In the months leading up to her death 75 years ago, the controversial French intellectual Simone Weil feverishly filled notebook upon notebook with essays and articles. Brought to England by Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces, Weil had sketched many of these pieces with an eye on post-liberation France and Europe. Many of her posthumous writings have deeply influenced not just political thinkers, but also policymakers. For instance, elements from The Need for Roots, with its emphasis on needs and duties, filtered into the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Other writings by Weil, however, have been brushed under the carpet as embarrassing aberrations. Most famously, there is her proposal to parachute unarmed and white-uniformed nurses -- including herself -- into Nazi-occupied France. Divining that their duty was less to aid dying soldiers than to invite their own deaths as symbols of self-sacrifice, de Gaulle dismissed the idea as crazy.
What the authoritarian general might not have found to be folle, though, was another of Weil’s ideas -- one that moreover seems tailor-made for our politically polarized era. Buried in the towering pile of unpublished papers she left behind is her “Note on the General Suppression of Political Parties.” Scholars have mostly ignored the paper, if only because it seems so foolhardy even for Weil.
Perhaps. But if Weil was crazy, it was like the proverbial fox.
Why do we have political parties? Such a question seems like asking why we have gravity. Startled, some of us might answer that parties represent competing interests within the body politic. Others might reply more simply that, as a self-respecting democracy, we have no choice. For Weil, though, such replies simply reflect the damage that our parties have already wrought. Neither parties nor democracy are ends in themselves, but instead are the means to the ends of justice and the public interest, which Weil lumps under the word “goodness.”
When it comes to democracy, Weil reminds us that it often falls short of so-so-ness, not to mention goodness. She had in mind France’s treatment in the 1930s of Spanish Republican refugees, who were herded into hastily constructed and utterly inadequate concentration camps, only to be joined a short time later by waves of Jewish refugees from Central Europe. When it comes to such camps, we can all too easily substitute the Roosevelt administration’s treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. That democracies in both countries built these camps does not, Weil concludes, make them “one atom more legitimate.”
But the real enemy of goodness, Weil argues, is political parties. Not just the extremes like the Communists and Fascists, but every party in between. Socialist or Catholic, liberal or conservative, nationalist or internationalist: a pox on all of them because all of them share three essential traits. They are created to “generate collective passions,” designed to “exert collective pressure upon the minds of its members,” and motivated to seek their own growth at the expense not just of other parties, but the nation itself.
Weil makes her point by shrewdly observing a tick shared by all politicians and accepted by all citizens not just of her time, but our time as well. Everybody feels, she writes, that “it is completely natural, sensible and honorable for someone to say, ‘As a conservative…’ or ‘As a Socialist, I do think that…” In our own age, it remains the case: just as Republicans fall over one another to speak as Republicans, so too do Democrats insist on speaking as Democrats.
Yet a moment’s reflection, Weil suggests, reveals how just unsettling this claim in fact is. It implies that truths are not just many -- a position that a pragmatist or pluralist might legitimately argue for -- but that they are tailored according to the measurements of a particular party. This claim, which distills the nature of politics, destabilizes the primacy of reason and reality in political discourse. One thinks what one thinks, Weil declares, “not because one happens to be French or Catholic or Socialist” or, for that matter, American or Baptist or a Sanders Socialist. Instead, one thinks what one thinks “simply because the irresistible light of evidence forces one to think this and not that.” This is tantamount, in Weil’s eyes, to having no thoughts at all.
By way of illustration, Weil asks us to imagine a political candidate who announces that, regardless of the issue at hand, she will “absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group.” Instead, the candidate continues, “my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done in order to best serve the public interest and justice.” Of course, we expect ostensibly apolitical figures like judicial nominees to pay lip service to such claims. But because it is suicidal -- we cannot imagine such language at a Republican or Democratic meeting hall -- we almost never expect it of our politicians.
Unless that politician happens to be Edmund Burke, who famously informed his Bristol constituency that he owed them “not just his industry, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Predictably, when Burke acted on this conviction, he sacrificed his political career when the good people of Bristol voted him out of office. Perhaps surprisingly for someone claimed by the extreme left, Weil shared Burke’s conservative worldview and would have applauded his defense of reasoned judgment (if not his defense of political parties as a form of legitimate opposition).
Of course, it is easy to cheer Weil when she excoriates politicians and political parties. Does it not ring true when she writes that political parties are “designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice”? Or, again, that “any issue that does not pertain to particular interests is abandoned to collective passions, which are systematically and officially inflamed”? She is slamming not just the political parties that, come 1940, helped prepare the ground for France’s staggering military defeat. She is also slamming, 75 years later, the politicians who seem to be steering our own country to social and economic disaster.
It becomes a bit less easy to cheer her, though, when you realize she has your party as well as the other parties in her crosshair. Tragically, it has become as oxymoronic to be a pro-life Democrat as it is to be a pro-gun-control Republican. And it is even more difficult to cheer when you ask yourself if, as Weil insists, truth really is indivisible. One need not be a raging relativist to think twice about the philosophically problematic nature of such claims, as well as the politically problematic direction they can lead. (Think of the multiple religious and ideological inquisitions that pock world history.)
Besides, was Weil truly serious about ridding France -- or, by extension, the United States -- of political parties? The answer, I think, is that she was as serious about this as she was about parachuting nurses into occupied France -- namely, very serious. (She was shattered by her failure to persuade de Gaulle to follow through on the plan.) But this does not mean we need to either outlaw parties or send nurses on suicide missions to acknowledge the power of her insights. When she observes that “nearly everywhere, instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against,” we cannot help but recognize she is describing not just France 75 years ago, but the United States today. Nor can we gainsay her conclusion: “Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind and is an intellectual leprosy.”
While Weil’s prescription is unacceptable, her diagnosis seems incontrovertible. It is for us to find a reasonable cure.