Georges Sorel, “China”


The following article, which I believe is Sorel’s final published work, is now largely forgotten. It does not appear in many of the standard bibliographies of Sorel, and after an extensive search some years ago I could find it only on a microfilm preserved in the archives of the French National Library. Though short, it is undoubtedly one of his strangest pieces, praising the onset of a Bolshevik world order that will overthrow all existing society and closing with an exhortation for a “Mongol invasion” for Europe.

Written as a review of Émile Hovelaque’s Les Peuples d’Extrême-Orient (1920), Sorel’s treatment of Hovelaque—a humanist Sinophile bureaucrat in the French education ministry—is heavily ironic. Where Hovelaque praises China’s “complete” democracy, its advanced culture and its rationalist atheism, Sorel looks forward impatiently to a Bolshevik China that will overthrow all the “conventional falsehoods” of society. Where Hovelaque hopes that with the twilight of colonialism a new era of mutual understanding between East and West has arrived, Sorel hopes that the boiling hatred of East Asia will force Europe to “bow its head” through “violence”.

This is undoubtedly an orientalist piece, yet it stands ominously outside the conventions of early 20th century orientalism. Sorel rejects a racial explanation for the condition of Chinese society, mocking the racial theory that the Mongol invaders were merely Chinese nomads “shaking up” their sedentary brothers. In his typical style, he seamlessly transitions from materialist analysis—situating China’s path as a particular economic trajectory bending towards social revolution—to Nietzschean moralism, seeing in the Asian future a “recourse” that will evaporate the West’s protracted decline into a true social catastrophe.

A century on, for all the bombast of this article, Sorel’s prediction that Asian dominance will arrive in the form of a China that has copied the institutions of Soviet power appears strangely prophetic. Whether China, having now gone through the “convulsions” predicted so many decades ago by Hovelaque, will succeed in triggering the kind of shock that would redeem universal stagnation, the exteriority that Sorel yearned for in his final years, remains to be seen.

Vincent Garton


The excellent library of scientific philosophy directed by Gustave Le Bon has just acquired a volume on China whose reading will be extremely beneficial to philosophers who reflect upon our social future. The author, Émile Hovelaque, is inspector general of public instruction for the English language. He has visited the Far East and has related from there a very lively sympathy for these countries.

Much astonished by the enormous differences that exist between our civilisation and that of China, he has recognised that in order to arrive at a decent understanding of the history of peoples so different from our own from an intellectual point of view, it is necessary to have a good sense of their art. Unfortunately, until recent years Europe has been quite foreign to the Chinese aesthetic, which can only be studied fruitfully in China, in Japan, and in the United States: the European critics considered authoritative have only a mediocre estimation of the ancient masters admired by oriental amateurs; it is fancied that these artists have ignored the elementary principles taught in our schools; in reality, they have dismissed, out of bias, processes that seem to them to introduce prosaicism in their compositions; of really great art, one finds only certain memories in works—for a long time the only known in Europe—that derive from ages in which Daoism and Buddhism had fallen into vulgarity.

Orientals have reflected upon European civilisation much more than is generally supposed. Their modern thinkers accuse it of creating “through its national game [jeu national] injustice, opulence, and poverty to an equally excessive degree, the hatred of classes, mutual contempt and incomprehensions between the castes of the rich and the poor, more closed to one another than those of India, a learned barbarism, a moral anarchy worse than the savagery of the uncivilised” (p. 295). They note that their judgements find a thunderous confirmation in Western literature, of which all the superior works manifest a more and more lively irritation against the existing regime of our society.

“Those of our great writers read enthusiastically by the Orient are prophets as vehement as the soothsayers of Israel, and their inspiration is the same: the inexorable hatred of what is, the infinite aspiration for destruction and a new order.” (p. 278).

Prominent men of the Far East do not allow themselves to be dazzled by the marvels of our industry; they are persuaded that we have applied ourselves to the pursuit of means rather than that of the ends of life. “The ends of life, the meaning of life—in effect, for the Oriental everything is there. One thing alone is important: the interior life; only one culture counts: that of sentiments… Justice and welfare are worth more than the knowledge and domination of natural forces.” We desire knowledge and domination, while the Oriental desires wisdom and interior peace (p. 11–12).

The example of Japan has shown that the Orient “can superimpose upon its profound, unchanged life all the material gains of the West, all our technical processes, all our science, without abandoning anything of its native originality… It has taken from us neither our religions, nor our ideal, nor our customs; and our morality, our sensibility appear in all to it inferior to its own”. (pp. 271–272). Famous Japanese (like marquis Okuma [Shigenobu] and marshal Oyama [Iwao]) say that the last war [World War I] “is only one of the symptoms of our disarray, of the profound disorder of our life, it is only one of the inevitable products of our regimes—not the last. That such a catastrophe could have happened is for them the condemnation of the social order that produced it. For them Europe is going directly into the abyss… Better again than us, they sense to what degree the conquests of humanity, art, gentleness, morality, are feeble and threatened everyday… The Oriental attends this bankruptcy of our much vaunted civilisation and hopes for nothing more than to substitute for our conception of life, so condemned, his own conceptions of life.” (p. 279–280).

Hovelaque is not as pessimistic as these oriental thinkers because he believes that the West may rescue itself by borrowing from the Far East certain precious moral enrichments. “The era of contempt and brutal invasions for the purpose of rapine and oppression is drawing slowly to its end; that of spiritual exchanges and the penetration of reason, of intelligence, of morality opens at last.” (p. 13). In favour of this conception of a new sort of internationalism we can invoke the fact that China has, for some time, brought about social conditions that Europe is striving to produce but has not yet fully achieved; it has nothing of religion engaged in metaphysics, accompanied by mysticism, committed to a place for a sacerdotal hierarchy: for China everything comes back to human reason; nowhere is democracy, in the best sense of the word, so complete. (p. 265). “The least coolie,” Hovelaque assures us, “can not just read and write, but paint and compose poems; he enjoys a refined work of art, cares about beautiful language and good manners, and is profoundly and completely penetrated by the essence of his civilisation, which is the prerogative not of an elite, but of all.” (p. 60).

Everyone has been astonished by the extraordinary permanence of the principle of Chinese civilisation. Invasions, civil wars, the introduction of Buddhism, despotism, imperious and reforming, have changed nothing in society for several millennia. This phenomenon is not sufficiently explained by saying that the race has remained unchanged—the Mongol invaders, it is claimed, were merely nomadic Chinese coming periodically to shake up their enfeebled brethren (p. 115). It is more probable that family status has been maintained because the economic conditions of the country have not changed; but Hovelaque himself recognises that the traditional life of China “will doubtless ultimately disintegrate, like our own has unravelled over the last century” (p. 13); he thinks that the whole of Chinese civilisation will collapse once the cult of the ancestors has lost its authority (p. 129); the question is then raised as to how the moral lessons borrowed from China could be applied to us despite the habits created by capitalism. In any case, Hovelaque foresees that China will undergo all the revolutionary convulsions our own countries have known (p. 269). This whole part of his book dealing with the future of civilisations is full of uncertainties.

I mention here, however, an opinion that seems to me to merit retention. Hovelaque believes that Bolshevism wishes to introduce in Mongolised Russia a regime with great analogies to that of China. “It will be curious to see what repercussion [Bolshevist ideas] will have in China when they penetrate there. In the Kyrgyz, Chinese mercenaries in the pay of the Bolsheviks, they already touch the country’s borderlands. They will find ground there that has been prepared.” He offers the theory that “the future belongs to peoples that find in Bolshevism a momentary modus vivendi.” (pp. 281-282). It is thus through the intermediary of institutions copied from Sovietism that the West will probably have its greatest chance of being influenced by the civilisation of the Far East. A high dignitary of our Ministry of Public Instruction could not go further into this thesis; we are free to propose here a few of the consequences that can reasonably be deduced.

Hovelaque, who seems to grant that the reform of the West will be carried out by intellectual forces alone, says that to make progress in this regard it will be necessary to cause those prejudices to disappear “that have their root in the witless vanity of the White as much as his unfathomable ignorance” (p. 14). This does not seem easy, since, in the course of his voyage, Hovelaque virtually always found the French living in China incapable of understanding realities and duped by prattle (p. 48). But if the reform of the West is to be the result of a Bolshevist conquest, violence becomes its essential factor and European stupidity will have to bow its head.

The Chinese and the Japanese hate and scorn the European, in whom they have learned to recognise through numerous experiences “immorality and profound hypocrisy. It is in this hatred and this scorn that the real Asian danger resides” (p. 273). Hovelaque recounts to us that several times he had to blush for his compatriots, whom the Chinese regarded as “barbarians devoid of reason as much as civilisation” (pp. 61–62).

It seems the Bolsheviks will not fall short of the Orientals in hatred and scorn for the West. The companions of Lenin show it well in the polemics they sustain among the old spiritual leaders of social democracy, which have caused [Jean] Jaurès to tremble. We may well expect that a Bolshevist conquest will eliminate all our conventional lies—socialist lies as much as bourgeois lies.

We pretend to render the Bolsheviks detestable by representing them as new Mongols, but we must not forget that the Mongol princes raised marvellous monuments in all the countries they dominated (p. 111). We would very much need a Mongol conquest to effect the rebirth of great art, today enslaved to the barbarian tastes of the plutocracy.

These few remarks suffice to show how fruitful Hovelaque’s hypothesis is for the future influence of Bolshevism.

Georges SOREL.

Original: G. Sorel, La Chine”La Revue communiste, 1: 5 (July 1920), 429–434.