Is Jean-Paul Sartre's great intellectual antagonist still relevant today?by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins / June 29, 2013 / Leave a comment
On June 7th, the L’École normale supérieure celebrated the life and work of its alumnus, Jean-Paul Sartre. Dubbed “La Nuit Sartre,” more than 100 participants took part in numerous round table discussions, lectures and expositions in commemoration of Sartre. The proceedings lasted until 3am.
La Nuit Sartre was something more than an exercise in nostalgia. The students who organised the festivities wanted to show the global influence and continued relevance of their intellectual hero. They provided a robust portrait of Sartre, looking beyond his support of communist regimes during the Cold War—a fact that for some disqualifies Sartre from serious consideration today.
Ironically, a number of the discussions during La Nuit Sartre were held in the Salle Raymond Aron. For Raymond Aron—the French sociologist and champion of liberalism—was not only a thorn in Sartre’s side for most of the Cold War, he was also reviled by many Normaliens for his criticisms of the May 1968 student protest movement. Hence the saying, once popular with the French left, that it was better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron. During the Sartre celebrations earlier this month, a student explained to me that Aron remains the only “right-winger” to have the honour of a room named for him at the ENS. How did this happen?
17th October 2013 will mark the 30th anniversary of Aron’s death. These days he is a figure largely forgotten outside of France. If he is remembered outside the academy, it as the intellectual opponent of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir whom he broke with in 1947 due to their support of communism. Shortly thereafter, Aron became an editor for the French conservative newspaper Le Figaro.
Aron’s anti-communism provided him with many contacts in the US: he held guest professorships at Harvard and the University of Chicago; the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations generously financed his research projects. In France, Aron combined his forays into journalism with an academic career that would lead him upwards to the highest echelons of the French university system. Aron is most responsible for the reception of Max Weber’s thought into France and for reviving French interest in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. He was one of a handful of scholars to have two books appear on the Times Literary Supplement‘s 100 Most Influential Books since World War II: The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) and Memoirs (1983). Aron’s academic accomplishments led to his election in 1970 at the Collège de France—the most prestigious higher education and research establishment in France.
Despite these achievements, Aron’s support of the US placed him on the margins of the Parisian intellectual establishment. If Aron was praised for his intellectual courage by American scholars, he was demonised by the French left; but Aron’s fortune would unexpectedly change.
By the mid-1970s the longstanding French aversion towards the liberal tradition eventually reversed itself in the wake of the so called “anti-totalitarian movement.” Disillusioned with the injustices of communist regimes, a soon to be influential group of younger French thinkers discovered the liberal tradition and the language of human rights. Aron’s change of fortune probably had less to do with the power of his thought than with the loss of Marxism’s ideological grip on a younger generation of intellectuals. The students who had once condemned him to the wrong side of history, initiated a general reappraisal of Aron. The shift of France’s intellectual class away from Marxism had global ramifications: students and leaders from the Third World and elsewhere could no longer look as easily to France for political and social alternatives to Anglo-American political thought. Raymond Aron thus played a key intellectual role in bringing about one of liberalism’s most important moments of global consolidation.
Aron reached the peak of his fame a month before his death in 1983 with the publication of his Memoirs, an unusually readable and a riveting account of 20th century political and intellectual history, as told by one of its most respected voices. The book shot to the top of the bestseller list in France and is now considered a classic.
In his 2011 book The New Old World, Perry Anderson suggested that in France “the comprehensive rehabilitation of liberal themes and attitudes that set in from the mid-1970s onwards produced no political thinkers to compare even to Aron.” But is there anything about Aron’s thought that remains relevant for today? Or was he simply a courageous intellectual who resisted the totalitarian temptations of his day?
In the United States and Britain, the latter argument has held sway. Over the last decade certain scholars have appealed to Aron in order to ex-post-facto condemn as foolish the ideas of Aron’s intellectual opponents. The writings of Tony Judt, who depicted Aron as a morally responsible thinker who refused to succumb to the intellectual stupidities of his Marxist contemporaries, exemplify such post-Cold War intellectual score settling.
By contrast, a younger generation of scholars—mainly from France, Italy and Germany—no longer constrained by the Cold War context, are approaching Aron with new questions arising today. One case in point involves work on the intellectual origins of international relations realism, which received significant scholarly attention following 9/11 and its aftermath. Interest grew in the thought of Hans Morgenthau—the doyen of international relations realism—specifically his ideas about national self-interest, balance of power, and his critique of the moralisation of international politics (what is known as “idealism” within the field).
In turn, Raymond Aron’s major work on international relations realism, Peace and War (1962) has also received renewed attention, not only because it recognised and warned against the illiberal origins of early American international relations theory, but because it attempts to offer a third way between political idealism and political realism.
The post-9/11 moment also explains the renewed interest in Aron’s major work, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, which articulated a conception of partisan warfare undergirded by the practical rationality motivating insurgent actions. Here, Aron sought to moderate the sharp distinction between friends versus enemies. Aron then affirmed the existence of natural justice and thus the possibility of diplomacy. Aron’s sympathy with the “partisan” caused René Girard to argue in his recent book, Achever Clausewitz, that Aron’s thoughts on warfare are now simply too liberal for an age of apocalyptic terror.
Gone may be the days when having an interest in Aron or Sartre’s work implied some sense of moral or political loyalty to them. Since what matters most is the significance of their lives and the power of their ideas, celebrating Sartre in a room dedicated to Aron now makes sense.
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