need for roots

The Need for Roots by Simone Weil (Book Review)

Born in Paris on the 3rd February 1909, Simone Weil was the youngest of two children born to an intellectual and non-observant Jewish family. Stricken by appendicitis as an infant, Weil suffered from ill-health throughout her short life. Academically brilliant, intense and morally uncompromising, Weil intimidated and bemused those she encountered – her tutor, Emile Chartier, dubbed his otherworldly charge ‘the Martian’. Restless, and intent on understanding life outside of her natural, bourgeois, milieu, Weil spent time as a factory worker and fighting (briefly and ineffectually) for the anarchist CNT/FAI during the Spanish Civil War. Following a series of mystical experiences, Weil found herself drawn to the Catholic Church, though it is unknown whether she allowed herself to be baptised.

Exiled from her homeland during the Nazi occupation, Weil worked for the Free French in London, and there is reason to believe she had been accepted for training by the Special Operations Executive before ill-health intervened. In 1943, weakened by tuberculosis but refusing to eat more than was permitted to citizens of occupied France, Weil succumbed to cardiac failure in a Kentish sanitorium. Her resting place can be found in the Catholic section of Bybrook Cemetery, Ashford.

Weil’s writings have found enthusiasts as ideologically diverse as Albert Camus and T. S. Eliot. Her detractors range from Susan Sontag (for whom Weil was ‘fanatical… ridiculous…’) to her boss Charles de Gaulle, who derided her as ‘crazy’.


In 1942, the Free French invited Weil to submit her thoughts on the regeneration of France, post-liberation. Weil’s paper outlined her vision for the spiritual reinvigoration of her homeland, and is her most systemic treatise on political issues. Published posthumously as ‘L’Enracinement’ in 1949, the book was translated into English in 1952 with the title ‘The Need for Roots’. Originally published by Routledge, it appears in a new translation by Ros Schwartz, under the Penguin Classics imprint.

The Need for Roots is an eccentric and uneven work, too baggy and unfocused to offer a blueprint for political action. Like the best of Weil’s writing, its strength is in the originality of her thought – even where she is wrong Weil is wrong in interesting and original ways. Weil’s analyses, and her critique of the social cost of modernity – rooted in an organicist conception of society – will be of interest to the kind of conservatives who read The Mallard.


‘Roots’ and ‘rootedness’ – ‘racines’ and ‘racinement’ – enjoyed a vogue on the French right before Weil. Maurice Barrès, author of Les Deracines, outlined a republican vision of ‘la terre et les morts’ – the mystical bond shared by a people living on, and working, the land in which their ancestors enjoy their eternal rest.

Weil, ironically perhaps, understands roots in less mystical terms:

‘Human beings have roots by virtue of their real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape particular treasures of the past and particular expectations for the future.’

For Weil, roots arise organically among people thrown together by circumstance, and are multifaceted – anchoring the individual in, for example, a community, a nation, a professional milieu. Through these spontaneous bonds of language, culture and place the individual finds identity and meaning.

When roots are severed, the individual feels himself estranged, and is deprived of an opportunity to participate in the pursuit of a Good beyond himself. Enracinement provides the individual with meaning – imbuing his everyday relationships with eternal, even supernatural significance.

At a political level, roots give the individual ‘a sense of personal ownership’ of ‘public monuments… and the lavishness displayed in ceremonies’. The rites and rituals of civic religion orient the individual toward the Good, as his culture understands it. The individual witnesses a great ceremony of state – a coronation, or a military parade – and understands that the rite is just as much an expression of his identity as, for example, Sunday Mass at the village chapel. Through racinement, the individual understands himself to be a participant in his culture, and feels that he has an interest in the spiritual and cultural health of his community and nation.  

Deracinement, then, is a spiritual malady, an alienation from one’s culture and the conceptions of the Good that have shaped it. Uprootedness on a grand scale can be occasioned by revolution, military conquest or population displacement. It is interesting to speculate on what Weil would have made of the mass immigration that has transformed Europe in the post-war era.


Empathy, for Weil, is the soul of patriotism. It is easier to feel empathy for people with whom one shares bonds of language, culture and place. It is from these bonds of trust and social solidarity that, in a healthy society, order arises.

For Weil roots are the basis of order. Order is the pre-eminent human need – the guarantor of all subordinate needs. In a healthy society, order flows from the bottom-up; a product of ‘compassion’ and trust. This naturally-arising order is distinct from the ‘top down’ constitutional politics of liberalism.

Freedom, like order, cannot be imposed upon a people, rather it must emerge from among them. This is perhaps Weil’s most important lesson for the contemporary right. No western libertarian cites Somalia and Haiti as an ideal for his society to follow, despite both countries’ longstanding traditions of limited (or at least, weak) central government. It is not sufficient to simply limit the reach of the state. Rather, certain social preconditions, principally a culture of mutual trust, must exist if a free, orderly society is to flourish.

Whereas man under liberal democracy understands his relationship with the state formally, in terms of ‘rights’, through ‘enracinement’ the individual understands the interrelatedness between his rights and the obligations that he owes his fellows:

‘A right is not effective on its own but solely in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.’


Liberalism, founded on a universalistic conception of human nature and the absolute sovereignty of the individual, is hostile to rootedness, and thus the organic ties of heritage, culture and place in which healthy identities are founded. And, as Weil observes, uprootedness has the dangerous quality of propagating itself.

Marxism, Weil suggests, is not merely driven by uprootedness, but seeks its universalisation – the reduction of everyone to the status of the proletarian. For Weil, uprootedness was exemplified by the industrial working class of her day; condemned to repetitive and physically exhausting labour, and forced to live in unlovable slums.

Industrialisation elevated the material standard of the common man, but did so at tremendous spiritual cost. The lot of the peasant was hard, but he at least enjoyed the consolations of meaningful labour and a life lived among natural beauty – often on land worked by his ancestors. The proletariat, by contrast, are inescapably aware that they are interchangeable cogs in an economic machine.

The strange revival of Marxist (or at least Marx-ish) politics in the post-Soviet era can be understood as a manifestation of alienation. It is not that Marxism offers a compelling alternative to the current order; rather, Marxism retains an enduring appeal to the uprooted. When people feel estranged from their culture, they desire its destruction. It is not enough for the Communist to triumph over the old order, he must destroy all vestiges of the past. Witness the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution, or, in our time, the toppling of statues by those who have been taught to consider western history as uniquely shameful.

In our era ‘deracinement’ manifests in many ways. Witness the proliferation of bizarre sexual subcultures; notably ‘trans’ and ‘non-binary’ identities; among educated left-leaning whites. Ersatz identities such as these provide a sense of belonging and an opportunity to pursue imagined ‘Goods’, in the form of liberation and ‘social justice’. But they thrive on angst and guilt – and propagate the dangerous idea that fulfilment is impossible without radical transformation of the self and society.
Contemporary uprootedness takes other, less dramatic forms: a tendency (found on both left and right) to confuse one’s personal and political identities, for example, or an exaggerated identification in the struggles of peoples very unlike one’s own. Alienated from their own political culture, Zoomers often fail to appreciate the cultural specificity of foreign issues – or, conversely, to map American racial politics onto their own (this writer recalls one especially pathetic incident in which demonstrators in London, protesting the homicide of George Floyd, an incident that occurred on another continent, chanting ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ at unarmed constables of the Metropolitan Police).

The European right, too, is tainted by the uprootedness of the modern world. Witness the awe in which post-war ‘conservatives’ have held America, a land of uprooted individuals, where history is shallow and order proceeds from the top down in the form of a Constitution and a Bill of Rights.


Weil’s most important lesson for the conservative movement is that man has needs beyond the economic. She stands against an era in which:

‘money and the state have come to replace all other bonds of attachment.’

An authentically conservative politics should define itself against the reduction of people to mere economic units; and towns, regions, countries as mere places. We are the custodians of the institutions and traditions that we have inherited. The triumph of capitalism over feudalism has undoubtedly improved life in material terms; but capital, unchecked, uproots peoples from traditional ways of life, destroying communities and cultures. As Weil argues, the destruction of the past is ‘perhaps the greatest of all crimes’, for, once destroyed, the past can never truly be recovered.

The ills that Weil identified in her own age have grown more acute in the post-war era, thanks both to the moral revolution of the 1960s and the triumph of the market in the 1980s. It is a sad but inescapable fact that ‘conservative’ parties, today dominated by different flavours of free-market liberal, have played their role in accelerating this process of deracination.

Conservatism – authentic conservatism – offers a politics that understands men as more than the sum of their appetites and ambitions. Weil’s prescient vision of European revitalization deserves a new audience on the right. It is time for conservatism to rediscover its roots.

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