Raymond Aron and the Roots of the French Liberal Renaissance

  • Iain Stewart

Student thesis: Phd


Raymond Aron is widely recognised as France's greatest twentieth-century liberal, but the specifically liberal quality of his thought has not received the detailed historical analysis that it deserves. His work appears to fit so well within widely accepted understandings of post-war European liberalism, which has been defined primarily in terms of its anti-totalitarian, Cold War orientation, that its liberal status has been somewhat taken for granted. This has been exacerbated by an especially strong perception of a correlation between liberalism and anti-totalitarianism in France, whose late twentieth-century renaissance in liberal political thought is viewed as the product of an 'anti-totalitarian turn' in the late 1970s. While the moral authority accumulated through decades of opposition to National Socialism and Soviet communism made Aron into an anti-totalitarian icon, his early contribution to the rediscovery of France's liberal tradition established his reputation as a leader of the renaissance in the study of liberal political thought. Aron's prominence within this wider renaissance suggests that an historical treatment of his thought is overdue, but while the assumptions underpinning his reputation are not baseless, they do need to be critically scrutinised if such a treatment is to be credible. In pursuit of this end, two main arguments are developed in the present thesis. These are, first, that Aron's liberalism was more a product of the inter-war crisis of European liberalism than of the Cold War and, second, that his relationship with the French liberal tradition was primarily active and instrumental rather than passive and receptive. The first argument indicates that Aron's liberalism developed through a dialogue with and partial integration of important strands of anti-liberal crisis thought during these inter-war years; the second that earlier liberals with whose work he is frequently associated - notably Montesquieu and Tocqueville - had no substantial formative influence on his political thought. These contentions are interrelated in that Aron's post-war interpretation of his chosen liberal forebears was driven by a need to address specific problems arising from the liberal political epistemology that he formulated before the Second World War. It is by establishing in detail the link between Aron's reading of Montesquieu and Tocqueville and these earlier writings that the thesis makes its principal contribution to the existing literature on Aron, but several other original interpretations of his work are offered across its four thematic chapters on 'Political Epistemology', 'Anti-totalitarianism', 'The End of Ideology' and 'Instrumentalizing the French Liberal Tradition'. Regarding Aron's relationship with the wider late twentieth-century recovery of liberal political thought in France, it contends that the specific liberal renaissance to which he contributed most substantially emerged not as part of the anti-totalitarian turn, but in hostile reaction to the events of May 1968. This informs a broader argument that French liberal renaissance of these years was considerably more heterogeneous than is often assumed.
Date of Award31 Dec 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStuart Jones (Supervisor)


  • Neo-Liberalism
  • French Intellectuals
  • Tocqueville
  • Montesquieu
  • Political Religion
  • Anti-Totalitarianism
  • End of Ideology
  • French Liberalism
  • Liberalism
  • Raymond Aron
  • Secular Religion

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