Commentary Magazine


In Defense of Decadent Europe, by Raymond Aron

Crisis of the West

In Defense of Decadent Europe.
by Raymond Aron.
Translated by Stephen Cox. Regnery/Gateway. 297 pp. $14.95.

This book, which Henry Kissinger called “one of the most important intellectual statements of our time,” is written by the outstanding Western intellectual of the postwar period. Like virtually everybody else in France in 1976, Raymond Aron was convinced that the Union of the Left would come to power sometime in the next year and a half unless there was a fundamental shift in French political culture. He accordingly suspended some of his more scholarly activities which had led to the publication of a brilliant two-volume study of Clausewitz in the mid-70’s and dedicated himself to politics. First in Le Figaro, then in L’Express, Aron, along with Jean-François Revel, Max Gallo, and others, conducted a concerted campaign against the Socialist-Communist alliance. This book is part of that ultimately successful political campaign, in which the destiny of France was very much at stake. For those not familiar with French intellectual debate it is not exactly an easy book (and the translator has left it syntactically intact, thus giving the effect of a kind of franglais in reverse). But though it takes a bit of trying to get the hang of it, the effort should be made, for In Defense of Decadent Europe directly addresses the central questions of our time.

The theme of the book can be easily deduced from its title: Western Europe has been in decline since the end of World War II, and of late has fallen into decadence. The decline takes the form of a loss of real power in the world struggle, and the decadence is to be found in a growing conviction that Europe lacks the will and the courage to assert itself, or even to defend its own interests. The depth of this European decadence, according to Aron, can be gauged by the popularity of what he calls the Marxist Vulgate, a simple-minded and moralistic condemnation of capitalism and liberal society that constitutes much of the Appeal of the leftist movements. According to the propagators of this dreary message, Europe is a failure: its society is oppressive, its nations are racist and imperialist, its structures are relics of an outmoded past. Challenges come from all sides: from the pseudo-revolutionary student movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s, from a pseudo-scientific ideology of catastrophe as propagated by the Club of Rome, and from Marxist parties that still believe the Soviet model is superior to that of liberal Europe. The defenders of the old continent are few and far between. Worse still, Europe itself has embraced many of these themes (another sign of decadence), and hence:

In spite of its wealth, in spite (or because) of its culture and its freedoms, Western Europe as a whole does not think it is capable of defending itself without assistance. In the face of the Soviet divisions that have been stationed in the heart of Europe for more than thirty years, it entreats the United States to insure the political balance and its security by the maintenance of an American army—the symbol of nuclear deterrence.

Aron therefore sets out to demonstrate that Europe, with all its defects and despite its unquestioned decline, is infinitely superior to the Soviet alternative in every area of endeavor (save military might), and that the attacks against it are based on myth and confusion. He focuses his counterattack on the Marxists, the most vigorous enemies of European civility. Echoing Solzhenitsyn, Aron tears into the great Marxist falsifiers of history and social science, showing how with each great historical setback to Marxist analysis, its devotees have simply explained away the refutation of their predictions on the basis of individual error and aberration (Stalinism) or on the basis of accident—exactly what the theory was not supposed to permit. Thus, the proletariat has not revolted, as Marxist theory said it would, capitalism has not collapsed of its own contradictions, and “socialism” everywhere has given rise to Gulags. Nevertheless,

swearing by all they hold sacred that their own Marxism has nothing to do with the one that Solzhenitsyn attacks, [the Marxists] continue to “Marxify” the universities, the social sciences, and the political and literary magazines—naively convinced that their revolution will not end in the same despotism, too eagerly bent on destroying capitalist-liberal society to ask themselves what society they would build in the ruins.

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The Soviet empire has been a monstrous human failure, and even its modest economic success depends on technological and agrarian aid from the West. Yet Europe somehow continues to believe that it has failed, and that the East offers a more hopeful line of social organization (provided that the “excesses” of totalitarianism can be avoided). Central planning has more often than not led to disaster, yet Europeans often act as if a market economy were the most inhumane of all. As European economies have become increasingly centralized and increasingly designed to provide social welfare, the result is what Aron calls “the British disaster”: the inordinate shrinkage of the productive sector that alone can produce the surpluses necessary for social services.

All of this leads inevitably, as Jimmy Carter has now discovered, to a crisis of authority. Self-hatred is self-reinforcing, and when an elite adopts the ideology of its enemies, that ideology spreads throughout the society. As Aron wisely observes, rampant reformism inevitably leads to revolution. “Whereas the victims of a system put up with a fate they judge themselves incapable of changing, those who glimpse the summit but cannot reach it are prompted to rebel.” Ask the Shah of Iran, and compare his testimony with that of Brezhnev.

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Is it possible for this crisis to be overcome? Aron believes it is. As he notes, the economic recession which followed the first round of OPEC blackmail in 1973 had a salutary effect on many of the people who had forgotten that “living comes first.” The sight of the economic gallows helped to concentrate the European mind—if only for a moment. It reminded Europeans that there are certain social imperatives that make Western civilization possible, and that “growth is neither a gift from heaven nor part of the inevitable nature of things.” In economic affairs, the solution in Aron’s opinion—in Europe as in New York City—is to keep the productive sector “sufficiently extensive and retain a large enough amount of its own surplus for investment. . . .”

Europeans are slowly reminding themselves that freedom lies on this side of the Yalta line, and that it is well worth defending. Thus, Aron closes his book with the observation that there are two specters haunting Europe today: the specter of freedom, which threatens decadence because of its vitality, and the specter of the Red Army, which would crush freedom by its ability to enslave Europeans. Aron urges that his fellow Europeans embrace their ancient calling: “rejecting servitude is not enough: one must also recognize the dangers, and face up to them.”

This is perhaps not a particularly stirring call on which to end such an important book. But one of the great merits of this great intellectual and moral figure is his steadfast refusal to indulge in cheap rhetoric or claim to have more “answers” than he can reasonably provide. And Aron’s tone is precisely the right one at this critical movment. Though our President tells us to line up, reject doctrines of progress, and accept the inevitable, we should be concentrating our attention instead on the questions Raymond Aron addresses to us in his introduction to the American edition of In Defense of Decadent Europe: “Have the causes that brought about the decline of the United Kingdom not become visible in America, as well? Faced with an increasingly powerful and militant Soviet Union, do the Americans still have the same resolution they did thirty years ago?” Raymond Aron’s France, in the historic elections of 1978, rejected the totalitarian temptation. But Europe will not be able to survive the decadence of the United States. If we fall prey to that decadence, which he analyzes so well, the specter of the Red Army will make the current European revival a brief moment of calm before the flood.

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