Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought

by Scott B. Nelson

Berlin: Peter Lang GmbH, 2019

Given the ‘world-changing’ nature of the riots in Paris in May 1968 and the self-importance of its protagonists, it is not surprising that many of them were irate when they heard themselves described as bourgeois students with a “utopian negation of reality” and their ‘great revolutionary moment’ dismissed as “a verbal delirium with no casualties”. The author of those words — the French philosopher Raymond Aron — at later presentations and public events, found himself subject to verbal and physical abuse, and other disruptions.

The culmination of these attacks came several years later when a lecture he was giving at the École Normale Supérieure had to be cancelled because Maoist students had burnt down the school library. In French philosophical and intellectual circles, it became fashionable to say, “Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.” But in the years and decades that followed, Aron has been shown to be on the right side of history — far more than Sartre or many of his contemporaries.

The stereotypical image of French philosophers and intellectuals involves cigarette smoke, small cafes, and looking out over the River Seine. Yet there is another image that also comes to mind: that of the philosopher involved in the formulation and conduct of public policy and politics. This is the public intellectual, wielding influence and commanding an audience in a way that is almost absent in Anglophone politics. The names are well known, and their thoughts and statements often controversial, either draw passionate support or unmitigated hatred; names such as Sartre, Foucault, Camus — and Aron.

Cropped version of photograph of Raymond Aron (with Ignacio Quintana) in his office in Paris. Undated photograph courtesy of Callimacus under CCA-SA 4.0 International.

This 2019 work — an adaptation of the doctoral dissertation of Austria-based scholar Scott Nelson — focuses on the German influence on Aron’s thought. It provides an interesting, alternative perspective through which Aron’s position as one of the leading intellectual figures of the French right can be examined (especially given the events of Aron’s lifetime in which the interplay between France and Germany had such momentous repercussions).

Beginning with an examination of the influence of German historicism and Wilhelm Dilthey, Nelson turns to the position that Karl Marx and the industrial society had within Aron’s own thought — a position that Aron would set himself against with his belief in the French liberal tradition founded by Montesquieu and his deep opposition to the totalitarian discourse to which Marxian thought led.

Much of Aron’s writing maintains a powerful resonance today. As Nelson points out, Aron argued that industrial society had resulted in an alienating experience for modern man. Each individual was seen as part of a complex organization in a social order, one in which we cannot realize all of our desires, with the traditional bonds of community having been severed. The parallels with today, and the crisis of meaning and belonging, are clear.

However, to remember Aron as an ‘ivory-tower’ philosopher is to make a serious error, a point Nelson makes with clarity through an examination of Aron’s interaction with Weber and the science of praxeology (that is, the conceptual analysis of human action based on choice, ends, means). Aron was not making arguments for the sake of the intellectual cut-and-thrust. As Nelson notes, Aron is “careful to caution us against debating in the abstract”. It was a lesson Aron had learnt well. In 1932, Aron met with the French Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs and in the meeting,

elaborated at some length on the problems of nationalism in Germany and the threat to stability Hitler would pose if he were to assume power. When he finished, the minister replied, ‘The prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs, has exceptional authority and is an extraordinary man. It is a propitious movement for all initiatives. But you who have spoken so well to me of Germany and the dangers that loom on the horizon: what would you do if you were in his place?

Unable to answer while giving account to all the various factors that impinge on public policy making and international politics made a young Aron reflect deeply on the purpose of political and intellectual thought. As Nelson notes, “this meant putting oneself in the shoes of the statesman and taking into account all of the lack of information and constraints to which he is subjected.”

Commentaire, the journal that Aron founded in 1977.

In assuming what one might term a position grounded in the earthy reality of the situation, Aron would avoid the easy criticisms and arguments that others often made — and that many continue to make — of public policy and governance. This is not to say that Aron was any less scathing about politics; rather, he approached things with realism, and recognized the factors and limitations with which those in positions of responsibility had to contend. Not to do so was just to pontificate and spout hot air, to commentate without understanding, to criticize without offering a realistic alternative.

Offering real alternatives was something that Aron would do throughout his life, taking a position for which he was sometimes fiercely criticized by others. This sometimes included his friend-turned-enemy, Jean-Paul Sartre. But it was a marker of Aron, as Nelson makes clear, that to be active, to be involved, meant taking a position. As Aron commented: “Life itself is known only indirectly and partially. The privilege of retrospective thought lends primacy to contemplation, and yet, the more we have recourse to history, the more we must decide to live, i.e. to choose.”

This is a lesson that — combined with the grounding in praxeology and reality — many would do well to remember in the political and popular discourse of our own time.