All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1980

A Reviewers Notebook: In Defense of Decadent Europe

Henry Kissinger has called Raymond Aron’s In Defense of Decadent Europe (Regnery-Gateway, P. O. Box 207, South Bend, Indiana 46624, 297 pp., $14.95) “one of the most important intellectual statements of our time.” Certainly its acceptance in France, where Aron was long ago hailed as the Walter Lippmann of his country and then ignored, is indicative of its bellwether value.

Aron has attempted nothing less than to confute Joseph Schumpeter’s famous prediction that capitalism would be undermined not by any economic shortcomings but by a fatal inability to enlist the continuing support of the intellectuals, or those among them whom Irving Kristol calls the “new class.”

Schumpeter’s thesis always seemed particularly relevant when one looked at the French scene. The French intellectuals, young and old, listened respectfully when Jean- Paul Sartre, the playwright, wrote that “Marxism remains the unsurpassable philosophy of our era.” All through the Sixties the French university students flocked to the Sartre standard, even erupting without visible grievances into the type of violence that, in America, was blamed on the Vietnam War.

The Communists, of course, continued to get something like a fifth of the French vote. Combined with the two-fifths commanded by the socialists, the Communist vote might have pushed France over the brink. The fact that it didn’t was due to a semi-Stalinist headstrong leadership that refused to follow the Italian “Eurocommunists” who have tried to sneak up on the bourgeois by pretending to a belief in the eternal relevance of democratic procedures.

Time has passed in France since the student outbreaks of 1968, and the intellectuals have had some second thoughts. They are now discovering that, in Raymond Aron, they have had the sort of thinker that goes in the United States by the name of neo- conservative. Former socialists such as Jean-Francois Revel are, amid some continuing confusions, coming to see that Aron has all along been right in championing the virtues of a free economy and classical, as opposed to collectivist, liberalism.

Developments in Europe

It was thirty years ago that Aron, a professor of sociology, joined forces with Jean Monnet in the effort to unite western Europe both economically and politically. Despite a “parliament” at Strasbourg, Monnet’s hopes have never been fulfilled. The nations of the “western rump of Europe” have followed different courses. West Germany has been the most capitalistic. Spain has just recently emerged from the extreme authoritarianism of the Franco years. Portugal was saved by a miracle from going wholly Communist. Switzerland remains its individualistic self, but the virus of social democratic welfarism has sapped the economic strength of England, Scandinavia and, to a lesser extent, the Low Countries. France and Italy have survived, one gathers, because of a cynicism that has always enabled productive Lat-ins to elude the tax collector and maintain the health of the “other,” or subterranean, economy.

Western Europe might be called “decadent” for a number of reasons. But Aron uses the word affectionately, as if to say, “If this be decadence, make the most of it.” The true decadence, he thinks, is what he calls %he Marxist vulgate.” And he wonders that so many in the Europe of his affections should have been so impressed by Marxism- Leninism—and even Stalinism—over the years.

Aron’s chief rhetorical tool is his Gallic sarcasm. Marxism, he notes, has never yet managed to create a state that has shown any tendency to wither away. Nor has the proletariat, or the “working class,” ever taken the lead in pulling off a revolution. Lenin and Trotsky, in Russia, relied on a small band of professional revolutionaries drawn from the intellectual classes. They were terrorists even more than they were Marxists—Lenin believed that it was better to kill a hundred innocent people than let one guilty person go free, and he actually put this in writing. In China, Mao depended on his professional revolutionary officers, and he worked through the peasantry, not the city proletariat. Eastern Europe was taken over by the Red Army in 1945 and 1946 and forced to become Communist in spite of itself. In Cuba and Chile, Marxists succeeded by cheating. Castro posed, for a period, as the voice of the anti-Batista middle classes. Allende, in Chile, was voted into office as a “democrat.” Fortunately, the Chilean middle classes caught on to the swindle before Chile went under completely. The Cuban middle classes were not so lucky.

A Parade of Ironies

What impresses Aron is that all of the “Marxist” and “proletarian” revolutions occurred in parts of the world that had never been industrialized. This was certainly not what Marx had predicted. Lenin’s theory that the West European countries must have colonies to exploit if they were to preserve high standards of living at home also proved an utter fallacy. The Dutch were far better off after their loss of Indonesia; the French were never so prosperous once they relinquished Indochina and Algeria. As for the West Germans and the Japanese, they have proved conclusively that the need for “lebensraum” is a delusion.

Aron concludes from his parade of ironies that Marxism-Leninism and Maoism are theories for “the use of fanatics and dunces.” The whole theory of central planning, he says, would be disastrous if it were to be adopted in any .advanced economy. Where there are thousands of differing relationships between prices, not even a central planning board consisting of Solomons could provide a system that would bring the right materials to the right place at the right time and in the right quantities. Without a capitalist outer world to provide pricing information, the Soviet and the East European economies would be in a truly appalling mix-up.

As for “surplus value,” which might better be defined as the wage that is earned by those who provide the machinery and the requisite management skills, it exists in any economy that seeks the means to perpetuate itself. In socialist countries it is siphoned off by the state for various purposes which include, besides the development of new business, the maintenance of all the special privileges of the bureaucracy. It is no accident, to use a Marxist expression, that there are few private cars in Russia, or that a peasant, seeking a hoe for his pitiful private plot, has to improvise one for himself.

True enough, there is no unemployment in Soviet Russia, but this is because every existing job is split in many ways. Russia boasts that it outproduces the United States in steel. But with all its steel capacity it cannot provide its workers with decent housing or small tools.

Aron piles irony upon irony. But the strangest irony of all is that the West has been “unaware of its own superiority.” Aron paints a picture of western Europe as “its own victim.” He suggests that it has engaged in ideological drug addiction. The question, with Aron, is whether it can emerge from its dope dream in time to arm itself against the new Genghis Khans who use Marx to cover their predatory instincts. The response to Aron’s book in France is encouraging. One hopes it has not come too late.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.