Alexis de Tocqueville is the author of three great books: Democracy in America, The Old Regime and the Revolution, and the posthumously published Recollections of the French Revolution of 1848. The first two are carefully crafted and philosophically astute guides to the “democratic revolution” that was in the process of transforming the Western Christian world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a statesman and political philosopher, Tocqueville hoped against hope that this revolution would culminate in a human and political order consistent with liberty and human dignity, doing justice to both the equality of human beings and the “greatness” of man, which transcended the horizon of democratic equality. In these works, his rhetoric is measured and eloquent, carefully calibrated to the great task of defending human liberty and dignity in an age beset by new and troubling democratic discontents.
Recollections (Souvenirs in French) is the least known—and read—of these three great works. That should no longer be the case after the publication of this magnificent and truly authoritative new edition of that work. This “absolutely thrilling” book, as Raymond Aron called it, gives us unique access to Tocqueville the human being and thinker. It is deeply personal without ever being self-indulgent. Tocqueville wrote it for the drawer, or rather for posthumous publication. It only appeared (in an expurgated form) in 1893, thirty-four years after Tocqueville’s death, and a complete edition had to wait until 1942 for publication. Its translator, Arthur Goldhammer, expertly captures Tocqueville’s style in this work, at once aphoristic and eminently quotable, and also deeply discerning about men and events. He captures Tocqueville’s lucidity and eloquence, as he had already done in his previous translations of Democracy in America and The Old Regime. This is no mean achievement.
Tocqueville’s utter frankness in the Recollections sets it apart from his better-known works. Tocqueville claims, a bit deceptively, that he wrote “for himself alone” as a “mirror in which I shall enjoy looking at myself and my contemporaries, not a painting intended for public viewing.” But the book is so deftly written, and is such a great work of political literature, that one must doubt Tocqueville’s claim that he wrote it merely as a “solitary pleasure.” Its readership was the next generation or two (and those who followed), or anyone who would turn again to Tocqueville for a “true portrait of human society” and the “virtues and vices” of his contemporaries and the Revolution, French and democratic, that never seemed to come to a satisfactory conclusion.
The book begins with a portrait of the Orléanist monarchy, headed by King Louis-Philippe, that dominated France from the Revolution of 1830 until the Revolution of 1848. Tocqueville was a parliamentarian who was actively engaged in the political life of this semi-liberal monarchy. He found the regime to be tolerably free but corrupted by an oligarchic spirit marked by an excessive and degrading taste for material well-being. It was bourgeois, but without the elevation that comes when the middle class opens itself to the aristocracy above and the people below. Louis-Philippe was that irony of ironies: a bourgeois king, mediocre but not particularly oppressive. Reasonably free, Orléanist France was ruled by a “government without virtue and greatness.” In decisive respects, Tocqueville found the rule of this bourgeois king and his historian–Prime Minister, François Guizot, to be stifling of authentic initiatives and a vibrant political life: “what was most lacking, especially at the end, was political life itself.” Tocqueville was no enemy of constitutional monarchy—he even thought it the best available regime for the French—but he wanted to see an opening of the political sphere to the full energies of society. He was firmly convinced the status quo could not hold and even predicted the Revolution of 1848 in a speech to the National Assembly several weeks before its outbreak. One might have thought that Tocqueville would welcome the demise of a political order he thought too oligarchic and found too stifling. But Tocqueville was too sober to welcome yet another reckless instantiation of the never-ending French Revolution. He fully appreciated that revolution rarely gave rise to what he called “a moderate, regulated liberty disciplined by faith, mores, and laws.” This had been his “sacred project” for twenty years, and the French Revolution of 1848 set it back yet another generation or two. His reaction to the Revolution was thus despondency, and the growing conviction that the French were destined to move endlessly back and forth from “license” to “oppression,” never finding the juste milieu or a democracy worthy of the name.
Tocqueville provides a remarkably vivid account of the Revolution itself. He was appalled by the tendency of almost every current of French society to imitate the actors from the original French Revolution, as if the Revolution itself was an exercise in theatrical display. In a dramatic exchange, he told his friend Ampère, whom he found too enamored of a revolution that could only undermine ordered liberty, that he, like the French people as a whole, was addicted to “literary politics.” The “literary spirit in politics” prefers “what is ingenious and new rather than what is true, what makes an interesting scene rather than what serves a useful purpose. . . . It is responding to the talent and elocution of the actors rather than to the consequences of the play.” Rarely has the French propensity over the last two centuries toward political irresponsibility and bouts of revolutionary inebriation been better described. As Raymond Aron had already noted fifty years ago, the euphoria of Ampère better describes the reaction of French intellectuals to revolutionary eruptions (think May 1968) than the sobriety of a Tocqueville (or Aron himself). Too many intellectuals think of revolution in theatrical or even eschatological terms, as something that will lead to vaguely defined human “emancipation.” Tocqueville’s Recollections continueto provide a powerful antidote to this revolutionary illusion.
In the tradition of his great predecessor Montesquieu, Tocqueville tries to do justice to both the “general” and “particular” causes that led to France’s latest, and in his view unwelcome, revolutionary conflagration. In a beautiful formulation, he pronounces his hatred of “absolute systems that see all historical events as dependent on grand first causes linked together in ineluctable sequence, thus banishing individual human beings from the history of the human race.” That is not Tocqueville’s way. His explanation of the causes of the French Revolution of 1848 does justice to the full range of the “general causes” that prepared the way for the Revolution (from the Industrial Revolution and new socialist doctrines to the centralization of the state that “reduced the work of revolution to seizing Paris and its ready-made machinery of government”) to those particular causes, including a “maladroit” and irresponsible opposition to the “senile imbecility” of Louis-Philippe on the eve of the Revolution. Tocqueville is a forceful and convincing critic of “democratic historians” (as he called them in volume two of Democracy in America) who succumb to historical determinism and are too lazy or incompetent to chronicle the role that freely choosing individuals play in the unfolding of historical events both great and small. This is one of Tocqueville’s enduring philosophical contributions and a useful corrective to the tendency of radically modern doctrines to efface the human element altogether (Marxism, deconstruction, social history, neuroscience, and myriad other intellectual currents come to mind). For Tocqueville, the freely acting moral and political agent cannot be reduced to things other than himself. Human beings are not playthings of sociological forces without any capacity to shape events for good or ill.
The Recollections reveal socialism as Tocqueville’s great bête noire during the Revolution of 1848. The Socialists wanted nothing less than to attack and replace the “fundamental laws” of society, including private property and the family. At one point, he speculates that societies are more malleable than he and other defenders of order typically acknowledge. Perhaps the socialists might succeed in establishing a society of a radically new kind. But that society would not accord with liberty and human dignity. In a beautiful and discerning speech from September 12, 1848 (“The Speech on the Right to Work”) that is included among the impressive ancillary documents in this volume, Tocqueville attacks socialism for its “persistent, strenuous, and immoderate appeal to man’s material passions” (seen in the revolutionary unleashing of massive greed and envy on the part of the poorer classes), and its “unrelenting” assault on “the very principle of individual property.” He also lambasted the socialists for their “profound distrust” of “liberty” and “human reason.” He, for one, saw socialism as at best the road to a “schoolmaster” state (we today would say “nanny state”), and at worst a new road to servitude. Tocqueville was in no way an opponent of public charity to relieve the plight of the poor, but he was convinced that socialism would bring ruin to every stratum of society even as it destroyed the fundamental laws on which society is based. No one can reasonably accuse Tocqueville of opposing socialism in the name of oligarchy or the selfishness of the privileged classes. He wanted to relieve the plight of the poor without creating a new and deadly despotism and a retrenchment of the human spirit and its capacity for great and noble deeds.
I would be remiss if I did not give examples of Tocqueville’s tremendous gift of literary portraiture. His account of a lunch discussion with the writer George Sand on the eve of the “June Days” when Paris’s workers rose up in rebellion against the new republic is a particular gem. Sand was a well-informed and spirited partisan of the revolutionary workers, and she eerily describes the terrible fate of Paris’s bourgeois (and other defenders of “order”) if conflict were to break out. Tocqueville paints this scene deftly and with an air of foreboding. Tocqueville also mocks his own inability to remember the names and faces of the mediocrities who surround him in democratic politics. He is too decent to disdain them, but he cannot recall them very well. And in a splendid diptych, he contrasts his unnamed drunken porter, “a socialist by temperament,” who threatened in a local bar room to kill him when he got home (he did not deliver on the promise), with his valet Eugène, who possessed the self-control and temperament of a philosopher and who was loyal to Tocqueville and fought to defend the Republic. These sketches are both artful and instructive and help make the Recollections an impressive work of literature.
In his helpful introduction to the volume, the historian Olivier Zunz comments on Tocqueville’s “rejuvenation” when he began to take part in the electoral politics of the Second Republic. Tocqueville ran a dignified campaign and committed himself once more to his program of “liberty and human dignity.” He was determined to “defeat demagogy with democracy.” “Never had a goal seemed nobler or clearer to [him].” But events intervened with the election of Louis-Napoléon as president of the Second Republic. As his foreign minister for five months, Tocqueville tried to rein him in. Eventually, Louis-Napoléon established a “bastard monarchy,” as Tocqueville so suggestively called it, or an “authoritarian empire,” as the value-free historian might say. Tocqueville vehemently opposed the socialism opened up by the Revolution of 1848. But he could not countenance for a minute a conservative dictatorship that abandoned political liberty in order to obtain social stability. This conservative- minded liberal was a party of one, rejecting both the perils of socialist servitude and the temptation of conservative authoritarianism. In the Recollections, we see him at work, loyal to his principles, and committed to a future wherein liberty and a modicum of greatness might coexist. The Recollections are essential reading for all who want to understand modern revolution, as well as the perspicacious eye, human greatness, and inimitable pen, of Alexis de Tocqueville.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 71
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