Tasmanian Times


On the Abolition of All Political Parties

Earlier this year, Black Inc. published an English translation of Simone Weil’s 1943 tract, On the Abolition of All Political Parties. Translated by Simon Leys, this volume also contains an essay by Czeslaw Milosz on Simone Weil, and an essay by Simon Leys on the friendship between Milosz and the Gallimard editor who first published Weil’s books, Albert Camus.

In the Translator’s Foreword, Leys opens with a reflection on the role of the conscience vote in the Australian parliament: ‘A conscience vote – what an extraordinary notion! It should be a pleonasm: don’t we all assume that every vote – by definition – is being made by MPs who listen to their conscience, instead of following some diktat from a political party?’

In his collection of essays, The Hall of Uselessness (2011), Simon Leys prefigures his more recent concern with the tension that resides behind this assumption; a concern which prompted the project of translating Weil’s essay. In an essay on Jean-François Revel (‘Cunning Like a Hedgehog’), Leys describes how Revel’s experience with mainstream politics ‘gave him an invaluable insight into the essential intellectual dishonesty that is unavoidably attached to partisan politicking’. The story he tells is of the time Revel wrote a speech for François Mitterrand (then leader of the Opposition), which opened with the line: ‘Although I cannot deny some of my opponent’s achievements …’ At which Mitterrand screamed: ‘No! Never, never! In politics never acknowledge that your opponent has any merit. This is the basic rule of the game.’

An alternative to this view of democratic politics was once offered by Albert Camus, which he considered to be, above all else, an exercise in modesty. In a 1947 article in Combat, Camus wrote that ‘a democrat is a person who admits that his adversary may be right, who therefore allows him to speak, and who agrees to consider his arguments’. He goes on to say that when someone is ‘so convinced by their own arguments’ that they ignore, dismiss, silence, or even resort to violence against their opponents, that ‘democracy no longer exists’.

In his essay on Milosz and Camus, Simon Leys writes: ‘Regarding Camus, one cannot fully understand his intellectual and spiritual development during the last part of his life – from the end of the war till his premature death in 1960 – without taking into account the exceptional importance of the influence on him of Simone Weil’s thought and the example of her life.’

It is an example that can be traced also through the work of Simon Leys. So, when On the Abolition of All Political Parties was recently published, Island co-editor, Matthew Lamb, took this opportunity to put a few questions to Simon Leys. For his part, Leys agreed to respond, with the following caveat: ‘As regards your questions, however, I must first remind you: I am only Simone Weil’s translator –which, in itself, does not qualify me for answering in her stead on these issues, on which I have personally very limited competence or experience (even though my interest and concern are great). The translator of a great philosopher could, in a way, be compared to the secretary of a great doctor: useful to take the calls of patients and fix their appointments, useless as regards diagnosis and treatment of their complaints.’

To read the interview please visit the Island website HERE:

What would the Australian political landscape look like in th absence of political parties?

Island asked a number of Australia’s more thoughtful commentators to respond, as an act of political imagination, to this very question. The question was inspired by this interview with Simon Leys regarding his translation of Simone Weil’s 1943 tract, On the Abolition of All Political Parties.

JAMES DRYBURGH: In the absence of parties, political culture would become a relevant branch of the civil society it is meant to represent, rather than an alternative reality to it.

In communication between individuals we appreciate thinkers, we respect a willingness to listen, and we do not impose a prerequisite that conversations begin and end with two sides. Real conversation reflects the complexity of issues – rarely as simple as ‘for or against’.

By contrast, party politics demands of its politicians no independent thoughts at all, requiring only slogan, bravado and internal loyalty. Meanwhile the partisan feeds off blindness and hallucination in equal measure – eyes closed to climate change then open to see a terrorist where a child refugee stands.

If freed from the chains of the parties and moulded from the same social norms as non-politicians, political culture would more closely mirror reality. Surely then the political conversation might reconnect to the actuality of policy issues, and thus better represent society.

Politics would become more forward-thinking, as leaders consider issues and their own personal legacy more than party strategy. Politics would become more agile without being hamstrung by the slowness to react to changing circumstances inherent in party ideology. In being able to think and speak for themselves, politicians would become less dependent on lies and spin. Human rights would improve – how many Labor politicians, for example, personally believe in their level of cruelty toward asylum seekers?

A certain honesty and authenticity could appear, allowing people to engage in politics less as though it were a sport, whereby most support either/or – Holden or Ford, Carlton or Collingwood, Labor or Liberal, and so on – and modify their approval of events, performance and policy to suit their chosen team. Ironically, greater sportsmanship within politics would evolve with healthy rivalry becoming contained within society’s accepted rules of behaviour. Politics would begin to communicate less in the form of a pre-recorded advertising message or a football chant and more akin to a conversation between human beings, which may even make it worth listening to.

James Dryburgh is co-editor of Tasmanian Times and a writer who has been published in New Internationalist, Island, Smith Journal, and others. In 2012, he spoke at the World Congress of Rural Sociology in Lisbon, Portugal, on the role of the media in giving greater voice to the world´s poor.

PAULA MATTHEWSON: It’s hard not to agree with Simone Weil’s contention that partisan spirit is the embodiment of evil, and political parties are the diabolical means of generating it. Contemporary political events serve only to reinforce the view. Setting aside the vast difference between contemporary Australian politics and the historical context of Weil’s call for the abolition of political parties, it’s fascinating to consider what Australia’s political landscape would look like without them.

In many respects, the capacity for Australians to participate in democracy has never been so … well, democratic. Digital communication has delivered means of mass political engagement that have the potential to make parties redundant. Never before have so many individuals been able to directly converse with their elected representatives and participate in governmental decision-making processes.

But this civic optimism presumes all citizens wish for deep political engagement. For good or bad, many don’t have the time, patience or intellectual capacity to do so. Others just don’t care; they want government to get on with business while they get on with their own.

This reality wouldn’t change in a world without political parties. However, our politics would be atomised. We’d have to contend with scores of views on hundreds of issues. Elected representatives would have no easy way to find common purpose with each other; disengaged voters would have little sense of what a politician stands for; and those who report politics would have no basis upon which to track or understand what transpires in and outside of parliament.

In short, the abolition of political parties would disenfranchise voters. Thankfully, any such deprivation would be short-lived. People naturally seek and commune with those who share similar views and, in matters politic, this is no different. In the absence of political parties we would simply start again, creating new political alliances based on common values or philosophies.

While Weil saw political parties as vessels of evil, today they have a more honourable role: they’re a way of organising and guiding what would otherwise be political chaos.

Paula Matthewson is a freelance communications adviser and writer. She’s worked in and around politics in Canberra for 24 years. These days she blogs and tweets about politics as @Drag0nista

HARRY EVANS: The abolition of political parties in Australia would impose a heavy burden on candidates for political office, the media, interest groups, and the public: the burden of individual responsibility.

Candidates would no longer be able to hide behind the collective will of parties or justify their decisions on the basis of party solidarity. They would have to articulate their own opinions and policy positions and make their own judgments of public opinion. Chanting slogans in unison with others would look foolish. They would be held individually accountable for their decisions and their legislative actions. If repudiated by the electorate they would not have the party to compensate them with other jobs for their loyalty.

The media would have to give up its focus on leadership challenges and party splits, and would have to follow more diligently the views and policies of individual candidates and developments in public opinion. Analyses of policies and measures would have to replace sensations about quarrels and scandals. Leaks and handouts from parties and factions would no longer do.

Interest groups would not be able to target particular leaders on the assumption that once those leaders were recruited their parties would follow. Attempts to buy candidates would be far more difficult because they would have to be influenced one at a time. The public would have to be persuaded by open debate rather than covert expenditure.

The public would have to pay far more attention to the views and policies of individual candidates, and not simply rely on their representatives following a party line. If things went wrong the part played by their own choices of representatives would be clear, and they would not be able to blame other voters, the majority party or particular leaders. Voting on vague impressions or personalities would carry a penalty.

Perhaps all four groups would fail to make these adjustments, and society would collapse in confusion. If the groups did eventually adjust, there would be painful lessons along the way: candidates exposing their lack of ability through unwise statements and policy decisions, interest groups caught out attempting their old secret methods; the media missing significant issues and shifts in opinion and backing causes without public support, the electors making disastrous choices.

Either way, it would be a big change indeed.

Harry Evans was federal Clerk of the Senate 1988–2009, editor of 7th–13th editions of Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice. He is the author of various items on constitutional and parliamentary matters.

To read the rest of rest of the imaginations of a party-less Australian political landscape, buy a copy of Island Magazine 133 from a good newsagent, online, or even better, subscribe to Island Magazine HERE:

Island 133 also features an essay by David O’Byrne on Tasmania’s Future: What’s worth fighting for? and loads of other bloody great stuff!

February, on Tasmanian Times: Solitary Saint warns of Collective Sins

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]


  1. Sarah Taylor

    July 4, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    I think the rest of the western world copes pretty well without just two parties. Whilst I agree that banning big parties in a democracy is an oxymoron, a more politically engaged society could simply vote them into oblivion (or not vote for them in other words). In 24 years of voting I have never voted for either of the big parties and I doubt I ever will.

    From my point of view it is disappointing to see parties vote on the floor of parliament in ways that are clearly not representative of the people (look at gun control in the US – the people want change and cannot get it). Then, the uneducated voter blindly ticks the labor/liberal box without even knowing the name of their local member and how he or she has voted recently, nor how the rest of the party have voted. Hence, the result is that people who do not deserve a seat walk it in. Not only that, the member themselves are possibly voting against what they believe in and the situation becomes truly ridiculous (and frustrating to watch).

    Corruption is more widespread as factions force members to vote in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with democracy and are more about back room deals. In Australia, donations could not buy votes because the gambling and tobacco industries can’t donate to every independent and even if they did – not every independent can be bought. And even if they were they would not hold their seat very long. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have many choices on election day?? And wouldn’t the quality be better if they were more expendable. Imagine the catastrophic failure of the he says/she says if there were dozens of hes and shes to hold each other to account. There could be no ganging up on the floor to vote the independent down either and dare I say it but they might actually have to cooperate. Aaahhh – how utopic. Proper democracy. And just think of it – no more pollies like Eric Abetz getting ‘confused’ between state housing funding and funding for Pontville. I think he would very quickly become less confused if he had to go it alone.

    No we can’t ban them but the world would be a better place if no one voted for them.

  2. A.K.

    July 3, 2013 at 11:41 am

    Politics without parties could only be successful if all decision making in the hands of the people directly. To say otherwise is denying the facts of where our societies are presently in the realm of evolutionary progress and the odds of future success. We have the technology to propel us into approaching politics from direction which gives real choice and equality of opportunity in deciding what, when and how our society does things.

    It would be interesting for those who continue to support the current insanity of disenfranchising party representation, can provide evidence it works for the general public and the actual future.

    I’m sure the ideologues in power dismiss what is happening overseas in most societies, where the people have had a enough of being suppressed and enslaved economically for the greed of elitist ideologues. They think it won’t happen here in Aus, but we all know what ideologists think and believe, is always fantasy.

  3. john hayward

    July 3, 2013 at 1:12 am

    Most humans are frightened by the idea of personal autonomy and repelled by the necessity to make decisions for themselves. They want to be on a team at all costs, one that’s governed by unambiguous rules and defined by its distinction from, and antagonism to, other groups.

    So powerful is this affiliative instinct that some people will abandon all reason and moral sensibility and vote for creatures such as Eric Abetz.

    John Hayward

  4. Steve

    July 2, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Politics without parties is an interesting thought but I believe the focus here is misdirected.
    The question is not whether party free politics is desirable, but rather, is it achievable?
    We have, supposedly, a representative form of government. Those clowns in Canberra are meant to be representing us, their constituents. The only way I can see for change to happen, is for that theoretical ideal to become a practical reality.
    It’s obvious that traditional methods for achieving this don’t work; thousands of years of different cultures appear not to have resulted in a system where “the man in the street” has honest and relevant representation. Possibly a modern technological solution could be found?
    One that appeals to me is an arrangement where, if in any twenty four period, a majority of constituents click a “no confidence” button on their smart phone, the relevant representative is immediately electrocuted.
    I suspect it’d be highly unlikely for such a majority decision to occur but I bet it’d keep them on their toes!

  5. Simon Warriner

    July 2, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    I will refrain from comment until I have purchased my copy and read all contributions. That said, I find a sizable portion of the people I meet to be engaged politically at some level, even if only to be disengaged because “they are all full of shit and you cannot believe a word they say”. I had a really enjoyable conversation with a 25 year old woman whose questions and insights were vastly more intelligent than the media and commentary would have us believe that cohort are capable of. A case of one swallow heralding spring, perhaps.

    Sue DeNim, I second your final para.

  6. John Biggs

    July 2, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    The major implication of all this it seems to me is that politcians would have to think for themselves and would have to convince the public they are worth electing. The quality of some/most of the party selected candidates is simply embarrassing, and the quality f politcial decisions likewise. It is telling that the politcians most highly held in public esteem are independents, Wilkie and Windsor especially.

  7. Sue DeNim

    July 2, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    All very astute comments (in the article I mean, not TT commenters) though I believe Paula is slightly misguided, possibly due to being the product of a society where political parties have been the norm for the period of her entire life.
    Admittedly the other two commenters fall into the same category, however concerning the issue of the public being apathetic, ill-informed, not intellectual enough etc. I believe these are the result of our current status quo.

    One could argue that ‘dumbing down’ has been deliberate so the poli’s can hang onto their position of expertise. The public become disengaged when they feel disempowered or not listened to, the “What significance do I have” syndrome. If education and encouragement of engagement were improved, I imagine these symptoms would fall away.
    No longer constrained by toeing the party line, independent representatives would be free to investigate thoroughly the issues, make their own decisions, and explain those decisions and the information in their own terms to their constituents, without the party rhetoric.
    Many issues are not intellectual anyway, they are conscience and humanity issues.
    With digital voting and super fast referendum capability, results of peoples voting would be instantaneous. People would get a clearer gauge of where their countrymen fall on specific issues.
    If they were horrified by the outcomes they could re-think their position and retraction of a decision could be just as simple.
    It has the tendency to move towards ‘majority rule’ which is not always the best outcome for minorities but it also might shake people up to realise how callous we can actually be.
    A great idea but not much use without better education and engagement. Perhaps however the former would lead to the latter?

    Pink Floyd, if you think our current so-called democracy is ‘working’ you must not have looked out the window recently or, you are easily pleased and obviously quite comfortable in your little bubble.

  8. Jon

    July 2, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Political parties in power oversee the economy … and sometimes there are paradoxical outcomes… from the Daily Mail:

    Group of six unemployed French people sue the country’s employment agency for £257,000 EACH for not finding them work

    The group presented their case to Pole Emploi in Paris this morning
    They claim they have not been presented with enough interviews
    Lawyers say a ‘breach in contract’ by the job centres has been identified

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2353488/Group-unemployed-French-people-sue-country-s-employment-agency-275-000-EACH-finding-work.html#ixzz2Xx5wVL3H

    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

  9. Isla MacGregor

    July 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    David Suzuki hit the nail on the head:
    ‘To me, the Occupy movement is about putting decisions and democracy back into the hands of people. We need democracy for people, not corporations; we want greater equity; we demand social justice; and we want to recognize and protect our most fundamental needs — clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy, biological diversity, and communities that support our children with love and care.’

    A two, three, four or five party system will not give us participatory democracy. It will only give us more of the same system based on numbers, vote stacking, back stabbing, them and us and spin.

    Demarchy, a form of participatory democracy, provides an alternative to the corrupted representative democracy so many of us know is a dismal failure.

    If the growing number of independents standing for election in Oz can pave the way for a radical change towards participatory democracy it will definitely be worthwhile supporting them.

  10. Pink Floyd

    July 2, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Can’t help but laugh at the stupidity of those that think the abolution of political parties / house full of independents is the way to go. Shows a lack of understanding of how real world politics actually works. In a democracy there will always be political parties, no way of banning them unless you want to go down the path of watering down democracy and free speech. Best possible outcome for stable long term government is 2 major parties, one of the two in power and the public having a chance to change every few years. Just think about the most stable democracies throughout the last few hundred years, then try and name other countries with alternative political systems that have resulted in better lives for their people. A democratic capatalistic society is not ideal but I don’t know of anything that is prefereable in the real world.

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