Tocqueville in Saginaw

Alan Ryan

When Americans test the health of their republic, scrutinise the civic virtue of their fellow citizens, or worry that religion is playing too large or too small a role in public life, the text from which they draw their standards of political health and psychological well-being, and the text from which they draw their hopes and fears is a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old treatise written by a French aristocrat of 30 who had spent barely nine months in the country. But though Democracy in America has been appropriated by America it was not really written for Americans. Its immediate target was de Tocqueville’s countrymen, who seemed to have a talent for revolution but no corresponding talent for self-government; more broadly, its target was every anxious liberal who sympathised with the political and economic aspirations of the less favoured members of society, but feared their predilection for dictators, every liberal whose instincts were egalitarian, but who feared mob rule, or the reign of ignorance or the triumph of mere levelling. It continues to have a tenacious grip on just that audience.

Ralf Dahrendorf taught post-1945 West Germany lessons from Tocqueville-in particular, that it was not enough to repent of the misdeeds of the Third Reich, that democracy needed ‘the antagonism of opinions’ more than the concerted mouthing of Cold War platitudes which conservative politicians preferred. In post-war France, Raymond Aron saw Tocqueville as the great counter-weight to Marx. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd reminded Americans that Tocqueville had feared they would become ‘other-directed’ conformists, incapable of the generosity, independence and energy that democratic government required. In England, Tocqueville’s work was translated and his insights naturalised within months of the appearance of the first volume of Democracy in America; Tocqueville provided the sociological underpinnings of Mill’s essay On Liberty, and the political sociology of English liberalism ever after.

What Tocqueville first did for liberal democrats in Democracy in America, he repeated twenty years later in L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution. Largely for political reasons, it was less of an immediate literary success that Democracy in America; intellectually, it has sustained theorists of revolution ever since. Tocqueville’s demonstration that the violent political upheavals of 1789-99 masked a deeper continuity between the France of Louis XIV and post-revolutionary France raised issues about the relationship between pluralism and social stability that have been debated ever since; his claim that Britain preserved its aristocratic form of government because the English aristocracy was both a permeable élite and a genuinely useful one has sparked off quantities of historical research; and his observation that revolutions occur when things are getting better rather than when they are at their worst has been tinkered with, refined into the so-called ‘J-curve’ model of revolution, and has been excessively relied on as a counter to Marxian claims about the revolutionary consequences of the immiseration of the working class.

The great merit of André Jardin’s Toc queville is its reminder of how much more there was to Tocqueville than his books. Though the two great books occupied an important place in Tocqueville’s life, and rightly occupy a good deal of Jardin’s book, the fascination of the story lies in the tensions between the author and the work. Tocqueville was anything but a ‘knee-jerk liberal’ in the modern American sense. He was an unabashed nationalist and an unabashed imperialist. Though Britain served as a model of one sort of political success, he was no Anglophile and no internationalist. France had to stand up to Britain wherever their overseas interests conflicted, and he urged France and the United States to unite in pressing their common concern that Britannia should not rule the waves too absolutely. If he has now become one of the ‘founding fathers of the social sciences’, we have to recall that he contrived his visit to America because his career at home was derailed by the Revolution of 1830, and wrote L’Ancien Régime because Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état had put an end to his ministerial career and forced him out of national politics.

André Jardin is the general editor of the projected complete works of Tocqueville, and a distinguished historian of French politics between Napoleon I and Napoleon III, and he writes with the relaxed mastery of a vast and complex body of material that only somebody in such a position could possess. The result is deeply engrossing, but faintly baffling. Jardin’s Tocqueville is so solidly situated in the legitimist aristocracy from which he sprang, and so conscious of the ties of honour that bound him to his intransigent relatives, that his democratic sympathies and his intellectual suppleness seem, if anything, more unaccountable than ever.

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