Raymond Aron saw his liberal pluralism triumph over Marx

In the 1924 class photo for L'Ecole Normale Superieure, the two best students sit side by side: one a small, bespectacled, intense-looking youth, the other a taller, leaner, more relaxed figure.

After graduation, the two would quarrel over politics, only to reconcile their differences and meet again in 1979, this time as intellectual icons at the entrance of the Elysee Palace.

''Bonjour, mon petit camarade,'' Raymond Aron greeted his smaller companion, Jean-Paul Sartre. More than anything else, this welcoming - recounted in Aron's just-published massive volume of memoirs - tells the story of 20th-century French intellectual history, and how Aron's liberal pluralism has triumphed over Sartre's Marxism.

During their long years of separation, Aron disagreed in books, articles, and speeches with his Nobel-prize-winning classmate on just about everything: the cold war, Charles de Gaulle, the 1968 student revolt. Sartre's radical politics were in vogue among intellectuals, and only the exposure of the Soviet gulags (labor camps) in the 1970s would finally rob Marxism of much of its luster. Even Sartre would change, joining Aron at the Elysee Palace the year before his passing to lobby for more French aid to the Vietnamese boat people.

''Sartre and I debated the fundamental question facing the world: the choice between the Soviet system and the American system,'' Aron explained in an interview. ''It was a debate that was followed throughout Europe and that was important for world opinion.''

Aron hailed himself as the winner of the debate.

''Communism is in disgrace,'' he said. ''French intellectuals have rediscovered the most important values, human rights and liberty.''

Over the course of his extraordinary lifetime, Aron had much to say about the human propensity to deviate from these essential values. For the past 35 years he was the Walter Lippmann of France, the country's premier political columnist, first with Le Figaro and more recently with the news weekly, L'Express.

At the same time, he led a brilliant university career. In a score of books, he treated such diverse subjects as the philosophy of war and the sociology of modern industrial society. He wrote an esoteric thesis on the philosophy of history and a basic sociology text which remains in use throughout the world.

What united his diverse works - both journalistic and academic - was a clear and fluid, but cold and distant, style. In a nation that has long lionized passionate thinkers, Aron was criticized for being too dry, too detached, too analytical.

In person, too, Aron's voice did not rise with emotion. It was steady, smooth , and crystal clear, a striking contrast with his stooped frame and his crinkled , pockmarked face. Wearing his customary conservative suit, he sat behind his desk in his modern, book-filled office at L'Express, his strong voice alone permitting him to retain the commanding - and somewhat pompous - presence of a lecturing professor.

Aron was born into an assimilated Jewish family in 1905 with the mission of obtaining the full university professorship his father desired but never achieved. After an early infatuation with tennis, studies dominated his youth, and he capped a sparkling academic career at the prestigious Ecole Normale by passing the prestigious ''agregation'' in philosophy making him a state-licensed professor.

His strolls as a student down the Boulevard St. Germain with Sartre cultivated an indefatigable intellectual curiosity and a rich analytical talent. But his political education would only come later, as a fledgling professor in Germany on the eve of Hitler's rise to power.

''Faced with a Hitler, and much the same, faced with a Stalin, one has to say no,'' he says. But how does one say no to such evil - by fighting it or by analyzing it? It took Aron nearly 20 years to find a personal answer to this question.

During the war, he went to London and joined Charles de Gaulle's free France; in postwar Paris, he worked with Andre Malraux in de Gaulle's first government. An admiration of the general's policies, if not his overbearing style, stemmed from these experiences. But Aron found himself dissatisfied with politics.

''Politicians must bend the truth,'' he says. ''And that is one thing I could not accept.''

So he left government service and returned to writing as a ''committed spectator.'' In his columns and books, he expressed an unceasing hostility to the Soviet Union.

''Truth and liberty are my most important values,'' he said. ''I detest the Soviet Union because it forces men to lie - look at the Boeing tragedy (the shooting down of the Korean airliner) - and because it denies them their human rights.''

Aron was not a starry-eyed idealist, however. Like his longtime friend Henry Kissinger (they met while Kissinger was a professor at Harvard), he is a believer in Realpolitik. He believes the West must be strong, and if necessary make compromises with its values to defend its freedoms.

''Foreign policy is a dirty business,'' he asserted. ''Alliances with despots are necessary sometimes.''

General Evren's Turkey, for example, merited American support in his view because it is a bulwark against Russian expansionism. The same logic justified American efforts to prop up the regime in El Salvador - and to overturn Castro.

''I dined with Kennedy in 1961, and he asked me what he should do about Cuba, '' Aron recalled. ''I told him, paraphrasing Machiavelli, 'If you have an occasion to kill your enemy, shoot him. If you don't, wait.' ''

Such cold logic, combined with his hostility to the Soviet Union, long made Aron a hated figure in the idealistic and Marxist-dominated world of Parisian intellectuals. During the 1950s, he was almost a solitary soldier against Sartre's army.

''In my dogmatic youth, Aron practically represented the devil incarnate,'' says historian and former communist, Emmanuel le Roy-Ladurie. ''He was pro-capitalist and pro-American, thus suspect.''

Over the years, though, as the appeal of communism waned for such men as le Roy-Ladurie, Aron's reputation rose. More recently, with Marxism largely discredited, he basked in popular limelight.

His memoires are the publishing event of the season. The book's first printing sold out within its first week of release, and now is high on the best-seller list. Critical acceptance has been just as strong. Even longtime left-wing detractors of Aron such as Le Monde and Le Nouvel Observateur have praised the book.

''He is a national monument,'' says well-known journalist Olivier Todd.

''Our de Tocqueville,'' headlined the daily Le Quotidien.

This is undoubtedly going too far. After calming down, most French critics say that Aron's works do not merit the citation of classic.

''I find it troubling, and a bit typical of the crazy era we live in, to see the editorialist of L'Express suddenly transformed into a giant of a thinker,'' says nouveau philosophe Bernard Henri-Levy.

Despite an ego that enjoyed the public praise, Aron agreed that Henri-Levy had a point. He feared that near-universal approval meant that the past Marxist orthodoxy might very well be replaced with another type of dangerous conformism.

It also demonstrated to him the lack of constructive political and intellectual debate in the world at large and in particular in France. He saw his country arguing over the false problems of left and right when the world around it was crumbling - the US losing its supremacy, a frazzled Germany threatening the heart of NATO, and a sick European economy threatening the welfare state.

''We need to ask whether the postwar system of social democracy is finished, '' he said. ''Instead of posing this question, our intellectuals are wasting their time arguing about the intricacies of daily political life.''

What could restore the luster of French intellectuals? ''A Sartre,'' Aron answered.

Of all people, his ''petit camarade''?

''Yes,'' he said, ''there has to be a great intellectual like him who has the courage to pose the right questions - even if he has all the wrong answers.''

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