Simone Weil, Marx and Revolution

Photo by Engyles | CC BY 2.0

Simone Weil’s essay “Are we heading for the proletarian revolution?” appears in a book Oppression and Liberty that was published in France in 1955, twelve years after Weil’s death. An English translation came out three years later in 1958. It is available on line here. The essay itself was written in 1933 after the molten core of world revolution had cooled into the USSR and Hitler had just ignited a jet propelled rocket to fascism. In the essay and others under the same cover, Weil, who starved herself to death to share the fate of French workers under Nazi rule, criticizes Marx and argues that both his analysis of revolution in terms of materialism and his argument that revolution is scientifically and historically inevitable are bogus and harmful. She argues that already in 1933 a new development, rule by an army of managers, had superseded the class war.

Managers run industry, the state, and the unions themselves. This was true in the USSR, Hitler’s Germany, and in the United States. Modern industry whose assembly line had separated, as Weil puts it, intellectual from manual work, now dominates social conditions. It was all done in the name of and by use of science. Industrial social organization have reduced the craftsman to a low-skilled minder of machines. In Russia, the state ruled by workers through the soviets never came into existence or disappeared after a few months. The revolution simply produced a new bureaucracy far more extensive than that of the czars. The state and the labor unions, just like the factory, was run by a collection of bureaucrats, people who did nothing but organize what was done. This would remain as long as the social structure, industrial civilization based on routine procedures, remained. The distinction between the political regimes dissolves. The ubiquitous system reduced the rich to parasites and the poor to mere cogs in the mechanism.

The phenomenon Weil particularly deplores is the abject obedience of the proletariat to these managers. The rich parasites who draw sustenance from industrial enterprises as shareholders really have no actual part in the enterprise itself. They have become a superfluous class. She points out that the rich cannot inspire a fascist movement, cannot effectively support or oppose it, and eventually must surrender to it. The poor mind the machines and do what they are told even to the point of collaborating in their own deaths. Their oppression starts not with their exploitation, but when they walk into the factory and accept its terms. They become docile machine minders. The spectre of such human beings repels Weil. Communism, for Weil, meant the restoration of the dignity of work in the hands of a craftsman who unites both the intellectual and manual activities. Healthy human beings can act.

With this army of managers on one side and mobs of the passive and wretched on the other, this industrial setup is the same in whatever the purported regime. Since the difference between fascism and the regime set up by the Communists is that Communists expropriate bourgeois property, and fascism purports not to but does, one quickly merges into the other. For fascism, without expropriating property, nevertheless turns it to its own uses. It is not who owns the means of production but their very nature that crushes the human spirit.

Weil blames Marx for giving revolution scientific inevitability, historical necessity and Utopian pretensions. On the contrary, “revolution” is not even a clear idea. Those who join in revolutionary activity often have contradictory hopes. In a fragment published in the same book, “Critical Examination of the Ideas of Revolution and Progress,” Weil writes:

One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is “revolution”.

Weil argues that revolution can do far less. After the revolution you still have to take that math test or catch up on the work you let slide. You may be out of butter and you will expect your usual store to have it. No revolution will sweep away the densely woven web of arrangements that make up ordinary life. They can only change gradually. What revolutions can do, Weil argues and I agree, is sweep away a class that no longer has a role in these affairs, that is, a parasitic class, such as the French aristocracy or the tycoons of an earlier capitalist era. They will be replaced with managers. The managerial bureaucracy will remain since it is the heart of the real social setup.

Marx persuaded revolutionaries that they were inevitably going to bring heaven to earth. Weil, of course, does not deny the utter bankruptcy of capitalism, not it’s inherent cruelty. She even questions whether, given the hope and energy the idea of revolution supplies to the otherwise miserable and hopeless proletariat, it is not a “sacrilege” to reveal the truth of it. But she has too much respect for human dignity to believe anyone is better off living off false hopes. She starts the essay with a quote from Sophocles:

I would not give a farthing for the mortal whom empty hopes can set afire.

Sophocles. Ajax, 477–8

A regime of bureaucratic managers educates the proletariat, and indeed everybody, to docility. Since managed work consists of mechanical activities without thought or skill it requires an army of docile workers. Weil identifies the key element of this form of society as the separation of intellectual from manual work. Science, as it is taught, reveals a set of inexorable laws. Work is an application of these laws. It requires one to follow instructions. Economic and eventually all life is a series of prearranged steps and thought, if there is any, is devoted to learning the proper way to do them. Everything is managed, down to the crossing of streets. The managers themselves are really no different from the others and follow steps just as they do. The ideal society is a smoothly running machine with easily replaceable parts.

Such a bureaucratic society inevitably tends towards State capitalism. Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix all eventually serve the state apparatus. Capitalist enterprises, no matter how big, cannot resist this co-optation. Just like the powerful everywhere, the bureaucratic state seeks to preserve and expand its power. That means war. The product of state capitalism is war and preparation for war, and it is to this, eventually, that the entire society is devoted. In the process the planet becomes toxic and we all wait for the end.

Being forced to do meaningless repetitive activity produces boredom, and boredom replaces the cynicism of capitalism with passivity. People try to compensate for meaningless work with amusements. They live for vacations and fun. Only an emotional deadness allows them to withstand the tedium. People escape into fantasy and dabble in the forbidden, declaring their freedom. Irony coats everything like sticky goo. Thought is scorned. Is this population going to support a revolution? And if they would, so what? No revolution will dislodge the real social relationships. If you kill your boss you will just get another.

The terrible docility produces a population capable of witnessing its own destruction with equanimity. Weil is amazed at Stalin’s ability to get former apparatchiks to collaborate in their own execution. The threat of war, the immanence of climate change, the burial of the planet in garbage, the sixth great extinction all produce at most a shrug. Journalism junkies natter on about Trump, long for Obama, and argue about whether Trump is worse than Bush. Climate scientists give talks, hold conferences, and bemoan the lack of any meaningful action. Trump edges towards Armageddon and people think about lunch. Everyone looks elsewhere for somebody to do something. The entire population has lost the ability to act. Meanwhile, human extinction approaches like a fire fanned by the Santa Ana winds.

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Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College.

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