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  • 7/31/2019 Bad Anarchism


    Anarist Developments in Cultural Studies

    Art & Anary2011.2

    Bad Anarism: Aestheticized

    Mythmaking and the Legacy of

    Georges Sorel

    Mark Antliff*


    is article considers the varied impact of the notion of revolutionaryconsciousness first developed by the French political theorist GeorgesSorel (18471922) on proponents of anarchism and Marxism, includ-ing Walter Benjamin, Bart de Light, Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci

    and, most recently, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. I question thestrategy amongst these thinkers to draw selectively from Sorels writ-ings in an aempt to create a cordon sanitairearound those aspects ofhis thought that are problematic by virtue of their impact on proto-fas-cist and fascist ideologues throughout Europe. In addressing this issueI examine how Sorels anarchist theory of anti-Statism, constructedaround the power of myths, led him to endorse anti-capitalist anti-Semitism as an extension of class struggle; and I critique his Janus-faced concept of aestheticized violence as it relates to his quest formoral regeneration through revolution.

    Among those theorists whose ideas served as a catalyst for twen-tieth-century anarchism, Georges Sorel (18471922) (Fig. 1) remainsthe most controversial, primarily due to his own troubled political

    * Mark Antliff, Professor of Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University, is authorofInventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde(1993); co-editorwith Mahew Affron of Fascist Vision: ArtandIdeology in France andItaly(1997);and co-author with Patricia Leighten of two books, Cubism and Culture(2001) and ACubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 19061914(2008). In 201011 he co-curatedthe exhibition e Vorticists: RebelArtists in London and New York, 19141918, whichopened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and then traveled to thePeggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and to Tate Britain. e present study derivesin part from his book on Georges Sorels myriad impact on French politics, art andculture, Avant-Garde Fascism: e Mobilization of Myth, Art and Culture in France,19091939 (2007).

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    156 Mark Antliff

    Figure 1 George Sorel

    trajectory and that of his self-proclaimed followers, many of whomwere drawn to fascism following Benito Mussolinis rise of powerin 1922, the year ofSorels death.1 Despite such associations Sorelsnotion of revolutionary consciousness and the role he ascribed to

    myth in constituting and fomenting political activism continued toaract theorists among the le in Europe, including the Marxist An-tonio Gramsci, whose conception ofan intellectual and moral blocwas indebted to Sorel, and the prominent champion of Ngritude,Frantz Fanon, whose seminal books Bla Skin, White Masks(1952)and Te Wreted of the Earth(1962) drew on Sorels theory to instillrevolutionary consciousness among blacks in Europe and Africa.2

    Walter Benjamin in his important essay On the Critique of Violence

    (1921) interpreted Sorels concept of the general strike in terms ofthe abolition not only of the state apparatus through non-violentresistance (the refusal to work) but also the destruction of the legal

    1 See Avant-Garde Fascism: e Mobilization of Myth, Art and Culture in France,19091939 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

    2 On Gramsci, see Enrico Angelli and Craig N. Murphy, Consciousness, myth andcollective action: Gramsci, Sorel and the Ethical State, in Innovation andTransfor-mation in International Studies, eds. Stephen Gill and James Mileman (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2538, Jack Roth, e Cultof Violence: Sorelandthe Sorelians(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 175178, and chaptersix of Walter Adamson, Hegemonyand Revolution: A StudyofAntonioGramscis Po-litical and Cultural Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); onFanon, see Georges Ciccariello-Maher, To Lose Oneself in the Absolute: Revolution-ary Subjectivity in Sorel and Fanon, Human Aritecture: Journal of the Sociology ofSelf-Knowledge (Summer 2007), 101112.

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    Bad Anarism 157

    order maintained by the State to justify its oppressive rule.3 A compa-rable view was taken up by the anarchist Bart de Light who likewiseendorsed Sorels theory in the context of his monumental study of

    direct non-violent action, Te Conquestof Violence: An essayon Warand Revolution (1937).4 More recently the Marxists Ernesto Laclauand Chantal Mouffe have sought to resuscitate Sorels concept ofmyth in the context of their theory ofhegemony, and the constitutiverole of antagonistic struggle as a catalyst to a theory of revolutionno longer premised on the outmoded Marxist concept of historicalnecessity.5 By breaking with orthodox Marxism, which posited classconflict and revolution as the pre-determined outcome ofeconomicinequality, Laclau and Mouffe follow Sorels example in seeking toestablish class identity and class antagonism by other means. Inendorsing Sorels theory ofmyth as an anti-essentialist, anti-deter-minist tool for political activism Laclau and Mouffe argue that thelater appropriation ofSorels thought by advocates of fascism wasmerely one of the possible derivatives from Sorels analysis and byno means a necessary outcome ofhis ideas. us the endorsementof mythmaking by Sorels fascist followers, and their celebration ofwar as a mythic catalyst for ethical renewal and proletarian heroismwas not necessarily determined by the very structure of Sorelsthought which reportedly remained indeterminate.6

    What Laclau and Mouffe fail to address is the extent to whichSorels theory of radical subjectivity contained within it the seedsfor such ideological volatility, as evidenced by the writings of Sorelhimself. Such findings should stand as a warning to any endorse-

    ment among contemporary anarchists ofSorels prognosis on howto achieve revolution, however aractive his theory ofagitationalmythmaking might first appear. In many respects Sorels critiqueof the Enlightenment as the ideological means by which Europeandemocracies establish and maintain power and his related advocacy

    3 On Benjamins debt to Sorel, see Werner Hamacher, Afformative, Strike: BenjaminsCritique of Violence, in eds. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne, WalterBenjaminsPhilosophy: Destruction and Experience(London: Routledge, 1994), 110138.

    4 Bart de Ligts book was first published in French in 1935 under the title Pour vaincresansviolence: rflexions sur la guerre et lervolution; the expanded and revised Englishtranslation appeared in London in 1937 and in the United States in 1938. See Bart deLigt, Te Conquestof Violence: An Essayon Warand Revolution (New York: E.P. Duon,1938)

    5 See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemonyand SocialistStrategy: Towards aRadical Democratic Politics(London: Verso, 1987), 3642.

    6 Ibid., 41.

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    158 Mark Antliff

    of the anti-rational power of myth as the catalyst for revolutionaryconsciousness, finds an echo in the recourse to mythmaking stilloperative in the work of contemporary anarchist theorists.7 is

    unfeered embrace of irrationalism as a means ofconstituting a pol-itics of revolutionary identity formation carries with it the perils offorming a movement lacking in any critical self-reflection, in whichmyth itself has the potential to become a pliant tool in the handsof a self-styled revolutionary or reactionary elite. To probethis issue, we need to consider how Sorels anarchist theory of anti-Statism, constructed around the power ofmyths, led him to endorseanti-capitalist anti-Semitism as an extension of his theory of class

    struggle; and his Janus-faced concept of violence, as it relates to hisquest for moral regeneration.

    Sorels Political Trajectory

    Georges Sorel was a prolific author whose tumultuous politicalevolution accounts for the fact that, following his death, activistsacross the full political spectrum laid claim to his philosophicallegacy.8 Born in Cherbourg as the son ofa bankrupt wine merchant,Sorel received technical training at the cole polytechnique in Parisbefore becoming an engineer in 1870. From 1879 to his retirementin 1892, Sorel was ensconced in Perpignan in the Eastern Pyrnes,and it was there, in 1889, that he published his first books, Le Procs

    7 See, for example, Gavin Grindon, e Breath of the Possible, Constituent Imagination:Militant Investigations Collective Teorization, Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeberwith Erika Biddle, eds. (San Francisco: AK Press, 2007), 94107.

    8 Notable monographic studies of Sorel and his influence include, Michel Charzat,Georges Sorel et la rvolution au XXe sicle (Paris: Hachee, 1977); Yves Guchet,Georges Sorel, 18471922: Serviteur dsintress du proltariat(Paris: LHarmaan,2001); Irving Louis Horowitz, Radicalism and the RevoltAgainst Reason: e Socialeories ofGeorges Sorel(New York: Humanities Press, 1961); J.R. Jennings, GeorgesSorel: e Character andDevelopment of his ought(New York: St. Martins Press,1985); Georges Soreletson temps, eds. Jacques Julliard and Shlomo Sand (Paris: Editionsdu Seuil, 1985); James Maisel, Te Genesis ofGeorges Sorel: An AccountofHis FormativePeriod Followed by a Study of His Influence (Ann Arbor: George Wahr PublishingCompany, 1951); Jack J. Roth, e Cultof Violence: Sorelandthe Sorelians(Berkeley:University of California Press); Shlomo Sand, LIllusion du politique: Georges Sorel etle dbat intellectuel 1900(Paris: Editions La Dcouverte, 1985); and John L. Stanley,e Sociology of Virtue: e Political and Social ought ofGeorges Sorel (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1981). e journal Cahiers Georges Sorel(19831988),now titled Mil neuf cent: Revue dhistoire intellectuell