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The Savior of French Liberalism

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The Savior of French Liberalism

Raymond Aron’s work holds lessons for the future of Islam and the West. February 3, 2016
Politics and law
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Companion to Raymond Aron, edited by José Cohen and Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut (Palgrave Macmillan, 304 pp., $110)

Liberalism—defined broadly as a democratically elected regime with a limited government and a market economy that protects individual rights—remains a hotly contested political persuasion in France. Today, libéralisme is associated with “savage capitalism” and the “Anglo-Saxon model.” If someone calls you a liberal in a Left Bank café, he likely means it as an insult.

Such attitudes have deep roots. Over the course of the twentieth century, liberalism had few defenders in Paris and was overshadowed by seductive varieties of nationalism, existentialism, structuralism, surrealism, and Marxism. It wasn’t until the end of the century that the non-liberal alternatives were spent and interest in liberalism was renewed—at least among scholars.

It would be nearly impossible to speak about French liberalism today if Raymond Aron had not kept the flame alight while other philosophical fashions tried to blow it out. Therefore, The Companion to Raymond Aron, edited by José Cohen and Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut, is a welcome new addition to the work on Aron available in English. It brings to light Aron’s characteristic mode of political reflection, which remained close to political actors’ realistic options and the concerns of citizens—rather than elaborating the sort of high-minded theoretical schemas that often typify French thinking.

Aron’s life tracked the “short” twentieth century. He was born in 1905 just prior to the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution. He died in 1983 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In between, his political judgment was extraordinary. Calling him the “Thucydides of the twentieth century” isn’t an overstatement.

After studying in Germany just prior to the rise of Hitler, Aron adopted the position that Nazism had to be unequivocally opposed. After Paris fell to the Wehrmacht, Aron went into exile in London to join General Charles de Gaulle and the French Resistance. After the war, he consistently championed Western democracy over Soviet totalitarianism. He endorsed the Cold War strategy of undermining and outlasting the Soviet Union. He favored decolonization of French North Africa. During the events of May 1968, he rejected the students’ fantastical utopianism. Throughout his career he championed the basic liberal values of Western civilization. Compared with Jean-Paul Sartre, who got almost all of these questions wrong, Aron looks prophetic.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Aron paid for his good judgment with isolation from French intellectual circles. The Left regularly derided him as a “Cold Warrior,” especially after his most famous book, The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), exploded the cherished myths of the Left, the proletariat, and the revolution. Soon thereafter, the French Right abandoned him because he favored Algerian independence. Aron’s caustic analysis of the “psychodrama” of May 1968 once again placed him firmly outside the fashionable trends of his time.

Sartre—a former schoolmate and friend, whom he had introduced to German existentialism—quipped that Aron was “unworthy to teach.” Others censured Aron for the “icy clarity” of his analyses, which supposedly lacked compassion. It became a commonplace in French intellectual circles that “it is better to be wrong with Sartre than to be right with Aron.” In that light, Aron’s intellectual fortitude and independent-mindedness were truly remarkable. It was only near the end of his life, in the late 1970s, with publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work on the Soviet gulag and the revelation of the horrors of Communism in Cambodia and Vietnam, that French opinion shifted in Aron’s favor. He now appeared to have been right all along about the nature of Communism—and much else. Claude Lévi-Strauss called Aron a “teacher of intellectual hygiene.”

The Companion to Raymond Aron is an excellent introduction to the main events of his life and the core themes of his work. The various authors reveal how and why Aron became recognized as one of the world’s most thoughtful analysts of the moral, political, economic, military, and sociological dimensions of modern democracy. His interests ranged from nuclear strategy to Tocqueville.

Primarily known outside France as an analyst of international relations, Aron was one of the first to develop the idea of totalitarianism. He argued that the Nazi and Stalinist regimes were without precedent in human history because they were based on “secular religions.” Each expressed a notion of providential destiny: for the Nazis, the victory of a race; for the Soviets, the victory of a class. These totalizing ideologies were what made these regimes so dangerous. Aron concluded that Marxist-Leninism “as an ideology is the root of all (in the Soviet regime), the source of falsehood, the principle of evil.” Ultimately, the Soviet regime’s attempt to make man into an angel in fact “create a beast,” while the Nazi’s experience showed that “man should not try to resemble a beast of prey because, when he does so, he is only too successful.”

The lessons that Aron drew from the twentieth century were that history is tragic, human freedom fragile, and theories of historical determinism pernicious. In his defense of liberal principles, Aron described himself as an adherent of “democratic conservatism.” Compared with the totalitarian regimes, “we are all the more conservatives because we are liberals who want to preserve something of personal dignity and autonomy.”

Aron sought to distinguish politics as a prosaic activity from the quest for salvation. “Modern society is a democratic society that must be observed without transports of enthusiasm or indignation,” he once remarked. “It is not the ultimate fulfillment of human destiny.” Aron’s outlook was characterized by modesty about what politics could achieve and what one should thereby expect from it. His liberalism fits into the French historical tradition more than the classical liberalism of England or the United States. For instance, Aron did not stress ideas of natural rights, which are the root of American liberal principals.

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris raise profound questions for both France and the Western democracies. How can the West develop a foreign policy that addresses the threats of Islamic terrorism and the reality of evil in the world but doesn’t get trapped trying to transform other regimes through nation-building and social engineering? Aron’s hostility to philosophies of history—such as recent claims about the “end of history” and the democratization of the world—is a powerful reminder that a hard-headed realism about what needs to be done can be combined with a balanced notion of how much can be achieved through political action. The presence in Europe of large numbers of Muslims citizens along with immigrants from the Middle East and Africa means that domestic and foreign policy are closely intertwined. How can France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, simultaneously preserve its own traditions and values and address increasing cultural and religious diversity? How can France integrate its Muslim population while simultaneously taking military action in the very regions from which its immigrant population hails?

These are enormous questions, but Aron provides some helpful guideposts. His skepticism about historical determinism casts doubt on the reigning “secularization” thesis—or dogma. This thesis holds that, as society modernizes, citizens will slowly lose their religious convictions, and those that cling to them will agree to do so exclusively in private. Reading Aron helps to break such spells. A broad understanding of his work would temper optimism about what laïcité (or secularism) can do to transform Europe’s Muslims. Europeans in general—and the French in particular—need to come to terms with the fact that Islam is not likely to follow Christianity’s historical trajectory in Europe. Only then can realistic approaches to religious diversity begin to be developed.

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