Simone Weil

1909-1943 • France

SocialismAnarchism • Philosopher • Anti-fascist

A brilliant student of philosophy and committed revolutionary pacifist and anti-colonialist, she welcomed the workers’ occupations of 1936 but criticised the timidity of the Popular Front government.

The New Left Review introduced one of her essays it published with this brief (edited by me) biography:

Of the three most remarkable women thinkers born in the last century, Simone Weil (1909–43) was a year younger than Simone de Beauvoir, herself a little over a year younger than Hannah Arendt. From a secularized Jewish family in Paris, she declared herself a Bolshevik at the age of ten, and proved a brilliant student, first at the elite lyćee Henri IV and then at the École normale supérieure. ..

She wanted to teach in an industrial town but was dispatched instead to Le Puy, a rural backwater. There, nevertheless, she was soon active in solidarity work with the local trade unions and writing in La Révolution prolétarienne, a libertarian journal of the left edited by militants expelled from the Communist Party.

In 1932 she made a trip to Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover, and on her return composed a ten-part report on the political situation in the country. In condemning the passivity of the spd and the sectarian blindness of the kpd in the face of the rise of fascism, her judgement of it corresponded closely to Trotsky’s warnings of the time, but was more clear-sighted in questioning the notion that Hitler was little more than a tool of big capital, and doubting whether the German working class was still in a position to resist his seizure of power, a fait accompli by the time her last installment appeared in late February 1933.

Six months later she published a pessimistic balance-sheet of the prospects for proletarian politics at large. Capital had reached the limits of its reproduction. But the Russian Revolution had given birth to a bureaucratic regime that had nothing to do with Socialism, Nazism was triumphant in Germany, and the New Deal in America offered no more than a technocratic variant of authoritarian capitalism. To a friend, she had written after returning from Berlin: ‘Insurrections on the order of the Commune are admirable, but they fail (true, the proletariat is much stronger than it was then; but so is the bourgeoisie). Insurrections of the October 1917 type succeed, but all they do is reinforce the bureaucratic, military and police apparatus. And at this moment nonviolence à la Gandhi seems simply a rather hypocritical species of reformism. And we do not yet know any fourth type of action.’

Now she concluded: ‘No workers’ state has ever yet existed on the earth’s surface, except for a few weeks in Paris in 1871, and perhaps for a few months in Russia in 1917 and 1918. On the other hand, for nearly fifteen years now, over one sixth of the globe, there has reigned a state as oppressive as any other, which is neither a capitalist nor a workers’ state. Certainly, Marx never foresaw anything of this kind. But not even Marx is more precious to us than the truth.’

Yet she continued to give classes in Marxism at the nearest Trade Union offices even as Trotsky denounced her for regression to an individualistic liberalism, attacking the ‘revolutionary melancholics’ among whom she had now to be numbered. Weil took no offence, arranging two months later for Trotsky to hold a secret meeting in a flat in Paris owned by her parents, at which the two continued to argue fiercely. Trotsky nevertheless told the Weils on his departure the next day: ‘You can say that the Fourth International was founded in your home.’

An admirer of Luxemburg, Weil had never shared her confidence in the spontaneity of the proletariat, and by 1934 had ceased to believe that the trade unions she had helped were sources of much hope. Deciding to withdraw from all political activity, she took leave from her teaching to become a factory worker, not only in order to experience the proletarian condition at first hand, but to see if there were other ways than those tried hitherto in which it could be transformed.

Before doing so, she composed the long essay she would ironically call her testament, ‘Reflections on the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression’, conceived as a critical balance-sheet of Marx’s theory of history and the movements it had inspired, as well as a theory of struggles for power, not simply for property, which he had neglected, and of contemporary tyrannies of bureaucracy and technology that he could not have foreseen. She was just 25.

The turn to factory work left her disappointed, and the advent of a Popular Front government in 1936 politically cold. But when the great wave of factory occupations exploded a few months later, she was filled with joy, reporting from the Renault plant where she had been employed and kept a journal. In the summer, she joined the cnt militia in the Spanish Civil War, but after an accident was invalided out.

Back in France, she attacked her country’s colonial record in Indochina, Madagascar, North Africa as almost no one on the left cared to do at that time. In the last years before the Second World War, grappling with the growing threat of the Third Reich she first adopted and then relinquished a pacifism that, after Munich, could no longer be grounded in the lessons of 1914. When the Wehrmacht entered Paris in 1940, she escaped with her parents to the south, finding precarious refuge in Marseille.

While working as a farmhand, and later for the Resistance, her intellectual energies now turned to questions of religion—not only Christian, but Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist texts—and philosophy, where as an accomplished Hellenist her range extended from the pre-Socratics to Plato, not to speak of Homer and Pythagoras; alongside an aversion to Judaism—did the Old Testament not celebrate the extermination of the Amalekites and others?—that would be a thorn to her posthumous admirers.

In the spring of 1942, she and her parents got visas to the us, arriving in New York via Casablanca in July. There she fretted till the autumn, impatient to join Free French operations in England, a wish she achieved in November with the help of Maurice Schumann, an old classmate from the Lcyee Henri IV, future Prime Minister and progenitor of European integration. In London she served in the exile equivalent of the Interior Ministry, under the Socialist André Philip, generating summaries of reports from France and drafting political proposals for its future after Liberation, constitutional schemes including a spirited critique of the ideology of human rights that was just coming into fashion. Working round the clock, at home and in the office, in four months Weil produced a prodigious volume of writing before expiring at the age of 34—from tuberculosis or anorexia?—in the summer of 1943. All but a handful of her texts lay unpublished when she died.

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