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…