoretical Implications
Why revisit Georges Sorel and why speculate on the theoretical implications of what I am calling his “critical anti-utopianism” today? For me, this is an issue framed by two fundamental concerns: On the one hand, the question of violence has become central in my country, Greece, which probably furnishes the most acute instance of economic collapse in the context of the global economic crisis, and which experienced traumatic encounters with both anarchist and police violence in the large popular demonstrations of May 5th 2010, and in the more recent mobilizations of June 15 and June 28-29 this year. The political ethics that predominated in Europe and the West in the 1990s, and which we might associate synoptically with Jürgen Habermas’s conceptualization of politics in terms of communicative transparency and Jacques Derrida’s Levinasian proposition of infinite receptivity and unconditional responsibility towards the other, seem unable to provide adequate responses to the question of the possibility of social change under the present conditions of globalized financial crisis, intensified social injustice and state repression. Sorel seems to me to provide an important occasion for rethinking the ethics of violence in this light. This is an aspect I do not here have the space and time to address, but it is one that informs my interest in Sorel’s work.
On the other hand, and this is the concern that will be more central today, this work seems to me to also offer a particularly fruitful ground for re-examining some of my own broad generic and historical speculations on what I’ve called “critical anti-utopianism”. This is a tradition I’ve associated with the Left and described in terms of a critique of the “inadmissible presuppositions” of utopianism which neither upholds the “desirability of the current social order”, nor rejects “prospects of radical social change”.[i] Though I described critical anti-Utopianism as “the dominant trend in post-1968 Left social thought” and as a “distinctly late modern” category”[ii] whose roots lie in part with Marx’s critique of utopian socialism, Sorel’s work belongs with neither of these two historical moments. It emerges as a self-conscious attempt to “modernize” classical Marxism in light of early twentieth-century workerist and political experience, but it also significantly predates, and remains fundamentally foreign to, the distinctly post-proletarian and “post-essentialist” politics of the critical anti-utopianism of Foucault, Deleuze, Laclau or Negri.
Despite the somewhat anomalous status of its historical position, however, or perhaps for that very reason, the character of Sorel’s anti-utopianism seems to me particularly interesting from the standpoint of the present moment. In his “The Politics of Utopia”, Fredric Jameson advanced the thought-provoking hypothesis that there is a correlation between the appearance of utopia and the “suspension of the political”, which is to say, the perception of political institutions as “both unchangeable and infinitely modifiable.”[iii] At the antipodes of such a situation, Jameson says, stand “periods of genuine pre-revolutionary ferment, when the system really seems in the process of losing its legitimacy” when “grievances and demands grow more precise in their insistence and urgency”, and when, as a result, “the utopian imagination no longer has free play.”[iv] Now, it seems to me that the present, like Sorel’s own early twentieth century, may well be such a period, one in which utopianism faces the challenge not of a negative yet also abstract ethico-political judgment on its naïve, unworkable, or potentially dangerous premises (as is predominantly the case after the demise of 1968 and up to the early twenty-first century), but on those of its inability to properly conceptualize a new and urgent situation, in which drastic change—for the better or the worse—seems imminent.
Sorel indeed founded his critique of utopianism on a vision of “catastrophic revolution” which was paradoxically conceived as being “at the service of the immemorial interests of civilization”. He thought of the general strike as a force capable of saving “the world from barbarism” by violently taking it off a track that was simply a path to its terminal degeneration and decay.[v] And in 1918, ten years after the publication of his Reflections of Violence (1908), he passionately saluted the “immortal glory” of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and praised Lenin’s revolutionary genius, despite the fact that by his own admission, there was no relationship between his own brand of anarcho-syndicalism and the actual course of Soviet revolutionary mobilization.[vi] A second paradox, then: though Sorel’s own brand of revolutionary pragmatism had little influence on real Left-wing politics (and, inadvertently, some significant influence on the politics of the Right, particularly in Italy) and though it was itself maligned as simplistically and childishly utopian[vii], it was also receptive to the different path by which Lenin effected his own, far more consequential, version of anti-parliamentarianism and opposition to western, Social-Democratic reformism.
What are the basic dimensions of Sorel’s critical rejection of utopianism? His 1907 letter to Daniel Halévy, used as a preface to Reflections on Violence, usefully epitomizes the fundaments of this critique: first, anti-utopianism here presupposes a parallel subscription to “myth”, by which Sorel designates “collections of images which, taken together and through intuition alone” are capable of evoking the “mass of sentiments” of a social group and hence of inspiring it with hope, determination, and the capacity for courage and for sacrifice[viii]. Second, the relationship between myth and utopia is cast as one that may involve both fusion, in the majority of cases, and mutual exclusion in a minority of “pure” cases: these involve, at one extreme, the proletarian general strike (which Sorel views as a myth without utopian elements), and at the other, “liberal political economy” (which Sorel, long before Žižek, casts as the epitome of “a utopia” that is however “free of the element of myth”).[ix] Third, myths are described as forms of an expression of “a will to act”[x] while, on the contrary, utopias are viewed as merely “intellectual” products. They are “descriptions”, products of model-building with a purely speculative function, combinations of “imaginary institutions” comparable enough to real ones as to allow the mind “to reason about them”.[xi] Fourth, while myths are indivisible unities which cannot be broken down so as to provide technical means towards practical ends without losing all their potency and value,[xii] utopias are “construction[s]” which “can be broken into parts” and of which “certain pieces have been shaped in such a way” as to be able to serve “future legislation”.[xiii] Fifth, contemporary myth is geared toward the destruction of “the existing state of things”; the myth of the general strike, particularly, is a myth of “absolute revolution”, without any reference to the reconstitution of a state and the rule of law. It thus partakes of a sublimely “infinite quality”[xiv], while utopias have always worked to “direct men’s minds towards reforms”, contending themselves with piecemeal corrections to the “system”, and hence also lending themselves and their propagators to far easier accommodation by run-of-the-mill parliamentary politics.[xv] Sixth, unlike utopias, which are vulnerable to falsification by historical reality, a myth “cannot be refuted”[xvi] and does not lose its appeal on the grounds of failure to deliver on its promises any more than religion does.[xvii] And finally, while a utopia remains a personal invention and is thus ultimately the personal property of its inventor, who “believes that no one is better placed than he is to apply his system”, contemporary myths are not matters of personal invention. They belong to no one in particular, and are hence not expressions of an intelligentsia’s benevolent tutelage of a mindless working mass.[xviii]
Despite these differences, there are two significant areas of overlap between myth and utopia: first, Sorelian myth is not a legitimizing device[xix] aimed at stabilizing the existing social order, but on the contrary the expression of a will to destroy it.[xx] It thus does not forego the critical aspects of utopia, its counter-ideological functions, if one is to recall Mannheim.[xxi] Secondly, and as Vincent Geoghegan was correct to note[xxii], myth does not completely exclude the political orientation toward futurity. Sorel concedes that “there would be no social philosophy, no reflection about the process of evolution and even no important action in the present without certain hypotheses about the future.”[xxiii] Though “myths must be judged as a means of acting on the present”[xxiv], and though “there is no process by which the future can be predicted scientifically”, it nonetheless remains true that “we are unable to act without leaving the present, without considering the future, which seems forever condemned to escape our reason.”[xxv] Myths are thus, like utopias, also ways of “framing” the “future”, but they do so non-teleologically.[xxvi] Their function is to “give an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action upon which the reform of the will is founded.”[xxvii] Clearly, then, Sorelian myth antagonizes utopia on partly utopian terrain: it is an attempt, on the one hand, to radicalize its political valences and implications toward a revolutionary rather than reformist, activist rather than contemplative direction; and, on the other, to re-connect such radicalization to collective psychology and imagination in ways that the “scientific” bend of Sorel’s contemporary Marxism disallowed.[xxviii]
Let me finally signal a few of the theoretical implications of the Sorelian displacement of the category of “utopia” by that of “myth”: first, the possibility of dislodging the subjective (and subjectivizing) effects of “certainty” about victory in the political struggle from any “scientific” notion of historical “determinism.”[xxix] Secondly, the possibly greater compatibility of Sorelian myth with an “ethics of the real”; in other words, its function as a means of mobilizing courage in the face of the “enormous element of the unknown” that the “passage from capitalism to socialism” contains, of the “frightening” and “intimidating” character of an absolute and irrevocable break with the present order.[xxx] Finally, and in accord both with Marx’s hostility towards “programs of the future”[xxxi] and with a certain Jewish Bilderverbot[xxxii], there is the proscription of “casting an image” of this or that aspect the future[xxxiii]—a feature that may well have helped attract Benjamin to Sorel[xxxiv], and that marks certain affinities between Sorelian anti-utopianism and so-called “negative utopia”[xxxv], while also rendering circumspection toward the compensations of the imaginary compatible with radical mass activism.
[i] See Antonis Balasopoulos, “Anti-Utopia and Dystopia: Rethinking the Generic Field”, in Utopia Project Archive, 2006-2010, ed. Vassilis Vlastaras (Athens: School of Fine Arts Publications, 2011), 63.
[ii] Ibid., 63.
[iii] Fredric Jameson, “The Politics of Utopia”, New Left Review II 25 (January-February 2004): 43-44.
[iv] Ibid., 44. See also Perry Anderson’s critical response to the second leg of this double speculative schema in “The River of Time”, New Left Review II 26 (March-April 2004): 68-69.
[v] Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, trans. Jeremy Jennings and T.E. Hulme, ed. Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 63, 85. On Sorel’s conceptualization of the reproduction of the dominant bourgeois order as the path to barbarism see Reflections, 65-85.
[vi] See ibid., “Appendix” III: In Defence of Lenin”, 286, 289.
[vii] See ibid., 223.
[viii] See ibid., 20, 113, 115, 117, 118, 210, 226-228, 242.
[ix] See Sorel, Reflections on Violence, 28-29; and Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010), 35-42.
[x] Ibid., 28.
[xi] Ibid., 28. Stathis Gourgouris correctly notes that in Sorel’s view utopias remain linked to the present “by analogy”, whereas myth is “beyond analogy”, being indefinite and indeterminate. See “The Concept of the Mythical (Schmitt with Sorel)”, Cardozo Law Review 21 (1999): 1502.
[xii] See Sorel, Reflections on Violence., 29, 117, 120.
[xiii] Ibid., 28.
[xiv] Ibid., 24.
[xv] Ibid., 28-29.
[xvi] Ibid., 29; and 117.
[xvii] Ibid., 30-31.
[xviii] Ibid., 32.
[xix] The misconception of the function of Sorelian myth as legitimist in character may well be the key to his usurpation by the fascists. On the irreconcilability between Sorel’s insurrectionary understanding of myth and Carl Schmitt’s legitimist approach to it, see Jan Werner-Müller, “Myth, Law and Order: Schmitt and Benjamin Read Reflections on Violence”, History of European Ideas 29 (2003): 462-468; Gourgouris, “The Concept of the Mythical (Schmitt with Sorel)”, 1488-1490, 1502-1503, 1511, 1514. On Sorelian myth as disruptive of the ideological naturalization of a “realm of necessity” see Carlo Salzani, “Violence as Pure Praxis: Benjamin and Sorel on Strike, Myth and Ethics”, Colloquy: Text Theory Critique 16 (2008): 29.
[xx] See Sorel, Reflections on Violence, 17-18, 19-20, 63, 83, 148-149, 153-155, 161, 170-171, 281; and Salzani, “Violence as Pure Praxis”, 22-23.
[xxi] Sorel notes, however paradoxical this may appear, that with myth “we are not in the domain of ideologies”: those who subscribe to it “may be deceived about an infinite number of political, economic or moral questions”, but their “testimony is decisive, sovereign and irrefutable when it is a question of knowing what are the ideas which most powerfully move them and their comrades, which most appeal to them as being identical with socialist conceptions, and thanks to which their reason, their hopes and their way of looking at particular facts seem to make but one indivisible unity.” Reflections on Violence, 117. On utopia as opposed to ideology see Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shills (New York: Harcourt, 1985), 192-204.
[xxii] See Vincent Geoghegan, Utopianism and Marxism (Bern: Peter Lang, 2008), 94.
[xxiii] Sorel, Reflections on Violence, 40.
[xxvi] See Gourgouris, “The Concept of the Mythical (Schmitt with Sorel)”, 1502.
[xxvii] Ibid., 115.
[xxviii] On this, see Sorel, Reflections on Violence, 23-24, 46, 131-133; and Geoghegan, Utopianism and Marxism, 94-95.
[xxix] Sorelian myth, according to John Stanley, thus provides “certainty without determinism”. Quoted in Salzani, “Violence as Pure Praxis”, 29.
[xxx] See Sorel, Reflections on Violence, 129-130, 140, 154. “The utopians”, Sorel remarks, “used all their literary art in the endeavour to lull anxiety by pictures of the future so enchanting that all fear might be banished; but the more they accumulated fine promises, the more did thoughtful people suspect traps—and in this they were not completely mistaken, for the utopians would have led the world to disasters, tyranny and stupidity if they had been listened to” (129).
[xxxi] In Karl Marx’s reported letter to Edmund Spenser Beesly, quoted in Sorel, Reflections on Violence, 128-129. For similar remarks regarding Marxism’s incompatibility with the utopian casting of an “ideal of the future” see ibid., 74, 114, 118-119, 132, 153-154. Such insistence does not prevent Sorel, however, from speculating on the character of production in a post-revolutionary context, noting, among others, that art should be regarded as “an anticipation of the highest form of production” (244), and that the artistic “striving towards excellence, which exists in the absence of any personal, immediate, or proportional reward” (248) may well anticipate the “ethics of the producers” of a socialist future.
[xxxii] See Müller, “Myth, Law and Order”, 469. It is interesting, given the frequent allegations of Sorel’s connection with right-wing anti-Semitism, that for him the revolutionary proletariat “works subterranneously” and “separates itself from the modern world as Judaism separated itself from the ancient world” (Reflections on Violence, 226). Earlier, Sorel remarks that socialism should be “exceedingly careful” to avoid falling “to the level of what Engels calls bombastic anti-Semitism”, though “the advice of Engels on this point has not always been followed” (153).
[xxxiii] See Theodor Adorno’s remarks in his conversation on utopia with Ernst Bloch: “What is meant here is the prohibition of casting a picture of utopia actually for the sake of utopia, and that has a deep connection to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not make a graven image!’ This was also the defense that was actually intended against the cheap utopia, the false utopia, the utopia that can be bought. […] And insofar as we are not allowed to cast the picture of utopia, insofar as we do not know what the correct thing would be, we know exactly, to be sure, what the false thing is.” “Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing”, in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 11-12.
[xxxiv] I am referring of course to Sorel’s important role in Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” (1921), trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1996), 236-252. Scholem recalls that Benjamin read Sorel’s book in 1919 and commended the book to him. He adds that Sorel “occupied” Benjamin “for a long time to come.” See Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003), 104.
[xxxv] On “negative utopia” see “‘Theologica Negativa’ and ‘Utopia Negativa’: Franz Kafka”, in Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe. A Study in Elective Affinity (London: Athlone Press, 1992), 71-94; and Ilan Gur Ze’ev, “Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer: From Utopia to Redemption”, The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 8 (1998): 119-155.