A Matter of Caste

Colin Kidd

  • Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution by Hugh Brogan
    Profile, 724 pp, £30.00, December 2006, ISBN 1 86197 509 0

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) presents several faces to the modern world. His measured acceptance of the new forces of democracy unleashed by the American and French Revolutions made him an icon of moderate centrist liberalism. However, he has also had his champions on the right, at least among sophisticated Cold Warriors determined to maintain connections with a broader liberal tradition, including, in his native France, Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel, for whom Tocqueville’s oeuvre was the sole haven of grace and trust within a canon of modern political philosophy whose prescriptions – from right as much as left – seemed to lead to mass extermination or indoctrination.

Tocqueville’s Cold War appeal did nothing to dent his standing in the United States, where his Democracy in America is one of the two unchallenged classics of American political theory, the other being The Federalist Papers. Name recognition within the American political elite has led to the grisliest kind of modern sanctification, the establishment of a consultancy organisation named in his honour. Founded in the mid-1980s, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution is best known for its lobbying efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry and against open source software in computing. Its financial backers remain mysterious. The institution’s president stated in 2004: ‘We don’t talk about money with anybody . . . but we’ll accept money from anybody.’

Tocqueville’s reputation in the world of historians is somewhat different from his profile in corporate America. In the world of historians his significance rests more particularly on L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856). In recent decades this classic work has been substantially reappraised, and, as Keith Baker has argued, Tocqueville has supplanted Marx as the guiding theoretical influence on the historiography of the French Revolution. Historians have largely abandoned the quest for its social and economic origins and returned to political questions, and to Tocqueville’s subtle analysis of the manners and traditions of Ancien Régime life. L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution also focused on neglected continuities between pre-Revolutionary government and the new broom of the Revolution, most especially in policies of centralisation. The principal vehicle of innovation in the recent past had been royal despotism, and it seemed that the Jacobins merely completed – albeit at a furious rate and with unprecedented savagery – what Louis XIV had begun. In this work Tocqueville transcended the political and moral divisions which had so marked French discussion of the losses, traumas and successes of the Revolution. Neither for nor against the Revolution, apparently, Tocqueville’s balanced approach to the history of continuities paved the way for dispassionate academic historians.

Tocqueville’s work has become a byword for detached analysis, and he himself, a member of the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques, is assumed to have been a somewhat desiccated figure, the founding father of that sanitised strain of political science which explores political processes and the workings of institutions, judiciously to be sure, but to the exclusion of the fervour and enthusiasms which animate political life in the raw. It is Hugh Brogan’s achievement in this biography to present Tocqueville as a man of feelings – and not all of them fine feelings. Indeed, one theme dominates: Tocqueville’s failure ever quite to overcome the prejudices of his caste. His career as a political commentator was propelled by a sense of aristocratic loss and disorientation. If his masterpieces were flawed (Brogan firmly but affectionately shows where Tocqueville got some things wrong), their shortcomings tended to derive from a kind of hardwired snobbery. Not that Brogan paints him as a passive hostage of his class. His politics were to diverge from the norms of his kin and rank: in religion he abandoned the institutional redoubt of the Catholic Church for a skeletal deism, and his marriage was a mésalliance with an English commoner, Marie Mottley. Yet to miss the understated inflections of aristocratic attitudes in his work is to miss its passion and, possibly, its primary orientation. In particular, concentration on Tocqueville’s role as a student of emergent democracy draws attention away from its obverse, from his indirect but painful musings on the demise of his own order.

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