The Chad Gramscian vs. The Virgin Sorelian (or what have you)
Writer Jacob Siegel made an observation to the effect of “The American Right has left its Grasmscian period and entered its Sorelian Period.” I think what this means is that the Right is no longer seeking hegemony over cultural and political institutions, like it pursued during most of the history of the conservative movement, but has now shifted to a model of political action centered on myth and the redemptive power of violence.
Georges Sorel, an unorthodox French socialist writing around the turn of the last century, believed that myths, like the idea of a general strike or the cataclysmic Marxist revolution, provided the animating spirit for political movements: “The myths are not descriptions of things but expressions of a determination to act.” Myths cannot be refuted through factual disputation, they are not subject to scientific testing, etc.: they mobilize the passions and imagination. Sorel also believed that violence had redemptive power; it could break through liberalism’s deadening and decadent regime of bargaining and negotiation, which he thought was just the reign of fraud and corruption. Sorel hated first and foremost the institutions of liberal democracy and thought their destruction was a more important revolutionary goal even than ending capitalism.
I believe we are now seeing something like a Sorelian response to the Capitol putsch. The Sorelian left has as its “myth” the notion of a spontaneous revolt against the system by the alienated mass of American workers. Anything suggestive of that revolt is potentially or actually legitimate. This Sorelian left can’t accept the official, liberal account of the riots as something deplorable or dangerous; it has to find within it some kernel of virtuous behavior and just regrets that the energy was not directed in a slightly different direction.
This belief is related to another myth, that of the alienated American worker, usually a white male, dissatisfied by the deranging influence of neoliberalism on their way of life. As such, the Sorelian left has to seek out this figure in the social composition of the rioters, either ignoring the quite diverse social backgrounds of the participants or emphasizing and insisting upon it when they are characterized as “petty bourgeois” or even in some cases actually quite wealthy. The main important thing is the supposed absence of the Professional Managerial Class, the caretaker of hypocritical liberalism.
At the same time as seeking something legitimate or praiseworthy or just suggestive of an insurrectionary hope in the Capitol putsch, there is a marked ambivalence on the part of the Sorelian left towards other uprisings and insurrectionary forces in the U.S., like BLM or antifa. There is definitely a racial component to this ambivalence, but I believe it’s also because the goals of the BLM movement have largely been embraced by the institutions of mainstream liberalism (not without significant hypocrisy, of course), rendering it immediately corrupt to the Sorelian left. So too is the antifascist street fighting too close to the broad liberal revulsion against the radical right. (I think Antifa are also too counter-cultural in their own way, the Sorelian left is paradoxically quite conservative.) They are also impatient with Gramscian left’s tactics of electoralism, grassroots organization, or elite persuasion and pressure, viewing those as avenues into the corrupt halls of liberalism.
Only the radical right appears to the Sorelian leftist to be authentically anti-bourgeois, truly unassimilable into the corrupt framework of mainstream liberalism. This is why there is a lot of curiosity in these Sorelian corners about the notions and culture of the radical right: about nationalism, about populism, about conspiratorialism as holding a rational kernel on the subject of corrupt elite domination, about avant-garde ironic shock tactics to épater la bourgeoisie, and so forth. This creates the need to insist on the core legitimacy or ultimate harmlessness of the Capitol riot: that its participants are good folk misled by corrupt politicians but are the potential shock troops of a future, genuine revolt.
In all this they are very close to my favorite subject of study, the paleoconservatives, who desired “revolution from the middle,” a middle American revolt against the domination of liberalism’s managerial elite. The difference is that the paleos were more honest with themselves, and did not condescend and deflect quite so much about the ideological content of their chosen army; they thought the racism, paranoia, conspiratorialism, and nationalism were not really regrettable misdirections that could be tweaked here and there into a truer consciousness of social evil, but actually pretty accurate political judgments that should be further encouraged where possible.
For my part, whenever people start talking about the authentic people of the nation rising up in righteous anger, “real Americans,” and stuff like that I just get the willies. These things aren’t real as such, they are “LARPs” to use a favored phase of the Sorelian left, or myths, but, again, the function of myths is to inspire action, not to describe the world.
This is a great essay! The idea of the Sorelian left makes a lot of sense -- thinkers in search of a revolutionary force...
What makes the Sorelian left unique in terms of their view on violence? What distinguishes this view of redemptive violence from say, MLK Jr.'s line about how "riots are the language of the unheard?" Is the difference between them their dismissal/acceptance of the institutions of liberal democracy?