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Raymond Aron (1905–1983)


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.


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.


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.

Aron, who had been separated from the French intelligentsia during the war years in London, attacked the concepts that were in vogue—the unity of the left, the proletarian revolution—and showed the contrast between the heroic myths and the dismal reality of the Soviet Union. In his most famous assault, The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), he denounced, in effect, the entire French intellectual tradition, in which he found writers again and again committing themselves to causes without any serious analysis of reality or regard for consequences; and for this he was of course excommunicated by much of the intelligentsia.

In its eyes, if not in Aron’s, he had become a thinker of “the right.” Indeed, his fear of communism and of Soviet expansion had made this non-joiner join de Gaulle’s Rally of the French People (RPF) in 1947. For thirty years (1947-1977), he chose to write for the conservative and conformist Figaro, not the far more unorthodox Monde. But his relation with the right was never comfortable. While a member of the RPF, Aron criticized de Gaulle’s German (or anti-German) policies, which he deemed punitive and unrealistic. Later, he scandalized the French political establishment and most of his colleagues at Le Figaro by condemning as hopeless the French attempt to crush the Algerian rebellion, and explaining that Algeria’s independence was inevitable. Now came the turn of the right to bring forward the charges earlier made by the left, about Aron’s “icy analyses” that ignored the importance of feelings such as emotional solidarity, either with exploited workers or with French settlers in North Africa. He always replied that he preferred cool clarity to warm confusion.

His relation to the world of politics was never easy. In foreign affairs, he was an Atlanticist, convinced that only the United States could protect Western Europe from Soviet blackmail; he worried more over American weakness than over American imperialism. This was enough, of course, to make the foreign policy of General de Gaulle, especially after 1962, unpalatable to him, and to irritate the general. In domestic affairs, while he lamented the weakness of the Fourth Republic’s institutions, he disliked the plebiscitarian aspects of the Fifth—he had already criticized Gaullism during his London days. Both his Atlanticism and his distrust of political charisma had earlier made him very skeptical toward Pierre Mendès-France, when the latter, in 1954, briefly galvanized all those, especially among the young, who had begun to despair of French democracy.

Aron’s relation to Israel was equally complex. A wholly assimilated and unreligious Jew, he had shown no particular enthusiasm for Israel before the crisis that preceded the Six Day War in 1967; later, he was highly critical of Begin. He thought that French Jews had the right to express sympathy for Israel but also the obligation to remain loyal French citizens: there could be no double allegiance. He was thus out of sympathy with the recent tendencies of the French Jewish community, whose militancy results from the new predominance in France of Jews of North African origin, as well as with attempts (by Bernard-Henri Lévy and others) to prove that anti-Semitism had been a major theme in French thought. On the other hand, he became extremely anxious about Israel’s survival on the eve of the Six Day War, and in a small book acidly criticized de Gaulle’s famous reference to the Jews as peuple d’élite, sûr de lui-même et dominateur. Aron did not believe that there is a single Jewish people.

Critical of the stodginess of French higher education, he was nevertheless horrified by the ideological delirium of May 1968; his caustic analysis of this “psychodrama,” in The Elusive Revolution (1968), exposed him once more to charges of insensitivity to strongly felt claims. And yet this episode somehow marked the beginning of his reign as France’s most respected intellectual. Until then, he had had a handful of influential disciples, men and women who, like Aron, wanted neither Marxism nor authoritarianism, felt ill at ease with the artificiality of the cleavage between left and right (in a country with several lefts and rights), and wanted pragmatic reform, modest social engineering. After 1968 these Tocquevilleans were joined by disillusioned ex-Marxists: former communists, Maoists, Trotskyites, or gauchistes, who were now repudiating not only the party but Marxism altogether.

After 1975, partly because of the enormous impact of Solzhenitsyn’s testimony on the Soviet gulags, the French higher intelligentsia, in a sea change, abandoned Marxism entirely and discovered the evils of the Soviet Union. Inevitably, Aron now appeared as a prophet, as the man who had been right whereas Sartre had been wrong. In The Opium of the Intellectuals, Aron, prematurely, had announced the “end of ideology,” or rather of ideological systems, of secular religions. When the end finally became apparent, he was its beneficiary (although he had the wisdom, in his memoirs, to recognize that political preferences such as his own, based on a combination of liberal values and comparative analyses, can be called ideological).

Following the victory of the left and the election of Mitterrand in May 1981, Aron, whose relations with Giscard d’Estaing had been difficult—he had supported his domestic policy but disliked his Ostpolitik—resumed, with some glee, his preferred role as critic in l’Express. This did not affect his prestige—on the contrary, it soared after the publication of his extensive and far-ranging interviews with two former leftists, Le Spectateur engagé (1981). This shows the divorce between the leaders of the Paris intelligentsia, who had moved to the right, and the “lower intelligentsia” of teachers and junior faculties, which supports the left. The political consensus around a tough anti-Soviet foreign policy and a strategic rapprochement with Washington in East-West affairs, which extends from the socialists to the Gaullists, also strengthened Aron’s authority.


At the end of his life, Aron wrote his memoirs partly because he felt he did not have enough energy left to write the epistemological and sociological works he had still hoped to complete, partly in order to review his own accomplishments. Indeed, these 751 pages make up the longest review article ever written (especially by the author under review). Aron sums up most of his books and many of his essays, and tells us what he now thinks of them (he often congratulates himself, but also points out mistaken judgments and analytical flaws). Moreover, he reviews his reviewers, and quotes them at great (indeed, I fear, excessive) length, distributing blame or praise for their own criticisms or compliments. It is not a book of personal revelations—Aron’s reserve was formidable—or a book of portraits. Aron has known many famous people—Sartre, Malraux, de Gaulle, Kissinger—but he is not interested in describing their characters. And yet, the Mémoires provides us with many clues to his own personality.

Erik Erikson’s insight into fathers and sons once again seems confirmed in this book: Aron sees himself inspired, driven, by a need to fulfill his father’s failed aspirations. His father had been a brilliant student, and became a professor of law but only in French commercial schools—a failure in the French academic system. “Already during my childhood, I felt guilty.” His father lost his money in the Depression, his two older brothers also failed; his mother lived only for her husband and children. Many of his own commitments and decisions seem to have been dictated by his regrets about earlier failures to take a clear or perceptive position: he joined the RPF in part because he had remained aloof from de Gaulle in London; he took sides on Algeria after having been cautious over Indochina; his emotional outburst in defense of Israel early in June 1967 followed years of relative indifference; his cautious behavior during complex crises at Le Figaro in the mid-1970s and l’Express in 1981 resulted from his conviction that he had been wrong in an earlier Figaro crisis during the late 1960s, etc….

The New Right of the late 1970s he disliked for its anti-Americanism and for its doctrinaire misuse of biology in its fight against egalitarianism. But he had a tendency to lean over backward in order to be fair to colleagues or causes on the conservative right. In his memoirs, this anti-appeaser is rather “soft” on Munich; the antifascist who reached London a few days after de Gaulle defends Pétain’s armistice. He also tends to be fierce toward the errors of the left (as in 1968). Was this evidence of his own shift to the right, or of his exasperation with those whose hopes and values he had originally shared, and whom he wanted to rescue from their blunders?

Lucid about ideas and actions, he was lucid also about himself. Aware of his superiority in his own huge domain, he also knew his limits. He decided early—in Germany during the 1930s—not to become a philosopher (he thought that Sartre, and two of his other friends, Alexandre Kojève and Eric Weil, were more talented in that respect), but to study the nature and conditions of historical and political knowledge. What would, without the war, have been a brilliant but straightforward academic career was soon disrupted by events. Editing the Free French paper in London, he discovered his talent for journalism, and, after the Liberation, he preferred a journalistic career in Paris to an academic one in the provinces. When, in 1948, he tried to get elected to the Sorbonne, he failed and had to wait until 1955. But, as he puts it, he never again succeeded in “detaching himself from events”; at the end of his life, he accused himself of not having kept “enough distance from reality.”

And yet he did not want to carry his fascination with political reality all the way into political action. This intellectual had no patience either with the oversimplifications of politicians or with the deliberately confusing ambiguities of the kind used by de Gaulle or Kissinger in order to preserve their freedom of maneuver. Aron’s passion for analytic complexity and for conceptual clarity held him back. Nor did he have, he tells us, the stomach for bureaucratic in-fighting, personal manipulation, and decisions to use force. He admired Kissinger (although he criticized much of his diplomacy), and was both amused and pleased by the often barbed letters his books provoked from General de Gaulle. But he had the temper of an analyst and observer; not, however, of a skeptic.

His more ideological adversaries always accused him of skepticism and coldness. Both charges are false. To be sure, he believed in the ethics of consequences; but they were rooted in convictions. He knew what his values were, and defended them fiercely, albeit without illusions either about final victory or about the deficiencies of liberalism (especially the risks that liberal policies will lack coherence and that the political community that supports them will wither away). He worried about the world economic crisis, about the Soviet arms buildup, about America’s oscillations. He wondered whether Europe’s decline amounted to abdication and decadence. But he believed that liberal societies have a great capacity to recover.

Aron’s vision of mankind was tragic: violence is the midwife of societies and states; the avoidance of nuclear war is no more than a wager. But the Kantian in him never gave up the hope of Reason prevailing en dépit de tout. As for coldness, this formidable polemicist was a passionate man, but one who had decided to dominate his emotions, and not to let them blind his vision or skew his analyses.

Like many great men, he both wanted to be left in peace to do his work, and needed affection and sympathy. (He makes moving and accurate remarks in his memoirs about the unresponsiveness of French students, compared to American ones.) The scope of his intelligence, the astonishing speed of his mind, his incomparable articulateness awed, inspired, and depressed his students and disciples. Many of them—including myself—have reached, on many occasions, conclusions different from his own (I was a Mendèsiste, later a Gaullist, and my views of nuclear strategy and of American diplomacy are not at all those Aron held in his last years). He resented this, and yet remained loyal and warm, behind his familiar manner combining irony and indignation.

Indeed, one of his great gifts as a teacher was to provide one both with the intellectual capacities with which one could then establish one’s independence, and with the arguments one needed to preserve and promote the values one shared with him. Those of us who, today, are his intellectual orphans, will always hear his slightly nasal, sardonic, incisive, elegant voice, with its passionate desire to persuade and its argumentative enthusiasm. And we shall never write anything without wondering what deep flaws, hidden contradictions, ghastly omissions, and elementary confusions our relentless mentor would have immediately discovered. To me, he was the salt of the earth.

  1. 1

    Mémoires, published by Julliard (Paris, 1983).

  2. 2

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

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