French History @IHR: Iain Stewart on Raymond Aron and the Liberal Retreat from Empire

Date and Place: Monday 10th February 2020 in the Chadwick Building, UCL

Speaker: Iain Stewart (UCL)

Paper Title: Rethinking Raymond Aron on Decolonization and the End of Ideology

Chair: Andrew WM Smith

To listen to a recording of this paper please click here (right click to save)

In this paper Iain Stewart built on a short section in his excellent recently published book, Raymond Aron and Liberal Thought in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Stewart’s book offers and important re-examination one of the leading figures in French Liberal thought through a close engagement with his life and ideas. Here, Stewart demonstrated that Raymond Aron held a conflicted stance on decolonization, with a position which showed remarkable movement over this period. Examining first the End of Ideology doctrine, Stewart then moved on to track Aron’s changing views on the decolonization of Indochina, and finally examining Aron’s role in the intellectual politics surrounding the Algerian War.

Stewart, Raymond Aron and Liberal Thought in the Twentieth Century

Between the mid-1950s and late 1960s, there was a canonisation of the idea of growth in post-war Europe, which tracked alongside a meaningful and optimistic belief in the probity of mildly interventionist economic management. This ‘End of Ideology’ thesis called for the politics of productivity to replace the old politics of class, making those old distinctions redundant while finding a new way of championing western liberal ideas. This was, Stewart points out, as much a response to Soviet developments in a moment of relatively peaceful coexistence after the death of Stalin as it was a celebration of Western achievements. Yet, this occurred against the background of an era of decolonisation, and served to underestimate the wider impact of national liberation struggles.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Aron stressed how his stance on Indochina had informed his more strident intervention in the Algerian War. Yet, he retrospectively applied greater consistency and clarity to his thoughts on decolonization than had been the case. Stewart showed how shortly before the end of Dien Bien Phu, Aron had sought to court US intervention by speaking to the Ambassador about the threat of a Third World War. Likewise, looking at Aron’s wartime writing in the London-based journal La France Libre that Aron edited, Stewart detected little overt support for decolonisation. Even in an article published in International Affairs in 1945, where Aron did tentatively endorse the decolonization of Indochina, it was as part of a strengthening of France’s core imperial possessions in Africa (coupled with liberal imperial reforms).

Perhaps the most consistent element of Aron’s writing on this was that he made no coherent liberal argument in favour of decolonization. Aron’s involvement in the intellectual politics of the Algerian War seemed to alter this trend, with the publication of his book The Algerian Tragedy (1957) making him one of the first public intellectual figures in France to come out strongly in favour of Algerian independence. Yet, even at this moment, he had shortly beforehand been part of a petition of Sorbonne professors supporting military action in France (to restore order under the French flag in order to allow for reforms). Stewart offered a series of seeming contradictions within Aron’s thought around decolonization, preferring federal solutions and the spectre of liberal reform over the dissolution of French empire, whilst being uncomfortable making liberal arguments for the use of force. Stewart showed how despite the fact that many look to Aron to illustrate the liberal retreat from Empire in the context of the Cold War, his changing positions seemed instead to show a retreat from liberalism on the subject of empire and a preference for Cold War realism.


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