aymond Aron (1905–1983) was a complex man. French sociologist, philosopher, professor, journalist, Jew. He is someone I have read widely, a hefty hardcover of his Memoirs is among my favourite books. The primary complication with Aron is the difficulty in ascribing an easy political identity to him—as is so desired by many. Where one places him politically says more about one’s own position. He had a broad influence and was a man who, during his life, held many friendships, acquaintances, and antagonisms across the board.
Disregarding bad readings of him, hasty declarations on his allegiances, aspersions with respect to his character or personality, I want to note what Aron, as a cautious, discerning, humanistic voice can offer. I don’t necessarily care to write a biography about him—that’s already been done. I could rightly be accused of laziness for not digging deeper into his life and work, especially as I take issue with a generalised understanding of Aron and his history. I instead want to suggest, mildly, briefly, without some heavy analysis in an extended volume, an attention to his possible meaning or legacy.
My crude coping mechanism whenever someone is mean and troubling politically is to think: ‘What Would Aron Do?’ And I know Aron is smarter, more astute, more sensible and level-headed than most commentators on the internet, so I feel immensely superior, incredibly built diﬀerent, as I and my fellow kids say.
I don’t want to appear glib . . . because this is a man who died in 1983 and having some emotional attachment to a dead intellectual to make up for my own failings could prove troubling if I were not careful or critical, but Aron was, by much academic and anecdotal judgement, both more sensible and sane than his contemporaries, and I feel an almost justified nostalgia for a type of person with both a level of fame and scholarly expertise that is much rarer to find in a unified combination today.
I like to say my attraction is detached from cults of personality revolving around figures with easily advertised, proselytised ideas because, one would hope, knowing Aron’s ideas and personality means having a critical, doubtful, cautious and discerning perspective—not an unreasoning reverence.
But here also is my own insecurity. I am thoroughly opposed to forms of hero worship and messianism, yet this means I am too critical of myself in my ability to just like and enjoy something. I’m always doubting my own raw enjoyment of even trivial things, lest I somehow become a nasty cultist or too intellectually complacent. And I should afford myself some levity instead. I want to present a vague idea and hope it finds some purchase.
Here is a brief outline of some social, cultural, and political issues we currently face: if one is complacent and can’t conceive of how ‘reactionary elements’ will . . . react, if there isn’t the creation of better material conditions to mitigate problems, or a legal system is easy to exploit, it’s little surprise when democracy becomes weak and authoritarian elements flourish.
Convincing people, via argument, to become morally improved is far less effective than incentivising better behaviour by creating more prosperous or tenable conditions. If where one lives is poor and shit, some people will react poorly—either in their intellectual conceptions or their actionable, practical methods.
This doesn’t remove all agency from fascists and bad actors, as if harmful people are produced solely by a bad environment, yet even conceding these people are horrible, and reactionary, how do we think they will react to bad conditions and a perceived lack of responsibility for the world as it is from the vantage of those in positions of power—or how do people otherwise react to arrogance? How does anyone effectively respond to people with a list of many grievances, authentic or not, in a way that isn’t merely accusatory, and practically inadequate? One should know how poorly they themselves respond to hostile shaming and accusations, justified or not. If our goal is behaviour change, what is the most tactful way to achieve this? Emphasising the great divisions of society and identity is perhaps not the best way to get someone, if they can at least be saved from monstrous ideas, to empathise with others they otherwise cannot understand or share exact experiences with. We can forget the most violent demands, one can’t murder half a population for their voting habits and miraculously solve injustice. We don’t create sustainable change by abrogating responsibility (especially if one is in power). Political opponents don’t exist exclusively outside of us as aliens. They are a problem we have to face and not simply disparage and scorn. Whether that is through overt violence and security, or a better legal system, or the hopeful demand to foster conditions that would stop people from becoming fascists and despots in the first place. I present this line of questioning to account, I’d hope, for a better strategy and personal reflection.
Aron can’t necessarily speak for us in 2023, nor could he have foreseen the exact path of societal development, but he can maybe speak to us generally about what our aims should be, our attitudes, or how we may compose ourselves politically.
Many in politics, across the whole spectrum as it is commonly perceived, have a sort of Fukuyama-esque arrogance where they think their position is entirely obvious and doesn’t need unsentimental, proper defending; or, rather, is somehow historically inevitable. Some may want to think they’re past end of history thinking, but their dispositions and attitudes don’t portray this.
Once one believes this, they’re not just intellectually or teleologically weak, but an arrogance in their own position means they don’t comprehend how to properly, strategically, face an opposition, know what an enemy is, or properly defend their own intellectual infrastructure.
An arrogance in her own position meant Hilary Clinton’s infamous ‘deplorables’ comment backfired. The people she spoke of may well, technically, in some admission, say deplorable things or believe in some horrible ideas. But by most observations it still backfired. No matter how truthful one may think the language was, it was tactically ineffective. The admonishment was worn as a badge of honour; Clinton has little idea why fascists exist or at least how to react to them; or prevent their multiplication. Equally, leftists, anti-authoritarian or authoritarian, are just as useless and dithering in their practical organisation or intellectual consistency. Their language amounts to the same proportion of blame, and a resentful reaction is unsurprising. It’s not so much about being correct, I could reasonably say that my political opponents are terrible people or at least have terrible ideas, but this is complaining—not effective change. We can forgive ourselves for outbursts against the most horrible of people, especially when they have harmed us, or traumatised us, and we’re not expecting people to speak and act politely. If impropriety works on occasion, it’s welcomed. The real contention, here, is efficacy.
It’s tragic, and terrible, when reactionary, discriminatory, anti-democratic and fascistic tendencies proliferate—as they are festering and have been for a while across the world. It’s alarming, but not surprising. Something like Brexit, resentment-driven, often simplistically yearning, often plainly xenophobic, shouldn’t have surprised people. The rise of Viktor Orbán, and other similar personalities, is also equally terrible, but not surprising. Not many are facing these issues in, again, an effective or efficient way. Bad political results still surprise people. Why? A small proportion of this surprise is our own complacency. Few ask why exactly is this person horrible? They just know they are. Or they rationalise reasons, accept convenient messaging, without a more uncomfortable investigation. Worse, they suppose, again, that their position and the position of a rival is obvious, now believing their strategy is fine. Without getting to the root or exploring the difficult dimension of stepping into an opponent’s shoes, it’s unlikely we can truly combat things. Being righteously correct, in a moral dimension, only goes so far. It doesn’t suppose great tactical knowledge, like a military commander knowing the correct steps to reach a goal. I contend that good strategy and tactics are vanishingly rare, while feeling correct doesn’t require the same effort. I don’t suppose, either, as if it needed to be said, that I can be a commander or point them out, but I at least have the confidence to say things aren’t going very well.
A continent like Europe has always had to deal with nationalistic tendencies, and a push towards a perceived variety of federalism or pluralism would eventually receive some reply, even if that reply is unwelcome, uninformed, or mean-spirited. The EU is far from perfect; it benefits some
more than others, and when conditions are poorer in many places, it’s easier to blame particular easy targets rather than fix on any real issues, which will be equivocated, and especially so by non-benevolent media and politicians.
Aron, who was always of a cosmopolitan spirit, while still an advocate for France, wished for a greater, friendly co-operation between European powers. With this, he was aware of nationalistic tendencies and the difficulty of ever overcoming them. He hardly couldn’t be. He was a Jew in Europe, witnessing the rise of fascism, and someone who sounded the alarm early, too. The situation since is not the same, yet we can still notice centuries-old antagonisms and preoccupations. A European project needs to be better orchestrated if we want to have a closer, yet fairer relationship, politically and economically, while recognising a homogenisation will cause some backlash and resentment. It’s a balancing act, and nuance dies in politics.
A weakness of Aron, almost, is how he’d be so meticulous and see issues from so many different angles, an “impressionist’s approach”, with so many things happening at once (while still maintaining his own stance), yet his recognition of this complexity is beyond many who don’t necessarily have the time to sit and reflect, and it is then difficult to translate someone who is complex, muted, and considerate, into easy language and comforting slogans. Bad ideas are easier to translate into clichés and appealing propaganda. We aren’t as good at translating discerning ideas into digestible euphemisms, which is partly why better political philosophers don’t have good solutions: they just can’t be implemented very easily. And successful politicians can be, we say arrogantly, stupid people appealing to stupid people.
A European project failing to recognise these issues is unsurprising, and our worst tendencies are always unsurprising. If we are wanting to be more complex, one still has to deal with uncomplicated people who are immediately hostile or unappreciative, and we rarely have much idea of how to most optimally deal with them.
The distancing and, in popular vocabulary, othering of political opponents as ontologically evil, entirely aberrant, where one abrogates any responsibility for their opponents’ existence or grievances, and dehumanises evil, is apparent with overzealous people on the left, and very obviously on the right, and sometimes less so among ‘liberals’, or at least liberals who don’t fall for a Fukuyama-style, or, inversely, an occasionally Marxist conceit of thinking their version of politics and history is inevitable. Leftists have commonly believed their ideas are obviously, axiomatically true, and even, again, historically inevitable, rather than true but with robust defences—which means it is easier to other and distance your opponents, create a sense of righteous superiority, to become practically and logistically ineffective, and one rationalises any falsehoods or lack of coherence. If anything, among more consistent ‘liberals’, these tendencies, or attitudes, are less common.
It’s a common conceit on the left to believe “liberalism” is closer to fascism (and thus evil) thanks to a flimsy conceptualisation of the political spectrum, and always closer to that bane than their own ideas, which are somehow obviously not bad and won’t be exploited . . . Aron observed, in the helpful words of Clive James, that “during the Weimar Republic the left intelligentsia hated capitalism, and hence social democracy as well, far too much to think that Nazism could be worse.”
The hostile pre-occupation with capitalism as an economic motor, for all of capitalism’s flaws and injustices, meant a lack of imagination. Things could get much worse. Aron’s defence of liberal democracy is always critical. It always had to be criticised in detail, but the complete abandonment of it was a less preferable choice open to further exploitation, and, for him, not the best way towards social justice. This is aesthetically unpopular, seemingly a resignation to a least bad option instead of an aspiration for an idyllic best. A warning against dreams becoming nightmares, anti-Icarus. One could regard it as pessimistic, yet political movements have always had confused relationships with a pessimistic assessment of the world as it is, yet a sometimes magically optimistic idea of their own ambitions and ability. If we are more humble, we can maybe recognise how to practically oppose the worst of human tendencies. Aron adopted a less-popular role. He said himself, “I am sure this makes me a reasonable man—and yet know that it is often the dreamers, not the reasonable men, who change society. There is a danger in being reasonable, in being excessively lucid. There is an important place in the social order for impatient people, and I have at times been impatient myself. But France, and the world, have no lack of dreamers. My function, the function of the reasonable man, has fewer practitioners—and it is important, too.”
Instead of holding consistent aspirations, regimes as well as personal ideas need to be understood as inconsistent and hypocritical. People have always created history in the name of ideas, but the history they have created has never faithfully reflected their ideas. And some ideas can easily lend themselves to bad interpretations. Sometimes a democratically centrist, capitalist, liberal regime will be the present administrators most greatly opposed to fascism in a particular time and place, better equipped than leftists, and sometimes the opposite is true—variably, any of these political categories can fail to combat fascism and be ineffective, or counterproductive.
Part of this problem, our efficacy in resisting harmful ideas, is how people view the nature of their opponent. They can be correct on the very basic truth that something or someone is bad, but if this idea is very rudimentary (i.e you don’t know your enemy), we find the problem of othering evil instead of recognising it more clearly and in its full human breadth and depth.
Leftists, commonly, don’t understand liberalism—it’s a buzzword insert for apparent misfortunes, sometimes a true indictment of diffuse liberal weaknesses, but hardly so categorically. Liberals, especially of an American persuasion, with definitions at cross-purposes with historical readings, also don’t understand liberalism, or pluralism, or equality under the law—so much so that what they often espouse is illiberal, anti-democratic, or an institutional failure to uphold basic tenets of equality, liberty, and justice. Worse, the language of freedom is readily exploited by ultra- conservatives, and fascists, with policy directly opposed to equitable principles: banning books, exploiting and neglecting vulnerable people, voter suppression, significant financial and social inequity, etc. Everyone is inadequate both in practical scenarios as well as intellectually in their real knowledge of nebulous concepts, with too many personalised and caricaturised understandings. This doesn’t mean I pin my allegiance solidly to the banner to say “I’m a liberal”.
I’m more concerned with the general as well as the acute misunderstanding of the political vocabulary, and the practical effectiveness in combating anti-democratic, despotic, and fascistic ideas.
“The man who no longer expects miraculous changes either from a revolution or from an economic plan is not obliged to resign himself to the unjustifiable. It is because he likes individual human beings, participates in communities, and respects the truth, that he refuses to surrender his soul to an abstract ideal of humanity, a tyrannical party, and an absurd scholasticism . . . . . . If tolerance is born of doubt, let us teach everyone to doubt all the models and utopias, to challenge all the prophets of redemption and the heralds of catastrophe.”—Raymond Aron, The Opium of The Intellectuals.
Reading Aron’s 1968 essay Progress and Disillusion: The Dialectics of Modern Society, in 2023, with the economic and social developments that have occurred since, a lazy reader could almost cherrypick quotations and passages to justify a stereotypical, caricaturist socialism. Aron suggests, entirely reasonably one might say, that the economic question par excellence is the organisation of wealth in society. Or, how to best use the limited resources available to us. And how most should concede that even if technology and industry necessitate a hierarchy, and act at odds with egalitarian principle, and very rich individuals may exist, if extant wealth is technically able and abundant enough to cover the relative needs of everyone to lead a comfortable living, with their relative needs fulfilled according to contemporary standards and costs—in other words, affording a living wage—this should be aspired to and negotiated, as well as other seemingly insoluble inequalities mitigated, with the hope that future social and technological orders we cannot predict will more successfully accept egalitarian principle. Unrest and violence are predictable if a regime can’t realise economic and social needs, while a coherent or cogent revolutionary response is not so predictable. Order is provisional, and institutions are more fragile than we think. Industrial, technological societies, with the imperative of production, can never absolutely overcome the dissatisfactions they produce no matter how they are organised: whether according, superficially, to capitalist or communist rules.
Aron goes into greater detail on various social stratifications and the contradictions of modern society, but we can reasonably concede an easier narrative here.
Rather than respecting these cautions, modern deregulatory economics, austerity policies, and an inverted obsession with private property and privatisation have all proliferated instead of the acceptance of decent, indeed centuries-old egalitarian principles. Enough social movements and identities decry an industrial order and policy that may pay meagre lip-service to equality yet does not organise or distribute wealth in a fairer sense that is, perceptibly, logistically possible: technological and industrial progress is not compromising fairly enough with social and cultural demands. This isn’t a communistic aim, these were the principles of a man accused of being a right winger. Not accepting Marxist inevitabilities, or noting that Marxist historicism and predictions of class struggle contain inaccuracies, is enough for some to be accused of anything. We can note that Aron respected Marx enough, knew the richness of his theory, and certainly read and investigated him more thoroughly than most self-described believers.
Aron disdained injustice and inequality, the overly-conservative nature of his country, and hoped that seemingly inscrutable racial, national, and historical antagonisms could somehow be treated and eventually overcome—even if he thought many proposed solutions were unlikely or unavailable, or they needed a longer convalescence. Accusations were levelled at him more for his emotional disposition—as an observer, not an outspoken activist, seemingly too cold and aloof. Aron’s uncommon emotional outbursts were stronger for their rarity and their intimacy.
A cautious prediction today would see Aron noticing not just the inefficacies of progressive voices, but the contemptible failure of the proprietors of wealth to ensure a fairer society; entrenching divisions and rejecting inclusivity. The moderate right is hollow; the far-right promotes itself further; financial elites enrich themselves while the rest get by on less and less. Liberal dispositions appear weak and mediocre; leftist proponents dither and fail, and most are understandably distracted by social media and the overabundance of trivia. Popular voices, dreamers, speak of breaking free of this trap of realism, this seemingly incontestable situation where so many are powerless. I don’t believe many of them, who by my reckoning appear seduced by easy temptations and phrases. Some of their visions, when not suffering from hankerings to Leninism or other passé, zombie ideologies, are noble and just—with an acute awareness of misfortune and a wish to alleviate it. As dreamers, I hope they can offer a better world, but at least heed warnings and know their true ability. They won’t get so far if, like the archetypical philosopher, now the archetypical activist, they fall down the well with their head in the clouds.
For Aron, political choices weren’t about what was best but about choosing what was preferable over what was detestable. Aron didn’t aspire to pessimism, but contending with the disillusions and dissatisfactions of people faced with new events and the complications of history never has an easy or straight solution.
. . . the liberal believes in the permanence of humanity’s imperfection, he resigns himself to a regime in which the good will be the result of numberless actions, and never the object of a conscious choice. Finally, he subscribes to the pessimism that sees, in politics, the art of creating the conditions in which the vices of men will contribute to the good of the state.
(Raymond Aron, The Opium of The Intellectuals)
I don’t expect a consistent, unified, and actionable political project to ever exist based on Aron’s particular attitudes and ideas. I think other ideas are more tantalising and attractive, or sensible warnings won’t likely be heeded. But we should say that I am more pessimistic than Aron himself. Aron saw societies in turmoil, the incompleteness of promised success, with less defensible injustices each day. With every advance, moral discrimination is more obvious and the pressure to move faster grows. Yet he did not despair for our future. It is harder today, especially for younger generations, to not despair at our surroundings and our future. What we might hope for, in my desperate attempt, is an understanding of Aron and his ideas as a wiser, almost paternal guide
who explains how to, maybe, discerningly, yet dutifully contend with political misfortune and navigate our oppositions.
Aron is best as a critic and as someone offering a warning, so it might be in our interest to listen—and hopefully prevent future mistakes.
Publisher's note: Wend Rend's drawing, "WWAD ('What Would Aron Do?')", accompanies this essay, with the artist's commentary.