In the mid to late 19th century, a new school of socialism, called “syndicalism”, was beginning to take form. Syndicalism was a very localized version of socialism that appeared within unions and focused on fighting for the rights of workers. Syndicalists yearned for a post-capitalist society that had unions as its building blocks. These unions would be governed internally via direct democracy, and would together form a federation. This system would allow unionized workers to have direct control over the way society functions. However, it is not the syndicalists’ goals that are particularly interesting, but rather the methods that were used to achieve them.
Syndicalists believed in action over philosophizing and thus held a skepticism towards bourgeois academics. They used strikes and violence in order to pressure the government and industry leaders into labour reforms. Arising in the late 19th-century, syndicalists solidified their commitment to the general strike tactic following the Haymarket Affair in Chicago. The Haymarket Affair saw seven anarchists hanged on charges of conspiracy following a violent end to a labour strike that left seven police officers and four civilians dead. Émile Pouget, a prominent French anarcho-syndicalist, stated “the idea of the general strike – fertilized by the blood of anarchists hanged in Chicago [...] – was imported to France.” Syndicalism rose across Europe in the early 1910s with its leaders encouraging strikes across the continent and causing the United Kingdom’s Great Labour Unrest of 1911-1914.
In 1908, syndicalist philosopher Georges Sorel came out with his book, Reflections on Violence, which introduced the wider world to syndicalist ideas. It was a refutation of parliamentary socialism, as well as a consideration of the role of violence and myth as a tool against the bourgeoisie. Sorel honed in on a fundamental contradiction in the project of building socialism through winning parliamentary elections. He argued that the parliamentary socialists could never deliver on any serious change in favour of labour policies because they benefitted too much from the current system to wish for any drastic shakeup. According to Sorel, the parliamentary socialists in France were engaged in an impressive balancing act in order to safeguard their cushy politician lifestyles, convincing the proletariat that they were fighting for their interests in Paris, while also convincing the bourgeoisie that their moderate approach was keeping the impending tide of proletarian revolution at bay. These parliamentarians, even if they ran for office with good intentions, would inevitably see that the realization of socialism would rob them of their newfound positions among society’s elite; so instead, it was in their interest to advocate for moderate reforms that would never threaten the capitalist system.
That politicians prioritize their personal interests over those of the public they have been elected to serve is hardly an uncommon claim. We see it everywhere. We see it in supposedly democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned for the implementation of some form of subsidized healthcare reform in the United States. She and other progressive congressmen were put in a position to do something for the American people, and they refused, out of fear of alienating the Democrat establishment that held the keys to their futures as pampered politicians. And how could we expect politicians to risk their lavish lifestyles in order to fight for their constituents? American politicians make 6 times the average American’s salary. In Canada, our MPs make 4 times the average Canadian salary, even pocketing pay raises while Canadians struggle financially.
This rebuke of parliamentary socialism leaves any serious socialist with a terrible quandary; how does one achieve revolutionary change when the socialist parties keep getting co-opted by the establishment? Sorel’s answer was that revolutionary proletarian violence was the means to attaining socialist ends, writing, “Thus proletarian violence has become an essential factor in Marxism. Let us add once more that, if properly conducted, it will have the result of suppressing parliamentary socialism, which will no longer be able to pose as the leader of the working classes and as the guardian of order.” Revolutionary violence, Sorel argued, is unique, because traditionally, violence has been wielded by the upper classes in order to subjugate the proletariat. Proletarian revolutionary violence breaks with the tradition of force used by the monarchy, the church, and the French Revolution (a bourgeois revolution that brought professionals and industrialists to power in the monarchy’s stead).
The modern world that Sorel described does all that it can to suppress violence from those who seek to attack the system, even while condoning violence on the system’s part in order to suppress change. Postmodern philosopher Guy Debord, writing 60 years after Sorel, picked up on the same themes. Pointing out that terrorism is defined by the state such that all actions that threaten the system are terrorism, while all state-sanctioned violence is not terrorism. “The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive… compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.” In the labour fights of the early 20th century, the state often designated those participating in a general strike as “terrorists” or words of a similar connotation. Participants in The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike were labeled seditionists, and two editors of the strike’s most supportive newspaper were charged with seditious libel.
Sorel believed that a class war between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would arise from a general strike. He differed from the deterministic view of history held by the orthodox marxists, instead asserting that societal change for the good of the proletariat will only come through voluntary action. The revolution was not something that would simply happen on its own. In order for revolutionary action to occur, the forces of the proletariat had to be collected around a unifying myth. For Sorel, the general strike acts as such a myth, a call to action against the bourgeoisie—not just a brief protest against the oppressive class for small material gains, but a vehicle that will one day bring the end of the capitalist system and the emancipation of the proletariat. “[Myths] are not descriptions of things, but expressions of a determination to act… A myth cannot be refuted since it is, at bottom, identical with the convictions of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement.”
The Sorelian Myth, an inspiration for collective agency, has been used by all those with a utopian view for the future, from socialists and anarchists to marxists and fascists. It creates a vision of an idealized future; all that is required to attain it is to act. The myth spurs the collective to action. Sorel writes:
We are not able to act without leaving the present, without thinking about the future, which always seems condemned to escape our reason. Experience proves that some constructions of a future, undetermined in time, can possess great effectiveness and have very few disadvantages when they are of a certain nature; this occurs when it is a question of myths, in which are found the strongest inclinations of a people, a party, or a class, tendencies which present themselves to the mind with insistence of instincts in all of life’s circumstances, giving an appearance of complete reality to the hope of imminent action on which the reform of the will is based.
This myth is a necessary part of revolutionary action. Those risking much for their cause must have an assurance that their struggle will one day be worth it.
Considering our own problems in Canada, with elected “conservative” politicians, we find ourselves in a familiar predicament to the French socialists of Sorel’s era. Although for different reasons, in our case a misguided attempt at gaining votes for the Conservative Party through an intense liberalization of the party, each of us is faced with politicians who support our ideas only nominally. It’s perhaps time for those seeking genuine right-wing change in the country to look at more avenues than just the Conservative Party of Canada, who are destined to stab them in the back, that is if they’re even allowed in at all.
This new course of action for the Canadian right certainly cannot be a wave of violent strikes and rioting. The left can get away with such actions because of the institutions they possess that will protect them from the law, bail them out when they are caught, and create a narrative that drives sympathy towards agitators rather than condemning them. The right (in Canada but also in the world at large) has no such institutions.
A protest in support of Robert Hoogland, or vandalism against statues of unfavourable politicians like Lester B. Pearson would be framed as violent acts driven purely by hate, and anybody who says otherwise would not be allowed anywhere near a TV camera. The perpetrators would be found and likely charged to the fullest extent of the law, and there would be nobody willing to take the case and defend them. In fact, Big Tech would likely even deplatform any attempts to fundraise legal counsel. The current course for the Canadian Right should be the creation of its own institutions that will protect its members and its interests.
This seems a daunting task, but we can take comfort in our own Sorelian Myth, that of a safer, healthier, wealthier, and more virtuous future for all Canadians. Our actions today, and every day from now until victory, will bring us one step closer to a Canada that protects its citizen’s interests over those of its elected officials. It takes courage and hard work to build these institutions, but the alternative is surely continued national decline, less affordable housing, more disenfranchised parents, and even deeper amalgamation into American Empire—all while our alleged allies in Parliament plot new ways to push our opponents’ goals forward.