George Lakoff: Neo-Syndicalist

Syndicalism Over the weekend I read with fascination William Saletan’s review of the new offering from George Lakoff, “The Political Mind,” and was struck by the remarkable similarities between it and the revolutionary syndicalism espoused during the prior fin de siècle.

In particular, Saletan summarizes Lakoff’s principal idea as the need for progressives to recapture the and reformulate the social myth that drives the political decisions of the masses:

Lakoff blames “neoliberals” and their “Old Enlightenment” mentality for the Democratic Party’s weakness. They think they can win elections by citing facts and offering programs that serve voters’ interests. When they lose, they conclude that they need to move farther to the right, where the voters are.

This is all wrong, Lakoff explains. Neuroscience shows that pure facts are a myth and that self-interest is a conservative idea. In a “New Enlightenment,” progressives will exploit these discoveries. They’ll present frames instead of raw facts. They’ll train the public to think less about self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters.

Lakoff’s concept is not new, although his explanation as to why myth-making is important may be. George Sorel explained the importance and power of social myth in driving the masses to remake society over a century ago, concentrating especially on the use of language:

Syndicalism endeavours to employ methods of expression which throw a full light on things, which put them exactly in the place assigned to them by their nature, and which bring out the whole value of the forces in play. Oppositions, instead of being glozed (sic) over, must be thrown into sharp relief if we desire to obtain a clear idea of the Syndicalist movement; the groups which are struggling one against the other must be shown as separate and as compact as possible; in short, the movements of the revolted masses must be represented in such a way that the soul of the revolutionaries may receive a deep and lasting impression.

These results could not be produced in any very certain manner by the use of ordinary language; use must be made of a body of images which, by intuition alone, and before any considered analyses are made, is capable of evoking as an undivided whole the mass of sentiments which corresponds to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by Socialism against modern society.

To be clear, although the syndicalists’ primary opponent in this war was the capitalist system and all those who people and institutions who supported and/or protected it, they were also struggling against the “scientific” (Marxist) socialists, trade unionists and other non-revolutionary socialists of the day. These non-revolutionaries endeavored to work within the political system as a means of change, rather than rejecting it altogether as antiquated, corrupt, and useless for effecting the sorts of change necessary to free workers from the standard capital-labor relationships that kept them oppressed.

The fundamental difference between Syndicalism and the old trade union methods is this: while the old trade unions, without exception, move within the wage system and capitalism, recognizing the latter as inevitable, Syndicalism repudiates and condemns present industrial arrangements as unjust and criminal, and holds out no hope to the worker for lasting results from this system.

Of course Syndicalism, like the old trade unions, fights for immediate gains, but it is not stupid enough to pretend that labor can expect humane conditions from inhuman economic arrangements in society. Thus it merely wrests from the enemy what it can force him to yield; on the whole, however, Syndicalism aims at, and concentrates its energies upon, the complete overthrow of the wage system. Indeed, Syndicalism goes further: it aims to liberate labor from every institution that has not for its object the free development of production for the benefit of all humanity. In short, the ultimate purpose of Syndicalism is to reconstruct society from its present centralized, authoritative and brutal state to one based upon the free, federated grouping of the workers along lines of economic and social liberty.

Direct action, in the form of a general worldwide strike, was promoted as the means by which syndicalists would bring capitalism to its knees. Again, the importance of language and framing to that goal was explained by Sorel:

The Syndicalists solve this problem [of ordinary language] perfectly, by concentrating the whole of Socialism in the drama of the general strike; there is thus no longer any place for the reconciliation of contraries in the equivocations of the professors; everything is clearly mapped out, so that only one interpretation of Socialism is possible. This method has all the advantages which “integral” knowledge has over analysis, according to the doctrine of Bergson; and perhaps it would not be possible to cite another example which would so perfectly demonstrate the value of the famous professor’s doctrines.#


Experience shows that the framing of a future, in some indeterminate time, may, when it is done in a certain way, be very effective, and have very few inconveniences; this happens when the anticipations of the future take the form of those myths, which enclose with them all the strongest inclinations of a people, of a party or of a class, inclinations which recur to the mind with the insistence of instincts in all the circumstances of life; and which give an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action by which, more easily than by any other method, men can reform their desires, passions, and mental activity. We know, moreover, that these social myths in no way prevent a man profiting by the observations which he makes in the course of his life, and form no obstacle to the pursuit of his normal occupations.

The similarities between the above and Lakoff’s latest work are striking. For example, according to Saletan’s reading of Lakoff:

Since voters’ opinions are neither logical nor self-made, they should be altered, not obeyed. Politicians should “not follow polls but use them to see how they can change public opinion to their moral worldview.” And since persuasion is mechanical, progressives should rely less on facts and more on images and drama, “casting progressives as heroes, and by implication, conservatives as villains.” The key is to “say things not once, but over and over. Brains change when ideas are repeatedly activated.”

What should progressives say? That conservatism is “fundamentally antidemocratic.” It “tells us to save your own skin and not to care about your neighbor,” so “conservatives don’t pay that much attention to injured veterans.”

For Lakoff, language and social myth are the name of the game. He who does it best wins. According to his (anti-historical) view, conservatives have dominated the conversation thus far, which is why they continue to win elections. In order for the progressives to recapture the social myth, the must reframe and recast the debate in stark terms meant to throw in to stark relief the choices to be made by the voters: i.e. “Democrats good; Republicans evil.” When such a message is combined with a cult of personality leader, such as Barack Obama, where will this lead? History would suggest towards fascism:

In setting out to revise Marxism, syndicalists were most strongly motivated by the desire to be effective revolutionaries, not to tilt at windmills but to achieve a realistic understanding of the way the world works. In criticizing and re-evaluating their own Marxist beliefs, however, they naturally drew upon the intellectual fashions of the day, upon ideas that were in the air during this period known as the fin de siècle. The most important cluster of such ideas is “anti-rationalism.”

Many forms of anti-rationalism proliferated throughout the nineteenth century. The kind of anti-rationalism which most influenced pre-fascists was not primarily the view that something other than reason should be employed to decide factual questions (epistemological anti-rationalism). It was rather the view that, as a matter of sober recognition of reality, humans are not solely or even chiefly motivated by rational calculation but more by intuitive “myths” (practical anti-rationalism). Therefore, if you want to understand and influence people’s behavior, you had better acknowledge that they are not primarily self-interested, rational calculators; they are gripped and moved by myths.


Practical anti-rationalism entered pre-Fascism through Georges Sorel and his theory of the “myth.” This influential socialist writer began as an orthodox Marxist. An extreme leftist, he naturally became a syndicalist, and soon the best-known syndicalist theoretician. Sorel then moved to defending Marx’s theory of the class struggle in a new way–no longer as a scientific theory, but instead as a “myth”, an understanding of the world and the future which moves men to action. When he began to abandon Marxism, both because of its theoretical failures and because of its excessive “materialism,” he looked for an alternative myth. Experience of current and recent events showed that workers had little interest in the class struggle but were prone to patriotic sentiment.


A general trend throughout revolutionary socialism from 1890 to 1914 was that the most revolutionary elements laid an increasing stress upon leadership, and downplayed the autonomous role of the toiling masses. This elitism was a natural outcome of the revolutionaries’ ardent wish to have revolution and the stubborn disinclination of the working class to become revolutionary. Workers were instinctive reformists: they wanted a fair shake within capitalism and nothing more. Since the workers did not look as if they would ever desire a revolution, the small group of conscious revolutionaries would have to play a more decisive role than Marx had imagined. That was the conclusion of Lenin in 1902. It was the conclusion of Sorel. And it was the conclusion of the syndicalist Giuseppe Prezzolini whose works in the century’s first decade Mussolini reviewed admiringly.

The leadership theme was reinforced by the theoretical writings of, Mosca, Pareto, and Michels, especially Pareto’s theory of the Circulation of Elites. All these arguments emphasized the vital role of active minorities and the futility of expecting that the masses would ever, left to themselves, accomplish anything. Further corroboration came from Le Bon’s sensational best-seller of 1895–it would remain perpetually in print in a dozen languages–The Psychology of Crowds, which analyzed the “irrational” behavior of humans in groups and drew attention to the group’s proclivity to place itself in the hands of a strong leader, who could control the group as long as he appealed to certain primitive or basic beliefs.

The initiators of Fascism saw anti-rationalism as high-tech. It went with their fast cars and airplanes. Fascist anti-rationalism, like psychoanalysis, conceives of itself as a practical science which can channel elemental human drives in a useful direction.

Yes, after the more docile forms of socialism stalled, the pre-Fascists, Mussolini and other revolutionary ideologies of the early twentieth century relied heavily on a strong leader to stir the masses to action. Yes these movements led invariably to horrible deprivations of freedom, unspeakable atrocities, and war. No, I am not suggesting that Barack Obama is a fascist, nor that he will turn the U.S. into Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, or even Lenin or Stalin’s Russia. And even as I recognize just how powerful and effective it can be to use myth in motivating people towards one’s own ends, I am not suggesting that freedom minded people lie and “frame” in such a way as to manipulate people to choose liberty over statism.

What I am suggesting, however, is that George Lakoff is encouraging the very same path to rule as followed by those early twentieth century leaders who employed social myth in their rise to power. And I am suggesting that allowing such myths to be propagated without resistance will eventually lead right back to the atrocities of the last century. Enter a young, (sometimes) smooth-talking politico bent on “hope and change” and perhaps we move a little further down that path than would be comfortable. In my mind, the best way to counter that potential deleterious movement is destroy the myths, loudly and often.

Where some may preach the glories of united government action in pursuit of the common goals of man, I say to hold high the annals of history, replete with real tales of individuals destroyed by the tyranny of masses and collective action. Where some will point to the need to subjugate the will of selfish individuals for the common good, I say to highlight the accomplishments that benefit of all of mankind sprung from the minds and efforts of individual men and women bent towards their own pursuits in fulfillment of their own desires. Where some will paint a picture of a harmonious society wrapped around the collective will of the governed peoples, I say to broadcast the world over those real pictures of individuals rent asunder by the intolerance and greediness for power of those state actors determined to enforce the “will of the people” and to loudly explain how that will has a way of devolving to ever smaller number of elites who decide what’s best for everyone.

And when someone points to the politics of “hope and change” as the way towards a better tomorrow, I’ll say “Amen, brother, now I hope you get out of my way because there are something I need to change.”

UPDATE: For more of how everything old is new to Lakoff, read John Ray at Stop the ACLU:

Another amusing Lakoff prescription: “progressives should rely less on facts and more on images and drama”. Talk about preaching to the converted! Since when did Leftists EVER rely on facts? Appeals to emotions have been their stock in trade since the year dot. If they relied on known facts they would certainly have given up very rapidly and very long ago any notion that socialism was a cure for poverty.

He’s not wrong.
# Many rejected Bergson (and Sorel) as having any sort of influence on syndicalism, or effecting any changes in the movement itself, but their explanations regarding it and the importance of social myth as a driving force are not to be dismissed lightly.

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5 Responses to “George Lakoff: Neo-Syndicalist”

  1. on 23 Jun 2008 at 11:08 pm peter jackson

     Yep, being a socialist means always having to resort to Plan B, which typically involves guns, jackboots, and prison camps. It’s fueled by the fantasy that if enough people agree, it’s impossible to be wrong. 

  2. on 23 Jun 2008 at 11:24 pm MichaelW

    Tyranny of the masses.  It’s seemingly impossible to contain.  There will always be an excuse/justification/rationalization as to why it’s the correct course of action this time.  Kind of why I thought we created a government of laws and not men.

  3. on 28 Jun 2008 at 5:15 am Roland Dodds

    A great piece Michael. It would be great to have more pieces like this, as this paragraph specifically hit the nail on the head:
    “What I am suggesting, however, is that George Lakoff is encouraging the very same path to rule as followed by those early twentieth century leaders who employed social myth in their rise to power. And I am suggesting that allowing such myths to be propagated without resistance will eventually lead right back to the atrocities of the last century. Enter a young, (sometimes) smooth-talking politico bent on “hope and change” and perhaps we move a little further down that path than would be comfortable. In my mind, the best way to counter that potential deleterious movement is destroy the myths, loudly and often.”
    Well said. If only more folks listened.

  4. on 29 Jun 2008 at 4:58 pm MichaelW

    Thanks, Roland.  I’m glad you liked it.

  5. on 12 Jan 2009 at 3:24 pm Steve Huff

    Loved it! I have read a lot of Sorel’s writings but not Lakoff. I sure appreciate the interpretation. Sorel and Lakoff sure are mirrored by radicals like Alinsky and Ayers. Every time I read how these elitists think, I understand that we are not that far removed from the “theology” of men like Sorel and Rousseau and the times of Robespierre. Thank you!

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