- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Raymond Aron
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray with an Introduction by Tony Judt
Basic Books, $35, 339 pages, illus.

The title of this book was defined in 1960 by the author in these words: "For the first time, what are called the higher societies are living through one and the same history. For the first time, we may perhaps speak of 'human society.'" (Italics in original.) What few thinkers noted in their syllogisms was the meaning of the mordant observation in the late-19th century by Prussia's Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: "We live in a wondrous time in which the strong is weak because of his moral scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity."
Despite the West's extraordinary accumulation of knowledge and power, Raymond Aron's 20th-century idea of "human society" could not have foreseen in the opening days of the 21st a Saddam Hussein or an Osama bin Laden, with their extraordinary will and power to destroy.
But Aron (1905-1983), one of Europe's great intellectuals, was on to something when he espoused the idea of the arrival of "human society." The European Union (EU), might have confirmed his vision of "human society." To achieve such a state would have meant "the end of power politics and the beginning of a united mankind engaged in the only worthwhile struggle, the one for mastery over nature and the well-being of all humanity." Such was the dream of Auguste Comte, a much earlier French political thinker, described by Aron in his title essay. But the dream could not have comprehended the mass murdering "suicide bomber" driven by an antiquated fanaticism and the promise of more to come.
"Never have men had so many reasons to cease killing one another," wrote Aron. "Never had they had so many reasons to feel they are joined together in one great enterprise. I do not conclude that the age of universal history will be peaceful. We know man is a reasonable being. But men?"
What few 20th-century philosophers considered is the possibility that after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the fall of the Soviet Union there could yet arise a movement, a sect, a conspiracy outside of "human society" that would successfully exploit a scientific marvel, man's triumph over gravity, and turn a big, clunky airliner into a bomb. Can we today include in "human society" the rulerships of Cuba, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Libya or North Korea at a time when a tidal wave of fear has engulfed the "higher societies"?
Aron had a unique role in fashioning the postwar intellectual foundation of anti-communism. As Tony Judt writes in his introduction to the book, "Aron was the only prominent French thinker of his generation to take a consistent liberal stand against all the totalitarian temptations of the age, of right and left alike."
In fact, Aron was more appreciated abroad than at home. He had many friends in America, like Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol.
This anthology of Aron's writings (newly and superbly translated by Barbara Bray) gives us a chance to explore the mind of one of the seminal thinkers of our time, one who described himself as a "man without a party, whose opinions offend first one side and then another who is all the more unbearable because he takes his moderation to excess and hides his passions under his arguments."
Born in Paris, Aron was a member of the French Air Force during World War II. After the war he became an influential columnist at Le Figaro, a post he held for three decades, and then moved to L'Express. He also taught sociology at the Sorbonne and the College de France. And in his lifetime he wrote some 40 books. Of his major works the one I regard as his masterpiece is titled "Opium of the Intellectuals" published in 1957 in an English translation. For some reason, this anthology omits extracts from this important volume, one to which Roger Kimball devoted a brilliant essay in last year's New Criterion.
Aron was concerned about the double standard which socialists and communists had created for the capitalist democracies: "Every known regime is blameworthy if one relates it to an abstract ideal of equality or liberty." He was blunt about Third World critics, particularly the African strongmen at the United Nations, as when he wrote:
"We have had enough of being lectured to by governments that do not apply and have no intention of applying the ideas they got from us and in whose name they condemn us."
And there's more where these words came from.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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