In my post on “Tribalist Catholicism,” I mentioned, in passing, the French political theorist Georges Sorel (1847-1922). As a follow-up, I’d like to say something more about Sorel, whose thought is particularly useful for understanding this moment in the Church when social media and popular resentments have formed a particularly toxic mix.
Georges Sorel was a retired engineer who, at around the beginning of the twentieth century, became a political analyst, polemicist, and proponent of a new form of post-Nietzschean socialist politics based on a rejection of both gradualist progressivism and utopianism. He preached a gospel of ‘action,’ and aligned himself, at different times, with political movements as varied as revolutionary syndicalism, the integral nationalism of Charles Maurras and the Action Française, and Russian bolshevism. The British author Wyndham Lewis, writing in 1926, referred to Sorel as “the key to all contemporary political thought” (Lewis, 119), and the German political philosopher Carl Schmitt, in a footnote to The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1926), agreed with Lewis’s appraisal (88n). Sorel was a major influence on Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism, and echoes of Sorel are still heard in the discourse of political extremists—from black bloc anarchists to alt-right provocateurs.
Sorel considered himself a moralist, but he was not a moral philosopher of the usual Catholic sort, concerned with delineating an objective moral order. The values he championed were the heroic values of the pagan warrior: honour, courage, self-sacrifice, ruthlessness, and strength of will. He despised dialogue, cooperation, and compromise, all of which he saw as symptomatic of a decadent bourgeois civilization. Instead, he self-consciously advocated the use of apocalyptic political discourse, which paralyzes the intellect and demands immediate action.
Because Sorel’s brand of moralism was not tied to abstract political ideologies, it appealed to both revolutionaries and reactionaries. As Lewis remarked, Sorel “is the arch exponent of extreme action and revolutionary violence à outrance [to the extreme]; but he expounds this sanguinary doctrine in manuals that often, by the changing of a few words, would equally serve the forces of traditional authority, and provide them with a twin evangel of demented and intolerant class-war” (119). He was the prophet not only of intolerant class war, but also of the culture wars that are still with us today.
Sorel came from a Catholic family, and his understanding of Church history informed his understanding of socialism, and vice versa. The only Church that Sorel was interested in, however, and which he ever showed any support for, was the “Church Militant.” He valorized only those aspects of the Church that stood in stark opposition to the modern world, and his rhetoric is echoed in that of many post-Vatican II traditionalists. S.P. Rouanet eloquently describes Sorel’s attitude toward the Church:
When science was condemned as heretical, and heliocentrism and evolution were attacked as demoniacal theories, the Church kept its vitality. The issues were clear, the two fields were sharply marked, and the task to be accomplished was the destruction of the spirit of Evil. While it maintained this single-mindedness and this heroic simplicity, remaining free from crippling intellectualisms, the Church commanded the loyalty and blind obedience of the faithful. When the Church decided to yield to the liberal spirit and to tolerate evolutionism and democracy, its vitality was lost. The issues lost their clearness, the border line between the two opposing fields was blurred, and a general climate of compromise replaced the old aggressiveness. The former values of warfare and martyrdom were replaced by a prosaic belief in peaceful coexistence. (58-9)
The trend toward “compromise” was, for Sorel, embodied in Pope Leo XIII, who played a role in Sorel’s thinking comparable to the role that Pope Francis plays for some today. He saw the encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) as a pernicious blueprint for a reconciliation between the Church and modern society—a model for social harmony where no harmony was possible or desirable.
The central Sorelian concept—his most significant contribution to political theory—is that of the social “myth.” In his Reflections on Violence (1908), Sorel describes social myths as ideas or clusters of ideas that function as calls for action. They are “anticipations of the future” which contain “all the strongest inclinations of a people, of a party or of a class, inclinations which recur to the mind with the insistence of instincts in all the circumstances of life; and which give an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action by which, more easily than by any other method, men can reform their desires, passions, and mental activity” (125).
Sorel identified the guiding myth of revolutionary socialism as the apocalyptic general strike, in which all the processes of modern society will come to a sudden stop and the bourgeois social order will be smashed in an eruption of righteous violence. This myth, as Sorel describes it, is “a body of images capable of evoking instinctively all the sentiments which correspond to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by Socialism against modern society” (127). Sorel emphasized that it doesn’t matter if the apocalyptic moment ever arrives, or if it has any chance of being realized in history (126-7). This aspect of myth is crucial: it does not have to be practically realizable to be effective, since its real power lies in its anticipation of the future, and the anticipatory shaping of the new revolutionary man that it inspires. The key process set in motion by the myth is the preparation for the apocalyptic moment, which requires discipline, militarization, and solidarity. It does not even have to be based in truth, and in fact the truth is in many ways an obstacle to the polarizing vision of the world that myth cultivates.
For Sorel, what plagued Catholicism in his own time was a lack of such inspiring myths, which he saw as being essential to the continued life of the Church. Sorel explains:
Catholics have never been discouraged even in the hardest trials, because they have always pictured the history of the Church as a series of battles between Satan and the hierarchy supported by Christ; every new difficulty which arises is only an episode in a war which must finally end in the victory of Catholicism.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the revolutionary persecutions revived this myth of the struggle with Satan, which inspired so many of the eloquent pages in Joseph de Maistre; this rejuvenation explains to a large extent the religious renascence which took place at that epoch. If Catholicism is in danger at the present time, it is to a great extent owing to the fact that myth of the Church militant tends to disappear. (“Letter” 42)
He also saw the same disappearance of myth in the socialism of his time. The idea of a looming catastrophic collapse of the capitalist system had been replaced by a less inspiring vision of a slow transition to socialism through gradual reform. This slow transition, even if it were possible, would not provide the fire needed to forge socialist man. This fire could only be kindled through conflict, self-discipline, and sacrifice.
Although Sorel often spoke of the Church, his focus was on the role of myth in socialist politics and not in Catholic politics. Nevertheless, he was most influential on the right: in the antagonistic Catholicism of the Action Française, the traditionalist Catholicism that thrived during the Vichy Regime, and the many Catholic manifestations of fascism in other countries.
The Sorelian myth is a dangerous illusion. It has little to do with truth, but everything to do with the cultivation of the will to power through the creation of antagonistic social factions. It is a revolt against nihilism, but it is also nihilistic at root—a thoroughly modern reaction to a perceived lack of heroism in everyday modern life. Maurras, the agnostic champion of Catholic tradition, perhaps best represents Sorelianism in action.
Today we are seeing a resurgence of Sorelianism across the world, in both anti-capitalist anarcho-leftism and rightist neo-populism, but also in the Church—primarily in the popularization of radical traditionalism. Social media has unleashed possibilities for the creation of social myths that Sorel could never have imagined. Although much of this myth-making exists online, it was not much different in Sorel’s day, when extremist rhetoric was largely confined to newspapers until the effects of the Great War allowed it to spill into the streets and eventually into mainstream political life.
There are times when Catholics are called to heroic action, but Catholics can also, as history has shown, be driven into explosions of fanaticism and hate by myths that have no relationship to the truth. We must always be on guard against such influences. We should beware of Catholic publications that thrive on scandal, that publish, day after day, misleading stories that are designed to create an atmosphere of apocalyptic dread. And we should also beware of false prophets that offer simplistic solutions—especially when these are accompanied by militaristic language, a one-sided emphasis on heroic values, and a demonization of the enemy.
Certainly, within some segments of conservative Catholicism, we can see myth-building at work, and a “body of images” (both visual and verbal) that are meant to represent the two sides of an impending war in the Church. These images and ideas, taken as clusters, are capable of inspiring almost “instinctive” responses, as we see constantly on social media. What are the images that represent ‘the enemy’? These include the “Novus Ordo” mass, effeminate priests, Pachamama, Cardinal McCarrick, liberation theology, Bishop Kräutler, modern sacred architecture, the Nouvelle théologie, Democrat Catholics, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, Saul Alinsky, “nighty night, baby,” and many more. And on the side of the heroic warriors? The TLM, Pope Pius X, the Maccabees, crusader knights, Paul rebuking Peter, the Polish teen protesting a pride parade, the destruction of the ‘Pachamama idols,’ etc. It is conceptual theatre. Consider the following description of the Catholic Identity Conference that appeared on the popular traditionalist website One Peter Five last week, which uses language that would have made even Maurras blush:
The recent Catholic Identity Conference, organized by The Remnant Newspaper, is a call for all Catholics to rise up and fight for the Faith. In days past, the heralds came to town and preached the Crusade, and our fathers left their families to “take up the cross” and die in the holy land fighting Muhammadans. In the same way, Mr. Michael Matt, editor of The Remnant, has called this a “time of honor,” when Catholics must manfully arise for the honor of fighting and dying under the banner of Our Lady of Victory and Christ the King. It was his initiative of #UniteTheClans that dominated the conference, bringing together a wide variety of voices for a wholesale call to arms.
Catholic traditionalists of this type are playing with fire. They are also playing with the truth, which as Catholics we must always cleave to. Was there really idol worship at the Vatican during the Amazon synod? For the myth-builder, it doesn’t really matter. The “Pachamama” figure is useful in that it has a mythical quality; it can provide a focal-point around which to rally the troops.
A heroism built on myth is cheap. Let us strive for true heroism as peacemakers, both inside and outside the Church. If we must fight, then we must be sure we are seeing reality through the eyes of faith and love, and not through the battle-hungry eyes of Sorel and the legions of revolutionaries and reactionaries that he inspired.
Print Works Cited
Lewis, Wyndham. The Art of Being Ruled. Edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1989. First published 1926.
Rouanet, S.P. “Irrationalism and Myth in Georges Sorel.” The Review of Politics 26.1 (Jan. 1964): 45-69.
Schmitt, Carl. The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. Translated by Ellen Kennedy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1985. First published 1926.
Sorel. “Introduction: Letter to Daniel Halevy.” In Sorel, Reflections. 26-56.
Sorel, Georges. Reflections on Violence. Trans. T.E. Hulme and J. Roth. New York: Collier Books, 1961. First published 1908.
All photos are from Wikimedia Commons.