Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Coöperism 7/13 on Simone Weil

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“Simone Weil’s critical relationship to collectivity and unyielding criticism of social life in her oppressive context stems not from genius, saintliness, or illness but from the fact that she was a philosopher.”

     — Benjamin P. Davis, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy: Fieldnotes from the Margins (2023), at p. 5.

Not any kind of philosopher, though. An engaged philosopher who genuinely felt a sense of solidarity with others and lived her life accordingly—in a most remarkable way. Simone Weil acted on her philosophical beliefs. Those did not remain just theories. They came to fruition in praxis.

Opposed to fascism, Simone Weil volunteered to fight against Franco. She headed off to Spain in August 1936. Franco had initiated his coup d’état a few weeks earlier, on July 17, 1936, and the Spanish Civil War broke out. Weil joined the ranks of the anarcho-syndicalists in Aragon and Catalonia to fight against the fascists.[1]

At a political philosophical level, Weil denounced the non-interference pact of 1936, in which Léon Blum, the French leader from the Popular Front (no less), agreed not to intervene in Spain.[2] Weil sympathized with Blum’s desire for peace. But she argued that if indeed it was right to not intervene to save the Spanish workers, then there could be no reason, ever, to wage war. Not to protect some other country with which the French had signed an agreement or had promised to protect. Not even if Germany invaded an ally. If this was indeed an act of pacifism, then it had to be consistent and universally applied. No other cause could be more compelling—“rien d’autre au monde ne doit nous amener à allumer la guerre.”[3] She titled her article “generalized non-intervention.” Weil insisted on addressing the larger question of war and peace.

When Simone Weil left for Spain in August 1936, she acted on philosophical conviction. Such courage is not something that one often sees among philosophers. And as compared to other intellectual, literary, and journalist figures who went to Spain to fight Franco or report on the war, Weil had no suitable background for military engagement. George Orwell, whose magnificent book Homage to Catalonia (1938) you must read, was a trained policeman in Burma. Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the war and subsequently wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), one of my favorite novels, had driven an ambulance in Italy during the First World War. By contrast, Weil had no background in military practice, but went to Spain out of a compelling sense of duty and philosophical integrity.

A few years earlier, Weil had similarly displayed this kind of courage and engagement—and fidelity to her philosophical principles. She worked in a factory in 1934 and 1935, the Alsthom (Société Générale de constructions électriques et mécaniques) factory on the rue Lecourbe near the Boulevard Victor on the southern periphery of Paris. The fieldnotes she took during her time there, her Journal d’usine (“Factory Journal”), documents minutely her tasks, her hours of work, her interactions and exchanges with coworkers, the industrial equipment she used, and her deep meditations on the experiences of her co-workers. One gets a good sense of that in her open letter to Jules Romains, Expérience de la vie d’usine, started in 1936 and finished in 1941, published the year after:

No society can be stable when a whole category of workers works every day, all day, with disgust. This disgust in work alters the workers’ whole conception of life, their whole life. […] A lot of harm has come from factories, and this harm needs to be corrected in the factories. It’s difficult, but perhaps not impossible. First of all, the specialists, engineers and others, need to be sufficiently concerned not only with building products, but also with not destroying people. Not to make them docile, not even to make them happy, but only not to force any of them to degrade themselves.[4]

As evidenced by her time in the factory and on the Spanish front, Weil dedicated herself to thinking and acting on questions of cooperation and collectivity. In her work The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind, Weil in fact meditated on the cooperative form, proposing that working conditions should be radically transformed to allow for work to be organized either at home or “in small workshops, which could very often be organized on a cooperative basis.”[5]

What resources and tools, both theoretical and practical, does Weil offer to approach cooperation more productively? How does her philosophy and the way she led her life help forge a path toward coöperism? In this seminar, we will explore Simone Weil’s philosophical writings and praxis in relation to these questions about cooperation and collectivities.

To help address these questions, we are privileged to welcome two brilliant critical thinkers, both experts on Simone Weil’s political philosophy. Benjamin Davis, who joins us from Saint Louis University, is the author most recently of the book on Simone Weil’s philosophy that you have all read for this seminar, Simone Weil’s Political Philosophy: Field Notes from the Margins, just published this year at Rowman & Littlefield. He is also the author of Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics out this year as well, and we will be discussing that at a seminar earlier in the day on November 29, 2023 at noon. Frieda Ekotto is the Lorna Goodison Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, Comparative Literature and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. A philosopher and intellectual historian, she is the author of several books, including Race and Sex across the French Atlantic (2011) and L’Ecriture carcérale et le discours juridique: Jean Genet (2001), and the current President of the Modern Languages Association (2023-2024). I could not dream of a better panel to explore Simone Weil on cooperation.

Welcome to Coöperism 7/13!


[1] As a result of an accident in which she burned herself, Weil left Spain and returned to France around September 25, 1936. See Simone Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 3 : Vers la guerre (1937-1940) (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), p. 331

[2] Simone Weil, “Non-intervention généralisée [Projet d’article],” 43-46, in Simone Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 3 : Vers la guerre (1937-1940) (Paris: Gallimard, 1989).

[3] Weil, “Non-intervention généralisée [Projet d’article],” p. 46.

[4] Simone Weil, “Expérience de la vie d’usine. Lettre ouverte à Jules Romains,” 289-307, in Simone Weil, Œuvres completes, tome II, Écrits historiques et politiques, Volume 2: L’Expérience ouvrière et L’Adieu à la Révolution (Juillet 1934-Juin 1937) (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), at p. 306-307 (“Nulle société ne peut être stable quand toute une catégorie de travailleurs travaille tous les jours, toute la journée, avec dégoût. Ce dégoût dans le travail altère chez les ouvriers toute la conception de la vie, toute la vie. […] Il est venu beaucoup de mal des usines, et il faut corriger ce mal dans les usines. C’est difficile, ce n’est peut-être pas impossible. Il faudrait d’abord que les spécialistes, ingénieurs et autres, aient suffisamment à cœur non seulement de construire des objets, mais de ne pas détruire des hommes. Non pas de les rendre dociles, ni même de les rendre heureux, mais seulement de ne contraindre aucun d’eux à s’avilir. »)

[5] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind (1952), available here at page 56.