Friday, November 21, 2014

Aron and Schmitt

The new issue of MIH contains a number of interesting pieces. I want to offer now only a brief remark on the basis of one of them: Steinmetz-Jenkins’ essay on Raymond Aron and Carl Schmitt, the full title of which is “Why Did Raymond Aron Write that Carl Schmitt Was Not A Nazi? An Alternative Genealogy of French Liberalism.” In brief, Steinmetz-Jenkins wants to show how, over the course of the 1970s and especially in reaction to 1968, Aron became much closer to Schmitt, borrowing many of his key concepts and framings. The essay is actuated by a remarkable pair of opposing quotes. First, Aron in 1941 referring to Schmitt as “one of the official theorists of National Socialism,” and second Aron in his 1983 Mémoires, “Carl Schmitt never belonged to the National Socialist party. A man of high culture, he could not be a Hitlerian and never was.” Steinmetz-Jenkins’ essay is quite rich and worth the time of anyone interested in the revival of ‘liberalism’ in France since the 1970s.

A few points only. First of all, one should probably put a “recent” or “contemporary” into the subtitle before “French Liberalism.” The work in question is very much post 1968, and especially aimed rather damning, in the conclusion, at Pierre Manent. Second, I think the essay demonstrates a moderately interesting issue in this sort of intellectual history. The two statements quoted are not merely expressing opposed views about the worth of Schmitt’s work, or even his merits as a human being. Rather, at issue is at least in part a matter of fact. Was Schmitt a member of the Nazi party? As Steinmetz-Jenkins shows, at one point in his life, Aron believed (knew!) that he had been, and a rather committed one at that. By the end of his life, in contrast, Aron wrote that Schmitt had not been. Now, Steinmetz-Jenkins shows pretty clearly why Aron’s view of Schmitt might have changed, and even entertains—although I think in the end rejects—the idea that Aron came to believe he had been mistaken earlier in this matter of fact. But what I find missing here—what there is not really room for in this sort of closely-argued, I might venture ‘philological’ sort of intellectual history, a kind of scholarship that appeals to me very much—is psychology. What about an increasingly out of touch, even bitter, older person who is choosing to remember things one way rather than another? What about simple error? Aron, surely a precise and rigorous thinker, is not an ideal candidate for this sort of thing, but I am interested in the way that the mode of intellectual history pursued here rules out this kind of argument.

Third, finally, and at least to me most interesting is the opposition Aron presents in the later quote. One cannot be, cannot have been, both a man of great culture and a Nazi. This is a logical contradiction. Now, this is one line in a late-written memoir. It is not a statement in the philosophy of history. I hesitate to call it symptomatic. Nonetheless, here is surely a nice example of French liberal rationalism. Culture is incompatible with a nihilistic, bad materialist, violence worshiping political ideology. Spirit and matter cannot both be at work. So, anyway, in light of my own thinking about earlier rationalist French liberalism, I would read that line.

A full citation for the article: Steinmetz-Jenkins, Daniel. “Why Did Raymond Aron Write that Carl Schmitt Was Not A Nazi? An Alternative Genealogy of French Liberalism.” Modern Intellectual History, 11, 3 (2014), pp. 549-574.

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