In Defence of Political Reason:
Essays by Raymond Aron
Edited by Daniel J. Mahoney
Rowman & Littlefield, 187 pages, $ 19.95
It is ironic that Raymond Aron’s reputation is currently ascendant everywhere except in the United States, since for many years his sober defense of political reason was received far more favorably in America than it was in his native France. The fashionable ideologists of French intellectual life, from Sartre to Deleuze, who for so long viewed Aron with suspicion if not outright hostility, have finally, one hopes, become exhausted. The resurgence of philosophical rigor and political sanity among the Parisian intelligentsia, a resurgence led by Luc Ferry, Alain Renaut, Pierre Manent, Marcel Gauchet, and many other philosophers, social scientists, and historians, owes much to Aron’s lifelong resistance to the totalitarian temptation and the literary politics that usually attended that temptation. Aron is now recognized, by all except a small coterie of leftist theorists, as the preeminent French political thinker of the postwar years.
But what has happened in the United States, which for many years looked to Aron for inspiration, guidance, and theoretical probity? The political philosopher John Gray has provided a plausible explanation for the remarkable and unfortunate turn of affairs that has left few of Aron’s books available in English. In a recent article, “The Left’s Last Utopia,” Gray advances the thesis that America has become the focus for the left’s messianic hopes. A cursory look at the United States-with the most liberal abortion laws in the democratic world, currents of multiculturalism coursing through the “best” universities and destroying what might be left of a classical liberal education, and statist models of economic and environmental regulation forwarded by well-meaning political elites-would seem to bear out Gray’s thesis. Such an environment is ill-disposed to the penetrating, dispassionate vision of Raymond Aron.
We have Daniel Mahoney to thank for the fact that Aron’s work may once again gain the hearing it merits in America. Several years ago, Mahoney published The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron , the first full-length study of Aron’s thought to appear in English and by far the best in any language. Now Mahoney has gathered together some of Aron’s most representative and compelling essays, many appearing in English translation for the first time. The title of the collection, In Defense of Political Reason , is perfect, for political reason is indeed the unifying thread tying together the disparate writings of the enormous Aronian corpus. Mahoney’s selections and illuminating introductions touch on virtually every aspect of Aron’s thought.
The five principal problems covered in In Defense of Political Reason together form the theoretical foundation of political judgment: (1) the morality of prudence, (2) the paradoxes of liberalism as a political theory, (3) the nature of totalitarianism, (4) the meaning of history, (5) the question of progress.
Ancient philosophers regarded prudence as the root of virtue, and prudence in politics requires sensitivity to context, to the historical, personal, and social setting of the moral act. In “Max Weber and Power Politics,” Aron distances himself from Weber (whose influence on him was otherwise so profound) by rejecting the Weberian distinction between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. In the ethics of conviction the ethical actor, whether revolutionary or pacifist, does what he will regardless of the consequences. In the ethics of responsibility, on the other hand, the actor recognizes that consequences must be reckoned with whether by citizen or by statesman. Weber gave us no means of preferring one to the other in the political domain. All values are for Weber a matter of irrational choice: the revolutionary madman chooses his demon, the Churchillian statesman his, and never the twain shall meet. Aron could not ultimately accept this, although his study of Weber often pressured him to do so, particularly in his earliest writings on the philosophy of history. In this later essay Aron finds the key to the dilemma Weber posed: while Weber was correct to see the radical plurality of values of sociology, he was wrong to transform this into a nihilistic political philosophy. The ethics of responsibility and the political moderation bound up with it describe the day-to-day hopes and conflicts of men better than do the ethics of conviction.
Aron’s prudence was not that of Aristotle or Aquinas, however. This becomes clear in an essay from the 1940s entitled “French Thought in Exile: Jacques Maritain and the Quarrel over Machiavellianism.” Maritain’s Thomistic defense of the common good as the appropriate benchmark for the conduct of the statesman is dismissed by Aron’s “antinomic” prudence as too unrealistic, as too destructively naive for the time of Hitler and Stalin. Aron believed that there was finally a conflict between justice and success, and that the lessons of Machiavelli could not easily be dismissed. Maritain’s politics of the common good, Aron argued, depended on the primacy of domestic over foreign policy. But the political was not ruled by the domestic. There were, are, and indeed will be extreme situations where statesmen, haunted by the clash between principle and necessity, must justify the means by virtue of the ends in order to preserve the existence of the polity. Aron is honest enough to admit, however, that there is no theoretical solution to the problem of Machiavellianism. Maritain’s accusations of immorality, rooted in natural law, remain relevant.
Unlike the apolitical, ahistorical, abstract liberalism of contemporary theorists like Rawls, Dworkin, and Ackerman, Aron’s defense of liberal society was deeply political, deeply historical, and extremely concrete. He was all too aware of the limits and historical failings of liberalism-the anomie, the erosion of Machiavellian virtue, the moral void opened up by a neutral liberal state. He would be far more comfortable with the ideas of Peter Berger, Irving Kristol, and other neoconservatives-liberals “mugged by reality,” in the famous phrase-than he would be with the dominant liberalism of our time. It is not an exaggeration to call Aron the first neoconservative.
The evidence for this claim can be discovered in Aron’s review essay of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty , “The Liberal Definition of Liberty,” included in this collection. Hayek’s classic work had set forth two foundational principles for a free society: the existence of a realm of noncoercion and the universality and generality of law. To these two principles Hayek wedded classical liberal political economy- the free market and the “catallaxy” of economic exchange. While deeply impressed with the rigor of Hayek’s thought and imbued with the same love of liberty, Aron maintained that Hayek had, like most liberal thinkers, neglected the political.
neglect manifested itself in four distinct ways. First, a free society depends on an inescapable dimension of coercion, particularly in its “federative power.” As Aron puts it, “the direction of foreign relations remains the task of men and not of laws.” In the partially Hobbesian world of international relations, statesmanship is inescapable. Foreign policy cannot be engaged in without the sovereign liberty of the statesman, but such sovereign liberty is unavoidably coercive-it can send people to their deaths, it can withhold information from the populace, it can transgress the day-to-day laws of the community. Secondly, liberty as universality and generality of law cannot be a substitute for moral and political judgment. Laws may be universal and yet still discriminate, as Mahoney notes: “Rule of law is at best an ideal but it loses its undoubted dignity when it takes on a formulaic character, when it is presented as a replacement for politics and prudence.” Thirdly, Hayek never discusses the necessity of solid mores for the maintenance of civic life. Aron, like the neoconservatives, stresses the need for civic education; Hayek, like most libertarian and contemporary liberal thinkers, takes for granted the continuance of premodern traditions of virtue that provide the moral capital of liberal civilization but are in danger of being squandered when liberty decays to license. Finally, Aron is prudent about the welfare state. Like Hayek, he feels that beyond a certain point the welfare state becomes suffocating and poses a threat to liberty. But unlike Hayek, Aron believes a limited welfare state is compatible with liberty and could even preserve it. In any modern democracy, Aron argues, there is a welfare function for government, entailed by the very logic of industrial society. This prudential critique of the welfare state is taken up by neoconservatives, who seek to limit, not to eliminate, the welfare system. As Mahoney points out, “Aron’s is the rarest of liberalisms-a politic and political liberalism.”
Aron is best known for his implacable opposition to totalitarianism. In Defense of Political features two essays on this theme. The first (written in the fifties) is a detailed discussion of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism . Aron takes Arendt’s work seriously, but distances himself in several ways from Arendt’s phenomenological approach. It is necessary, he argues, to analyze Soviet totalitarianism sociologically and historically. Arendt’s methodology exaggerates the irrational dimensions of totalitarian rule and thereby misses the inner contradictions that were weakening the “twin pillars” of the Soviet system: ideology and terror. Not until the late 1980s did this erosion become readily apparent. Aron’s conception of human nature gave strength to his conviction that Soviet tyranny, however brutal and ravaging, would not last forever. The second piece is a withering polemic directed at his long-time opponent and old friend Sartre. “Sartre and Solzhenitsyn” makes clear Aron’s repugnance at the literary politics of Sartre and the other French gauchists. The cafe radicals failed to understand the constraints and dangers of politics. They fantasized their dreams as real, transforming evil into good and justifying the unjustifiable. Against such ravings Aron poses the figure of Solzhenitsyn, living witness to the consequences of successful literary politics and ideology. Spiritually resolute, refusing to confuse the realm of Caesar and the realm of God, Solzhenitsyn provides one of the twentieth century’s greatest defenses of liberty and one of the sharpest denunciations of immoderate hopes for secular utopia.
Aron supports his prudential understanding of the political with an anti-Hegelian philosophy of history. Mahoney has included one of Aron’s most fascinating essays, “The Dawn of Universal History.” As Mahoney argued in The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron , “The Dawn of Universal History” contains the essence of Aron’s thought, and it has aged little since it was written in 1961. Central to the essay is the distinction between history and the permanent constraints of human nature. There is a “history as process”-the sweeping transformations wrought by the democratic and industrial revolutions-and “history as drama”-the permanence of tragedy, political conflict, and human nature beneath all historical phenomena. For Aron history is partially determined and partially free. Like Tocqueville, to whom he felt an “elective affinity” (as is clear from the appendix “On Tocqueville”), Aron believed that the realm of effective human action is sharply circumscribed. This is why all politics is about the limitation of options and why he so excoriated literary intellectuals for failing to think politically. Within the circle of our freedom, we must choose wisely to prevent the worst, to make life and politics more humane.
This modest belief in human decency and freedom explains why Aron did not share the pessimistic notions of decline advanced by France’s “New Philosophers,” the post-Marxist intellectuals who rose to prominence in the 1970s. Thinkers like Andre Glucksmann and Bernard Henri-Levy, with their “discovery” of the Gulag and their overheated rhetoric, clearly taxed Aron’s patience. When the naive dreams of utopia collapsed, France’s new philosophers employed their rhetorical skills like spoiled children of the failed revolution. Rather than ideologies of decline, what is needed is prudential wisdom: history contains good and evil, progress and decline. In “For Progress-After the Fall of the Idols,” the latest essay included in this collection, Aron exhibits just such wisdom, and it has been more and more evident in French intellectual life since.
Liberal society is imperfect, as every human society must be. That it is indefensible is something Aron would never admit. Although there is no Aronian “school,” a number of thinkers have sprung up around the Centre de recherches politique Raymond Aron and the important journals Commentaire, Le Debat, and, most recently, La Pensee Politique-Pierre Manent (whose homage to Aron is included as an introduction here), Francois Furet, Luc Ferry, Marcel Gauchet, and many others. These thinkers have begun to explore the paradoxes, imperfections, and possibilities of liberal society in a way that is in keeping with the influence and example of Aron. This can only be heartening to those who have looked on in horror as one wave after another of French ideology crashed against our shores, transforming the teaching of the humanities in American universities into something inhumane. Mahoney’s patient efforts to return Aron to his proper stature in America as one of the foremost philosophers and political thinkers of the twentieth century will perhaps be assisted by the exhaustion of the storm that sent those waves, an exhaustion that is in no small part due to the steadfast resistance of Aron himself. In Defense of Political Reason should be read by anyone interested in politics, anyone who seriously wants to understand the complexities, possibilities, and threats of our time.
Brian C. Anderson is Research Associate in Social and Political Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.