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One of the Witness Generation
The Dawn of Universal History, by Raymond Aron
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Raymond Aron is probably known in this country mainly as the one important French intellectual of the last half-century who was not anti-American. This is not a bad starting-point from which to approach the man’s writings. Born in 1905, he was a member of that “witness generation” well-placed to observe the entire astonishing spectacle of the 20th century (in the John Lukacs sense, i.e., from 1914 to 1989) in all its horror and glory. With a scattering of other British and European writers born at about the same time — George Orwell (1903), Arthur Koestler (1905), and Elias Canetti (also 1905) are names that come to mind — Aron spoke up for common sense and decency when so many of his contemporaries (he was three months older than Jean-Paul Sartre) were seduced, or bought, by what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies” contending for the souls of men, or at any rate of intellectuals, in those low, dishonest decades of the mid-century.

The son of a Parisian jurist, Aron was brilliant student and a natural academic. He might have spent his whole life in the academy; but the family was Jewish, and Aron fled the country when the Vichy regime came in, to spend the war years with General de Gaulle’s Free French forces. Returning to France after the war, he became a professor of sociology, while pursuing a second career as an opinion journalist and what we should nowadays call a policy intellectual. He is probably best known in the English-speaking world for his book The Opium of the Intellectuals, first published in English translation in 1957, reprinted last year by Transaction Publishers, and described by Roger Kimball as: “an indispensable contribution to that most patient and underrated of literatures, the literature of intellectual disabusement.” Aron died in 1983.

The Dawn of Universal History is a collection of six long essays, put together from a dozen or so articles or lectures. With two exceptions, the material all dates from the 1950s. Probably the piece of most interest to American readers is one of the exceptions, written in 1972. Titled “The Imperial Republic,” it is a long (the longest of the six essays) rumination on U.S. foreign policy, and on this country’s place in the postwar world. Aron starts from Voltaire’s description of 18th-century Europe as a Great Republic, whose various states, while frequently at war, had a sort of watchful understanding with each other, principally on the point that none of them should be permitted hegemony. This system broke down sensationally in 1914-45. The history of the world since then has been of an uncertain and unsteady evolution towards a new Great Republic of nations, with the United States as a key member.

The book’s title, and the title of its last essay, refers to this evolution. Says Aron, in that last essay: “For the first time, what are called the higher societies are living through one and the same history.” (His italics.) One great obstacle in the way of this forward progress, much more obvious now than it was when Aron was writing, is the failure of much of the world to establish proper nation-states, with patriotic elites to provide leadership. In a different essay, “Nations and Empires,” he observes that:

The states newly created as a result of the decomposition of the European Empires are nationalist against their former masters, but either they are not yet national or they are distinctly multinational. In Europe, and more widely in the West as a whole, the question is whether nation-states have left the nationalist stage behind them once and for all. In Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, the question is whether nations can be formed out of nationalisms.

That was written in 1957. These notions are not very striking today; but to have voiced them 45 years ago, when the expression “third world” was just coming into general currency, shows remarkable perspicacity. Again, in the same essay, describing the university graduates of the Middle East: “So little are they involved in any political community, they make relatively easy recruits for a supranational ideology.” Aron was thinking of communism, of course; but the collapse of that dream left intact the fundamental problem, so succinctly identified here by Aron, and as pressing today as it was when he wrote.

Aron’s “tendency,” other than being decent and skeptical, is not easy to place politically. I am sure he would have deplored the modern race’n’gender Left just as much, and just as vigorously, as he deplored the old Mao’n’Stalin Left; and he was by no means dogmatically anti-colonialist, not as far as France’s colonies were concerned, at any rate. Yet it is hard to imagine that he would be very comfortable in the company of present-day American conservatives — any more than would Orwell, or Koestler. The relentless tendency of governments to always expand their powers at the expense of individual liberty, even in mature, politically benign, nations, had not yet sunk in when Aron wrote. Nor had (nor yet have, perhaps) the full implications of popular democracy in a media-saturated and hedonistic society.


I must say that, for all the sympathy I feel towards Aron’s general outlook, I found this book heavy going. One reason that mountebanks like Sartre or Foucault obtained such followings is that outrageous or counterintuitive ideas have a natural fascination for us. Common sense is a very wonderful thing, but without the wit of a Malcolm Muggeridge (another member of the “witness generation,” born 1903), the quirkiness of an Orwell, or the literary gifts of a Koestler or a Canetti, it is difficult to make a compelling read out of it. I hate to say it, but Aron was a dull writer. As well as being utterly humorless, he suffers from the additional defect of having few strong positive opinions. I read “The Imperial Republic” with careful attention, but could not tell you where the author stands on the matter of America’s proper role in the world. He is not that kind of writer.

I suspect, in fact, that if Aron had not gone into sociology, he would have made a rather good accountant. He is that kind of writer: laying out the two sides of the balance sheet with scrupulous care, buttressing all the figures with a mass of well-researched data, passing a diffident opinion here or there … but all quite dispassionately. I can quite see that he must have scandalized French intellectuals of the 1950s with his talk of “secular religions”; but these ideas have now become commonplace. For all the follies of our age, we are on the whole saner than we were then. The generality of intellectuals are still pretty stupid in political matters; but not many of them are barking mad, as Foucault or Althusser were. This happy improvement has come about in part through simple material advances, and the sheer un-ignorable failure of the communist project; but numerous identifiable human beings helped it along, and Raymond Aron’s name must stand high on the honor roll.

(Republished from The New York Sun by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Review 
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