It used to be that Labor Day marked the beginning of election season, the time for people to start paying attention to candidates and party platforms. But it’s been a long time since partisan rivalry was confined to the two months before we go to the polls. More and more, the complaint is heard, Americans’ identities are defined by party membership, in ways that go far beyond who they vote for in November. At least since the election of 2000, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as two cultures in one country, Democratic blue America and Republican red America, and there is no public trauma—a school shooting, a case of police brutality, a Supreme Court decision—that does not expose the same deep divisions. American political parties used to be interest coalitions; now they are a cross between ideological camps and lifestyle designations.
In other words, American parties are becoming more like what European political parties used to be. In Weimar Germany or the French Third Republic, a Socialist or a Communist or a Catholic Centrist was not someone who voted for a certain candidate, but someone who belonged to a certain community—often, one with its own housing projects, newspapers, trade unions, and youth groups. And the interwar years showed the world what could happen when a political party burst the bounds of parliamentary politics and become a totalitarian movement, as happened with the Nazi Party in Germany and the Communist Party in Russia. At such a historical moment, the party no longer seemed like a tool of democracy, but like democracy’s cancer.
It was in 1943, at the height of World War II and just weeks before her death, that Simone Weil produced an essay titled “On the Abolition of All Political Parties.” Weil, who was born in 1909 into a French Jewish family, emerged as one of the twentieth century’s most important Christian mystical thinkers, and this essay takes an unexpectedly religious and metaphysical approach to the ordinarily grubby questions of party politics. This brief brief text has now been published in English as a stand-alone book by New York Review Books, translated by Simon Leys and bulked out with an essay on Weil by Czeslaw Milosz. It makes for fascinating, and unsettling, election-year reading. For in her all-out assault on political parties, Weil reminds us, paradoxically, of why parties, for all their flaws, remain crucial to a functioning democracy.
Weil begins by distinguishing between the kind of political parties known in Continental Europe and those in Anglo-Saxon countries, which she acknowledges have “an altogether different reality.” English and, presumably, American parties retain what Weil calls “an element of sport,” of friendly competition among equals; French or German parties, by contrast, are not content to be one of many, but seek for total power. The first example of this kind of party, Weil writes, were the Jacobins of the French Revolution, whose approach she describes with a quotation: “One party in power and all the others in jail.”
But Weil is not about to make an argument in favor of a more limited version of party competition—for instance, the idea of the party as a “loyal opposition” in the British tradition, which challenges the government’s policies without attacking its legitimacy. Rather, Weil writes out of a Rousseauan tradition, according to which the task of government is to express the “general will” of a society. This general will is the true and just desire of the people, purged of any malicious private interest. It can be determined by heeding the consensus that emerges from honest public discussion, in which “individual passions will neutralize one another and act as mutual counterweights.” Crucial to this process is the assumption that, as Weil puts it, “Reason is identical in all men, whereas their passions most often differ.” Cancel out the passions, and what is left will be reason, justice, the truth: “All men converge on what is just and true, whereas mendacity and crime make them diverge without end.”
Politics conceived in this way obviously has no place for political parties, which cultivate the kind of “collective passions” that can distort decision-making. If people no longer seek the truth in their deliberations, but only try to advance a party agenda, then the general will cannot emerge and justice cannot be done. That is Weil’s first argument against parties: They prevent democracy from finding out the true, correct solutions to problems.
More important, however, is Weil’s second argument, that parties necessarily corrupt the souls of their members. “Political parties,” she writes, “are organizations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice.” The member of a party delegates his conscience to the party, accepting its verdict on all political and moral questions; a person will do “as a Communist” or “as a Nazi” things that he would never do as himself. Once again, Weil brings the discussion back to the question of truth. Independent thought, she writes, necessarily seeks the truth: “If ... one acknowledges that there is one truth, one cannot think anything but the truth.” It is only when one stops searching for truth and starts calculating partisan advantage that one falls into what Weil calls “inner darkness.”
It is obvious that Weil’s argument against parties stands or falls by her definition of truth. Truth, as this deeply religious thinker sees it, is unitary and self-subsistent: it exists somewhere “out there,” and our job is to look for it. There is a right answer to every political question, which every individual, and society as a whole, would necessarily discover if we approached it with pure hearts. Parties, by intervening between the individual and the truth, frustrate this quest; they stifle the conscience and confuse the mind. “Mendacity, error,” she writes, “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.”
But what, one might ask, is the “truth” about a question such as taxes? Is an income tax rate of 35 percent more in conformity with the truth than a rate of 40 percent? Is this the kind of question to which, as in mathematics or religion, there is only one correct answer? A liberal, which Weil of course was not, would have to argue differently: not about truth, but about justice and fairness, and also about efficiency and practicality. And questions of justice are notoriously resistant to solution by the “general will,” since people of opposing views are equally convinced that they have justice on their side.
Democracy functions by recognizing that politics is not a matter of finding the right answer, but of coming up with an answer that everyone agree to live with. That is why liberal democracy never satisfies those, like Weil, who are in search of perfect truth and goodness, or who see politics as a form of soul-making. In this sense, Weil herself has more in common with the totalitarian parties she attacks than she does with liberalism. Like them, she insists on a single truth, and demonizes those who oppose her as enemies of truth.
The danger in American politics today is that, on more and more issues, we are falling into this same Manicheanism, in which each party accuses the other, not just of error, but of treason and evil. Democracy only works if our loyalty to the collective is more powerful than our insistence on our own righteousness. When righteousness and loyalty cannot be reconciled—as they finally couldn’t over the issue of slavery—democracy fails, and the only resort is to violence. Parties ought to help avert that kind of apocalyptic conflict, by forming coalition in support of political consensus. The more ideologically embittered our parties become, the greater the danger we face of returning to Simone Weil’s world, where the very word “party” can only be a curse.