On Wednesday, January 2, 1935, a twenty-five-year-old worker in a French factory lost control of her movements. Slight, underfed, and suffering from migraines and an ear infection, she wasn’t able to shut the flame damper of a furnace which, as she recounted, produced “intolerable heat,” and flames that would “come up to lick your hands and arms.” A fellow factory worker rushed over to shut it for her. After recovering, she got back to work, in pain and suffering an awful headache, exacerbated by the “terrible mallet blows a few meters away.”
Unlike the other piece workers, who were paid only for what they produced, Simone Weil did not need to be there. Her well-paid job as a university teacher meant that there was no financial need. Instead, she took the job in order to experience the reality of factory work.
Weil believed that most Marxist writing about the proletariat failed to grasp the experience of day-to-day life for those on the front lines of labor. “One can no more be a revolutionary by words alone than one can be a mason or a blacksmith,” she argued. If one wanted to lead the proletariat toward class consciousness — to become a revolutionary class “for-itself” — one had to experience what workers themselves felt and needed.
Arguments like this — alongside Weil’s intransigent anti-fascism and ethos of Christ-like self-sacrifice — make her an intriguing figure for left-wing audiences. Her legacy, however, is also enigmatic and challenging, and poses difficult philosophical and ethical problems for Marxist and socialist philosophy.
A Child Bolshevist
“I have taken a year’s leave, in order to do a little work of my own and also to make little contact with the famous ‘real life.’” So Simone Weil wrote to one of her students at Le Puy, an upmarket girls’ school where she had taught prior to taking a factory job.
By 1935, Weil was already a formidable intellectual, having graduated from the prestigious École normale supérieure with first place in philosophy, one above Simone de Beauvoir. She was also a formidable presence. Her refusal to wear “feminine” clothing, ardent clumsiness, and chain-smoking made her a powerful and often challenging personality.
From an early age, Weil had also involved herself heavily in politics. In 1915, at the age of six, she refused sugar in solidarity with French troops on the Western Front. By the age of ten, she had declared herself a Bolshevist. By her teens she had involved herself in the workers’ movement. Later, she helped to organize marches and strikes, particularly in support of unemployed workers, over which she nearly lost her teaching job.
Weil was also unafraid of confronting realities that were often obscured by the ideological lenses favored by leading revolutionaries of her time. In one of her earliest long essays, “The Situation in Germany,” written in 1932, she took Trotsky to task for his essay “What Next?” In it, Trotsky argued that “the inner forces of the German proletariat are inexhaustible” and predicted that they “will clear the road for themselves.” Visiting Germany, Weil saw no coherent working class, let alone a revolutionary one. Instead, she saw exhaustion and division and a class of people treated like “mere tools, tools that are left to rust.” In Weil’s estimation, the very incoherence of Hitlerism strengthened its chances at victory, as it was “a reflection of the essential incoherence of the German nation in its present situation.”
Weil argued that Trotsky’s mistake was a symptom of a tendency toward idealism that lay at the heart of Marxism itself. She explained this analysis in her essay “Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression,” written shortly before her time in the factory. She begins the essay with a backhanded compliment of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, noting that his “first-rate account of the mechanism of capitalist oppression” was “so good” that “one finds it hard to visualize how this mechanism could cease to function.”
As Weil explains, the problem is a result of Marx’s thesis that the productive forces of capitalism will continue to increase before collapsing. In her view, Marx’s belief in progress betrayed traces of positivism and Hegelianism, and belied a nonscientific and “mythological” element found in “all socialist literature.” “Marx’s vocabulary itself testifies to this,” Weil wrote, “since it contains quasi-mystical expressions such as ‘the historic mission of the proletariat.’” For Weil this undermined Marx’s credibility when dealing with the material conditions that he had made central to his philosophy.
According to poet and writer Fiona Sampson, one of the most remarkable, consistent, and moving aspects of Weil’s work was that she strove to combine her thought with action. One could not write about the condition of factory workers — let alone their hopes, dreams and aspirations — without knowing how it felt to be a factory worker. As Weil put it:
The materialistic method — that instrument which Marx bequeathed us — is an untried instrument; no Marxist has ever really used it, beginning with Marx himself. The only really valuable idea to be found in Marx’s writings is also the only one that has been completely neglected. It is not surprising that the social movements springing from Marx have failed.
And so, at the end of 1934, Weil quit her teaching post and began piecework at Alsthom, a company that made electrical machinery. The result was Weil’s Factory Journal, one of the most moving accounts of suffering in the history of philosophy.
Factory Journal begins in a somewhat pretentious register, with pen portraits of Weil’s coworkers that might today be described as poverty tourism. However, as the reality of factory life set in, Weil abandoned this approach. Within a week she began describing the “exhausting and dangerous” nature of the work, of finishing the day “weeping violently,” and of suffering from “terrible headaches,” “chills,” and being overtaken by “terror.” She reports her own clumsiness and repeated failure to meet production targets, earning her a warning from her supervisor: “if they’re fucked up, you’ve had it.” “In the factory,” Weil writes, “every moment hurts.”
Although she wore her suffering on her body, for Weil, a Cartesian dualist, suffering written on the mind was most important. Weil discovered in the experience of industrial labor what she came to regard as the greatest privation of all:
The effect of exhaustion is to make me forget my real reasons for spending time in the factory and to make it almost impossible for me to overcome the strongest temptation that this life entails; that of not thinking any more . . .
As in Germany, Weil found that experiencing the material conditions endured by industrial workers led not to thoughts of revolution, but to despair. “Revolt is impossible, apart from momentary flashes,” she wrote, “first of all, against what? You are alone with your work, you could not revolt except against it.” In this situation, to think was to suffer:
we are like horses who hurt themselves as soon as they pull on their bits — and we bow our heads . . . Any reawakening of thought is painful.
To be oppressed, Weil wrote, “does not engender revolt as an immediate reaction, but submission.” In fact, if the very self is endangered; “the feeling of self-respect, such as it has been built up by society, is destroyed.”
This makes uncomfortable reading for those who believe — both then and now — that submission necessarily contains the seeds of revolt. Indeed, critics roundly decried Weil’s pessimism at the time, and not without reason. This pessimism meant that Weil’s philosophy sits awkwardly alongside her avowed solidarity with those who desire revolution.
However, Weil refused to resolve this tension into despair, and never ceased to desire emancipation from oppression. Her writing subsequent to 1935 writing oscillates between two poles. She tried to envision a transformation of social values so thorough as to move beyond oppression entirely. At the same time, she sought an intense spiritual transformation that would draw her closer to God.
Between Force and Salvation
In early 1935, Weil boarded a bus and recorded the following in her journal:
Strange reaction. How is it that I, a slave, can get on this bus and ride for my 12 sous just like anyone else? What an extraordinary favor! If someone brutally ordered me to get off, telling me that such comfortable forms of transportation are not for me, that I have to go on foot, I think that would seem completely natural to me. Slavery has made me lose the feeling of having any rights.
While the idea of slavery would later lead her to Christ, for now it led Weil to the idea of force. Marx’s great mistake had been, for Weil, to believe that oppression sprung from capitalism when in fact capitalism was only the current form of oppression. Although this criticism didn’t take into account classics like Friedrich Engels’s The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, it nevertheless spurred Weil to articulate a prescient critique of force:
Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men — oppressors and oppressed alike — the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured, and thus reduces living humanity to being the chattel of inanimate chattels.
To be inanimate — reduced to a thing — was for Weil the greatest calamity for humanity. She explored this theme in what is perhaps her greatest essay, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force.” Written in 1940 as an exploration of Homer’s great poem, it begins:
The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to . . . To define force — it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all . . .
The essay turns on the moment in The Iliad in which Achilles accepts the submission of Hector’s father, King Priam. Priam approaches the murderer of his son and falls to the floor; in Weil’s description, he “wept, abased at the feet of Achilles.” Achilles pushes Priam away like an inert object: “He is alive, he has a soul; and yet — he is a thing.”
As Weil argues, however, the victor, Achilles, is also the plaything of force. “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it . . . as it is to its victims.” According to Weil, Marx had seen only evil in the perpetrator, and only good in the victim; Weil, by contrast, saw a machine of oppression in which all were victims. Where force reigns, there is nobody here at all.
Although Weil tried in certain ways to escape the inherent pessimism of this view, even her later religious thought is arguably misanthropic. For her, Christ was the ultimate slave, and she regarded his submission as exemplary, both individually and collectively.
This ruled out revolution, or at least regarded it as simply another gesture in the same matrix of oppression. Instead, Weil argued, it was necessary to find other ways of being which would not replicate the power relationships of the system which had been overthrown. Prior to any revolution, one had to first of all
define by way of an ideal limit the objective conditions that would permit of a social organization absolutely free from oppression; then seek out by what means and to what extent the conditions actually given can be transformed so as to bring them nearer to this ideal; find out what is the least oppressive form of social organization for a body of specific objective conditions; and lastly, define in this field the power of action and responsibilities of individuals as such.
For Weil this meant conceiving of a social system in which the worker would be absolutely engaged by their work, making it voluntary and an expression of their humanity. Here, however, her solution smacks of some of the idealism she bewailed in others. For example, in her most extensive exploration of a postcapitalist form of work, The Need for Roots, Weil anticipates Martin Heidegger’s postwar existentialist philosophy that focused on the alienation of the self from a sense of dwelling.
In Weil’s view, this was also a political question. Workers had been uprooted from a sense of their own agency, and this needed to be undone. “A human being,” she wrote, “has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community.” This sense of rootedness in a community was the opposite of affliction. It also suggested a more rounded definition of “the worker,” opposed to the vaguer and more limited definition she perceived in contemporary socialist thinking. “True liberty,” Weil wrote,
is not defined by a relationship between desire and its satisfaction, but by a relationship between thought and action; the absolutely free man would be he whose every action proceeded from a preliminary judgment concerning the end which he set himself and the sequence of means suitable for attaining this end.
An Anti-Fascist Martyr
When Weil wrote The Need for Roots, she was living in London and trying to return to France to join the anti-Nazi resistance. In 1936, she had already traveled to Spain to fight in the civil war. Her participation was not useful — her comrades spent much of their time trying to keep her away from guns, lest she kill one of them. Indeed, her time in Spain ended abruptly after she burned her leg in a cooking pot and was sent home.
This experience did not, however, temper Weil’s spirit of self-sacrifice with realism. In London, she conceived of a plan to parachute nurses into France, on the understanding that they would bring succor to the afflicted and die beautiful deaths. De Gaulle described her — and her plan — as crazy.
Weil never returned to France, by parachute or otherwise. Her health, not good in the first place, started to give out. This was exacerbated by a complex relationship with food that led to malnutrition, and she was ultimately admitted to a sanitorium in Kent in a debilitated condition.
On August 24, 1943, at the age of thirty-four, Simone Weil died. For some, she starved herself in solidarity with those on the front. For others — including the coroner — it was a form of suicide, a verdict which debarred her from a Christian burial.
Encountering Weil’s writing is never easy. French philosopher Albert Camus saw her as a secular saint, whose “madness for truth” drove her to extremes, producing great insights and great suffering. And while it’s true that she was a great pessimist, she was only pessimistic about the world she saw around her. For the world to come, Weil had nothing but an optimism grounded in solidarity and a passion for freedom:
What have I gained from the experience? The feeling that I do not have any right, whatever, of any kind . . . The ability to be morally self-sufficient . . . to savor intensely every moment of freedom or camaraderie, as if it would last forever. A direct contact with life.