Before she died at the age of only 34 in 1943, French philosopher Simone Weil left behind an intense body of work around Christian philosophy, mysticism and political activism. One of her most famous essays has been newly translated into English by renowned essayist and critic Simon Leys.
When someone joins a party, it is usually because he has perceived, in the activities and propaganda of this party, a number of things that appeared to him just and good. Still, he has probably never studied the position of the party on all the problems of public life. When joining the party, he therefore also endorses a number of positions which he does not know. In fact, he submits his thinking to the authority of the party. As, later on, little by little, he begins to learn these positions, he will accept them without further examination. This replicates exactly the situation of whoever joins the Catholic orthodoxy along the lines of Saint Thomas.
If a man were to say, as he applied for his party membership card, ‘I agree with the party on this and that question; I have not yet studied its other positions and thus I entirely reserve my opinion, pending further information,’ he would probably be advised to come back at a later date.
In fact – and with very few exceptions – when a man joins a party, he submissively adopts a mental attitude which he will express later on with words such as, ‘As a monarchist, as a Socialist, I think that …’ It is so comfortable! It amounts to having no thoughts at all. Nothing is more comfortable than not having to think.
As regards the third characteristic of political parties – that they are machines to generate collective passions – this is so spectacularly evident that it scarcely needs further demonstration. Collective passion is the only source of energy at the disposal of parties with which to make propaganda and to exert pressure upon the soul of every member.
One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognizes it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.
Intoxicating drugs are prohibited. Some people are nevertheless addicted to them. But there would be many more addicts if the state were to organise the sale of opium and cocaine in all tobacconists, accompanied by advertising posters to encourage consumption.
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In conclusion: the institution of political parties appears to be an almost unmixed evil. They are bad in principle, and in practice their impact is noxious. The abolition of parties would prove almost wholly beneficial. It would be a highly legitimate initiative in principle, and in practice could only have a good effect.
At elections, candidates would tell voters not, ‘I wear such and such a label’ – which tells the public nearly nothing as regards their actual position on actual issues – but rather, ‘My views are such and such on such and such important problems.’
Elected politicians would associate and disassociate following the natural and changing flow of affinities. I may very well agree with Mr A on the question of colonialism, yet disagree with him on the issue of agrarian ownership, and my relations with Mr B may be the exact reverse.
The artificial crystallisation into political parties coincides so little with genuine affinities that a member of parliament will often find himself disagreeing with a colleague from within his own party, and in complete agreement with a politician from another party. How many times, in Germany in 1932, might a Communist and a Nazi conversing in the street have been struck by a sort of mental vertigo on discovering that they were in complete agreement on all issues!
Outside parliament, intellectual circles would naturally form around journals of political ideas. These circles should remain fluid. This fluidity is the hallmark of a circle based on natural affinities; it distinguishes a circle from a party and prevents it from exerting a noxious influence. When one cultivates friendly relations with the director of a certain journal and with its regular contributors, when one occasionally writes for it, one can say that one is in touch with this journal and its circle, but one is not aware of being part of it; there is no clear boundary between inside and outside. Further away, there are those who read the journal and happen to know one or two of its contributors. Further again, there are regular readers who deriveinspiration from the journal. Further still, there are occasional readers. Yet none would ever think or say, ‘As a person related to such journal, I do think that …’
At election time, if contributors to a journal are political candidates, it should be forbidden for them to invoke their connection with the journal, and it should be forbidden for the journal to endorse their candidacy, to support it directly or indirectly, or even to mention it. Any ‘Association of the friends’ of this sort of journal should be forbidden. If any journal were ever to prevent its contributors from writing for other publications, it should be forced to close.
All this would require a complete set of press regulations, making it impossible for dishonourable publications to carry on with their activity, since none would wish to be associated with them.
Whenever a circle of ideas and debate would be tempted to crystallise and create a formal membership, the attempt should be repressed by law and punished.
Naturally, clandestine parties might appear. It would not be honourable to join them. The members of these underground parties would no longer be able to turn the enslavement of their minds into a public show. They would not be allowed to make any propaganda for their party. The party would have no chance of keeping them prisoner of a tight web of interests, passions and obligations.
Whenever a law is impartial and fair, and is based upon a clear view of the public interest, easily grasped by everyone, it always succeeds in weakening what it forbids. The penalties that are attached to infringements scarcely need be applied: the mere existence of the law is itself enough to neutralise its target. This intrinsic prestige of the law is a reality of public life which has been too long forgotten and ought to be revived and made good use of. The existence of clandestine parties should not cause significant harm – especially compared with the disastrous effects of the activities of legal parties.
Generally speaking, a careful examination reveals no inconveniences that would result from the abolition of political parties. Strange paradox: measures like this, which present no inconvenience, are also the least likely to be adopted. People think, if it is so simple, why was it not done long ago?
And yet, most often, great things are easy and simple.
This particular measure would exert a healthy, cleansing influence well beyond the domain of public affairs, for the party spirit has infected everything.
The institutions that regulate the public life of a country always influence the general mentality – such is the prestige of power. People have progressively developed the habit of thinking, in all domains, only in terms of being ‘in favour of’ or ‘against’ any opinion, and afterwards they seek arguments to support one of these two options. This is an exact transposition of the party spirit.
Just as within political parties, there are some democratically minded people who accept a plurality of parties, similarly, in the realm of opinion, there are broad-minded people willing to acknowledge the value of opinions with which they disagree. They have completely lost the concept of true and false.
Others, having taken a position in favour of a certain opinion, refuse to examine any dissenting view. This is a transposition of the totalitarian spirit.
When Einstein visited France, all the people who more or less belonged to the intellectual circles, including other scientists, divided themselves into two camps: for Einstein or against him. Any new scientific idea finds in the scientific world supporters and enemies – both sides inflamed to a deplorable degree with the partisan spirit. The intellectual world is permanently full of trends and factions, in various stages of crystallisation.
In art and literature, this phenomenon is even more prevalent. Cubism and Surrealism were each a sort of party. Some people were Gidian and some Maurrassian. To achieve celebrity, it is useful to be surrounded by a gang of admirers, all possessed by the partisan spirit.
In the same fashion, there was no great difference between being devoted to a party or being devoted to a church – or being devoted to anti-religion. One was in favour of, or against, belief in God, for or against Christianity, and so on. When talking about religion, the point was even reached where one spoke of ‘militants.’
Even in school, one can think of no better way to stimulate the minds of children than to invite them to take sides – for or against. They are presented with a sentence from a great author and asked, ‘Do you agree, yes or no? Develop your arguments.’ At examination time, the poor wretches, having only three hours to write their dissertations, cannot, at the start, spare more than five minutes to decide whether they agree or not. And yet it would have been so easy to tell them, ‘Meditate on this text, and then express the ideas that come to your mind.’
Nearly everywhere – often even when dealing with purely technical problems – instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking.
This leprosy is killing us; it is doubtful whether it can be cured without first starting with the abolition of all political parties.
This is an extract from On the Abolition of All Political Parties by Simone Weil, translated by Simon Leys, published this month by Black Inc., $16.99.