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.

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