Soli­tary saint warns of col­lec­tive sins

On the Abo­li­tion of All Po­lit­i­cal Par­ties

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

WHEN France’s elite Ecole Nor­male Su­perieure merged its men’s and women’s cam­puses in 1928, it brought to promi­nence a num­ber of gifted fe­male thinkers. Fu­ture nov­el­ist, protofem­i­nist and philoso­pher Si­mone de Beau­voir was among them: in­deed, she was way ahead of the pack, in­tel­lec­tu­ally speak­ing. But when the ex­am­i­na­tion re­sults for the course gen­eral phi­los­o­phy and logic were posted, de Beau­voir found her­self sec­ond. High­est marks that year had gone to a Jewish stu­dent named Si­mone Weil.

Weil was to be­come a sin­gu­lar 20th-cen­tury fig­ure: a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor who quit her post to work in a Re­nault fac­tory; a teenage Marx­ist whose early writ­ings were said to have in­flu­enced Trot­sky but who later aban­doned pol­i­tics in favour of re­li­gious mys­ti­cism; and a woman whose sen­si­tiv­ity to the suf­fer­ing of her com­pa­tri­ots dur­ing World War II was so in­tense that she died in a Lon­don hospi­tal at 34, hav­ing re­fused any sus­te­nance be­yond the bare min­i­mum per­mit­ted to those liv­ing in oc­cu­pied France.

Trans­la­tor Simon Leys fol­lows a glo­ri­ous if se­lect tra­di­tion in cel­e­brat­ing Weil. In the pref­ace to a 1952 trans­la­tion of her book The Need for Roots, TS Eliot wrote that she was ‘‘ a By Si­mone Weil, trans­lated by Simon Leys Black Inc, 96pp, $16.99 woman of ge­nius, of a kind of ge­nius akin to that of the saints’’. Al­bert Ca­mus called her ‘‘ the only great spirit of our times’’. And the Pol­ish poet and No­bel lau­re­ate Czes­law Milosz, whose suc­cinct in­tro­duc­tion to Weil’s life and thought is re­pub­lished as an af­ter­word to this slim vol­ume, ar­gues that her unique place in the mod­ern world ‘‘ is due to the per­fect con­ti­nu­ity of her thought’’: Un­like those who have to re­ject their past when they be­come Chris­tians, she devel­oped her ideas be­fore 1938 [when, Weil said, she was first ‘‘ cap­tured by Christ’’] even fur­ther, in­tro­duc­ing more or­der into them, thanks to the new light. Those ideas con­cerned so­ci­ety, his­tory, Marx­ism, sci­ence.

Her es­say On the Abo­li­tion of All Po­lit­i­cal Par­ties was writ­ten in Bri­tain in 1943, near the close of her short life. It should be read in the light of Milosz’s com­ments. Although it fills only 31 small-for­mat pages in the Black Inc edi­tion, the piece rep­re­sents Weil’s thought in mi­cro­cosm. As the ti­tle sug­gests, it con­sists of a lu­cid, sus­tained and tren­chant cri­tique of po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the very water in which we mod­ern ci­ti­zens of democ­racy still swim.

What makes her thought so spe­cial, so brac­ing and so strange, is its com­bi­na­tion of philo­soph­i­cal rigour and spir­i­tual com­pass. Like any sec­u­lar thinker she starts with a def­i­ni­tion of terms and pro­ceeds with all the log­i­cal thor­ough­ness of her great Euro­pean pre­cur­sors: Kant, say, or Spinoza. Weil’s life­long fas­ci­na­tion with math­e­mat­ics can be seen in the tight chain of her rea­son­ing.

The es­say opens by dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the English par­lia­men­tary tra­di­tion and those emerg­ing in Europe as a re­sult of the French Rev­o­lu­tion: In the An­glo-Saxon world, po­lit­i­cal par­ties have an el­e­ment of game, of sport, which is only con­ceiv­able in an in­sti­tu­tion of aris­to­cratic ori­gin, whereas in in­sti­tu­tions that were ple­beian from the start, ev­ery­thing must al­ways be se­ri­ous.

Weil is con­cerned with the lat­ter, Euro­pean ver­sion, emerg­ing from the Ter­ror that fol- lowed the events of 1789. In her view, the po­lit­i­cal par­ties born of this time have an in­nate ten­dency to to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. While she ac­knowl­edges that many see po­lit­i­cal par­ties as a nec­es­sary evil, part of the messy, com­pro­mised yet ul­ti­mately vir­tu­ous na­ture of mod­ern democ­racy, she can­not agree: Democ­racy, ma­jor­ity rule, are not good in them­selves. They are merely a means to­wards good­ness, and their ef­fec­tive­ness is un­cer­tain. For in­stance, if, in­stead of Hitler, it had been the Weimar Repub­lic that de­cided, through a most rig­or­ous demo­cratic and le­gal process, to put the Jews in con­cen­tra­tion camps, and cru­elly tor­ture them to death, such mea­sures would not have been one atom more le­git­i­mate than the present Nazi poli­cies.

And with this star­tling point — imag­in­ing democ­racy as the tool of a tyran­ni­cal ma­jor­ity — Weil launches into an at­tack on ev­ery as­pect of the party sys­tem. If, she sug­gests, the aim of po­lit­i­cal par­ties is to in­crease their power, then their ef­forts nec­es­sar­ily run counter to the wishes of those ci­ti­zens of a state who are not mem­bers of their party, or who dis­agree with the party plat­form.

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