Simone Weil, Leçon de politique autre -(1) *This Title is from JAM

Extracts from On the Abolition of all Political Parties (2)
The word ‘party’ is taken here in the meaning it has in Continental Europe. In Anglo-Saxon countries, this same word designates an altogether different reality, which has its roots in English tradition and is therefore not easily transposable elsewhere. The experience of a century and a half shows this clearly enough. [1] 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. At the time of the 1789 Revolution, the very notion of ‘party’ did not enter into French political thinking – except as an evil that ought to be prevented. There was, however, a Club des Jacobins; at first it merely provided an arena for free debate. Its subsequent transformation was by no means inevitable; it was only under the double pressure of war and the guillotine that it eventually turned into a totalitarian party. Factional infighting during the Terror is best summed up by Tomsky’s memorable saying: ‘One party in power and all the others in jail.’ Thus, in Continental Europe, totalitarianism was the original sin of all political parties. Political parties were established in European public life partly as an inheritance from the Terror, and partly under the influence of British practice. The mere fact that they exist today is not in itself a sufficient reason for us to preserve them. The only legitimate reason for preserving anything is its goodness. The evils of political parties are all too evident; therefore, the problem that should be examined is this: do they contain enough good to compensate for their evils and make their preservation desirable? It would be far more relevant, however, to ask: do they do the slightest bit of good? Are they not pure, or nearly pure, evil? If they are evil, it is clear that, in fact and in practice, they can only generate further evil. This is an article of faith: ‘A good tree can never bear bad fruit, nor a rotten tree beautiful fruit.’ First, we must ascertain what is the criterion of goodness. It can only be truth and justice; and, then, the public interest. Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely 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 such a possibility is by no means far-fetched). Only what is just can be legitimate. In no circumstances can crime and mendacity ever be legitimate. Our republican ideal was entirely developed from a notion originally expressed by Rousseau: the notion of the ‘general will.’ However, the true meaning of this notion was lost almost from the start, because it is complex and demands a high level of attention.(…)
The true spirit of 1789 consists in thinking, not that a thing is just because such is the people’s will, but that, in certain conditions, the will of the people is more likely than any other will to conform to justice. In order to apply the notion of the general will, several conditions must first be met. Two of these are particularly important. First, at the time when the people become aware of their own intention and express it, there must not exist any form of collective passion.(…)
When a country is in the grip of a collective passion, it becomes unanimous in crime. If it becomes prey to two, or four, or five, or ten collective passions, it is divided among several criminal gangs. Divergent passions do not neutralise one another, as would be the case with a cluster of individual passions. There are too few of them, and each is too strong for any neutralisation to take place. Competition exasperates them; they clash with infernal noise, and amid such din the fragile voices of justice and truth are drowned. When a country is moved by a collective passion, the likelihood is that any individual will be closer to justice and reason than is the general will – or rather, the caricature of the general will. The second condition is that the people should express their will regarding the problems of public life – and not merely choose among various individuals; or, worse, among various irresponsible organisations (for the general will does not have the slightest connection with such choices). If, in 1789, there was to a certain degree a genuine expression of the general will – even though a system of people’s representation had been adopted, for want of ability to invent any alternative – it was only because they had something far more important than elections. All the living energies of the country – and the country was then overflowing with life – sought expression through means of the cahiers de revendications (statements of grievances). Most of those who were to become the people’s representatives first became known through their participation in this process, and they retained the warmth of the experience. They could feel that the people were listening to their words, watching to see if their aspirations would be correctly interpreted. For a while – all too briefly – these representatives truly were simple channels for the expression of public opinion. Such a thing was never to happen again. Merely to state the two conditions required for the expression of the general will shows that we have never known anything that resembles, however faintly, a democracy. We pretend that our present system is democratic, yet the people never have the chance nor the means to express their views on any problem of public life. Any issue that does not pertain to particular interests is abandoned to collective passions, which are systematically and officially inflamed.(…)
To assess political parties according to the criteria of truth, justice and the public interest, let us first identify their essential characteristics. There are three of these: 1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions. 2. A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members. 3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit. Because of these three characteristics, every party is totalitarian – potentially, and by aspiration. If one party is not actually totalitarian, it is simply because those parties that surround it are no less so. These three characteristics are factual truths – evident to anyone who has ever had anything to do with the every-day activities of political parties.(…)
The goal of a political party is something vague and unreal. If it were real, it would demand a great effort of attention, for the mind does not easily encompass the concept of the public interest. Conversely, the existence of the party is something concrete and obvious; it is perceived without any effort. Therefore, unavoidably, the party becomes in fact its own end. This then amounts to idolatry, for God alone is legitimately his own end. The transition is easily achieved. First, an axiom is set: for the party to serve effectively the concept of the public interest that justifies its existence, there is one necessary and sufficient condition: it should secure a vast amount of power. Yet, once obtained, no finite amount of power will ever be deemed sufficient. The absence of thought creates for the party a permanent state of impotence, which, in turn, is attributed to the insufficient amount of power already obtained. Should the party ever become the absolute ruler of its own country, inter-national contingencies will soon impose new limitations. Therefore the essential tendency of all political parties is towards totalitarianism, first on the national scale and then on the global scale. And it is precisely because the notion of the public interest which each party invokes is itself a fiction, an empty shell devoid of all reality, that the quest for total power becomes an absolute need. Every reality necessarily implies a limit – but what is utterly devoid of existence cannot possibly encounter any form of limitation. It is for this reason that there is a natural affinity between totalitarianism and mendacity. Many people, it is true, never contemplate the possibility of total power; the very thought of it scares them. The notion is vertiginous and it takes a sort of greatness to face it. When these people become involved with a political party, they merely wish it to grow – but to grow as a thing that knows no limit. If this year there are three more members than last year, or if the party has collected one hundred francs more, they are pleased. They wish things might endlessly continue in the same direction. In no circumstance could they ever believe that their party might have too many members, too many votes, too much money. The revolutionary temperament tends to envision a totality. The petit-bourgeois temperament prefers the cosy picture of a slow, uninterrupted and endless progress. In both cases, the material growth of the party becomes the sole criterion by which to measure the good and the bad of all things. It is exactly as if the party were a head of cattle to be fattened, and as if the universe was created for its fattening. One cannot serve both God and Mammon. If one’s criterion of goodness is not goodness itself, one loses the very notion of what is good. Once the growth of the party becomes a criterion of goodness, it follows inevitably that the party will exert a collective pressure upon people’s minds. This pressure is very real; it is openly displayed; it is professed and proclaimed. It should horrify us, but we are already too much accustomed to it. Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice.(…)
Just imagine: if a member of the party (elected member of parliament, candidate or simple activist) were to make a public commitment, ‘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 words would not be welcome. His comrades and even many other people would accuse him of betrayal. Even the least hostile would say, ‘Why then did he join a political party?’ – thus naively confessing that, when joining a political party, one gives up the idea of serving nothing but the public interest and justice. This man would be expelled from his party, or at least denied pre-selection; he would certainly never be elected. Furthermore, it seems inconceivable that anyone would dare to utter such words. In fact, if I am not mistaken, such a thing has never happened. If such language has ever been used, it was only by politicians who needed to govern with the support of other parties. And even then, the words had a somewhat dishonourable ring to them. Conversely, everybody feels that it is completely natural, sensible and honourable for someone to say, ‘As a conservative . . .’ or ‘As a Socialist, I do think that . . .’ Actually, this sort of speech is not limited to partisan politics; people are not ashamed to say, ‘As a Frenchman, I think that . . .’ or ‘As a Catholic, I think that . . .’ Some little girls, who declared they were committed to Gaullism as the French equivalent of Hitlerism, added: ‘Truth is relative, even in geometry.’ Indeed, this is the heart of the matter. If there were no truth, it would be right to think in such or such a way, when one happens to be in such or such a position. Just as one’s hair is black, brown, red or blond because one happened to be born that way, one may also express such or such a thought. Thought, like hair, is then the product of a physical process of elimination. If, however, one acknowledges that there is one truth, one cannot think anything but the truth. One thinks what one thinks, 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. If there is no evidence, if there is doubt, then it is evident that, given the available knowledge, the matter is uncertain. If there is a small probability on one side, it is evident that there is a small probability – and so on. In any case, inner light always affords whoever seeks it an evident answer. The content of the answer may be more or less affirmative – never mind. It is always susceptible to revision, yet no correction can be effected unless it is through an increase of inner light. If a man, member of a party, is absolutely determined to follow, in all his thinking, nothing but the inner light, to the exclusion of everything else, he cannot make known to the party such a resolution. To that extent, he is deceiving the party. He thus finds himself in a state of mendacity; the only reason why he tolerates such a situation is that he needs to join a party in order to play an effective part in public affairs. But then this need is evil, and one must put an end to it by abolishing political parties. A man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes mendacity at the very centre of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness. It would be useless to attempt an escape by establishing a distinction between inner freedom and external discipline, for this would entail lying to the public, towards whom every candidate, every elected representative, has a special duty of truthfulness. If I am going to say, in the name of my party, things which I know are the opposite of truth and justice, should I first issue a warning to that effect? If I don’t, I lie. Of these three sorts of lies – lying to the party, lying to the public, lying to oneself – the first is by far the least evil. Yet if belonging to a party compels one to lie all the time, in every instance, then the very existence of political parties is absolutely and unconditionally an evil(…)
When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is the truth?,’ Jesus did not reply. He had already answered when he said, ‘I came to bear witness to the truth.’ There is only one answer. Truth is all the thoughts that surge in the mind of a thinking creature whose unique, total, exclusive desire is for the truth. Mendacity, error (the two words are synonymous), are the thoughts of those who do not desire truth, or those who desire truth plus something else. For instance, they desire truth, but they also desire conformity with such or such received ideas. Yet how can we desire truth if we have no prior knowledge of it? This is the mystery of all mysteries. Words that express a perfection which no mind can conceive of – God, truth, justice – silently evoked with desire, but without any preconception, have the power to lift up the soul and flood it with light. It is when we desire truth with an empty soul and without attempting to guess its content that we receive the light. Therein resides the entire mechanism of attention. It is impossible to examine the frightfully complex problems of public life while attending to, on the one hand, truth, justice and the public interest, and, on the other, maintaining the attitude that is expected of members of a political movement. The human attention span is limited – it does not allow for simultaneous consideration of these two concerns. In fact, whoever would care for the one is bound to neglect the other.(…)
When a country has political parties, sooner or later it becomes impossible to intervene effectively in public affairs without joining a party and playing the game. Whoever is concerned for public affairs will wish his concern to bear fruit. Those who care about the public interest must either forget their concern and turn to other things, or submit to the grind of the parties. In the latter case, they shall experience worries that will soon supersede their original concern for the public interest. Political parties are a marvellous 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 is true. As a result – except for a very small number of fortuitous coincidences – nothing is decided, nothing is executed, but measures that run contrary to the public interest, to justice and to truth. If one were to entrust the organisation of public life to the devil, he could not invent a more clever device. If the present reality appears slightly less dark, it is only because political parties have not yet swallowed everything. But, in fact, is it truly less dark? Have recent events not shown that the situation is every bit as awful as I have just painted it? 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. 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. How can anyone subscribe to statements the existence of which he is not even aware? By simply and unconditionally submitting to the authority which issued them! This is why Saint Thomas Aquinas wished to have his affirmations supported only by the authority of the Church, to the exclusion of any other argumentation. Nothing more is needed for those who accept this authority, he said, and no other argument will persuade those who reject it. Thus the inner light of evidence, this capacity of perception given from above to the human soul in answer to its desire for truth, is discarded or reduced to discharging menial chores, instead of guiding the spiritual destiny of human creatures. The force that impels thought is no longer the open, unconditional desire for truth, but merely a desire to conform with pre-established teachings. That the Church established by Christ could thus, to such a large extent, stifle the spirit of truth (in spite of the Inquisition, it failed to stifle it entirely – because mysticism always afforded a safe shelter) is a tragic irony. Many people remarked on it, though another tragic irony was less noticed: the stifling of the spirit by the Inquisitorial regime provoked a revolt – and this very revolt took an orientation that, in turn, fostered further stifling of the spirit. The Reformation and Renaissance humanism – twin products of this revolt – after three centuries of maturation, inspired in large part the spirit of 1789. This, after some delay, resulted in our democracy, based on the interplay of political parties, each of which is a small secular church that wields its own menace of excommunication. The influence of these parties has contaminated the entire mentality of our age. 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.
(1) la movida Zadig No 1 

(2) Simone Weil: On the Abolition of all Political Parties, translated by Simon Leys, N.Y. Review books, 2013

ערב השיח האחרון של שנת העבודה הנוכחית בג'יאפ, שיוקדש ברובו לזדיג

חברים יקרים

הנכם מוזמנים לערב השיח האחרון של שנת העבודה הנוכחית בג'יאפ, שיוקדש ברובו לזדיג-
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