In This Review

The Dawn of Universal History
The Dawn of Universal History
By Raymond Aron, translated by Barbara Bray
Basic Books, 2002, 520 pp

Aron's vast and multifaceted output is like a quarry from which each explorer digs up those parts that interest him or her the most. This volume focuses not on Aron's philosophy but on his take on the history of the twentieth century: the two world wars, the totalitarian "secular religions," colonialism and its demise, and the rise of American global dominance. Aron was a magisterial debunker of dogmas -- in particular, of Leninist theories of imperialism. But he was also a convincing defender of the autonomy of political factors and passions, a pluralist in his interpretation of causes of events, an advocate of rational solutions, and a skeptic about humanity's capacity to be moderate. His brand of social science is more than rooted in history; it is an attempt to make sense of history. And in hindsight, he was more right than wrong (predicting, for example, that small conventional wars are much likelier than nuclear ones in the atomic age). He was radically non-Marxist insofar as he believed in the importance of ideas, but he was also aware of the limits on ideas imposed by reality, as seen in his opposition to the French-Algerian war. In a fine introduction, Tony Judt emphasizes not only the distinctiveness of Aron's political positions but also his unique conception of social science, especially compared with American approaches.