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Saint Simone

Simone Weil and Revolutionary Politics

In the November 1933 issue of the dissident communist journal La Critique Sociale, two nonconformists of the French left took sharply opposed positions on the “catastrophic” character of revolutionary struggle. Both connected to the Communist Democratic Circle, both friends of its founder Boris Souvarine, they disagreed about action. And they disagreed about theory.

Revolutionary agitation is glorious, Georges Bataille wrote, or at least it can be; the militant can throw his life away in a form of “ecstatic sacrifice,” a death-drunk excitation that makes political agitation a worthwhile and transcendent kind of experience. Of course, the effort can also contribute to the improvement of the condition of the oppressed. The right outburst of rapturous violence might push the crisis of capitalism to a head. But that benefit can well be treated as incidental. The real victory is the escape from the self, from the flat and empty existence lived by ordinary people.

Nonsense, responded Simone Weil. If it’s a matter of fleeing from oneself, it’s simpler to gamble or drink. Is this the future of socialism? What are Bataille and I doing in the same revolutionary organization?

The revolution is for him the triumph of the irrational, for me of the rational; for him a catastrophe, for me a methodical action in which one must strive to limit the damage; for him the liberation of the instincts, and notably those that are generally considered pathological, for me a superior morality.[1]

Is revolution a sickness, she wonders rhetorically?

Weil, I believe, was right in this dispute. In any case, the Souvarine circle disbanded shortly after, its dissolution hastened by Bataille’s running off with Colette Peignot, Souvarine’s lover and collaborator, and the source of the funds that kept the journal alive.[2] Simone Weil remained a militant, a critic of capitalism and of Marxism. She volunteered in the Spanish Civil War and on the factory floor, and tried to get herself killed in the Resistance.

Torn between her loyalty to the lucidity of the Cartesian mind and her passion for self-renunciation, Weil can look a lot like the revolutionary Bataille was describing. If her death was not the kind of “ecstatic sacrifice” Bataille imagined, it was not the selfless surrender to a just cause Weil would have preferred. As her friends insisted, she had “sound political judgment.”  Qua activist, she was as dogged and methodical as could be desired.  But we are not wrong in seeing in her something excessive, something of the abandon of the saint or the Bataillean libertine.

A few years after the 1933 blow-up in in the Democratic Communist Circle, her attraction to mysticism took on sharper contours: attending Easter services at a Benedictine abbey in the Loire, she wrote afterwards, “the thought of the Passion of Christ” entered into her being once and for all. Christianity was pre-eminently the religion of slaves, and slaves cannot help but belong to it.

Bataille also took a mystical turn after 1939, although his notion of ecstatic sacrifice was less altruistic than Weil’s. What renunciation of the self was to Weil, abandon and violence was to Bataille. Her notion of vocation — increasingly spiritual in its formulation and practice — continued to justify political engagement, struggle and action. His, for various reasons, did not. I contrast them, as they did themselves, to raise a question on the fringes of political theory, yet one with a certain amount of resonance at a time when religion has defied the Enlightenment’s expectations, emerging from the private sphere with an appetite for intervention and drama that would have been difficult to predict. Politics and salvation, the City and Heaven, have come back together with a jolt. This leaves us with a question St Augustine thought he had already answered for Christianity (until Luther disrupted the status quo): Can the desire for otherworldly salvation — membership in the invisible and immaterial Kingdom of God — be compatible with political participation here and now, among the principalities and powers? Can a saint be a citizen? The dispute between Weil and Bataille allows us to frame this question for the present.

Simone Weil, who immersed herself in Plato, Rousseau and Marx, concluded that justice was a supernatural virtue, equivalent to Plato’s Idea of the Good, or the Sun. She threw herself into radical syndicalist movements, and believed that no politics was worth supporting if it did not take as its central plank the obligation to the oppressed, an obligation she believed communism in the first part of the 20th century had failed to honor. In an early essay of 1932, “Are we heading for the proletarian revolution?”, she sees in the “crisis of capitalism” few “premonitory signs of the advent of socialism,” and even fewer indications that the “stinking corpse of social democracy,” in Rosa Luxembourg’s words, will cease to infect the political atmosphere any time soon.

Throughout history men have struggled, suffered and died for the oppressed. Their efforts, when they did not remain sterile, have never led to anything except the replacing of one oppressive régime by another. (2)

The fervor of the saint fits awkwardly with the practical imperatives of politics. The violence of the sacred differs from political violence, or political resignation. Political life, Hannah Arendt explained in The Human Condition, is about being in the world, sharing a world. The saint offends against that. Not persuaded by the benefits of the social contract, the saint, like the early Christian in the late Roman city of the Empire, mocks “the normative routines of citizenship.” Obedient to a different conception of value and aspiration, the saint can only stand out as exception or excess. The saint is superfluous to the needs of civil society. As a figure in the public sphere, the saint is too noisy, her behavior too awkward, her obsessions too self-righteous. Which is another way of saying that her way of appearing is unmodified by the norms and conventions the rest of us share, hence much that is “saintly” strikes us as abrasive, graceless, impolite and, if you like, narcissistic. Arendt was not herself tempted to become a saint.

Historically, we know of only one principle that was ever developed to keep a community of people together who had lost their interest in the common world and felt themselves no longer related and separated by it. To find a bond between people strong enough to replace the world was the main political task of early Christian philosophy, and it was Augustine who proposed to found not only that Christian ‘brotherhood’ but all human relationships on charity… charity… while it is incapable of founding a public realm of its own, is admirably fit to carry a group of essentially worldless people through the world, a group of saints or a group of criminals, provided it is understood that the world itself is doomed.[1]

Working on The Human Condition, Arendt was struck by the incongruity of the virtue to which the Christian is supposed to dedicate their life, the virtue of impersonal “love” which, far from intending to improve the world and the conditions of its inhabitants, turns away into an unworldly preoccupation with the self in its privacy. How can saints occupy a common world? How can there be community among and between those whose souls are always ready to leave their bodies, whose passage through space and time is meant to be fleeting, weightless, almost indifferent?

The saint and the revolutionary have some things in common, and they made common cause at various moments in history, in the millenarian uprisings of the Middle Ages and the revolutionary movement started by Thomas Müntzner among the peasants in 16th century Bohemia: against the injustice and corruption of the world and its powers and its principalities, nothing less than violence will do. Christian militancy has a long tradition, trained as it has been in the early cult of the martyrs and the ongoing prestige of sacrifice. Yet mysticism seems an unstable foundation for political action. Its aims are difficult to sustain under the pressure of collective mobilization, which requires skills of organization and discipline, rather than self-abnegation and rapture. European history registers the burnt-out traces of those visionary leaders Norman Cohn nicely calls the “elite of self-immolating redeemers.” They blazed for a moment. They called for a total and unforgiving overturning of all social orders and privileges, for war against the nobility and the landowners; they called for the poor to rise up against their oppressors and come into their spiritual inheritance. Moral rules no longer applied, given that the world suffered from an injustice so degrading that it could only have been sanctioned by the Antichrist. Politics would be spiritual, or they would not be at all. Murder and mayhem were acceptable, some said, for those who had “entered the state of primal innocence.”[3] When the deputies to the Paris Convention of 1793 gave their decree: “War to the palace, peace to the cottage,” they tapped this spirit, and the exaltation that goes with an antinomian conviction of absolute justice. Modern socialism did not, for a number of years, fall too far away from these roots. When it did, according to Simone Weil and others like her, it did so all too abjectly, in the dangerous years between two European wars, and it was the task of clear-headed thinkers to call it to account, even if that meant re-thinking a major theoretical support in the Marxist structure — one on which the revolutionary socialism she favoured had always drawn.

The reputation of political thinkers is a tricky thing. Sometimes your greatest supporters are your worst nightmare. At other moments your best friends can see you more clearly than is comfortable. While Weil was connected to the Souvarine group, her comrade Édouard Liénert described her in this way:

She was an unusual individual. Gifted with exceptional intelligence and erudition, her political judgment was very sound… But she had a strange taste for vain gestures, senseless risks, even for useless sacrifices. [4]

Vain gestures, senseless risks, and useless sacrifices. It forms a certain picture, of a willful and self-absorbed drama queen, performing the high-wire act of political martyrdom for motives hard to reconcile with responsibility for social justice. Why the ardor for sacrifice? Why the use of terms like “supernatural” to describe the need for justice in a world of class division and unchecked domination? Her comrades were puzzled. But at the same time they were impressed by her “sound political judgment,” her lucidity and her precision. “The best mind the workers’ movement has had since Rosa Luxemburg,” wrote Souvarine. Trotsky admired her reports from 1932 Germany, and debated with her at her parents’ comfortable apartment, supposedly saying upon leaving, “You can be proud that the Fourth International was begun in your house.”

Weil’s life story introduces a romanticism that political theory might well want to avoid: the poignant gesture, the indifference to outcomes, the impractical generosity or squandering of life and resources — these are all features that give the aura of counter-culture to such figures as Bataille, Artaud and Benjamin. Politics, we might complain, should be able to carry on without saints and sacrifices. Revolutions and political mobilizations do better without the individualistic fervor and certainty we hear in Weil. If we are tempted to admire her, isn’t there something patronizing in our interest? Aren’t we indulging a taste for morbidity and the dysfunctional, taking a vicarious pleasure in the spectacle of risk, the refusal of safety, the grandeur of what Bataille would call “expenditure”? Can we, doing justice to Weil, keep our critical instincts immune from the appeal of the clinical and the pathological?

A mystic who hated her ancestral Judaism and refused baptism because the Church did not recognize the implicit Christianity of the ancient Egyptians, Homer and the Buddha, Weil doesn’t fit into the canon. Is she a political thinker worth discovering? Part of the problem is, as I said, her friends. Weil has for a number of years been the property of unconventional religious thinkers and philosophers of an Anglo/Wittgensteinian inclination like Iris Murdoch and Peter Winch; she has been admired by cultural reactionaries like TS Eliot and claimed for the anti-bourgeois avant-garde by Susan Sontag.   An awkward saint and a self-destructive ascetic, Weil remained loyal to the working class, an enemy of all masters, and convinced that the social world for over 2000 years has protected servitude and idealized oppression. Yet she is, like Bataille, a troublesome gift to philosophers and political thinkers.

Despite the power of her political thinking, Weil failed to attract the attention of the left, who understandably shrunk from her mysticism and that of her admirers. This has changed with the interest of people like Roberto Esposito and Jacques Rancière, and her subliminal presence in the thinking of Giorgio Agamben. Recognition of parallels between Weil and Hannah Arendt has helped the turn towards intellectual respectability. Esposito welcomes her distrust of the notion of “rights,” and notes in her “the tragic confirmation of the inexorable dialectic between rights and force.” “Rights,” Weil wrote in her remarkable essay of 1943, “are by their nature dependent on force.” In seeking to defend themselves against their fellows, individuals make themselves yet more subordinate to the collective. And the collective is a “fiction,” a meaningless and degrading one.

Borrowing Plato’s use of the image “a Great Beast,” a selfish and stupid “social animal,” from Book VI of the Republic, Weil made the same polemical argument throughout her life, from her earliest socialist writings of 1932-3, to her manifesto commissioned by the Free French government in exile in London 1942-3 — her effort to provide a map for the reconstruction and “spiritual renewal” of the French Republic after the fall of fascism. Her tone was emphatic. “If we consider a society as a collective being” it is a “great beast…The social order, though necessary, is essentially evil, whatever it may be.” (OL, 133, 138) All collective entities and collective “minds” are relatives of that “Great Beast.” Political parties, bodies of “public opinion,” nationalist and cultural organizations, all the institutions of identification and social cohesion that crowd the modern world, are enemies of thought and liberty, “marvelous mechanisms” for ensuring that “not a single mind can attend to the effort of perceiving, in public affairs, what is good, what is just, what is true.” “If one were to entrust the organization of public life to the devil, he could not invent a more clever device.”[5]

If there is one thing in the world which is completely abstract, wholly mysterious, inaccessible to the senses and to the mind, it is the collectivity….Man is not made to be the plaything of the blind collectivities he forms with his fellows, any more than he is made to be the plaything of a blind nature. (OL, 92)

What Weil’s thinking leaves no place for is a common framework in which men and women can have a number of common purposes, that is to say, under the best possible conditions, an unalienated framework for social action. Weil saw in her times no hope for such an unalienated framework. Yet her objections go further. Cultural pessimism was, to be sure, both common and comprehensible in the 1920s and 30s, in occupied France and in wartime London. But for Weil, there is nothing in history that would support a belief that justice can be achieved through collective life. Liberty, which she defines as the power to direct with the mind the actions one takes, is incompatible with almost any kind of dependence on others. And it is supremely rational. The absolutely free person is the one in whom every action proceeds from a preliminary judgment concerning the end set for oneself and the sequence of means suitable for attaining that end. Short of that lucidity, no one is free. The community is not the sort of body the mind can inhabit freely. If we are at home there, so much the worse for us. We have learned to love our servitude. We are addicted to our dependence. We get the society we deserve.

Footnotes

[1] ibid, 53

[1] Simone Petrement, Simone Weil, A Life (New York: Schocken, 1988), 208.

[2] Laure Adler, L’Insoumise: Simone Weil (Paris: Actes Sud, 2008), 233-241.

[3] Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 182.

[4] Michael Surya, Georges Bataille (New York: Verso, 2010), 521 n2.

[5] Simone Weil, On the Abolition of all Political Parties (New York: NYRB Classics, 2014), 24.

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