Georges Sorel, “China”

Preface

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

China

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.

The limit of modernity at the horizon of myth

The preeminent condition of the present time is aesthetic desperation: the search for the smallest piece of beautiful scrap, the most vanishing hint of a serious ideology, that has not yet been brutally subsumed, commoditised, disenchanted, and ground to dust. If I have been accused of fleeing into the ‘ruins’ of Christianity, such an action ought to be entirely unremarkable: in fact, for the Western mind at least, the entire world is more and more a ruin, and we inhabit it almost as ghosts.1 Mark Fisher cut to the heart of the matter: ‘Capitalism,’ one of his most famous and devastating passages observes, ‘is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.’2 When everything solid dissolves into air, all that is left on the ground is ash.

This condition is not just a consequence of material forces, however, but the product of a specific and ongoing crisis in the perception of time. The ruination of the future, as Reinhart Koselleck first observed,3 began with its unwinding in the Reformation, where the onrush of the Apocalypse impinged increasingly upon the indefinite time of the liturgical calendar; it intensified with the unhinging of history from the future in the Enlightenment; and—we may add to Koselleck—it reached a new turn with the displacement of acceleration from the realm of political to technical phenomena in the nineteenth century. In short, where once the future stretched forwards indefinitely in repetition of the present and the immediate past, it became, first, radically distinguished from the past, then emptied of the fixed, apocalyptic content of early Protestant millenarianism, and finally displaced entirely from human control.

For Koselleck, the temporal predicament of the Enlightenment had inaugurated a modern era of ‘critique and crisis’—critique, because the abyss of the future rendered impermanent all human institutions; crisis, because it invited the Enlightenment intellectual, the philosophe, to hide the void with an ideal future of his own design, and the dissonance between these utopias and prevailing social realities introduced an unbearable gaping disjuncture in the ordering of politics that no institutional setting ever since designed has succeeded in closing. In this regard there was little to differentiate revolutionary from counterrevolutionary—politics had become a war for the future over the ashes of the past. A small-time conservative pamphleteer—one Edmund Burke—described his own destiny with reference to the horrific fate of the Hussite general Jan Žižka, whose skin was flayed and stretched over the drums that would beat the sound of war: Burke’s person was to be ground into the total war against revolution.4 Through this all there has run the feeling of a growing acceleration of events; and where in the early nineteenth century a figure such as Metternich could still see the task of politics as the reordering of time through managerial restraint of social acceleration, in 2018 politics has either given itself over to the fact of this acceleration—or adopted a standpoint far more classically Protestant in its gleeful apocalypticism.5

Grasping this history will shed light on what may seem a strange remark I made in Catholicism and the gravity of horror, viz.:

Under the compressive impulse of recent modernity, however, the distinctively open future of the Enlightenment seems to be coming to a close. What is characteristic of this “cyberpunk” age is the collapse of the boundaries not just between the future and the present—a “future so close it connects”—but also the past: for progressives as much as conservatives, the future comes to be constituted by the recovery of historical projects prematurely foreclosed.

The question is this: How does one conceive the future? For enlightened man, the future was to be constructed, a supposition embodied in an endless proliferation of utopian schemes. A quite different answer, however, was provided at the start of the twentieth century by Georges Sorel.6 The future, Sorel saw, is the product of myth, of cosmic suppositions that ground and envelop what is merely human. To ‘construct the future’ is therefore to elaborate a myth. The significance of myth is not, in this sense, in its truth or falsehood, but in its social effects: to call the idea of the end of capitalism, as Sorel did, a myth was not to pass judgement on its propositional validity, but rather to point out what sort of effect it had.

This was not in itself a new idea, and it is all too easy to jump from this idea to the cynical notion of natural religion common to Machiavelli, Plato, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, who all see religion as an instrument to be gauged, manipulated, and engineered to produce the most salutary possible effects on society. Yet—and here was Sorel’s critique of the Maurrasian school of integralism, the decisive realisation that distinguished him from Nietzsche and all his predecessors—myth cannot be merely engineered. The fantasy of the speculative philosophe later identified by Koselleck was always just a fantasy, in its full pathological sense. Cynicism itself abolishes the utility of myth; the success of myth depends on the faithfulness of the mystagogue; and fully enlightened man, in fact, even when he imagines he has mastered his mythic ground, sprawls beneath the symbols of a greater myth, which he can barely perceive: the ‘illusion of progress’.

What is more, the illusion of progress is a myth that runs up far too easily against the limits of material production. Already a hundred years ago, Sorel could perceive that this illusion was out of joint with the reality of capitalist development. The determinants of industrial production tend not towards a linear progress up and away from the past—that preeminent, always-disappointed fantasy of liberalism—but to periods of decline and recovery, and finally to a strange recapitulation of the past, a recapturing of previous eras. Grounding himself in an eclectic mix of natural-scientific research, Marxian economics, and syndicalist theory, Sorel foresaw not the indefinite and universal intensification of industrial concentration, but a corresponding tendency of decentralisation, a strange return of the workshop and of the artisan in the context of capitalist technical progress. Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.

With this the Enlightenment predicament comes to an end, and Sorel alights on the horizon of modern social thought, beyond which to think of modernity is itself impossible. The reintegration of the past into the future through the tendency of industrial development towards the circuitous recovery of history—what Sorel identified with Vico’s historical ricorso, the moment of renewal after decline—and the simultaneous reintegration of the future into the present through myth, which becomes identical with authentic natural religion, combine to dissociate the characteristic underlying basis of modernity. The horizon of modernity is the horizon of myth, and its line is broken by the temporally unanticipated dawn of something that—to the horror of liberal minds—looks very much premodern.

All this is to show, at the first and basic level, the importance of myth as the limit of modern social thought—but, more than that, it is also to suggest the importance of Christianity, which demands not just submission to a given prior, as Sorel conceives myth, but to the truth, and which in its fullest form counterposes itself more than any other religion in history to the world as a whole. For the moment, that world remains stuck in what looks like a last phase before ricorso, what Sorel termed decadence, and which Fisher identified with the condition of capitalist realism. It is remarkable, from a theological perspective, that this dispensation bears a close similarity to the ‘empty time’ of the final epoch of the Old Testament. In von Balthasar’s analysis, this empty time was a moment of baited breath, in which the Israelites searched desperately for some measure of recovery of the glory of the Lord with which they had had such immediate contact in the distant past: spreading their search across every different field, through introspective mysticism, through apocalypticism, through the desperate reiteration of blood-sacrifice, they sought to recover an aesthetic experience which seemed, terribly, to have disappeared.

Yet this moment was not, as they thought, entirely barren. Indeed, the unbearable night of empty expectation may in fact be pregnant with the light of a future only dimly imaginable: ‘“For that night” (illa enim nox, Wis 18.6) in which at about midnight the work of redemption and the work of annihilation took place simultaneously,’ says Balthasar, ‘this night remains impenetrable. It is absolute judgment, and—in the very heart of this—the incomprehensible superabundance of grace (Rom 5.15–21). It is the ever greater measure of humanity’s failure, which increases the blood-guilt beyond comprehension, and—therein—the ever greater measure of the mercy of God …’7 Here, however, we have entered the realm of theology proper, where secular social theory and the logic of natural religion must fall silent.

References

1 Or, as the Holy Father says, ‘Terra, domus nostra, in immensum sordium depositum magis magisque demutari videtur.’ Francis PP., Laudato sì (2015), §21.
2 M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: Zero Books, 2009) p. 4.
3 R. Koselleck, trans. K. Tribe, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); id., Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988).
4 E. Burke, ‘A Letter from the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, to a Noble Lord, …’, in The Works of Edmund Burke, with a Memoir. In Three Volumes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), Vol. 2, p. 193.
5 See R. Jones, ‘1816 and the resumption of “ordinary history”’, The Journal of Modern European History 14 (2016), pp. 119–44; M. Siebert, ‘Linkola, Montana’, Jacobite (July 19, 2018).
6 I have discussed Sorel elsewhere, but Sorel’s Illusions of Progress and Reflections on Violence form the indispensable bedrock to an appreciation of his thought. Further exploration of these features of Sorel’s thought is forthcoming from myself and from Edmund Berger.
7 H. U. von Balthasar, trans. Brain McNeil C.R.V. and Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. VI: Theology: The Old Covenant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 400.