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Standing Athwart History Yelling Stop: Raymond Aron vs. The Marxist Intellectuals

Standing Athwart History Yelling Stop: Raymond Aron vs. The Marxist Intellectuals

“J.P. Sartre has condemned the intervention in Hungary, but he continues to see no other road to salvation but that of Socialism: this monster all spattered in blood is none the less Socialism.”

Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals


Immediately following World War II, Paris and the rest of Western Europe was awash in intellectuals enamored with Marxism. Political scientists, economists, sociologists, and philosophers were taken with the idea that the seminal event of modernity, the event that would finally end history, had occurred in Russia in 1917. It was inevitable: the Bolsheviks had established the first Marxist state and the modern and industrializing nations of the world must soon follow suit. Among this widespread intellectual adoration of the Marxist experiment was where French scholar, university professor, and newspaper editor Raymond Aron found himself after the end of World War II. France had finally been liberated, but not, it seemed, from Marxist thought.

Aron was a rising star among the Parisian intellectuals and was no stranger to debates over Marx. Graduating top of his class from the prestigious L’Ecole Normale Supérieure, he had been surrounded by and steeped in Marxist thought which had become popular throughout the academic world. Aron respected Marx for his understanding of certain elements of industrial society and economics, but he could never bring himself to believe in what he called Marx’s “catastrophic optimism” about mankind’s socialist future. Throughout his life, he continued to hold Marx and his followers directly responsible for the brutality and oppression of communist regimes. Only liberalism, he would argue often and convincingly, would save mankind from the tyranny of communism, and he was deadly serious when he wrote, “the survival of hope depends upon the victory of the liberal communities.”

He was born in Paris in 1905, the son of a Jewish lawyer, and from a young age showed intellectual promise. After receiving his doctorate from the L’Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1930 (placing higher than his rival and friend Jean-Paul Sartre), he lectured at the University of Cologne in Germany, was named professor at Ecole Normale Saint Cloud, and joined the faculty at the Université de Toulouse in 1939. Shortly thereafter, World War II erupted, and Aron left his position to fight in the French Air Force until France was defeated in 1940. Fleeing to London where he worked alongside General Charles De Gaulle, he served as editor-in-chief for the French liberation newspaper France Libre for the rest of the war. Upon returning to France, Aron worked as a professor at several colleges and universities including the Sorbonne and the École Nationale d’Administration. Apart from his work as a professor, he continued to edit and write for various newspapers including Le Figaro and L’Express until his death in 1983.

It is hard to fit Aron into a single intellectual discipline or category. He was a philosopher, a sociologist, a historian, and political scientist, and as Daniel Mahoney wrote in his book The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron, “He embodied the ancient perspective of the political scientists as the rational architectonic analyst, evaluator, and guide of human and political life.” His exhaustive knowledge across these disciplines made his work broad and compelling, and the common thread running throughout his work was a principled opposition to Marxism.

Aron wrote to destroy what he called “the grand illusion”

By his own admission, Aron’s work wasn’t meant to persuade committed Marxists of the error of their ways but to address the bafflingly large amount of Marxism’s academic and intellectual sympathizers and fellow travelers and convince them that they were making a serious mistake. Paris had always been a hive of intellectual thought, and the academic battles being waged there had lasting world significance, but somehow, Aron observed, the vigor and diversity of Parisian intellectual life was withering away under Marxism. Intellectuals smitten with the Russian Revolution believed it would finally give meaning to humanity and usher in mankind’s one true destiny—the postpolitical proletarian utopia. Baffled by this “prophetism,” Aron set out to correct the notion that had seized French intellectuals so completely. He wrote to destroy what he called “the grand illusion.”

In 1955, Aron published his most famous and enduring work The Opium of the Intellectuals. In the book, Aron describes the intellectuals’ “secular religion,” based on the hope for a future completely foreign to history and human nature. Marx had proclaimed that socialism was inevitable, and that when mankind finally reached this point each person would fish in the morning, work in the afternoon, and retire at night to discuss and read Plato. Marx’s final society would see all state administrative functions—and eventually politics writ large—cease because the state only existed as a result of class antagonism. (How a centralized planned economy would operate without any government, however, remained a mystery, which Aron points out in his book Main Currents of Sociological Thought: Volume I. Marx and his intellectual acolytes held firm to their faith in this vision of a classless society; anything that pushed mankind towards this goal was deemed true progress.

Aron argued that intellectuals were attracted to Marxism’s clarity and almost scientific certainty; it provided an intelligible meaning to history. Religion informs its faithful of the meaning of history and the final state of man—nothing less could be required of the secular religion of Marxism. Many intellectuals wanted desperately to believe that history pointed somewhere. They didn’t want to believe history could simply be haphazard or subject to the whims of particular regimes or individuals. Aron pointed out that “chance and the unintelligible irritate[d]” Marxists and that their simple and internally irrefutable logic of class division neatly sorted all humanity—from individuals to regimes—into distinct classes based on wealth and economic position. Everything in history, from art to rhetoric to ideas, could be made intelligible through the lens of class.

The intellectuals had thus fallen into a trap of their own devising, and upheld the pristine idea of Marxism even as it slaughtered millions of innocent people.

The heart of Aron’s argument was that the Marxists ultimately didn’t take politics seriously. They refused to believe politics played a decisive role in history, instead insisting on a historical determinism driven by class antagonism as the key to understanding human affairs. This is nowhere more apparent than in the numerous Soviet documents recently released in which Soviet officials and KGB agents reveal themselves to be convinced beyond a doubt that there was a secret group of bourgeois citizens pulling the strings of the American government. They simply couldn’t believe that the ebbs and flows of America’s politics had something to do with the real convictions of its citizens.

The intellectuals had thus fallen into a trap of their own devisingshare quote on Twitter

It cannot be denied that Marx had a good understanding of economics – he was raised on the great English economists of the 18th and early 19th centuries – but he believed that capitalism existed only as an oppressive system which sought exploitation. He was convinced that socialism, that final state of man after the bourgeois collapsed under its own weight, would end the cycle of class warfare and exploitation. Years later, Lenin took up the idea and wrote that capitalism was only concerned with creating monopolies and oligarchies in order to exploit the nations of the world. To prove this, he argued that World War I was unnecessarily started and maintained by capitalists fighting over their exploited colonies. Intellectuals already enamored with the simplicity of Marx’s version of history couldn’t resist Lenin’s interpretation. By finding the marionette strings of politics always in the hands of greedy and oppressive capitalists, the academic Marxists reduced politics to the petty realm of cash and class interest.

Aron directly challenged the idea that capitalism sustains conflict and war. He argued precisely the opposite, pointing out how capitalism and free markets were pacifying elements of foreign diplomacy. World War I had not been waged in the name of capitalism and exploitation, and those who believed the Marxist lie were oversimplifying the reality of international politics and statecraft. He wrote in The Dawn of Universal History: “The [prewar] diplomats thought in terms of power not because they were concerned about commercial interests or because spokesmen of commercial interests brought pressure to bear on them but because they had read their history books and for centuries power had been the law of politics.” World War I was waged over deeply ingrained ideas about power politics, not simply as a way for the rich to get richer.

Reducing politics to simple questions of economics lacked real evidence and trivialized one of the most important of human relationships. The truth of understanding politics has always been far more complex. As Aron wrote in Opium,

The quarrels of tribes, of nations or of empires have been linked in a multiplicity of ways with those of classes; they have not been mere manifestations of the class struggle. Race hatreds will survive class distinctions. Collectivities will not cease to clash with one another as soon as they have become indifferent to the taste for booty. The desire for power is no less basic than the desire for wealth.

In order to truly understand the world as it is, Aron argued that politics must be taken seriously, and individuals, their actions, their desires, as well as the regime itself, must be studied and understood. As long as Marxist intellectuals failed to see the world as it actually was, they would continue to push dangerous and unintelligible visions of history on the world which would result in tyranny and suffering.

This misunderstanding of politics is the heart of Aron’s argument against the intellectuals. By oversimplifying politics and history, the intellectuals had become convinced that 1917 was the beginning of the new world history Writing in The Century of Total War Aron countered: “the success of Bolshevism does not prove the truth of the Marxist or Leninist-Stalinist doctrine, but the efficacy of a technique of action” (emphasis added). Communists had been successful not because of the soundness and inevitability of Marxist doctrine, but because they had been politically adept and brutally efficient in their seizure and maintenance of power. Such an act as 1917, the very one intellectuals believed was the core of Marxist supremacy, was a political act, not an organic ascendancy of a unified proletariat against the bourgeoisie as Marx had predicted.

Aron’s work is vitally important not only for its devastating critique of Marxist theory, but also for its trenchant take-down of the intellectuals who espoused it and made it credible. Throughout his entire life, he fought against the USSR and Marxism because he realized the danger it posed to humanity and liberalism. He understood the faulty underpinnings of Marx’s theory, and showed that even though some of the world’s smartest men and women had accepted it, they could be proven wrong. Aron’s work on Marxism is perhaps the finest critique ever produced on the subject, and it should be continually studied in an age when communism still threatens the lives of millions across the world.