Jun 23, 2009
THE OPIUM OF THE INTELLECTUALS
THE OPIUM OF THE INTELLECTUALS
Raymond Aron, New Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield
and Foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney and Brian C. Anderson
Transaction Publishers, new edition (2001)
(first published in 1955)
"Does the antithesis of Right and Left still have any meaning? The man who asks this question is immediately suspect....
...the word Left has quite a different connotation from the word opposition. Parties alternate in power; the left-wing party stays left-wing, even if it forms the government.
In stressing the significance of the two terms, Right and Left, people do not restrict themselves to the mere statement that the machinery of political forces tends to divide itself into two blocs separated by a centre which is continually being encroached upon. Rather do they infer the existence of two types of men whose attitudes are fundamentally opposed, or two sets of conceptions between which the interminable and unchanging dialogue continues through every vicissitude of institution or terminology, or else two camps engaged in a never-ending struggle. Do these two kinds of men, of ideas, of parties, exist elsewhere than in the imagination of historians...?
...The different groups which consider themselves left-wing have never in any profound sense been united. From one generation to the next the slogans and programmes change. Has the Left of yesterday, which fought for constitutional government, anything in common with the Left which today asserts its authority in the 'People's Democracies'?" Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals (2001 edition), Chapter 1, "The Myth of the Left," pp. 3–4
Raymond Aron's 1955 masterpiece The Opium of the Intellectuals, is one of the great works of twentieth-century political reflection. Aron shows how noble ideas can slide into the tyranny of "secular religion" and emphasizes how political thought has the profound responsibility of telling the truth about social and political reality—in all its mundane imperfections and tragic complexities.
Aron explodes the three "myths" of radical thought: the Left, the Revolution, and the Proletariat. Each of these ideas, Aron shows, are ideological, mystifying rather than illuminating. He also provides a fascinating sociology of intellectual life and a powerful critique of historical determinism in the classically restrained prose for which he is justly famous....
"...First published in France in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, L'Opium des intellectuels was an immediate sensation. It caused something of a sensation in the United States, too, when an English translation was published in 1957. Writing in The New York Times, the historian Crane Brinton spoke for many when he said that the book was "a kind of running commentary on the Western world today....
Aron's subject is the bewitchment--the moral and intellectual disordering--that comes with adherence to certain ideologies. Why is it, he wondered, that certain intellectuals are "merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines"?
Aron's title is an inversion of Marx's contemptuous remark that religion is "the opium of the people."....
...Aron's indictment of intellectual intoxication is not the same thing as an indictment of intellectuals. He was not anti-intellectual or contemptuous of ideas. This was not simply because he was an intellectual himself. He clearly discerned the immense power, for good or ill, that ideas can have. "Intellectuals suffer from their inability to alter the course of events," he noted. "But they underestimate their influence. In a long term sense, politicians are the disciples of scholars or writers." (from posting by Roger Kimball on Armavirumque, the blog of The New Criterion online edition)