Schmitt on Sorelianism: Belligerence as Political Tactic

The left’s reliance on the tactic of personal confrontation has now become almost cliché. Many will be familiar Melissa Click, former professor at the University of Missouri, who was fired after taking part in a physical confrontation with a student journalist during a protest demanding the resignation of the University’s then-president, Timothy Wolf. Click became famous for her words, “I need some muscle over here,” which, according to a New York Times reporter, “sparked an international debate over the limits of protest and a free press.”

Thanks to Hillary Clinton, more are familiar with Milo Yiannopoulos and the Alt-Right he represents. But fewer will have known of the disruption of his appearance at DePaul University in Chicago. Such confrontations are not limited to the United States; in Canada, a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was “challenged” by a woman who called it “racially charged.” And while these interventions target mostly conservatives, they don’t always. A talk by radical Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek at Left Forum was the target of a disruption by fellow members of the radical left.

Most commentators find the origins of these tactics in No Platform policies of various student organizations. Older antecedents can be found in the practice of “rough music,” a custom of early modern Europe which found its way into political protest in the eighteenth century. But the tactic also bears a strong resemblance to the syndicalism of Georges Sorel (1847–1922), which Schmitt examined as one of a few “irrationalist theories of the direct use of force” in his book The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923).

In the book, Schmitt sought to define the limitations of liberal parliamentarism and examine other theories of state power, including the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat and the aforementioned “irrationalist” tendencies, which include Anarchism, Sorelian syndicalism, and Italian fascism (itself influenced by Sorel). After brief discussions of Proudhon, Bakunin, and the conservative thinker Juan Donoso-Cortes, he turns to Sorel’s myth of the general strike, and its attached heroic ideal, as drivers of syndicalist irrationalist politics. Schmitt’s discussion of Sorel’s heroic action is of interest here:

Sorel hated all intellectualism, all centralization, all uniformity, as did Proudhon, but he demanded nevertheless, like Proudhon, the strictest discipline and morale. The great battle will not be the work of an academic strategy, but an “accumulation of heroic exploits” and a release of the “individualistic forces within the rebelling mass. Creative force that breaks loose in the spontaneity of enthusiastic masses is as a result something very different from dictatorship. Rationalism and all monisms that follow from it, like centralization and uniformity and even the bourgeois illusion of a “great man,” belong to dictatorship, according to Sorel.

Their practical result is systematic subjugation and slavery, horror in the shape of justice and a mechanistic apparatus. Dictatorship is nothing but a military-bureaucratic-police machine, born from the rationalist spirit. In contrast, the revolutionary use of force by the masses is an expression of immediate life, often wild and barbaric, but never systematically horrible and inhuman.(71-72)

Sorel, Schmitt observes, eschewed the dictatorship of the proletariat because it nevertheless still created systems — parties, bureaucracies, military and police apparatuses.

But it does not follow from this that the proletarian revolution must happen as a revisionist-pacifist-parliamentarian revolution. Rather in the place of the mechanically concentrated power of the bourgeois state there appears a creative proletarian force — “violence” appears in place of power. This is only a belligerent act, not a juridical and administrative measure. (72)

The tactical history of the so-called identity left or “SJW” movement is that of an accumulation of small acts of belligerence. The acts can take the form of online outrage, disruptions of public events, or other small-scale acts such as one person physically confronting another in a public place (in many cases, a university campus). Furthermore, because the justification for confrontation is so often an emotional and not a rational justification — the offending of emotional sensitivities, for instance — this form of left politics can be decisively grouped within Schmitt’s category of “irrationalist theories of the direct use of force.”

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