Raymond Aron’s search for liberal foundations

  • Themes: Politics

Postwar French liberals exercised disproportionate influence upon public debates, and none more so than the philosopher, historian and journalist, Raymond Aron.

French philosopher and journalist, Raymond Aron. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Liberty and Equality, Raymond Aron, translated by Samuel Garrett Zeitlin, with a preface by Mark Lill and an epilogue by Pierre Manent, Princeton, £16.99

Among the many schools of 20th-century French political thought, liberalism was a minority creed. On a spectrum, however, ranging from outright Stalinists to Vichy apologists, postwar French liberals managed to exercise disproportionate influence upon public debates, and none more so than the philosopher, historian, and journalist Raymond Aron (1905-83).

From a thoroughly assimilated Jewish family, Aron came to prominence during the 1950s as a critic of Marxist intellectuals in his book L’Opium des intellectuels (1955). To point out that Marxism was the modern intellectual’s philosophical drug-of-choice took considerable courage at a time when Marxist ideas pervaded French academic, literary, and political circles. Aron was not simply a clever anti-Communist. Much of his writing is reflective of a longstanding French liberal tradition, especially associated with Alexis de Tocqueville, that is as much focused on sociology as theory.

Aron wanted to understand how the different liberties associated with liberalism fit together – and sometimes didn’t. For there was, he believed, an inherent instability to liberalism. Aron saw liberalism as a beautiful but delicate edifice that we admire, but which is perpetually fragile. Subsequent concerns about liberalism’s durability explain Aron’s lifelong attention to both the culture, assumptions, norms, and institutions that undergird liberal ideas as well as the forces that might undo them.

This was a core concern of Aron’s last lecture, delivered as a member of the Collège de France in April 1978. Translated into English and now published as Liberty and Equality (2023), with an introduction by the American political scientist Mark Lilla and the French political philosopher Pierre Manent (an assistant of Aron who joined him in setting up the centre-right journal Commentaire in 1978), Aron’s lecture does not attempt to present a tight philosophical argument that seeks to bury liberalism’s opponents through sheer logic. Instead, Aron’s lecture has two objectives. The first is to ponder the relationship between what Aron views as the different sets of liberties that liberalism tries to promote. Second, he seeks to identify what liberalism needed if it was going to withstand the tendencies to totalitarianism which marked 20th-century Europe.

Aron begins by distinguishing four groups of liberties: 1) those associated with the protection of the individual from arbitrary state power; 2) those captured in the idea of liberty of movement; 3) the economic liberties that undergird property, work, employment, entrepreneurship, and consumer choice; and 4) religious freedom, which Aron extends to ‘liberty of opinion, of expression, of communication’.

The controversies start when Aron provides an alternative way of classifying various liberties promoted by liberalism. First, he speaks of ‘personal liberties’, by which Aron means freedom of opinions and convictions. He distinguishes these from ‘political liberties’ – voting, assembling, etc.

Finally, Aron refers to ‘social rights’ or ‘social liberties’. By this he means the private and public provision of ‘all the material means of exercising certain liberties’, whether it is material security or ‘the liberty of being cared for, or that of being educated’. The state, Aron believes, has a major role to play here; but so, too, he argues, do unions. These, according to Aron, will ‘attenuate the omnipotence of the bosses’ and democratise the life of business.

Market liberals would point out that it is difficult to reconcile Aron’s social liberties with the economic freedoms that he identifies earlier in his lecture. Securing the social rights specified by Aron means the state, for example, engaging in extensive welfare spending funded by higher taxation as well as governments providing unions with legal privileges. These featured prominently among the very things that many Western conservative and some centre-left governments sought to roll back during the decade following Aron’s lecture.

Aron concedes that there will be conflicts between social and economic liberties and sees no easy way forward. He insists, however, that social rights – or what amounts to an effort to provide greater material equality – must be part of liberalism’s agenda if large numbers of people are to have the possibility of living out the other freedoms.

At the same time, Aron states that ensuring social rights involves recognising that, whether we like it or not, many individuals in free societies ‘have the feeling of not being free’. They view, he says, liberal order as a ‘society of oppression, by reason of the material circumstances in which these people live’. In some cases, Aron observes, they even regard private property’s very existence as ‘in itself unjust’. The unspoken context for these comments was surely Aron’s consciousness that postwar Communist parties had regularly secured more than 20 per cent of the popular vote in countries such as France and Italy.

If liberalism is going to overcome many people’s sentiments that a liberal society is inherently illegitimate, Aron contends, liberals must take steps to assuage such feelings: in this case, by allowing governments to meddle significantly with those economic liberties that market and classical liberals have long regarded as essential (albeit insufficient) preconditions for free societies.

For the most part, Aron sees these tensions as things that liberals will have to live with. Today, however, it is precisely the conflict between social rights and economic liberties that is driving many of the deep divisions that increasingly mark centre-right movements and parties in Western nations.

Nonetheless, Aron is uncertain that liberalism can co-exist with the idea that liberty extends ‘not only [to] one’s path in life, which is just, but one’s conception of good and evil’.

It is not that Aron thinks that we should not debate what it means to be a good person and the character of a good society. After all, one of the points of liberalism is that it provides us with the freedom to have such discussions without descending into violence. The problem, Arons holds, is that the philosophical scepticism that characterises some liberals’ thought about such issues makes it difficult to speak concretely about the responsibilities of citizens in a liberal society. How, he asks, can we identify the duties associated with citizenship in such societies if we doubt humans’ capacity to know right and wrong? What is to stop liberal societies from sliding into mere hedonism (something that Aron claims in his lecture was well underway in Western societies) if good and evil are nothing more than a calculus of pleasure and pain?

These, Pierre Manent states in his ‘Epilogue’ to Aron’s lecture, are the topics upon which Aron increasingly mused in the last decade of his life. Is being a liberal simply a matter of affirming certain rights and the importance of proceduralism, while simultaneously declining to explain the normative roots of such rights and processes? What does this mean for Europe and the West more generally as the civilisation in which liberalism first emerged?

According to Manent, Raymond Aron’s willingness to pose these questions made him ‘a liberal classical liberal rather than a classical liberal thinker’. This does not amount, Manent cautions, to ‘nostalgia for the Greek city [or] “the ages of faith”’ on Aron’s part. Rather, it underscores Aron’s doubts that modernity alone, let alone ‘hopes in progress’, suffice as foundations for liberalism.

Therein lies some of the subjects that all species of liberals – social, market, classical, or conservative – must grapple with in an age in which illiberalisms of all kinds are on the march and, in some cases, in the ascendancy.


Samuel Gregg