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!