The Opium of the Intellectuals.
by Raymond Aron.
Doubleday. 324 pp. $4.50.
by Raymond Aron.
Free Press. 135 pp. $3.50.
When L’Opium des Intellectuels was published in Paris three years ago, it evoked among other comments a characteristic remark by a British historian, Mr. John Bowles, who complained of the French left-wingers pilloried in the book: “It is one of the most depressing aspects of the brilliant French culture that opinions so fundamentally silly should command so much prestige.” In his introduction to the English-language edition, more than two years later, M. Aron took occasion to rebut this implied criticism of French intellectual life, observing rather tartly: “After all, the way of thinking symbolized by logical positivism is just as provincial, perhaps more provincial, than that of St. Germain des Prés and the French intelligentsia of the Left.” Considering the treatment he has himself received from the Parisian left-wingers, this readiness to defend their intellectual standing against Anglo-Saxon slights shows an agreeable absence of rancor; it also serves as a reminder that for all his devotion to Anglo-Saxon empiricism and liberalism, M. Aron remains firmly lodged on his side of the Channel. Much as he prefers Keynes to Marx, his thinking revolves around issues to which American and British writers do not ordinarily give much attention.
To the non-French reader of this volume, in fact, much of its content must remain obscure, unless he happens to be steeped in the traditions of the Left Bank. A good deal of it is taken up by polemics against the editors of Les Temps Modernes and Esprit for misrepresenting the current state of affairs in the world; while in the more theoretical chapters there occur lengthy passages of disputation on the subject of Hegelian and Marxian doctrine which assume a fair degree of sophistication in the reader. Lastly, there is M. Aron the political commentator who contributes a regular column to Le Figaro, the leading conservative daily of Paris. It cannot be said that these various ingredients have been very happily combined—the transition from philosophy to journalism and back occurs a little too frequently and abruptly, and there are moments when it is not clear whether the argument is directed against Hegel or Mme. de Beauvoir. Also it must be said that in spreading himself over so large a polemical surface M. Aron here and there permits his argument to become a little slipshod.
But if The Opium of the Intellectuals is not all it is cracked up to be, it has its importance as the most vigorous polemical effort yet made on behalf of that important entity, French neo-liberalism, of the Mendèsian (or post-Keynesian) variety. Like Mendès-France himself, M. Aron is an embattled moderate—both men are Jews, which helps to explain their relative isolation in a country deeply split between Catholic traditionalists and anti-clerical radicals—and an unashamed admirer of Anglo-American empiricism, liberalism, and even capitalism—a dirty word to most Frenchmen, whether of the left or the right. In short he represents what a letter-writer to the London Economist once called “the extreme center.” It is his misfortune—as it is the greater misfortune of Mendès-France, and of France itself—that west of the Rhine this center is so weak.
Yet not as weak as is sometimes supposed. One of the principal shafts which M. Aron directs against his deluded fellow intellectuals on the extreme left (he has little to say about the moderate Socialists) is a justified reproach for their failure to realize that France is basically a modern country, with problems quite different from those of the backward societies in which Leninism-Stalinism has temporarily triumphed. This judgment is confirmed by everything known about French economic and social development in this century, as well as by the intellectual sterility of French Communism itself. It is, to say the least, significant that among the more prominent fellow-travelers there are plenty of artists, but not a single economist or sociologist of repute. The French revolutionary tradition, combined with economic backwardness in certain areas, provides the Communist party with enough support to keep it going as a mass movement; but it remains a permanent opposition, shut off from the main body of society and increasingly incapable of making contact with other elements in the national life. And its intellectuals, to judge from their sterile polemics, have not advanced significantly beyond the outdated world view which M. Aron is concerned to dismantle.
While it is fairly easy for a critic of M. Aron’s erudition to score against opponents whose understanding of the modern world is fatally handicapped by intellectual parochialism, there remains the question whether he has not made things needlessly difficult for himself by trying to conduct the debate at three or four different levels simultaneously. No one, not even a Frenchman, can be an expert on all the subjects which M. Aron has dragged into his argument, from existentialism to the late Senator McCarthy, and there are moments when one feels that in so obstinately battling that great know-all, M. Sartre, he runs the risk of beginning to resemble him. Also it is by no means as obvious as he supposes that all reasonable men must share his own predilection for neo-liberalism. It is even conceivable that if they did, those numerous people who cannot stomach liberalism might turn their backs on reasonableness.
Discursive and rambling, The Opium of the Intellectuals is best regarded as a bulky specimen in the great French tradition of essay-writing. With German Sociology, M. Aron’s other recent publication, we descend into the philosopher’s cave where the ghosts of Toennies, Weber, Simmel, and Oppenheimer sit enchained (but not Marx, whose empty place is taken by some of his erstwhile pupils, notably the late Karl Mannheim).
La Sociologie Allemande Contemporaine first appeared in 1936, at a time when sociology was, to put it mildly, not encouraged in the universities of the Third Reich (not even the “universalist” doctrine of Othmar Spann, who fervently hailed Hitler’s entry into his native Vienna some years later, and was promptly clapped in jail for having previously supported the Catholic “corporative state” of Dollfuss and Schuschnigg). The present English translation is based on the revised French edition of 1950, while an appendix and the bibliography are taken from the German edition of 1953—Die Deutsche Soziologie der Gegenwart. After a lapse of some twenty years, in the course of which the former student of German sociology has himself become a Sorbonne professor of that tantalizing subject, the Germans are thus enabled to read what M. Aron thought of his teachers in Heidelberg in the early 30’s.
The encounter was clearly a fruitful one; more fruitful perhaps than the subsequent fertilization of M. Aron’s mind by English empiricism and Keynesian economics. There are not too many Frenchmen who move easily among the intricacies of Weberian methodology. Indeed M. Aron may be said to have done for Max Weber what Sartre a little later did for Husserl and Heidegger. Whether these German thinkers can ever be acclimatized in France is another question. The French intellectual tradition is pretty tough, and fairly resistant to Germanic importations (except in the case of Marx, who in some ways was closer to French than to German thinking and even managed to write some important works in French). At any rate, German Sociology is a pretty good introduction to a subject which has not lost its relevance with the virtual collapse of sociological thinking in Germany during the Hitler period. At present, it is true, the German universities no longer supply the kind of intellectual excitement which made them poles of attraction for foreign students before 1933; it is arguable that a specifically German sociology no longer exists. All the more reason for studying the record of its great age, culminating in the work of Max Weber and his pupils. M. Aron’s brief and lucid essay is sufficiently comprehensive to take in the post-Hitler work of the refugee scholars who came to the New School for Social Research in New York, and if he does not come to grips with the neo-Marxism of the Frankfort Institut fuer Sozialforschung, he at least indicates his own preferences with sufficient clarity. A very useful work for the advanced student, and mirabile dictu, completely free of jargon.