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Class War and Violence
I. War of the poorer groups against the rich groups—opposition of democracy to the division into classes—methods of buying social peace—the corporative mind.
II. Illusions relating to the disappearance of violence—the mechanism of conciliation and the encouragement which it gives to strikers—influence of fear on social legislation and its consequences.
EVERYBODY COMPLAINS that discussions about Socialism are generally exceedingly obscure. This obscurity is due, for the most part, to the fact that contemporary Socialists use a terminology which no longer corresponds to their ideas. The best known among the people who call themselves revisionists do not wish to appear to be abandoning certain phrases, which have served for a very long time as a label to characterise Socialist literature. When Bernstein, perceiving the enormous contradiction between the language of social democracy and the true nature of its activity, urged his German comrades to have the courage to appear what they were in reality, and to revise a doctrine that had become mendacious, there was a universal outburst of indignation at his audacity; and the reformists themselves were not the least eager of the defenders of the ancient formula. I remember hearing well-known French Socialists say they found it easier to accept the tactics of Millerand than the arguments of Bernstein.
This idolatry of words plays a large part in the history of all ideologies; the preservation of a Marxist vocabulary by people who have become completely estranged from the thought of Marx constitutes a great misfortune for Socialism. The expression "class war," for example, is employed in the most improper manner; and until a precise meaning can be given to this term, we must give up all hope of a reasonable exposition of Socialism.
A. To most people the class war is the principle of Socialist tactics. That means that the Socialist party founds its electoral successes on the clashing of interests which exist in an acute state between certain groups, and that, if need be, it would undertake to make this hostility still more acute; their candidates ask the poorest and most numerous class to look upon themselves as forming a corporation, and they offer to become the advocates of this corporation; they promise to use their influence as representatives to improve the lot of the disinherited. Thus we are not very far from what happened in the Greek states; Parliamentary Socialists are very much akin to the demagogues who clamoured constantly for the abolition of debts, and the division of landed property, who put all public charges upon the rich, and invented plots in order to get large fortunes confiscated. "In the democracies in which the crowd is above the law," says Aristotle, "the demagogues, by their continual attacks upon the rich, always divide the city into two camps ... the oligarchs should abandon all swearing of oaths like those they swear to-day; for there are cities in which they have taken this oath—I will be the constant enemy of the people, and I will do them all the evil that lies in my power." Here, certainly, is a war between two classes as clearly defined as it can be; but it seems to me absurd to assert that it was in this way that Marx understood the class war, which, according to him, was the essence of Socialism.
I believe that the authors of the French law of August 11, 1848, had their heads full of these classical reminiscences when they decreed punishment against all those who, by speeches and newspaper articles, sought "to trouble the public peace by stirring up hatred and contempt amongst the citizens." The terrible insurrection of the month of June was just over, and it was firmly believed that the victory of the Parisian workmen would have brought on, if not an attempt to put communism into practice, at least a series of formidable requisitions on the rich in favour of the poor; it was hoped that an end would be put to civil wars by increasing the difficulty of propogating doctrines of hatred, which might raise the proletariat against the middle class.
Nowadays Parliamentary Socialists no longer entertain the idea of insurrection; if they still occasionally speak of it, it is merely to give themselves airs of importance; they teach that the ballot-box has replaced the gun; but the means of acquiring power may have changed without there being any change of mental attitude. Electoral literature seems inspired by the purest demagogic doctrines; Socialism makes its appeal to the discontented without troubling about the place they occupy in the world of production; in a society as complex as ours, and as subject to economic upheavals, there is an enormous number of discontented people in all classes—that is why Socialists are often found in places where one would least expect to meet them. Parliamentary Socialism speaks as many languages as it has types of clients. It makes its appeal to workmen, to small employers of labour, to peasants; and in spite of Engels, it aims at reaching the farmers; it is at times patriotic; at other times it declares against the Army. It is stopped by no contradiction, experience having shown that is possible, in the course of an electoral campaign, to group together forces which, according to Marxian conceptions, should normally be antagonistic. Besides, cannot a Member of Parliament be of service to electors of every economic situation?
In the end the term "proletariat" became synonymous with oppressed; and there are oppressed in all classes: German Socialists have taken a great interest in the adventures of the Princess of Coburg. One of our most distinguished reformers, Henri Turot, for a long time one of the editors of the Petite République and municipal councillor of Paris, has written a book on the "proletariat of love," by which title he designates the lowest class of prostitutes. If one of these days the suffrage is granted to women, he will doubtless be called upon to draw up a statement of the claims of this special proletariat.
B. Contemporary democracy in France finds itself somewhat bewildered by the tactics of the class war. This explains why Parliamentary Socialism does not mingle with the main body of the parties of the extreme left.
In order to understand this situation, we must remember the important part played by revolutionary war in our history; an enormous number of our political ideas originated from war; war presupposes the union of national forces against the enemy, and our French historians have always severely criticised those insurrections which hampered the defence of the country. It seems that our democracy is harder on its rebels than monarchies are; the Vendéens are still denounced daily as infamous traitors. All the articles published by Clémenceau to combat the ideas of Hervé are inspired by the purest revolutionary tradition, and he says so himself clearly: "I stand by and shall always stand by the old-fashioned patriotism of our fathers of the Revolution," and he scoffs at people who would "suppress international wars in order to hand us over in peace to the amenities of civil war" (Aurore, May 12, 1905).
For some considerable time the Republicans denied that there was any struggle between the classes in France; they had so great a horror of revolt that they would not recognise the facts. Judging all things from the abstract point of view of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, they said that the legislation of 1789 had been created in order to abolish all distinction of class in law; for that reason they were opposed to proposals for social legislation, which, nearly always, reintroduced the idea of class, and distinguished certain groups of citizens as being unfitted for the use of liberty. "The revolution was supposed to have suppressed class distinction," wrote Joseph Reinach sadly in the Matin of April 19, 1895; "but they spring up again at every step.... It is necessary to point out these aggressive returns of the past, but they must not be allowed to pass unchallenged; they must be resisted."
Electoral dealing led many Republicans to recognise that the Socialists obtain great successes by utilising the passions of jealousy, of deception, or of hate, which exist in the world; thenceforward they became aware of the class war, and many have borrowed the jargon of the Parliamentary Socialists: in this way the party that is called Radical Socialist came into being. Clémenceau asserts even that he knows moderates who became Socialists in twenty-four hours. "In France," he says, "the Socialists that I know are excellent Radicals who, thinking that social reforms do not advance quickly enough to please them, conceive that it would be good tactics to claim the greater in order to get the less. How many names and how many secret avowals I could quote to support what I say! But that would be useless, for nothing could be less mysterious" (Aurore, August 14,1905).
Léon Bourgeois—who was not willing to adapt himself completely to the new methods, and who, for that reason perhaps, left the Chamber of Deputies for the Senate—said, at the congress of his party in July 1905: "The class war is a fact, but a cruel fact. I do not believe that it is by prolonging this war that the solution of the problem will be attained; I believe that the solution rather lies in its suppression; men must be brought to look upon themselves as partners in the same work." It would therefore seem to be a question of creating social legislation, thus peace demonstrating to poor that the Government has no greater care than that of improving their lot, and by imposing the necessary sacrifices on people who possess a fortune judged to be too great for the harmony of the classes.
Capitalist society is so rich, and the future appears to it in such optimistic colours, that it endures the most frightful burdens without complaining overmuch: in America politicians waste large taxes shamelessly; in Europe, the expenditure in military preparation increases every year; social peace might very well be bought by a few supplementary sacrifices. Experience shows that the middle classes allow themselves to be plundered quite easily, provided that a little pressure is brought to bear, and that they are intimidated by the fear of revolution; that party will possess the future which can most skillfully manipulate the spectre of revolution; the radical party is beginning to understand this; but, however clever its clowns may be, it will have some difficulty in finding any who can dazzle the big Jew bankers as well as Jaurès and his friends can do.
C. The Syndicalist organization gives a third value to the class war. In each branch of industry employers and workmen form antagonistic groups, which have continual discussions, which negotiate and make agreements. Socialism brings along its terminology of class war, and thus complicates conflicts which might have remained of a purely private order; corporative exclusiveness, which resembles the local or the racial spirit, is thereby consolidated, and those who represent it like to imagine that they are accomplishing a higher duty and are doing excellent work for Socialism.
It is well known that litigants who are strangers in a town are generally very badly treated by the judges of commercial courts sitting there, who try to give judgment in favour of their fellow-townsmen. Railway companies pay fantastic prices for pieces of ground, the value of which is fixed by juries recruited from among the neighbouring land-owners. I have seen Italian sailors overwhelmed with fines, for pretended infractions of the law, by the fishing, arbitrators with whom they had come to compete on the strength of ancient treaties. Many workmen are in the same way inclined to assert that in all their contests with the employers, the worker has morality and justice on his side; I have heard the secretary of a syndicate (so fanatically a reformer as distinct from a revolutionary that he denied the oratorical talent of Guesde) declare that nobody had class feeling so strongly developed as he had,—because he argued in the way I have just indicated,—and he concluded that the revolutionaries did not possess the monopoly of the just conception of the class war.
It is quite understandable that many people have considered this corporative spirit as no better than the parish spirit, and also that they should have attempted to destroy it by employing methods very analogous to those which have so much weakened the jealousies which formerly existed in France between the various provinces. A more general culture and the intermixing with people of another region rapidly destroy provincialism: would it not be possible to destroy the corporative feeling by frequently bringing the important men in the syndicates into connection with the employers, and by furnishing them with opportunities of taking part in discussions of a general order in mixed commissions? Experience has shown that this is feasible.
THE EFFORTS which have been made to remove the causes of hostility which exist in modern society have undoubtedly had some effect, although the peacemakers may be much deceived about the extent of their work. By showing a few of the officials of the syndicates that the middle classes are not such terrible men as they had believed, by loading them with politeness in commissions set up in ministerial offices or at the Musée Social, and by giving them the impression that there is a natural and Republican equity, above class prejudices and hatreds, it has been found possible to change the attitude of a few former revolutionaries. These conversions of a few of their old chiefs have caused great confusion in the mind of the working classes; the former enthusiasm of more than one Socialist has given place to discouragement; many working men have wondered whether the trades union organization was not becoming a kind of politics, a means of getting on.
But simultaneously with this evolution, which filled the heart of the peacemakers with joy, there was a recrudescence of the revolutionary spirit in a large section of the proletariat. Since the Republican Government and the philanthropists have taken it into their heads to exterminate Socialism by developing social legislation, and by moderating the resistance of the employers in strikes, it has been observed that, more than once, the conflicts have become more acute than formerly. This is often explained away by saying that it was an accident, the result simply of the survival of old usages; people like to lull themselves with the hope that everything will go perfectly well on the day when manufacturers have a better understanding of the usages of social peace. I believe, on the contrary, that we are in the presence of a phenomenon which flows quite naturally from the conditions in which this pretended pacification is carried out.
I observe, first of all, that both the theories and action of the peacemakers are founded on the notion of duty, and that duty is something entirely indefinite—while law seeks rigid definition. This difference is due to the fact that the latter finds a real basis in the economics of production, while the former is founded on sentiments of resignation, goodness, and of sacrifices; and who can judge whether the man who submits to duty has been sufficiently resigned, sufficiently good, sufficiently self-sacrificing? The Christian is convinced that he will never succeed in doing all that the gospel enjoins on him; when he is free from economic ties (in a monastery) he invents all sorts of pious obligations, so that he may bring his life nearer to that of Christ, who loved men to such an extent that he accepted an ignominious fate that they might be redeemed.
In the economic world everybody limits his duty by his unwillingness to give up certain profits. While the employer will be always convinced that he has done the whole of his duty, the worker will be of a contrary opinion, and no argument could possibly settle the matter: the first will believe that he has been heroic, and the second will treat this pretended heroism as shameful exploitation.
Excerpted from REFLECTIONS ON VIOLENCE by GEORGE SOREL, T. E. HULME, J. ROTH. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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