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Raymond Aron (1905–1983)

1.

Nobody dies a “happy death,” to use the title of Albert Camus’s early novel. But Raymond Aron’s death, on October 17, 1983, was both merciful and beautifully appropriate. He had suffered a heart attack in April 1977. For a few hours after it, he was unable to speak and for several hours he was partially paralyzed. He recovered, but he felt that he had lost a little of his legendary facility with words, and he feared that his “reprieve” might end in protracted illness and decline, as in the case of Sartre, his old petit camarade from the Ecole Normale. Instead, he died like another man who had played an enormous role in his life, de Gaulle: a second heart attack struck him down in an instant.

When he died, his memoirs,1 published a month earlier, had become the top best seller in France, and been greeted with a mixture of awe and enthusiasm to which he was assuredly not used. In old age the man who had so often felt either unappreciated or rejected in his own country had become the center of a sort of national consensus, like Voltaire. He enjoyed it, and had thrown himself into a strenuous round of interviews and radio and television programs—not so much in order to gloat as because he could never stop teaching.

He was still teaching when he collapsed. He had just finished testifying in favor of his friend Bertrand de Jouvenel, who had sued for libel the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell. Sternhell’s most recent book, about fascism in France between the two world wars,2 had annoyed Aron, not only because of what it said about Jouvenel’s writings and attitudes, but because he thought that the book was ahistorical, and offered a view of the pervasiveness of fascism in French thought that was tendentious and inaccurate. Aron, the Jewish antifascist who had seen Hitler’s rise to power during his years of study in Germany (1930-1933), and had been convinced that a war was inevitable, who had edited, from London during the war years, after the fall of France, a journal called La France libre, characteristically died while defending a man who had, for a while, been on the other side in the 1930s; and he died while criticizing an Israeli antifascist historian who had misinterpreted French history.

Throughout his life, Aron had shocked the French by taking unfashionable stands, by flouting the conventional distinction between left and right, not because he liked to be provocative (to be sure, he did not mind it), but because of his passion against myths and prejudices, his need for intellectual lucidity, and his attachment to liberal values.

2.

Aron’s greatest legacy, to his students and to his readers, may not have been any one of his forty books and innumerable articles. His greatest influence was teaching them how to think about history, politics, and society—or rather, how to think if one refused all “secular religions,” all philosophies of history that pretend to know the purpose and the march of mankind, that begin by rejecting the world as it is and aim at total revolution. He is right, in his memoirs, to stress the continuity of his works since his thesis, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, published in 1938. Some of his teachers were dismayed by what seemed to be a repudiation of conventional humanism, of faith in progress and in the triumph of reason. After his experience in Germany during the 1930s, and his reflections (and two books) on German sociologists and historians, he developed the idea of a “historical philosophy” that would be neither rationalist nor ideological nor positivist. It was a philosophy emphasizing tensions and disparities: between intentions and results; between absolute commitments and dubious courses of action; between comprehension (of motives and ideas) and explanation (of regularities); between prospective choices (made in uncertainty) and retrospective interpretations (which lean toward determinism); between the intelligibility of parts of history and the difficulty or impossibility of grasping the whole of it; between the diversity of culture, values, and interpretations and the “Idea of Reason”—the dream of a single universal destiny and destination, between politics as modest reformism and politics as salvation.
One of his professors asked him whether he was perverse or devoid of hope (satanique ou désespéré). He was actually laying the groundwork for a gigantic double task: a rigorous, almost clinical analysis of political and social realities that would reject determinism and focus on the logics of different kinds of social activities (such as industrial societies, or foreign policy) as well as on the interplay between these logics and historical accidents. At the same time he undertook a defense of liberal political and economic institutions, based on a commitment to freedom, tolerance, and moderation. Like Max Weber, his model among sociologists, he was obsessed by two issues: how much of history and of the social universe can we understand, and what are the relations between knowledge and action?

Has any thinker so convinced of the “prosaic” nature of social organization, so deeply aware of the limits of possible change in liberal societies, ever spent so much energy and analytic power in dissecting the institutions and processes of social order? Aron carried out his vast program on many fronts. One was the sociology of industrial society, of contemporary economic growth, and of the tensions between, on the one hand, the ways by which modern societies develop (hierarchy, group socialization and conformity, national rivalries) and, on the other, the aspiration to equality, individual self-fulfillment, and universality.

A second, related, front was the study of political regimes. Like Tocqueville, and Montesquieu before him, Aron believed in the autonomy and irreducible diversity of political institutions; like Tocqueville, he believed that a single type of social order—such as industrial society—would take completely different shapes, depending on the nature—pluralistic or totalitarian—of its political regime.

A third front was the continuous and relentless analysis, empirical as well as theoretical, of international relations, a field of inquiry that had remained, in France, the preserve of historians and law professors. World politics, for him, differed fundamentally from domestic politics, because of the states’ freedom to resort to force, i.e., the absence of a superior and enforceable law (a state of affairs that ruled out pacifism, except as an absolute, apolitical imperative).

In Peace and War (1962), he wrote the most comprehensive and convincing theory of interstate politics achieved until now, and while he reminded his readers of the amorality of politics, he did not neglect what might be called the Kantian dimension, the tension between the moral imperative of peace and the realities of the “state of war” among nations. Whether nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence would heal or, on the contrary, exacerbate that tension was one of his greatest concerns, not only in that book but in the second volume of his huge study on Clausewitz and modern war, Penser la guerre: Clausewitz (1976). How the dominant superpower had, since 1945, defined and managed its foreign policy, and what influence it exerted on the world economy, was the subject of his study of America in international affairs, The Imperial Republic (1972).

His fourth concern was the study of the ideas and commitments of important thinkers: Montesquieu, Comte, Tocqueville, Marx, Pareto, Weber, and Durkheim (whose “divination of society” he found repulsive). Main Currents of Sociological Thought (1960–1962) and the first volume of Clausewitz (a masterpiece of close textual analysis, interpretation, and erudition, written when Aron was seventy) are the best examples of his combination of empathy and critical penetration. He also devoted two books to contemporary thinkers, Althusser and Sartre, whose readings of Marxism he dissected and rejected. He did so in Althusser’s case because of the writer’s anti-empirical scholasticism, in Sartre’s case because Aron thought that the assertion of freedom through violence, of disalienation through revolution, was philosophically objectionable, politically dangerous, and closer to anarchism than to authentic Marxism. He had planned to write his own interpretation of Marx, but, after his illness of 1977, he gave it up.

What will be left of this huge mass of writings? Aron often expressed his own doubts. He always put “creators” above “critics”: Sartre, for all his political divagations, was a creator, Aron, for all his lucidity, was only a critic. His conception of man and of history made him impatient with what he called halftruths, prophecies based on a powerful but partial central intuition, such as Marx’s or Freud’s. But he admired most those who had changed man’s way of thinking in this fashion, and he knew that he was not one of them.

Other problems arise in his work: his tendency to see every side of every issue (which a critic once compared to Monet’s technique in painting waterlilies); his habit of ending long analyses with question marks; prose that could be both abstract and elliptical; a conviction that a writer on politics who is not a revolutionary should put himself in the position of the decision makers (a view that is certainly fair, yet leaves little room for other than incremental changes).

But what he teaches in his books is more important than their flaws. He shows how an intellectual can strive, if not for objectivity—which may be unattainable—at least for fairness: the difficult art of not letting one’s values prejudge one’s conclusions or dominate the process of analysis. He also taught the art of making rigorous distinctions, not only between concepts but also between realities (there are different kinds of violence in politics, different shades of gray, just as there are different logics interacting in a society and different purposes served by the political order). He showed that all good things do not cohere and that many good things such as political pluralism) have perverse effects (such as the unceasing battle of parties and pressure groups). Aron is the supreme destroyer, not of hopes, but of confusions and illusions.

3.

What was his role in France’s intellectual and political life during the past forty years? Aron’s mission, as he saw it, was not only to understand political and social reality, it was to “translate ideological poetry back into the prose of reality”: to disenchant (as Max Weber, whom he deeply admired, would have said) not only social action but above all ideology. In his youth, in the mid-1920s, Aron had been a socialist, but a dozen years later, at the time of the Popular Front, he criticized its economic policies, and began to develop the antithesis between liberal regimes and totalitarian ones—the Soviet Union as well as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

In postwar France, debunking ideology meant attacking Marxism, the communists, and their fellow travelers: in other words, taking on the left. After the Resistance, the Socialist party tried to revive its own Marxist rhetoric—partly because of its temporary antifascist alliance with the Communist party, partly in order better to compete with it. The ideologies of the far right—fascist or traditionalist—had been destroyed by collaborationism and by the fiasco of the Vichy regime. The prestige of the Soviet Union and of the French Communist party was enormous among the French intelligentsia, who were attracted both by the rationalist element in Marxism—the vision of progress and the explanation of history—and by its appeal to faith—the triumph of the oppressed.

  1. 1

    Mémoires, published by Julliard (Paris, 1983).

  2. 2

    Ni Droite ni Gauche (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1983).

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