Part 1 of 3
Essais sur la condition juive contemporaine
Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2007, originally Éditions de Fallois, 1989
Mémoires: 50 ans de réflexion politique
Paris: Éditions Julliard, 1983
Raymond Aron (1905–1983) was a French Jewish political scientist and commentator. He is remarkable for being one of the most eloquent advocates of civic nationalism – calling the culturally homogeneous nation-state “the political masterpiece” – and a critic of Jewish ethnocentrism. Drawing from Aron’s memoirs and a posthumously published collection of his writings on Jewishness, I hope to show the limits of his national ideal: even he, in an off-hand way, would occasionally recognize that the possibility of ethno-racial kinship, differences, and solidarity. Indeed, his passionate attachment to Israel’s existence–something which I believe even surprised him and led to his harshest writings, against President Charles de Gaulle, no less, and which he somewhat regretted–also showed that for all his intellectual defense of the French Republic, the bonds of blood meant what he called “a particular love” for Israel. There is a fascinating dialectic between his reason as a French citizen and his passion as a Diaspora Jew, a tension which led him towards and I believe can only be fully resolved with ethnonationalism.
I will not hide the fact that I am extremely sympathetic to Aron, and, in fact, his were the first political books in French that I did not find repulsive on some level, combining French patriotism, realism, and a deep knowledge of foreign traditions (namely Anglo-American and German). These are qualities which are all lacking in the stereotypical French intellectual, plagued with pseudo-cosmopolitanism, leftist utopianism, and Franco-French, or worse, germanopratin (Parisian) parochialism. I have probably read more books by Aron than any other writer. He is always an even-handed, measured writer, not philosophically flashy, but wonderfully lucid, and his works seem to me a good introduction to thinking about modernity. Aron is also a member of that prewar generation of Jews who, like Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, actually “lived” the Old Right and critically engaged with it, and so is not so prone to the offensive or even hysterical caricature of National Socialism and Fascism that is so common today.
This review will not claim to give a full account of Raymond Aron’s relationship to his Jewish identity or Jewry (such as his somewhat mysterious relationship to American neoconservatism) but rather to show the tensions between this identity and his civic nationalism. Indeed, he is a rather ambivalent figure for the French Jewish community: while Aron is renowned as France’s foremost center-right, liberal 20th-century intellectual and continues to be a byword for the erudite, sober intellectual (a rarity in the often glitzy “long-on-opinion-short-on-facts” world of the French intelligentsia), he is also uncomfortable for them insofar as he was distinctly “understanding” of the dilemmas of the Vichy regime, grew increasingly critical of organized Jewry’s hypocritical ethnocentrism, and defended the nation-state. Aron, I believe, did not carry goy-hatred in his heart.
In all this, the Essais collection (which includes his 1968 polemic Israël, de Gaulle et les juifs and various speeches and articles) is invaluable. In the preface, Pierre Simon-Nahum notes that “[t]he texts Raymond Aron dedicated to Judaism occupy a relatively small part of his otherwise considerable œuvre” but that in his memoirs he revealed that “he was, through his life, preocuppied with Judaism, the event [of the Six Day War] forcing him to situate himself with regard to a community of which he considered himself more an observer than an active member” (Essais, 11). Simon-Nahum adds: “Actually, Raymond Aron never theorized his position in the face of Judaism” (Essais, 16). Aron in general preferred a low-key, Whiggish approach, imagining either has happy (possibly “assimilating”) citizens of a liberal-conservative regime, and deeply suspicious of the promises of instant progress through revolutionary subversion that have so often charmed Ashkenazi intellectuals and activists. Simon-Nahum adds that Aron’s positions on Jewish ethnocentrism and rejection of dual loyalty often led to conflict with organized Jewry as “he had sometimes hurt and often annoyed [the Jewish community] and of which he by the end of his life had become a sort of ‘conscience’” (Essais, 16). As we can already see, this is an awkward figure in some respects for tribalist elites.
The case of Aron is also informative on contemporary Jewish intellectuals in France, the staggering prominence and media access of which I have written on elsewhere. Aron was ultimately out of sync with an increasingly hysterical ethnocentrism in the Franco-Jewish community, epitomized by the rise in the 1980s of one of the most internationally prominent “French” pseudo-intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Lévy, whose work is, but for tribal solidarity, universally-recognized for its nullity. To go from Aron to “B.-H.L.” shows an absolutely precipitous and catastrophic decline in the intellectual quality of the Jewish community.
At the same time, Aron has a strange heir in the form of popular pundit Éric Zemmour, whose book Le Suicide français is as of November 2014 the top best-seller in the country (dethroning the memoir of President François Hollande’s former concubine). Zemmour, a Sephardic Jew of North African origin, advocates a French Republican nationalism rather like Aron’s, but he is a far more provocative polemicist, being a bit of a race- and Muslim-baiter. He effectively echoes Front National (FN) talking points in his TV appearances, and his latest book, most controversially, contains a defense of the Vichy Regime’s deporting of foreign Jews over French ones (in the name of a citizenist “national preference”). There is a strong strain of civic nationalism in the (otherwise identitarian) Front National itself, and civic nationalism is the basis of Alain Soral’s popular metapolitical and counter-cultural movement Égalité et Réconciliation. The Aronian argument for civic nationalism then remains very relevant to current French political debates.
This overview will present a biographical sketch of Aron and some (rather lengthy, in the name of exhaustiveness) summaries and citations of his key texts on Jewishness. The following broad evolution of his thought can be identified:
- 1905–1933: Ignorance of the Jewish Question and in a sense of his Jewishness (judéité), ending with the rise of Adolf Hitler.
- 1933–1967: A one-sided and rather naïve apologia for Jewry and hostility to any criticism, culminating with his polemic against De Gaulle. Already however we see his rejection of dual citizenship and dual loyalty.
- 1967–1983: Emergence of a more nuanced assessment, with his own acerbic criticism of the rise of Jewish ethnocentrism, and ultimately resolving the ethnic question with the ideal of the homogeneous nation-state.
Biographical Sketch of a Moderate
Raymond Aron was born on March 14, 1905 to a secular, culturally “assimilated” Jewish family hailing from Lorraine. While his father was a lawyer and freemason in his youth, his grandfathers had built up a family fortune in the textile industry. As a youth Aron had no religious education and little Jewish consciousness:
The occasional antisemitism I encountered at the lycée did not mark me in any way. I was enthralled with the reading of texts on the Dreyfus affair, but the affair appeared to me, in retrospect, as an edifying story: the truth triumphed, and the French had torn themselves apart over a man and a principle. At the École Normale Supérieure, antisemitism did not exist, it was subterranean in any case, almost clandestine. The Hitlerite shock revived my Jewish consciousness, the awareness that I belonged to a group (or to a people or to an international) which we call the Jews. (Mémoires, 500)
Aron frequented Jean-Paul Sartre and other future major intellectual figures at the lycée and later would spend three years in Germany, mostly teaching, becoming deeply acquainted with German sociology and notably the work of Max Weber. He did not encounter much antisemitism in Germany but nonetheless returned to France in 1933.
Aron would later say that as a young man he had center-left political sympathies but could not intellectually justify them and that this compelled him to study political philosophy. He considered the French Third Republic to be ineffectual and “decadent.” He later said that he censored himself on the Soviet Union and only felt fully free to criticize it after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939.
With the Fall of France to the German armies in June 1940, Aron fled to London where he worked as editor-in-chief of La France Libre, a monthly publication aligned with but sometimes critical of General Charles de Gaulle. In a later interview, he would say he did not adhere to “orthodox Gaullism” due to “something related to my character, that I am always in the opposition.” Interestingly, Aron had a much more conciliatory attitude towards the rump, antisemitic French State headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain than did the General:
I thought the propaganda of the Free French against the Vichy French was too facile. Until November 1942, I never ceased to hope that Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government would leave for North Africa the day when the Germans would have invaded the southern zone.
Because, without any particular perspicacity, it appeared to me probable that the English and the Americans would one day land in North Africa. And on that day, the destiny of the Vichy government would be fixed. And I wanted to reserve until the end the chance of a reconciliation of the good French who were at Vichy, because there were many, with the Free French who were in London.
Aron notes that this position was a “fairly typical attitude of my character” but was equally “unbearable for most of the French in London.” He also later said he was careful not to appear as the stereotype of the warmongering Jew as, in London, “the Jewish question was present with a kind of obsession” (Essais, 32). Apparently, neither the holocaust nor the foundation of Israel made a strong immediate impression on him.
After the Allied triumph over the Third Reich, Aron became a cold warrior, an Atlanticist, and a Europeanist, as well as continuing to support De Gaulle. He joined the Gaullist party, the Rally of the French People (RPF), hoping that a peaceful shift towards a more presidential republic would be possible rather than the chaos of the parliamentary regime, but he made no mark in direct politics.
Aron would do what he did for the rest of his life: teach, publish books, and write regular op-eds and articles in newspapers and magazines. His books covered both theoretical issues dealing with international relations, modernity, and modern political philosophy (Weber, Tocqueville, Marx, Clausewitz), and more contemporary ones dealing with the debates of the day (anticommunism, nuclear doctrine, May ’68). Aron’s classic anticommunist polemic L’Opium des Intellectuels, published in 1955, is probably his most famous work and established him as the most articulate liberal, center-right intellectual in France at a time when the Parisian intelligentsia was in thrall to Marxoid fellow-travelers like Sartre. (A proverb has since emerged from the sparring between the rational and conservative Aron and the populist and revolutionary Sartre: “Better to be wrong with Sartre than be right with Aron.”)
In his youth, Aron had actually been physically quite apt as a ranked tennis player, but as he grew older came to resemble the traditional Jewish ideal of scholarly manhood: with “a progressive etherealization, until he becomes the ‘beautiful old man’ – pale, emaciated, aflame with inner light, the epitome of the complete and ‘real’ Jew.” He might have looked ugly with his enormous (even stereotypical) ears and nose, but with his benevolent smile, he rather comes across as a charming and wise elderly gentleman.
Aron was largely a “good soldier” of the Cold War-era French State, understood as an honorable and semi-autonomous member of the Western camp, and a part of the West-European pole of advanced industrial civilization, and was one of the most intelligent and insightful commentators within these bounds. He self-censored during France’s ultimately disastrous 1946–54 war in Indochina, being pessimistic but not wanting to harm the war effort. During the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, he spoke with the U.S. Ambassador to Paris to urge American air intervention. His 1957 La Tragédie algérienne in contrast criticized the French war effort to keep the colony of Algeria as futile, notably because of the demographics (1 million European settlers and a rapidly-expanding population of some 10 million Muslims). He was also opposed to the 1956 Anglo-Franco-Israeli Suez intervention. In 1967, Aron wrote that for the past 20 years “I have never known a contradiction between my duty as a Frenchman and my moral obligations as a Jew” (p. 128).
More darkly, Aron was linked to various North American anticommunist and/or neoconservative organizations. He was a co-founder of the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom and was published in the also CIA-funded publication Preuves. He was well-known in the Jewish/neoconservative American establishments, being in touch with Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, Stanley Hoffmann, and Norman Podhoretz.
Politically, Aron never went beyond being a cold warrior. His 1977 Plaidoyer pour l’Europe décadente is, two decades after L’Opium, yet another defense of liberal Europe against socialist infatuation. He would continue to attack candidate and later President François Mitterrand’s confused Marxoid socialism. He supported presidents De Gaulle and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, was widely respected as a the paragon of the erudite and measured intellectual, but never served in any government as a conseiller du Prince (although some Jews who thought him insufficiently loyal to the community termed him a juif de cour or Court Jew).
Despite the centrality of liberal apologia to his life’s work, Aron’s later writings are marked by a concern for the West’s decadence and a certain pessimism. He would increasingly critical of the French and American Jewish establishments’ growing ethnocentrism and reflexive support for Israel.
Given the matter at hand, it is worth mentioning Aron’s family and children. He was married to Suzanne Aron (née Gauchon, who curiously has the same forename as his mother, Suzanne Lévy), who though a gentile took up a remarkable interest in Jewish life in the postwar years, contributing to the foundation of two Jewish religious schools, the École Yabné (which initially was housed in and supported by the Gustave de Rothschild Foundation) and the École Moria. Aron would later say: “I understanding the reasoning according to which mixed marriages are a threat to the Jews but I have a personal – and personalist – philosophy which prefers that one marries the person one loves” (Essais, 350).
Aron’s three children, all daughters, did not receive a religious education. One daughter, Dominique Schnapper, apparently only found out the man who would become her husband was Jewish eight months after meeting him, which they realized given how “in tune” they were in conversations on experiencing the Second World War. Schnapper, a senior sociologist and a former member of France’s Constitutional Council (the country’s weak version of a supreme court), evidently has a strong Jewish identity, being president of the Museum of Jewish Art and History and having initially wanted to entitle her memoirs “À l’Ombre de la Shoah” (“In the Shadow of the Shoah”). Aron later indicated his grandchildren identified as Jews: “My grandchildren are only, after all, Jewish because they have decided to be and that they feel to be so” (Essais, 349).
These biographical details are not meant to be conclusive in themselves, but are worth knowing given Aron’s wavering attitude towards “assimilation,” a term he typically, perhaps somewhat misleadingly, uses to mean non-belief in Judaism and cultural-linguistic assimilation, but not genetic assimilation. The evidence is circumstantial. Aron himself acknowledged he might not be conscious of how ethnic bias might influence his thinking. But it is interesting that Aron’s youthful positions and interests – the passion for the Dreyfus affair, the disenchantment with the weak Third Republic or the self-censorship on the genocidal Soviet Union – effectively reflected Jewish interests. Did Aron, unconsciously, become a passionate advocate of French Republican civic nationalism as the best protection for the Jews?
1. As an aside, the book’s editor, Jean-Claude Zylberstein, sets the tone in a prefatory note saying that he had loved reading history books “in the attic of the house in which I was hidden during the Second World War” (Essais, 7).
2. Guillaume Durocher, “’As Happy as God in France’: The State of French Jewish elites,” The Occidental Observer, Part 1, May 3, 2014, http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2014/05/as-happy-as-god-in-france-the-state-of-french-jewish-elites-part-1/ Part 2, May 5, 2014, http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2014/05/as-happy-as-god-in-france-the-state-of-french-jewish-elites-part-2/
3. Éric Zemmour, Le Suicide français (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 2014).
4. Interview on Variances, December 13, 1973. http://www.ina.fr/video/I00019280
6. Quoted in Kevin MacDonald, A People that Shall Dwell Alone (San Jose: Writers Club Press, 2002), 317.
7. United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954: Indochina (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1982), p. 1415. http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/FRUS/FRUS-idx?type=turn&id=FRUS.FRUS195254v13p2&entity=FRUS.FRUS195254v13p2.p0033&q1=aron
8. Muriel Pichon, Les Français juifs, 1914–1950: Récit d’un désenchantement (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2009), p. 251.
9. In the event, she chose the title Travailler et aimer (“To Work and to Love”), a slogan of Sigmund Freud’s. Interview on Akadem, September 2013, http://www.akadem.org/magazine/2013-2014/raymond-aron-l-israelite-avec-dominique-schnapper-24-09-2013-54245_4497.php