Meditations On A Corpse
by Simone Weil
The government of June 1936 is no more. Freed of our obligations, as partisans or opponents of this now dead thing—removed from the present, and as alien to our concerns about tomorrow as the Constitution of Athens—let us at least draw some lessons from its brief history; a beautiful dream for many and a nightmare for some. Dream or nightmare, there was something unreal about the year just passed. Everything depended on the imagination. A cooler look is needed for that prodigious history, still so close, yet already, alas, so far away. Between July 1936 and, for example, the preceding February, what real alteration had there been in the facts of social life? Almost none; but there was a total transformation in feelings, like that carved wooden crucifix which expresses serenity or agony, depending on where one stands. Power seemed to have changed sides, simply because those who, in February, only spoke to command, felt themselves fortunate, in July, to be allowed a voice in negotiations; whilst those who, at the start of the year, thought themselves relegated for life to the category of men whose only right was to stay silent, imagined months later that the very course of the stars depended on their shouts.
Imagination is both the fabric of social life and the motor of history. Real needs, real resources and interests act only indirectly, because they do not figure in the consciousness of crowds. It requires attentiveness to become aware of even the simplest realities, and human crowds are not attentive. Culture, education or status in the social hierarchy make only a slender difference in this regard. Two hundred heads of industry gathered in a hall make a herd as unaware as a meeting of workers or small shopkeepers. If someone ever invents a method that would allow people to gather together without the extinction of thought in each mind, they will have produced a revolution in human history comparable to the discovery of fire, the wheel or the first tools. In the meantime, imagination is and will remain a factor whose importance in human affairs it is almost impossible to overstate. But the effects that flow from it will vary depending on how we manage it—or indeed, neglect to manage it. The state of imaginations sets the limits within which power can be effectively exercised to get a grip upon reality, in any given instance. In the next instance, those limits will have moved. It can happen that a public state of mind allows a government to take a particular measure three months before it becomes necessary, whereas at the moment when it’s needed, the state of mind won’t let it through. It should have been done three months before. To sense these things, to keep a perpetual look-out for them, is to know how to govern.
The flow of time is the instrument, the material and the obstacle in nearly all the arts. If, between two notes of music, a pause is held an instant longer than it should be, or if a conductor calls for a crescendo at this moment, not that, the musical emotion won’t work. If, at a particular moment in a tragedy, there is a brief reply instead of a long speech, or at another moment, a long speech instead of a brief reply, or if the dramatic climax is placed in the third act instead of the fourth, then it will no longer be a tragedy. The operation that can save a patient’s life at a certain stage of illness might prove fatal a few days later. Could the art of statesmanship alone be exempt from this law of timing? No, it is bound by it more than any other. The newly deceased Popular Front government never understood that. Leaving aside Léon Blum’s sincerity, sensitivity and high moral character, which rightly endear him to those not blinded by party prejudice, where else in the ranks of French politics is there a match for his intelligence? But political intelligence is one thing he lacks. He is like one of those dramatists who conceive their works as printed books; their plays never work on stage because things are never said at the moment when they should be. Or like those architects who can do beautiful designs on paper, but take no account of the character of the building materials. People like this character are generally described as pure theoreticians. That’s wrong. They err not from excess of theory, but from lack of it. They have failed to study the material question of their art.
In the art of politics, that question is the dual perspective, always unstable, linking the real condition of the social balance of forces and the oscillations of the collective imagination. The latter never bears exactly on the really decisive factors of a given social situation: whether it is the collective imagination of popular forces or of dinner-jacketed clubmen, it either lags behind or leaps ahead or goes astray. Political leaders must above all extract themselves from its influence and consider it coldly, from outside: a current to be deployed as a motive force. If legitimate qualms prevent them from whipping up artificial surges in public opinion with the help of lies, as they do in totalitarian states (and elsewhere), no scruple should prevent them from making use of groundswells of opinion that they are powerless to correct. These can only be put to use through transposition. A torrent of water can do nothing but cut a channel, bear away earth, sometimes cause a flood; but set a turbine in its path, link the turbine to an automatic lathe, and the torrent will turn out tiny screws with miraculous precision. The screw will bear no resemblance to the torrent and may seem insignificant by comparison to its great roar; but some of these tiny screws inside a large machine will help to lift boulders that had resisted the torrent’s force. A tidal shift in public opinion may help to accomplish a reform that seems to have no relation to it, which may be small, but would have been impossible without it. Likewise, for lack of a small reform a great wave of public opinion may dissipate and vanish like a dream.
An example, among many others: in June 1936, with the factories occupied and the bourgeoisie trembling at the word ‘soviets’, it would have been easy for the Blum government to push through tax measures and clamp down on capital flight and fraud; in short, to impose the rule of law on finance. But at that stage such measures were not yet essential, and the factory occupations monopolized the attention of the government, as of the working masses and the bourgeoisie. By the time the crisis had rendered these measures the last resort, the moment when they could have been imposed had gone. It was vital to look ahead, to seize the moment when the government’s room for manoeuvre was greater than it ever would be again, to push through, at the very least, all the measures at which previous left governments had faltered, and a few more beside. Here we see the difference between the political leader and the amateur. Methodical action, in any sphere, means taking a measure not when its efficacy is needed, but rather at the moment when it is possible, with a view to when it will be effective. The good intentions of those who do not know how to use these wiles with time are the sort that pave the path to hell.
Among the many extraordinary phenomena of our epoch, one is worth our astonishment and our meditation: social democracy. What vast divergences there now are between the various European states at the moment, the critical moments of recent history, the disparate situations! Yet almost everywhere, social democracies appear identical, decked out in the same virtues, undermined by the same weaknesses. Always the same excellent intentions that pave so well the road to hell, the hell of the concentration camps. Léon Blum is a man of refined intelligence and high culture; he loves Stendhal and has no doubt read and re-read The Charterhouse of Parma. But he lacks that grain of cynicism indispensable to clear-sightedness. One can find everything in the ranks of social democracy, apart from genuinely free thinking. Its doctrine is flexible, susceptible to as many interpretations and modifications as one might wish. But it is never good to rely on a doctrine, above all when it includes the dogma of progress and unswerving faith in history and the masses. Marx is not a good thinker for decision-making; Machiavelli is worth infinitely more.
End of Meditations On A Corpse by Simone Weil