Skip to content

Raymond Aron and the Art of Politics

For Aron, politics is the art of living together, the art of the possible, and requires an “acute awareness” of the limitations of our power to influence reality.

· 12 min read
Raymond Aron and the Art of Politics
A colorized photo of Raymond Aron in 1980. Alamy.


Raymond Aron is little remembered now. If he is thought of at all, it is as a partisan of a Cold War long since exhausted. But this wide-ranging philosopher and journalist was one of the richest and most nuanced of thinkers and perhaps the greatest political commentator of the twentieth century. And with his courage, insightfulness, and ethic of responsibility, he has much to teach us about the art of politics in a divided age.

Aron was born to secularised Jewish parents in Paris in 1905. In the early 1930s, he moved to Germany to study philosophy and witnessed the rise of the Nazis firsthand. In L’Opium des Intellectuels (1955), Raymond describes the “strange, strong sentiment” he had in the 1930s that “history is again on the move.” Shortly after his return to his home country, the Second World War broke out, and in 1940 he fled Nazi-occupied France for London, where he became the editor of the Free French, an influential journal broadly aligned with Charles de Gaulle’s Résistance. After the Allied liberation of France in 1944, he returned home “to take part in the national debates,” he writes in Mémoires (1983), since “my country was liberated, but  everything still remained to do.” For the next three years, he wrote for the left-wing journal Combat, edited by Albert Camus. Then, in 1947, he became a correspondent for the influential centre-right periodical Le Figaro, where he would remain for the next thirty years. In 1955, he also took up a position teaching sociology at the Sorbonne.

Despite his roles as an academic and political commentator, Aron once wrote that he could never have been “content with the role of a mere spectator.” Instead, he saw himself as a “spectateur engagé”—a committed observer with the responsibility to ask himself “What could I do if I were in the place of those who govern?” and, in answering, to always differentiate “the desirable from the possible.” His role was to determine what feasible solution “seemed to me best for France or for peace, or the most conformable to morality.” He was scathing about those commentators—including his younger self—who issued “categorical judgements” on things about which they “knew almost nothing.” “It is not every day that there is a Dreyfus Affair, which authorises us to invoke truth against error,” he cautioned. Any intellectual who wished to “daily express his or her opinion” had a duty to first master the subject under consideration. This is precisely what Aron did and it enabled him to combine the most rigorous conceptual analysis with the most precise detail.

Houellebecq’s New Memoir and the Recent Riots in France: Quillette Cetera Episode 10
The French polemicist’s memoir invites us to pity him, but should we?

Although he had written for a Gaullist publication during the war, Aron was not uncritically supportive of De Gaulle’s post-war leadership. But he strongly advocated the domestic policies balancing freedom with state planning that contributed to France’s “thirty glorious years” of economic recovery from 1945–75. His analysis of the Cold War was astute. He regarded it as a situation in which “peace is impossible, war improbable” and called for a strong Western European–NATO alliance against the Soviets. In his journalism, he commented on all the major political affairs of the day. For instance, he outlined the complexities of nuclear deterrence, supported a number of independence movements in former colonial states, and kept a keen eye on Jewish affairs in both France and Israel.  In his scholarship, he promoted the serious study of figures such as Max Weber, Alexis de Tocqueville, Montesquieu, and Carl von Clausewitz, and developed a powerful and influential theory of international relations. He also pioneered some important concepts in sociology, including the notion of “industrial civilisation,” which defines the modern era as one of rapid economic growth facilitated by industrial technology. And, perhaps most famously, he provided a sustained and incisive philosophical critique of Marxism and other radical ideologies popular in France at that time.

Aron developed a reputation for an almost divinatory ability to predict the course of political events. The diplomat and historian George Kennan, who masterminded American containment policy, credited him with a “remarkable prophetic intuition.” Henry Kissinger referred to him as his “teacher.” And the philosopher Allan Bloom related that the influential philosopher Alexandre Kojève, whom he had never heard express uncertainty on any other issue, once proclaimed “I must call Aron,” when he needed help understanding one of the constant political crises that plagued the Fourth Republic.

Kissinger and Cambodia
Attempts to hold US policy solely responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge are historically inept.

Aron’s moral integrity and courage gradually became as legendary as his grasp of history in the making. His student, the philosopher Pierre Manent, claimed in 2004 that in his “very rare ability to balance passion and the constant concern for impartiality … he was the most naturally just man I ever knew.”

Aron’s sense of justice was especially evident in his principled stance on Algerian independence. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the French public still broadly favoured retaining their empire, which seemed to represent their last chance of national glory. The most important part of that empire was Algeria, which had been conquered in 1830, and which housed a population of over a million citizens of European origin, known as pied noirs, who comprised some 10% of the total population. Many considered the country an integral part of France itself. Aron was one of the first to defend the Algerian cause. In his 1957 pamphlet, The Algerian Tragedy, he describes himself as “haunted by the fear that France might throw itself once again into a military adventure from which there is no exit, comparable to that of Indochina and even more serious.” He believed that the French regime itself would not survive such an outcome and that, unless Algeria was liberated, “an absurd civil war loomed on the horizon.” He argued that Algerian autonomy was a historical inevitability and that its millions of Muslims, “who fight for their independence, must win, if not by courage at least by patience, against a people who no longer believe in their civilising mission and in their right to impose their sovereignty on a people in quest of its own identity.” The pamphlet proved highly divisive—Aron was denounced by many critics and even received death threats—but it helped shift public opinion and influenced the decision to withdraw from Algeria in 1962.

His views on Algeria garnered Aron many enemies on the right. But he was no stranger to hostility from the left either. In 1955, Aron published The Opium of the Intellectuals: a trenchant critique of Marxism, which, with its false, deterministic “universal history that simultaneously predicates the future and indicates what we must do in the present,” provided the predominantly left-wing French intelligentsia with an opioid escape from the limitations of reality. He denounced his peers’ arrogant certainties, their irresponsible advocacy of violent revolution, their support for the Soviet Union, and their hypocritical silence in the face of its atrocities and totalitarian repression.

Ever since Aron had joined Le Figaro, almost twenty years earlier, he had “felt himself, solitary, despoiled of all the friends of my youth.” Aron knew that the book would now isolate him further since it would outrage many among the French intellectual establishment—including some of his personal friends. To make things even more challenging, it was written at a time of personal tragedy shortly after the death of one of his daughters and the birth of another with Down’s syndrome. The book also drove a rift between him and his once close friend Jean-Paul Sartre. “That which I believe catastrophic, that for which he will be reproached for one day,” Aron later lamented of Sartre, “is to have used his dialectic virtuosity and generous feelings [towards the oppressed classes] to justify the unjustifiable.”

A decade later, Aron once again fell foul of his colleagues and students on the left, when he spoke out against the mass countercultural demonstrations of May 1968. While he was sympathetic to some of the protestors’ claims, he condemned their reckless, radical rejection of core values and institutions of French society. In response, a popular radical slogan of the time proclaimed that it was “better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.”

Aron’s rejection of radicalism stemmed from his convictions about the nature and importance of democratic politics. In his 1965 book, Democracy and Totalitarianism, he argues that

the political is more important than the economic by definition, because the political more directly concerns the very meaning of existence … To live like a human being is to live with others … And the organisation of authority impacts more directly on our way of life than any other aspect of society. 

For Aron, politics could not be reduced to social and economic factors. It is the art of living together, the art of the possible, and requires an “acute awareness” of the inherent limitations of our power to influence reality through our actions, as well as of “the equivocality of human reality, the multiplicity of questions” it raises and the provisionality of all solutions. Politics, he wrote, “is a matter of achieving a reasonable compromise between ultimately incompatible demands.”

“Revolution and democracy are contradictory notions,” Aron argued. “The seizure and exercise of power by violence presupposes that there are some conflicts that negotiation and compromise cannot successfully resolve; in other words, it implies the failure of democratic processes.” The great political question of the twentieth century, for Aron, was whether one was willing to take what he called the “gamble on humanity”— to trust in the people. The West had embraced this gamble, but the Soviet regime was “founded on the refusal of confidence in the governed, on the pretension of a minority of oligarchs … to have exclusive access to the definitive truth for themselves and for the future.”

The French Genocide That Has Been Air-Brushed From History
For the most influential historians who held positions of power in major French institutions, the French Revolution was not a research topic but an origin myth—the heart of their secular faith’s cosmology.

For Aron, liberal democracy, “the legally organised competition for power,” was the best available form of government for our time and, despite all its problems, the only one that could safeguard the values most central to humanity: freedom and truth. He liked to cite the nineteenth-century philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier, usually known as Alain: “Civilisation is a thin film that the slightest shock can rip apart, allowing barbarism to break through.” In this view, totalitarian tyranny and civil war are ever-present threats to all modern societies. This was certainly true of Aron’s France, as it traversed the crises of the 1930s, the Second World War, the Algerian War of Independence, and the 1968 protests. He writes,

I was, and I remain convinced that a people as inclined towards faction as the French have no chance of preserving their unity or surviving except by making an incessant effort to combat their demons, to fight the temptation each political party feels to claim a monopoly on patriotism, to claim to alone represent the nation.

For Aron, our fragile political freedom requires “not only that multiple parties exist” but “that the winning party tolerates in advance its possible defeat in the next election.” This requires recognising the legitimacy of the other side—“not to suppress the inexpiable conflicts nor to avoid engagements, but to assume them without hate, without denying our adversary’s honour.” Political contests, for Aron, are “never a battle between good and evil,” but between more and less preferable alternatives. Aron quickly rid himself “of the superstition that Sartre maintained until his last day: [that] ‘the right are bastards,’ or, in more academic language, of the superstition that the parties differ by the moral or human quality of their activists or  leaders.” He believed that there were virtuous people in both camps, though he thought it doubtful whether they were particularly numerous in either.

Aron’s own allegiance was always to truth and justice, rather than to any particular party, “whether of the left, or of the right, socialists or radicals.” It was a point of pride to him that foreigners “nearly always said that it was impossible to classify me” and that “the majority of those who have sketched an intellectual portrait of me have emphasised the fact that I always place everything in doubt and that it is rare that, after having affirmed a proposition, I do not add: “but, on the other hand….’” Though Aron soon distanced himself from his early socialism, he always considered himself to have leftist inclinations because he believed leftism was fundamentally about being committed to building a better future. “If my critiques seem directed primarily against the left,” he writes, “I blame my desire to convince my friends. And I also blame the attitude that the majority of the men of the left have adopted today and that seems to be a betrayal of the ‘eternal’ left,’” which he elsewhere defines as “that which invokes not liberty or equality but fraternity, or, in other words, love.”

But despite Aron’s critiques of the left, he was even more repelled by the hate-driven far right. Yet, although he was staunchly anti-fascist, he condemned the hasty and often unjust purges of Nazi collaborators after the war. He had particular reservations about the trial of ‘Le Marechal’ Petain. He also retained friends among some of those accused of fascist sympathies and publicly defended such controversial thinkers as Carl Schmitt and Bertrand de Jouvenel.

While he broadly supported General de Gaulle, Aron was never shy about voicing his criticisms of him, leading the General to comment once that “he has never been a Gaullist.” The Gaullist Prime Minister Georges Pompidou agreed, complaining that “one can never count on Raymond Aron.” Aron took pride in this accusation, which he saw as “a way of saying that Raymond Aron will always critique that which he has a desire to critique, that he thinks and writes freely. In this sense, although I have taken categorical positions on some specific questions, I have never been in the service of any powerful man.”

This disciplined detachment and refusal to take sides frustrated many critics. One New York Times reviewer wrote that “Raymond Aron is one of those insupportable men who maintain their sang-froid in the moments when everyone else lets themselves be carried away by their emotions.” To these sorts of complaints, Aron would respond, “Is it necessary to become unreasonable to demonstrate that one has a good heart?” Once he wrote, “Occasions for indignation are not lacking in our era: may the reader pardon me for my parsimonious use of a good of which the demand exceeds the supply.” His purpose, he felt, was to understand and to advise, not to condemn things as if he were the universal conscience of mankind. “In this way,” his biographer Nicholas Baverez has said, “Aron’s position is exactly identical to the position that he attributed to Tocqueville: ‘Too liberal for the party from which he emerged, not enthusiastic enough about new ideas in the eyes of republicans, he has not been adopted by either the right or the left: all sides see him as suspect.’”

Aron’s non-partisanship probably prevented him from being canonised by either side of the political aisle and contributed to his descent into obscurity. The neglect of his work is probably also due to the modesty of his positive prescriptions and the fact that he focused on current events. The writer André Maurois once said that Aron “would be our Montesquieu if he pulled himself away from reality.” As Aron himself acknowledged, writers of his “type can exercise a non-negligible influence on their contemporaries, but their work, tied to an ephemeral situation, wears away more quickly than that of those creators who, at the risk of fooling themselves, construct conceptual cathedrals with the courage of imagination.” He saw himself as “a man largely alone in the face of history and intellectual fashions.” He inspired no original school of thought. And yet, at the end of his life, he could justly claim that he had always been “faithful to myself, faithful to my ideas, to my values and to my philosophy” and that “whenever there were debates that touched on the essence of modern civilisation, I have, I believe, always been on the right side.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never had any illusions about the detestable idols of the age, whether these were men like Hitler and Stalin or ideologies like imperialism and Marxism. It was also probably due in no small part to his own writings that by the time of his death in 1983 what is now referred to as “the liberal revival” had taken place—and with it the collapse of revolutionary politics in the Western world. Both left and right finally accepted him in death. The left-wing newspaper Libération, having previously fulminated against him, announced his death with the headline: “France loses its teacher.”  

Raymond Aron’s work is still essential reading. His political concerns remain relevant. His Memoirs, in particular, provides a beautifully written account of his life and thought that doubles as one of the great histories of the twentieth century. But it is his character that deserves our special respect. In his ethic of moderation and journalistic responsibility, his combination of courage and cool headedness, he provides a role model for political commentators. These are qualities that are vitally important in an age in which the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity, in which hateful ideologies and polarised partisanship once again threaten to tear us apart. We are badly in need of intellectual leadership of his stamp.  

Erratum: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Aron was born in 1904.

On Instagram @quillette