What does radical opposition look like in a democratic and open society? At what point does one begin to condone violent resistance? When does extremism in the name of emancipation become a gateway to repression? Eric Brandom analyzes the writing of the French social philosopher Georges Sorel.
Georges Sorel’s fin-de-siècle “Reflections on Violence” (1908), the work of a heretical French Marxist writing about revolutionary syndicalism, is a provocation. That Sorel himself moved to the monarchist and antisemitic right immediately following the book’s publication has long been taken as evidence that, as Herbert Marcuse wrote, Sorel’s “attempt to free the class struggle from all ethical considerations” led directly to the mixing of left and right that became fascism. Marcuse had it exactly backwards. The ease with which Italian and French fascists of the 1920s and 1930s were able to adopt Sorel was a direct result of his shift, visible across the writing of “Reflections”, from a sociological to an ethical point of view. By investigating Sorel’s development through “Reflections on Violence”, we gain a new perspective on the dynamic of ethical commitment to social change, as well as on modes of radicalization in the critique of liberal politics.