Georges Sorel: ‘General Observations’ (1903)

Gustave_Courbet_-_The_Stonebreakers_-_WGA05457 (1)

Below is a translation of ‘General Observations’, the concluding passages of Georges Sorel’s 1903 work Introduction à l’économie moderne. It’s a piece that I find interesting for several reasons. Most importantly, it provides an early sketch of his particular concept of the myth, which will subsequently become important in his much better known Reflections on Violence (published a handful of years later in 1908). In Reflections, Sorel draws attention to this work in a footnote, pointing out that he’s building on what he outlines here, while also observing this at this stage the theory of the myth exists only in a generalized, incomplete form.

Despite the rather fragmentary and preliminary nature sketch, Sorel can be found here already sketching out not only the relationship between the myth and revolutionary activity, but the distinctions he tries to draw between an active socialist politics and, on the one hand, the utopians, and on the other, the scientifically-inclined parliamentary socialists. The latter here appears in the context of a discussion of sociology, which for Sorel bears a stamp of positivism that must be overcome; in the case of the socialists who approach politics in this manner, revolutionary activity becomes nothing more than a series of formulas to apply to historical development – socialism as a grand equilibrium. By embarking down this meandering pathway, these socialists reveal themselves as the kin of the utopians, in that their politics depart radically from the actual conditions of development, and ultimately regress to “idealist flight”.

This highlights a key element of that courses across the whole of Sorel’s oeuvre: that it inhabits the crisis of socialist politics that erupted in the decades around the turn of the century. The Marxists of the Second International, the parliamentary socialists and Sorel’s preferred faction—the French syndicalists—all spiraled around one another, suspended in conflict. In the case of the members of the Second International, a mechanistic interpretation of Marx’s theory prevailed, which Sorel dubbed the “catastrophic conception”: capitalism would proceed, bound to a law of stagist development, towards its inevitable breakdown, the Kladderadatsch, which acted as the historical precondition for socialism (my hypothesis is that is approach stemmed from a reading of Capital from the position of the Communist Manifesto, framed by the conditions of the ‘Long Depression’ of the 1870s-90s: see here). 

One attack on this line was led by the Belgian socialist politician Emile Vandervelde, who would soon become known alongside Eduard Bernstein as one of the fathers of the ‘revisionist controversy’. The main points that Vandervelde challenged—mentioned by Sorel in the ‘General Observations’—were the so-called ‘iron law of wages’, the law of capitalist concentration, and the capture of the state by the capitalist class. In the case of the iron law of wages, it’s worth pointing out that in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx himself rejected this theory—while in Capital (particularly the last volume) the law of concentration appears less law-like, and more of a tendency that is perpetually being savaged by counter-tendencies that reverse it. These divergences highlight the gulf between Marx’s late-stage theory, where development loses its stadialist character and economic laws become dynamic and mutable, and the mechanistic interpretations taken up by the Second International. 

While Sorel would affirm the positions of the revisionists, albeit to ends alternative to their own, and reject the ‘catastrophic conception’, in the piece below he betrays a more ambivalent position. While the form of the myth privileged in Reflections on Violence is that of the general strike, here he noted that the Kladderadatsch itself could be viewed as a generative myth or regulative idea, one that framed the conditions of life and compelled some sort of action to change it: “It is probable that Marx had already presented the catastrophic conception only as a myth, illustrating in a very clear way the class struggle and the social revolution”.


Descriptions of the kind which we have just given do not contain conclusions; but it seems to me appropriate to draw the reader’s attention to the methods which I have received from my masters and which I endeavor to employ in a more correct manner every day; I will try to identify some rules which may be useful to those who would like to tackle other more complicated economic problems and use the experience I have acquired in my research. These reflections would not have been well placed in the foreword, because they can only be fully understood by those who are interested in the long work of elaboration pursued during this book.

The questions dealt with here are among the simplest of those that can be asked in social matters; I studied them for a time when the economic environment was very strongly depersonalized; they therefore lend themselves to observations having a certain materialist aspect and seem to call for the formation of a kind of social physics. It has often been believed that such an acquaintance was possible; I think there is no more dangerous illusion than that.

In general, mirages of all kinds act on the minds of men, and all economists know that when moving from one country to another one must expect to find new methods of doing business; the ideas that tradition has provided us about duty, the conceptions that we have about true happiness, the hope of a better regulated, more honest and more rational future: all these forces are translated in the creative imagination of capitalists. Industry is an art which involves capricious training and which takes place with unpredictable gaits. The world of production therefore presents very particular difficulties, while in the contemporary economic environment, there are many compensations and that a relative appeasement of struggles makes it look like a sea with almost no more waves.

I will present here three rules which seem to me fundamental for the scientific study of social phenomena and whose utility is all the greater when we approach problems touching more closely on production.

A: All the classifications, all the relations which one establishes between phenomena, the essential aspects under which the facts present themselves, depend on the practical aim pursued; and it is very prudent to always highlight this goal.

There are an indefinite number of social-economic or sociological systems: a company’s overhaul projects are countless; the statements of the great laws of history would fill several haulers; and the failures of their predecessors do not  discourage the makers of theories. There is something frightening about this spectacle, and one could wonder if it would not indicate a real insanity among our contemporaries, always so eager to pursue the ghost of a science which is always escaping and cheating them.

We have often tried to explain this situation by saying that sociology is still young, that it must be given credit and that many other sciences started out just as badly. These are bad excuses. General reasoning on human societies dates back many centuries, and if we want to compare sociology to another system of knowledge, there is none that is better comparable to it than that of the so-called psychic sciences. They too are very old and they never cease to fascinate those who admire the marvelous.

A few years ago Enrico Ferri affirmed that sociology had to become socialist if it wanted to escape from “a kind of hypnotic sleep”, and no longer remain “suspended in the sterile and colorless limbo which allow sociologists to be, in political economy as in politics, conservative or radical, according to their whim, according to their subjective tendencies”. He explained this stagnation of development by saying that these authors “retreated before the logical and radical conclusions that the modern scientific revolution had to bring in the social field”. According to Ferri, science leads, in an inevitable way, to socialism.[1]

Some saw in this assertion a gasconnade of a political sociologist, seeking to flatter the self-esteem of a socialist party in which he had just entered and of which he hoped to become the leader. I believe this explanation is insufficient; there are, even today, backward people who believe in the sovereign power of science and who imagine “the possibility of deducing practical programs from scientific proposals”;[2] Enrico Ferri believed very sincerely that socialism demonstrates itself as one demonstrates the laws of the balance of fluids, and perhaps he still thinks so.

What sociology needs is that it adopts, from the start, a frankly subjective appearance, that it knows what it wants to do and that it thus subordinates all its research to the kind of solution that ‘she wants to advocate. Socialism offers this great advantage that it tackles all questions in a well-defined spirit and that it knows where it wants to end up; – at least as long as the labor movement exerts sufficient pressure on it. If, for a few years, socialism seems to be drifting, like sociology, it is because it begins to operate like this, that it claims to rise above the conditions that some saw in this assertion a gasconnade of political sociologist, seeking to flatter the self-esteem of a socialist party in which he had just entered and of which he hoped to become the leader. I believe this explanation is insufficient; there are, even today, backward people who believe in the sovereign power of science and who imagine “the possibility of deducing practical programs from scientific proposals”; Enrico Ferri believed very sincerely that socialism demonstrates itself as one demonstrates the laws of the equilibrium of fluids, and perhaps he still thinks it is economic and that it becomes idealist.

B: Knowledge-as-concepts was established in antiquity to study immutable things, geometric beings, to see what is preserved and can always be found; it therefore seems as ill-suited as possible to social facts. These cannot be easily compared to solid bodies. It would be rather tempted to compare them to nebulae, whose position, aspects and dimensions vary at all times. It therefore seems that it is possible to say anything about them about them: we represent them by means of sorts of projections which recall, through their coarseness and their arbitrariness, the maps of the Middle Ages. The observer retains only what he believes to be essential, but there are many ways to separate the essential from the accidental. It follows that there is scarcely any formula to which it is not possible to oppose a contrary formula that remains just as likely.

One of the masters of contemporary thought has repeatedly warned of the errors that arise from traditional philosophy; he wonders if the time has not come to abandon the old Greek method, constructed with a view to geometry, in order to seek to reach a reality that is the mobile and the continuous. These criticisms of Bergson find their application especially in sociology; but the mind is not, however, disarmed in the face of the difficulties it signals; we have a means, both very safe and very simple, to generally overcome reality within the limits of our needs.

Let us first refer to the means that have been used, at all times, to carry out a meticulous, clear and useful analysis of social phenomena. We study them with what we can call stylized projections, arranged with enough art so that they give the impression of being auxiliary realities, each possessing its own principle of life, order or development. Skillful men strive to envelop the social phenomenon by image systems which do not allow any of the characters whose knowledge appears useful for the research they have undertaken to escape. It must be remembered that no set of images has an absolute value; a juxtaposition of stylized projections which has been of great service to the examination of certain problems, may be ineffective for other questions; there is a lot of subjectivism in sociology. If it has remained so often sterile, it is because it was mainly cultivated by people devoid of creative imagination.

One of Marx’s least disputable merits has been to show extraordinary dexterity in the organization of these stylized projections, by means of which he has often appeared to have exhausted all that human activity has to offer; this result was only achieved with regard to the kind of questions he was asking; his socialist sociology is infinitely superior to the sociologies constructed by the various pseudo-scholars, who, too often, have wandered like blind people in the midst of facts. The order in which he enumerates the images must be the subject of serious meditation, because it depends on the ideas he had on the relationships which exist between the various planes of knowledge; Marx, in imitation of Hegel, established between them logical geneses, of which his commentators do not seem to have cared, until now. The official Marxists would perhaps have avoided many illusions if they had sought better to penetrate the deep thought of Marx.[3]

Are the methods I have just mentioned capable of leading us to an interpretation of the incessant mobility of things? One could believe in their impotence if one did not have the age-old experience of painters and sculptors; good artists know how to find aspects that stylization allows to transform so that the tension of the motionless gives a clear idea of ​​mobility; this device is so old that it is surprising that sociologists have not dared to draw inspiration from it to overcome reality. The error of people who philosophically deal with social questions comes, in large part, from the fact that these doctors cannot bring themselves to believe that their philosophy has something to learn from art. But a deeper study of the laws of mind would teach them that philosophy and art are two activities very close to each other.

This transformation of mobility into tension demands qualities that are encountered much more rarely in philosophers than in artists; and yet how many painters or sculptors only succeed in producing correct and lifeless works! to succeed, in addition to skill and a perfect knowledge of the subject, you need a very strong sympathy for the subject. This is why Marx was much happier in his presentations of the revolutionary movement than in his insights relating to earlier stories.

The representation of the mobile by the tension of the immobile succeeds all the better as the changes are more regular, more familiar to the reader, more likely to suggest the idea of ​​the existence of a law, or, as we say sometimes better paced. Sociologists who abandon the examination of current facts to embark on bold considerations about the future must, therefore, be condemned. When Bernstein advised the Socialists a few years ago to deal with the movement and not the end that the revolution might end in, he was saying something much more philosophical than he thought.

C: ideological constructions are necessary, but they are also the most frequent causes of our mistakes; it is therefore necessary to reject everything that is not the product of reflection exercised on institutions, uses and rules empirically having acquired in practice well defined forms. This proposal highlighted by Vico, is one of the most important for the Marxist: there is first in history, according to the great Neapolitan, a vulgar wisdom which feels things and expresses them poetically, before thought reflected come to understand them theoretically.

To this rule is attached one of the most important laws of our mind, which is thus stated by Marx in Capital: “Reflection – on the forms of, social life, and consequently their scientific analysis, follows a completely opposite route to real movement [4]1; this is what presents itself last in the world, which explains the anterior; thus industrial capital is used to interpret the usurious capital and the commercial capital which are much earlier. Marx says on this subject: “We will see, in the continuation of our research, that usurious capital, and commercial capital are derived forms (abgeleitete Formen) and then we will explain how they appear in history before capital under its fundamental form (Grundform) which determines the economic organization of modern society”.[5]

Thus, the fundamental ideological principle can only appear on the day when society has taken all its development. Jurists and moralists who strive to see into the future, and to construct it through thought, can therefore only come up with daydreams; it is impossible for them to formulate the principle of the future society and to deduce anything from it for practice; indeed, this principle can only be clearly conceived and usefully introduced into legal logic when the present society has disappeared and given way to a new organization. What we can hope to find, at most, in the contemporary world, are partial becoming, traces of fragmentary movements; and again these observations must be confined to economics.

The work of idealists is therefore a lie and deception; it is very unfortunate that the socialists have too often seemed to encourage contemporary utopians by speaking with too much benevolence of ancient utopians. If Fourier and Cabet[6] deserve to be read, why should Jaurès and Fournière not also deserve to be counted among the beneficent investigators of the future?

There is a force which always brings the mind back to idealist flights; it would be necessary to study the nature of this force and to seek if idealism would not have a legitimate place in the spirit, but outside the economy, and the right – whereas our idealistic politicians want to make him govern the economy and law.[7]

Experience shows that the idealist can combine the most disparate details in his projects without shocking the greatest number of his readers: the latter believe that they have a control mechanism in their brains allowing them to know whether the whole is or is not logical; the true philosopher of history will not use this logic!

The idealists use the weakness that has led scholars so many times to be fooled by counterfeiters: all the details seem suitable and yet the work is only a messy mosaic, formed from loans made from monuments preserved in various museums. The more brilliant a social combination will appear by the choice of elements, the more it will have to be distrusted; if the elements please, it is because they are borrowed from legends or from pleasant circumstances of present life; it is therefore quite improbable that with such procedures one can arrive at just ideas about the future: it is not by repeating the past that one can foresee the future; the past is dead forever and all the more dead, it seems, that it has been more linked to the feelings that have charmed the mass of men.

* * *

In conclusion, I would like to draw the attention of philosophers to a question which seems to me to be of capital importance from the point of view of the progress of philosophy and from the point of view of the good propaganda of socialism. I wonder whether it is possible to provide an intelligible exposition of the passage from principles to action without using myths.[8]

It does not seem that the historians of philosophy have yet managed to get a clear idea of the role, however considerable, that myths have played in human thought; the theory of Platonic myths is not yet completely made; I will therefore refrain from entering into such an arduous discussion here; I will confine myself to making a few comments on the difficulties encountered by contemporary socialism and which could perhaps be resolved by a theory of social myths.

It has often been pointed out in socialism that the scholars are very reluctant today to defend and that many propagandists “regard as true axioms free from all controversy”. A few years ago, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, Vandervelde gave a conference in Paris in which he pointed out that the following three propositions had become more or less obsolete: 1) the brass law[9] of wages, which the Belgian speaker identified with that of growing misery; 2) the law of capitalist concentration; 3) the law of the correlation between economic power and politics. The first appeared to him “definitively relegated to the museum of antiques”, – the second having only a partial application for the moment, – the third being concealed in political combinations.[10] A few months later, the Dutch deputy, Van Kol , published an article entitled: ‘Der back les dogmes’ (Revue socialiste, October 1898), in which he rejected many more proposals than Vandervelde.[11]

Endless discussions have taken place on these questions and they do not seem to have thrown much light on the difficulties; what seems to me to result from the experience acquired, is that these famous “dogmas” contain something essential to the life and progress of socialism. I do not even believe that it is possible to completely abandon the catastrophic conception.

I wonder if we should not treat as myths theories that the scholars of socialism no longer want to admit and that activists regard as “axioms free from all controversy. It is probable that Marx had already presented the catastrophic conception only as a myth, illustrating in a very clear way the class struggle and the social revolution.

If we succeeded in demonstrating that myths are necessary to expose, in an exact way, the conclusions of a social philosophy which does not want, to deceive itself and does not want to take for science what it is not, – we would no doubt be led to demonstrate also that the contested theories are necessitated by modern revolutionary action; and it is probable that one could demonstrate, at the same time, that the learned, legal and practical constructions, advocated at present by more or less socializing sociologists, are nothing but deception and false science. It is obvious that the inventors of higher law systems will fight fiercely any attempt which is made, to clarify the problems which they have such a great interest to obscure; So I am not talking to them, but only to people who understand the demands of selfless thinking.

The moment is perhaps not far away when it will be recognized that the old revolutionary socialism is infinitely more penetrated with a philosophical spirit and more close to science than is the hyper-legal socialism of our doctors in high reformist politics.

[1] Enrico Ferri, Socialisme et science sociale, trad. franc., p. 146

[2] Benedetto Croce, Matérialisme historique et économie marxiste, trad. franç., p. 159.

[3] Kautsky is too foreign to any philosophical reflection to suspect the existence of the hidden mechanism of the doctrine of his alleged master.

[4] Marx, Capital, tome I, p. 30, col. 1.

[5] Marx, loc. cit., p. 70, col. 1.

[6] On July 18, 1841 Proudhon wrote to Micaud that “Father Cabet” is “an honest man, useful to the people, I would even say to the government and who has no other defect than to lack lights and give himself importance. ” He thinks that by preaching “the revolution by ideas”. Cabet several times diverted the people from the riot. (Correspondance, tome VI, pp. 305-306). – Sur la vanité enfantine de Cabet, cf. Saint René Taillandier (Études sur la révolution en Allemagne, tome II, p. 479).

[7] The observations made by Renan in the Life of Jesus can be usefully consulted from this point of view. (Cf. pp. 123-133; pp. 293-301; pp. 327-333). – Convinced that there is an absolute contradiction between the economy and the law on the one hand and the legitimate domain of idealism on the other, Renan condemned in these terms the socialisms with which the contemporaries of his youth had been enthusiastic . “Even today, troubled days when Jesus has no more authentic continuators than those who seem to repudiate him, dreams of the ideal organization of society are one of the branches of this immense tree … including the kingdom of God will be eternally the stem and the root … But, tainted with a gross materialism, aspiring to the impossible, that is to say, to base the universal bliss on political and economic measures, the socialist attempts of our time will remain fruitless until they take as rule the true spirit of Jesus, I mean absolute idealism, this principle that, to possess the earth, one must renounce it ”(pp. 299-300).

[8] I reproduce below the text of 1903. – In the Reflections on violence the theory of myths has taken a more assured form.

[9] The “brass law” referred to here is another name for the better-known “iron law of wages”.

[10] Socialist review, March 1898, p. 329, pp. 335-340. – On the other hand, in the Little Republic of June 13, 1898, one of Vandervelde’s admirers wrote: “The most eminent theoreticians of our party replied to bourgeois economists that never had socialism proclaimed the existence of the law of brazen “. This author adds that Marx claimed that the iron law should be called a rubber law, which undoubtedly means that it does not express all the possible depression of increasing misery. He had therefore misunderstood Vandervelde; but in this world of French socialism such blunders have no importance.

[11] According to van Kol, (Rienzi) the theory of value must be the subject of a more rigorous examination, the conception of the historical development of Marx is suitable only for certain phases of civilization. From revolutionary tactics we move everywhere to the tactics of progressive reforms, communism has diminished into collectivism; the law of wages is an antique; no one supports the doctrine of increasing misery; nationalism is gaining more importance day by day; a serious international struggle will not be possible until later; Marxism ceases to be amoral; he now recognizes the value of psychological motives in evolution. (Note added to the third edition).

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