Raymond Aron: The Recovery of The Political
By Brian C. Anderson
Rowman & Littlefield. 215 pages, $58 cloth, $19.95
There has been a resurgence of interest in Raymond Aron in France, though the English-speaking world takes less notice of him than it ought. Brian C. Anderson attributes the new French attention to Aron’s “lifelong resistance to the temptation toward totalitarianism and the literary politics that usually attended that temptation,” which is suddenly in style. Aron’s “sober defense of political reason” meshes with the “resurgence of philosophical rigor and political responsibility among the Parisian intelligentsia.” In the English-speaking world, however, the Cold War having been won, Aron’s refusal to join the ranks of the apologists for Stalinism is not as exciting as it once was: thus do scholarly fates wax and wane. More importantly, though, Aron’s thought seems counterintuitive to those influenced by American optimism. Aron’s particular habit of mind emphasizes reason and discernment, refusing any “final synthesis.” But that portion of the West led by the United States (which France has always resisted for good reasons and bad, no doubt) is in thrall at present to its own enthusiasm, the confident prediction of the final, coming victory for the synthesis of “markets and democracy.” Many do not see the triumphalist dimensions of their projective enthusiasms, while the words we associate with Raymond Aron-realism, liberalism, a sense of the tragic-mark him as a distinctly sober observer.
Whatever the reason for his eclipse in the English-speaking West, that Aron is at last no longer a stranger to his own country’s intellectual establishment can only be good news, in part because what French thinkers do so often becomes fashion, especially in America. Writing with great clarity of style from a stance of interpretive charity, Anderson helps us to sort out Aron’s enormous oeuvre. He begins by unpacking Aron’s political reason, asking: “What does it mean to think politically?” For one thing, it means one isn’t Jean-Paul Sartre, the “archetypal example” of anti-political, “literary politics,” a manner of “engaging with political life that deliberately . . . ignored reality and that preferred to remain on the level of an abstract theory or a kind of pure, contentless moralizing.” Individual persons and whole societies are viewed through the theory and what gets destroyed on paper (so to speak) often is destroyed in real life—like kulaks in the Soviet Union. But the mounds of bodies piling up do not really matter because the theory is all that counts.
To avoid such sacrifices for theories, Aron refused to articulate a vision or model of the good society. He was interested instead in better rather than worse arrangements. Politics is always a matter of partial projects: comparative justice, relative fairness, and so on. As Anderson writes, “Aron had too profound a sense of the diversity of history to admit easily to a strong notion of an ideal society or best regime, or to succumb to the extreme generalities favored by literary political thinkers.”
Refusing to advocate a best regime does not mean, of course, that one simply demurs when it comes to normative judgment. But Aron made distinctions between actually existing regimes rather than their imaginary counterparts, and judged them according to their effects on human flourishing. This is a far more demanding project than creating some ideal city in speech, because it means one actually has to pay attention to existing orders and arrangements. One must respond politically to architectonic thinkers like Marx; the only way to do this is historically and empirically—look at what has happened and is happening on the ground, so to speak. With St. Augustine, Aron understood that we are always in the Empire, always born into a political configuration of some sort. How porous or rock-solid is it? What is the repertoire of actually available civic and ethical concepts with which one is obliged to work? That which is new always emerges out of that which already is.
With this backdrop, we can appreciate Aron’s sympathy with political actors, the statesmen. We are obliged to ask, in Anderson’s words, “What would you do if you were in [the statesman’s] place?” This is part of what it means to think politically, because politics is about action in a realm of uncertainty; politics is about human choice, but these choices are not infinite. Aron walked a fine line between an excess of determinism and an equally unacceptable radical freedom or voluntarism. Reasonable and responsible action emerges out of the tension between these two equally dangerous presuppositions. Human freedom is possible, but we are always, in quite palpable ways, determined by our histories and that of our own time and place. From this Aronian stance, one can advance probabilities but not lodge confident predictions and thundering prophecies. This subtlety is attractive only to those who can live with ambiguity and uncertainty, those who do not see the earthly city as the site within which to enact messianic projects.
Anderson argues compellingly that there is no way to leap out of our historic skins; that would be to repudiate finitude itself, something mortal creatures cannot do. “The finitude of the human subject logically excludes access to any complete understanding of the historical totality,” he writes. Thus a responsible politics is one that appreciates the limits to our understanding: we don’t know enough and can, in principle, never know enough to advance epistemological and political certitude. A word comes to mind here-humility—a term one certainly doesn’t associate with the Jean-Paul Sartres of the world.
But Aron’s deep historicism never slipped into epistemological relativism, settling into a position more of epistemological pluralism. Interpretive pluralism is, Anderson insists, Aron’s way of “granting to the historical and social world its manifest complexity.” This puts one immediately inside the problem of relativism, of course, but unlike the relativist, Aron never simply gives up on the difficulty of “deciding between two different interpretations.” To say that Aron didn’t fully sort this out is to understate. But he understood that this is the problematic into which any responsible thinker falls. His political answer? “Imperfect liberal regimes” are our best bet politically. They are not magnificent edifices. But at least they take account of the frailty of our human condition.
There is much more to recommend in this densely packed, lucid volume. The discussion of Aron’s “critique of ideology” contains powerful moments, as does Anderson’s unpacking of one of Aron’s chief passions and concerns, the world of international and diplomatic relations. Here again Aron avoids abstractions of a sort that dangerously misunderstand the competitive nature of international relations as well as an amoral realism that obliterates any space for ethical restraint and reflection. Morality, for Aron, is woven into the very fabric of things, but so is competition. Anderson concludes by situating Aron within the universe of contemporary political theory. His comparison of Aron to a figure he in many ways resembles, Isaiah Berlin, is particularly compelling. Anderson’s effort to bring the attention of our political theorists back to Aron is worthy of our thanks.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and the author, most recently, of Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life (Johns Hopkins University Press).