The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

13
Georges Sorel and the "Dreyfusard Revolution"

Jeffrey Mehlman

The nearly simultaneous initiatives by the embassies of fascist Italy and the Soviet Union to erect monuments to Georges Sorel after his death in 1922 has in part obscured a very different and equally striking chapter in the history of the reception of his thought: the reaction of the literary leaders of Anglo- American modernism. 1 Réflexions sur la violence was translated in 1916 by the philosopher of art T. E. Hulme, who, in his preface, referred to Sorel as "one of the most remarkable writers of the time, certainly the most remarkable socialist since Marx." 2 That translation was reviewed in The Monist of 1917 by T. S. Eliot, who claimed that the book gave, "more than any other book [he was] acquainted with, an insight into . . . 'our directions.'" 3 The skepticism of Renan and Sainte-Beuve, he wrote, was "almost an aesthetic pose. . . . But the skepticism of the present, the skepticism of Sorel, is a torturing vacuity which has developed the craving for belief," 4 as though the breviary of anarchosyndicalism were, in fact, a dry run for "The Waste Land." Finally, there is the case of the great painter-writer Wyndham Lewis--"wrong," wrote Ezra Pound, "about everything except the superiority of live mind to dead mind; for which basic verity God bless his holy name."5 The Art of being Ruled ( 1926) was an ongoing commentary on and debate with Sorel, whom Lewis regarded as "the key to all contemporary political thought." 6

Lest the Sorelianism of Hulme, Eliot, and Lewis, in their reactionary modernism, seem too quaintly remote and easily circumscribable, there is the case of the role our thinker--directly or indirectly--may have played at the wellspring of what has been called postmodernism. The reference to Sorel is explicit in Walter Benjamin "Critique of Violence" and all but there in the pessimistic and apocalyptic leftism of the "Theses on the Philosophy of History."7 There is a second case: now that cirumstance has led many to speculate on the influence Hendrik de Man may have had on his nephew Paul, Zeev Sternell's observation that Hendrik de Man's thought may be read essentially as a prolongation of Sorel's may prove a source of fruitful provocation to historians of critical theory. 8 Finally, there is the case of Jules Monnerot, one of the last survivors of the fabled Collège de Sociologie. In 1974, when he opted to gather a number of his essays, written over some

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