Raymond Aron’s The Opium Of The Intellectuals

The Opium Of The IntellectualsFrance in the aftermath of the Second World War was in ruins, both spiritually and physically. Nearly half a million buildings had been destroyed, with a greater number severely damaged; agricultural output was a fraction of what it had been prior to the war. Food rationing, begun under Nazi occupation as a means of sustaining the German war machine, continued until the end of the decade, leaving the average French citizen starving. But by far the worst blow was to French national pride. The same country that fought to the last man in the First World War had its military swept aside in a mere two months, and in the ensuing occupation, dishonour followed defeat as the French, with few exceptions, chose collaboration over resistance. The end result was a kind of national uncertainty, a total loss of confidence not seen in France since the Revolution. Into this void stepped a series of thinkers and theorists who offered an attractive alternative, a radical critique of not only France, which obviously deserved it, but of Western society as a whole, and in particular the model offered by Great Britain and the burgeoning United States. This, it turned out, was a winning combination, a way for the French intellectual elite to simultaneously distance themselves from the French failures of the past while still holding their noses up to the direction advocated by the Americans and the British.

The figureheads of this radical new philosophy were Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, children of Marx and Hegel both, but their intellectual heirs are legion: from Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon to Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Outside of France and academia, these names are not well known, but within these worlds each one achieved an immense influence. Charles de Gaulle famously likened Sartre to Voltaire when he refused to arrest him for his role in the May 1968 strikes in Paris (“You don’t arrest Voltaire”), and though I deplore the comparison, such was Sartre’s influence. Few within France dared to question this new, Marxist philosophy, with its promise of a brighter, more egalitarian future (and a preeminent role for France in bringing this future into being). The exception, almost the lone voice of dissent, was Raymond Aron.

Aron and Sartre were lifelong friends, or at least acquaintances; they met at the École Normale Supérieure, where they both studied philosophy, but in the final examinations, used to determine candidacy for university professorship, Sartre failed and Aron took first prize. During World War II, Aron escaped to London, where he joined de Gaulle’s France Libre resistance. After the war, he taught at the École Nationale, Sciences Po and the Sorbonne, where he met a young Allan Bloom. He looked with profound unease on the intellectual consensus of his time, which placed absolute faith in the power of government to bring about the promised society of equality and prosperity and peace, and his suspicions found real-world significance in the emerging super powers of the day: America, with its confidence in democracy and free markets, and the Soviet Union, the planned society, both of which claimed to be the ultimate representatives of government by the people. Two habits of the French intellectuals rankled Aron, in particular. The first was their tendency to reserve their fiercest criticisms for the democracies of the West, often while remaining silent or oblivious to the misdeeds of the Soviet Union; the second, no less infuriating, was their limitless ability to interpret history to the advantage of their ideology. Every peasant uprising, every political agitation, was proof of the validity of the Marxist worldview; even the successes of liberal democracies, the incredibly high living standards of the average American worker, could be brushed aside with an appeal to some facet or other of Marxist philosophy. Aron dared to disagree, and The Opium Of The Intellectuals, published in 1955, was his ultimate critique.

Aron begins by identifying three “myths” upon which the regnant Marxist philosophy is built: the myth of the Left, the myth of the revolution and the myth of the proletariat. Each of these chapters constitutes both a searing criticism of Marxism and, as I read from my vantage point in history, a terrifying commentary on the state of 21st century governance. Here, for example, is his assessment of “the myth of the left”:

The Left thinks in terms of an imaginary continuity, as though the future was always better than the past, as though, the party of ‘progress’ being always in the right as against the conservatives, one could take the legacy of the past for granted and concern oneself exclusively with new conquests.

He is speaking of the Left of the 1950s, but these words ring true today as well. To conceive of politics in stark contrasts (liberal progress versus conservative stagnation), to make a mockery of the lessons of history by focusing always and exclusively on the imaginary and illusive future prosperity, are the chief vices of today’s Left as well. In his chapter “The Myth of the Revolution,” he deflates the romantic power of the revolutionary ideal, one that enthrals the young of 2016 as reliably as it did the young of the 1950s and 1960s:

Revolutionary power is by definition a tyrannical power. It operates in defiance of the law, it expresses the will of a minority group, it is not, and cannot be, concerned with the interests of this or that section of the people. […] The seizure and exercise of power by violence presuppose conflicts which negotiation and compromise have failed to resolve – in other words the failure of democratic procedures. Revolution and democracy are contradictory notions.

Revolutions are, indeed, the antithesis of democracy, and our valourization of the revolutionary has coincided with a disdain for the slow progress of democratic governance. This, Aron correctly notes, represents a terrible danger, for if democracies are slow in adjusting to the demands of morality, they are also our best safeguard against the ever-present threats of tyranny. Here is his portrait of the revolutionary:

There are some who are revolutionaries out of hatred of the world or a perverse love of disaster; more often, revolutionaries are guilty of excessive optimism. Every known régime is blameworthy if one relates it to an abstract ideal of equality or liberty. Only revolution, because it is an adventure, or a revolutionary régime, because it accepts the permanent use of violence, seems capable of attaining the goal of perfection. The myth of the Revolution serves as a refuge for utopian intellectuals; it becomes the mysterious, unpredictable intercessor between the real and the ideal.

It is conspicuous to me, as I follow the drama of the 2016 American presidential election, how strikingly incongruous the rhetoric of the Left is, how inadequate it seems to describing the reality of contemporary America. Words like “oppression” are thrown around casually, to describe the most trivial or banal of slights, and disagreement with the progressive agenda, however mild, irrevocably labels the dissenter a traitor to justice. Small wonder, then, that this year’s election has been the most polarizing, the most invective-filled, in recent history.

The last of the myths Aron expels is the “myth of the proletariat,” the foolish idea that cultural, linguistic and national barriers can be shunted aside and all the working peoples of the world united by their common condition of oppression. Even in the middle of the 20th century, such a position was untenable. The working classes of America and the working classes of the Soviet Union (or France, for that matter) could be united only in the most abstract terms, for as the Russian toiled for his bread and the Frenchman for his wine, the American working classes were purchasing cars, suburban homes, and conveniences such as washing machines and dryers. In other words, if the focal point of the new Leftist philosophy is concern for the welfare of the common man, America should be closer to the ideal than the Soviet Union: “American economic prosperity is the best guarantee of attaining the objectives which the European Left has always advocated. The experts of the entire world come to Detroit to find the secret of wealth. In the name of what European values could the intellectual turn his back on the American reality?”

The proletariat are useful, Aron contends, only insofar as they can be used for a political end, and their usefulness stems from public sympathy for their cause. “To believe in the people was to believe in humanity as a whole,” he writes; “To believe in the proletariat is to believe in election by suffering.” Election by suffering is a characteristic of the modern Left as well, which has given up the proletariat in favour of women and racial and sexual minorities, among whom it is forever stoking the fires of grievance in an attempt to inculcate this sense of group unity.

There came a point, midway through my reading, where I ceased to read the book as a commentary on France in the 1950s and instead saw, on every page, a running indictment of our intelligentsia. Consider the moral confusion embodied by the student movement “Gays For Palestine,” for example, or the spectacle of Western feminists defending the burqa, and then look to Aron: “It is always astonishing that a thinker should appear indulgent to a society which would not tolerate him and merciless to the one which honours him.” No Muslim country can properly be described as being in favour of gay rights, and the grievances of Western feminists appear comical alongside the plight of women in Saudi Arabia or Iran, but on these subjects the Left maintains a stony silence. I do not need to wonder what Aron would have thought of the European Union or the Brexit vote, for he saw its end before it began:

Those who aspire to command history seem to dream either of eliminating the intervention of accidents, of great men and chance encounters, or of rebuilding society according to a global plan and discarding the heritage of unjustifiable traditions, or of putting an end to the conflicts which divide humanity and deliver it up the tragic irony of war. Reason teaches us precisely the opposite – that politics will always remain the art of the irrevocable choice by fallible men in unforeseen circumstances and semi-ignorance. Every impulse towards global planning is doomed to end in tyranny.

Aron was vilified in his day, as were all who opposed the path of “obvious” enlightenment, and despite his strengths as a philosopher and sociologist, and the lasting influence of The Opium Of The Intellectuals, this book was out of print until very recently. Let us hope it finds the readership it deserves.