Rules of the Game

Jon Elster

  • Mémoires by Raymond Aron
    Julliard, 778 pp, fr 120.00, September 1983, ISBN 2 260 00332 X
  • Clausewitz: Philosopher of War by Raymond Aron, translated by Norman Stone and Christine Booker
    Routledge, 418 pp, £15.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9009 9
  • Clausewitz by Michael Howard
    Oxford, 79 pp, £7.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 19 287608 2

Raymond Aron died of a heart attack on 17 October, a few weeks after the publication of his memoirs. He died on the steps of the Paris courthouse where he had been testifying on behalf of his friend Bertrand de Jouvenel, who had been violently attacked in a book on French Fascism. The case was not a simple one, as de Jouvenel had said and done some imprudent things in the Thirties. Yet Aron, painting truth in its grey on grey, had no difficulty showing that the attack was fundamentally anachronistic: that it imputed to de Jouvenel and his contemporaries knowledge of events that had not yet occurred. In court he said that ‘nous, les hommes de cette génération, nous étions désespérés de la faiblesse des démocraties.’ In the Memoirs he is more specific: ‘il m’est arrivé par instants de penser, peut-être de dire tout haut: s’il faut un régime autoritaire pour sauver la France, soit, acceptons-le, tout en le détestant.’ The honesty is characteristic. No less typical, and more central to an understanding of his character, is the fact that he did not commit his thoughts to paper, or transform them into action. Though desperate, he was too lucid to embrace a remedy that would be worse than the disease.

I knew Raymond Aron fairly well. From 1968 to 1971, when he was my dissertation supervisor, I attended his weekly seminars at (what was then) the Sixième Section of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. I returned for a year or so in 1973. The relationship always remained an asymmetrical one. There was too much admiration on my side, also too much respect to allow the unrestricted exchanges that constitute friendship. When I disagreed with him, as I often did, I either did not show it or did so somewhat diffidently. Having undertaken before he died to review his memoirs, I had hoped that this would provide the occasion to speak to him more directly than I was able to do in conversation. He is no longer there to read what I have to say, and this is a different review from what it would have been.

He came to be my supervisor more or less by accident. Jean Hyppolite, who had agreed to let me work with him, died a week before I was to see him, in the fall of 1968. As pensionnaire étranger at the Ecole Normale Supérieure I thought I might be able to turn to Louis Althusser, but discovered that he was not technically qualified to supervise doctoral work. From an earlier stay in Paris I knew Gaston Fessard, an old friend of Aron and the author of what I believe to be the only published monograph on Aron’s work. On Fessard’s suggestion I asked Aron to accept me as his student, and received a friendly, somewhat sceptical welcome. This was in the heyday of Althusserian Marxism: since I came from the Ecole Normale and was planning to write a thesis on Marx, Aron not unnaturally assumed that I, too, was an Althusserian. When it turned out – or as I began to realise – that I was not, his scepticism disappeared.

I believe Aron never felt quite at home in his own seminar. I think this not on the basis of anything he said, but on an assessment of his personality and that of other people in his entourage. Among the latter, there were several diehard anti-Communists – Annie Kriegel, for instance, and Alain Besançon. The shrillness of the proceedings often contrasted strongly with Aron’s own attitude. He was closer to Kostas Papaiannou, the marvellously talented Greek writer who died before he was able to finish his long-awaited work on Marx.[*] I do not wish to imply that Aron and Papaiannou were less persuaded of the ills of Communism as a political system: they were, however, more disposed to consider Marx and Marxism serious intellectual challenges. Aron often used a phrase which occurs in his autobiography: on choisit ses adversaires, on ne choisit pas ses alliés. This makes sense in political life, but I am not sure it is a good principle on which to build an academic discussion group. It was probably inevitable, though. Being ‘on the right’, Aron was an untouchable for most French academics. They might have wanted to benefit from his teaching, but they did not want to be seen to do so.

I remember an episode that encapsulates this attitude perfectly. Some time around 1970 Aron was asked to give a talk at his old school, the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In the Memoirs he describes how extreme left-wing elements at the Ecole forced him to cancel his appearance. What he does not say is that the ringleader of the gauchistes was also a doctoral student at his seminar. I believe the only time I saw Aron angry was when the student later turned up at the seminar as if nothing had happened.

Today, things have changed. The Nouveaux Philosophes have made politically respectable, even fashionable, the views that Aron had been arguing for decades. He did not think highly of their peculiar brand of rhetoric; and may for once have felt that he had acquired some strange bedfellows. Like them, he had come from ‘the Left’ – in his view, a mythical entity whose members believe it to embody all the virtues, however incompatible they might be with one another. Unlike theirs, his change of mind did not resemble a religious conversion, but stemmed from a slowly-evolving conviction that all good things do not go together: that there is a need for trade-offs and compromises between values.

Aron was a journalist and a scholar. In my opinion, his journalism was superior to his scholarship. In André Maurois’s phrase – cited approvingly by Aron himself – ‘Il serait notre Montesquieu s’il consentait à décoller de la réalité’ (‘if he pulled away from reality’). This goes a long way towards identifying what is lacking in his sociological work. Supreme common sense and almost unerring judgment were his outstanding qualities. They may be rarer than the qualities needed for scientific work of comparable stature – assuming such comparisons make sense – but cannot substitute for them. Creative imagination, originality, the willingness to entertain and pursue apparently implausible hypotheses – these were not abilities he possessed to a high degree. Though an acute critic of false analogies, he had no eye for hidden similarities. Rather than seeing ‘context’ as so much friction or noise, he believed it to be constitutive of phenomena.

He certainly brought political commentary in France to a level it had never reached before. For one thing, he always seemed to be in uncanny possession of the relevant fact. There might be a rumour that war in the Middle East was imminent: Aron would puncture it by alluding to some pertinent feature of Egyptian military strategy, or to the tell-tale resignation of an Israeli officer. The next day he would similarly explain to his readers why the intended effect of a press conference given by de Gaulle differed from the manifest content of what had been said, and why the actual effect was likely to deviate from both. More important, he had the ability to think like a politician. In the Memoirs he tells us how in 1932 he was invited to give his views on Hitler to an under-secretary of state for foreign affairs. ‘Le ministre m’invita à parler et je lui tins un laïus, brillant, je suppose, dans le pur style normalien’ (‘I made a long-winded and no doubt brilliant speech in the pure style of the Ecole Normale’). Having listened patiently, the under-secretary expressed his admiration, and went on to ask on behalf of his superior: ‘Que feriez-vous si vous étiez à sa place?’ For once, Aron was at a loss for an answer. The lesson was one he did not forget. It is a major strength of his political journalism that he was able to look at political choices from the point of view of those who had to make them. He could immediately see that certain solutions, though perfectly possible in the abstract, were simply not on the cards, while others, though manifestly irrational, were nonetheless unavoidable.

He had acute powers of observation, and a gift for aphorism akin to that of the moralists of the 18th century, among whom he belonged in more than one way. Commenting on the tacit acceptance of the division of Europe in the first years after 1945 he wrote that ‘le statu quo serait déstabilisé du jour où il serait reconnu.’ Elsewhere he notes that ‘il ne manque pas de Juifs qui en viennent à craindre la disparition totale de l’antisémitisme, disparition qui favoriserait l’assimilation des Juifs et donc la disparition du peuple lui-même.’ An offhand remark contains the germs of a social philosophy: ‘tout se passe comme si les hommes subissaient d’autant plus leur histoire qu’ils nourissent davantage l’illusion prométhéenne de la faire’ (‘everything happens as if men are all the more the victims of their history when they cherish the Promethean illusion that they are making it’). Anticipating Alexander Zinoviev, he observed that in the Soviet Union ‘le style de la déstalinisation est resté stalinien.’ Was it just for lack of inclination that he never worked out the implications of these and similar insights? It seems more likely that he lacked the capacity to generalise, like a mathematician who for any given number can prove that a certain theorem obtains, yet is unable to prove that the theorem holds for all numbers.

At one point in the Memoirs Aron defines the ethics of his craft: ‘autant que possible objectivité, référence à l’intérêt français et aux règles, si ambiguës soient-elles, de la moralité politique’. One rule of political morality to which he certainly subscribed was that ‘ought implies can.’ There is no point in criticising the government if one cannot also suggest a better – and feasible – alternative. This suggests a somewhat narrow conception of politics, one in which the alternatives are recognised and surveyed in advance. Aron knew well, however, that politics is also, more deeply, a struggle over what is feasible. Provided that the cause was not hopeless, he was prepared to look beyond the current realm of political possibilities. His early recognition of the justice, or at least the inevitability, of Algerian independence is the outstanding example.

The Memoirs look back over the major issues in international and French politics in our time: the division of Europe, nuclear strategy, the dismantling of the French colonial empire, the dilemmas of French Jewry, the shifting role of Communism in French politics. Aron came to be an anti-Communist, in the sense of being deeply repelled by the political system that prevails in Eastern Europe. My impression, however, is that this engaged his intellect more than his passions. His real indignation he kept for those who, while not espousing the principles of actually existing Communism, for various reasons also refused to condemn them. He was, perhaps as much as anything else, an anti-anti-anti-Communist. Hence his reaction to the way in which Alfred Sauvy, in 1949, justified a tentative non-rejection of Communism: ‘Just as capital goods take precedence over today’s welfare in order to ensure tomorrow’s, so truth must be shelved during the unhappy period in order to let the full truth burst forth tomorrow ... in this light, Communism represents an enormous effort to achieve truth in the long term and freedom on tick.’ Not only false analogy and wishful thinking but downright silliness underlie such statements. It is less obvious that Maurice Duverger was at fault when he argued a few years later that no good and conceivably some harm would come from constantly denouncing the vices of Communism, but that social injustice in France might be relieved by being revealed. Aron refutes the ‘no good’ part of Duverger’s argument with the patently anachronistic remark that ‘les protestations de l’Occident ont sauvé nombre de Soviétiques persécutés.’ In 1955 this was not yet true, nor could anyone have expected it to become true. As for the ‘conceivably some harm’ part, it parallels an argument that Aron himself often returns to. I think in particular of his statement that in 1940 no good and some harm could have resulted from total condemnation of those who accepted the Armistice. It is part and parcel of Aron’s ‘ethic of responsibility’ that it is sometimes better to mute the truth than to attend to one’s schöne Seele.

Aron’s scholarship, in the philological sense, was as well-informed as his journalism. His analytical abilities as a social scientist were, however, less impressive. In addition to the limitations I have already mentioned, he lacked the kind of rigorous formal training which could have acted as a multiplier on his intuition. In the Memoirs he tells us how an uncle in banking, having listened to the young Aron’s dissertation on the currency crisis, finally said to him: ‘Je t’écouterai quand tu parleras de philosophie; sur les finances, tu ne sais rien, tais-toi.’ He did not take the advice. He wrote, and spoke, extensively about economic matters, but I suspect that he did not really master the underlying complexities. When talking about international economics, he usually had valuable things to say, since in this domain psychology and politics count for so much. When trying to expound the mysteries of inflation or of Marxian economics, he was less successful. He half-knew this to be the case. He often regretted that he had not had the mathematical training he would have needed to be in full command of the subject. Yet, perhaps out of vanity, of which he possessed his share, he did not abstain from commenting on economic affairs.

It might seem absurd – or pretentious – to claim that he also suffered from not having had a training in analytical philosophy. Surely the mere mention of Sartre’s name is enough to show that great achievements in philosophy are possible outside the analytic tradition? This may well be so. Yet analytical philosophy, as he was to discover, was more congenial to Aron’s cast of mind than the neo-Kantian philosophy of Brunschvicg which he encountered at the Ecole Normale. He regretted, he says in his Memoirs, that he had not been exposed in his youth to the empiricist tradition. A few years ago I suggested that he read G.A. Cohen’s book on Marx, a tour de force of analytical thinking. He did so and came away impressed, and said he would write about it in L’Express. I don’t think he ever got around to doing so – probably some political crisis preempted his attention. When dealing with the complex interrelation of causality and intentionality in history, the analytical framework would surely have served him better than the Weberian, neo-Kantian one adopted in his Introduction à la Philosophie de l’Histoire.

Of his academic books, which will survive? Dix-Huit Leçons sur la Société Industrielle and La Lutte des Classes belong to what the French call haute vulgarisation, and in that genre are unsurpassable. But their relentless common sense also gives them a more lasting value. One should read them not so much in order to learn about society, as in order to learn how to think about society. The comparison with Tocqueville has been made, by Bernard Crick among others. Aron rightly rejects it. Superficially, Tocqueville seems to embody a similar kind of common sense but on closer inspection we detect in his work an analytical skeleton that is lacking in Aron’s. We also detect passions and ambiguities which led Tocqueville into traps which Aron consistently avoided. When I first read Tocqueville, I found myself in a state of almost intolerable intellectual excitement. Aron conveys above all the austere demand for intellectual honesty. The immediate effect is depressing rather than stimulating; the lasting benefits are substantial.

The most ambitious works are certainly the books on military affairs: Paix et Guerre and Clausewitz. The former, as Aron recognises in the Memoirs, was excessively ambitious; it sags under its own weight. The latter is more satisfactory, because more focused. It is easy to see why Aron should be at his best when writing about war. Like Clausewitz, he saw war as an art, not as a science, requiring judgment rather than theory. As will be clear by now, this was highly congenial to him. Mutatis mutandis, a political commentator is faced with predicaments similar to those facing a general in battle. In both cases judgment will be better if informed by theory, but damaged by slavish adherence to it. Both need to weigh considerations of rationality against those pertaining to psychology and the intangibles of character. When the outstanding political commentator came to write a book on the supreme commentator of war, the meeting of minds produced a happy outcome.

This version of the Clausewitz book is a disaster. In the first place, the scholarly apparatus has been suppressed, with no mention or apology. More disturbing is the fact that the quotations from Clausewitz are not taken from what is now the standard English translation of On War, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. I suspect that they have been translated from the French, but would hope that my fears are unfounded. In any case, the translation of the text is turgid, and full of mistakes. Where Aron comments on the view that Clausewitz, towards the end of his life, became weary of life, he writes: ‘La thèse du vieil homme, las de vivre, se heurte à deux sortes d’indices: les lettres, l’activité durant la période de Posen.’ In the translation this has become: ‘The thesis of the old man, weary of life, is found in two sources: the letters and his activity during the period at Posen.’ Where Aron talks about ‘le couple moyen-fin’, the translation bizarrely refers to a ‘duel of means and ends’. When Aron comments on the fact that Clausewitz opposed the Germans to the French as Greeks to Romans, while the French in 1940 used the same comparison in exactly the opposite sense, he notes that ‘les mythes historiques manquent d’originalité et ne se renouvellent guère.’ The English translation is not only incorrect, but incomprehensible: ‘such historical myths not only lack originality, they also enjoy rare repetition.’

Michael Howard’s little book on Clausewitz is a delightful introduction to the paradoxes and insights of this passionate rationalist. He brings out well the reasons why Clausewitz can be read, among other ways, as a companion volume to Stendhal and Tolstoy. Like these writers on the Napoleonic wars, he emphasises the importance of accident and character in the waging of war. War cannot be wholly understood within the framework of instrumental rationality: for one thing, it is clouded in uncertainty, and for another one cannot simply decide to be courageous. Yet one can try to show in action that one is among the elect – hence the ‘almost joyful acceptance of heavy casualties as an indication not of military incompetence but of moral strength’. The underlying reasoning is similar to that of the Calvinists. My only complaint with the book is the somewhat cavalier handling of the philosophical background. It will astonish many to read: ‘The idea of the British philosophers Berkeley and Hume that man did not passively observe and absorb knowledge, but rather by the process of observation created it and moulded the world through his own consciousness, had taken deep hold in Germany.’

[*] Papaiannou’s essays on Marx have now been published, with a preface by Raymond Aron, as De Marx et du Marxisme (Gallimard).