Simone Weil’s Politics

In response to:

The Anti-Politics of Simone Weil from the May 12, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Conor Cruise O’Brien (NYR, May 12) accepts and even praises Simone Weil’s criticisms of the collectivity when they are applied to nationalistic and cult groupings—he knows from bitter experience in Ireland how destructive of social peace such collectivities can be, how impervious to the appeals of reason—and yet the same criticisms when applied to other associations and collectivities, such as political parties and trade unions, strike him as incomprehensible, impractical, and even inhuman. But Simone Weil’s idea that political life can be carried out without political parties, though an ideal and certainly not an immediately practicable one, is not foreign to a certain kind of thinking about politics. Marx himself expressed a rather similar point of view in his early works, and the ideal was both implicit and explicit in all of his subsequent writings. Not to mention Thoreau, Coleridge, Rousseau, John Jay Chapman, and a long line of anarchist writers and thinkers from Kropotkin to Paul Goodman.

Simone Weil’s chief difference with this tradition lies in the fact that what they—including Marx—were usually content to state in general terms, she discussed in detail and even went to the trouble of trying to codify. Hence her rather complicated picture of an ideal political and social situation in which both political parties and trade unions—which are not, in her terminology, “natural associations”—would be subjected to controls by the community in order to modify and correct the bad effects of the inevitable ideological propaganda that emanates from such “collectivities.” Mr. O’Brien’s description of this codification, as presented in her book The Need for Roots, appears to me to be less than adequate. It certainly cannot be considered anti-social in its essence, or even in its details.

But what is most amazing in his essay, which sets out to sift the usable from the unusable in Simone Weil’s political thinking, is his complete lack of response to her research into the nature of factory work and, allied with this research, her revolutionary conception of the relation of modern science and technology to both factory work and the social program of any group which has a better world in view and is working toward it. For Mr. O’Brien is no mere literary figure; he represented a working-class constituency in the Irish Parliament, he professes a belief in socialism, and so he must surely know something about what goes on in the factories in which his constituents worked, and also something of the general moral situation of factory workers all the world over, whatever the political and social setup may be. I hate to think that his curious blindness to the urgency of these problems is but a symptom of the further decadence of the working-class movement and would prefer to ascribe it to an understandable reluctance to pick up a “hot potato.” But the potato is still there, whether he acknowledges it or not.

Raymond Rosenthal

New York City