The Dawn Of Universal History

Selected Essays From A Witness To The Twentieth Century


By Raymond Aron

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In this collection of essays written over a period of almost forty years, Raymond Aron explores the rise of nationalism in Europe through the two world wars and the subsequent disintegration of her empires. With a richness of detail and sweeping breadth of historical examples, he chronicles and analyzes the history of the opposite ideological extremes of Fascism and Marxism and their descent into totalitarianism via secular religiosity. Aron also examines French imperialism through the examples of Algeria and Indochina, as well as America’s role as an “imperial republic” during and after World War II. Aron was never orthodox in his ideology; neither his republican political penchants nor his dialectical intellectual orientation ever gained the upper hand over his devotion to empirical reality. The result here is an intellectual history that seems less concerned about where it falls on the political spectrum than about getting it right.




Selected Essays from a Witness of the Twentieth Century


Translated by Barbara Bray
Edited by Yair Reiner
With an Introduction by Tony Judt


by Tony Judt *

Raymond Aron was one of the “golden” generation of twentieth-century French intellectuals: Born in 1905, he was a little younger than André Malraux and Claude Lévi-Strauss, a little older than Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir, and the exact contemporary of Jean-Paul Sartre. He attended the best Parisian schools and graduated, like his friend Sartre, from the École Normale Supérieure. His formal training was in philosophy—he placed first in the competitive national examination, the agrégation. Aron’s natural trajectory—toward a teaching post in the French University—was cut short, however, by the outbreak of war in 1939. A Jew and a socialist, he left France following the establishment of the puppet regime at Vichy and joined Charles de Gaulle’s Free French organization in London.

Upon returning to France Aron served briefly in André Malraux’s postwar Ministry of Information before returning to the university world to teach sociology, at the same time taking up what proved to be a lifelong parallel career as a journalist and political commentator. In 1954 he accepted a chair in sociology at the Sorbonne and taught there and at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales until being named to the Collège de France in 1971. By the time of his death in 1983, at the age of seventy-eight, he was widely regarded, in the words of his colleague François Furet, as “not just a great professor, but the greatest professor in the French University.”1

Aron was distinguished from his peers in a number of ways. Unlike most specialized scholars he had a remarkable range. He was trained as a philosopher—his doctoral dissertation addressed complex epistemological problems in the philosophy of history. His academic appointments were in sociology, and he published influential, important studies of social thought and industrial society. His interests and publications spread across international relations, intellectual history, military theory, and comparative politics. In all of these areas he became a recognized international authority.

Raymond Aron’s catholicity of interests and his prolific output marked him as one of France’s leading public intellectuals. But unlike most of his French intellectual contemporaries, Aron made a virtue of being truly knowledgeable in everything that he wrote about—and refused to write about matters on which he was ignorant. In this sense he was both an engaged intellectual, commenting on a wide range of public events, and a specialized expert in the social sciences—a most unusual combination for a French scholar of his era. Moreover, although his initial political sympathies were on the Left and he cofounded (with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty) the influential left-wing cultural periodical Les Temps Modernes, Aron resolutely espoused the Western position in the Cold War, at a time when many of his Parisian contemporaries were either neutralist or else tempted by the appeal of communism.

In these ways, and in his broad international following in Europe and North America, Aron was distinctly atypical. Of course he was, as he always insisted, a product of his time and his place: a classically educated Frenchman who lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, fascism, communism, and the atomic age. This experience shaped his outlook and his interests no less than those of most other French intellectuals. But in Aron’s case it led him away from abstract speculation and radical political affiliation—the characteristic path of most of his intellectual contemporaries; indeed, it is clear in retrospect that Aron was the only prominent French thinker of his generation to take a consistent liberal stand against all the totalitarian temptations of the age, of Right and Left alike. At the same time, he brought to his political writings and his commentaries on public affairs a distinctively French point of view, as we shall see. It is this unique mix that made Aron’s work so distinctive in its day. And it accounts for the enduring appeal of his books and essays to today’s readers.

The essays and excerpts gathered here are a representative cross section of Aron’s writings during and about the Cold War era. They cover four broad themes: the Cold War itself and Great-Power relations in the first decades of the atomic age; the international history of the twentieth century; the theory and practice of totalitarianism; and imperialism and decolonization. With two exceptions all the material here dates from the 1950s: One article (on Nazism) was written in 1939, and the section on the United States is drawn from Aron’s book La République Impériale, first published in France in 1973.

These works are thus contemporary reflections on public affairs as they were unfolding, and they lack the benefit of hindsight. We now know, as Aron could not, how the conflicts and dilemmas he discusses were to unfold—at least so far. But Aron’s essays have the virtue of this defect: They offer an invaluable insight into the way things seemed, in the postwar years, to an unusually insightful Parisian observer. In those days no one knew how the U.S.–Soviet confrontation might end. No one could foresee the future of the Soviet Union, much less its eventual disappearance.

Furthermore, and despite being published in very different places and for quite different audiences, the essays form a natural unity. Aron understood how international affairs, domestic politics, colonial crises, and Marxist doctrine were interrelated and interdependent in the second half of the twentieth century. These and other matters needed to be presented separately for the sake of clarity, but they could not be understood in isolation. In Aron’s view there were no longer local histories that could be described and explained without reference to outside developments. The rise of the superpowers had put an end to that. And for the same reason, international power struggles and ideological conflicts could not be understood except in a common framework.

Aron brought to his writings two overarching considerations that give them point and coherence. The first was a well-honed political prudence. As a graduate student Aron had lived in Weimar Germany during its death throes. He had witnessed the collapse of democracy and the rise of dictatorship. He had tried and failed to convince his French contemporaries of the seriousness of what was taking place across the Rhine. He had lived through the decline of the French Third Republic and observed firsthand the corrupt maneuverings that led to Philippe Pétain’s seizure of power in 1940 in the aftermath of German victory.

In consequence, Aron was absorbed with, perhaps even obsessed by, the fragility of liberal polities and the ever-present threat of anarchy and despotism. This concern marked his writings in a way that nothing about his comfortable childhood and youth could have predicted, and it sets him apart from most French intellectuals of his generation. It explains his remarkable prescience during the 1930s, when most French politicians and intellectuals alike were tragically slow to grasp the meaning of Hitler’s revolution, and his response to almost every major crisis in postwar French life, from the turmoil of the Liberation to the events of May 1968.

In Aron’s view, democracy and freedom are the preconditions of civil society, but they are fragile. There will always be men, sometimes men of goodwill, tempted to overthrow or undermine a free society in the name of a better, purer, stronger, more “authentic” alternative. The first task of the intellectual is to speak out against this temptation and in defense of liberty. It was above all for this reason that he took very seriously the responsibility of intellectuals to be involved in important public debates. In a time of troubles it is not enough merely to observe and record: As Aron noted in his memoirs apropos his own support for the U.S. presence in Vietnam, one cannot restrict oneself to the role of “the observer of the follies and disasters of mankind.”

Thus, Aron was a vigorous critic of those who sought a “catastrophic” solution to the social woes of postwar France (or anywhere else). As he recognized, this taste for violent, “definitive” solutions, as though the road to utopia necessarily lay through destruction, was in part born of the experience of war in our century. But he opposed it energetically, and when France came as near as it ever has in the twentieth century to a real peacetime civil conflict, at the time of the Communist-led strikes of 1948, Aron took a hard line: “The inevitable struggle will be muted only to the extent that the state has strengthened its means of action. It is just not acceptable that in the mines and electrical plants of France people are more afraid of the Communists than of engineers, directors, and ministers combined.”2

The link in Aron’s thought between political stability, civil order, and public liberties is thus clear—and as with Alexis de Tocqueville, whom he greatly admired, it was a product of experience and observation rather than theory. The correlation sheds light on his way of thinking about liberty in general, and the totalitarian threat to it. Unlike social commentators in the United States, for example, Aron was not an especially enthusiastic advocate of the term “totalitarian” as a general category covering various modern threats to a free society. His distaste for grand theory extended to anti-Communist rhetoric as well, and his thoughts about totalitarianism derived in the first instance from his concern for its opposite—the partial, always imperfect reality of liberty, constrained and threatened by necessity and history. If the United States was to be preferred in the global conflicts of the day, it was not because it represented some higher or more logically satisfying order of life, but because it stood as the guarantor, however defective, of public liberties. The lesson of totalitarianism, in short, was the importance of order and authority under law—not as a compromise with freedom, nor as the condition of higher freedoms to come, but simply as the best way to protect those already secured.

The second aspect of Aron’s approach was what one might, for convenience, call a disenchanted realism. The two, of course, are related. It was because he had experienced the twentieth century as a series of threats to the fragile Western heritage of individual freedom and legal order that Aron accorded such importance to realism: We must look at the world not as we wish it to be but as it is. This duty was incumbent, he believed, on observers and practitioners alike.

Thus commentators, social scientists, and historians must begin by trying to understand the real-world constraints upon those whose acts they seek to assess. As he wrote of Max Weber, “He was prepared at any moment to answer the question that disconcerts all our amateur politicians: ‘What would you do if you were a Cabinet minister?’”3 It was for this reason that he had set out to educate himself in disciplines far removed from those he had studied as a young man. As early as 1937 he spelled out his motives: “It isn’t every day that a Dreyfus affair allows you to invoke truth against error. If intellectuals want to offer their opinions on a daily basis, they will need knowledge of economics, diplomacy, politics, etc. Whether it concerns deflation and inflation, Russian alliance or entente cordiale, collective contracts or wage rates, the point at issue is less about justice than about effectiveness.”4

Aron thus took his distance from all efforts to invest political or historical analysis with moral evaluation. Even Vichy, a preeminently emotive topic in French public debate, required in Aron’s view a cooler assessment: Vichy in his eyes was less a crime than an error, a mistake of political judgment. The pétainist fault lay in supposing that Vichy might benefit from its place in Hitler’s Europe—a dangerous and ultimately tragic misjudgment, but one that needed to be understood in the context of the events of 1940. The point was to acknowledge the facts, however uncomfortable or inconvenient—“the analyst doesn’t create the history that he interprets.”5

For the same reason, he refused to share the widespread enthusiasm aroused in the mid-1950s by the first post-Stalinist whiffs of détente. He even welcomed the gloomy presence of Mr. Molotov: In Aron’s eyes the inscrutable Mr. Molotov was a useful prophylactic against a return to interwar illusions—the idea that “peace depends on words rather than on the courage of men and the balance of forces.” Writing in 1956, after the upheavals in Poland but before the repression of the Hungarian revolution, Aron reminded his readers that “if the Soviets felt truly threatened, they would return to the rigidity of earlier years. . . . Let us not mistake our dreams for near reality.”6

But Raymond Aron was not at all a “realist” in the sense people mean today when they speak of “realpolitik”—the practice of making political judgments derived exclusively from a calculation of possibilities, interests, and outcomes based on past experience or a priori reasoning. He had no time for that sort of “theoretical realism,” which led in practice to unrealistic decisions like that of Neville Chamberlain at Munich. His objection to this mode of thought lay partly in its frequently misguided conclusions, but above all in its rigidity, with the result that what begins as empirical calculation nearly always ends up as rule-bound dogma: “In my opinion, pseudocertainty, based on the relationship between the stakes and the risks, on some rational calculation ascribed to a likely aggressor, is of no more value than the dogmatism of the Maginot Line.”7

To appreciate what was distinctive about Aron’s writings on international affairs it helps to think of his method as a series of approaches that ran against the grain of his time. In the first place, he was a social scientist who thought historically. In his essays and lectures on nations and empires, or on the development of international relations since 1914, Aron broke with contemporary fashion. His understanding of interstate relations was unabashedly traditional. In his words, “The division of humanity into sovereign states preceded capitalism and will outlive it.”8 There were limits to what even the Great Powers could do, but there were equally limits to what could be done to prevent them from doing as they wished—hence his mildly skeptical attitude toward the United Nations and other international agencies.

The same emphasis upon continuity shaped his critique of grand claims about the need to rethink military and diplomatic strategy in the nuclear age. Raymond Aron saw very early on, well before most professional military theorists, the limits to the diplomatic and military uses of nuclear weaponry. In 1957, ten years before the British retreat from east of Suez, he pointed out that the British military’s growing reliance on atomic weapons and its reduced expenditure on conventional arms would undercut its freedom of military and therefore diplomatic maneuver without doing anything to improve its security. Two years later he made the same point about the French force de frappe: French nuclear weapons only made sense in the hypothetical context of a conflict between NATO and the USSR, whereas for France’s real problems in Africa or the Middle East they would be of absolutely no use whatsoever.

Despite his emphasis upon the main U.S.–USSR confrontation, Aron was thus alert to the changes already taking place in the postwar world from the late 1950s. Even in 1954 he had warned against betting all one’s military budget and calculations on a single weapon; the wars of the future were likely to be quite different from those of the past and would require a very different sort of arsenal. Moreover, such local wars need not lead to international conflicts on a nuclear scale—on the contrary, if the nuclear “umbrella” secured anything, it was the space for greater and lesser powers to engage in old-style local or partial conflicts without putting “peace” at risk. The traditional logic of power politics remained in force, and with it the need to think militarily in a variety of keys and not just that of nuclear devastation. “One does not increase the risk of total war by accepting the obligations of local wars,” he pointed out.9

In the second place, Raymond Aron was a realist who took ideas seriously. This is still an unusual combination. From Henry Kissinger down, most contemporary “realists” are contemptuously dismissive of moralizers and others who claim that politicians and statesmen are or should be moved by abstract goals or ethical ambitions. Ideas, ideals, and dogmas, from historical materialism to human rights, are, they suggest, the ephemera of political discourse; at best abstractions that cannot readily be taken into account when making hard political choices, at worst (and more commonly) excuses for actions undertaken for other reasons.

Aron thought otherwise. In his account, reality encompassed not only interests and power but also ideas. Like Clausewitz, he took it for granted that Glaubensache—beliefs of all kinds—constitute a social fact. Human beings have beliefs and are moved by them in various ways, and this phenomenon is as much a part of reality as the disposition of armaments or the forms of production. “Realism,” in Aron’s view, was simply unrealistic if it ignored the moral judgments that citizens pass on governments, or the real and imagined moral interests of all actors in a society.

It is for this reason that Raymond Aron’s realism was so much better at explaining and predicting events in his time than the “realist” commentaries and prognostications of Sovietologists and others who shared his concerns but not his breadth of understanding. Thus, for example, in the late 1940s Aron laid out a “two-track” explanation of Soviet international strategy that would become conventional wisdom by the 1970s but was original and provocative in its time. According to his analysis there was a fundamental continuity of Soviet goals, but these might be sought either by the tactic of alliances, as in the era of the Popular Front (or for a brief moment after Hitler’s defeat) or else by confrontational attitudes at appropriate times and in vulnerable places. Those who dismissed or downplayed the doctrinal reasoning that lay behind this Soviet strategy simply missed an important truth about the world in which they lived.

If Aron saw things in this light it was because—and this is the third distinctive feature in his approach—he was an anti-Communist who took Marxism very seriously. He was certainly in no doubt as to the dangers presented by the Soviet Union. As the essays in this book make clear, his assessment of the postwar international situation drew on his overwhelming concern with the Soviet Union and the threat it posed. He was one of the first European commentators to recognize, as early as 1945, the role that would be played by the USSR after Hitler’s defeat, and everything he wrote was side-shadowed by this fact.

But his obsession with the Soviet threat was driven above all by his insight into the attraction of communism, which gave the USSR an appeal and a leverage far beyond that of a conventional Great Power. Aron was a lifelong student of Marxist thought and was far better informed on this subject than many self-styled Marxists. His interest in Karl Marx began with his early work on philosophies of history and was sustained both by his professional interest in nineteenth-century social thought and his polemics with Marxist and marxisant contemporaries. Of his engagement with Marx, Aron had this to say: “Like the friends of my youth I never separated philosophy from politics, nor thought from commitment; but I devoted rather more time than them to the study of economic and social mechanisms. In this sense I believe I was more faithful to Marx than they were.”10

For Aron, the distinction between Marx and his Marxist heirs was important—though not sufficient to absolve Marx himself of all responsibility for the actions and opinions of those claiming to follow his precepts. Marxism (like other twentieth-century radical dogmas of extreme Left and extreme Right alike) was what Aron called a “secular religion.” Here, too, he was ahead of his time. The idea that extremist claims and projects of Left and Right had much in common with each other—in their appeal and in the threat they posed to liberty—was unfashionable and unpopular when Aron proposed it in the postwar decades. Today, in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and with greater attention paid to the crimes of Nazism and communism alike, we are more disposed to see the twentieth century in this light.

Aron’s reading of Marxism as a secular religion made him few friends. American specialists on Soviet affairs preferred to analyze Marxist regimes in functional terms, whereas European and especially French Marxists and students of Marxism were deeply offended by Aron’s refusal to take their ideas seriously on their terms. We forget today how willing many on the European Left were to give even Stalin the benefit of the doubt. Aron was merciless in his skewering of such illusions: Writing in 1950, at a time when the appeal of Stalin extended well beyond the boundaries of those parties and countries under his direct control, Aron commented, “The ludicrous surprise is that the European Left has taken a pyramid-builder for its God.”11

One aspect of Aron’s interests that brought him rather closer to contemporary American specialists was the attention he paid to modern economies and their apparent convergence. But here, too (and this is my fourth example of Aron’s distinctive approach), he stood a little aside from conventional wisdom. Like many American sociologists of the late 1950s, Aron was struck by the apparently converging character of industrial societies. But unlike them, he was never led by this observation to suppose that they would all eventually merge into a single social model.

For most European social theorists and sociologists of Aron’s time, of Left and Right alike, society was either capitalist or socialist: Forms of production and property ownership determined all other features. The Soviet Union and the West were categorically different systems, and there was widespread agreement across the European political spectrum that it was a serious political mistake, as well as an analytical error, to suggest that two such antagonistic political systems could share fundamental modern features in common.

Aron took a rather different position. He regretted the neglect of a question that had preoccupied early nineteenth-century writers at the dawn of modernity: What is the meaning, what is the nature of a society shaped by science and by industry? Unlike a number of “industrial society” theorists in the United States, however, he did not want to claim that East and West were somehow one, their distinctive ideological disagreements cast in the shade by a common drive toward the social, managerial, and rationalist goals of an industrial economy. He was too conscious of politics—of the contrast between societies where state and society were collapsed into one and those where they were distinct—and too well informed about the place of ideology in Soviet thinking to make this elementary mistake.

In his view, scholars who made this error were merely reflecting the complementary Marxist mistake of deriving political assumptions from economic forms: Comparable “forces of production,” so the claim ran, must needs give birth to similar political institutions and beliefs. But why should this follow? From as early as 1936 Aron had already observed an original aspect of the Soviet “experiment.” In the West, freedom and private enterprise had been the essential preconditions for industrialization and growth. But the latter might now happen under Soviet-style conditions of planning and public ownership. The USSR might be politically and socially dystopic, but it was no less a technically “advanced” society for that.


On Sale
Jun 16, 2009
Page Count
554 pages
Basic Books

Raymond Aron

About the Author

One of the most important figures of French sociological commentary, Raymond Aron enjoyed a position of intellectual authority among his country’s moderates and conservatives that rivaled Jean Paul Sartre’s on the Left. His books include The Opium of the Intellectuals and Clausewitz: Philosopher of War. He died in 1983.

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