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French theory, Tunisian practice

Question: what connects a 26-year-old Tunisian market-stall holder, who died in 2011, with a French civil engineer who died in 1922?

Answer: a theory of revolution – written by the latter and put into practice by the former, a man who just wanted to sell tomatoes.

The stall-holder was Mohamed Bouazizi, whose story is now well known. Bouazizi had a handcart from which he sold fruits and vegetables to the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid. On December 17th 2010 market officials demanded a bribe that Bouazizi was unable or unwilling to pay. The officials confiscated his produce and his equipment, and he was slapped in the face by a female inspector.  He went to both the town hall and the central government building to complain and to get his goods returned, but he was brushed aside. The final act of his short life was self-immolation. He died on January 4th.

The civil engineer was Georges Sorel. Late in life, after retiring from service to the French state, Sorel turned his mind to political theory. He read Marx and developed a theory of class struggle and the role of violence in it. His best known work, Reflections on Violence, first appeared in 1905-6.

Sorel may seem to glorify proletarian violence, which he tells us, is ‘a very fine and heroic thing’. But this is no vindication of mindless thuggery. Sorelian violence is a highly idealised act of war, in which everything ‘is carried out without hatred’. In fact ‘a great development of brutality accompanied by much blood-letting is quite unnecessary’; a few very particular acts of violence will suffice. Sorel was fascinated by the early Christian martyrs and their willingness to endure violence for their beliefs. There ‘was no necessity for the martyrdoms to be numerous in order to prove… the absolute truth of the new religion’.

‘Truth’ here bears no relation to facts, indeed ‘no ideology was ever more remote from the facts than that of the early Christians.’ ‘Truth’ instead relates to belief in a myth. That may seem self-contradictory, but ‘myth’ here does not mean ‘untrue’, a myth captures a complex set of ideas in a simple, colourful form that has the power to mobilise revolutionary action. This is faith not rationality.

For Sorel, the proletariat would never grasp a complex sociological analysis of class, so they needed a simple, inspiring myth, and that was the idea of the general strike. Proletarian martyrs for the general strike, persecuted by the bourgeoisie, would mobilise the masses. This was Sorel’s insight – even if the economic conditions were in place for the class war, you needed the human element to set things going.

Unfortunately for Sorel’s reputation he inspired Mussolini, who advocated the myth of the nation. Perhaps, now, Sorel keeps better company, with the myth of democratic freedom acting as the catalyst for insurrection. Bouazizi’s violent death has served to make him the inspirational political martyr that Sorel believed necessary to inspire revolution; as thousands of Tunisians protestors chanted: ‘Farewell Mohamed, we will avenge you’.

An increasing number of Arab dictators are finding themselves submerged under the shockwaves of the Tunisian democratic revolution. There is a certain irony here, given Sorel’s contempt for parliamentary democracy, but the story brings to mind J B Priestley’s observation that if you could understand why a retired civil servant had written Reflections, you could understand the modern age.

Mathew Humphrey

Published inArab SpringInternational PoliticsPolitical theoryTheory RevolutionTunisia

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