Raymond Aron
Raymond Aron; drawing by David Levine

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,1 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 hitherto had lived an active though blushingly underground life, now rose to the surface of official thinking. Most important, the stuff of intellectual debate ceased to range over the sterile republican battles of Left versus Right and moved determinedly into the here-and-now of technology, the new Europe, the Third World. Aron became the sociological prophet of this new spirit—a spirit of sober evaluation, of rationality, of qualified optimism and anti-utopia, of getting on with the job. At the same time he introduced a strong and, for the French, new spirit of awareness of other countries, both as important contributors to the new culture of the industrial world and, more specifically, as possessing valuable intellectual traditions of their own of which one ought at least to be aware. He brought the German sociological tradition to the notice of the parochial experiments of a purely French tradition; above all he drummed home the existence and importance of the United States as a fact as well as a sociological concept.

Being a man of ideas rather than of action, coming moreover from a cultural tradition which takes ideological debate to be the very stuff of intellectual life, Aron has undertaken primarily to demolish the utopias of the old Left rather than to articulate a new pragmatism. While American sociologists labored mightily to give form and content to the new technological-industrial society—their society—Aron takes that society largely for granted as a self-evident fact. His polemics are hurled at those who would denigrate it, deny its existence, assert its transience. Not, to be sure, on grounds of preference, but on grounds of fact, of science. To deny it is to deny reality; to demolish the false is necessarily to make room for the real. This is the stick with which he retaliates against his detractors on the Left in a debate that has not ceased for fifteen years.


Since 1956 Marxism has had a truly remarkable renaissance in France, reviving, or perhaps disintegrating in, a series of explosive episodes, but this has passed Aron by. He still battles relentlessly against old phantoms and continues indiscriminately to call all his left-wing critics “Marxist-Leninist,” at least until the new student revolutionaries enlarged the terminology to gauchistes in general. Since French intellectuals and academicians are probably among Europe’s most strongly institutionalized and entrenched Left, Aron has no difficulty in finding and creating opponents. Opponents in fact are for him something of an essential symbol, like Sorel’s myth of the general strike; constant emphasis on this clarifies and legitimates his own position. Without them, as we shall see, he would be much harder put to clarify, not only what he is against, but what he is for. For Aron truth tends obsessively to consist of negations.

Amid the traditional discord of French intellectual debate there has been, since Saint-Simon, a narrow but clear stream of innate, rational, and self-fulfilling optimism about the future as a better extension of the present, a tradition often characterized as specifically sociological. It included men with very different minds, some fastidiously analytical toward the implications of what they saw around them, like Tocqueville, others, like Comte, quasi-prophets of a rational universe. It is a conservative tradition in so far as it sees order emerging from disorder, the collective society as defining and fulfilling the individual—in fact this sociology has some of the qualities of a secular religion with a strong element of belief.

Together with Emil Durkheim, August Comte is probably the immediate ancestor of this sociological tradition, and it is therefore a curious paradox that the Comtean savant—the intellectual of rational society—should still be so rare a phenomenon in France. The extremism of French intellectuals has played its part in inhibiting the emergence of “policy scientists” and indeed of “policy sciences”; in that sense the United States, whose metaphysic, according to Lionel Trilling, is always material and practical, has much more closely fulfilled the nineteenth-century Comtean vision of the future. Comte saw the inevitable growth of rational societies in which the logic of sciences and technology would find a parallel expression in social science; the savant would explain as well as guide those developments by seeing them whole, understanding and interpreting them, but not questioning their inevitability any longer. He would be critical in detail, but would not attempt to set up some utopian counter-ideal or vision against an historical necessity which it was his duty to interpret, and hence to facilitate in practice. In short, the savant would be the intellectual midwife of modernity, instead of its traditional critic.

This is Aron’s desired position exactly. He is not only a very self-conscious savant, but an interpreter of other countries’ modernity for his own somewhat self-regarding and intellectually isolationist culture. His range is not only across countries and continents but also spans many facets of his subject—which is the whole of contemporary social life of at least the industrial world. A savant clearly must grasp modernity whole. The Industrial Society,2 together with the earlier Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society,3 represents Aron’s fundamental analysis within which all discussion of the contemporary world must be embedded, while Peace and War4 is his catalogue raisonné of international relations. We are told that a comparative analysis of systems of social stratification, and a comparative analysis of political regimes are to follow soon. For breadth of vision and erudition, particularly for the strength of the determination to understand and explain just about everything, we have to turn to a Toynbee, a Marx, or a Sorokin for comparison. Well, what does the comparison with these synoptic visionaries show?

For one thing, the enormous self-imposed scope divides, in Aron’s case, into three distinct styles, each with its own method. There is, first, the philosopher, as there is in Marx and in many other interpreters of universals. Now Aron neither is nor claims to be in any sense an original philosopher, but a critical one. His task is to strip the ideas of others to essentials, and then to match each of these against the demands of internal consistency; then against the ideas of others; finally (and most important for a would-be Comtean savant) against reality. The notion of an existing, insuperable reality which is not merely the product of perception is fundamental to Comte as well as to Aron. So long as we are in the realm of ideas tout court Aron is a past master at this form of analysis, and his two big volumes of expository lectures published under the title Main Currents in Sociological Thought,5 as well as his earlier German Sociology,6 are masterly intellectual simplifications, clarifications, and demonstrations of consistency.


There is, secondly, the political analyst, whose task it is to transpose the critique of ideas of the philosopher to the events of the day. This function is often carried out by journalists, but traditionally in France distinguished academics sometimes have access to the daily newspapers in the form of regular columns—a very different conception from that of access to issues in America, where intellectuals and academics are not given newspaper space but are mobilized as required in support of, or against, given issues. Much of Aron’s writing has been of this genre, most recently De Gaulle, Israël et les Juifs7 (1967) and now La révolution introuvable: Reflexions sur la revolution de Mai en toute liberté (1968). Again, Aron does this superbly well. He is shrewd, incisive, has an immediate sense of the crucial, and can cut through both official and revolutionary rhetoric. Moreover, a political near-upheaval emanating from the academy, especially his own institution of the Sorbonne, touches him closely. He may be skeptical, sometimes even cynical, but in this matter he is not cold. Above all, it is in this sector of his work that his own positive ideas emerge most clearly.

Aron is a liberal—toughminded, American style. He regards liberal capitalism with many intermediary organizations between State and individual as the best way of insuring participation and freedom, reform of institutions on a continuing, piecemeal basis as the most hopeful strategy, and acceptance and use of modern science and technology as rational, hence advantageous. He is against utopias, which means that he accepts many problems (such as race conflict, international tension, and collective delusions of social revolution) to be at present insoluble. As a critical philosopher, he can live with contradiction and tension and regards these as a normal part of life.

All this comes out very clearly in his most recent book on the “absurd” revolution of May, a psychodrame, as he calls it. He regards the student revolutionaries as nihilists, imprisoned in a French tradition of barricades and intellectual utopianism which, in this case, is purely destructive. (No need to elaborate, we know all about the “lack-of-positive-ideas” argument used against radical groups in the US.) But Aron isn’t really interested in the students, just as, say, Nathan Glazer isn’t really interested in the New Left. (The students’ tendency to hold talking marathons strikes both of them as merely a psychiatric flight from loneliness.) They are interested in the situation, in society, in its responses and its faults.

There are, in Aron’s book, superb and eloquent passages of analysis of Gaullism, of French university structure, of French political tradition. For instance, Trade Unions: “the basic conservative force in developed industrial societies,” with the special French factor of having in normal times organized effectively only about one fifth of the working population. This results in the fear of being outflanked; “perhaps the most important section of the Unions linked to the Communist Party is no longer revolutionary, but they can never admit it. They shout, even and especially when they will not act.” Then “there remains the vulnerability of French society due to the weakness of its intermediate structures, one of which is the non-unionization of the great mass of workers which leaves the field clear to minorities in moments of crisis.” And the same is true of universities “where the individual professors confront a mass of individual students. Instead of ministerial crises, moreover, the French traditionally “make and unmake governments by riots in the street.” Perhaps, Aron says, the staid political mechanisms of Fourth Republic ministerialism may yet come to be regretted by comparison with the arbitrary presidential actions of the Fifth, to which revolt appeared to many to be the only response.

As a political commentator, Aron defends a point of view. Though he prefers demolishing opponents to putting forward alternatives (even in the most concrete discussion of the May events, old and not always very interesting polemics with “enemies” like Edgar Morin, are often referred to, as if they were a constituent part of French intellectual history: Aron is clearly very touchy), there are tentative suggestions for improvement. But here is the first snag: Aron is not content with being just Aron, a highly intelligent and learned commentator. He has to be a scientist: “Why one more book…on events too close to enable our interpretation to attain the serenity of science?” He also regards himself as a prophet of the future: “I am not speaking to the young who, most of them, are not yet ready to listen to what I have to say. If once more I am doing battle with the Left intelligentsia, it is because I want to make my case less against men but rather for ideas.” We are thus to take all this as science, not merely as personal opinion, however intelligent. A loose way of using heavy words, an amiable but irrelevant conceit? Unfortunately no, because Aron, as the representative of the scientific society, as a Comtean savant, regards these obiter dicta as the product of scientific reflection as well as of his “scientific” sociology!

It is in fact this claim that constitutes the third and most important of Aron’s styles. From this grounding of scientific truth the aperçus of political events originate, and by it they are legitimized. Some of his work in the scientific genre consists of general discussion of the contemporary world, often in lecture form, like The Industrial Society and Eighteen Lectures on Industrial Society. Into this category also fall the big compendia, like Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, and presumably the promised volumes on stratification and comparative political regimes. All these books are a sustained attempt at systematic explanation of contemporary reality, which is the terminus ad quem of inquiry; what is, is, and can neither be transformed into timeless categories of analysis nor broken through with any vision of the future. Industrial society is science incarnate (or, better, science socialized). Aron talks again and again of demystification and desacralization, by which he means dissolving false or ideological constructs about the world and letting reality emerge as it really is.

Now this is an odd position for a philosopher, though it would not be for a journalist for whom a fact is a fact. Why should Aron’s liberal-scientific reality be more universally “true” than, say, Marcuse’s opposing vision of oppressed consciousness or Mao’s notions of manipulated cultural transformation? Why should this reality impinge as clearly on the black ghetto-dweller or the Ghaza Arab refugee as it does on Raymond Aron? But more important still, how can such a reality be made convincing (apart from those who accept it at once)? By detailed, patient exploration of evidence in support of an original philosophical vision like that of Marx? By a theoretical drive which reformulates existing categories in totally new terms to explain basic processes, like Newton or Einstein or Lévi-Strauss? On a humbler level, by simply testing out propositions with data? None of these methods applies in Aron’s case. For him, it is simply because he believes it to be so. It is, in other words, an ideology—an appealing, often persuasively argued, much qualified, and even benevolent one, but still an ideology. The transformation of a system of belief into a science requires standards of theorizing and demonstration which are beyond Aron’s power. And a system of belief that is asserted as a science manqué is an ideology.

Aron’s theoretical method demonstrates only too clearly the gap between the claims he makes for his ideas and their manifest status. All his work on scientific sociology suffers from the absence of any method commensurate to the huge task the author has set himself. It consists of no more than a mixture of the methods which have served Aron so well in the first two areas of his intellectual enterprise, but which cannot carry these efforts forward into the realm of a unified field theory of social life. For the “philosophical understanding” and “serene science” which are Aron’s means of confronting his “ideological” opponents consist of an uneasy blend of European critical philosophy and a largely empirical pragmatism which deals in supposedly hard facts—a series of aides-mémoires of the obvious, as it were.

The tradition of critical philosophy has engendered (it is strongly marked throughout Aron’s work) a tendency to approach reality in the first instance via people’s ideas about it. Thus we are not told that the sky is blue, but that Mr. X thinks that the sky is blue; the question is, is he right or wrong? This may be a perfectly suitable way of writing the history of ideas but leads to a curious sense of distortion and unreality when dealing with the intractable facts of modern societies and their behavior. With problem after problem Aron stakes out an area of inquiry by citing two opposing extreme views, criticizing them at length for their extremism, and then taking an eminently reasonable position somewhere in between. For instance, on the crucial question of Western nuclear strategy in Peace and War, Aron cites Bertrand Russell as an advocate of capitulation, Messrs. Strauss-Hupé, Kintner, and Possony of the Foreign Policy Research Institute of Philadelphia as advocates of a Catonist strategy of getting in the first blow. Both are duly dismissed from the stage of the practicable, and Aron takes a position in the middle—thereby being reasonable among a pack of wolves. Can the argument that neither capitulation nor preventive war is desirable not to be made much more humbly, without either Russell or the exotic trio from Philadelphia? Besides, isn’t the in-between position in this case really rather, obvious?

This layer of philosophical discourse is fastened to a base of surprisingly crude empiricism. Frequently Aron adopts the tone of highflown newspaper editorials of the Sunday Supplement variety: “The West will never really enjoy security until the day the Soviet bloc no longer seeks the destruction of those regimes it calls capitalist, that is, the destruction of the West itself.” There is little need to take specific factual issue with a writer who has not apparently heard of the doctrine of peaceful co-existence. In the light of current events in Southeast Asia we can pass with a shudder over the assertion that the West prefers peaceful solutions and recognizes the primacy of peace. The point is that this sort of statement is put forward as fact, not opinion; a fact so well known and obvious as merely to require mention. The philosophical claims and polemics simply do not fit the banality of the factual interpretation. There is a gap between the data and the interpretation.

Perhaps this is the inevitable penalty of pragmatic philosophy whose starting point is the unhesitating acceptance of modern industrial society, which makes what is into an ethic of what has to be. It can be argued that it is most emphatically not the task of sociologists to be pragmatic except in dealing with individual and limited problems. Pragmatism means that answers should be closely related to problems: “what’s the problem, what’s the best way to solve it?” Pragmatism can of course be justified philosophically: utilitarianism and logical positivism are both attempts to justify it. But a sociology inspired by pragmatic, or constructive, philosophy as a positive tool? As a “system” pragmatism is simply a string of unrelated interpretations of particularities—a contradiction in terms. When in addition these particulars are as ideologically weighted as Aron’s, then the pragmatic approach to the world as a whole degenerates into a string of individual aperçus. We note with interest that Aron believes in science and social rationality, prefers the West to the East, dislikes ideology and stresses the need to live with intellectual and political diversity. This tells us a good deal about Aron, but only becomes significant in so far as Aron is important on other grounds; because the who governs the what. Otherwise his views are only marginally more important than yours or mine or John Doe’s.

Aron is undoubtedly a shrewd and erudite man. The choice of breaking away from the traditionally “ideological” debates of French intellectuals, and to seek to oppose ideologies in general with a pragmatic analysis based on the acceptance of modern society as “rational” and “scientific,” was deliberate—a conscious prise de position that Aron himself likes to regard as descended from Tocqueville’s intelligent skepticism but which I regard, rightly or wrongly, as originating at least as much in Comte’s depiction of a savant’s role in a rational society. To be fair, much of the directly political commentary is in the best Tocqueville tradition. But the claim for universal theory, the determination to encompass all phenomena, the intellectual arrogance in short, have little to do with Alexis de Tocqueville. Aron himself would certainly not accept the division adumbrated here into three distinct and in part contradictory styles, but would no doubt regard his work as a unity. Yet readers of his political comments and his acute discussions on the history of ideas cannot but be struck by the disparity between these and his more ambitious attempts at sociological explanations; the excellence of the former makes us acutely conscious of the latter’s failings.

Here perhaps is the clue to Aron’s high standing. Pragmatic or empirical theory in sociology and political science has been an American preserve. Aron has brought to it the intellectual and cultural sophistication of an admired European tradition. He has lifted sociology from a mere problem-solving technique of frequently amazing cultural naïveté to a pragmatic philosophy of considerable sophistication. He is thus a valuable European recruit to the American conception of sociology as a policy science. In France he is known rather differently for his shrewd, fearless comments, for his opposition to cant, for his clear formulation of criticism and suggestions of reform. He is, after all, an intellectual himself. But he is not a profound or original thinker, and his influence is likely to be confined to the life span of the issues on which he has taken a position. Like John Kenneth Galbraith he is the product of a mood, the answer to a need—more than anyone else Aron “invented” the “end of ideology” thesis in 1954, which subsequently became the orthodoxy of political sociologists in America. But he is not in the league of the great synoptic analysts of society.

This Issue

January 16, 1969