May 05, 2006

The Negative Power of Myth 

Lee Harris writes:
Sorel's response to Renan's comment is not to say, "Renan is wrong; there is a socialist solution, and one day we will find it." Instead, he focuses on the fact that socialists gain their strength precisely from their refusal to recognize that no socialist solution exists. "No failure proves anything against Socialism since the latter has become a work of preparation (for revolution); if they are checked, it merely proves that their apprenticeship has been insufficient; they just set to work again with more courage, persistence, and confidence than before...." But what is the point for Sorel of this refusal to accept the repeated historical failure of socialism? Here again, Sorel refuses to embrace the orthodox position of socialist optimism; he does not say, "Try, try, try again, for one day socialism will succeed." Instead, he argues that it is only by refusing to accept the failure of socialism that one can become a "true revolutionary." Indeed, for Sorel, the whole point of the myth of the socialist revolution is not that the human societies will be transformed in the distant future, but that the individuals who dedicate their lives to this myth will be transformed into comrades and revolutionaries in the present. In short, revolution is not a means to achieve socialism; rather, the myth of socialism is a useful illusion that turns ordinary men into comrades and revolutionaries united in a common struggle - a band of brothers, so to speak.

Sorel, for whom religion was important, drew a comparison between the Christian and the socialist revolutionary. The Christian's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that Christ will one day return and usher in the end of time; the revolutionary socialist's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that one day socialism will triumph, and justice for all will prevail. What mattered for Sorel, in both cases, is not the scientific truth or falsity of the myth believed in, but what believing in the myth does to the lives of those who have accepted it, and who refuse to be daunted by the repeated failure of their apocalyptic expectations. How many times have Christians in the last two thousand years been convinced that the Second Coming was at hand, only to be bitterly disappointed -- yet none of these disappointments was ever enough to keep them from holding on to their great myth. So, too, Sorel argued, the myth of socialism will continue to have power, despite the various failures of socialist experiments, so long as there are revolutionaries who are unwilling to relinquish their great myth. That is why he rejected scientific socialism -- if it was merely science, it lacked the power of a religion to change individual's lives. Thus for Sorel there was "an...analogy between religion and the revolutionary Socialism which aims at the apprenticeship, preparation, and even the reconstruction of the individual -- a gigantic task."
He expresses in a much better form things that I've been pondering for quite a while too. Why the fanatical, steadfast attachment to lost causes? Because it gives satisfaction to an inner urge, that's why.

The open scenarios are thus not comforting at all. If it's true that only a myth can defeat another (or even worse, only a fanaticism can defeat another), then dark times lie ahead - times of uncompromising conflict and war.

We pragmatist, skeptics, and a whole lot of "moderates" from many sides are trying to make reason and rationality prevail, but it may be that humans are hardwired to need myths. The black flag shall be hoisted again?


I always say something very similar: certain ideologies, like communism for example, are more akin to religions than to political theories. Just like religion they don't really need facts as much as hope and good intentions. Just like religion they try to adapt to the world as it changes while maintaining their fundamentals. Just like religion they promise salvations against the current corrupt world. Just like religion they thrive on myth. Just like religions they are always inoocent: it doesnt' matter how many crimes have been committed in the name of an ideology, there was never something wrong with the ideology itself but people misusing it or misappropriating it.

In Italy this is especially true with local communism that, in my opinion, is some kind of "alternative catholicism". A gnostic one.


Indeed. Now the important question is what it takes to defeat or at least contain these faith-based ideologies.

Are reason and rationality enough?


The mother of all questions. I only have insufficient answers I'm afraid.
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