Down With Republicans and Democrats! Simone Weil [Review]

The cover of the New York Review of Books version of “On the Abolition of All Political Parties.”

I picked up Simone Weil’s “On the Abolition of All Political Parties” on a whim. It was a short little book and I thought I could read it quickly, be just as quickly edified and move on as a slightly better person than I had been before. None of that happened. Instead, I have spent days poring over the thin little book, reading the essay more than once and spending a lot of time in stunned silence. In a startling case of serendipity, it turns out that the New York Review of Books has just released its own version of the book (I read the version translated by Simon Ley from Black Inc. Books) and discussions of Weil’s philosophy are proliferating on the internet. It is not hard to understand why. Her writing tears down everything we thought we knew about how politics works.

For those of you who, like me, are not familiar with Simone Weil, let me summarize a life. She was born in 1909 and died of tuberculosis in 1943. She spent her life living out compassion. She donated most of her money to the poor and various causes. She started out as an atheist, but became more mystical in later life. While she believed in God, she did not join the Catholic Church even though she wanted to. As she once explained,

“Religion, in so far as it is a source of consolation, is a hindrance to true faith: in this sense atheism is a purification. I have to be atheistic with the part of myself which is not for God.”

I will come back to this fact later, but for now let me say of Weil that she was admirable in her short life. Some have called her a “saint among intellectuals” for her acts of compassion. From what I have learned of her life, I am inclined to agree.

Her essay (topping out at roughly 30 pages, it is hardly a book) “On the Abolition of All Political Parties” is amazing. It has hints of the mysticism to which she was prone, especially when she talks about “goodness,” but on the whole her reasoning is sound and, if I can characterize it thus, concrete. Reading this essay feels like walking on the pavement. It thuds comfortably and solidly with no possibility of crumbling.

Summarizing her ideas is not quite easy. Essentially, she argues that political parties are an evil thing because they make people stop thinking for themselves and finding truth. They are totalitarian operations which require rigid adherence to their principles, even if their principles are not good or true or right. Because they mobilize people for causes, which she calls “collective passions,” they create more evil than good in a democracy.

That is a really basic grasp of her point, but it’s a good place to start. I encourage anyone who is interested to find a copy of this book and read it. It won’t take long and it will change how you look at just about everything.

For me personally, there was one very interesting passage. Previously on this blog, I have called Catholicism a “totalitarian regime.” At the time, I felt as though I had slightly over-reacted and maybe gone too far. Perhaps things weren’t as bad as I thought they were. Then I read this essay.

“We must acknowledge that the mechanism of spiritual and intellectual oppression which characterises political parties was historically introduced by the Catholic Church in its fight against heresy,” Weil writes.

“A convert who joins the Church, or a faithful believer who, after inner deliberation, decides to remain in the Church, perceives what is true and good in Catholic dogma. However, as he crosses the threshold, he automatically registers his implicit acceptance of countless specific articles of faith which he cannot possibly have considered – to examine them all a lifetime of study would not be sufficient, even for a person of superior intelligence and culture.”

This tacit acceptance of unknown principles is, according to Weil, one of the primary reasons political parties should be abolished. The fact that it stems from the church is reason enough for me to believe that it should be abolished as well.

At the very least, when I read this, I was comforted by the realization that I was not the only person to have thought that the church was totalitarian. Far more important and educated persons than myself had already come to that conclusion. I was not out on a limb on my own.

But learning more about Weil gave me a different kind of comfort as well. Even though she believed in God and thought religion was comforting, she did not join it. She could not allow herself to abdicate the search for truth to others. Having seen that factionalism gave rise to evil, she could not participate in it. I admire this immensely. I also think she may have felt quite lonely and disconsolate at times. I have felt that way since taking a step back from organised religion. Perhaps she did as well.

Judging from the “good” that the American Congress is doing right now, I heartily agree that political parties should be abolished. I’m sick of having my ideas dismissed by someone simply because they say they are a “Republican” and I am a “liberal.” I would rather find what we have in common and then maybe work towards a solution to the problems we both agree exist. Alas, that may never come. Weil’s desire to end political parties seems a utopian dream. It probably is. But without such dreams, we may never get any better.

For a recent review on Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of Political Parties, see this article in the Irish TimesThere is also another discussion of this book here at The New Republic. 

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