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, proto-feminist 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 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 followed 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.
On The Abolition of all Political Parties
By Simone Weil, translated by Simon Leys
Black Inc, 96pp, $16.99
Geordie Williamson is The Australian’s chief literary critic