In 1943, an obscure staff member of the London-based Free French Forces completed a short proposal for a new way to do politics following her country’s liberation. The author, Simone Weil, passed away soon after, while her paper, quickly shelved, baffled her colleagues. For a resistance movement committed to salvaging a democratic and republican France, a paper titled “On the Abolition of All Political Parties” was something of an outrage.
Little more than 75 years later, though Weil has become a world-renowned political and religious thinker, her paper remains outrageous. At first glance, it resembles Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which the 18th-century Anglo-Irish writer proposed cannibalism as a cure to starvation in Ireland. The one difference is that while Swift was ironic, Weil is anything but. Yet behind the sheer impracticability of her own modest proposal lies an analysis that, following Tuesday’s party-line vote in Congress on the motion to censure President Trump’s racist remarks, is more relevant than ever.
For Weil, all political parties, regardless of their ideological coloration, share three basic traits. They are dedicated to nurturing collective passions, designed to exercise collective pressure upon the minds of their members and devoted to their collective self-preservation. These traits, in turn, make it nigh impossible for the members of political parties to think and act as individuals.
Imagine, Weil asks, a political candidate who declares: “Whenever I shall have to examine any political or social issue, I swear I will absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group; my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done in order to best serve the public interest and justice.” Such a claim would elicit either a puzzled frown or loud guffaw on the part of other party members, all the while sentencing the candidate to either censure or exile.
From her unforgiving analysis, Weil draws unsparing conclusions. If a political party is, as she writes, “a marvelous mechanism which, on the national scale, ensures that not a single mind can attend to the effort of perceiving, in public affairs, what is good, what is just, what istrue” then the party has no place in the public square. You find this utterly undemocratic? Well, Weil would take a drag on her omnipresent Gauloises and reply “Et alors?” (“And so?”) Democracy is not a good in, of and by itself. What would you think of democracy, she asks, had it been the Weimar Republic, not Nazi Germany, that “put the Jews in concentration camps, and cruelly torture[d] them to death?”
Such a notion, Weil adds, “is by no means far-fetched.” After all, it was republican, not Vichy, France that built the internment camps along its own southern border for Spanish refugees from the Spanish Civil War in which she had trained to fight. Soon after, these same camps interned Jewish refugees from Adolf Hitler’s war against them.
That democracies would abide internment camps is shocking, but not surprising. No less shocking, but perhaps more surprising to our ears, Weil insists democracy is not an end, but instead a means. It exists, quite simply, to achieve the good. If it achieves only the bad, it must then be discarded. Here’s the rub, though: Given the dominance of parties, which define and distill democratic politics, the bad inevitably wins out.
Could it be any different, Weil asks, when politicians represent party interests rather than the public interest? One should think what one thinks, she argues, “not because one happens to be French or Catholic or Socialist, but simply because the irresistible light of evidence forces one to think this and not that.” Or, for that matter, if one is American, or Republican, or Democratic. Yet this had become nigh impossible, Weil believed, in an age of mass politics and communication. She compared interwar radio and tabloids to “cocaine” that distorts and degrades the individual’s ability to attend to the world and others. How quaint a notion in our own age, in which the feedback loops between Fox News and Republicans as well as MSNBC and Democrats are the intellectual equivalent of our opioid crisis.
At the end of her proposal, Weil laments that nearly everywhere citizens no longer think, but instead “one merely takes sides: for or against.” Her contemporaries had swapped the activity of the mind and the acknowledgment of complexity for the inanity of prejudice and the insistence upon simplicity. What Weil diagnosed as this “intellectual leprosy” is hardly unique to her time and place. Told that the Republican Party in our own country supports, either loudly or silently, a politics based on racist and reactionary convictions, Weil would once again reply “Et alors?”
The real tragedy is that this remarkable individual, attacked — as were her free-thinking contemporaries George Orwell and Albert Camus — by parties on the left as well as the right, would give the same answer when the subject turns to the Democratic Party. Weil would undoubtedly find that its allergic reaction to those who question the base’s stance on the issues of immigration or health care, not to mention abortion, smacks of the same affliction that plagues the GOP. In her essay, Weil warned that “nothing is more comfortable than not having to think.” Perhaps the time has come for the country’s self-styled resistance to think carefully about her warning.