Max Nomad, Aspects of Revolt, 1959.


A winged word current in France during the first decade of this century had it that "socialism will lead anywhere provided you get out of it." That was in particular an allusion to the career of Aristide Briand (1862-1932) who once, in a famous speech delivered in 1894, had championed the general strike as a method of overthrowing the capitalist system and who, propelled to fame by that speech, fifteen years later, as his country's Prime Minister and no longer a Socialist, ruthlessly crushed the general strike of the railway workers.1 At that time the public had already forgotten that an older and more famous contemporary of Briand's, by the name of Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), had gone through a similar evolution. During the 1860s he had been a follower of Auguste Blanqui, the socialist conspirator who had been the organizer of most of the uprisings from 1839 to 1870. Forty years later, the former "Blanquist of the second rank," after a long career as a left-of-center bourgeois politician, having for the first time become Prime Minister in 1906, flung at a delegation of the syndicalist Confederation of Labor a threat of repressive measures, emphasized by the since famous "we are not on the same side of the barricade."

In counterdistinction to Clemenceau, Briand was often called a renegade, for the interval between his two roles with regard to the general strike was comparatively short. He could not be called a traitor, for he was no longer connected with any socialist organization at the time when he acted as a defender of law and order. However, shortly before his death, in 1932, the British Socialists could boast of a real traitor and not merely a renegade. His name was J. Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), the man who in 1931, in his role of Labor Prime Minister actually sold out his party and the British working class to the Conservatives.2 A quarter of a century later both Briand's and MacDonald's names were only dim memories when French politics produced an authentic Socialist Prime Minister who, without being excommunicated by his party, as had been MacDonald, carried on a policy in Algeria and Egypt that was colonialism and imperialism pure and simple, a policy which was as much in keeping with the time-honored principles of democratic socialism as would be the running of a slaughter-house by the candidate of the American Vegetarian Party. Socialism, at last, had reached the phase when it could lead a man anywhere without his necessarily having to get out of it.

The Briands, the MacDonalds, the Mollets are the most striking representatives of the uncomplicated type of radical who, from the very outset of his career has been not an indignant rebel against the essential injustices done to the underdog, but an envious climber, anxious to join the "ins." A type whose initial enthusiasm for the cause of justice is on the same level as the devotion to labor of an American college graduate who, impressed by the bank director salaries of the labor tycoons, would become a factory worker for a year or so, as the starting point for his career within the trade union hierarchy.

Political careers of this kind are thinkable only in normal times and in normal democratic countries in which the ruling spheres do not frown at a man's radical past as long as he is ready to serve them; in countries, that is, which are rich enough to accommodate an almost unlimited number of office-seekers, and in which the only obstacle to the success of an ambitious man with the gift of gab is either his stupidity or his honesty which in politics means approximately the same thing.

Things are, however, different in countries which, because of their poverty, canot give every ambitious man a chance and where for this reason the very well paid political and administrative jobs are the monopoly of a restricted clique. In such countries the climbing to the summit takes more than eloquence, intelligence and the readiness to sell out. It takes an explosive situation like that prevailing in impoverished Italy after the conclusion of World War I. It was a situation in which large numbers of unemployed or underpaid intellectual workers or white collar men clamored for a place in the sun, yet could expect no immediate help from the socialist leadership which, in a way, had become a sort of privileged closed corporation provided with jobs in numerous party organizations, trade unions, cooperatives and municipal administrations. Under these circumstances Mussolini (1883-1945), who had broken with the Socialist Party on the question of Italy's participation in World War I -- he had correctly anticipated that such a participation would eventually create an explosive situation -- was given the opportunity to attain that supreme power which he would not have attained under normal circumstances.

The father of Fascism has been called a renegade largely because of the persecutions to which he subjected his former socialist comrades. Yet at bottom his case is not comparable either to that of a Briand or a MacDonald. Strange as it may sound Mussolini's was the case of a disenchanted rebel and romantic turned tyrant rather than that of a successful political careerist. The Frenchman and the Scotsman referred to above had always been cold realists and politicians, using a radical vocabulary, just as they would have used a sales talk if they had been insurance agents. And they discarded it with the same ease with which an insurance agent would exchange his "spiel" for that of a high grade bond salesman if that "line" promised bigger profits. Mussolini, on the other hand, seems to have actually believed all the optimistic commonplaces about the masses, such as that some day they would fulfil their revolutionary destiny according to the Marxist formula that "the emancipation of the working class will be accomplished by the workers themselves." He was hardly over thirty when he came to the conclusion that the workers were no better than sheep blindly following their bellwether. So he furiously and contemptuously turned against them when in June, 1914 they permitted their leaders to call off a general strike that could have easily developed into a revolution.3 It was this experience which made him receptive to Nietzsche's ideas and gave him a sort of ideological excuse for aiming at naked power for its own sake and for inventing his own vocabulary to serve that purpose.


Nearly twenty years before Mussolini's birth the bullet of a duelist snuffed out the life of a German Socialist who, had he lived the traditional three score and ten years instead of dying at thirty-nine, might have gone down in history not only as the "awakener of the German working class" -- as he was called -- but also as the premier of the first socialist monarchy ruled by a feudal bureaucracy.

His name was Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864). A genius, if there ever was one, he did not exaggerate when he boastfully declared that for every word he uttered he stood "armed with all the knowledge of the century."4 It was the tragic handicap of being un unbaptized Jew in a politically medieval Prussia that prompted his first rebellious mutterings. The entries he made in his diary at the age of fifteen show that he dreamt of heading an armed revolt of the Jews that would make his people independent.5 It was at the same age that he wrote on the occasion of the persecution of the Jews at Damascus (1840): "Was there ever a revolution that would be more justified than the one in which the Jews would rise in a city, set it on fire from all directions, blow up the powder magazine and destroy themselves together with their tormentors?"6

As he grew older his Samsonian dreams were channelled into the general protest of the German avant-garde against the semi-absolutist, semi-feudal status quo. That protest had its right and its left wing, so to speak: the democratic liberalism of the rising capitalist middle class on the one hand, and on the other, the socialist and communist dreams of those intellectuals who turned not only against the old feudal masters but also against the financiers, the merchants and the manufacturers of the incipient industrial era. Lassalle was one of those radicals who took his inspiration from the French socialist thinker Louis Blanc and from the then still little known Karl Marx. From Louis Blanc he took the idea of producers' cooperatives financed by the State, while Marx's economic theories supplied him with ammunition for his propaganda among those of the more articulate workers who were under the intellectual sway of the liberal bourgeoisie. To these views, however, he added something which differed from those of both Blanc and Marx. It was the conservative socialism of J. K. Rodbertus and Lorenz von Stein who believed in the benevolent role of the paternalistic monarchist state. It is a moot question whether he actually accepted their ideas or whether his profession of these ideas was mere make-believe for the purpose of deceiving the Prussian Prime Minister Bismarck whom he hoped to use for his plans.

In 1863 he had founded the General Union of German Workers -- the first Socialist party of Germany which was to become a private kingdom of his own until his death a year later. Fully confident of his powers of persuasion -- he was actually the greatest orator of his time -- he was convinced that he could easily win the majority of the electorate and then rise to supreme power if the masses of the underprivileged had the vote. So in his confidential letters to, and in his conversations with, Bismarck he tried to convince the conservative Prime Minister -- who at that time was fighting against the Progressive majority in the Prussian parliament -- that it was in the interests of the monarchy to impose from above universal and direct manhood suffrage. For the hitherto disfranchised masses, he insisted, would not vote for the Progressives, the party of the capitalist employers. To lull Bismarck's suspicions -- for Lassalle's record was that of a Red republican -- he wrote to him that "the workers instinctively feel attracted to dictatorship, if they can be genuinely convinced that it will be practiced in their interest," and that "they would be disposed, despite all republican sentiments -- or more precisely because of them -- to see in the Crown the natural wielder of the social dictatorship in contradistinction to the egotism of bourgeois society, if the Crown for its part could ever decide on the truly very improbable step of taking a genuinely national direction and transforming itself from a monarchy of the privileged classes into a social and revolutionary people's monarchy."7

Bismarck fully realized that the brilliant young man was after his job -- either as the King's Prime Minister or as a dictator in his own name. So he used Lassalle as long as he thought that his propaganda against the Progressives -- by weaning the workers from their influence -- was useful to the Junkers. It was a sort of quid pro quo game. Bismarck repeatedly protected the socialist apostle against prosecutions by judiciary and administrative authorities. Lassalle, in turn, in his public speeches, while attacking the capitalists and their Progressive Party, would often make his bow to royalty and even to the clergy.8 His speeches were studded with such gems as the statement that liberty and authority were not opposites, that "they were most intimately connected with each other in our Union [General Union of German Workers] which thus represents in miniature the model of our coming form of society on a large scale."9 In one of his speeches he boasted about the "spirit of strictest discipline which reigns in our association"10 It was not a mere boast; he had himself actually elected President for five years with the power to appoint the heads of all local groups and to expel whomever he pleased.11 And he even said in the course of that speech that wherever he went, he "heard the workers say things which could be compressed in the following sentence: 'We must concentrate the will of all of us in one single hammer and put this hammer in the hands of a man in whose intelligence, character and good intentions we have sufficient confidence so that he may strike with that hammer.'."12 This was the Fuehrer-principle and the "cult of personality" at its worst -- propounded by the "personality" himself.

When on April 2, 1881, seventeen years after Lassalle's death, Bismarck was asked in the Reichstag whether he had had any dealings with Lassalle, the Reich Chancellor candidly admitted the fact in general terms, adding that "Lassalle was perhaps not quite sure whether the ruling dynasty of the German Empire was to be that of Hohen-zollern or that of Lassalle, but in any case, he was thoroughly monarchical."13

It is characteristic of the real bent of his mind that Lassalle could make a statement to the effect that "individual liberty" was merely a "negative idea."14 Yet it was this man who started the first large-scale socialist movement in Germany, even though his own activity covered less than two years (1863-1864). It was a movement which had all the makings of a religious sect. Witness the credo of his followers in Chemnitz, an industrial center in Saxony, which began with the words "I believe in Ferdinand Las-salle, the Messiah of the nineteenth century."15

Ever since the discovery, in 1928, of Lassalle's correspondence with Bismarck -- and even before that, when there was only a suspicion as to his dealings with the Prussian Prime Minister -- he has been considered a traitor by all those who cannot conceive of socialism as an ally of the old-time aristocracy as against the modern bourgeoisie. That severe judgment failed to consider the fact that while Lassalle was a traitor to democracy, he was not necessarily a traitor to socialism. For socialism, in the meaning of an economic system based upon what is called "public ownership," is very well thinkable under a regime headed by a king and a bureaucratic-managerial class recruited from the old aristocratic families rather than from former conspirators or agitators stemming from the lower middle class, as in the case of the democratic Socialists or totalitarian Communists. The fact is that in the course of his struggle against the rising capitalist middle class Bismarck played with the idea of nationalizing all branches of Germany's economic life. Fantastic as it may sound, he even intended to enlist Karl Marx and the elder Liebknecht as chief propagandists for this scheme.16

At the time of Lassalle's sudden eclipse as a result of a tragic love affair, there still was alive in New York a man seventeen years his senior who twenty years before had played a somewhat similar role as "awakener" of the German workers, and whose following- consisted of journeymen artisans rather than of modern industrial workers such as those who were to acclaim Lassalle.

A self-educated worker -- he was a tailor by trade -- Wil-helm Weitling (1808-1871) became in the 1830s familiar with the communist and equalitarian ideas then current in France, which subsequently, in his books and pamphlets, he was to dish out in a sauce of primitive Christian radicalism, seasoned with an implacable hatred for the privileged classes. Driven from country to country, he won a following and enjoyed a prestige among the more articulate German workers almost comparable to that which was to be acquired twenty years later by Lassalle. However, there was a deep gulf between the background and the philosophies of the two apostles. Lassalle, the son of a prosperous Jewish merchant, in turning against the rising capitalist class, sought a rapprochement with the aristocracy -- a strategy which precluded any violent revolutionary conflicts. On the other hand, Weitling, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, anticipated some of the ultra-revolutionary extravagances of Michael Bakunin by seriously contemplating an alliance with the criminal underworld which he expected would assist the workers in a guerrilla war against the bourgeoisie. The advocacy of this form of warfare is to be found both in his personal letters17 and in his magnum opus published in 1842.18 There he writes of the possibility that those in power "in order to counteract the realization of our principles [equality of incomes, M. N.] might intend to confine us in a prison community, that they might intend to use the association of labor and enjoyments (die Assoziation der Arbeiten und der Genüsse) to their own advantage and that of the rich . . . [Weitling apparently had in mind the hierarchical form of collectivism, such as preached by the Saint-Simonians. M. N.]. In that case a new morality will have to be preached, such as no one has yet dared to preach." That "new morality" would find its expression in a permanent guerrilla war of the poor against the rich "even if the most horrible disorder should result from it for twenty years."19

He visualized the transition period from the old capitalist to the new equalitarian order in the form of a revolutionary dictatorship by "a man who is devoted to our principle with the greatest love, who, in its realization, is trying to find his happiness, his honor and his life..." That man "will be a second Messiah, greater than the first."20 The intelligent reader did not have to be told explicitly that the name of that Messiah would be Wilhelm Weitling.

Forced to emigrate to the United States in 1846, he returned to Germany in 1848, only to be greatly disappointed by the Revolution, especially as in the meantime his influence and prestige among the Communists had been overshadowed by that of a much younger man by the name of Karl Marx. So he went back to the United States where the different political and economic atmosphere gradually cooled his ultra-revolutionary ardor. It is only in one respect that he did not radically change his views: his unlimited self-esteem which was equal to that of Lassalle. When in 1851 he started in New York the publication of a periodical entitled Die Republik der Arbeiter, his readers were regaled in the first issue with the following self-encomium: "Has anybody been able to do more for the cause of the workers than I did? Has anybody fought for their cause longer and more effectively? Has anybody worked for it longer, more disinterestedly and more honestly?"21 This cult of his own personality went quite naturally hand in hand with his belief in the providential role of dictators -- he actually found it possible to glorify Napoleon III.22

However these dictatorial ideas were no longer connected either with the idea of the class struggle or with that of mass revolt which he had preached even before Marx's appearance on the revolutionary scene. Nor was he interested in the campaign against Negro slavery or in strikes for higher wages. It was Utopian schemes of communist colonies and industrial exchange banks which from now on held his interest. And he insisted upon the "organization of the workers for the dissemination of these views under dictatorial management."23 By the middle of the 1850s all these schemes came to naught. That was also the end of his activities as a radical. He began to dabble in science, and one of the results of his efforts was a work about astronomy that was to restore our little planet once more to the Bible-honored place as the center of the universe.24 The would-be Messiah of the 1840s had turned into a genuine crank. It was during that last period of his life that he spoke of the "class struggle swindle" (Klassenkampfschwin-del).25

In a letter written shortly before his death he was very bitter about the "Republic of the money-bags,"28 as he called the United States. A poor man all his life, he had hoped to provide for his family by the sale of a real invention, a buttonhole and embroidery machine. A famous sewing machine concern "acquired" the invention, but neither the inventor nor his widow ever got a penny out of it. They were too poor to sue in the land of opportunity.


One year before Weitling's death a man was born in Russia who achieved the ambitions of both "awakeners" of the German working class. He attained supreme power in a great Empire, was revered as a Messiah by millions of poor and dissatisfied people and became, along with Mussolini, the model for all those who "evolved" from democratic socialism to totalitarian fascism or "communism." Lenin's hostility to the status quo had its roots neither in his own material destitution, as was the case with Weitling and Mussolini, nor in minority group resentment, as in the case of Lassalle, nor in any compassion with the masses as might have influenced such humanitarians as Kropotkin. It is possible of course that the personal element of revenge for the execution of his older brother played a part in his determination to devote his life to the revolutionary movement. But the basic propelling force in his case as in that of myriads of other Russian intellectuals was the opposition of the educated sections of the middle class to an antiquated regime that benefited mainly the landed nobility, the bureaucracy and the clergy. The class struggle of the workers was to him the lever that would cause the fall of the old regime and much later, of the capitalist system as well. But for all his doctrinal devotion to the "proletariat" he eventually saw through the demagogic cliche that endows the masses with an understanding of things that are beyond their ken. In his opinion -- as stated in his What is to be Done? -- the manual workers by themselves could never see beyond the bread-and-butter demands for higher wages and shorter hours. In short, they were not out to overthrow the capitalist system but only to make it more bearable. That's why, according to Lenin, their "emancipation" was unthinkable without guidance by professional revolutionists, i.e., educated men who knew better than the masses what was good for them. The logical conclusion was a benevolent paternalistic dictatorship which, in the interests of the working class, ruthlessly destroyed all enemies of the dictator. Once that point was reached there was only one step to the bloody despotism of a Stalin who repeated Lenin's "proletarian" formulas, but was certainly cynical enough not to harbor any illusions about the alleged working class nature of his regime.

Lenin's Robespierre complex was blended with Stalin's sadism and vulgarity in the heroic personality of Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935), erstwhile Polish socialist with a nationalist tinge, or more exactly, Polish nationalist with a socialist vocabulary. Animated chiefly by a Polish intellectual's nationalist hatred of the Russian oppressor, he saw in the Polish workers the initial mass basis for a struggle for Poland's independence which he prophetically anticipated as a result of a world conflict. When with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 it began to look as if his dream were going to come true, he immediately dropped his socialist mask to become the politico-military leader of all progressive nationalist elements, and eventually a semi-fascist military dictator animated by the traditional expansionist ambitions of all Polish nationalists. And thus it happened that the former head of the Polish Socialist Party who had risked his freedom in editing and printing an underground periodical and had headed a terrorist squad which, American Western style, attacked a Russian tsarist money transport, wound up his heroic career as the would-be conqueror of the Ukraine (1920) and finally as the Polish near-Mussolini, keeping and tormenting his Socialist ex-followers in prisons and concentration camps.27

The evolution from radicalism to traditionalism or worse is not typical of all those who started out as rebels against the status quo. A glance at some of the best known names of international radicalism shows that the metamorphosis they underwent was not necessarily dishonorable or sinister in its consequences. In many cases they simply shed the optimism of their youth but remained loyal to their early aspirations either as left-of-center politicians or as disenchanted sympathizers.


At the turn of the century the Paris Municipal Council was headed by Paul Brousse (1844-1912), a former physician. In a country which at that time counted no less than five different socialist parties -- not to speak of countless anarchist groups -- he was the top leader of an organization of extreme-right-wing Socialists, who did not indulge in revolutionary talk and restricted themselves exclusively to the advocacy of social reforms which could be obtained immediately. Hence the designation of "Possibilists" that was applied to Brousse's followers. It was in line with his moderate views that in 1905 he congratulated the Spanish King Alfonso XIII on his escape from an anarchist bomb that was thrown at his car during his visit to the French capital. Yet it was this same Paul Brousse who, in 1878, had originated the anarchist-terrorist gospel of propagande par le fait (propaganda by the deed) and who at that time publicly advocated the assassination of Alfonso XII, the father of Alfonso XIII.

Was he a renegade? From the point of view of the irreconcilable Anarchist he certainly was. But the fact is that he did not sell himself to the capitalists and that, according to his own lights, he tried to serve those whom a quarter of a century before he had hoped to arouse to revolt by his gospel of political murder. He never joined any of the "regular" political parties which frankly defended the system of private enterprise and he was spared those attacks which are usually flung at the common run of despicable turncoats, such as Ramsay MacDonald. What happened was that he had simply lost his faith in the inevitability of the Revolution and that he probably realized that to the workers at large better transportation facilities, lower rents and the like were of greater importance than the most beautiful ideal in the distant future.

Brousse's conversion to "reformism" coincided with the death of a much more famous French revolutionist, Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881), who had started out as a "Babouvist," i.e., as a follower of the equalitarian conspirator Babeuf (1760-1797). He had spent half of his long life in various prisons because of his repeated attempts to establish a revolutionary dictatorship headed by himself. He ended his life as a sort of democratic gradualist with a moderate socialist vocabulary, opposed to "leaps" once a republican government had been firmly established28. For at bottom he had been all his life an anticlerical republican whose socialist vocabulary was meant to spur the workers on to a struggle against the various reactionary regimes with which France was saddled during most of the last century.


In a way Karl Marx (1818-1883) went through a similar evolution. His early revolutionary protest against capitalism culminating in the postulate of the "dictatorship of the proletariat," was always coupled with a democratic resentment against absolutism and semi-absolutism, remnants of the feudal past still firmly entrenched in most European countries. In 1872, during his conflict with the Anarchist Bakunin who advocated immediate revolution all over the world, Marx declared that in democratic countries, such as the United States, England and the Netherlands, the aims of socialism could be attained by peaceful methods.29 And shortly before his death he said, according to his friend Engels, that the cheapest way to establish socialism would be to "buy off the entire gang" (i.e., to compensate the capitalists). These two ultra-moderate statements of his are only seemingly contradicted by that sentence of his Critique of the Gotha Program, addressed in 1875 to the German Socialists, in which he spoke of the "revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat" constituting the "political period of transition ... between the capitalist and communist society." For at that time Germany was still saddled with a semi-absolutist regime which could be overthrown only through a revolution. And once that revolution occurred, with the Socialists in the driver's seat, Marx apparently assumed that his victorious followers would undertake the double task of removing the remnants of feudalism and initiating the liquidation of capitalism. It did not occur to him that his German disciples, once rid of the galling rule of the semi-feudal imperial bureaucracy, would call it a day and accept for the elimination of capitalism the same peaceful methods which their teacher had accepted for the three afore-mentioned democratic countries.

It was therefore quite logical, and not an act of renegacy as charged by Lenin, that after the establishment of the German Republic (1918), Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), the outstanding representative of Western Marxism, discarded the idea of the "revolutionary dictatorship" and substituted for it that of a "coalition government" [of socialist and other democratic parties] as the political form of the transition period between capitalism and socialism.30 In coming to this conclusion when he was in his late sixties, Kautsky actually capitulated to the "revisionist" heresy of the Right-wing Socialist Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) who, shortly before the end of the century (1897) -- in his Evolutionary Socialism had rejected all the revolutionary tenets of Marxism in order to advocate a sort of ultra-reformist gradualism to which "the final aim means nothing and the movement everything" -- as the winged word coined by him has it.

Bernstein's remark about the "final aim" was a polite way of admitting that he did not believe in the readability of the millennial ideal of an equalitarian classless society. He did not expatiate on it, for this would have involved him in non-complimentary remarks about the psychology of the masses and of mankind in general, remarks which a man still active in the socialist and labor movement could not afford to make.


However, there have been radicals and revolutionists who were not afraid openly to voice their skepticism anent the main tenet of their religion, that is, of their faith in the final redemption of the human race, as expressed in the liturgical formula of the "emancipation of the working class." To be sure, they made that confession of their apostasy, as it were, only at the end of their careers when the indifference of the masses, or their adherence to false leaders, made them realize that there must be something essentially wrong with the majority of the human race.

The most glamorous among those death-bed skeptics was Michael Bakunin (1814-1876), founder of the modern anarchist movement and hero of many revolutionary uprisings. Two years before his death, in a letter to his friend and follower, Elisee Reclus -- who was later to become one of the world's greatest geographers -- he wrote that "the masses were devoid of revolutionary thought, hope and passion, and so long as these did not exist nothing could be done."31

More than six decades later, another famous Russian revolutionist, Leon Trotsky, (1878-1940), having lost in his struggle against Stalin who was his inferior in every respect except low cunning, gave vent to his disappointment by conceding -- what he had always refused to admit -- that "the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society," that "the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class," and that "the socialist program based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society ended in a Utopia."32 In short, that the "proletarian" revolution, of which he was one of the chief engineers, resulted in a new form of slavery for the working class.

Between Bakunin and Trotsky there was the French revolutionary philosopher Georges Sorel (1846-1922) who is widely but erroneously believed to have been the founder of the current known as "Syndicalism," or "Revolutionary Syndicalism," as it is called in France, the country of its origin.

Now, in justice to Sorel it must be said that he himself never claimed to be the originator of Revolutionary Syndicalism. He frankly admitted his indebtedness to Fernand Pelloutier, an erstwhile Marxist who later became an Anarchist, and who, still later, formulated the basic concept of Revolutionary Syndicalism. A concept which can be condensed in two simple propositions: (1) The general strike is the method of the working class uprising that will overthrow the capitalist system; (2) The labor union (in French, syndicat) with its local and national federations, is the basis for building up a cooperative, non-exploitative commonwealth.

Sorel himself made no essential contributions to syndicalist theory. The "violence" which he glorified, was at bottom merely a sensational synonym for the "direct action" advocated and practiced during a certain period by the French syndicalist militants who ignored Sorel and his writings. And as for the general strike to which Sorel devoted so many pages, that idea had been in vogue in the French labor movement since the early nineties of the last century. And it is one of those curious twists of history that one of its first and most glamorous propagandists at that time was a man who in time was to become the embodiment of that democratic opportunism which Sorel so hated: it was a rising young socialist politician by the name of Aristide Briand who had borrowed the idea from Pelloutier, used it as a stepping stone in his career, and eventually, as Prime Minister, crushed the first general strike attempted by the French labor unions.

However, both concepts -- that of violence and that of the general strike -- assume under Sorel's pen a significance which they did not have in the minds of the militants and of the rank and file of the syndicalist movement. Sorel was at bottom a moralist. He saw in working class violence a means of disturbing the "social peace" which in his opinion was a corrupting influence both upon the workers and their capitalist masters; an influence which was bound to lead the world to decadence and barbarism. Application of violence would, in his view, reduce and discredit the influence of the parliamentary socialists who were trying to reconcile the working masses with the existing social order. It would also arouse the enthusiasm of the masses and thus lift the individual worker above the level of a purely animal existence. It would bring the element of beauty and heroism into his life. And, last but not least, it would serve as a healthy stimulus for the bourgeoisie. Under the impact of proletarian violence the employers themselves would become "class-conscious," they would abandon philanthropy and resort to an aggressive attitutde both in repelling the attacks of the workers and in attempting to do their utmost in developing their own productive and organizational potentialities. The purely economic, or bread-and-butter, aspect of direct-action violence, aiming at immediate results in terms of wages and hours, was in the eyes of Sorel not particularly important. Moral uplift of both workers and employers thus becomes the chief purpose of revolutionary violence as Sorel sees it.

The general strike became the victim of a similar distortion under the pen of the revolutionary moralist. To him the greve generate is not the hoped-for reality of the future, envisioned by the dissatisfied workers eager for security, a fuller dinner-pail, shorter hours and more liberty. It is merely a social "myth" whose function it is to inspire the workers in their struggles. This concept was in keeping with Sorel's pessimistic disbelief in what is called the final emancipation of the working class, and with his approval of violence for the sake of moral uplift, so to speak. Critics were not slow in pointing out that nothing short of religious fanaticism could induce the masses to risk life or limb if no prospects of immediate benefits were beckoning them. Sorel was, no doubt, cognizant of this fact; and it was out of this realization that he advocated the "myth" of the general strike as a substitute for traditional religious fervor which no longer animated the modern industrial worker of France. Sorel's critics have very pertinently pointed out the fact that once the general strike was openly declared to be a "myth," the myth itself would lose all its religious, stimulating force; for mass enthusiasm could be aroused only be actual faith in the possibility of achieving their salvation by a practical method.

Sorel's later pro-medievalist and finally pro-Bolshevist enthusiasms can easily be explained by the psychological attitude on which his original pro-syndicalist position was based. It was his disgust with the corruption of bourgeois political democracy or democratic politics of France -- as manifested in the orgy of profiteering indulged in by the victorious liberal "Dreyfusards" -- which had turned his sympathies from democratic socialism to the revolutionary "a-political" labor movement, as expressed by Syndicalism. In that movement Sorel saw a force openly at war with bourgeois democracy. A force headed by a revolutionary elite that would purify the political atmosphere infested by climbers and careerists. In due time, however, he discovered that this movement was not measuring up to his expectations. The labor union militants were not exactly like the romantic heroes who, he felt, should be worthy of the name of a "proletarian elite." They were thinking in terms of material results; and they also believed in birth control and sex freedom. All these things were abominations to Sorel who, to quote a friendly Catholic critic, the Jesuit Father Victor Sartre, was "a tormented moralist, a non-believer in search of God."33 Yes, a moralist in the most vulgar sense of the word; for he could actually write that "there will be no justice until the world becomes more chaste."34

As a result, Sorel turned to another group of men who, he felt, were fighting with real fervor against the corruption and the decadence of the bourgeois democratic republic. These men happened to be the pro-monarchist nationalists of the Action Francaise movement, who were the closest approach to what a decade later was to appear as Fascism. It was this short phase of his spiritual wanderings, coupled with his "myth" theory and his glorification of violence, which gave the Italian Fascists -- many of whom had come from the syndicalist camp -- the pretext for claiming Sorel as one of the teachers of Mussolini.

But the nationalists, too, failed to come up to his expectations, for they proved quite ineffectual in eliminating the corrupt politicians of the bourgeois republic. So in the end, a few years before his death, he turned to Lenin, though in the past he had nothing but scorn for those French revolutionists -- they were called Blanquists during the Second Empire -- who, in the name of socialism, advocated dictatorial rule by their party. For in Bolshevism he saw, at last, a force heroically and successfully opposing bourgeois democracy, and he gave vent to his new enthusiasm in his since famous "Plea for Lenin," a chapter added to a later edition of his Reflections on Violence. Thus, in paraphrasing somewhat his friendly Jesuit critic, one might say about Sorel that he was a tormented pessimist permanently in search of a benevolent elite.

A similar search of a benevolent elite was after several decades the climax of Norman Thomas' socialist apostolate. He had risen from preacher of the Christian gospel to the top leadership of the Socialist Party, and had shared for a while the illusions of those who thought that "the Soviet regime... is a workers' state, to be defended by the international working class whenever it clashes with the powers of capitalism."35 The gradual decline of the Socialist Party to practical non-existence, coupled with the disappointing showing made by the working masses during the elections on both hemispheres, impelled him to write in 1952 that "the messianic hope which consciously or unconsciously inspired most of us to become socialists is scarcely tenable in America or elsewhere in the world. . . . History and our better knowledge of our human psychology have destroyed or profoundly altered that particular scheme of earthly salvation. We have learned much about the temptations of power, and we know that there is no messianic working class nor any sort of elite, that we can trust automatically to save 'mankind'." His conclusion was that "there will never be an absolute final victory."36 (Emphasis added.) The pessimism of the last passage was a logical outcome of his disbelief in "any sort of elite" that could be trusted. Yet only a few years after writing those lines he tried to organize a replica of the British Fabian Society, an elite body of upper middle class intellectuals which in England aimed at making socialism palatable for the privileged classes, thus proving, without being too explicit about it, that what socialism really aims at is merely a change from private capitalist to bureaucratic-managerial exploitation. Having become moderate in his expectations after so many disappointments, Norman Thomas apparently thought that such a change, if effected under democratic auspices, might be an improvement over what the Socialists usually call the "anarchy" of the capitalist system of production. However, in a desperate attempt to shed his skepticism and to clutch at any shred of hope, he unfortunately forgot that the Fabians, like so many critics of capitalism before them, were more interested in "order" than in liberty, and that their name has been discredited, perhaps beyond redemption, by their great luminaries, Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who were ready to accept that new non-capitalist "order" even under Stalinist auspices.

Apostles ready openly to express their doubts about the divinity or the ideal they had worshipped during the best years of their lives have never been very numerous. There are of course those whose livelihood depends on the continuous preaching of the faith they had lost. If they do not become complete cynics, they as a rule try to placate their own conscience with the rationalizing argument that while they themselves could afford to live without illusions, their less educated and less sophisticated flock could not; and that to tell a poor man that the ideal of justice and brotherhood, the hope for the final abolition of all oppression and exploitation is a mirage, is an unnecessary cruelty, just as it would be inhuman to deprive a dying man of the hope for a happy Beyond.

Or else their pride would not permit them to admit to a world of enemies that they had been mistaken all along in believing that the great mass of downtrodden humanity was capable of thoughts and feelings that would eventually enable them to shape a better world. There is no doubt that Leon Blum, the successor of Jean Jaures in the leadership of the French Socialist Party, was one of those gentle skeptics. He was a rich man, towering intellectually above all his countrymen; a man whose socialism was at bottom a sensitive man's philanthropic protest against social injustice which could be alleviated through mass pressure. Hence his consent to be drafted -- yes drafted -- to the leadership of his party. But throughout his life he stood with one foot in the bourgeois world which his heart rejected, but his head knew he could not destroy. Hence his reluctance to take any ultra-radical position: there was no point in risking one's life once one did not believe in the ultimate victory of Ormuzd over Ahriman. Hence, his socialist patriotism during World War I at a time when more courageous men braved public opinion to advocate an international revolt of the cannon fodder. Hence, also his attitude towards the independence of Algeria, long, long before the uprising of the 1950s. At that time he was reported to have said "As a Socialist I am willing, as a Frenchman I can't." Only thus can one explain his attitude during the late 1930s when, as a Popular Front Prime Minister, he swallowed the idea of French neutrality toward republican Spain at a time when Hitler's and Mussolini's "volunteers" were slaughtering his friends and comrades beyond the Pyrenees. Any other attitude might have precipitated violent domestic conflicts and possibly an armed conflict with Nazi Germany -- a hopeless situation which he was not prepared to face. For the great mass of workers who supported his regime were in the ranks of the Communist Party which he loathed, and he could wish neither for their victory nor for that of the reactionaries and fascists who attacked him. He kept neutral, his heart no doubt filled with contempt for the masses whose mind was open only to communist or to fascist demagogy.


It stands to reason that the more extreme or unrealistic a radical's creed, the greater the probability that in the end he would either lose his faith altogether or accept one that was more in keeping with reality. This was particularly true of the Anarchists who, after a few years of well-nigh religious enthusiasm, would more often than not become either Socialists, or Communists or plain trade-unionists. Suffice it to mention such names as Andrea Costa (1851-1910) and Paul Brousse, who during the 1870s and early 1880s were the leading figures among the Anarchists of Italy and France, respectively. Of the two, Brousse became eventually the leader of the most moderate wing of French Socialism,37 while Costa went down in Italian history as one of the founders of that country's Socialist Party. Closer to our time, the American Anarchist Robert Minor (1884-1950) joined the Communists in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was likewise in the United States that many former Anarchists -- particularly Russian-Jewish immigrants from the London East Side -- ^became very active as moderate union leaders in the needle trades.

However, there have been Anarchists who, for all their disenchantment, continued to stick to their guns. Some of them simply because the anarchist vocabulary was their only stock in trade, while with such noble figures as Peter Kropotkin or Errico Malatesta it was mainly a gesture of defiance to the powers that be, even though they felt that their "stateless" ideal of human brotherhood was hardly more than a beautiful dream.

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), a former prince who had been one of the most glamorous figures of the Russian revolutionary movement of the 1870s, was the main theoretical advocate of an impossible ideal called "communist anarchism" or "anarchist communism," that was based on the belief in the inherent goodness of man. That belief in the inherent goodness of man was responsible for his assumption that once the capitalists and the State, i.e., the officeholders, were gone, all men would voluntarily work for the public warehouses from which everybody could take what he needed -- with no questions asked as to whether he had contributed his share of work. Eventually, it must have dawned upon him that this idea was much too beautiful to have any chances of realization. So in a lecture delivered in 1893, which was published under the title L'Anarchie -- Sa Philosophie -- Son Ideal, he admitted that this ideal could not be realized at once. And he added: "What does it matter!" It did not occur to him that to carry on a revolutionary movement for the sake of an ideal that could not be realized for a long time to come was the height of inconsistency and absurdity. Kropotkin found a way out of this difficulty by declaring that every struggle against centralized authority, for local autonomy, for political liberty, was part of the struggle for his anarchist ideal. In the pursuance of this theory he found himself very much to the Right of the Left-wing Socialists who, during World War I, would take no sides for either the Entente or the Central European bloc, while Kropotkin encouraged his own somewhat mutinous following to side with republican-democratic France as against monarchist and semi-absolutist Germany. He thus revealed himself as a progressive democrat of sorts; yet he continued calling himself an Anarchist -- simply as a gesture of protest against a world of injustice. Even though he could not be unaware of the fact that the name which he, or rather his predecessors, had chosen for their libertarian creed, was hardly appropriate for attracting a mass following.

Still more striking was the case of Errico Malatesta (1853-1932). Less learned than Kropotkin, who was a famous geographer and naturalist, he had for half a century been a tireless man of action and propagandist, only to realize in 1920, when Italy was ready for a change and when he might have headed a revolution, that "we had no practical program that could be applied after a victorious revolution."38 A victorious revolution headed by Anarchists would have meant the utter refutation of anarchism. For in a country in which the enormous majority consisted of non-Anarchists, the Anarchists, to keep things going, would have been forced either to establish their own dictatorship, which would be a contradiction in terms, or to capitulate and hand the government over either to the Socialists or to any other anticapitalist group. Yet, like Kropotkin, he kept on calling himself an Anarchist, accepting anarchism not as a program of action but as a philosophy of life or an ideal. An ideal in whose realization he no longer believed. When after the collapse of the general strike of 1920 he faced the jurors in 1921, he declared that "while my ideal may be only a vain phantom or a mere dream, it is certainly a dream of love."39


The American radical movement has brought forth two leaders stemming from the working class who were deeply influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and who were as far apart from each other as could be a Francis of Assisi from a condottiere. One of them was Eugene Victor Debs (1853-1926), five times Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, who in 1920 polled nearly one million votes. One of America's greatest orators, he was a confused emotionalist rather than a cool thinker. A believer in the political-parliamentary tactics of the regular Socialists, he at the same time sympathized, first with the quasi-syndicalist I.W.W., and later with the Bolsheviks, but rejected as unethical their tactical methods -- the sabotage of the "Wobblies" and the violence of the Communists, even though he liked to call himself a Bolshevik as a gesture of protest against the existing system. The admiration and affection of the socialist and communist rank and file apparently did not console him over the utter hopelessness of the socialist movement in the United States, and it is probable that it was this feeling of utter powerless-ness that made him seek solace in John Barleycorn.

Debs died in 1926. It is not likely that he would have continued calling himself a Bolshevik if he had lived one year longer and seen Stalin seize absolute power and arrest and deport Leon Trotsky whom he greatly admired without accepting his views.

Debs's resentment against America's ruling spheres was shared by William Z. Foster (born 1880) who had started his radical career by first joining the Socialist Party. He later switched over for a time to the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), to become still later -- after a short interval of pure syndicalism French style -- Samuel Gom-pers' lieutenant in the American Federation of Labor in behalf of which he conducted the memorable steel workers' strike in 1919. However, his "real" career began in 1922 when after Soviet Russia's victorious emergence from her Civil War, he came to the conclusion that this was the wave of the future, even though that term had not yet been coined by Mrs. Lindbergh who applied it to Fascism. Since that time he has been, on and off, the top man of the American Communist Party, faithfully accepting all the zigzags of the Kremlin's policies, justifying all its crimes and making such statements as that "Stalin is not a dictator but a freely chosen leader of a great democratic people,"40 complaining that the Western powers "try to block the access of the U.S.S.R. to badly needed warm-water ports -- Persian Gulf, Dardanelles,"41 and finally, after Khrushchev's speech dealing with Stalin's atrocities, referring to them as "incorrect methods of work."42 In short, he became the most inspired champion of the world's noblest experiment.

(In my sketch of William Z. Foster's career written in 1932 (Rebels and Renegades) I reserved for this ex-"Wob-bly" a place in the future Pantheon of American working class heroes "in spite of his failings, weaknesses and inconsistencies." Foster's virtual eclipse as the leader of the American Communists in 1931 and the many humiliations he had to undergo at that time by being forced to take orders from those "he considered unfit to be his own second lieutenants," as one of his ex-friends put it -- had inspired that charitable attitude on my part. The "crush" I once had on the early I.W.W. might have likewise played its part in blurring my judgment as to the character of what might be called an ex-comrade of my youthful enthusiasms.)


The year when Foster decided to exchange the peaceful and highly rewarding career of an A.F.L. organizer for the hope of becoming the American Lenin coincided with the death of a radical thinker whose name is known to millions of radicals the world over, yet who would have been completely forgotten had it not been for the title of the Marxist classic Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwalzung der Wissenschaft, commonly known as the Anti-Duhring by Friedrich Engels.

Eugen Dühring (1833-1921) was a German economist and philosopher who, in the early 1870s, had evolved a socialist theory of his own. What he proposed was a sort of libertarian and egalitarian socialism43 based upon free Wirtschaftskommunen (economic "communes"), in other words, producers' cooperatives which could be joined by any one willing to do so. He combined with this concept a sort of near-anarchist opposition to centralized state authority, and an insistence upon the idea that the influence of the political factor -- which included the element of violence -- upon the evolution of society was greater than that of the economic factor.

His radical views greatly influenced many of the younger intellectuals and self-educated ex-workers among the German and Russian socialists. Suffice it only to mention such disparate figures as Johann Most, who was later to achieve fame as the leader of the German and German-American Anarchists, and Eduard Bernstein who later went down in history as the father of socialist "revisionism." Duhring also became very popular, as a philosopher, with the Russian democratic terrorists ("Nihilists") of the late 1870s and early 1880s.

His popularity, coupled with the overbearing arrogance and airs of superiority with which he treated all his contemporaries and predecessors in all fields of science aroused the anger of Marx and Engels who apparently thought that they alone had the right to assume such a pose. The result was Engels' above mentioned Anti-Duhring, the most authoritative exposition of the Marxist creed, which immortalized both its author and its victim. Written in the same insulting tone that had been characteristic of Duhring himself, the volume was met with great disfavor on the part of the German Socialists when it was published in 1878. The fact that the attacked attacker had at about the same time been discharged from the faculty of the Berlin University, and the additional fact that he was completely blind, added to the unfavorable reaction to the book.

It was Dühring's impossible character -- his megalomania and his ante-diluvian prejudices -- rather than the book which aimed at his political annihilation, that essentially resulted in his total eclipse. He was simply forgotten, and except for a tiny group of personal admirers, nobody paid the slightest attention to him, even though he continued to write and to spout out his bile. Ignored by the anti-capitalist radicals, who had accepted Marxism as a safer and more realistic brand of socialism, and by the reading public in general, he eventually gave up the socialist ideas of his early period to become a defender of the principle of private property. He developed at the same time a psychopathological hatred of the Jews. Not only did he accept at their face value all the long exploded charges of ritual murder, he also accused the objects of his aversion of having infected the German people with all kinds of diseases. So it is not astonishing that he actually urged their mass extermination. When his obituary was published in 1921, those who still remembered his name were astonished. They thought he had died long, long ago.

The crowning tragicomedy of his life was the fact that the only writers who, during the later period of his life, adopted, and paid homage to, some of his radical ideas of the 1870s were Theodor Hertzka (1845-1824) -- not to be confused with Theodor Herzl -- who, in 1890 published a Utopian novel entitled Freiland, Benedict Friedländer, the author of Der Freiheitliche Sozialismus, Berlin, 1892, and Die Vier Hauptrichtungen der Modernen Sozialen Bewegung, Berlin, 1901, and Franz Oppenheimer, the well-known sociologist, who advocated a cooperative form of socialism, as opposed to government ownership. They were all Jews. Their "teacher," as it were, might have derived some consolation from the fact that the object of his greatest aversion, Karl Marx, has found his largest following among the rulers of new Russia who, under Stalin and Khrushchev, incorporated anti-Semitism in their arsenal of practical political warfare.

Such is the irony of history.


1 For Briand's career see Max Nomad's Rebels and Renegades, New York, 1932, pp. 48-82.

2 For MacDonald's career see op. cit. pp. 145-196.

3 See op. cit. pp. 278-279.

4 Quoted in G. Mosca's Histoire des Doctrines Politiques, Paris, 1936, p. 278.

5 Franz Mehring, Geschichte der deutschen SoziaMemokratie, Stuttgart, 1897, Vol. I, p. 391.

6 Paul Lindau, Ferdinand Lassalle's Tagebuch, Breslau, 1891, p. 161.

7Quoted in Karl Kautsky's Krieg und Demokratie, Berlin 1932, pp. 242-243.

8 Julius Vahlteich, Ferdinand Lassalle und die Anfange der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Munich, 1904, p. 67, and E. Bernstein, Von der Sekte zur Partei, Jena, 1911, p. 13.

9J. Vahlteich, op. cit. p. 67.

10 Ibid. p. 62.

11 Franz Mehring, op. cit. Vol. II, pp. 54-55.

12 Vahlteich, op. cit. p. 62.

13 Arno Schirokauer, Lassalle, New York, 1932, quoted in Translator's Prelude, p. 13.

14 Karl Marx and Priedrich Engels, Briefwechsel, Berlin, 1929-1932, Vol. III, p. 83.

15 Paul Kampffmeyer, Von der Sektenbewegung zur Massenbewegung, in a symposium entitled Die Befreiung der Menschheit, Berlin, 1921, Part II, p. 61.

16 Wilhelm Liebknecht, Kein Kompromiss, kein Wahlbilndnis, Berlin, 1899, p. 8. We never saw this incident mentioned in any of the Marx biographies written by Socialists, apparently because of the possible implication that the elimination of the capitalists does not necessarily mean the emancipation of the working class. The elder Liebknecht who was a brilliant orator and journalist but by no means a theorist, did not realize that it was dangerous to bring up that subject; for the question might arise whether a "truly proletarian," i.e., Marxist, bureaucracy, in possession of State power controlling the nation^ industries, would not claim for itself similar privileges as would a bureaucracy which had its roots in the Junker class. Russia's "communist" and "proletarian" bureaucracy has since answered that question conclusively.

17 Emil Kaler, Wilhelm Weitling, Hottingen-Zurich, 1887, p. 42.

18 Wilhelm Weitling, Garantien der Harmonie und Freiheit, Vevey, Switzerland, 1842. Quoted from the new edition published in Berlin in 1908, p. 235-236.

19 Ibid. p. 236.

20 Ibid. pp. 238, 253.

21 F. A. Sorge's article in the Marxist weekly Neue Zeit, Stuttgart, 1890-1891, No. 34, p. 233.

22 Hermann Schlüter, Die Anfange der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung in Amerika, Stuttgart, 1907, pp. 99, 101.

23 Ibid. p. 96.

24 Franz Mehring, in his preface to the new edition of Weitling's Garantien der Harmonie und Freiheit, p. XXXXVI. In a letter to one of his friends Weitling called his work on astronomy "the most valuable book that has ever come out or will come out in the world." (Quoted in Franz Mehring's preface, p. L.)

25 Ibid. p. LI.

26 Ibid. p. XXXXIX.

27 For Pilsudski's career see Max Nomad's Rebels and Renegades pp. 310-337.

28 See the Blanqui chapter in Max Nomad's Apostles of Revolution. Boston, 1939.

29 Karl Kautsky, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Manchester, 1919, pp. 9-10.

30 Karl Kautsky, Die proletarische Revolution und ihr Programm, Stuttgart-Berlin, 1922, p. 106.

31 James Guillaume, L'Internationale, Documents et Souvenirs, Paris, 1909, Vol. III, pp. 284-285.

32 The New International, New York, November, 1939, p. 327.

33 Victor Sartre, Georges Sorel, Paris, 1937, p. 13.

34 Georges Sorel, Materiaux d'une Theorie du Proletariat, Paris, 1919, p. 199.

35 Norman Thomas, in the Socialist Call, New York, December 5, 1936.

36 The Socialist Call, November 14, 1952; cf. a similar idea expressed by the author of this volume as far back as 1936 in his article "The Tragedy of the Underdog" published in the Modern Monthly, New York, of December, 1936, and later incorporated, under the title "Masters -- Old and New" in a symposium entitled The Making of Society edited by V. F. Calverton, New York, 1937.

37 See p. 60 of this chapter.

38 See Max Nomad, Rebels and Renegades, p. 45.

39 Trento Tagliaferri, Errico Malatesta, Armando Borghi e Compagni davanti ai giurati di Milano, Milan, 1921, p. 87.

40 This was the wording he used in his column printed in the Daily Worker. In his pamphlet entitled Your Questions Answered on Politics, Peace, etc., New York, 1939, p. 95 he changed it to read: "Stalin is decidedly not a dictator; his leadership develops democratically from the whole Soviet system." Democratically!

41 Daily Worker, New York, April 2, 1946. "Access" was of course a euphemism for the annexation of Turkey and Iran.

42 Ibid. March 16, 1956.

43 Eugen Duhring, Cursus der National- und Socialökonomie, Leipzig, 1876, p. 320. (First edition was published in Berlin, 1873).