Raymond Aron represents one of the most important intellectuals to take stock of the global situation in the twentieth century. A frequent commentator to French debates through his position at the Sorbonne and Collège de France, and his long-time column at the newspaper Le Figaro (and, later, L’Express), he engaged in debates about the Algerian war of independence, the meaning of the 1968 student protests in France, and France’s position in a world marked by the East-West conflict, decolonization, and economic reconstruction in Europe. While sometimes criticized for being a generalist—“the professor at Le Figaro and the journalist at the Sorbonne,” in one rendering—Aron’s range makes him one of the most interesting commentators for historians trying to reconstruct the intellectual landscape of the twentieth century. Not least for this reason does Aron number among the recipients of the Toynbee Prize.
Yet in the Anglophone world, at least, the reception of Aron has been more blinkered. Many American readers are probably most familiar with Aron through the work of the late English historian Tony Judt, who in his 1992 volume Past Imperfect presented Aron as a beacon of sanity in a French intellectual scene otherwise marred by “the marked absence of a concern with public ethics or political morality.” More recently, readers without access to Aron’s writings in the original French may have engaged with him through the work of Columbia historian Mark Lilla, whose New French Thought Series for Princeton University Press re-introduced a French liberal center to Anglophone readerships. Both works situated Aron in a canon of responsible French intellectuals—Aron, Léon Blum, Albert Camus—who contrasted with radical or reactionary thinkers.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, our latest guest to the Global History Forum
However, as our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, shows, there is another side to Aron that his current translation into the North American scene barely captures: namely, his engagement with American intellectual thought on themes like neoliberalism, modernization theory, and détente. Throughout his career, Aron debated and challenged Anglophone intellectuals like Edward Shils, Walt Rostow, Friedrich Hayek and others as intellectuals across the Atlantic found intellectual legitimizations for American hegemony. Steinmetz-Jenkins’ account also captures an Aron best understood not as a static “responsible” intellectual never changing, but rather as an evolving intellect who by the end of his life had arguably become a neoconservative. By the early 1980s, Aron was less committed to the kind of social democratic politics that marked his work from the 1940s and 1950s.
All of this recovers an Aron of interest not solely, or even primarily, of interest to historians of France or intellectual history as traditionally conceived. Instead, Steinmetz-Jenkins’ work helps us see an Aron as a figure who must be read alongside his American interlocutors if we hope to understand what was at stake in debates about the above themes. His reading also helps us see Aron as part of an Atlantic intellectual story wherein former liberals—think here Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, or Malcolm Glazer in the American context—became neoconservatives by the 1970s. In short, Steinmetz-Jenkins helps us rethink Aron as precisely the kind global intellectual that the Toynbee Prize Foundation sought to recognize in awarding him the Prize in the 1970s. In order to discuss some of these themes, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Timothy Nunan spoke with Steinmetz-Jenkins via telephone recently.
We begin our discussion of Steinmetz-Jenkins’ contribution by asking him about his road to history as a discipline. Steinmetz-Jenkins initially pursued theological studies. He prepared for a career as a pastor or a theologian himself, and to that end, his first collegiate experience was at a Pentecostal Bible College. Yet for a variety of reasons, over time he became much more interested in political and historical questions, although theology still remains of significant interest. After receiving an MA in theology from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. he eventually came to the conclusion that he would rather study history and started his studies afresh at Concordia University, a Lutheran institution of higher education in Oregon. From there, he credits the mentoring of historians like Mark Ruff (at Concordia) and Ben Lazier (at Reed College, where Steinmetz-Jenkins pursued an MA in Liberal Studies after receiving a history degree from Concordia) for getting him up to speed on the field and the professional realities of an academic career as a historian of Europe.
Soon, by 2009, Steinmetz-Jenkins was off to Columbia University to study European intellectual history. But what topic would he choose? His initial inclination was to focus on the work of Carl Schmitt, a German legal scholar whose writings on political theory have proven extremely influential but whose legacy remains controversial due to Schmitt’s membership in the National Socialist Party and his scholarly defenses of anti-Semitism in German academia and Nazi foreign policy. Perhaps because Schmitt’s work emphasizes the centrality of executive power and existential distinctions between “friends and enemies,” reinterpreting his works had become a small cottage industry by the time of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror and defense of its actions through “unitary executive theory.” Steinmetz-Jenkins was interested in particular in exploring Schmitt’s idea of political theology (the idea, to oversimplify, that meaningful political concepts are secularized theological concepts), and when he went to Paris following his first year in the program, his PhD supervisor, Samuel Moyn, advised him to take a look at the correspondence between Schmitt and Raymond Aron held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
It turned out to be good advice—but for unexpected reasons. Steinmetz-Jenkins dove into the correspondence of Aron with the German intellectual, but he soon became as fascinated with the former as with the latter. “Here was a scholar,” explains Steinmetz-Jenkins, “that had exchanges, some of which quite significant, with the leading intellectual and political figures of his time, from Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse, to John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger.” There was also the professional benefit of being able to make a bigger splash, as more and more work on Schmitt was being produced as Steinmetz-Jenkins decided on a dissertation topic. Aron, in contrast, was a more open field. The bigger challenges turned out to be interpretative. Aron wrote so much for so long that it was difficult to get a grasp on him. And because Aron enjoyed such charged reputations on different sides of the Atlantic, taking a stance on Aron in general could be construed by French or American audiences as an acid test for a broad set of political stances. But over the next several years (most of them spent in Paris), Steinmetz-Jenkins dove into the Aron papers at the BnF. He traveled to use the collections of prominent American social scientists in the United States. And he made it all the way to California, to work with the papers of the Mont Pelerin Society, located at the Hoover Institution.
We ask Steinmetz-Jenkins if he has any reflections to offer to budding intellectual historians on research process. Here, he offers two notes. One is the importance of archival research—“even” for intellectual historians. “There is a reluctance that many intellectual historians have,” he says, “to do archival work, because they’re focused on ideas. That focus on ideas seems to suggest that they don’t need to look at letters, since the big ideas are in the books. But many of the claims of this dissertation have been derived from archival research. The chapter on Hayek, for example, makes heavy use of the archives of the Congress for Cultural Freedom at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. In that sense, this dissertation makes the case that you can write a really good intellectual history project that makes heavy use of archives.” Lest this sound like a slog— Steinmetz-Jenkins will have visited some two dozen archives by the time the book is completed—he emphasized that it is enriching. “Throughout, I enjoyed the process, since I discovered many things that I don’t think are well known, at least in published writing.”
Another point concerns the importance of intellectual historians immersing themselves in secondary literature, especially if they want to make contributions to fields or discussions beyond just the field of intellectual history. That’s especially true in the case of someone like Aron, who made interventions into fields from international relations to modernization theory to decolonization. The problem Steinmetz-Jenkins encountered was that merely reading Aron’s output and the growing research literature on Aron was a huge task; adding to this a mastery of the history about one of the thematic avenues of his dissertation would have made things even more difficult. In his own case, he notes, the receipt of a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship was both a blessing and a curse, since he was forced to write up his findings quickly, rather than being able to integrate a more nuanced reading of one theme or the other into his Aron materials. “If I could have done it over again, I would have been more versed in modernization theory. I would have wanted to read more about debates about modernization in France, and then connect those to debates in the United States.” Doing precisely this remains a priority as Steinmetz-Jenkins refines the manuscript.
Moving beyond these issues of process, we plunge into a discussion of some of the debates around which Steinmetz-Jenkins organizes his treatment of Aron: neoliberalism; modernization; international relations realism; and neoconservatism. As Steinmetz-Jenkins argues, it’s in examining these four themes that readers can see how Aron offers a “a sustained critique of what I describe as the American ideology—a realist approach to international relations, the view that parliamentary democracy can be transferred abroad via global development schemes, the reduction of human liberty to free markets, and an over-reliance on rational choice theory and computer technologies to predict military, and specifically, insurgent behavior.” This doesn’t just make Aron significant on his own terms; it also means he’s a useful thinker for today’s critiques of “the American ideology” to reach back to as they articulate their concerns about trade deals, drone warfare, policy vis-à-vis Ukraine or Syria, and so on. Furthermore, Aron’s thought is refreshingly free of some of the dark associations of the other intellectual—Carl Schmitt—that critics of American power might use.
In order to ground the discussion a bit more, we ask Steinmetz-Jenkins to explain Aron’s stance vis-à-vis debates over neoliberalism and the welfare state. The starting point here is France in the 1930s, where intellectuals debated the proper response of the state to the post-1929 global economic crisis. Some on the Marxist Left perceived the global depression merely as the inevitable result of the contradictions of capitalism. The left-wing coalition that governed France from 1936-1938, the Popular Front, agreed with the proposition that more economic planning was necessary to resolve the crisis and implemented policies like a forty-hour work week and the nationalization of French credit. On the other side of the spectrum, what might be dubbed Manchester liberals promoted free trade and a loosening of work and labor regulations as the best response to the crisis. Those on the left could argue that precisely such liberal policies had helped augur in the economic crisis; those on the right, that state controls were responsible for double-digit inflation and job cuts, thus limiting workers’ gains and exacerbating the mass unemployment that the Left had sought to combat.
At the same time, however, many figures in the French intellectual scene sought a “Third Way” between these options of right or left. Aron, Steinmetz-Jenkins, explains, viewed both Marxism as well as Manchester liberalism as relics of a nineteenth-century ideological age. Examining intellectual forums like the Colloque Walter Lippmann (a five-day event that took place in 1938 and brought Aron together with a young Friedrich Hayek), Steinmetz-Jenkins shows how the core issue for Aron was not simply that one ideological vision (Marxism or laissez-faire liberalism) would boost GDP or employment, but rather than both were themselves expressions of a kind of ideological determinism.
This, Steinmetz-Jenkins explains, is most on display in Aron’s 1938 dissertation, Introduction to the Philosophy of History. For Aron, what united doctrinaire Marxists with budding neoliberals like Hayek (who outlined some the arguments to appear later in The Road to Serfdom in a 1938 article titled “Freedom and the Economic System”) was their ideological, deterministic thinking. Marxists insisted on the inevitability of proletarian revolution as the result of capitalism; neoliberals, meanwhile, insisted on the natural and inevitable descent of any kind of central planning into unfreedom, even though this argument was not backed up by any factual or historical examples. Aron, Steinmetz-Jenkins explains, did not dispute the necessity or desirability of developing abstract economic models, but he was skeptical of Hayek’s early thought as a kind of “inverse Marxism” driven by the idea of one set of circumstances necessarily producing a certain outcome. “This made it,” Steinmetz-Jenkins explains, “an ideology that didn’t deal with reality—it was an ideology that mapped itself onto politics and attempted to steer it in a direction that reality didn’t want to go. “
What’s more, this insistence on planning necessarily leading to dictatorship was especially unhelpful for those (like Aron) interested in preventing the rise of Soviet-aligned Communist Parties in Western Europe. Theorists like Hayek might have thought that only laissez faire could hold off the Marxist temptation, but Aron saw “Hayek’s thought as an ideology that would create the conditions under which Marxism could speak to the working class.” The adequate response to meet the Soviet challenge, argued Aron, would combine some elements of the welfare state (to avoid the inequalities created by unfettered capitalism) but also pay attention to the realities of the geopolitical situation to avoid European decadence and the possibility of Nazi, or, later, Soviet domination. (The economic policies of the Popular Front government handicapped the French armaments industry at a time of unprecedented German rearmament, thus hamstringing the Third Republic’s ability to slow down the Nazi war machine in 1940.) Parallels arguably abound with today, when record numbers of young Americans and Europeans seem interested in “socialism” (however defined) after feeling let down by austerity and trickle-down economics; at the same time, some might argue that vigilance against an activist Russian Federation is more important than reallocating resources to social programs that would respond to young citizens’ demands.
Fittingly, the specter of Soviet domination over Europe would silence the divide between thinkers like Aron and Hayek for much of the 1940s and early 1950s. When asked, both agreed to participate in international conferences organized by the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an anti-communist advocacy group formed in West Berlin in 1950 shortly after the Soviet blockade and the Berlin Airlift. The CCF, which was exposed in 1966 to have received significant funding from the CIA, grew over time to be an incredibly active organization, running conferences around the world devoted to discrediting socialism and left-wing thought and upholding the importance of intellectual freedom around the world. This sufficed as a mission for the organization’s first several years, when the outbreak of the Cold War and the Chinese Revolution made a purely defensive, negative posture justified. But after Stalin’s death in March 1953, many involved in the CCF understood that the organization would have to adopt a more positive stance on what, exactly, “freedom” meant in the new Cold War world. Did free societies have, for example, large welfare states—or were these welfare steps merely a step down the Road to Serfdom, as a rejuvenated Hayek had begun to argue? Aron and Hayek had been put “on a collision course,” argues Steinmetz-Jenkins.
Steinmetz-Jenkins’ work delves into the archives of the CCF, Aron’s papers, and Hayek’s papers to explore the debate that unfolded at international conferences run by the organization, above all one that took place in Milan in 1955. At the top of the agenda was, in essence, the question of how “the end of ideology” could be globalized—that is, whether much of the non-Communist world could be convinced to avoid the extreme of Marxism-Leninism and instead embrace a non-ideological middle road. A few months before the Milan conference, Aron had published a piece in a CCF-funded journalstitled “What Are the Nations Arguing Over” (“De quoi disputent les nations?”) noting that:
we are becoming ever more aware that the political categories of the last century—Left and Right, liberal and socialist, traditionalist and revolutionary-have lost their relevance. They imply the existence of conflicts, which experience has since reconciled, and they lump together ideas and men whom the course of history has drawn into opposing camps.
At the Milan Conference, however, Hayek profoundly disagreed with this interpretation. In his speed, he argued for a conception of liberty centered around private ends and the private sphere, remarking that no other conception of liberty had supplanted this Lockean one in the last one hundred and fifty years. Rather than submitting himself to a vision of politics in which the masses no longer needed to be feared (since they had, in effect, been bought off from Marxism through the welfare state) Hayek remained militant about the need for “a good sprinkling of rich men who have both the leisure and the means to espouse unpopular causes and to oppose the monolithic power of the government machine representing the majority.” In short, without the permanent vigilance of liberal élites (think of the Koch Brothers, controversial in the United States for their support of free market policies) it was virtually inevitable either that the masses would demand more and more planning (reducing freedom) or that bureaucratic creep would achieve the same end of unfreedom.
Much as it did in the 1930s, this interpretation exasperated Aron. He viewed Hayek’s insistence about the inevitability of a turn from planning to dictatorship as an ideological position unfounded in reality. Unable to reconcile himself to Hayek’s position, he resigned from Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society shortly after the Milan conference, and in many of his works in the 1960s, he stressed the “priority of the political” rather than the “priority of the economic” in determining the direction of societies. Aron noted that “industrial society” could exist under both conditions of socialism, like in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe; or under conditions of capitalism, like in the United States or Western Europe. The existence of a planned economy in the Eastern Bloc, however, was the result of conscious political decisions and the legacy of Lenin and Stalin, not the purported inevitable turn from any planning to totalitarianism that Hayek seemed to be arguing for. As Steinmetz-Jenkins notes, “Aron observed that partial planning in the postwar era or even total planning, such as in Britain during the war, did not abolish the rule of law.” It was, in short, mistaken for theorists to try to argue that politics could be overwhelmed by “some kind of universal system, whether economic or political,” argues Steinmetz-Jenkins.
Aron’s engagements with American thinkers were not confined to these debates over economics. Even though the clash with Hayek was in part concerned the extent to whether the CCF should support laissez-faire economics or the welfare state as the way forward for the non-Communist world, Aron also grappled head on with questions of international development and international relations theory. Two of the chapters of Steinmetz-Jenkins’ work show in particular Aron’s engagement with the guru of American modernization theory, Walt Rostow; as well as the godfather of postwar American international relations realism, Hans Morgenthau. As was the case in Aron’s clash with Hayek, in both of these cases Aron plead for a “Third Way” that would offer an alternative to the faith in technology and power politics ultimately adopted by the United States in the 1960s.
Aron’s argument with Rostow was connected with debates inside the Congress for Cultural Freedom about the direction of the post-colonial world. By the late 1950s, Rostow had begun developing the theses that would figure into his major 1960 work, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. In Rostow’s view, all nations passed through five stages of economic growth in their historical development, ending in a phase of mass consumption. Given the proper forms of assistance (whether American aid to post-colonial states like India, or French development assistance for Algeria, then in the middle of an anti-colonial revolution) societies could avoid the temptations of socialism or Third Worldism. In other words, the United States had a responsibility to guide post-colonial societies down this “natural” road of development to make sure that they did not fall off the path, as had Communist China, North Vietnam, or (as seemed increasingly possible) Algeria.
Aron had been aware of Rostow’s through CCF seminars in the late 1950s, but once The Stages of Economic Growth was published, he voiced his dissatisfaction with the work. He slammed Rostow’s “five-stage” scheme of history as incredibly simplistic, overlooking the fact that industrial “take-off” (Rostow’s term) had taken place under very different conditions in, for example, France and Brazil. Many societies, such as Meiji Japan, had managed to modernize without ditching tradition or embracing liberal political institutions, as Rostow suggested they necessarily would. Similarly, in the context of the 1960s, the Soviet Union and the United States had both modernized, but under diametrically opposed ideological systems. All of this meant, concluded Aron, that “there are no grounds for believing that all advanced societies must be of the same type.”
And even as Rostow went on to serve as American President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, Aron disseminated this critique to Asian (in particular Indian) members of the CCF who, too, felt that Rostow’s scheme to be too superficial. It was, in the end, better for Western would-be modernizers like Rostow to accept that Western political institutions had arisen under unique circumstances, and that many formerly colonized people would, for the foreseeable future, simply choose to go another way. As Aron concluded in one piece from the late 1950s:
whether independent Indians or Egyptians enjoy more or less liberal institutions is up to them. People of color, whom the Westerns have humiliated, use a Western vocabulary to voice their claims, but if they were given the choice between liberal institutions under Western tutelage or tyrannical ones in an independent state, the fact is that most of them would chose the second alternative.
From Aron’s point of view, Rostow’s intellectual resistance to these facts led him (and the United States) down the twisted road of the Vietnam War. Steadfast in the belief that enough modernization and economic aid could defeat a guerrilla war and popular nationalist movements, the United States embraced a cause it could not advance in Southeast Asia. As Aron later summed up in a book, The Imperial Republic, Rostow had, similarly to his intellectual cousin, Friedrich Hayek, fallen prey to ideological thinking. Ideologies, whether in the sphere of economics or modernization, demanded (however foolishly) that reality adapt itself to them, rather than the other way around.
Walter Rostow developed an interpretation of contemporary history to which [he] pinned [his] faith . . . . The North Vietnamese, he claimed, were the last prophets of revolutionary romanticism, and Vietnam was a decisive test of counterinsurgency, because if South Vietnam held out and won, the United States would have deterred the doctrinaires of the revolt of the countryside against the cities, the last proponents of Communist expansion by force, once and for all. Whether Kennedy or Johnson believed in these reasons or justifications, the war created its logic.
The other major bete noire for Aron in the sphere of international politics was the German-American émigré scholar Hans Morgenthau, probably most familiar to readers as the author of the influential textbook Politics Among Nations. Morgenthau’s work filled a need in the context of post-World War II America, as American élites looked for a comprehensive theory of international relations that could guide policy decisions. (Like most countries, an independent discipline of “International Relations” did not exist in postwar France.) In his work, Morgenthau emphasized the primacy of the pursuit of power and promotion of “the national interest” as key determinants in understanding international relations.
Morgenthau’s message had (and has) great appeal, but from Aron’s point of view, Morgenthau’s approach was based on an idealized picture of European diplomacy from the Treaty of Westphalia to the First World War, and then asserted that the dynamics of that period were universal across all historical contexts and geographies. Far from being an age of “international morality” (Morgenthau’s phrase), the Cold War was instead marked by an absolute contest between two opposed systems, and smaller states often had few options to resist falling into “the orbit of one or the other of the two giants whose political, military, and economic preponderance can hold them there even against their will.” Even assuming that the idealized period of European diplomacy had ever existed, it was dangerous to presume that similar wheeling and dealing could work in an international system of unprecedented bipolar ideological competition.
Aron sought to make these and other objections clear in his 1962 book, Paix et guerre entre les nations, itself an attempt to establish international relations as an intellectual field in France. Once again, ideology was the problem for American thinkers. Setting up power,” affirmed Aron, “as the unique or highest goal of individuals, parties or nations does not constitute a theory in the scientific sense but rather amounts to a philosophy or ideology.” It was an unhelpful truism to observe that states sought to promote their own interests, but Morgenthau’s approach avoided the crucial work of understanding how states defined their own interests. And particularly in the context of the Cold War, this realist approach was dangerous for understanding the conduct of ideologically-driven states. As Aron noted,
To say that the Soviet Union conducts its foreign affairs on the basis of its ‘national interests’ means that it is not guided exclusively by ideological considerations, by its ambition to spread communism. Such a proposition is undeniable, but to conclude from it that the rulers of a noncommunist Russia would have had the same diplomatic policy between 1917 and 1967 is simply absurd.
Once again, Aron sought to find a “Third Way,” this time between a Marxist approach that emphasized economic domination by capitalist elites and a “power politics” approach that emphasized an eternal contest for power in an anarchic international arena. “Aron,” emphasizes Steinmetz-Jenkins, “was trying to find a pathway between these extremes. He’s trying to find a pathway between his friend, Alexander Kojeve, and then the Schmittian worldview of enmity being ever present, and therefore war is ever-present.” Morgenthau had imported the latter into the American context, where American publics, unaware of Weimar-era political debates, absorbed it as objective theory rather than ideology. In contrast, says Steinmetz-Jenkins, Aron was “trying to find a worldview between the two. Instead of a theory, you’re supposed to write about the history of different cultures, you’re supposed to study the languages. And it’s only on the basis of that study that you can make a judgment. This was later his critique of the RAND Corporation, which relied too much on rational choice and calculation–it didn’t look at language, and culture.”
These attempts didn’t work. Morgenthau blasted Paix et guerre in a review, and it arguably was only thanks to Franco-American students and interlocutors like Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann that Aron’s IR theory found a voice in the American academy. “Perhaps because of its intention to find a Third Way,” says Steinmetz-Jenkins, “people didn’t like Aron when it came to international relations theory. Ultimately, within the American context, Aron’s theory wasn’t as successful as Morgenthau’s theory. Morgenthau told audiences, ‘everyone is selfish, everyone wants power, and we can base policy on that.’ Whether Aron pulled this off, I think, is open to question. But perhaps the beauty of his thinking is the same reason for its failure. At the end of the day, politicians need to decide, and there’s the question of whether they can use Aron’s theory to make decisions.”
Ultimately, they couldn’t. As commentators like Stanley Hoffmann recognized, once Morgenthau’s theories of power politics arrived in Washington circles, they blended with, rather than replaced, older traditions of American exceptionalism and idealism. Rather than the concept of “the national interest” being used to define a more circumspect foreign policy, American foreign policymakers asserted a definition of the American interest that was practically limitless—precisely the danger that Aron asserted in a 1953 article. Precisely this kind of thinking legitimized the American intervention in Vietnam, and parallels to more recent events should be obvious, when the United States has, in effect, argued that the establishment of cosmopolitan democracies in Mesopotamia or the Hindu Kush was essential to American interests. Morgenthau did, it bears mentioning, oppose the Vietnam War, but Aron and his followers like Hoffmann recognized early on that the idea of a theory of international relations based on “national interest” would lend itself to easy misappropriation by ideologues.
As Steinmetz-Jenkins’ work concludes, however, it would be a mistake to see Aron exclusively as a critic of US power and neoliberal economics. Throughout the 1970s, he notes, Aron grew increasingly concerned that Western European societies had grown complacent to the greatest threat still facing them, namely the Soviet Army. He opposed strategic arms limitation talks on the grounds that they acquiescefd to Western nuclear strategic parity with Moscow. And he viewed United States’ President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights as “fool’s gold,” argues Steinmetz-Jenkins, since such “diplomatic evangelicalism” was unlikely to put serious pressure on the Soviet military machine.
By the late 1970s, Aron had joined the editorial board of American magazine Commentary (often linked the budding neoconservative movement), and he himself founded a journal, Commentaire, that would oppose the Common Program of François Mitterrand after 1981. “Instead,” explains Steinmetz-Jenkins, Aron “stressed the necessity of the market system and free enterprise to ensure political liberty out of fears of the Common Program and disdain for spoiled baby boomers.” Gone was an earlier interest in the need to placate the masses to avoid their turn toward Marxism; now, the risk seemed to be that the welfare state had so tranquilized the masses that they had turned their attention from the persistent threat of Soviet domination to matters of sexual liberation, lifestyle, and diet.
The transformation was complete when by the late 1970s, he announced his support for the election of Ronald Reagan, Ironically, even through Aron would come to be celebrated for his place as a morally engaged thinker within a French “liberal revival,” by the end of his life, he had completed the kind of turn toward neoconservatism. All of this makes Aron’s a rather mixed legacy. While Aron remained bitterly opposed to Hayek’s neoliberal policies to the end of his life, he eventually embraced the two figures (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) whose rise represented the ascendancy of Hayek’s thought into public policy. He had opposed the naïve identification of “the American interest” with the economic and institutional transformation of the non-Western world, but he allied himself with an American President more openly committed to military adventurism than any since Vietnam and under whom “democracy promotion” abroad became a core principle of US foreign policy. Paradoxically, the man who had sought a “Third Way” for so much of his life seemingly found it in neoconservatism. “All of this,” concludes Steinmetz-Jenkins, “is to say that Aron’s Third Way offers a mixed political bag that can contribute to the very causes it once sought to resist.”
With the dissertation behind him, Steinmetz-Jenkins is currently engaged in several projects in intellectual history. There remains the task of re-writing the dissertation into a book manuscript. He says, he intends to expand the manuscript with additional chapters focusing on (among other things) Aron’s engagement with intellectuals at the Rand Corporation. He has also recently received permission to work in the archives of Indian journals and magazines funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 1960s such as ReOrient and Freedom First, and he hopes to travel to India shortly in order to read those papers. These materials, together with other sources that should paint a fuller picture of Aron as a person (not just an intellect), should, Steinmetz-Jenkins hopes, flesh out the project and ground it more in the contours of the global Cold War and Aron’s biography itself.
Beyond this main task of revising the dissertation into a book manuscript, Steinmetz-Jenkins is engaged in two other projects. One longer-term engagement that he hopes to develop eventually as a book project is a global history of the idea of “the end of ideology.” By this Steinmetz-Jenkins means not just Daniel Bell’s most famous formulation of that idea, but rather the idea that a non-utopian system of government was even possible. (Twenty-first century readers might recognize the echoes of Bell’s idea in Francis Fukuyama’s idea of an “end of history,” coined at the end of the Cold War.) With Daniel Bell’s papers now open to researchers at the Archives of Harvard University, Steinmetz-Jenkins is hardly to lack for resources to carry out the project.
Finally, beyond this more conventional second project, Steinmetz-Jenkins is also at work on a book project under contract with Columbia University Press on the relationship of the Left to politics and religion since 9/11. It’s a controversial topic. Recently, Steinmetz-Jenkins notes, reactions to the assault on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo have proven illustrative of divides on the issue of religion on the Left. Some observers have argued that the attacks, while heinous, are best understood in the context of systemic French Islamophobia and discrimination toward French Muslims, many of whom live in dilapidated banlieues.
Others, however, would argue that this account completely overlooks the importance of Islamist ideology and risks mistaking a global ideological phenomenon for nothing that better apartment blocks and better Metro connections couldn’t fix. Similar debates have only repeated themselves following the Bastille Day massacre in Nice, the murder of several dozen LGBT clubgoers at a Florida nightclub, and numerous individual killings apparently motivated by Islamist ideology everywhere from San Bernardino, California to Bavaria.
In his project, Steinmetz-Jenkins is interested in exploring how different intellectuals who broadly identified with anti-imperialist politics could come to such different conclusions about the proper forms of solidarity (or antipathy) to be accorded to religious movements and religion in the public sphere. Steinmetz-Jenkins is currently pursuing this project as a doctoral fellow at the University of California’s Center for the Study of Religion.
Beyond these endeavors, Steinmetz-Jenkins continues his work as editor of The Immanent Frame, an SSRC-funded blog devoted to secularism, religion, and the public sphere. We ask him what books with a global history focus have caught his attention. He notes that he’s read (and is currently participating in a a review forum of) David Milne’s recent Worldmaking, a history of American diplomacy through the biographies of ten or so important foreign policy thinkers.
Beyond Milne’s work, he recommends Princeton scholar Jan-Werner Müller’s recent What is Populism?, whether read alone or as a counterpoint to John Judis’ The Populist Explosion, another book on Steinmetz-Jenkins’ bookshelf these days. These works not only help make sense of populism as an intellectual tradition with a history, but are also timely at a moment when many states seem in the middle of a populist boom: look no further than the hostile takeover of the Republican Party – and successful election to the Presidency – by Donald J. Trump, the political successes of Alternative for Germany (AfD) across the Atlantic, or the bombastic combination of anti-Americanism, law and order, and nationalism vended by the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte since his election to that office earlier this year.
Our conversation with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins has given us a vista not only of the life and work of Raymond Aron, but also of the current directions of intellectual history as a field. Thanks to his work in the archives, it becomes possible to see Raymond Aron within the French liberal revival, yes, but also within a broader frame that brings the United States into the picture and complicates our notions of what, exactly, said liberal revival was. We thank Steinmetz-Jenkins for participating in our conversation, and we wish him the best of luck as he steers The Other Intellectuals to publication.