Reflections on Violence



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Note for readers: I realize this submission is a bit long – almost 50 pages (with photos), and that expecting folks to read the whole thing would be impolite and inconsiderate. It is the first draft of a chapter in my dissertation, which explains its length. So if you are pressed for time, I can recommend two ways of reading the chapter. If you are primarily interested in the historical work, I recommend reading only pp. 2-25, 44-51. If you are interested in a reading of George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, then just the introduction and middle section will be of interest, pp. 2-10, 25-44. I hope this makes it more manageable!

Chapter 5

The Cunning of Violence:

Georges Sorel and the Reinvention of War,

1900-1914
It is impossible to express ideas about the patrie except in mythical form.


  • Georges Sorel, La Ruine du monde antique

They were to die by hundreds and thousands. They were ready, but not for death as a mere accident in

the bloody strife: they intended their death to be a sacrifice alight with the conviction of truth.


  • Daniel Halévy, Péguy

On January 22, 1914, a few months before the outbreak of World War I, Jean Jaurès exhorted to an audience of students,

Today, you are told: act, always act! But what is action without thought? It is the barbarism born of inertia. You are told: brush aside the party of peace; it saps your courage! But I tell you that to stand for peace today is to wage the most heroic of battles…Defy those who warn you against what they call ‘system’! Defy those who urge you to abandon your intelligence for instinct and intuition!1
Condemning a deformed intellectual culture that he believed motivated the cries for war, Jaurès would spend the next six months calling for de-escalation in the hopes of preventing war’s outbreak and the inevitable human catastrophe. But he fought a losing battle. Fellow political leaders across the political spectrum were increasingly seduced by the virtues of war against the German “hereditary” enemy, with the more bellicose seeking recompense for France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. Jaurès could not undo this overwhelming compulsion for revenge: on July 31st, he was assassinated at a café by Raoul Villain, a revanchist.

As Jaurès was warning students of “those who urge you to abandon your intelligence” for war’s “instinct and intuition,” former critics of the Republic on both the left and right were now urging precisely that. Charles Maurras’s royalist Action Française and Maurice Barrès’s romantic hymns to “rootedness” grounded in “the soil and the dead” were calling upon young





Figure 1: Jean Jaurès, leader of the French socialist party, is assassinated. He founded L’Humanite.2

Figure 2: Jaurès funeral. Leaders from the left and right used it as an opportunity to praise the importance of French "unity" on the eve of war.3


men to vindicate their individuality and authenticity in battle, despite the fact that both had long understood their nationalism as a form of anti-republicanism. As Maurras once put it bluntly: “The republicans can choose: the Republic, or the Country?”4 Charles Péguy, who had written in his 1910 Notre jeunesse that the Third Republic stood for “those who believe in nothing, not even in atheism, who devote themselves, who sacrifices themselves to nothing…And who boast of it,” enthusiastically volunteered to march for a republic he once believed embodied “the sterility of modern times.”5 Even Gustave Hervé, who had for years worked as a committed antimilitarist and socialist, was pleading with authorities to conscript him on the eve of war. After proudly announcing in his 1906 Leur patrie that if faced with war “we [working class] shall not march, whoever be the aggressor,”6 the man who helped lead the most vibrant anti-patriotism movement in Europe became on the cusp of war a committed nationalist, even renaming his magazine La Guerre sociale to La Victoire.7

The trouble was that many of these critics rallied to the republic for reasons that went beyond strategic necessity. By their own accounts, they were also laying claim to a specific understanding of violence, one that positioned war as a means of repudiating the official intellectual culture of the Third Republic and its rationalism, cosmopolitanism, positivism, and belief in progress. Indeed, many of them believed they were spurning base instrumental or utilitarian considerations, which were said to be “egoistic.” They were searching, rather, for a loftier “individualism,” a return to reality and “concrete experience” as found in redemptive violence and collective struggle. Péguy gave poetic voice to this romanticization of war: “Blessed are those who die in great battles / Lying beneath the sun in the sight of God’s face. / Blessed are those who die in a high place / Surrounded by the trappings of great funerals.”8 Their nationalism, H. Stuart Hughes laments, combined “respect for authority with the cult of spontaneous creation.” It was why younger generations “greeted the outbreak of the slaughter with enthusiasm.”9 The effect was akin to an “enchantment” of violence. Critics registered with horror this prospect of violence embodying a value of its own standing. In linking together spontaneous action and creativity, violence somehow stood outside of reason. In that independence laid its mystique, its moral power.





Figure 3: An illustration of an "anti-militarist" being mocked for his anti-patriotism, and portrayed as a hooligan when compared to the nationalist drum major.10
Figure 4: "Agathon" was the pseudonym for two French intellectuals, Alfred de Tarde and Henri Massis. "Jeunes gens d'aujourd'hui" (1913) was an influential study—and really a defense—of the new nationalism and the renascence of a Catholic faith among France’s elite young men. It stressed a rejection of “intellectualism” and “rationalism,” an affirmation of the “classical spirit,” and an ode to Barres’s cult of “national energy.”
Why did war remake thinkers who were traditionally the first to attack the republic and its democratic institutions into its most strident nationalist defenders? What political problems did war’s enchantment of violence appear to solve? Liberal political theorists have long suggested that these events were a romantic and irrationalist turn to anti-democratic chauvinism. The “mystique of violence” found in fin de siècle Europe, according to Raymond Aron, amounted to “invectives against democracy” in the name of an “aesthetic of existence” and a “degraded romanticism.”11 Judith Shklar and Isaiah Berlin agreed: it was “the apotheosis of the romantic will” driven by an “escapist motivation” to return to “life and motion” and “the perpetual movement of reality.”12 Intellectual historians of the period have often offered a similar line of interpretation, with some deeming it a “romantic anti-capitalism” and an “alternative political tradition” from liberal democracy altogether.13

This chapter argues that such interpretations are mistaken. The rally to the Republic by many of its critics was neither reducible to strategic resignation in the face of geopolitical necessity nor a romantic escape from democratic politics. Rather, it was an effort to reconceive war as an answer to a perceived crisis of democracy that French republicanism and universal male suffrage seemed incapable of resolving. It was for this reason that the enchantment of violence was repeatedly linked to a reassertion of direct, popular action against a state seen to be corrupt, bureaucratic and unresponsive to the people. However perverse, many figures leading this nationalist revival like Maurras, Barrès, and Péguy understood themselves to be continuing the bottom-up, populist sentiments already underway during Boulangism in the late 1880s.14 Against the existing cosmopolitan, pacific and elitist republic and its abstract individualism and philosophical rationalism, they juxtaposed a spontaneous, “real” people grounded in the life and soil of the nation. As Péguy put it, they were searching for “the marrow” of France, everything that made up “the tissue of the people.”15 These alignments reflected more than just the legacy of the successive political crises of the Third Republic. They also marked a hard-won theoretical achievement, one that saw the enchantment of violence as part and parcel of re-envisioning popular power and social cohesion in the face of political stasis and moral entropy.

To understand this achievement, this chapter focuses on the most visible theorist of violence during this period, Georges Sorel. Admired by Carl Schmitt and Mussolini, and retroactively mythologized as the intellectual “father of fascism,” Sorel stood at the intersection of the network of intellectuals who led the way to this enchantment of violence.16 His Reflections on Violence (1908) was a key text for reconceptualizing violence during these years. This chapter uses an analysis of his Reflections to clarify the broader relationship between the enchantment of violence and the democratic theory and practice of the Third Republic. It argues that the enchantment of violence provided a remedy for two perceived problems with French democracy: its republican model of citizenship was seen to be atomizing rather than associating, and it was leading France into moral decline. The two problems were, moreover, thought to be grounded in the prevailing rationalism and moral skepticism of French political and intellectual culture. Unlike republican social theorists who turned to the state for a solution, however, thinkers on both the far left and right searched for a corrective in “lived” experiential grounds of collective belonging and national renewal, a means for unmediated collective self-constitution. Thus, rather than outright rejecting the traditional republican aspirations for social cohesion and moral improvement, they sought a specifically moral and anti-statist alternative. With Sorel’s aid, French thinkers across the spectrum found a solution in violence, but not by renegotiating the parameters of its employment—its moral justification or criteria of legitimate use—but by redefining what violence was: as a practice of reasserting the moral foundations of “the social.” This reconceptualization served as a pivot for critiques of the state by both the left and right during the 1900s to converge on the cusp of war into a nationalist defense of it, in the name of the patrie, the embodiment of the “real” people as opposed to its abstract substitute posited by French republicanism. It helps explain why many intellectuals who were traditionally the first to attack the republic and its democratic institutions became on the eve of war its most strident nationalist defenders, finding in war a means of collective salvation.

The chapter begins by first describing how intellectual tendencies on the far-Left and far-Right in France worked out a shared critique of the republicanism of the Third Republic in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair. These tendencies—especially Hubert Lagardelle’s Le Mouvement socialiste and Péguy’s Cahiers de la Quinzaine—helped formulate an “irrationalist” response to republicanism that helped define the crisis of democracy in France in moral terms. The chapter then reconstructs an interpretation of Sorel’s account of violence to chart how he formulated an ameliorative practice adequate to the moral reconstruction of “the social” on the basis of experiential grounds: the cunning of violence. I show that Sorel endorsed violence for its own sake, which he saw as sublime. Yet thanks to contemporary work in French philosophy and psychology, which was increasingly locating freedom in domains outside of reason, such sublime violence became repositioned as an anti-statist practice of freedom, capable of conveying the will beyond the constraints of instrumental or utilitarian reason. Positioned as a practical alternative to the prevailing state ideology of progressive universalism, violence reappeared as an engine of social cohesion and moral improvement.

In the final section, I describe how Sorel’s “cunning of violence” was adapted as a conceptual fulcrum and alibi for the reorganization of strands of socialist, catholic, and scientific thought into an irrationalist nationalism by 1914—what Zeev Sternhell has famously called a political synthesis “neither right nor left.”17 Although Sorel originally intended sublime violence to provide a practice for the working class movement, it was adapted towards new ends both within and outside of France. Its corresponding redefinition of the class struggle in mythic, aesthetic terms paved the way for the displacement of the working class as the revolutionary subject by the “nation” while binding the new nationalism to an enchanted notion of violence. As a result of his appropriation, Sorel’s conclusion that a corrupt and decadent France could only be restored by either “a great foreign war, which might reinvigorate lost energies” or “a great extension of proletarian violence” that would induce “disgust with the humanitarian platitudes with which Jaurès lulls [the bourgeoisie] to sleep,” exemplified broader reorientations of French political thought at the end of the Belle Époque.18

What is at stake is showing how neither Sorel nor the enchantment of violence to which his Reflections contributed should be dismissed as aberrations from the consolidation of a democratic political culture during the Third Republic.19 Rather, the enchantment of violence responded to a real contradiction contained within the latter’s republican ideology: its abstract vision of the social body was incompatible with its commitment to a popular will that was free, unified and self-grounding. Although the Third Republic sought to contain this contradiction through the construction of a modernizing state apparatus and a positivistic belief in progress, in so doing it actually opened up the conceptual space for its supposed “opposite,” a militant nationalism based on a return to “concrete experience,” a “real” non-abstract people, and eventually a one-sided particularism. In that sense, the enchantment of violence was the reverse image of the republican universalism of the Third Republic. The latter had inadvertently tasked an irrationalist nationalism with forming the bounded and cohesive people that its own idea of freedom presupposed. Rather than dismissing Sorel as a simple advocate of violence then, he needs to be interpreted diagnostically, as a figure whose repudiation of republicanism brings into view its contradictory shape.

Both Sorel’s efforts and the broader enchantment of violence would recall, if only half-consciously and against his intention, the legacy of democratic terror in the French political tradition that he so detested. That legacy sought the violent reconstitution of a disintegrating social body through a moral and aesthetic reconstruction of the will of the people. Even over a century after the French Revolution, then, the essential dilemmas of the modern reconstruction of peoplehood were recapitulated. But in this instance, the leading lights of French political thought flinched in the face of those challenges and, like so many in August 1914, found in war a means of bypassing them, only to dialectically tighten the grip of those historical dilemmas in more violent ways.


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