Raymond Aron on Liberation and Enslavement

Raymond Aron (1905-1983), the French political thinker, wrote:

“Every advance in liberation carries within itself the seed of a new form of enslavement.”

(Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals, p. 21)

It is hard to overstate the long shadow cast by the Marxist French thinkers of Paris, 1968 (among whom number Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan [the latter more adopted by Marxists than a Marxist himself]) over what passes for “critical thinking” in American arts and letters.

A substantial segment of American intelligentsia have in the years since read the French radicals of 1968, but without substantially reading their critics. American “critical theory” is therefore oddly uncritical of itself, and infused within a cycle of self-reinforcing, naive solipsism.

Many American college graduates therefore find American “critical theory” perfectly useless outside of the confines of the classroom.

Raymond Aron and Jacques Maritain were among several of the critics of the tradition of Paris, 1968. Aron’s principal criticism was twofold, that the French Marxists actually failed to “think politically,” and that their political statements were based upon “bad faith” or a double standard.

By failing to “think politically” Aron meant of the French Marxists–

“Two things: First, they prefer ideology, that is, a rather literary image of a desirable society, rather than to study the functioning of a given economy, of a liberal economy, of a parliamentary system, and so forth. . . And then there is a second element, perhaps more basic: they refused to answer the question someone once asked me: ‘If you were in the minister’s position, what would you do?’”

(Raymond Aron, 1997, Thinking Politically: A Liberal in the Age of Ideology, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, pp. 154-55.)

By “bad faith,” Aron meant–

“Western societies were excoriated for their every injustice (and what society, Aron would ask, has not been unjust?) while the socialist world was judged on the basis of its ostensibly good intentions.”

Brian C. Anderson, 1997, Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, NY, Rowmand & Littlefield, pp. 4-5, citing Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals.

A number of the students of the Marxists of Paris, 1968 have since taken some of the criticisms to heart, and have tried to embed their critiques in spatial and empirical narratives. A few, like David Harvey and Manuel Castells, have essentially been re-writing Marx’s Das Kapital in spatial, systematic–and sometimes impenetrable–terms throughout their life-long research programs.

But Aron still stands as a powerful critic of the traditions that arose in those heady days in Paris.

I should mention that Aron was a contemporary of Simone Weil, and attended the École Normale Supérieure with her in Paris. Aron’s book title, The Opium of the Intellectuals, is obviously a echo of Weil’s earlier dictum from her book Oppression and Liberty, “Revolution is the opium of the people.”

When one is sick and tired of the “literary politics” of the professors, one can turn to Aron.

Aron’s writing approaches the commonsense politics one derives from Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Frank J. Sheed’s Communism and Man (wherein Sheed makes a similar point to Aron that political systems have inherent self-destructive capabilities), and the best of the political and governmental (as opposed to academic) American pragmatic tradition as practiced by Alexander Hamilton and by Abraham Lincoln.

Brian C. Anderson summarized Aron’s approach as–

“A conservative defense of liberalism rooted in historical reality, an awareness of tragedy, and a keen sensitivity to both the contingencies of politics and the self-undermining tendencies of the liberal democratic regime.”

(Brian C. Anderson, 1997, Raymond Aron: The Recovery of the Political, NY, Rowmand & Littlefield, p. 167)

Students of social justice should by all means read Sartre, Lefebvre, Foucault, Lacan, Harvey, and Castells. But to not also read Aron, Maritain, Yves Simon, Weil, Hamilton, and Lincoln for a different perspective may mean condemning oneself to years of pursuing intellectual and political dead ends.

In addition, to pursue Marxist analysis and politics without reading every page of Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism is be both intellectually lazy and politically irresponsible.

Unlike the overly-lionized Marxists of Paris, 1968, Aron’s ideas can actually be applied. One of his principal ideas relates to the tragic imperfection of our political efforts, and the constant need for correction.

Constant awareness of the possibility that I may be wrong about my political choices and about my own assumptions leads to a very different kind of politics, a politics that is open to correction.

The first step toward liberation therefore sometimes can be taken by casting off our own slavery to our own pet ideas, and by constantly seeking new ways to correct them.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

© Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved


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2 Responses to “Raymond Aron on Liberation and Enslavement”

  1. Brad T. says:

    This was a very good post, but I always assumed that Aron’s title “The Opium of the Intellectuals” was a turnaround of Marx’s extremely well-known statement that “religion is the opium of the people.” I found it comical that the poster assumes that it “obviously” came from Simone Weil’s similar phraseology… isn’t it much more likely that they both came from Marx, rather than one from the other?

  2. Brad, Thanks very much for your comment! Of course, both Weil (in the early 1930s) and Aron (in 1955) spun around Marx’s phrase, but the reason Aron obviously borrowed from Weil is that he cites her on page vii of Opium of the Intellectuals, just under the original Marx quote–

    Best wishes,

    Albert Schorsch, III
    © Copyright 2012, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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