Issue #3 · 2021-11-29

Political Ontology and Partisan Violence

by Thomas777

As a historical revisionist, I can state honestly and with a certain enthusiasm derived admittedly (at least in part) from pride, that I have observed in my lifetime revisionist scholarship develop from the humblest of origins to becoming practically a mainstream tendency in forums where serious historical and military research is facilitated and encouraged. Not so long ago, the were almost no outlets for any viewpoint relating to the European War of 1939-41, the subsequent World War of 1941-45, and the cult of Jewish martyrdom therein that constituted anything other than a kind of hysterical, quasi-religious, moral cant that presented Adolf Hitler and the German Reich as the epitome of human evil. Revisionism was restricted to suppressed newsletters published (often on irregular schedule) by erstwhile organizations like the Institute for Historical Review and was concerned almost exclusively with the Second World War and specifically the more outlandish claims presented by the Nuremberg charging instrument relating to the mass homicide of Jewish civilians by the German Reich.

Twenty years into the 21st century, and three decades after the capitulation of Warsaw Pact, historical revisionism (and the demand for historical research methodologies that are both integral and reliable) is practically mainstream. The scope of interest now encompasses the whole of the 20th Century and not merely The Holocaust and its theological narrative trappings. Within revisionism however, there is an ever conspicuous silence relating to the history of European political philosophy itself. If the history of events can be distorted to the extent the revisionists claim, the history of thought itself must be held with the same suspicion.

An Ever Cautious Band of Radicals

There is a lingering tendency within revisionism to avoid discussion of the origins of 20th Century rightist thought, save perhaps for a handful of traditional Catholic American polemicists such as the people under the Culture Wars brand. This seems curious at first glance but owes to a greater than vestigial desire to accomplish "respectability" according to the strictures of mainstream academia. The standout exception was the late Ernst Nolte, and it is likely the hardships he endured, primarily ostracism by peers on grounds of the historikerstreit,that may be the cause of the aforementioned tendency towards avoidance of theoretical discussion within revisionist circles. However this tendency must be overcome if revisionism is to be placed in context, no matter the discreet emphasis of any given historical study and concomitant interpretation of occurrences therein.

Nolte himself spoke of the, "past that will not pass". What he was referring to of course was the insurmountable conceptual bias in mainstream historical analysis of the German experience of the 20th century specifically and its political and philosophical orientation towards modern political challenges and cultural values. In other words, a deliberately punitive sonderweg theory of German (and in many if not most instances generically European) historical experience is generally accepted, while only individual features of this prevailing narrative (the privileging of "the Holocaust", a grievance driven view of European colonization of colored domains, etc.) are addressed for rebuttal or critique. This is misguided for both factual and political reasons, it is not merely a polemical concern. The development and conclusion of modern political philosophy can not be rendered coherent or even discussed conceptually without identifying the causes, proximate and ultimate, of what has been called the "short century" of the years 1914-1989.

Causation and Double Standards

Paul Gottfried, eminent scholar of European political theory, took up the question of whether the European right of the interwar years could be understood as a political and intellectual tendency "in itself" or if it is best and most correctly understood as a "mere reaction" to Marxist-Leninist discourse and the great, almost monolithic, momentum that it came to enjoy in the wake of revolutionary enthusiasm provoked by the Bolshevik Revolution. Gottfried, in his outstanding study of the subject titled Fascism - The Career of a Concept, citing Nolte on the topic of where to locate early Fascist movements on the commonly accepted ideological spectrum directly quoted a paragraph from the closing chapters of Nolte's Faschismus, von Mussolini zu Hitler (2002):

The First World War was... the nurturing soil [of Fascism and National Socialism] and the Second World War was its most significant result: it recognized no higher court than that of War and the decision went against Fascism. Historical circumstances gave Fascists an opportunity that as late as 1918 would have seemed entirely unlikely, and after 1945 it became impossible for a European nation ever again to wage war in order to assert and secure its hegemony. This became clear even to the onetime devotees of Fascism who now saw...the critical weak point in their movement.

Stated simply, Nolte, for all his insight into the nature, origin and context of the categorical brutality and violent excesses perpetuated by all combatant parties of the Second World War and related political conflicts, is dismissive of the interwar political culture that was the direct progenitor of the European regimes. For Nolte, the Communists and their New Deal/Progessivist allies in the USA represented nothing more than a mere reaction to the fact of Marxist-Leninist ascendancy to position of pre-eminence within the European political mind.

This is problematic, owing not merely to the obvious fact that a consevative Hegelian historian such as Nolte himself should be the first to recognize that the very nature of dialectical processes preclude identifying some victorious political tendencies as "original" or spontaneous and others as "mere reaction" is as misguided as it is logically inconsistent. But there is a peculiar issue of material fact also present which Nolte opted to ignore almost entirely, that socialism in conceptual terms could not be said, at least in the context of modern European thought, to somehow "belong" to the ideological Left. Neither in the figurative authorship or in terms of ultimate causation of tensions that culminated in the "European War" of 1939-41 and the subsequent "World War" of 1941-45 does the Left monopolise either the discourse or organization that could be said to be "socialist". No where is this more in evidence than in the now largely forgotten career of French socialist Georges Sorel.

Was There a True "Fascist Philosophy"?

Giovanni Gentile is credited as the author of the philosophical "basis" of fascism for the same reason that Alfred Rosenberg's role in the German Reich and its inner ruling cadre from 1933-45 is purposefully overstated. Court history zealously abides the narrative first posited by men like Hans Morgenthau in Politics Among Nations that the revolutionary European right was intellectually impoverished and devoid of actual believers in its purported program at the executive level. This view holds fascism as a sharp deviation from the intellectual heritage of the West save perhaps for some crude and borrowed structural terms relating to the effective organization of the State apparatus. The truth is of course far more complicated and myriad thinkers contributed to the political cultures that generated interwar ideological trends, but none is more overlooked than Sorel.

Remembered mostly for his association with the French syndicalist movement, and specifically its anarchist wing, Sorel in fact held a view of history that was as far removed from Marxist historiography as is conceptually possible. Sorel exhibited a basic disinterest in engaging directly with Marxist dialectic in either approving or punitive ways. Sorel viewed political structures in highly organic terms and historical processes as immutably cyclical. He viewed violence as the proximate causal force of social and political development, be it in the form of war fever, revolutionary fervor, general strike and direct action, or the pious extremism of Christian religious movements from antiquity to the modern era.

If one accepts that the defining characteristic of the interwar right was in fact palingenesis - of the rasse, the volk, the historic nation, of Europe itself, then its impossible to disregard Sorel for contributing to the revolutionary Right's conception of itself as a vanguard called into being by an existential crisis of the political order as such. Sorelian violence entailed a remedial function in history as well as representing a means of catharsis for organized human communities (cultural, sectarian, military, political and otherwise). It was not merely premised on an idea that gratuitous bloodletting was essential in order to sacralize guiding mythologies of mass movements. Sorel himself pointed to early Christianity as fulfilling this essential purpose, in spite of the fact that it did not engage in mass bloodletting of its enemies or martyring of its adherents. Of course it did in fact inspire later martyrs (and Crusaders) in their sacrifices, but this was not why Sorel held out the original Christian congregation as an exemplar of the phenomenon in question.

Sorelian violence can best be understood as an absolute, uncompromising, and radical commitment to pure history. Bloodletting (one's own in the case of the martyr, and that of the enemy in the case of the partisan) is the sanctifying process. A partisan unwilling to kill or die for the political struggle he is engaged in is not a genuine agent of history, for violence is itself the means by which history expresses itself in political transformation. It is this willingness to die and kill that connects a political struggle to its transcendent meaning, therefore for Sorel, pacifism is nihilism.

Sorel viewed the modern bourgeoisie as particularly decadent and harmful, but he did not discern the conditions of his epoch to be otherwise unique. All ruling regimes, political and social, develop overtime a kind of moral and intellectual apathy that precludes its worthiness to act in a role of guardianship over its dominion. This is not to suggest that Sorel shared a secularized, echatological vision of utopian "salvation", common to Marxists and Progressives, which posited that the condition of Man (or the State or national community) was capable of perfection by way of revolutionary processes. Rather, he viewed the fervor of violence as a hygenic mechanism, entirely congruous with his own rejection of the linear view of history.

Anti-Modern Modernism

Sorel shared with Proudhon and Hobbes a pessimistic view of human nature. This is one facet of Sorelian thought that fundamentally alters the way in which Sorel's relationship to socialism is to be understood. Sorel viewed man as basically mired in sin and driven by his own avarice and egoism and desire for his own gain. This tendency, in the Sorelian view, is only overcome by submission to sovereign authority (customary as well as formal) under ordinary conditions. For Sorel, under conditions of extraordinary crisis, then immersion in collectively dynamic and violent efforts (whether revolutionary or restorative) becomes necessary.

Sorel's commitment to socialism must be understood within this context that socialism, for better and worse, was considered a historical inevitability (in structural terms). If nothing else, it was at least grudgingly stipulated even by many of its staunchest critics on the European right that at least some stipulations to the popular demands of socialist parties would need to be realized for any future government to enjoy the legitimacy it required to effectively rule. Despite any arguably reactionary tendencies, Sorel was genuflecting more than slightly to the modernist conceptual bias of political philosophy. We see this in his embrace of the idea of a pseudo-Newtonian "balancing" of forces in society. This is not to say that Sorel's seminal volume Reflections on Violence is merely anarchist apologia in guise of Adam Smith (substituting bloodshed for labor and capital mobility), but it is relevant in discerning the Sorelian relationship to modernity.

Sorel like Proudhon postulated that poverty (or at least the real possibility of it) was a "beneficent" force in highly scaled human societies. With urbanization and the attendant tragedy of the commons forcing men to seek out new and more efficient productive mechanisms, this generated new tensions between castes thus accomplishing a balance of social forces but also conditioning man (individually and collectively) towards action in lieu of apathy and sloth. Industrialization therefore created more ideal conditions for Sorel's positive view of action in his notion of violence where virtue was political empowered as a consequence of the hardships faced by man. He found it outrageous that political discourse at the turn of the 20th century seemed to revolve almost entirely around a degenerate, secular eschatology of material comfort and hedonism. Sorel's dissent therefore had an unmistakable modernist guise.

Much, if not most, of what both orthodox academics and historians as well as revisionists discern as the "Nietzschean" influence in Fascist and National Socialist aesthetics and ethical discourse in fact owes far more to Sorelian influence. Sorel's most intriguing essays in this regard revolve around his own belief that the trial and execution of Socrates was entirely justified. This was not mere polemic, nor an effort to court controversy for its own sake. Rather, Sorel's justification for the execution of Socrates was an essential component of what he considered to be the "common good". For Sorel, Socrates brought into question the influences which are most essentially positive and laudable in forming the social character of individual men in the societies they live. The critical Socratic attitude he therefore considered to be irredeemably harmful and deserving of scornful contempt in kind.

Modernist Violence in Service of Ancient Virtues

Sorel's model of an ideal society is easily discernible as what was "old Athens" by the time of Socrates' trial. The ideal Athenian citizen having been a yeoman farmer and soldier. Sorel did not view the combining of social functions (as in Dumezil's trifunctional hypothesis) as accidental. Class differentiation was for Sorel not simply a pragmatic means of organizing men tied to the land into a warrior caste as a hedge against the emergence of tyrantsor oligarchies who relied upon mercenary armies. He viewed the management of the homestead and the cultural values intrinsic to this enterprise as being inextricably linked to, and mutually reinforcing of, military competence in the waging of war itself.

Relying heavily on Xenophon as a primary source of identifying and describing the aforementioned virtues, Sorel discovered what he believed to be an ideal balance of formal equality between those men deserving of citizenship (the warrior yeomanry), agrarian productivity, paternal virtue, and heroism (violence and competence in violence makes the homestead possible). He viewed the yeoman homestead as a school of command. A man must rule his wife and children firmly but also caringly and justly. He must also demonstrate his worthiness to wield the authority that he does. A man's wife and children are obliged to obey his commands, but only insofar as his command role is tempered by correct virtues and practical reason. A man incapable of wielding authority over his homestead correctly is not fit to command men in battle and vice versa.

It is this essential structure, the foundation of any good society, that Socrates was undermining for Sorel. Making matters worse, this was during a period of active warfare with a highly competent enemy. It is in this regard that Sorel defended the trial and execution of Socrates as not merely just and legitimate under the law, but in fact necessary. This is where it becomes clear that Sorel, radical as he may have been in describing political remedies to the crisis Europe inflicted upon itself in its revolutionary production of modernity, was at base a highly conservative theorist, far more in the mold of De Maistre than of Nietzsche.

The contemporary Right can therefore not afford to avoid Sorel, nor dismiss him out of hand on grounds that he was an anarchist who did not truly belong amongst the most significant theorists of the 20th century European Right. The charge that Sorel was not a "true conservative" owing to his revolutionary sensibilities does not preclude a reading of his thought's fundamental attitude as reactionary in the deepest sense of the term. As the eminent academic commentator and scholar of Fascist political theory Paul Gottfried posed in recent years, who exactly (other than DeGaulle perhaps) will the European Right retain as exemplars once completing the purge of their 20th Century intellectual heritage of any and all "Fascist" or revolutionary socialist influences?