The reasons why the intellectual structure drawn up by Raymond Aron to understand and get past the crises of his century are still highly relevant today.
Thirty-five years ago, Raymond Aron suffered a fatal heart attack as he was leaving the courthouse where he had testified in favor of Bertrand de Jouvenel, who had been wrongly accused by Zeev Sternhell of being a fascist. Not only had Aron remained faithful to the intellectual aim he set for himself in 1930 of shedding some light on the history of the 20th century, he also saved the face of French intellectuals – firstly in London among the ranks of the Free French forces, then during the Cold War as an opponent of fellow travelers of Stalinism. Today, Aron is recognized as one of the most penetrating analysts of the century of ideologies, but is he still relevant when it comes to understanding the century of globalization?
It seems a long way back from the 21st century to the era of the Cold War and the industrial society. The Soviet Union has collapsed. The bipolar world kept in place by nuclear deterrents has given way to a highly unstable multi-polar configuration with the proliferation of wars that never seem to end. China is openly contesting US leadership. Capitalism has become universal but has seen its center of gravity shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We are seeing the end of three historical cycles that formed the background against which Aron produced his works: the supremacy of the West, which had dominated world history since the great discoveries of the late 15th century; the leadership of the imperial republic of the USA, which had been established since 1917; the world order set up in 1945 to avoid any recurrence of the disasters of the 1930s. And yet, paradoxically, these major changes are what make Raymond Aron’s thinking relevant today.
The era of universal history. Aron was one of the first to envisage that the Cold War would be overtaken by globalization – a concept that he used as early as 1969. The three core issues that he placed at the heart of modern society – equality, socialization and universality – are still present, but function differently. The class struggles of the industrial society have become the opposition between that section of the population actively involved in globalization and those who remain chained to activities or regions that are running out of steam. Socialization is coming up against globalization and the digital revolution, which is breaking up the middle classes, education being unable to respond to the many challenges of integration. Also, although history may be becoming universal, the transition is far from being a peaceful one, since we are seeing conflicts born of the return to nationalist feelings, religious fanaticism and the desire for power. Neither individuals nor nations have bidden a farewell to arms.
“History is again on the move.” This phrase, coined by Arnold Toynbee and reminding us that history is neither linear nor continuous, was often quoted by Aron, who can be set aside from other 20th century French intellectuals in that he was the first to understand disruptions in history and to describe all their consequences: the triumph of Nazism and the emergence of totalitarian states in the 1930s; the need to continue the war after the fiasco of 1940; Stalin’s initiation of the Cold War after 1945; the end of the European colonial empires. The beginning of the 21st century saw history getting up speed again and Raymond Aron had something to say that is relevant to the revolutions of this century: “Men make their own history even if they don’t know what history they are making.” We have to come up with original solutions that promote sustainable and inclusive growth, stabilize universal capitalism, deal with global risks on a cooperative basis, and regulate violence.
Democracy in crisis. Like all those of his generation, Raymond Aron was strongly marked by the disaster of the 1930s. We are now living through the most serious crisis for democracy since the inter-war years. Free nations are being caught up in the crossfire of serious threats from both Jihadism and the démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship], and from populism, which is destroying them from the inside. Raymond Aron’s wisdom can help democracies to overcome this ordeal. He tells us that any such crisis is not without precedent and that political freedom is fragile. Democracy began in Europe during the Enlightenment period when nation states were being established alongside capitalism, and involved principles that were sometimes contradictory. It can only survive if people are committed to it and are willing to defend it. Therefore, democracy has to reinvent itself regularly so as to make its institutions and its customs fit in with changes brought about by history.
The method and the ethics of the committed spectator. Raymond Aron’s legacy is a method for understanding history and acting on it. There are four stages: establishing the facts, analyzing them, interpreting them, and passing judgment. It should be a constant concern not merely to condemn but to take a standpoint that takes account of the constraints placed on any action. This realistic and responsible approach is the best antidote these days to fake news and populist feelings. Aron’s position combines the scholar’s approach and the commitment of someone engaged in the fight for freedom. This is exactly what our present era demands.
The survival of political freedom will be the central issue of the 21st century. At this critical moment of history, the ultimate message that Aron has for us is to remain optimistic and full of hope. Just a few months before his death, at the height of the final crisis of the Cold War and six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he ended his Memoirs with these words: “I do not want to give in to discouragement. The regimes I have defended and in which some people see no more than a camouflage of power, essentially arbitrary and violent, are fragile and turbulent; but, as long as they remain free, they will be able to draw on unexpected resources.”
(Column published in Le Point, 18th October 2018)