Review: The Anthem Companion to Alexis de Tocqueville

26 February 2021

This is the first of two reviews in our mini-forum on The Anthem Companion to Alexis de Tocqueville (2019), edited by Daniel Gordon. 


More than two centuries after birth, Alexis de Tocqueville remains a puzzle for us. In the eyes of some, he was an anguished aristocrat who lived in an era of revolutionary turmoil. For others, he was a secret admirer and friend of democracy, worried about its wide-ranging effects on our culture, economy, politics, and society. Both opinions are partly true. As Tocqueville himself once admitted, he lived between two words and sought to cast calm glances on both. If he was not willing to disown the values of the aristocratic world into which he was born, he eventually became persuaded that democracy is a more just regime for the future of mankind. Democracy, he believed, could be compared to a deluge, but it was still possible to build dikes to contain it.


Like all Frenchmen of his generation who came of age after the fall of Napoleon, Tocqueville was haunted by the specter of the French Revolution starting again and again. Between 1789 and 1830, France went through several constitutions, none of which seemed able to bring civil peace by reconciling liberty and order. His own country gave him few reasons for optimism as it oscillated between despotism and authoritarianism, separated by brief periods of freedom. Was there a non-revolutionary type of democracy possible in France? If so, how could it be achieved?


Tocqueville was not the only one seeking an answer to this urgent question. His genius was to look for it where few others thought, that is, in America which he visited in 1831-32 under the pretext of studying its penitentiary system. He had higher ambitions: Tocqueville wanted to play a leading role in the politics of his native France. To this effect, he wrote Democracy in America (1835; 1840) hoping the book, if well received, would launch his political career. After an initial unsuccessful attempt, Tocqueville was elected member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1839, in which he served until the coup of Napoleon III in December 1852. 


Tocqueville’s career in politics was not a success. He lacked patience to deal with mediocrity, did not have a voice strong enough to dominate large audiences, and could not remember the name of many of his colleagues. His frail physical constitution did not help either, as he did not enjoy attending dinners and parties where he could mingle with others. His five-month tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1849 was a failure. After withdrawing from politics, he spent his last years working on The Old Regime and the Revolution, whose first volume came out in 1856. Only the first one was finished; the second remained incomplete at the time of his death in April 1859.


Tocqueville’s posterity was not a linear story of success. Underestimated in his country for a long time, he was republished almost a century after his death. In America, he has been celebrated for his views on liberty, equality, and self-government and his critique of administrative centralization. In the past three decades, no less than five new translations of Democracy have been published. One of these translations by Arthur Goldhammer appeared in the prestigious Library of America, making Tocqueville the sole foreign author included in this outstanding collection. Another one was the Liberty Fund critical edition of Democracy prepared by Eduardo Nolla and translated by James T. Schleifer, the doyen of Tocqueville studies in North America. The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville edited by Cheryl Welch came out in 2006; it will be followed soon by The Cambridge Companion to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America edited by Richard Boyd. The new interpretations of Tocqueville’s thought published in the last four decades have consolidated his image as a moderate thinker who encouraged his readers to see both the virtues and limits of democracy.


The newly published Anthem Companion to Tocqueville edited by Daniel Gordon joins this distinguished list and confirms this image. It consists of eleven chapters that explore Tocqueville’s views on religion (by Raymond Hain), race (by Patrick Breen), gender (by Jean E. Pedersen), the French Revolution (by Patrice Higonnet and Daniel Gordon), and America’s penitentiary system (by Chris Barker). A few other chapters examine Tocqueville’s original language (by Judith Adler and Daniel Gordon) and compare his views on democracy and equality with those of Marx (by Peter Baehr) and Rousseau (Peter Breiner). The comparative dimensions of Tocqueville’s works are discussed in two chapters on globalism and empire written by Andreas Hess and Andrew R. Dausch.


After the fall of communism three decades ago, it was customary to compare Tocqueville’s probabilist political sociology to Marx’s determinist economic sociology. According to Daniel Gordon, this is no longer adequate for the full comprehension of Tocqueville (xvi); we need new approaches that examine Tocqueville face-to-face with some of the thinkers who matter most in our post-Cold War world. Hence, the stated goal of the Anthem Companion is to offer a series of imaginary conversations with Tocqueville showing how his ideas relate to the ideas of other influential thinkers. The essays included in this volume seek to put Tocqueville into dialogue with Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers who speak to the concerns and debates of our time. The list is long and includes authors as diverse as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Robert Dahl, and Robert Putnam.


The idea of bringing Tocqueville in conversation with other thinkers is a good one, and the contributors to this Anthem Companion should be applauded for their attempt to engage with Tocqueville’s ideas in a critical and polite way that avoids hagiography or condemnation. Inevitably, a diverse volume like this one is likely to be unequal. Some chapters manage, however, to shed fresh light on various aspects of Tocqueville’s thought and must be duly commended for that. This is the case with the essays from the first three sections, on religion, language, and globalism.


Noting that the main figures in the early development of the sociology of religion did not believe that a free people must (or can) be a religious one, Raymond Hain complains about the lack of interest in Tocqueville’s work displayed by contemporary scholars working in this subfield. This is even more surprising since religion plays a central role in the life and thought of Tocqueville, who was familiar with what is now known as the “secularization thesis.” Hain’s chapter seeks to remedy this neglect by inviting readers to bring Tocqueville’s ideas in dialogue with those of contemporary sociologists such as Robert Bellah (author of The Habits of the Heart), Robert Putnam (author, most recently, of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis), and Charles Murray (author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010).


In one of the best essays in this volume, Peter Baehr shows how Tocqueville’s approach that took religion seriously and studied it in comparative perspective was the antipode of Marx and Engels’ method. Admitting the ambiguous role played by religion in modern society, Tocqueville noted that, depending on context, it can play either a liberating role or an oppressive one. His perspective stood in stark contrast with that of Marx, who espoused a reductionist and simplistic perspective on religion. Drawing upon his recent book The Unmasking Style in Social Theory (Routledge, 2019), Baehr comments on Marx’s techniques of inversion, reduction, and deflation. He also examines Marx’s use of hyperbole and weaponization that labeled religion a disease and condemned democracy and human rights as mere screen images to mask the reality of exploitation. By contrast, Baehr argues, Tocqueville’s approach to democracy and religion emphasized moderation and resisted putting forward sweeping visions of emancipation and black-and-white polarities that simplify reality and promote a battle mentality. Not surprisingly, Tocqueville’s ideas provided little or no inspiration to radical social movements. This may be one of the reasons for which many intellectuals have preferred Marx’s and Marxists’ aggressive unmasking critique of capitalism to Tocqueville’s “exquisite sense of balance” (36) and nuanced analysis of liberal democracy.


As Judith Adler claims in her essay, Tocqueville’s views of democracy are better understood if we explore his peculiar language and style. He conceived of writing as an art requiring a polished vocabulary reminiscent of the art of the French moralists. Tocqueville combined short chapters with panoramic views and balanced contrasts, all of which were meant to stimulate the readers’ reflections. Among Tocqueville’s preferred phrases, Adler notes, one finds terms such as passions, sentiments, tastes, spirit, needs of the soul, grandeur, religious terror, eyes of God, habits of the heart, softening of mores, Providence, and barbarism. All of them are highly normative and have a “decidedly archaic ring” (45). Contemporary social scientists tend to avoid them and prefer instead an impersonal vocabulary that would have been unknown to Tocqueville. The Frenchman had more than one authorial persona and his method was always “binocular,” examining his objects from two positions at once. He wanted to move his readers and had a unique ability to draw them into his story by making them participate in his journey. To this effect, Tocqueville used “a vivid, dramatically gripping vocabulary that invites intimate identification” (47) and taps religious and philosophical traditions which many social scientists eschew today.


The disjunction between Tocqueville’s normative conceptual vocabulary and the abstract terms used by contemporary scholars accounts, in part, for the enduring appeal of Tocqueville’s ideas and their relevance to us today. In his chapter “Tocqueville and Linguistic Innovation,” Daniel Gordon reminds us that Tocqueville had a special interest in language that allowed him to forge “a more detached perspective than modern science generally provides” (69). He used an innovative terminology that differed from that of his predecessors.  By analyzing Tocqueville’s novel use of concepts such as democracy as social condition, Gordon portrays him as a “wielder of a novel lexicon” (66), that sought to render justice to the world brought forth by the equality of conditions.


The widening of horizons generated by democracy is explored by Andreas Hess in his chapter “Noble Comparisons,” a distillation and an elaboration of arguments previously presented in Tocqueville and Beaumont: Aristocratic Liberalism in Democratic Times (Palgrave, 2018). Hess focuses on Tocqueville’s comparative method and shows its stunning originality. Tocqueville drew comparisons not only between America and Europe, but also between England and Ireland, France and England, France and Algeria, and Europe and India. The same comparative method can be found, to a different degree, in the works of his friend, Gustave de Beaumont, whose work on Ireland must be read as a companion to Democracy in America. According to Hess, “in Tocqueville’s and Beaumont’s writings, we still find assembled together what in modern social science has grown apart, mainly due to a highly sophisticated division of labor” (107). 


One important exception might be found in the anthropological writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, discussed in Andrew Dausch’s chapter. “Tocqueville and Lévi-Strauss,” he writes, “thought on a grand scale. They made no apologies about trying to conceptualize entire continents after journey across the United States and Brazil” (110). Both used cross-cultural comparisons and were keen on identifying general law-like principles operating across various cultures and traditions. That is why, Dausch opines, Democracy in America and Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques should be seen as complementary attempts at formulating a global longue durée history that draws ambitions conclusions for the purpose of reflecting and critiquing France” (116). Both authors explored other cultures and traditions in order to make a critique of their own society, to arrive in the end at radically different conclusions. Dausch points out that unlike Tocqueville, Lévi-Strauss was a critic of western imperialism and the French colonial mindset. They also held different views on human agency. For the French anthropologist, individual selves were little more than vessels for ideas and culture, while Tocqueville opposed all forms of determinism and believed that human agency was real.


Some chapters make a few claims that are worth challenging or nuancing. For example, it seems an exaggeration to argue, as Patrick Breen does, that Tocqueville’s views on race and slavery would have been more reliable had he taken the American South more seriously.  In reality, his views on race and slavery were crystal clear and remained so to the end of his life. In this respect, it would have been useful to consult Tocqueville’s correspondence with his American friends from the 1850s, translated in Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Similarly, it seems inaccurate to claim, as Peter Breiner does, that “[w]hile Tocqueville does not directly reference the general will, he views political liberty in strikingly similar terms” (179). There is, in fact, a major difference between the way in which Rousseau understood liberty as absence of dependence and how Tocqueville conceptualized liberty as self-government through intermediary associations and civil society. Rousseau flatly rejected intermediary associations in Book II of the The Social Contract which has no place for civil society and pluralism.


There are also some glaring absences and omissions that must also be mentioned here. Tocqueville emphasized the equality of conditions as the defining trait of modern democracy and considered the tyranny of the majority and democratic soft despotism the most significant threats to its survival. Today, democracy’s future seems endangered by growing levels of inequality and the tyranny of minorities, fueled by the proliferation of social media outlets. It would have been useful to have a chapter discussing these issues from a sociological perspective, given the stated goal of putting Tocqueville into “an explicit dialogue with both Marxism and post-Marxism” (xvi). For a volume that purports to place Tocqueville in the larger tradition of sociology, one would have also expected to see a chapter (or a couple) devoted to several giants of sociological thought such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Raymond Aron whose works intersected with Tocqueville’s writings. 


The name of Aron is particularly important here since his two-volume Main Currents of Sociological Thought, mentioned briefly only in the Introduction to the Anthem Companion to Alexis de Tocqueville, played a major role in the rediscovery of Tocqueville’s thought in his native France. Given that Aron drew a stark contrast between Tocqueville’s probabilistic sociological perspective and Marx’s deterministic economic sociology, the readers would have welcomed a reconsideration of this topic from today’s perspective. Moreover, it would have been preferable if all the contributors used the Nolla-Schleifer critical bilingual edition of Democracy in America (Liberty Fund, 2010), which contains extensive notes and drafts indispensable to any serious engagement with Tocqueville’s ideas. A chapter on Tocqueville’s political activity might have also shed new light on an important aspect of his personality often ignored by his interpreters. Finally, the Companion would have benefited from a sharp conclusion explaining the extent to which Tocqueville remains, as it were, the indispensable horizon of our times.


Photo Credits: The Anthem Companion to Alexis de Tocqueville [cover], Anthem Press (2019). Fair Use.

John Lewis Krimmel, Election Day in Philadelphia (1815) via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


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