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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, and this for two good reasons: first, Marx derived his socialist doctrines from France and constructed a political model on the analogy of the French Revolution. Secondly, the theory of industrial society is the common property of Comte and Marx, though Comte was not concerned with capitalism or the class struggle. Moreover, both men were indebted to Saint-Simon, the founder of French socialism, who was also the originator of the first, still somewhat hazy, notions about scientific industrialism as the wave of the future. It is true that Marx had a poor opinion of Comte, but we now know that some of Saint-Simon’s later writings had been drafted in part by Comte, who was then his secretary. It may therefore be argued that there is a filiation by way of Comte of which Marx was unaware. M. Aron does not go into this matter, which was discussed at length some years ago by Professor Hayek in his Counter-revolution in Science (The Free Press, 1955), and what is perhaps more regrettable, he says almost nothing about Saint-Simon. Personally I should have welcomed an introductory chapter on Saint-Simon instead of M. Aron’s account of Montesquieu’s political doctrines, which had very little to do with sociology and even less with industrial society. But M. Aron’s real concern is with the theory of liberal democracy, and for this purpose Saint-Simon clearly is not very relevant, since he was neither a liberal nor a democrat. All the same, it is a pity he has not followed Professor Hayek’s example and discussed the relationship between the Saint-Simonian school and the Ecole Polytechnique, where since Napoleon’s days a large part of the French intellectual elite has undergone its training. Most of the early Saint-Simonians were Polytechniciens, and they developed a “technocratic” doctrine of socialism long before people had heard of the managerial revolution. Now that Europe has almost completed the journey from utopia to technocracy, this theme would have been worth analyzing in some detail.

What M. Aron has done instead—and done it very well, needless to say—is an essay in what he himself calls “historical sociology.” This is neither straight intellectual history nor ordinary sociology, but something in between. It enables him to discuss both the history of France during the past two centuries, and the rise of industrial society. Put schematically, one can say that he gives the reader a critical interpretation of both the bourgeois revolution and the industrial revolution. In this fashion he reminds his fellow-countrymen that the historical ground on which they stand is not uniquely defined in terms of the capitalist-communist antagonism, let alone the East-West conflict. France experienced these stresses before the remainder of the world did: notably in 1848, when the Republic was proclaimed, and a civil war between bourgeoisie and proletariat fought in the streets in Paris, while the rest of Europe stood appalled. Since this upheaval involved both Marx (who had just written the Manifesto) and Tocqueville (who in January 1848 predicted the coming revolution from the rostrum of the French Parliament), M. Aron is able to pull the strands of his argument together in his final chapter. There he contrasts Marx not with Comte, but with Tocqueville, and goes into some detail about the industrial revolution and its impact on the nascent bourgeois democracy. This permits him to generalize from his material, but the discussion never strays far beyond the national frontiers. The sociology of history turns out to have been a predominantly French affair.

Is this an acceptable procedure? I think it is, on the understanding that M. Aron is dealing with what is really the sociology of a particular kind of revolution. There was no corresponding phenomenon in contemporary England—there the industrial revolution, curiously enough, was not accompanied by a bourgeois one—and the British thus missed the formative experience of an armed conflict between the classes. This had important consequences for subsequent British history. It explains why British socialism remained reformist, and the labor movement respectably liberal-radical. It also accounts for the prevailing mood among British historians. Since they lived in a stable environment—and moreover in a country which dominated the world—they were able to go on treating history as the record of more or less successful political manipulations (“muddling through”). The assumption was that every sound political organism had a capacity for adapting peacefully to social change. Departures from this model counted as evidence of abnormality or unsoundness. This is still the prevailing mode of reasoning among British historians, and it explains in part why the British have not been very good at understanding other people’s revolutions.

The absence of such a stable consensus in France was much deplored in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by Frenchmen of the liberal school: the school founded by Montesquieu and continued by Tocqueville. It is also deplored by M. Aron, but he does not allow his liberalism to get in the way of his perception. France, he tells the reader, has but rarely approximated to the liberal model, but this regrettable circumstance must not blind one to the importance of the Revolution and its enduring consequences. Still, no reader of this work can fail to see where the author’s sympathies lie. M. Aron is aware that, so far as the understanding of industrial society was concerned, the theoretical breakthrough was made by the socialists and by the followers of Comte, but his heart is with Montesquieu and Tocqueville. He even tries—rather unsuccessfully, in the reviewer’s opinion—to establish Montesquieu as an important forerunner of modern sociology. This is the least plausible part of his work. He has an easier time with Montesquieu’s rather Whiggish writings on constitutional history, which may be said to have pioneered the pro-English school among educated Frenchmen. Liberalism in France has indeed suffered from the taint of Anglophilia. The constitutional Royalists of 1789 were fervent Anglophiles, and this duly counted against them. It was only after the fall of Napoleon that they were able to make themselves heard, but then this kind of liberalism is a post-revolutionary phenomenon. It is odd that M. Aron does not recognize this. It is even odder that he fails to stress the connection between Montesquieu’s writings and the late eighteenth-century aristocratic resurgence, which preceded the Revolution and in a sense made it inevitable. There is a kind of amiable perversity about this. Unquestionably both Montesquieu and M. Aron would have been guillotined under Robespierre, but this must not be allowed to count in their favor. People may be guillotined for all sorts of reasons, good, bad or indifferent. In the case of Montesquieu, and of M. Aron, I can think of sound reasons why in 1793 it would have been expedient to do away with them, or at least to make them emigrate. To be fair, M. Aron recognizes this himself and indeed says so with the greatest of candor.

A different, though related, problem arises in connection with M. Aron’s treatment of Tocqueville: not the Tocqueville whom Americans know and admire, but the pessimistic conservative who watched the fall of Louis Philippe in 1848 and in the following year served for some months as Louis Bonaparte’s Foreign Minister. The upheaval had thrown a heavy strain on his aristocratic liberalism. In particular he was appalled by the sanguinary “June days” of 1848, when the Paris proletariat was butchered by the Army, commanded by a Republican government which was distinctly too radical for Tocqueville, though it did its level best to protect property and reassure the middle class. Tocqueville, as was to be expected, sided firmly with the party of “Order.” In his Recollections, written many years later and not published in his lifetime, he still cast the blame for what had happened on the Socialists, who in his opinion had terrified the bourgeoisie (in point of fact their leaders had made themselves ridiculous by joining a bourgeois government they were powerless to control). Tocqueville drew no distinction between genuine revolutionaries like Blanqui and moderates like Louis Blanc. He noted that the industrial revolution had created a proletariat and that the masses had been permeated by “economic and political theories which were beginning to make their way and which strove to prove that human misery was the work of laws and not of Providence, and that poverty could be suppressed by changing the conditions of society.”

This is a side of Tocqueville about which most liberals tend to be silent, but M. Aron is too candid to suppress the evidence. He interpolates an embarrassed comment on “the deeply conservative liberal who thinks that social inequalities are part of the eternal order of providence.” and then goes on to suggest that Tocqueville and Marx took pretty much the same view of the causes underlying the civil war of 1848: they just happened to be on different sides of the barricade. Tocqueville, he says, “belonged to the bourgeois party of order and during the June days was prepared to fight against the insurgent workers.” Later he sided with the more conservative Republicans who opposed Louis Bonaparte. “He was defeated, but he was not surprised at his defeat, for from the first day of the Revolution of 1848 he believed that free institutions were temporarily doomed.” “…He fought against the solution that seemed to him at once most probable and least desirable—which is characteristic of a sociologist of the school of Montesquieu.” It is also characteristic of M. Aron. Of course there is this difference: in contemporary France the proletariat is no longer a menace to the established order. On the contrary, it is the foundation of the new industrial society. Social conflicts now relate to wages, and are on the whole conducted peacefully. In short, the class struggle is over. What nowadays passes for “class conflict” would not have terrified Tocqueville, and it does not terrify M. Aron. His liberalism is thoroughly democratic and leaves room for a modest degree of socialist planning. His favorite statesman is M. Mendès-France. I mention all this so as not to give the impression that M. Aron is in any way to be identified with the bloodymindedness of his hero. He admires Tocqueville, but has no illusions about him.

This attitude is to be recommended. In particular it is worth recommending to the countless American and British writers who in recent years have popularized Tocqueville while staying silent on his involvement in the conflicts which tore French society apart. One understands him a great deal better if one knows that in 1848-9 he belonged to the “party of Order,” and that this party believed liberty to be incompatible with democracy (not to mention socialism). Most liberals in Britain held the same view, but they were spared the ordeal of their French colleagues, and so were able to preserve a good conscience. The British counterpart of the “June days” was the waterlogged fiasco on Kennington Common in April 1848, when the Chartists presented a petition to Parliament and then trudged home in the rain without so much as firing a shot. But then Britain was already an industrial country, and the industrial working class is not given to violence. It prefers strikes to barricades. By now this is generally recognized, even by Communists (except in Peking and Havana), and talk of “red revolution” no longer frightens anyone.

The implications of this change are worked out in the sociological part of M. Aron’s analysis, notably in his analysis of Comte’s theory of society and Marx’s doctrine of economics. On these subjects he is, as might be expected, both knowledgeable and fairminded, though not very original. His discussion of Marx is conventional, though competently done. He has a rather summary chapter on the Hegelian heritage, and a few passages on the currently fashionable topic of Marx’s early writings. Possibly by way of a reaction to the Marx-baiting industry of the 1950s, there has in recent years been a tendency to treat these writings as central to the understanding of Marxism as a philosophy. At the other extreme there are those who deny that concepts such as “alienation” have any relevance to Marx’s work as an economist. M. Aron steers a sensible middle course and in the end leaves undecided the question whether Capital could have been written by anyone who did not hold the particular philosophical beliefs to which Marx had committed himself before he became an economist. The nearest he comes to a conclusion is to say that Marx’s critique of capitalism “was at the same time a philosophical and moral critique of the situation imposed on man by capitalism.” This leaves unexplored the link between Marx’s philosophy and his economics. The link was in fact sociological: it rested on the idea that bourgeois society is just that particular kind of society in which individuals are dependent on an economic process which has got away from them and taken on the fantastic appearance of a self-sufficient realm of “economic laws.” As long as people consider themselves subject to “laws” which are really objectifications of their own uncomprehended activities, they are “alienated.” It follows that “alienation” still persists even under so-called socialism where commodities are exchanged, or salaries paid, in accordance with the “law of value.”

This doctrine is subversive of Soviet “socialism,” and the Communists have done their best to obscure it, but it has recently begun to emerge in the shape of “revisionist” literature and deserves every encouragement. Unfortunately it is also subversive of capitalism. That may be the reason why Western academics are almost as nervous about it as their Eastern counterparts, though unlike the latter they cannot suppress it, and indeed have no such intention. After all, most academics in their private capacity feel pretty alienated themselves, and thus tend to sympathize with this part of Marx’s doctrine, even if they do not accept his economics. We may be getting closer to utopia, or at least to the Great Society, but there is no sign as yet that people have stopped worrying about the meaning of life, and perhaps this is just as well. After all, it is just conceivable that there really is something to worry about.


Marx’s Ghostwriter June 17, 1965

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