Aron, Raymond (1905–1983)

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ARON, RAYMOND (1905–1983)


French philosopher and political commentator.

Raymond-Claude-Ferdinand Aron was born in Paris and his education was that of a young French bourgeois, son of a law professor. He was a brilliant student, entering the elite École Normale Supérieure in 1924 and placing first in the philosophy agrégation in 1928. He was Jewish but had no particular concern with religion. Immanuel Kant presided over his philosophical development, thanks notably to the influence of the neo-Kantian Léon Brunschvicg, though Aron would later feel that this perspective was inadequate. He was introduced to the social sciences by Célestin Bouglé, a social democrat who was the director of the Centre de Documentation Sociale at the École Normale.

In the 1920s Aron felt a certain affinity for Alain, philosopher of "man against [established] powers." This affinity, however, had more to do with Alain the man who fought as a simple private in World War I than Alain the philosopher and moralist, whose pacifism seemed to Aron to lead nowhere. He felt no attraction whatever, meanwhile, for Charles Maurras, the other star in the French conservative intellectual firmament of the time and leader, with his newspaper L'Action Française, of the party of reaction. Maurras's desire to restore the ancien régime struck Aron as irrelevant—trapped in the impasse of any traditionalism seeking to reinstate an order that no longer exists; a situation exacerbated in his view by the fact that the "modern" aspects of Maurras's views brought him close to fascism. What Maurras shared with Alain was an antihistorical and anachronistic approach; to Aron the thinking of both men smacked of ideology, and both turned their backs on the resources of critical rationality.

As a young philosopher Aron spent the years 1930–1933 in Germany, first in Cologne and then in Berlin. There he encountered politics in full flood—and there his Jewishness was assaulted by Hitlerism. He also encountered the critical philosophy of history, especially the work of Karl Marx and Max Weber. His discovery of German politics, as of German philosophy and sociology, determined the particular feeling for the relativity and tragedy of history expressed in his doctoral thesis, Introduction à la philosophie de l'histoire (1938; Introduction to the Philosophy of History: An Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity, 1961). His lucidity concerning the political situation was manifest in an article of 1939, "États démocratiques et états totalitaires" (Democratic and totalitarian states). The year 1940 found him in London, where, in the periodical La France Libre, independently of Charles de Gaulle and his followers, he honed his talents as an acute analyst of ideas and political situations and began to address international politics and strategy. In this context he was one of the first (in 1944) to evoke what he called "secular religions" to describe ideologies.

At the beginning of the Cold War, Aron was somewhat attracted by social democracy, but he soon moved on. His approach was in part polemical, polemics being for him an essential dimension of thought in general and liberalism in particular. His liberalism was increasingly defined by way of contrast with the French Left, which he engaged in debate around three themes: ideology, totalitarianism, and Soviet imperialism.

For Aron "ideology" meant the kind of distortion of reason that he examined in articles written between 1947 and 1968, many of which were collected in Polémiques (1955) and Marxismes imaginaires (1970). His main work on the subject appeared in 1955: L'opium des intellectuels (The Opium of the Intellectuals, 1957). Aron's targets in this book were revolutionary idealists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who passed directly from the ontology of a free consciousness to total political commitment. The intellectuals he was addressing were less "men of the Church" (i.e., card-carrying Communists) than those "men of faith" in whom he detected not only the search for a secular religion but also the traces of a reason needing to be retrieved. He argued that three myths had to be demystified, namely the Left, the revolution, and the proletariat. Each updated an earlier myth: progress, reason, and the people, respectively. The myth of the Left projected a retrospective illusory unity into the future. Aron distinguished between a "historical left," seeking salvation through Marxism and the Soviet Union, and an "eternal left," to which he claimed allegiance, that refused all orthodoxy (Opium, p. 45). The historical Left was fascinated by revolutionary violence and defended the myth of a revolution that had been no more than the violent replacement of one elite by another. The proletariat had fallen victim to its own myth, which had turned it into a new messiah: the epitome of total alienation. History, he argued, was the framework within which these political myths were deployed and reinterpreted by existentialist Marxists—primarily Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty—in accordance with their philosophy and reading of the young Marx's theory of alienation. In this way, for Aron, they abandoned the study of concrete reality for "metaphysical controversies" ("Marxisme et existentialisme," 1948, in Marxismes imaginaires, p. 61). Later, in La révolution introuvable (1968; The Elusive Revolution, 1969), Aron broadened his critique to include the events of May 1968.

The constructive side of Aron's attack on ideological thinking emerged in his opposition to total-itarian regimes and the comparison he drew between totalitarianism and "constitutional-pluralist régimes" in Démocratie et totalitarisme (1965). He first tackled this issue on the eve of World War II in connection with "totalitarian tyrannies" (Machiavel et les tyrannies modernes), when he discussed the technique of seizing and retaining power. The Machiavellianism he described was profound, resting on a conception of man that supported the "totalitarian spirit" and eliminated "every obligation with respect to persons" (Les guerres en chaîne [Chain-reaction wars], 1951, p. 483; translated from the French). From this time until Démocratie et totalitarisme, Aron continued to elaborate upon his theory of totalitarianism, ending up with a model, based mainly on the Soviet Union, which was close to that of Carl J. Friedrich and which stipulated five defining characteristics: a single party monopolizing the political sphere; armed with an absolute ideology; sole proprietor of the means of coercion and persuasion; master of all economic and social life; and capable of wreaking terror by virtue of the politicization of all activities. The "chief variable," however, concerned the presence or absence of parties, the constitutional or unconstitutional exercise of authority: "the institutional mode of transmission of the democratic principle" (Démocratie, p. 98; translated from the French). Aron gave an existential primacy to politics that effectively linked his thinking to the international dimension.

Soviet imperialism was indeed asserting itself during this period, which Aron preferred to call a "bellicose peace" rather than a cold war. As he wrote in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro for 10 December 1947, "it is henceforth the political parties that wage the battles of worldwide diplomacy." He summed things up in the same year with the title "Paix impossible, guerre improbable" (Peace impossible, war improbable, in Le grand schisme, 1948). Although he belonged to the realist tendency in international studies, Aron felt that the clash of national interests was not direct. In his view American policy was defensive, following a period of hesitancy, whereas Soviet policy was offensive, its tactics changing according to the circumstances. He refused to wear blinkers with respect to the weaknesses of American diplomacy, but unlike the pro-communist Left he stressed the duty of free regimes to defend themselves against the two main characteristics of Soviet imperialism, namely its boundless ambitions and its promotion of "permanent war." A strategy of containment was indispensable to the defense of a free Europe. The adoption of such a strategy by the United States represented a victory over American isolationism. The Korean War was a turning point: Mao Zedong's seizure of power in China had brought the Far East into the arena of world diplomacy and confirmed the necessity of action. At the close of this period of "limited war," Aron enumerated three features of the international standoff in Paix et guerre entre les nations (1962; Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, 1966): persuasion (ideological), dissuasion (conventional and nuclear), and subversion (indirect conflict via guerrilla warfare). This summary was precisely, for Aron, what the "historical left" rejected, whether out of ideological fear or because of a partial or complete allegiance to a Soviet regime that negated the very freedoms that it claimed to champion.

Aron's legacy is varied, as is consistent with his thought. His direct or indirect disciples have explored and continue to explore different areas of the social sciences, including political science (Pierre Manent and Philippe Raynaud), philosophy and international relations (Pierre Hassner), history (François Furet), and political economy (Jean-Claude Casanova). At the same time, a rediscovery of Aron's own contribution is under way, both abroad and in France, as a result of a renewed interest in the politics and intellectual debates of the twentieth century and especially in political liberalism. This rediscovery continues to explore the pluralism of Aron's thinking and has found a congenial institutional focus in the Raymond Aron Center for Political Research at the É cole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

See alsoMerleau-Ponty, Maurice; Sartre, Jean-Paul.


Primary Sources

Aron, Raymond. Les guerres en chaîne. Paris, 1951.

——. L'opium des intellectuels. Paris, 1955.

——. Polémiques. Paris, 1955. Writings from 1949 to 1954.

——. Démocratie et totalitarisme. Paris, 1965.

——. La révolution introuvable. Paris, 1968.

——. Marxismes imaginaires: D'une sainte famille à l'autre. Paris, 1970. Writings from 1948 to 1970.

——. Penser la guerre, Clausewitz. 2 vols. Paris, 1976.

——. Le spectateur engagé. Paris, 1981.

——. Mémoires: 50 ans de réflexion politique. Paris, 1983.

——. Paix et guerre entre les nations. 8th ed. Paris, 1984.

——. La guerre froide. Edited by Georges-Henri Soutou. Paris, 1990. Articles about international politics published in Le Figaro from June 1945 to May 1955.

——. Machiavel et les tyrannies modernes. Paris, 1993.

Writings from 1938 to 1982.

——. Introduction à la philosophie politique: Démocratie et révolution. Paris, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Baverez, Nicolas. Raymond Aron: Un moraliste au temps des idéologies. Paris, 1993.

Gremioon, Pierre. Intelligence de l'anticommunisme: Le congrès pour la liberté de la culture. Paris, 1995.

Launay, Stephen. La pensée politique de Raymond Aron. Préface de Philippe Raynaud. Paris, 1995.

——. "Un regard politique sur le communisme: Remarques sur la pensée de Raymond Aron." Communisme (L'Age d'Homme, Paris) 62–63 (2000).

Mahoney, Daniel J. The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron: A Critical Introduction. Lanham, Md., 1992.

Stephen Launay