Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Tribal Passions, Totalitarian Parties

Decades ago, Simone Weil foresaw the collective instinct that hobbles our politics today.

“One party in power and all the others in jail.” – Mikhail Tomsky

The overwhelming sense of social and intellectual claustrophobia so pervasive in America since the 2016 election didn’t begin with Trump. That much should be obvious. Rancor and ideological calcification has been present in American politics since the founding. Anyone who thinks “this is the worst we’ve ever been divided” need only spend a moment reflecting near Bloody Pond in Shiloh, Tennessee. Nevertheless, our current moment does feel unique in its conformism. Each new event gets treated like political mad libs on social media. Variety is traded in for a smug Manichaeism and complexity flattened.

The question, as the saying used to go, is whether this is a bug or feature. Ruminating over Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed back in May, First Things editor R.R. Reno writes, “Insofar as liberalism has become an ideology rather than a differentiated, even paradoxical tradition, we have become incapable of dealing sensibly with our social and political problems. The liberalism of restraint has calcified into a mechanical libertarianism, often allied with economic theories made into ideologies…. This captivity to theory prevents us from experimenting with political responses to the catastrophic collapse of marriage among the working and middle classes. …Meanwhile, the liberalism of empowerment has become a neo-Puritanical political correctness.” The problem, as Reno sees it, is our having made idols out of a living tradition of liberalism. The problem isn’t liberalism itself, but ideology.

Reno reaches through Deneen to develop criticisms of American liberalism familiar to any reader of Robert Nisbet or Alexis de Tocqueville. But another thinker useful to understanding the present moment is the late French mystic and political scholar Simone Weil. Her essay “On the Abolition of All Political Parties,” as radical as it is, provides one of the best diagnostic tools for fathoming our current collective knee-jerk reactions. Written in London in 1943 towards the end of her short life, it’s a kind of distillation of her social theories. Synthesized within are her Neoplatonist and mystical Christian notions of being along with a nuanced understanding of the history of democratic political thought. Having been active in leftist French politics through the 1930s (Trotsky actually drafted plans for the Fourth International in her parents’ apartment), and having spent time in Berlin around the time of the Reichstag fire, Weil had personal experience with political tribalization, which was in most ways more complex and pernicious than our own. But instead of inducing a bunker mentality, Weil’s experiences with communism and fascism caused her to move, not further left or right, but vertically towards first principles. Her political disappointments caused her to hunger for wisdom.

As Simon Leys writes, introducing his translation of her essay, “The first quality of a politician is integrity. Integrity requires independence of judgement. Independence of judgement rejects partisan edicts, for partisan edicts stifle in a man’s conscience all sense of justice and the very taste of truth.” Where Leys ends, Weil begins: the search for truth. Democracy, she argues, is only valuable insofar as it is a means to the ends of truth and justice. It isn’t an end itself. A thousand wrong people can be just as wrong as a single person, and democracy is only as valuable as it is effective as a mechanism for achieving truth. Drawing directly from Rousseau, Weil argues that the “collective will” is only more likely to end up at truth because everyone shares a common sense of rationality. Where we differ is in our passions. Using a wonderfully evocative metaphor of still water versus disturbed water as a reflective surface, Weil argues that in order for collective rationality to coalesce around the discovery of truth, “there must not exist any form of collective passion.” That might sound like an astoundingly tall order, but what she’s actually arguing for here is even more surprising: she thinks there should be more cultivation of individual passions. She seeks a kind of cathartic neutralization of our individual wills through their public expression. It’s collective passion that’s the enemy here. She writes, “Collective passion is an infinitely more powerful compulsion to crime and mendacity than any individual passion…evil impulses, far from cancelling one another out, multiply their force a thousandfold.”

What Weil describes is almost the exact opposite of politics as we understand it. And when she goes on to write that, along with the destruction of collective passion, our search for truth and justice also demands that the public only express opinions “regarding the problems of public life—and not merely choose among various individuals; or worse, among various irresponsible organizations,” we feel even further from our own reality. What Weil is building to is that our collective search for truth and justice requires her eponymous abolition of all political parties. That might be difficult for us to imagine, and Weil herself did mean something quite specific by “political parties.” But her notion of what a party is for (to generate collective passions and exert pressure on its members, with the ultimate goal of “its own growth, without limit”) can easily be applied to any number of forces, tribes, cults, and clubs in America. Just insert any current ideology-captured tribe for “political party”: “every political 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.”

That sounds radical. And it is. Weil has a habit of overstating her case in order to prove a more profound point. And her point is this: truth is beyond political doctrine. As she writes, “One can speak, it is true, of Christian doctrine, Hindu doctrine, Pythagorean doctrine, etc.—but then what is meant by this word is neither individual or collective; it refers to something that is infinitely higher than these two realms. It is purely and simply the truth.” Truth is its own end. Justice and goodness, isomorphically related to truth, are their own ends as well. “The goal of a political party,” however, “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.”

Weil was a mystic, so it’s no surprise that her analysis hinges on something that resembles a description of idolatry. In place of understanding the good as good, we put the health of the party (or tribe, team, etc.) in place of the good. Thus “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.” It makes perfect sense that people would find this appealing. Idolatry is easy. It’s obvious. It provides that quick dopamine hit, which, when paired with social media, keeps us dutifully distracted from engaging with those elusive final ends of truth, goodness, and justice. Political parties flatter us. They give us a wonderfully addictive sense of superiority and seduce us with the almost sensual hatred of opposing other groups. Those are the carrots. But Weil describes the sticks of political parties as well. There can be dire social consequences to avoiding tribal participation: “no suffering befalls whoever relinquishes justice and truth, whereas the party system has painful penalties to chastise insubordination. These penalties extend into all areas of life: career, affections, friendship, reputation, the external aspects of honour, sometimes even family life. The Communist Party developed this system to perfection.” What Weil is describing here isn’t simply “political” as we understand the word. What she’s describing is how, by replacing final ends with the artificial interests of ideological groups, modern politics diminishes the human spirit.

I think it’s significant that Weil calls ideological interests “artificial.” There’s a double meaning in that. On one hand, it’s a reference to the Latin artificium, or “handicraft.” Like the golden jewelry Aaron gathered to smelt the calf, the ends of Weil’s political parties are entirely human-crafted. They’ve been constructed. It also suggests a counterfeit, a forgery. People are sold a false truth that conceals their actual beliefs. Weil writes, “The artificial crystallization into political parties coincides so little with genuine affinities that a member of parliament will often find himself disagreeing with a colleague from within his own party, and in complete agreement with a politician from another party. How many times, in Germany in 1932, might a Communist and a Nazi conversing in the street have been struck by a sort of mental vertigo on discovering that they were in complete agreement on all issues!”

Weil ends her essay with a paragraph that might have been written yesterday: “Nearly everywhere—often even when dealing with purely technical problems—instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking. This leprosy is killing us….”

Her diagnosis is chillingly accurate. The party instinct that Weil describes is colonizing other modes of life, reducing the artistic and religious to mere political gestures. Not in fact, of course: only in the loudest and most vulgar public gesticulations. And not everyone is buying it. There’s some comfort in that, just as there’s assurance in the fact that, as Weil says, truth and goodness don’t need to persuade. They illuminate.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.