Books: Cultural Amnesia — Raymond Aron |
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Raymond Aron (1905–1983) began as a sociologist but made it clear from the start that the subject would not restrict him to social facts. Instead, it would release him into political analysis, and from there into general philosophy on the scale of Durkheim, Pareto and Max Weber. The strength of his voluminous theoretical work, however, would always be that his wider views were backed up by minutely observed concrete detail: his journalism was his bedrock. One of the few French thinkers who were equally at home in Germany, he saw during the Weimar Republic that the left intelligentsia hated capitalism, and hence social democracy as well, far too much to think that Nazism could be worse. As George Orwell did later, Aron realized that the professed enemy of Nazi totalitarianism was itself totalitarian. He carried this insight with him into exile in London during World War II.

After the war, he emerged as the great opponent of the French left wing, and especially of its most illustrious figurehead, Jean-Paul Sartre. Beyond their respective deaths, the contest between the two great names continued to define the frontiers of argument in French political thought right up to recent times. “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron” is still meant to be a slogan testifying to political seriousness, rather than to intellectual suicide. For French gauchiste thinkers, even after they had given up hope on the Soviet Union, liberal democracy was fundamentally suspect because it had capitalism for an economic motor. For Aron, liberal democracy was the only way ahead to social justice: it could be, and had to be, criticized in detail, but never dismissed in its entirety. Since ideologists of every stamp would always attempt to do so, that made ideology itself the perpetual enemy of realism. Liberal democracy, based on an historic consciousness, could afford to reveal even the most unpalatable truths, whereas ideology was bound to conceal them. Of the comparatively small proportion of Aron’s enormous body of work that has been translated into English, The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) can still be regarded as the best introduction to his thought, and indeed to modern intellectual history in its entirety. For readers of French, he can be met more briefly, but almost as effectively, in Le Spectateur engagé (1981), a long interview of the type that French publishers do so well.

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... the liberal believes in the permanence of humanity’s imperfection, he resigns himself to a regime in which the good will be the result of numberless actions, and never the object of a conscious choice. Finally, he suscribes to the pessimism that sees, in politics, the art of creating the conditions in which the vices of men will contribute to the good of the state.


SUCH WAS THE central belief that put Aron on a collision course with all the radical thinkers in Paris after World War II. He couldn’t have put it more clearly; and if he couldn’t, nobody could. Essayists who stake everything on writing the kind of spangled style that glitters in the limelight near the top of the tent must sometimes wish, as they sweat to keep a sentence alive, that the tightrope could be laid out along the ground. There are essayists who write plainly and yet are duller still because of it. But the most enviable essayists are those who can write plainly and generate an extra thrill from doing so, demonstrating a capacity to clarify an intricate line of thought in their heads before laying it out sequentially on the page. Always matching a decorum of procedure to their weight of argument, they can make the more spectacular practitioner look meretricious. Foremost among these cool masters of expository prose must be ranked Raymond Aron.

Most of Aron’s vast output remains untranslated in the original French, but enough of his books have been brought into English to give some idea of his importance, and some of those books are indispensable—most prominently The Opium of the Intellectuals, which remains to this day, after all the years since it first appeared in 1955, the best debunking of Marxism as a theology, and the most piercing analysis of why that theology, during the twentieth century, should have had so pervasive and baleful an influence in the free nations. Even now, every first-year university student in the world should read that book, if only because the poised force of Aron’s prose style gives such a precise idea of the strength and passion of the consensus he was trying to rebut.

It should be said straight away that his clarity of view was not attained from a right-wing viewpoint. Though many a prominent figure of international anti-communism paid tribute to him after his death—Henry Kissinger, McGeorge-Bundy, Norman Podhoretz and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were among the Americans who acknowledged his example—Aron himself began on the left and stayed there until the end. But he was always disgusted by the thirst of putatively humanitarian intellectuals for the lethal certitudes of Marxist dogma. As early as the 1950s he was proclaiming the need for a new party, de la gauche non conformiste. A sizeable party of the nonconformist left never really arrived, but the massed ranks of the conformist left were not fond of the idea that somebody so prominent had called for one. Many of his fellow French intellectuals never forgave him for his heresy. (Sartre, who respected Aron’s credentials—Aron, unlike Sartre, had always been the kind of star student who actually read the books—took particular care to discredit his opinions: a potent endorsement.) A few of them were grateful, and they were among the best. Jean-François Revel, François Furet, Alain Finkielkraut and the small handful of other French writers on politics who have managed to defend their independence of thought while surrounded by a tenaciously lingering pseudo-progressive consensus have all had Raymond Aron as a forebear, and have usually been polite enough to acknowledge his pioneering faith in the strength, and not just the virtues, of liberal democracy.

There had always been plenty of intellectuals ready to pay lip service to the virtues, but they doubted the strength. Because, from the French viewpoint, liberalism had been able to do so little in staving off the Nazi brand of totalitarianism, it was thought that only another brand of absolute power—the Soviet brand—could fill the vacuum. The erroneous view that the Red Army had won the war all on its own helped to reinforce this illusion. In Czechoslavakia, in 1948, the same misguided humility led the whole liberal intelligentsia to abdicate from its responsibilities in advance. It never came to that in France, but it came close enough. At this distance it is hard to conjure up just how thick and poisonous a miasma of bad faith a man like Aron was trying to fight his way through, and just how honest, patient and brave he had to be in order to do so. He succeeded in the end. Though the French will probably go on thinking proudly of Sartre as the Victor Hugo of political philosophy—the most mentions, the most mistresses, the biggest funeral—Aron’s name is nowadays quite often invoked by those who believe that there is an alternative to getting everything brazenly wrong. The alternative is to get a few things modestly right. Bernard-Henri Lévy will probably not find it expedient to drop his posturing slogan that it was better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron, but to the extent that Levy’s political arguments are considerable, he sounds like Aron, not Sartre.

Aron is consequently the best reason for continuing to think of Paris as a capital city of political philosophy. As a Jew, he would not have survived the German Occupation long had he remained in France. Any possible illusion about what the Nazis were up to had been removed for him when he stood beside the historian Golo Mann in the Berlin Operplatz in 1933 and watched the storm troopers burn books. But when the Nazis reached Paris, Aron exemplified the one advantage of being a designated victim. His moral choice was made for him, and he could spend the war in London, with a relatively clear conscience. Sartre and Camus were only two of the many thinkers about politics who, being gentiles, could stay in Paris and think about politics there if they chose. It was a dubious privilege. The Nazis, operating with a subtlety rare for them, managed to corrupt nearly everyone in the Parisian literary world to some degree. The essential trick was to offer the intellectuals the opportunity to continue their careers if they kept their protests suitably muted. The first result was a widespread but tacit collaboration. The less common, overt collaboration could safely be denounced when the Germans packed up and ran. Claiming to be the instruments of l’épuration (the Purification), self-appointed tribunals—“tribunal” is always a bad word in French history—dealt out the punishment. Such blatant collaborators as Robert Brasillach and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle had been asking for it, and one way or another they got it. But many of the denouncers had themselves collaborated in a less flagrant way. A pervasive sense of having been implicated, however passively, led to the second result: a long silence that really amounted to a cover-up.

What really happened under the Occupation is a story that, even sixty years later, is still coming out. For decades it didn’t come out at all. The first accounts of any scope didn’t appear until the 1980s, and the general conclusions have not yet been fully drawn. But one of them should be that the Propaganda Abteilung (Propaganda Division, also often called the Propaganda Staffel) succeeded in its main aim. Apart from the brave few who went underground and fought at the risk of their lives, the French intellectuals gave the Nazis little trouble, and were morally compromised as a consequence. Not even Camus, a writer whose stature depended on his very real capacity for translating his ideals of authenticity into action, was entirely untouched. But at least Camus had the grace to admit that his Resistance activities had not amounted to much, and at least he had the humanity to deplore the excesses of the post-Liberation witch-hunt against the more shameless collaborators. Sartre, whose underground activities had never amounted to anything except a secret meeting on Wednesday to decide whether there should be another meeting the following Tuesday, not only claimed the status of Resistance veteran but called down vengeance on people whose behaviour had not really been all that much more reprehensible than his own. The sad truth was that he, even more conspicuously than Camus, owed his wartime fame as a writer and thinker to Nazi tolerance, for which a price had to be paid. The price was to lace one’s eloquence with a judiciously timed silence. The trick was to pay up and make it look like compulsion. So it was, but only if you considered your career as indispensable—something artists find it all too easy to do. They are even encouraged to, in the name of an ideal.

When you consider the mental calibre of the people involved, Paris under the Occupation thus becomes the twentieth century’s premier field of study in which to reach the depressing conclusion that even the most liberal convictions buckle very easily under totalitarian pressure, unless there are extraordinary reserves of character to sustain them. The further consideration—that to deplore the absence of such fortitude might be illiberal in itself—is more depressing still, but should be faced. Apart from permanent outsiders such as homosexuals, petty thieves, and the very poor, only young people on their own had a real opportunity to be brave under the Occupation, and even they had to be saints to take it when death was the likely result. Behind the Nazi show of tact in Paris was the threat of absolute violence. The threat rarely had to be made actual. The threatened were too smart. Their smartness was well-known to the Nazis who ran the show, some of whom were great admirers of French culture. Receptions were held regularly at that most fashionable of restaurants, the Tour d’Argent. French cultural figures who turned up met Nazis who seemed well aware that Cocteau was more refined than anything they had at home. Cocteau, who attended more than once, was slow to realize that once should have been enough.

Wartime Paris was a moral crucible. Aron was out of it, and we don’t even have to ask ourselves how he would have behaved had he been in it. (We have to ask ourselves about ourselves, but not about him.) He would have been dead. Untouched and untainted in England, he could prepare his comeback. He came back as a commentator in the newspapers and magazines, deploying his rare gift of making a nuanced, learned and unfailingly critical analysis attractive as journalism. Because of him, the advocates of the seductive fantasy that the imperialism of the West was the most ruthless imperialism affecting Europe did not have it all their own way. But it took a long, hard slog before the illusion began to be dispelled that somehow Sartre was the serious thinker about politics and Aron the dilettante. At the heart of the anomaly was the almost universally shared assumption that those who favoured the declaredly progressive consensus were working for the betterment of mankind, while those who believed that liberal democracy was a better bet were working against it. Helping to make Aron even more unpalatable to the entrenched pseudo-left was his expertise in sociology: he actually knew something, for example, about how industries ran, how houses got built, and how ordinary people earned the money to pay for their groceries. A respect for humble fact is one of the qualities that keep his prose permanently fresh. He could, alas, be very grand. All too often, and especially towards the end, he was a bit too fond of drawing himself up to his full height. But he never lost contact with the earth. He never lost sight of the imperfection that debars mankind from utopia.

Communist interpretation is never wrong. Logicians will object in vain that a theory which exempts itself from all refutations escapes from the order of truth.


After World War II, Raymond Aron was the French philospher who did most to offset the more famous Jean-Paul Sartre’s support for communism. Albert Camus tried to offset it also, but his scholarly qualifications were held to be dubious. Nobody doubted Aron’s. From the moment he published L’Opium des intellectuels in 1955, the French left-wing thinkers knew that they had a real fight on their hands. They didn’t give up easily. Some of them still haven’t. Aron was obliged to go on plugging away at the same theme. He had already said, before the war, that the Communist version of socialism was a secular religion. What remains puzzling is why he said so little about it while the war was on. Self-exiled to London, he wrote a long series of brilliant articles for the Free French periodical La France Libre, which were collected after the victory into three books, nowadays themselves collected into a single volume, Chroniques de guerre. In the entire text, Stalin is mentioned exactly twice, and neither time derogatively. Writing in the same city at the same time, George Orwell risked his reputation and income by insisting on a distinction between the Red Army, which was making such a great contribution to defeating Hitler, and the lethal regime behind it, which was bent on the extinction of all human values. Why did Aron not do something similar?

Perhaps the best answer is that he considered himself debarred from attacking an ally. Most of the damning analysis he made of Hitlerite tyranny could have been transferred with equal validity to Stalin, but for Aron to have explicitly done so would have detracted from his first object as a French patriot and as a Jew—the defeat of Nazi Germany. As it happened, Aron underestimated the effects of Vichy’s enthusiastic collaboration with the occupying power on the Jewish Question. (In reality, there never was such a question, hence the capital “Q”: an early instance of falsification through typography.) Never a true pessimist, although always pessimistic enough to be a realist, Aron was not equipped by temperament to guess that a Final Solution was under way. But he had no illusions about the essential barbarity of Nazi anti-Semitic policies and the general nihilism of the assault on humanism by the psychotic authoritarian right—he hadn’t since well before the day he stood with Golo Mann and watched the Nazis burn the books. As a man who loved France, he condemned the Vichy regime first of all for the false patriotism which allowed it to participate in the Nazi attack on the very thing that made French civilization what it was: its humanist heritage. Hence his reluctance to make distinctions between the various columns of the Resistance, one of the most prominent of which, after June 1941 at any rate, was Communist. He believed in de Gaulle, but not enough to disbelieve that the Communist résistants had earned a hearing. Nevertheless, after the Liberation, he could be heard—and can still be heard, in “L’Avenir des religions séculaires” (The Future of the Secular Religions), one of the last chapters of Chroniques de guerre—reminding himself and his readership that, despite the immense prestige won by the Red Army for Stalin’s regime and the people of the Soviet Union, a system of belief which confused the desirable and the inevitable was still a dogma.

As the war came to an end, Aron, who was always a liberal more on the left than those on the left were liberal, was convinced that some form of socialism would be bound to prevail in all the European countries. He just didn’t want any of those forms to be totalitarian. When it became rapidly more apparent that a different view prevailed in the Kremlin, he prepared himself to write L’Opium des intellectuels. Acting more from artistic intuition than solid study, the scholastically unqualified but piercingly sympathetic Camus anticipated Aron’s central precepts by four years with the relevant chapters of L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), but Aron’s is incomparably the more coherent work. Camus had appropriated much of his knowledge of Soviet reality from Arthur Koestler, along with the warm attentions of Koestler’s wife. Aron had done his own research, in a colder archive. Camus’s book was part of his romance, along with the vilification that it attracted. (The starting gun for the vilification was fired by Sartre, who tried to counter his upstart protégé’s arguments by discrediting his qualifications: a reflex among established gurus that we should learn to look out for.) Aron’s book was an impersonal treatise much harder to criticize in detail. The English translation, The Opium of the Intellectuals, was meticulously carried out by the doyen of London literary editors, Terence Kilmartin, who did for Aron’s prose what he later did for Proust’s—he caught its measure, which in Aron’s case was always, throughout his career, the measure of sobriety, comprehensive sanity, and a sad but resolute acknowledgement of history’s intractable contingency. Kilmartin himself thought that Aron in his old age overdid the last quality. One day in the Black Friars pub near The Observer’s old location at the foot of Ludgate Hill, and long before I knew that Kilmartin had been the English translator of L’Opium des intellectuels, I was loudly praising Aron—at that stage I had read about three of his books out of thirty—when Kilmartin warned me that my new hero had become, in his declining years, so cautious about social innovation that he was “a bit, um, right wing.” Kilmartin remained “a bit left wing” until his dying day: a proper ideal for a generous man, and one to copy.

In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.


It was always a bad mistake to suppose that Aron was some kind of Gallic Dr. Strangelove who had learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. The contrary was true: the annihilation of the defenceless was at the centre of his worries. The point to grasp is that he had already seen it happen. Hitler had dropped the equivalent of an atomic bomb on at least six million perfectly innocent people—a weapon more than sixty times more powerful than the one that obliterated Hiroshima. Stalin had dropped the equivalent of an atomic bomb a hundred times more powerful on his own citizens. Those bombs had gone off in comparative silence, but Aron had understood the repercussions. For an era in which mass extermination was already not just a possibility but a reality, he presciently drew the conclusion that mutual assured destruction would be the only possible guarantee against disaster. Arguments that it was a guarantee for disaster did not impress him. Hence he was free from the debilitating impulse to warn the world that the arms race was dangerous. Obviously it was: too obviously to need pointing out. While whole generations of intellectuals on the left exhausted their thin talents in an effort to say something that Kate Bush couldn’t sing—she, too, daringly believed that a nuclear weapon was an offence against love and peace—Aron occupied himself with the more useful task of examining the peace that had finally come to Europe, guaranteed at last by no further armed conflict being possible, no matter how thoroughly each side might plan for just such an eventuality. In fact the more concretely they planned, the more the possibility retreated into the notional. Political conflict, however, was clear-cut as never before, and here, for once, Marx was proved right. Economics determined the outcome.

The conflict began and ended in Berlin, with not a shot fired except against unarmed people attempting to cross the killing zone between East and West. Nobody was ever shot trying to cross from West to East. When the Wall went up in 1961, its creators called it the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier. There were no longer any fascists who mattered, but the need for protection was real. East Germany, and by extension the Warsaw Pact countries taken as a totality, all had to protect themselves against the glare from the shop windows of West Berlin. Soviet bloc propaganda, faithfully echoed by gauchiste theorists in the West, asserted from the beginning that a free Berlin could not be free at all: its materialist attractiveness was being artificially enhanced by American imperialism as a forward outpost of West Germany, which, in its turn, had been artificially bolstered by the Marshall Plan as a capitalist armed camp. In actuality, the Bundesrepublik would have outperformed the German Democratic Republic whatever the circumstances, merely through its not being burdened with a centralized economy. The propaganda was a fantastic response to a real and potentially lethal threat, already identified by Stalin before 1948, when he made his one and only military move: an armed blockade. Without the resulting Berlin airlift, he would have succeeded in reducing the city by starving and freezing its inhabitants—methods to whose human consequences he had already proved himself indifferent when applying them on a much larger scale against his own people.

Plane-loads of food and coal were the Allied response, which could not have been mounted without the threat of atomic war to back it up. When Stalin lifted the blockade, his battle was lost and the war along with it. From then on, the armed aggression of the East German regime was against its own citizens. In 1953, they had to be put down with tanks. The Wall was put up because too many of them had fled: East Germany was dying from its brain-drain. The Wall ensured only that it would die more slowly, from envy. The confrontation over a divided Berlin, a divided Germany and a divided Europe was one long war, which at any previous point in history would unquestionably have been fought with weapons. It was called the Cold War mainly in derision, by those who had managed to convince themselves that it was all an American idea. But Aron was surely right to view as peace a war in which the winning side made every effort not to fire a shot, and the losing side could have no recourse to its weapons even in despair. There were many thinkers who disagreed with him over the issue, especially among the French left. But he had more trouble with agreement from the right. He succeeded in detaching himself, however, from the addled notion that the long drawn out defeat suffered by the Soviet bloc was a victory for the American Way of Life. He was too clear-sighted for that, and the triumph of his lifetime’s effort as a writer on politics was to demonstrate that the believer in liberal democracy, and not the believer in an autocratic utopia, is the one with the hard head. By now everybody realizes that the West’s material abundance was decisive. Aron was the first to realize that the fight would have to be without weapons. That was what he really meant by his famous slogan “Peace impossible, war unlikely.” He meant that there could be no settled peace without the threat of war, but that the war would probably not happen, and as long as it didn’t there was a kind of peace anyway: the only kind available at the time.

An aggressor would not be able to destroy them without killing American personnel, which is to say, without running a grave danger of reprisals.


Aron’s Realpolitik was distinguished by being real, as Realpolitik in the strict sense rarely is. When he reminds us of Machiavelli, he reminds us of Machiavelli’s truly hard-headed style, and not of the would-be hard-headedness of his political philosophy—a philosophy that was essentially nihilistic. Machiavelli, perhaps encouraged into admiration by the ruthlessness with which the Medicis would eventually rack him, wrote an invitation to despotism. Aron was writing a prescription for democracy. But the prescription had to include a realistic assessment of the totalitarian challenge (a menace even though the opportunists who made a career from opposing it amounted to a menace in themselves) and in that department realism had to include an acknowledgement that a nuclear confrontation between West and East could not be wished away. In this particular passage, he makes a point which was so antipathetic to the proponents of unilateral disarmament that they were obliged to rewrite history in order to circumvent it.

European countries wanted American atomic bombs based on their soil, not just to fulfil their NATO obligations but because the weapons were accompanied by American personnel. A Soviet strike against the weapons would thus constitute an attack on the United States, which would be unable to remain uninvolved in the conflict. Hence there could be no localized nuclear exchange: only a global one. Unilateralists, unable to accept that it was in the interests of a European country to play host to American nuclear weapons, were obliged to argue that they were an imposition. By extension, this argument fitted a picture in which the U.S.A. was an imperialist presence in Western Europe, like the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. (Even further to the left lay the belief that the U.S.A. was the only imperialist presence in Europe, the Soviet Union acting merely as a protective power against the further encroachment of a capitalist hegemony.) At this distance it is difficult to appreciate how thoroughly Aron’s position went against the general trend of liberal sympathies. Stated on its own, this one point was enough to make him sound like Edward Teller, whose political programme—which had only parodic relevance to his practical ability as a scientist—amounted to building bigger and bigger bombs, and digging deeper and deeper holes in which to hide from the consequences. Teller being the principal model for Dr. Strangelove, it became easy to hint that Aron might share the same enthusiasms, even though his own right hand showed no tendency to shoot spontaneously skyward.

But Aron was right, and the effort the USSR made to back the unilateral nuclear disarmament movement in Europe proves it. With the American weapons in place, the USSR was unable to contemplate exerting military pressure in Western Europe in any circumstances. In Paix et guerre Aron made many other points of similarly unpalatable realism, the whole tract adding up to an advance on Clausewitz (one of Aron’s passions: he wrote a two-volume commentary), in which Clausewitz’s connection between diplomacy and war was extended into a further connection between perpetually imminent total war and the only possible form of peace—an armed truce. That the armed truce included an arms race was incidental, because the high cost was merely material, whereas the price of a shoot-out would have been the loss of everything. Salvation lay in the obviousness of this latter point to all. Aron’s conclusion was an epigram: “Peace impossible, war unlikely.” But it is the way his whole argument is laid out that needs to be appreciated. He was fully aware of the bitter irony inherent in reaching such a position from humanist principles, but he saw no paradox in the irony: if there was an apparent contradiction, history had enforced it. A real contradiction would have been to disarm in the hope that moral superiority would have prevailed. For Aron, such trust would have flown in the face of his basic geopolitical precept, which he held to be true for all time: that the nation states are in a state of nature with one another. It would also have flouted his reading of contemporary history, in which totalitarian nation states were bound to find it intolerable to cohabit with democracies unless forced to by the inevitable consequences of failing to contain their patience.

Personality affects thought—or at any rate affects the train of thought—and there can be no doubt that Aron’s quiet but considerable amour propre got a boost from his being the only one in step. Near the end of his life, when his views became less unfashionable, he was at his least decisive. Jean-François Revel, recalling, in his book of memoirs Le Voleur dans la maison vide (The Thief in the Empty House), his time as editor of L’Express, complains sharply about the senescent vacillations of the paper’s most distinguished contributor. Old men with many laurels often use them to lie down in. Aron was at his best when out of the swim, saying hard things—hard things that were made harder to say because they superficially echoed the unthinking right. During the war, for example, he had been no toady for de Gaulle, but when de Gaulle, in 1963, came back to supremacy on the promise to keep Algeria and then promptly gave it away, Aron clearly enjoyed saying that only de Gaulle possessed what the Fourth Republic had lacked, L’héroïsme de L’abandon—the bravery to renounce (Démocratie et totalitarisme, p. 11). There was always an element of sombre relish, of hushed gusto, in Aron’s readiness to puncture liberal assumptions. But he himself was the very model of the liberal, and those on the left who persisted in believing that liberal democracy was itself ideological were bound to despise him, because he was the one who proved it wasn’t. Liberal democracy was, and is, reality. No ideology can tolerate a full historical consciousness. Only realism can, and Raymond Aron’s long shelf of lucid books will always be there to tell us why.