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Aron, Marx, and Marxism EJPT

An Interpretation European Journal
of Political Theory
SAGE Publications Ltd,
Daniel J. Mahoney Assumption College, USA London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi
issn 1474-8851
2(4) 415427; 0 35723

a b s t r a c t : Central to his own fruitful study of modern society and politics, of the
stakes and twists-and-turns of the dramatic twentieth century, was Raymond Arons
fifty year engagement with Marx and Marxism. In a series of lecture courses (and
elsewhere) Aron provided a comprehensive, balanced, and judicious exposition and
appreciation of Marxs intellectual itinerary. On one hand, Marx helpfully highlighted
various tensions in liberal-bourgeois society. On the other hand, however, his
apolitical, materialistic explanations of them and, especially, his prediction of
capitalisms explosive self-overcoming proved grossly inadequate. In addition to being
a special sort of social scientist, Marx was a Promethean humanist who rejected all
natural and social limits and who claimed to scientifically predict the coming of the
true and real City of Man. Arons own balanced social analysis and his humane,
sober, reformist thought stand in stark contrast.

k e y w o r d s : Aron, Marx, the political, radical Prometheanism, contradiction versus


In The Critique of Dialectical Reason, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-

Paul Sartre famously declared that Marxism is the unsurpassable philosophy of
our era. Sartres was an unqualified judgment, the intemperate assertion of a
philosopher turned fellow traveler and sometime apologist for totalitarianism.
Raymond Arons approach to Marx and Marxism was considerably more bal-
anced. He spent 50 years of his life studying the writings of Marx. On the one
hand, he admired Marxs ambition to capture the nature of social reality and
learned much from his penetrating analyses of modern political economy. At the
same time, Aron reluctantly concluded that there was an intimate connection
between the Marxism of Marx and the tragedies of the 20th century. In his view,
Marxs revolutionary dogmatism, his disparagement of representative institu-
tions, his articulation of a global historical determinism that denied the autonomy
of politics and the human element in historical becoming, all played crucial roles
in shaping the totalitarian propensities of 20th-century Marxism.

Contact address: David J. Mahoney, Assumption College, 500 Salisbury Street,

Worcester, MA 01609, USA
Email: 415

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With the publication of Le Marxisme de Marx1 we are in a better position to
appreciate the central role of this engagement with Marx and Marxism in Arons
larger intellectual trajectory. This posthumously published volume, judiciously
edited and annotated by Jean-Claude Casanova and Christian Bachelier, and ably
introduced by Casanova, originated as a series of lectures delivered by Aron at the
Sorbonne during the academic year 1962 and 1963. Because of gaps in a few of the
original lectures, the editors have supplemented the text with excerpts from a
19767 lecture course on the same subject that Aron delivered at the Collge de
France (the summary of that course is reproduced as the first appendix to the
volume). Together, these lectures provide the most complete account of the
Aronian engagement with Marx currently available and shed valuable light on
the character of Arons liberalism.
Aron is commonly understood to be a conservative-minded liberal in the tradi-
tion of Montesquieu and Tocqueville. He shared with his great French predeces-
sors a rejection of intellectual dogmatism, a probabilistic conception of history,
a stress on the autonomy of the political order, and the highest regard for free
political institutions.2 Yet in Le Marxisme de Marx Aron writes that his intellectual
formation owed nothing to his reading of Montesquieu and Tocqueville and
everything to his critical engagement with the writings of Marx. In a particularly
striking discussion, Aron writes that as a young man he began his inquiries as a
social philosopher by studying Capital, hoping to convince himself of the validity
of the Marxist critique of liberal society. This he could never do. So, I have not
become a Marxist. That said, there does not exist an author that I have read as
much and who has formed me as much as Marx and of whom I have not ceased to
speak badly (p. 304). Even as Aron finally adhered to the conclusions of what he
called the French school of political sociology (Montesquieu, Tocqueville, lie
Halvy), Marx remained a privileged interlocutor.3 For 50 years, this anti-Marxist
was preoccupied, even obsessed, with clarifying the thought of his great intel-
lectual rival.
This is not to suggest that Marxism was Arons only or primary intellectual
reference point. In his 1979 address on the occasion of his reception of the Prix
Tocqueville, Aron wrote that:

. . . the road that led me to what is called my liberalism begins with the critique of Marx
and passed through the reading of Max Weber and the lived experience of totalitarian
regimes. At the end of the road, I discovered Tocqueville and I was won over by the man
as much as I was by the sociologist or the historian.4

Any adequate account of Arons liberalism must thus come to terms with his
critique of Marx, his reading of Weber, his critique of totalitarianism as well as his
discovery in the 1950s of the deep affinities between his thought and the political
liberalism of Montesquieu and Tocqueville. Some early reviewers of this book,
carried away by the discovery that the author of The Opium of the Intellectuals owed
416 more to his engagement with Marx than his reading of Tocqueville, have tended

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to simplify the complex path by which Aron arrived at his mature liberalism. That
said, there is no denying the centrality of the dialogue with Marx in Arons
broader intellectual reflection. Why this singular preoccupation with the father of
modern communism? To some extent, it flowed naturally from Arons ongoing
effort to understand the politics and history of his age, shaped as they were by the
dominant presence of Marxist regimes and ideologies. In addition, Marxs themes
industrialism, the philosophy of history, and the central role of political econ-
omy in clarifying the nature of modern society were Arons themes, even if he
interpreted them in a substantially different light. Whatever their ultimate differ-
ences, Aron remained genuinely captivated by the mysteries of Capital5 as he
did not hesitate to call them.
Arons book is a model of intellectual generosity. He scrupulously retraces the
intellectual itinerary of Marx and goes out of his way to do justice to his thought
before criticizing it. He is above all interested in recovering the authentic
Marxism of Marx, of freeing it from various ideological and methodological
distortions and misappropriations. As Pierre Rosanvallon has pointed out in a
thoughtful review in Le Monde, Arons book provides an imitable model for
approaching the work of a thinker with whom one is deeply at odds.6 There is
nothing ideological or partisan about Arons opposition to Marx. Arons scrupu-
lously fair engagement with Marxs thought illustrates how the absence of invec-
tive can go hand in hand with a radical rejection of the fundamental premises of a
thinker to whom one is nonetheless deeply indebted.
Aron begins his book with a succinct overview of Marxs ideas in 1848, the
revolutionary year that saw the publication of The Communist Manifesto. By then
the essentials of Marxs philosophical thought (p. 45) had taken firm shape. Only
after examining the mature philosophical reflection of Marx in its more or less
achieved form does Aron turn to provide a detailed account of Marxs intellectual
formation, of his transformation from left-Hegelian philosopher to revolution-
ary agitator and theorist of historical materialism. To do otherwise is to risk
privileging the early writings of Marx, writings which are essential for under-
standing Marxs intellectual development but which should not be confused with
his thought as a whole.
By 1848, Marx had arrived at the crucial distinction between infrastructure
and superstructure that is at the core of all of his subsequent thought. The best
articulation of this distinction can be found in Marxs 1859 preface to A Contri-
bution to the Critique of Political Economy. In a crucial passage Marx writes:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are
indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a
definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these
relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation,
on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms
of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social,
political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that 417

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determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their

In the thought of the mature Marx, political institutions and disputations, literary
and other artistic productions, and philosophical and religious ideas are more or
less ideological reflections of underlying and truly determinative social relations.
When the Czech dissident turned statesman Vclav Havel addressed a joint ses-
sion of the American Congress in February 1990 he announced to his befuddled
audience that consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around.8
That seemingly abstruse observation was in fact nothing less than a revolutionary
utterance of the first order, an attack on an orthodoxy central to the Marxist con-
ception of reality. Without the conviction that material conditions determine the
consciousness of men, everything else in Marxism is open to question. By 1848
Marx had rejected every idealistic account of human being and society. He no
longer spoke of a human essence as he had in some of his earlier philosophical
writings. By The Communist Manifesto, Marx had also arrived at his purported
discovery of a fundamental contradiction between forces and relations of pro-
duction, a contradiction that could only be resolved by revolutionary action on the
part of the proletarian class. Marx was no doubt correct to observe a disconcert-
ing gap between the immense productive capacities of the capitalist economy and
the misery of much of the industrial working classes. But he was wrong to believe
that only revolution could bridge this gap and the hopes that he placed in the
revolutionary transformation of humanity were truly extravagant. In a later chap-
ter, Aron speculates that Marxs belief that revolution could resolve the enigmas
of history and establish for the first time a truly non-antagonistic regime re-
flected both his tempestuous revolutionary temperament and his residual
Hegelianism (p. 300). For a revolutionary who cut his teeth on the writings of
Hegel, contradictions needed to be definitively resolved. The thought that the
class which had nothing else to lose, that embodied the misery of man under con-
ditions of late capitalism, could inaugurate the reign of humanity appealed to both
the revolutionary and the Hegelian in Marxs soul.
In his measured presentation of the development of Marxs thought, Aron
shows that Hegel was Marxs cherished interlocutor as well as his principal intel-
lectual reference point. But it cannot be said that Marx was Hegelian in any strict
sense of that term. The youthful Marx used an essentially Hegelian vocabulary
that he quickly turned against the system and thought of the master. As early as
his Introduction to the Critique of the Philosophy of Right of Hegel (1844)
Marx used the methods and spirit of critical philosophy to subvert Hegelian con-
clusions. Marx rejected the mediation of the state as an instrument for resolving
the tensions inherent in the historical condition of man and located the real
foundation of social life in the material conditions of civil society. His critique of
Hegels Philosophy of Right led to an even more fundamental critique of the
418 alienation of human work that he identified with the division of labor and the

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capitalist economy. In Marxs view, such alienation was the root in some way of
all the other alienations (p. 297). Hegel believed that the mediations of the state,
of religion, and of ethical life, could moderate liberal individualism without
undermining the legitimacy of bourgeois civil society. Marx, in contrast, believed
that the abolition of the state, religion, and what he called bourgeois morality
was the very precondition of genuine human emancipation. Whatever the other
changes in his thought, Marx always remained faithful to this basic conviction.
The centerpiece of Arons book is its clear, methodical, and fair-minded treat-
ment of the major intellectual production of Marxs maturity, Capital. Aron
rightly considers this work to be Marxs masterpiece and devotes no less than six
chapters to a careful presentation and examination of its principal themes and
arguments. The first eight chapters of Arons book painstakingly recreate the
formation of Marxs thought while chapters 9 through 14 confront Marxs
thought in its achieved form. In these later chapters Aron wrestles with the
mysteries of Capital and sheds remarkable light on a work whose obscurities
threaten to deter even the most curious and determined reader. Aron masterfully
highlights the continuities in Marxs thought while doing justice to the distinctive
contribution of Capital. By the time of the publication of The Communist Manifesto
Marx had already linked the injustice of capitalism to its inevitable self-
destruction. The antagonistic character of capitalism, its relentless exploitation
of salaried workers, would be the ultimate cause of its destruction. Capital builds
on this simple and powerful conjuncture of an analysis of injustice and the
announcement of the death of capitalism (p. 335). Capital aims to demonstrate
scientifically the truth of this judgment, to root the moral aspirations of socialism
in a comprehensive scientific critique of bourgeois political economy.
In fact, in all of his writings, Marx aimed to expose the illusions at the heart of
bourgeois thought, illusions that he believed were rooted in the intrinsic falsity of
capitalist social relations. In his view, under fully developed capitalism human
relations were reduced to merely instrumental ones, whose value was measured
solely in terms of money. Every human relation was defined in terms of its
exchange value. Capitalism was the most perfect of antagonistic regimes. To its
credit, it was not only the most productive of economic regimes but was the first
one to recognize the equality of human work. But it did so in a mystified form,
one that reduced human work to something other than itself. Thus, as Aron
observes, the Marxist critique of the fetishism of commodities echoes some
philosophical considerations of his youth (p. 358).
In his exploration Aron steers an exiguous middle path between those who read
Marx as a normative philosopher and thus privilege his early writings, and those
(like Joseph Schumpeter) who read the author of Capital as a merely positivistic or
scientific economist. Aron is particularly skeptical of efforts to read the mature
Marx merely as a humanist philosopher in scientific garb, and thus to ignore
the empirical underpinnings of his later work. In this sense, Arons approach is
closer to Schumpeters than it is to that of a humanist reader of Marx such as 419

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Pre Pierre Bigo. Nonetheless, Aron believed that both the partisans of the philo-
sophical and scientific readings of Marx ignored the path announced by Marx
himself. The subtitle of Capital is A Critique of Political Economy. The idea of
critique provides the key to reconciling the partial truth in both the philo-
sophical and scientific readings of Capital.
Aron rather wryly remarks that one could not imagine David Ricardo engaging
in a critical reflection on political economy (p. 445). The mature Marx remained
faithful to the critical project by aiming to give it a rigorously scientific
foundation. What the work of the early and late Marx have in common is the
desire to dispel illusions, to root social analysis in the concrete conditions of
human existence. If the critique of religion entailed both a blistering expos of
religious illusions and of the social conditions that gave rise to them, then the
critique of political economy must demonstrate both how the contradictions of
capitalism will finally give rise to its self-destruction and how the bourgeois
economists and other defenders of the liberal order do not begin to understand
the contradictions internal to capitalist reality (p. 446).
In an extensive discussion, Aron carefully delineates Marxs analysis of surplus
value or profit. While recognizing that Marxs analysis illuminates important
features of the modern economy, Aron finally concludes that the doctrine of
surplus value is both non-operational (p. 458) and non-refutable (p. 456). If
capitalists only give workers what is necessary for themselves and their families to
survive according to the habits of a given society, then what can account for the
growing prosperity of capitalist societies over the past century and a half? And how
can one ever prove that salaried workers are being fairly or unfairly remunerated
for their work if, by definition, profit is a form of exploitation? The idea of surplus
value can account for the growing misery and prosperity of society at the same
time and thus is finally capable of explaining nothing. But to say that the concept
of surplus value is finally non-operational for the science of political economy is
not to suggest that it is without intellectual interest. Marx had many insightful
things to say about the crucial role of capital accumulation in the economic
development of modern societies. And his analysis of surplus value inspired
important critiques of communist totalitarianism that pointed out the crucial simi-
larities between communist regimes and the bureaucratic despotisms of the past.
Arons analysis should convince even the most skeptical reader that the
mysteries of Capital are well worth exploring. Aron ably conveys how in that work
Marx brilliantly highlights the relentlessly transformative character of capitalist
society. Marx illustrates how, in striking contrast to the essentially conservative
nature of all premodern social orders, capitalism ceaselessly transforms every eco-
nomic and social relation. All that is solid melts in the air, as Marx famously
put it in the first part of The Communist Manifesto. Aron notes that Schumpeters
influential notion of the creative destructive propensities of capitalist societies is
heavily indebted to Marxs earlier analysis in Capital. And while Marx was clearly
420 wrong when he prognosticated about the inevitable self-destruction of capitalist

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societies, he nonetheless had insightful things to say about the living conditions of
the working classes at the beginning of the industrial age. As Aron points out,
Marx was not the only economist of his age to believe that economic science had
established that profits inevitably declined. More than any economist of his age,
Marx understood the central place of economic crises in the normal operations of
capitalist society. But as for the necessary immiseration and pauperization of
capitalist societies, Marx finally demonstrated nothing at all. Even in Capital, his
most self-consciously scientific work, the militant revolutionary, the prophet of
the non-antagonistic future, ended up triumphing over the empirical sociologist
and economist. In contrast, Arons lucid, balanced treatment of Capital allows us
to better appreciate the limits of Marxs critique of political economy without
losing sight of the grandeur inherent in the enterprise.
Aron aims to capture the main lines of Marxs thought while remaining true to
its complex and equivocal (p. 623) character. The fundamental tenets of Marxs
thought are clear enough, and readily lend themselves to appropriation by a state
orthodoxy, even if his thought remained complex and subtle enough to fascinate
several generations of exegetes. Aron is careful never to simply conflate the
Marxism of Marx with either the dialectical materialism popularized by Engels
in his Anti-Dhring (1878) or with the totalitarian politics instituted by Marxist
Leninist regimes in the 20th century. At the same time he recognizes that
diamat, however devoid of philosophical subtlety, is broadly congruent with the
letter and spirit of Marxs historical materialism. Moreover, he concluded that the
JacobinBolshevik reading of Marxs political intention was a perfectly legitimate
one, even if other political conclusions could be drawn from Marxs texts. In the
final five chapters of his book (chapters 1519), Aron moves from a primarily
exegetical to a more critical account of the Marxist enterprise. What, then, are the
principal differences between the political liberalism of Aron and the revolution-
ary reflection of Karl Marx?
In chapter 15 of Le Marxisme de Marx (From Theory to Historical Narrative)
Aron turns to those writings of Marx (such as The Class Struggles in France and The
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) that address concrete historical events
rather than presenting a theoretical account of political economy and historical
evolution. In Arons view, these writings reveal the ultimate impossibility of estab-
lishing any point-by-point correspondence between political elements and social
conflicts (p. 539), between economic interests and the activities of the state. In
principle, Marx denied the autonomy of politics and understood the political
superstructure to be nothing more than an epiphenomenal reflection of under-
lying social and economic forces. Marxs dogmatic denial of the political element
finally makes a mockery of history and suggests that things would have turned out
the same no matter what decisions were made by political actors in positions of
responsibility. In Marxs explicit view, politics and war have no intrinsic impor-
tance as independent factors in the evolution of history and society. But Marxs
practice often belied his theory.9 In The Eighteenth Brumaire, for example, he 421

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sometimes assumed that Orlanists and Legitimists were unable to overcome
their differences because of irreconcilable economic interests. At other times in
the same text, however, Marx seems to recognize that the inability of the two
groups of monarchists to agree on a common approach had a specifically political
origin, namely, their failure to overcome differing conceptions of monarchical
Marxs historical narratives are of continuing interest precisely because they
manage to transcend a narrow ideological reduction of politics to economics. But
Marxs theory cannot account for his practice: the latter does respect the indeter-
minacy inherent in concrete political life, not so the former. Aron consistently
defended the autonomy of politics and its irreducibility to something other than
itself. He never denied the legitimacy or necessity of investigating the real con-
nections between economic interests and political decision-making but he
believed that political decisions were never simply reducible to economic interests
or to social conflicts (see pp. 53940). Efforts to establish a point-by-point corre-
spondence between economic interests and the state inevitably become carica-
tures of themselves. Far from being an epiphenomenal reflection of underlying
and truly determinative socioeconomic forces, the political regime itself plays a
crucial role in shaping society and moderating economic and social conflicts.
For Aron, the absence of a proper theory of politics was the great lacuna in
Marxist thought (p. 626). In lieu of serious political analysis Marx relied on an ulti-
mately unfounded prophetism to describe the socialist future. He had next to
nothing to say about the political organization of the socialist future. Some of
Marxs texts praised democracy and suggested that real freedoms would com-
plete and not simply displace the formal freedoms characteristic of the bour-
geois parliamentary order. More typically, Marx heaped scorn on parliamentary
cretinism (the phrase is from The Eighteenth Brumaire) and praised the dictator-
ship of the proletariat that would inaugurate the transition from capitalism to
socialism. Marxs emphatic rejection of political thinking makes it impossible to
determine with any assurance how he would have defined the political organiza-
tion of the socialist future. Aron convincingly argues that both the communard-
anarchist and centralist-Jacobin readings of the revolutionary future find ample
support in Marxs texts (pp. 539, 543). The fiery debates among parliamentary
socialists such as Edward Bernstein, anarchist revolutionaries such a Rosa Luxem-
burg, and totalitarian centralists such as Lenin, mirror genuine tensions within
Marxs thought itself. To be sure, Marx predicted that the state would wither
away once the real causes of human antagonism were eliminated. But in the
meantime an unprecedented concentration of power and a ruthless effort to
repress the exploiting classes would be necessary to put an end to the prehistory
of mankind and to inaugurate the socialist adventure. In his 1963 essay on The
Liberal Definition of Liberty: Tocqueville and Marx, Aron argued that, whatever
his intention, Marx bore some responsibility for the totalitarian consequences of
422 his thought. Arons text is worthy of extended citation:

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. . . a doctrine of action such as Marxs is responsible not only for its intentions but also for
its implications even if they are contrary to its values and goals. Now I agree that an all-
powerful party, such as the Bolshevik party, does not conform to Marxs thought; as early
as 1917, a great number of Marxists refused to allow that public ownership of the means of
production and a planned economy constitute the achievement of socialism in the absence
of political freedom; it nevertheless remains difficult to conceive the elimination of class
antagonisms, the end of the duality between society and state, without an absolute
authority, without something like what is called the dictatorship of the proletariat. The
proletariat, that is to say millions of workers, cannot itself exercise a dictatorship. Thus, it
is not historically surprising that Marxism rejecting the method of progressive reforms,
refusing to admit the permanence of distinct economic and political spheres, and aiming at
a liberation of all through mastery by the combined producers over their destiny should
end up with the total enslavement of all to one party, even to one man. Because how could
the combined producers reorganize society from its foundations if their combination
does not show itself capable of command, in other words, if the combination of producers
itself does not form a party, with a hierarchy, a general staff, a chief?10

Aron demonstrated that Marx failed miserably as a prophet. Marxs emphasis on

the inevitably catastrophic collapse of capitalism is therefore of little relevance or
interest to contemporary readers. His predictions about the inevitable pauper-
ization and immiseration of the working classes were in no way borne out by the
experience of liberal societies. His claim that inhuman capital accumulation was
the essence of capitalist society has been falsified by a century of humane eco-
nomic growth and continued political reforms in the western democracies. In fact,
Aron suggested that this account was far more descriptive of the development
strategy of Leninist societies than anything that had been experienced in the West
(like many students of Soviet modernization in the 1960s, the anti-communist
Aron exaggerated the utility of such an approach for stimulating and maintaining
long-term economic growth). In large part because of his neglect of the political
element, Marx could not anticipate the endless capacity of liberal societies for self-
renewal. In a generous spirit Aron comments that Marxs critique of liberal
capitalism in particular and the communist threat in general played a salutary
role in stimulating reforms throughout the western world. He is careful to add,
however, that restrictions on laissez-faire capitalism in the United States owed
nothing to Marx since Americans never took Marx very seriously (p. 661).
Aron concludes the 19623 lectures by emphasizing once again the inherently
equivocal character of Marxs legacy. Nobody is able to say with any assurance
what Marx would have thought about contemporary politics (pp. 65962). Aron
rightly points out that Marx cannot be held responsible for the specific form that
collectivization and industrial planning took in the Soviet Union under Lenin and
Stalin. But in the 19767 course on the Marxism of Marx, Aron proffers a much
harsher and less equivocal judgment about Marxs legacy. In both courses Aron
stresses the centrality of the concept of alienation in the thought of both the early
and late Marx. In effect, alienated work is a central concept in the thought of
Marx because it constitutes the root of both private property and the division of
labor (p. 670). By the time Aron delivered his 19767 set of lectures on the 423

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Marxism of Marx he had concluded that for Marx the overcoming of alienation
necessarily entailed not only the abolition of private property but the very elimi-
nation of the market and the division of labor. There are intimations of this in the
writings of the young Marx and it is a clear implication of the analysis of com-
modity fetishism in book 1 of Capital. In a critically important passage, Aron

I have taken a long time to convince myself but I dont believe that it is possible to refuse
this conclusion that in the eyes of Marx, the source of all the evils of humanity resides in
commodity form more radically than in private property, which, it seems to me, is only the
social condition of the existence of commodity form. (p. 680)

For Marx, the abolition of alienation finally demands that the economy itself be
abolished (p. 680). In this sense Lenins war communism, the coercive effort to
abolish commerce and property in all their forms, the ruthless struggle to subdue
the independent proprietor and the petty merchant, was a logical consequence of
the Marxist critique of political economy (p. 680).
Profoundly moved by his reading of Solzhenitsyn and other Soviet dissidents,
Aron was less equivocal in 1977 about the ultimate human and political conse-
quences of Marxism. In this text, as well as in In Defense of Decadent Europe (1976),
Aron excoriated Marx for replacing balanced social analysis with a prophetism
that masqueraded as a science of society.11 In the 19767 text Aron goes so far as
to call the Marxist claim that the industrial proletariat represents the cause of
humanity an absurdity (p. 681). Aron clearly had arrived at the conclusion that
Marx was not an economist or social scientist in any ordinary sense of those terms
(p. 680). By the end of his life Arons criticisms of Marx were both more radical
and a good deal less courteously delivered than the ones put forward in his
Sorbonne lectures.
There is an important sense, however, in which Arons engagement with Marx
fails to be sufficiently radical. Aron never adequately confronted the limits of
critical philosophy in its Marxist form. In particular, he fails to examine the ade-
quacy of the militant, dogmatic, and even irrational atheism at the heart of the
Marxist enterprise. This failure to fully confront the truth of Marxs atheism is
undoubtedly rooted in an important ambiguity within Arons own thought. On
the one hand, Aron was a non-dogmatic adherent of what he did not hesitate to
call atheistic humanism. On the other hand, he displayed a deep and abiding
respect for the limits inherent in the human condition and therefore rejected the
radical Prometheanism at the heart of almost every current of modern thought.
He was repulsed by an immanentist philosophy of history that denied any princi-
ples above the human will. He affirmed a transcendent realm above the praxis of
men even if he could not give that realm any supernaturalist definition or con-
tent. Still Marx must be given a full and fair hearing, so Aron faithfully reports
how the Marxist critique of religion eventually gave rise to the mature Marxs cri-
424 tique of political economy, a critique rooted in the identification of religion with

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alienation and false consciousness. For Marx, it was not man in general who cre-
ated religion, it is the social and historical man of particular periods (p. 109). The
false consciousness that is religion reflects the falseness of a world mutilated by the
alienation that accompanies the division of labor and the institution of private
property. The elimination of the sources of alienation will overcome all human
antagonisms and eliminate the need for false representations of reality. The
writings of the early and late Marx are united by a radical negation of religion and
by a dogmatic denial of any transcendental principle or horizon. Marx simply
takes for granted the ideological character of religious claims and representa-
tions: he nowhere seriously argues against them.
In contrast, the atheism of Aron was anything but dogmatic. In language that
he adopted from his friend the Jesuit philosopher and theologian Gaston Fessard,
Aron stated that he could not affirm the truth of religion. But he also stressed
that in good intellectual conscience he was incapable of negating it, either.12 He
knew that his atheism was something far short of a scientific proposition, and he
did not believe that reason could refute revelation without going beyond the
limits of reason itself. He was no materialist and believed that man was a spiritual
being whose thought and aspirations could not be reduced to the imperatives
of either biochemistry or history. In the end Aron refused to choose between a
modern conception of man as the being who acquires his humanity in the course
of history and a more traditional affirmation of sempiternal human nature and
moral limits. Two discussions in particular capture this ambiguity and reveal an
enduring tension at the heart of Arons philosophical reflection.
On the final page of chapter 2 (Critical Philosophy), Aron discusses Marxs
profound rejection of every form of injustice, of every form of servility. Aron
observes that Marx was a man of revolutionary temperament whose hero was
Prometheus (his doctoral dissertation contains a dramatic homage to Prom-
etheus). Marx neither acknowledged nor respected any inherent limits. He had,
Aron remarks, a taste for defying social authorities, religious authorities, and the
gods (p. 98). Aron notes that, in response to a question near the end of his life,
Marx stated that the thing that he detested above all was servility. Aron argues
that this was in effect the eminent virtue of Marx: he admired Prometheus and
hated servility (p. 98). Yet elsewhere Aron recognizes that the Marxian hatred of
servility was tied to the most problematic assumptions: that man makes himself,
that there is no human nature that is finally capable of resisting revolutionary
transformation, that man is a god who can subdue all the forces of heaven and
Arons temperament was infinitely more sober. He knew that there was an
inescapably Promethean dimension to the modern project and he finally did not
regret it. But in his writings he always tried to moderate the modern and revo-
lutionary propensity to believe that all limits could be overcome, all tensions
resolved, and that Reason could somehow reign supreme. He was a rationalist
who affirmed the limits of reason and a philosopher of history who did not believe 425

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European Journal of Political Theory 2(4)

that mans nature was coextensive with the movement of history. I am not con-
vinced that Arons principled moderation is readily explained by his atheistic
humanism or that his genuine admiration for Marxisms proud rejection of
human servility finally coheres with his own respect for the limits which are a pre-
condition of human freedom and dignity. Perhaps this tension in Arons thought
reflects a more fundamental tension within the human condition itself. Marx, for
all his rejection of traditional authority, can be understood as an aristocratic soul
who proudly affirmed the self-sufficiency of man. As the case of Aron demon-
strates, one can admire the human desire to aim for the heavens, to reject every
form of humiliation and degradation, without forgetting the self-destructive
propensities of this impulse. Aron, the conservative reformer, could readily
understand and even in some way admire the revolutionary Marx. But Marx had
no patience for, nor appreciation of, the patient, sober, ameliorative sensibility of
a Raymond Aron. This contrast in the ability to understand the other says every-
thing about the limits of the virtue that Marx embodied to monstrous perfection.
The first appendix to Le Marxisme de Marx is the summary of the course on
The Marxism of Marx that Aron delivered at the Collge de France during the
academic year 19767. This text, informed by the dissident critique of Marxism,
sharpens the more muted Aronian criticism of Marx in the 19623 course at the
Sorbonne. Aron continues to pay tribute to Marxs intellectual contribution. He
recognizes that Marxs writings highlighted with an extreme acuity some essen-
tial problems of modern society (p. 682). These problems include:

. . . the contradiction between the subjectivity of work and the objectivity of the world of
commodities; the contradiction between the Promethean will of social control and the
unpredictability of the market; the contradiction between the liberty and equality of
political agents, citizens on the one hand and the inequality and dependence of economic
agents on the other. (p. 682)

Because of the continuing relevance of these concerns, Marxs work will continue
to speak to us long after the collapse of the regimes that ruled in his name. But
Aron goes on to point out the terrible inadequacy of the Hegelian language of
contradiction at the heart of the Marxian project. Contradiction is a term of
logic; it calls for a radical solution (p. 682). Aron, ever sensitive to the antinomic
character of social and political life, preferred to speak of tensions or conflicts
or oppositions (p. 682). In an admirable spirit of intellectual moderation, Aron
reminds his readers that the reasonable man tries to understand and moderate
conflicts rather than attempting to eliminate them altogether. The latter is the
path of intellectual fanaticism and ideocratic despotism. Therefore, despite his
enduring fascination with the thought of Marx, Aron chose another path
altogether. He rejected the revolutionary effort to abolish contradictions by a
Promethean enterprise of social transformation (p. 682). Aron turned critical
philosophy against itself by appealing to the needs of flesh and blood (p. 682)
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Mahoney: Aron, Marx, and Marxism

epigones. The effort to unite the cause of philosophy to the revolutionary claims
of a semi-mythological Proletariat turned out to be an ideological obfuscation of
the first order. In an ultimate paradox, Marxs intransigent rejection of servility
gave rise to unprecedented forms of bondage and intellectual obscurantism. For
all his admiration of Marx, Aron could not finally resist this damning conclusion.
In his Memoirs published only weeks before his death in 1983, Aron went so far
to speak of Marx as a cursed sophist, a putative ancestor of Marxist-Leninism
who was partly responsible for the horrors of the 20th century (quoted on
pp. 1415). At the end of his life, then, Aron did not hesitate to say terrible if
truthful things about his lifelong interlocutor. In his thoughtful Preface to the Le
Marxisme de Marx, Jean-Claude Casanova speculates that with the death of Soviet
socialism it is now possible to turn our attention away from the cursed sophist
and to remember only the critical philosopher (p. 15). But Arons analysis
strongly suggests that such a separation is finally impossible. The sophistic desire
to abolish all human antagonisms, that is, to eliminate the political and economic
realms of human existence altogether, is rooted in the critical project as Marx
himself understood it. We should never forget this as we read Marx in any voice.

1. Raymond Aron (2002) Le Marxisme de Marx. Preface and notes by Jean-Claude Casanova
and Christian Bachelier. Paris. ditions de Fallois.
2. For his own account of the affinities between his thought and the liberalism of
Montesquieu and Tocqueville, see Raymond Aron (1998) Main Currents of Sociological
Thought, vol. 1, with a new introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney and Brian C. Anderson
and a foreword by Pierre Manent, pp. 3323. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
3. Ibid.
4. See Aron (1994) On Tocqueville, in In Defense of Political Reason: Essays by Raymond Aron,
ed. Daniel J. Mahoney, p. 176. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
5. Raymond Aron (1967) Les tapes de la pense sociologique, p. 21. Paris: Gallimard.
6. Rosanvallons review of Le Marxisme de Marx appeared in Le Monde (31 Jan. 2003) under
the misleading title Raymond Aron prefrrait Marx Tocqueville.
7. Quoted on p. 46 of Arons text. I have used the translation in Robert C. Tucker (ed.)
(1978) The MarxEngels Reader, p. 4. New York: Norton.
8. See Vclav Havel (2001) Address to a Joint Session of Congress, in Peter Augustine
Lawler and Robert Martin Schaefer (eds) American Political Rhetoric, pp. 20710, and
p. 208 for the quotation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
9. Aron had already developed this argument in his chapter on The Sociologists and the
Revolution of 1848 in Main Currents, vol. 1, pp. 30333, esp. pp. 32130.
10. The essay can be found in Aron (1984) Politics and History, tr. and ed. Miriam Bernheim
Conant, with a new introduction by Michael A. Ledeen, pp. 13965. The quote is from
p. 160. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
11. Arons indebtedness to Solzhenitsyn is most apparent in the opening chapter (Marxs
Messianism and its Misadventures) of (1979) In Defense of Decadent Europe, pp. 327.
South Bend, IN: Regnery/Gateway.
12. For a representative discussion, see Aron (1989) Essais sur la condition juive contemporaine,
ed. Perrine Simon-Nahum, p. 212. Paris: ditions de Fallois. 427

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