Savvy Savant

La révolution introuvable: Reflexions sur la revolution de mai en toute liberté

by Raymond Aron
Fayard, 187 pp., 15 F

What makes Raymond Aron such a distinguished figure? Certainly not just the quantity of his writing, which has piled up in French and English, a ville radieuse of reason and common sense. It has long been hinted that Aron is perhaps the only political scientist in France whose work De Gaulle reads attentively—in spite of the fact that Aron’s political writings have been more and more specifically critical of Gaullism, which he recently characterized as personal, authoritarian, an extreme version of traditional French bureaucratic government, whose rigidity was compounded by the General’s unique style. On the more academic side, too, Aron’s reputation as a social analyst of wisdom, a doughty champion of common sense, stands high not only in France but in America, Germany, and Britain. Among contemporary social scientists he is obviously an important figure. Why?

French intellectuals are usually extremists, most often on the Left, occasionally (or cyclically, one should say) on the Right. Aron’s origins are impeccably left-wing; his name appears among the co-founders of Les Temps Modernes along with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Yet his substantial reputation has been made as the philosopher and strategist of liberal pragmatism, a position which has led him for more than ten years into sharp and continual polemics with his former friends on the Left. The change took place during the late Forties and early Fifties, the years when, as Simone de Beauvoir has eloquently said, the immediate postwar hopes of change and new political perspectives were once more eroded by the same old normality of party politics. The Left went back to its prewar boundary disputes with a vengeance: was the Soviet Union the embodiment of Marxism, should one publicly condemn Soviet concentration camps—in short, how could the ardently desired public gauchisme of the time be reconciled with support for the moral enormities of Stalin’s bureaucratic regime? Aron’s break with the Left began as a break with intellectual dishonesty and finished with a highly personal condemnation of an entire epistemology, Stalinist, gauchiste, or whatever. The Opium of the Intellectuals, originally published in 1954, was a wholesale condemnation of what Aron now characterized as dishonesty masking pure evil.

The result was a long period of unhappy isolation and abuse for Raymond Aron. In a country of rigid ideological groupings the intellectual in transit from one ideology to another is a lone and unpopular wolf. So he might have remained, a marginal if voluminous commentator on the social and political scene and an academic historian of sociological thought, if, as Aron himself claims, Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech had not brought history into line with Aron’s own polemics against the Communists in France, and secondly, if the paralyzed and makeshift centrism of the Fourth Republic, frozen between the irreconcilable extremes of Left and Right, had not come to a sudden end in 1958.

The new political climate of the Fifth Republic was, initially at any rate, more open and experimental; social progress, which …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.