How Raymond Aron Became a Patron Saint of Cold War Liberalism

The French writer Raymond Aron is often praised by liberals for his nuanced, nonideological thinking. In reality, he lived in the pocket of the CIA and gave an intellectual veneer to NATO’s imperialistic foreign policy.

French philosopher Raymond Aron, June 17, 1983. (Raph Gatti / AFP via Getty Images)

Raymond Aron’s status as a patron saint of French liberalism stems not so much from his success as a Cold War pamphleteer as from the intellectual poverty of his epigones. Here was a man ever ready to uncork sound, no-nonsense editorials in favor of American foreign policy but who could also lecture on continental philosophers wholly obscure to his political associates. During an era in which French intellectuals had turned inward to study their favorite subject, France itself, Aron, part sociologist, part philosopher, part foreign-policy intellectual, cut an interesting figure.

Born in 1905 into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family in Paris, Raymond Aron was one of the preeminent political thinkers of the last century. He studied philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre, befriended pretty much everyone worth knowing in literary Paris, and stood next to Golo Mann while the Nazis burned books in Berlin; he wrote Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (one of the seminal works on realist international relations), edited a resistance magazine in wartime London, and penned a number of learned monographs, all the while contributing weekly columns for the French press.

Liberty and Equality — Aron’s last Collège de France lecture, published now for the first time in English — is billed as the “ideal introduction” to Aron’s work. But I wonder. Throughout, there are flashes of Aron’s hauteur, what the translator calls his “Periclean” streak. But this is a very slim volume, with half of its pages given over to commentaries by the political scientists Mark Lilla and Pierre Manent. It is unclear who exactly would go for a little bit of Aron. Has he got any casual readers whatsoever? It seems to me that his readers are either cultishly loyal or nonexistent.

Lilla’s introduction is a classic case of how standard-issue liberal érudits have canonized Aron. Lilla says that Aron’s “model of intellectual life” was “politically responsible, devoted to tolerance, reasonableness, scepticism, empiricism, and realism.” He saw, Lilla continues, “the value of the prosaic forms and rules of liberal democracy.” This echoes the historian Tony Judt’s claim that Aron had shouldered “the burden of responsibility.” The “burden” was especially heavy because Aron was carrying it on his own. “In post-war Paris,” Lilla writes, “when the Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre set the tone, there was no man more out of season than Raymond Aron.” That view is shared by Judt, who said that Aron had a “lonely stance”; by Henry Kissinger, who praised him for taking “the unpopular position”; and by Clive James, who opined that “it is difficult to appreciate how thoroughly Aron’s position went against the general trend of liberal sympathies.”

Praised for being a solitary intellectual, he in fact sidled up to the Cold War establishment, swooning for its blandishments. His career shows that centrist civility carries its own intellectual risks.

Centrist Intelligence Agency

No one praised Aron’s intellectual independence more highly than Aron himself — not even his adoring commentators. When he was inducted into the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, he rather grandly called himself a “man without a party, whose opinions offend first one side and then another.” He later conceded that “there has been no lack of businessmen and government officials who have been pleased by or who have congratulated me for the influence exercised by my writings,” but, he continued, “there remains between us the inevitable, unbridgeable distance between the men of state or economic power and a free intellectual.” “Would I,” he asked himself in his memoirs, “always find more or less subtle reasons to remain marginal, outside any party, any movement?” No, in fact, he would not. That rhetorical question is bracketed by accounts of private conversations with Charles de Gaulle and André Malraux, followed by him recounting how several universities and newspapers offered him employment.

There’s of course nothing surprising that intellectuals proclaim themselves marginal or heterodox while operating well within the comfortable center. It would hardly be worth noting, except that Aron played that game with unusual success. He managed to sell the image of his marginality while working for the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). When the New York Times in 1966 revealed the source of the congress’s funding, Aron professed himself shocked. In his memoirs he claimed that he had then immediately resigned. But there’s every reason not to take his word for it. Had he, one of the main organizers, really remained ignorant of what was café gossip in Paris? Other people in the CCF certainly thought that Aron had known, with the novelist and CIA operative John Hunt claiming that Aron had been kept in the know by the French government.

Far from resigning once he knew that the CCF had been a CIA op, he accepted its presidency in September 1966, nearly half a year after the New York Times exposé. He claimed to have kept his integrity intact even while trousering CIA handouts, stating that he had never been censored or told what to say when writing for government-funded outlets. But that is surely not to say much — what it means is that the CIA thought him sufficiently reliable that they could count on him not to cause them trouble. If they hadn’t trusted him, he wouldn’t have been approached in the first place. He was seen as a safe choice by Langley. Free intellectual indeed.

This should be kept in mind whenever one reads liberal encomia for Aron’s “intellectual responsibility.” That responsibility consisted in him taking the view of the statesman. Aron put it like this in his memoirs: “A citizen against the authorities immediately assumes an irresponsible stance.” Instead, he said that he had “restricted my own criticisms to posing this question — what would I do in their place?” Such questions, Lilla notes, weren’t asked in Les Temps Modernes, the periodical he had once edited with Sartre. Yet in practice, Aron’s pose of being close to power but independent of it — what Lilla lauds as Aron’s “model of the intellectual” — left him compromised, reducing him in his worst moments to the role of officialdom’s intellectual equerry.

Regime Change You Can Stand Behind

Henry Kissinger was surprised when in 1974 he opened the morning papers and saw that Aron had criticized his handling of the Cyprus crisis. As he put it in a letter to Aron, “when an old friend, whose seriousness, fairness and thoughtfulness I respect beyond anyone else’s in Europe, writes in this vain I am bound to react.” Kissinger had encouraged the coup against President Makarios, triggering the Turkish invasion. That he was surprised at Aron’s criticism wasn’t strange: Aron could usually be counted on to remain silent while US-sponsored death squads set about their work. He had, in fact, publicly supported Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile only some months prior, while minimizing US involvement to boot; but now, in private, he reproached Kissinger for “America’s funding of Allende’s adversaries.” Private criticism is better than no criticism, I guess, but even so, the ingratiating tone is rather excessive: “like me you believe that creative action at a certain level is inseparable from a philosophy.” The reason Aron spoke out over Cyprus but not Chile is obvious: the former threatened NATO’s integrity, the latter merely the lives of innocents.

Undeterred by the CCF embarrassment, Aron signed up to chair the Committee for the Free World (CFW), founded in 1981 by Midge Decter, with many CCF veterans among its ranks. He later claimed that these committees, unlike their communist equivalents, “never systematically defended American diplomacy.” Really? One of the first things the CFW did was to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline: “We — a group of intellectuals and religious leaders — applaud American policy in El Salvador.” Still, Aron was right in saying that they weren’t invariably in favor of US policy: the reason Decter had started the CFW was because she feared that President Ronald Reagan would be too wimpy toward the Soviet Union. That, I guess, is opposition of a kind.

Aron seems never to have been struck by the irony of him signing up to chair committees for “Freedom” while simultaneously penning trenchant critiques of the moralizing tendency of US foreign policy. He’d lament the way DC treated everything in terms of good versus evil while he himself wrote editorials in favor of the “civilized Free world.” Yet those ironies should not obscure the fact that much of what Aron said was eminently sensible. In his cooler moments, he’d warn US officials against “acting and above all talking as if our security were endangered each time ‘Ruritania’ declares its allegiance to Moscow.” He himself had of course called Gamal Abdel Nasser “Hitler on the Nile,” but I think it’s rather bracing that many of the criticisms one might make of Aron were first made by Aron of others.

Friendly though Aron was with Friedrich Hayek, he never shared his suspicion of social security. In one of the better passages in Liberty and Equality, Aron enumerates several types of liberties, including collective liberties. As he remarked, before a society can be liberal it must first be a society — we’re citizens before we’re individuals. With good reason, Pierre Manent calls him a “liberal classical thinker rather than a classical liberal thinker.” Aron said he shared Hayek’s belief that the “goal of a free society ought to be to limit to the greatest extent possible the government of men by men and to constrain the government of men by law,” but much hinged on exactly how great that extent was: no one who terms his politics “moderated Machiavellianism” can ever really believe in the night-watchman state.

He believed that there were social liberties, that is, “the liberty of being cared for, or that of being educated”:

Within these social liberties there is a subcategory: the liberty of collectives. This concerns union strike actions, the services rendered by the work councils, the objective of which is, in addition to improving the conditions of the salaried workers, to attenuate the omnipotence of the bosses in the firms and to introduce in the life of the firms something which would be more comfortable to the aspirations of the democracy. As I have said to you many times, one of the fundamental contradictions of our societies is that professional life is not organized according to democratic principles. From there, the liberties of the collectives, of the unions or of the work councils would attenuate, or soften, the authoritarian hierarchy which exists in the large firms.

Still, Aron was one of the foremost purveyors of the end-of-ideology-thesis: the idea that the politics of class should be replaced by the politics of unity. Division, though, is the essence of politics. Postwar economic growth with moderate state intervention and labor-capital cooperation did not represent the end point of history but merely one of its transient stages. In other words, the notion of transcending ideology was really nothing but a rallying cry for the prevailing Cold War hegemony.

Anti-Imperialism for Chauvinists

In 1948, when the coal miners of France walked out in opposition to lowered wages and bad working conditions, Aron banged the government’s drums and blew its bugles. The strike leaders were not, he said, looking for a square deal but preparing a communist coup — he thought Prague might turn into a prelude for revolt in Paris. Industrial action threatened not only the functioning of commerce, but the moral order of a society predicated on the subordination of the working class. “It is just not acceptable that in the mines and electrical plants of France people are more afraid of the Communists than of engineers, directors, and ministers combined.”

If there was one thing that marked liberal Cold War intellectuals other than their contempt for the Left, it was their silence on colonial crimes. Not so Raymond Aron. He wrote two pamphlets on Algeria — La Tragédie algérienne (1957) and L’Algérie et la République (1958) — which did not lay out a moral case for France’s withdrawal, but coldly came to terms with the inevitability of this event in the face of liberal attempts to reform the empire.

To promise liberal reform of colonial rule, Aron argued, was to mislead French citizens and Algerian subjects alike. The French level of prosperity was much too high to hope that Algeria could soon reach it; therefore, if Algerians were granted equal rights, there would be nothing to stop mass immigration into France by Muslims in search of employment. The French, he predicted, would find that intolerable. President de Gaulle viewed things much the same way, though he expressed it rather more pithily: his hometown of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, he said, risked turning into Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées.

Yet on closer examination Aron had been far less clear-sighted or honest than he later claimed. He said that he had been vocal in supporting Algerian independence because he hadn’t been vocal enough in the case of French Indochina. The policy he advocated in the immediate postwar years, he said, had been to grant independence in Indochina the better to support French colonies in their transition to freedom in North Africa; but what he had in point of fact proposed was that France cede Indochina in order to maintain North Africa, or as he referred to it, “the cradle of French renaissance.” And as diplomatic papers have subsequently shown, it was only a little before the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 that Aron had been privately petitioning American officials to have the United States enter the Vietnam War.

As for Algeria, he deserves every plaudit for having penned the sharpest realist case for ending French rule. His pamphlet, I think, is irrefutable as well as gutsy. But he hardly mentioned the human cost of colonial rule, in particular the issue of torture — one of the outstanding flashpoints in French intellectual life in the 1950s. He had rather perfunctorily noted that torture and concentration camps had to be rejected “on grounds of conscience,” and were “not even effective,” but he then went on to say the following:

But any kind of repression brings with it some useless “atrocities.” It is all very well to appease one’s conscience by denouncing them. But would there be fewer of them if the FLN [Algerian National Liberation Front] came to power? It would be easier to watch intellectuals ignoring the consequences of their denunciations if the latter seemed to serve any useful purpose.

Of course, those intellectuals believed that their objections served “useful purposes,” namely to end France’s involvement in Algeria, but that passage is nonetheless characteristic of Aron’s lucidity. Torture is the inevitable consequence of suppressing revolts; the call to implement a “liberal colonial policy” is thus incoherent; one could not have colonial rule without colonial crimes, so one either had to face up to the brutal reality of empire or get out of the game entirely. It is the kind of frankness that today’s politicians could use. To say that a military has the right to maintain its belligerent occupation in the face of resistance, provided international law is respected, is contradictory — it is to oppose the symptom while favoring the cause. Raymond Aron could see that much clearly.

Later, when asked why he hadn’t condemned torture more forcefully, he replied: “But what would I have achieved by proclaiming my opposition to torture? I have never met anyone who is in favor of torture.” The main thing, he said, was not to please those on one’s own side but to convince those on the other. That, I think, would have been fair enough if he had only been more honest. Had he not met members of the government? Had he not seen himself in a mirror? Because he had himself endorsed the “pacification” of Algeria.

In March 1956 the French government signed the special powers law, which in effect gave French troops carte blanche to suppress Algerian resistance: torture, shelling civilians, and the rounding up of supposed suspects for collective punishment inescapably followed. The Sorbonne historian and résistant Henri Marrou spoke out in Le Monde, condemning the torture of colonial subjects. This in turn triggered Aron to sign a petition alongside several Sorbonne professors in opposition to Marrou, in support of official policy. They gave their “considered support” to the pacification effort, calling for the state to fulfill its “solemn promise” to the French in Algeria.

That Aron later chose to forget that episode, even to rewrite his past, is understandable — if it had been me, I’d have done the same, and for good measure changed my name, grown a thick beard, and perhaps emigrated — but I find it objectionable that his commentators won’t mention it. Marrou’s home was raided by the police, his office searched, and his lectures interrupted. The minister of defense condemned Marrou in front of the National Assembly. But Aron took the government’s side, not his isolated colleague’s. Free intellectual? Forever marginal? Sometimes it is better to be right with Sartre . . .

The study of Raymond Aron as a model intellectual would be far more fruitful if it were shed of its hagiographic lacquer.