1938 | Paris

Demystifying the Magic Word

Simone Weil’s reflections on revolution.

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.

It was not coined yesterday. It goes back more than a century and a half. A first attempt to apply it, from 1789 to 1793, produced something, but not what was expected of it. Since then, each generation of revolutionaries has, in its youth, believed itself to be destined to bring about the real revolution, has then gradually grown old and finally died transferring its hopes to succeeding generations; it runs no risk of being proved wrong, since it is dead. This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless. It is only for priests that martyrs can be a substitute for proofs.

If one considers the system whose abolition is being called for, it seems that the word revolution has never had such an up-to-date significance, for it is obvious that this system is very sick indeed. If one turns toward its possible successors, one finds a paradoxical situation. At the present time there is no organized movement that actually takes the word revolution for a watchword determining the direction to be followed by action and propaganda. Yet never before has this watchword been adopted by so many people, and it has a special individual appeal for all who suffer in body or soul from the present conditions of existence, for all who are victims or who simply regard themselves as such, and for all who generously take to heart the fate of the victims surrounding them, and for many others besides. This word contains the solution of all the insoluble problems. The havoc caused by the last war, the preparations for a possible future war, weigh with ever greater force upon the peoples of the world; every disturbance in the circulation of money and goods, in credit, in capital investments, results in appalling misery; technical progress seems to bring the mass of people more overwork and insecurity than welfare; all this will vanish the moment the hour strikes for the revolution.

The only justification of rebellion is success.

—Thomas B. Reed, 1878

The worker who, when in the factory, “finds the hours drag,” bound as he is to passive obedience and a dreary and monotonous task or thinks himself not intended for manual work, or is harried by a superior—or who, outside the factory gates, resents his inability to stand himself such and such a treat available to customers well supplied with money—his thoughts run on the revolution. The unfortunate small shopkeeper, the ruined rentier, turn their eyes toward the revolution. The bourgeois adolescent in rebellion against home surroundings and school routine, the intellectual yearning for adventure and suffering from boredom, dream of the revolution. The engineer, whose reason and amour propre are alike offended by the priority given to financial over technological considerations, and who wants to see technology ruling the world, longs for the revolution. The majority of those who seriously take to heart liberty, equality, and the general welfare, who suffer at the sight of miseries and injustices, await the arrival of a revolution. If one were to take one by one all those who have ever uttered hopefully the word revolution, to seek out the true motives that have turned each of them in this direction, the precise changes, of a general or personal kind, which they genuinely look forward to, one would discover what an extraordinary variety of ideas and feelings can be covered by the same word. One would see how one man’s revolution is not always that of his neighbor—far from it—how the two sorts of revolution are even very often incompatible. One would also find that there is often no connection between the aspirations of all kinds that this word represents in the minds of the men who utter it and the realities to which it is likely to correspond if the future should actually have a social upheaval in store.

At bottom, one thinks nowadays of the revolution not as a solution to the problems raised at the present time but as a miracle dispensing one from solving problems. The proof that it is so regarded is that it is expected to drop from the skies; one waits for it to happen, one does not ask oneself who is to bring it about. Few people are simpleminded enough to count in this respect on the big organizations, whether trade union or political, which with more or less conviction continue to claim to represent it. Although their headquarters are not absolutely devoid of capable men, the most optimistic glance cast around them would fail to detect the embryo of a team capable of carrying through a task of these dimensions. Those who form the second rank—the young—show no sign of containing the members of such a team. Anyway, these organizations reflect to a large extent the faults that they denounce in the society in which they are evolving; they even contain other more serious faults, as a result of the influence exerted on them from a distance by a certain totalitarian system worse than the capitalist system. As for the small groups of extremist or moderate tendency who accuse the big organizations of doing nothing and display such a touching perseverance in announcing the glad tidings, they would be harder put to it still to designate men capable of presiding at the birth of a new order.

Jacques Louis David's painting The Oath of the Horatii

The Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques-Louis David, 1784. Louvre, Paris, France.

One places one’s trust, it is true—or at least one pretends to do so—in the spontaneity of the masses. June 1936, when the Popular Front party came to power under Prime Minister Léon Blum, provided a moving example of this spontaneity, which one imagined had been wiped out, in France, in the blood of the Commune. A tremendous, ungovernable outburst, springing from the very bowels of the masses, suddenly loosened the vice of social constraint, made the atmosphere at last breathable, changed opinions in all minds, and caused things that six months earlier had been looked upon as scandalous to be accepted as self-evident. Thanks to the incomparable power of persuasion possessed by force, millions of men made it clear—and in the first place to themselves—that they had a share in the sacred rights of humanity, something that even discerning minds had not been able to perceive at the time when they were weak. But that is all. Indeed unless it were to lead toward a more profound upheaval, that is all there could be. The masses do not pose problems, do not solve any; thus they neither organize nor construct. In any case they too are profoundly impregnated with the faults of the system under which they live, labor, and suffer. Their aspirations bear the imprint of that system. Capitalist society reduces everything to pounds, shillings, and pence; the aspirations of the masses are also expressed chiefly in pounds, shillings, and pence. The system is based on inequality; the masses give expression to unequal demands. The system is based on coercion; the masses, as soon as they have the right to speak, exercise in their own ranks a similar sort of coercion. It is difficult to see how there could spring up from the masses, spontaneously, the opposite of the system that has formed, or rather deformed, them.

One forms a strange idea in one’s mind of the revolution when one comes to look closely at the matter. Indeed, to say that one forms an idea of it is to say too much. What are the signs by which the revolutionaries think they will be able to recognize the moment when the revolution is actually there? By the barricades and the firing in the streets? By a certain team of men being installed in the government? By the breach of legal forms? By specific acts of nationalization? By the massive exodus of the bourgeoisie? By the issuing of a decree abolishing private property? All that is not clear. However, the fact remains that one awaits under the name of “revolution” a time when the last shall be first, when the values negated or suppressed by the present system will occupy the forefront, when the slaves, albeit without abandoning their tasks, will be the only citizens, when the social callings at present doomed to submission, obedience, and silence will be the first to have the right to have their say and take their part in all matters of public interest. This has nothing to do with religious prophecies. Such a future is represented as corresponding to the normal development of history. This shows that one does not form any correct idea of the normal development of history. Even when one has studied it, one remains filled with vague memories of primary-school textbooks and chronological tables. People cite the example of 1789. We are told that what the bourgeoisie did with regard to the nobility in 1789, the proletariat will do with regard to the bourgeoisie in a year unspecified.

The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal.

—Erich Fromm, 1941

People think that in that year 1789, or at any rate, between 1789 and 1793, a hitherto subordinate social stratum, the bourgeoisie, drove out and replaced those who ruled society, the kings and nobles. In the same way they think that at a certain moment, designated by the term great invasions, the barbarians invaded the Roman empire, broke up the empire’s administrative cadres, reduced the Romans to a very inferior status, and took over command everywhere. Why should the proletarians not do the same thing, in their own way? In effect, that is the way things happen in the textbooks. In the textbooks, the Roman empire lasts up to the beginning of the great invasions; after that, a new chapter opens. In the textbooks, the king, the nobility, and the clergy own France until the day when the Bastille falls; after that, it is the Third Estate. For years we have all absorbed this catastrophic notion of history, where the catastrophes are marked by the ends or the beginnings of chapters; we do not get rid of it, and we regulate our action upon it. The division of history textbooks into chapters will cost us many disastrous mistakes.

Contributor

Simone Weil

From Oppression and Liberty. Called by Albert Camus “the only great spirit of our time,” Weil once wrote, “Our science is like a store filled with the most subtle intellectual devices for solving the most complex problems, and yet we are almost incapable of applying the elementary principles of rational thought.” While in London during World War II, she ate only as much as the official ration of her compatriots in occupied France and, weakened, died of tuberculosis in 1943. Much of Weil’s writings, among them The Need for Roots and Waiting for God, were published posthumously.