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Summary Article: Sorel, Georges
from Encyclopedia of Modern Political Thought

Georges Sorel (1847–1922), the French philosopher best known for his Reflections on Violence (1908), has been variously classified as an anarchist, a socialist, a syndicalist, and even a forerunner of fascism. Born in Cherbourg, he studied at the École Polytechnique in Paris and was employed in several different cities as a public-works engineer. Beginning in the mid-1880s, he began to contribute essays to the leading French Marxist journals, and he corresponded with a wide range of philosophers including Henry Bergson, Benedetto Croce, the prominent anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and with Karl Marx himself. As the Marxist movement fragmented in the 1890s, he generally supported Eduard Bernstein's version. Gradually he came to embrace revolutionary syndicalism as the best alternative to capitalism. But in his heterogeneous writings, he explored many other political ideas, from monarchism to anarchism. He deplored the 1914–18 war but enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik revolution. Although he died before fascism was fully established in Italy, he was not sympathetic to it, despite later claims that he influenced and even supported Benito Mussolini—who later called him the “master of syndicalism” whose writings “contributed most to form the discipline, energy and power of the fascist cohorts” (Midlarsky 2011, 92).

The militant trade union movement in France around the turn of the century (as well as corresponding agitation in Italy and Spain) drew him toward syndicalism, and he began to write the essays that eventually were published as his most influential work, Reflections on Violence. Two features of this work are responsible for Sorel's enduring reputation: his glorification of violence as a necessary engine of social progress, and his analysis of the role of myth in revolutionary change. The gradual development of socialism through education and debate, Sorel said, was a pipe dream—or worse, a cover for so-called socialists’ acquiescence in the bourgeois, capitalist order of the times. He warned that socialism and capitalism might in the future form an alliance, and he was right. Furthermore, he distrusted modern science as a tool of the established order. History demonstrates, he said, that only organized violence brings about real change. To summon up and direct that violence, a movement needs a powerful myth. Sorel explores the role of myth in past successful breakthroughs from early Christianity to the French Revolution, and he proposes to devise one for syndicalism. A mythical goal is required to draw us on into the next stage of history. It would take the form of the general strike—not of course a new idea among revolutionaries but one capable of being elevated to mythic status. The general strike could bring together all the disparate branches of socialism and all the working classes in an exalted sense of common purpose and would finally overthrow the capitalist order.

Sorel has been roundly condemned by philosophers of left and right for his advocacy of violence, but at no time did he endorse indiscriminate acts of terrorism or spontaneous destruction. Revolutionary violence must be carefully planned and directed toward specific targets most appropriate to the accomplishment of syndicalist goals. Syndicalism, as Sorel defined it, meant the violent abolition of the political state and of the capitalists who finance and control it, to be replaced by trade union control of the means of production. There are varieties of syndicalism, and not all of them call for violence or for general strikes, but Sorel dismissed them all as ineffective. From the standpoint of political philosophy, he can be characterized as an anarchist (and indeed many anarchists claim him), but he belongs to the tradition—always a minority among anarchists—that not only condones but also celebrates violence.

The concept of “myth” has also drawn criticism down on Sorel. But the attacks have largely been off target because Sorel's critics misinterpret what he means by “myth.” The ancient Greeks would have understood him: “Myths” are not the same thing as “lies” or falsified history but narratives about who we are and why we are like that. In recent times, fascist movements have insisted that certain myths (such as Aryan superiority and the quasi-divine status of the leader) are objectively true. Sorel would have protested that such insistence misses the point.

Sorel published a number of other books and many articles, but his reputation rests on Reflections on Violence. In other works, he analyzed Catholic thought, ancient Roman history, the philosophy of Socrates, and the Dreyfus case.

See also Anarchism; Bergson, Henri; Fanon, Frantz; Fascism; Marx, Karl; Nineteenth-Century Political Thought; Revolution; Syndicalism; Terrorism; Twentieth-Century Political Thought

Further Readings
  • Horowitz, Irving Louis. 1961. Radicalism and the Revolt against Reason: The Social Theories of Georges Sorel. Humanities Press Atlantic Highlands, NJ.
  • Midlarsky, Manus I. 2011. Origins of Political Extremism: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK.
  • Roth, Jack J. 1980. The Cult of Violence: Sorel and the Sorelians. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Sorel, Georges. (1908) 1914. Réflexions Sur La Violence. Reprint, B. W. Huebsch New York.
  • Thomas Martin
    Copyright © 2013 CQ Press

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