Raymond Aron and the Liberal Tradition

Main Currents in Sociological Thought. Volume I: Montesquieu-Comte-Marx-Tocqueville—The Sociologists and the Revolution of 1848

by Raymond Aron, translated by Helen Weaver, by Richard Howard
Basic Books, 272 pp., $4.95

French universities are notoriously short of space. If there is ever a student uprising similar to the recent one at Berkeley, it will be directed not against bans on political activity—no one in France would be insane enough to impose one—but against lack of classroom facilities. There are a hundred thousand students in Paris alone (three times as many in the country as a whole), and although new buildings are being rushed up as fast as possible, many thousands still have to cram into the Sorbonne: the aged and wheezing mater et magistra founded in 1215 by Philip Augustus to commemorate his victory over the English at Bouvines. Now that France once more has a monarch (though an elective one) capable of routing the Anglo-Saxons, better days may dawn for students and lecturers, but some of the extra space will be needed to accommodate the growing audience which for years has followed M. Raymond Aron’s lecture course, “Les grandes doctrines de sociologie historique.” It was time this was made available to foreigners, and the text of the lectures (substantially unaltered, so far as one can judge) has now been published in a handsomely edited English translation.

As an expositor of other men’s doctrines M. Aron has few rivals. He is marvelously clear, invariably fairminded, and very rarely inaccurate. Now and then he slips up, and his translators, who have stuck closely to the text, duly reproduce his mistakes. For example, he credits Marx with the authorship of Engels’s New York Tribune articles on the German “revolution” of 1848-49, and draws some unwarranted conclusions from this misapprehension. He also makes the odd statement that “at the end of his life” Marx acknowledged having discovered the doctrine of class struggle in contemporary French historians. Actually Marx made a remark to this effect when he was quite a young man. This cannot have surprised anyone, since it was generally known at the time that the notion of class conflict had been developed by Augustin Thierry, who had begun his career as a youthful assistant to Saint-Simon. In general, however, M. Aron avoids the more obvious mistakes which academics have transmitted to their pupils for generations. He is not as learned a Marxologist as his colleague Professor Georges Gurvitch (whose lectures on Saint-Simon and Proudhon should be made available to English readers), but he knows the subject well enough. He knows and understands Comte even better, but his real concern is with the two other thinkers he has chosen to interpret: Montesquieu and Tocqueville. They were liberals, and M. Aron, though always fair to socialists, is in the liberal tradition. His work, therefore, may be described as a critical analysis of French history since about 1750, from the standpoint of a sociologist who asks himself why the liberal tradition has not, on the whole, been as influential as the socialist one.

How does Marx fit into this theme? M. Aron in his lectures treats him as an honorary Frenchman …

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Marx’s Ghostwriter June 17, 1965