Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron

Source of book: I own this.

It is difficult to even decide where to begin a review of this insightful and important, but somewhat difficult book. I took three pages of notes while reading it; and, unlike most of my reading notes, I intend to place them in the book itself for future reference. However, to actually quote all of the piercing statements would make this more of a dissertation than I have time and desire to make it.

Perhaps I can start with the means by which I discovered Raymond Aron. I was reading Clive James’ excellent work, Cultural Amnesia, when I ran across this pithy quote: “’Better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron’ is still meant to be a slogan testifying to political seriousness, rather than to intellectual suicide.” I already knew that I found Sartre’s philosophy to be personally and morally distasteful, so my interest was piqued. Reading on further, I discovered that Aron had addressed one of the great mysteries of modern political thought. Why are modern intellectuals so quick to condemn the slightest misstep by the democratic states, while making excuses for the true atrocities committed by the communist nations? It is as if the intellectual class is somehow able to ignore the reality that thoughtful dissidents were among the first to be liquidated by Stalin and Mao and their counterparts.

The Opium of the Intellectuals was written in 1955. Aron was then part of the French Right, which needs some explanation. The very terms “left” and “right” stem from the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly that supported the king sat on the right and those that opposed him on the left. Thus in France (and eventually elsewhere), the “right” came to mean the party of the status quo, and the “left” the party of action. As Aron points out, these terms and their assumed meaning are highly inaccurate now, but they persist. Although Aron was considered “right” in terms of French politics, he would have been considered fairly leftist if he had been an American. He was an atheist, and supported a substantial welfare state. However, he was vehemently opposed to communism, particularly in its ideological form. As the “left” in the United States gradually drifts toward a more Marxist philosophical center, it is possible that even here, Aron may once again be considered to be “right wing.”

Aron wrote this book as a response to the writings of the mainstream of French intellectualism advocating for a communist revolution in the West. The title itself is a reference to Marx, who claimed that religion was the opium of the masses. (As Bill Watterson pointed out, Marx never experienced television.) Again, the scope of this book is too broad to easily summarize in a short review. However, I will endeavor to give an idea with broad brushstrokes.

The book begins by debunking the three great myths believed by the Marxists. First is the myth of an historically unified “left.” The original left stood for the abolishment of the aristocracy, and for freedom, particularly the freedoms of thought and speech and dissent. The chapter traces the threads of this idea and shows that Marxist authoritarianism is contrary to these original “liberal” values. The second myth is that of the revolution. In France in particular, leftists have claimed to be heirs of the French Revolution. Further, the eventual communist revolution would be a continuation of the same process. Aron is able to show the difference between the means (revolution) and the ends sought thereby. I also thought that he brought out the reason that revolution is perennially popular: the alternative, which is reform, is boring, hard work. Revolution seems, well, revolutionary, and thereby exciting. It is more fun to blow up everything that exists than to build and maintain institutions. Finally, Aron destroys the idea of the “proletariat.” To a Marxist ideologue, the American factory worker is oppressed, while the Soviet factory worker is liberated, regardless of actual working conditions, standard of living, freedom of action. The mere fact of the communist state changed the essential fact. This is, from a practical point of view, ludicrous. Few if any of us would willingly trade places with a worker living under Stalin’s regime.

The second part of the book the Marxist view of “history.” At this point, I was reminded again that most of those in my generation have no idea what Marx actually said. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is about as far as it goes, and a high percentage think this is in the Bible, oddly enough. (Interestingly, President Obama seems to know his Marx very well. His major gaffes have come when he has paraphrased Marx. “You didn’t build that,” for example, comes from an 1846 letter to Annenkov.) The Marxist view of history has been forgotten by most. In Marx’ view, history inevitably would lead to a communist revolution. It would be the “end of history” and mankind would be redeemed through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Essentially a heaven on earth that would overcome all evil and suffering.

This leads to the third and final part of the book, which discusses the Marxist philosophy as a secular religion. I was startled after reading this section to run across Aron’s declaration that he is not religious, because he identifies the parallels between the Catholic view in particular and the communist orthodoxy. It really is in this sense that Aron is able to explain the willingness to excuse Stalin’s purges and the ongoing repression of dissidents. Just as the true believer once excused the torture of Jews and Protestants, the true believer in the salvation of mankind through the revolution will excuse the liquidation of all who stand in its way.

I had intended to offer a plethora of quotes from the book, all of which are very good. However, I feel like I have just begun to process my thoughts on the subject, and it would really be overwhelming. Aron’s writing style is not helpful in this matter. As far as I can tell, the English version was written by Aron himself, not a translator. If so, his command of vocabulary is astonishing. However, while the writing is correct and language is used with pinpoint accuracy, it lacks flow. The ideas are densely packed, and often a paragraph will contain so many ideas that one has to re-read and attempt to draw the connections. This is why it took me more than two months to finish this book, even though it is under 400 pages. That said, I think that it should be mandatory reading for those who wish to understand the infatuation of the intellectual classes with doctrinaire Marxism. The United States is in some ways where France was 55 years ago, and I believe that the present debates on policy would become more substantive if both sides were better educated about what Socialism, Marxism, and Communism really are. We would be slower to confuse the welfare state with socialism, and yet more wary of talk of revolution.

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