I’ve been on the road quite a bit over the last few weeks and haven’t had much time to post, so I’m coming to this a little late, but there’s a provocative essay on Tocqueville by Ben Judah out in The American Interest, entitled “Non to Tocqueville!” Given the title of that piece and the title of this blog, you will probably not be surprised that I have some serious criticisms of Judah’s argument. But before I get there, let me start with what I agree with, and what is in fact quite essential to the project of this blog.
That Tocqueville has long been cited superficially by American conservative commentators, Judah doesn’t have to tell me twice. He is clearly correct that many Americans are mainly familiar with Tocqueville in the form of “glibly quotable extracts,” selected by those with a zeal for “small government” or a belief in the innate superiority of the United States. There is something romantic about the image of the young aristocrat traveling through a young democracy that middle-aged middle-brow conservatives like David Brooks just can’t get enough of. The phenomenon is not unique to the United States—who can forget Bernard-Henri Lévy’s lame attempt to travel “in the footsteps of Tocqueville”? (Garrison Keillor’s response I cited in my opening editorial back in January is another example of anti-Tocquevillian overreaction). One of the main reasons we launched this blog was to provide a forum for thinking with Tocqueville—or thinking à partir de Tocqueville—about the contemporary world that gets behind these sorts of blatant and facile media appropriations, most but not all of which come from the right.
Of course, Tocqueville is in many senses a conservative thinker, and it would be pointless to try to argue that the right-wingers that have emphasized these aspects of his thought—from Friedrich Hayek to Pierre Manent—have misunderstood him. But a large part of the inspiration for our project is Tocqueville’s understanding of democracy as a distinct form of human society, which sets certain bounds for political, moral/cultural, and economic life. This approach helps to situate what goes on in today’s democracies within a larger history and to identify recurring problems and concerns. This element of Tocqueville’s thought, and not some magical foresight that the man happened to have, is why his observations about American democracy can continue to seem so prescient. Tocqueville is clearly not the only thinker to treat democracy in this way, though he was the first and most influential figure to do so, and his conclusions are not definitive. He certainly did not believe that this conception of democracy depended on his own political orientations, conservative or otherwise; nor have the many more recent thinkers of decidedly social-democratic and leftist bents to have drawn inspiration from him, including Claude Lefort, Chantal Mouffe, Pierre Rosanvallon, and James Kloppenberg.
This leads us to one of the major problems with Judah’s critique of Tocqueville. One of his central arguments is that Tocqueville would have been all but forgotten if not for conservatives who promoted his work as part of a Cold War “quest for the anti-Marx.” And out of all these figures, Raymond Aron stands out, an “intellectual operator of Gaullism” who mobilized Tocqueville in a crusade against the Soviet Union. There is some broad truth to the notion that interest in Tocqueville began to pick up between the 1950s and the 1970s after a relative decline earlier in the twentieth century though as Serge Audier has shown, the idea that Tocqueville had been forgotten and later “rediscovered” in this period is at best a simplification, at worst a sort of self-congratulation among Tocqueville’s loudest cheerleaders (with whom Judah seems to have found a strange agreement). But Judah’s interpretation of Aron gets things wrong in serious ways.
Not only are Aron’s criticisms of De Gaulle well known. More importantly, Aron’s engagement with Tocqueville came once he had already begun his study of industrial society starting in the mid-1950s. One of the overall aims of this study (consisting of Dix-huit leçons sur la société industrielle, La lutte des classes, and Démocratie et totalitarisme, which he began in 1958, five years before Judah starts his story) was to demonstrate the sociological foundation shared by both the West and the Soviet Union. Judah is correct that during this period, Aron put Tocqueville alongside Marx (and Comte, Montesquieu, and others) as thinkers who diagnosed elements of this sociological order, but though at times he expressed a belief that Tocqueville had gotten right what Marx had missed, the relation between the two thinkers in these books is more complementary than “competitive.” An originator of the notion of the “end of ideology,” Aron’s aim was not so much to glorify liberal democracy in its struggle against communism—though Aron made his anticommunist beliefs quite apparent—but rather to debunk the political and economic myths of both societies. The neutral pretensions of this approach may now seem quaint, but that is a far different critique than to say Aron’s use of Tocqueville was a sort of chest-thumping defense of capitalism (Aron’s longstanding critique of Friedrich Hayek also goes unmentioned in Judah’s article).
Once again, none of this is to argue in favor of Aron’s political views. Towards the end of his life, Aron increasingly became a conservative, and Judah is correct that this took place largely after Mai 68. But like Tocqueville himself, Aron left behind a large body of work that is not all easily reducible to a single political project. It is hard to see the use in reading these authors looking for a secret agenda, or as Judah puts it, to expose “the real Tocqueville.” (I’m not denying that authors can have agendas, but rarely do they play out as seamlessly as Judah seems to think Aron’s or Tocqueville’s did.)
Judah is of course correct that in reading Tocqueville, we need to look carefully at his relation to empire and colonization. There is no denying that much of what he points out about Tocqueville’s views and actions on Algeria is true (though as Gianna Englert observed on Twitter, he leaves out Tocqueville’s rejection of Gobineau’s biological racism during this period and glosses over much of the grappling with this relationship that has already taken place). In a time when Euro-centric imperialist views were commonplace, Tocqueville was no exception, and to make an exception for him helps keep these views alive in our time. But the idea that great thinkers of liberalism and democracy can also hold deeply illiberal or antidemocratic views should not be a reason to turn their works into mere “historical artifacts,” not to treat them as living texts with something to say about our time. This is certainly not the opinion of critics of democratic ideals such as Michel Foucault; full of discussions of the potential dangers and contradictions of democracy, Tocqueville himself is no less rich a source for these sorts of critiques.
So let’s thank Ben Judah for helping brush aside some of Tocqueville’s false friends among the right-wing pundits, but let’s not indulge their own reading of Tocqueville in the process.
Photo Credit: PBS Newshour, PBS-Rehearsal-David Brooks, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.