Review by Antonio R. Rubio Plo Democracy and totalitarianism

03/10/2017

Página Indómita, Barcelona, 2017, 384 páginas. 
Traducción de Luis González Castro.

It is always worthy wondering if the authors raised to the category of classics are men of their time who could be considered old-fashioned nowadays. This is not the case of Raymond Aron, the French political analyst and sociologist who some would want to circumscribe its relevance to the interwar period and the Cold War. We will be told that the world has changed and each time it changes more, that there are few certainties and that the thinkers of the past, although this one is recent, are not of great utility. Nevertheless, this will depend on how the author’s books are read. If the publications are read in terms of political or philosophical history, the limitations will result evident, but if we take a step further and search for ideas and inspiration in the splendid mind of Aron, who classified himself as “a committed spectator”, our conclusions will be that he is an author who, by virtue of his deep realism and his engagement with a reasoning beyond dogmatism, remains up to date.

Democracy and totalitarianism includes the nineteen lectures Aron taught at the Sorbonne University in 1957-58, when France was immersed in the Algerian war and the General De Gaulle was about to take power to establish the presidential rule of the French Fifth Republic. Aron knew perfectly the man who was going to govern France. De Gaulle did not need to use sedition to bury the Forth Republic. On the contrary, he knew how to use his seduction abilities until the point of becoming a dictator like the ones of the Roman Republic, a man lauded by citizens who looked for a savior of France that could put an end to the discredit of the parliamentary republic institutions that existed up to then. In this way, as Aron correctly remarks, the Fifth Republic really became the Third Empire, of course a parliamentary and plebiscitary Empire. The present and future scholars of Macron’s presidency can re-read many of the pages Aron wrote about Gaullism. They will doubtlessly useful.

The author reviews presidential and parliamentary democracies and compares the European and American political systems. Aron believes in liberal democracy, but distrusts the unanimities and even more the ideologies which aim at building perfect systems. Despite the critics that often inspire particracy, the author does not see another alternative for ruler’s election. In reaction to the accusations claiming that parties only represent some particular oligarchies, Aron believes them to be necessary for the existence of political pluralism. Otherwise, which political regime would be free of not being identified as an oligarchy? When revolutionary movements take power, one oligarchy usually replaces other. The temptation of the government of the “perfects” is consubstantial to the political game, but the liberal democracies, in their true purpose, can never aspire to perfection since they are the testimony of a political pluralism characterized by the shifting balance of power. Aron saw up close Weimar’s Republic, from which many highlighted its internal weaknesses due to the instability of their governments or corruption. The French thinker would have preferred to extend that regime with all its weaknesses, before falling in the “perfectionism” of conferring power upon a man or a political party. Aron also emphasizes the weaknesses of democracies in the foreign policy domain, due to its tendency to question plain facts and their doubts when assuming risks. In short, democracy can disappoint, but alternatives are much worse. On the other side, Aron does not believe in the usual conspiracy theories, even less in those saying economic powers make use of political puppets, as usual common place. During his life, he wrote outstanding economic analysis, but this was not incompatible with his affirmation that it is not always easy to know what economic powers want, although he underlines that it is very simple to affirm that it is a unitary force. In any case, politics are more important to Aron than economics, and this will be one of its various objections to Marxism, the dominant creed among French intellectuals from the second half of the 20th century.
Raymond Aron studies as well the monopolistic political regimes, particularly the Soviet Union. One of his most interesting observations is the presence of contrast between the soviet reality and the constitutional fictions. Soviets had several constitutions that on paper meant a plural regime. As opposed to Nazism and Fascism, which never conceal their hate towards liberal democracy, communist used to make a clear commitment to democracy, even though they never applied it. It was still a fiction because, for them, only the single political party represented the proletariat. In these terms all others are traitors. No dissents allowed. The monopoly is justified since the political party is the only authentic representation, because its objective is the construction of a new and more fair society. The logical conclusion is the identification between State and party. Once again, the unconditional unanimities. In this regard we could reflect on a Montesquieu quote, transcribed by Aron, who affirms that whenever we see everybody tranquil in a state that calls itself a republic, we can be sure that liberty does not exist there. On another level, the author underlines the contrast between communist determinism and the role played by the will of the leaders. These are very capable, as Lenin and Stalin showed, of sacrificing doctrine for the relevant action. Ideology has become a mean to an end. Here, fanaticism is not incompatible with some scepticism.

It is possible that in the mind of Aron’s students arose the question regarding the future soviet regime, and the professor stayed ahead of this question. Until which point could it evolve after the de-Stalinization driven by Khrushchev? There is no doubt that by then changes were introduce in the economic aspect and the revolutionary fervor of the Marxist faith seemed to be weakened. Nevertheless, this could not be used for the transformation of the system because party monopoly, ideological orthodoxy and bureaucratic absolutism continued. There was no need to wait for an uprising of the governed. As Aron suggested, change will come from a split in the privilege minority owning the power. He was not wrong, even though he was not alive to see it, since Gorbachev would be, somewhat to his regret, the driving force of the revolution “from above”.

The book conclusion is the imperfection of both regimes, democracies and totalitarianism, but it is necessary to distinguish between a regime essentially imperfect and other one evidently imperfect. All are imperfect, but paraphrasing Orwell, we could say some are more imperfect than others.


Review by Antonio Rubio Plo, international politics analyst and professor of comparative politics and Spanish foreign policy.

Traducido por María Maseda Varela

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