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International Socialism, Autumn 1966


Geoff Winn

French Waters


From International Socialism, No.26, Autumn 1966, pp.36-37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Main Currents in Sociological Thought
Raymond Aron
Weidenfeld, 40s.

Aron’s concern in this volume is with the thought of Montesquieu, Comte, Marx and Tocqueville. The customary approach to Montesquieu is sharply challenged – he is seen not as a precursor of sociology but as one of its great theorists. ‘In classical political philosophy no-one bothered to examine the relationship between the types of political superstructure and the social foundations,’ whereas, for Aron, Montesquieu’s decisive contribution was to combine the analysis of forms of government with the study of social organisations so that ‘each regime is also seen as a certain type of society.’ From Montesquieu comes the now well-worn theme that it is the competition between social classes which ensures moderate government and ‘freedom,’ because the different classes are able to ‘balance’ one another. Aron is puzzled by the fact that Comte has remained outside the mainstream of modern social thought, despite the fact that ‘all those theories which attempt to isolate the essential characteristics of industrial civilisation could rightly claim to derive from Auguste Comte.’ The application of science to industry and predominance of organisation were fundamental for Comte – antagonism between capital and labour is but marginal, the result of bad organisation which can be corrected by reform.

On Marx, his central criticism is that while Capital shows why the functioning of capitalism may be difficult, no proof of the self-destruction of capitalism is offered, ‘unless it be via the revolt of the masses rebelling against their lot.’ Unless! It is this mechanistic reading – that Marx tried to demonstrate the destruction of capitalism as inevitable somehow apart from the agency of men in overthrowing it – that vitiates Aron’s analysis. This is not to deny that the specification of the critical conditions conducive to the crystallisation of widespread political class consciousness under corporate capitalism is high on any socialist agenda. Chapter 5, with its discussion concerning alleged ambiguities in Marx deserves special attention, yet Aron strangely concludes the chapter with the assertion that a central error of the Marxist vision is a false strict parallel between the rise of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat. We hardly need Aron to tell us that in capitalist society the proletariat is not a privileged minority. One common approach to Tocqueville is to delve into his work for themes relevant to contemporary society. For Aron, Tocqueville is the prophet of the welfare state and embourgeoisement. Too many groups possess something in bourgeois democratic society to risk what they have on the gamble of revolution. And on what, ultimately, does this bourgeois freedom and society depend? On the establishment of a moral discipline in the individual conscience, answers Tocqueville. And the faith which will ensure this better than any other, he says (with Montesquieu), is religious faith. Aron could have compared this profitably with the functionalism of Comte (religion as necessary for social integration – thus his Religion of Humanity sanctifying the temporal power in the positivist stage of societal development), and of Marx (Tocqueville’s ‘moral discipline’ becomes opium).

The last section discusses the attitudes adopted by Comte, Tocqueville and Marx towards the 1848 Revolution: the technocrat Comte, glad that Napoleon III once and for all did away with the parliamentary windbags; the despondency of the liberal aristocrat Tocqueville – convinced that revolutions are unfavourable to the preservation of liberty – violently hostile to the insurgent Parisian workers; and Marx, revolutionary agitator in Germany and brilliant commentator on France. In so far as Marx attempts to analyse the political conflicts of the time in terms of the underlying interests of social groups, Aron alleges a rigid socio-economic determinism. Yet when Marx allows a measure of autonomy to the political order in the working out of these conflicts (as in the 18th Bramaire) Aron chides him for failing to adhere to this alleged iron determinism. Aron concludes by seeing himself as a descendant of the Montesquieu-Tocqueville liberal French school of political sociology. As a guide to the standpoint of this school and as a lucid history of sociological thought in its own right, this book can be recommended.

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