Tocqueville, soixante-huitard?

Jacob Hamburger
1 May 2018

In a recent post, I began to address Tocqueville’s Cold War legacy, specifically the narrative in which Tocqueville became an authority that could be invoked in the service of Western capitalism as effectively as Marx was in defense of Communism. There is much truth to this narrative, but I believe this discussion is a good opportunity to bring attention to an interesting counterexample in the story of how Cold War liberals understood Tocqueville: in particular, how Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell—key liberal intellectuals in the 1950s and 1960s who would become instrumental in the formation of neoconservatism, and who were both keen readers of Tocqueville—actually found themselves arguing against Tocqueville in their critique of some of the ideas animating youth movements on both sides of the Atlantic around the time of Mai 68.


One of the main ideas of the youth movements of the 1960s—particularly in America—was a critique of mass culture. Books like Eros and Civilization and The One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, The Lonely Crowd by David Reisman, and Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman helped shape a critique of a social world that abandoned the individual to anonymous institutions and provided fewer and fewer outlets for self-expression and meaningful experiences. Though post-war societies were apparently prosperous and free, according to the Port Huron Statement, they subtly enforced a repressive conformity, and as a result, were rife with “inner alienation.” In some versions of this critique, particularly Marcuse’s, the villain was consumer capitalism and its illusory forms of personal freedom. But America’s soixante-huitards, so to speak, did not limit themselves to materialist critiques: though exacerbated by twentieth-century mass production and consumption, these tendencies towards conformity and its resulting effect on the individual psyche were deeply ingrained in American society, and perhaps in democracy itself.


Much of the vocabulary of this 1960s-era cultural criticism—informed by Weberian sociology and the Frankfurt School, for example—would have been quite alien to Tocqueville. But there is a clear resemblance between this picture of mass society and the Etat tutélaire that he worried was a possible future for democratic societies in the second tome of Democracy in America. In his chapter on “Quelle espèce de despotisme les nations démocratiques ont à craindre,” he describes a democratic despotism whose central feature is not its centralized administrative state, but rather its “soft” exercise of power, which “degrades men without tormenting them.” The Etat tutélaire is able to reach further into people’s private lives than any pre-democratic despotism because it achieves the consent of its citizens, who have become highly atomized by the self-interested tendencies of a materialistic bourgeois society Tocqueville describes elsewhere in the two tomes :

Je veux imaginer sous quels traits nouveaux le despotisme pourrait se produire dans le monde : je vois une foule innombrable d’hommes semblables et égaux qui tournent sans repos sur eux-mêmes pour se procurer de petits et vulgaires plaisirs, dont ils emplissent leur âme. Chacun d’eux, retiré à l’écart, est comme étranger à la destinée de tous les autres … il n’existe qu’en lui-même et pour lui seul….

Au-dessus de ceux-là s’élève un pouvoir immense et tutélaire, qui se charge seul d’assurer leur jouissance et de veiller sur leur sort. Il est absolu, détaillé, régulier, prévoyant, et doux…. [Il] travaille volontiers à leur bonheur ; mais il veut en être l’unique agent et le seul arbitre.

There is much in this passages to confirm the instincts of conservatives, whether the partisans of “small government” (say Friedrich Hayek) or the enemies of “bourgeois vulgarity” (say Allan Bloom). But the idea that American society had the potential to substitute material comfort for freedom or authentic happiness—that an apparently prosperous society could be deeply repressive or controlling beneath the surface—was also unmistakably a core idea of the youth radicalism of the late 1960s.


Daniel Bell was both a fierce opponent of these radical movements and a well-known admirer of Tocqueville. But in his defense of liberal society during the Cold War, he rejected unequivocally the parts of Tocqueville’s thinking on democracy that concurred with ’60s era talk of “alienation” or “repressive tolerance.” Bell’s 1960 book The End of Ideology‘s opening chapter,  “America as a Mass Society: A Critique,” adapted from an address given at the famous 1955 Milan conference of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), argued that though the modern individual’s feeling of being lost in mass conformity was not to be dismissed, it had little basis in the facts of postwar society. Critics of mass society tend to rely on fictions—often deeply conservative ones—such as the “organic” or “authentic” past that existed before the onset of bourgeois life, he claimed. But rather than abandoning the individual to a socio-cultural wasteland, Bell argued, the same modern society that increases material well-being through industrial production and increases political autonomy through democratic procedures also gives ordinary people greater access to meaningful culture. As evidence, Bell cited the vast and historically unprecedented proliferation of associations, newspapers, museums and concert halls in the America of the 1950s. Though this was hardly an age of iconoclasm or bohemianism, Bell believed that the notion of this period as an age of mass conformity was little more than a convenient myth for magazine writers.


Bell did not explicitly take aim at Tocqueville in his rejection of mass culture critique (he cites Tocqueville in passing at one point of this essay, and clearly channels him in his discussion of voluntary associations), but Raymond Aron—in many respects Bell’s French counterpart and fellow CCF member—did precisely that. Aron’s sociology of industrial society held up Tocqueville and Marx as contrasting visions of the modern world. Before his critique of Mai 68 which invoked Tocqueville’s authority throughout, La révolution introuvable, this was the most important role Tocqueville played in Aron’s work. Aron did conclude that Tocqueville’s picture of democratic societies heading towards increasing embourgeoisement better conformed to the reality of the postwar West than Marx’s picture of capitalist societies heading towards inevitable collapse (though he readily acknowledged that Marx’s was a better description of pre-war Europe!).


But echoing Bell, Aron went out of his way to indicate that the one point Tocqueville got glaringly wrong, based on the experience of the twentieth century, was his prediction of the Etat tutélaire. In his 1965 Essai sur les libertés, Aron dismisses flat-out the idea that Western democracies have installed a soft despotism beneath the surface of their apparently free societies:

[Les] régimes doux n’ont pas instauré de despotisme tutélaire, et quand les régimes ont instauré un despotisme, celui-ci n’était que secondairement tutélaire, il était violent et idéocratique.

Interestingly, Aron’s primary aim in this passage was to challenge Friedrich Hayek’s overly narrow conception of liberty that classed Western European welfare states as an Etat tutélaire. But his larger point was to reject this concern of Tocqueville’s flat out, no less strongly than he rejected Marx’s prophecy of capitalism’s demise. For Cold War liberals like Aron, there was no sense in sounding the alarm bells about the “soft despotism” of the West when a “hard” despotism was to be found on the other side of the Iron Curtain.


Bell, Aron, and their fellow members of the CCF were committed to the idea that the West was superior to the Soviet Union not just in its economic and political systems, but also in its cultural production (hence the organization’s name). During the time when these texts appeared (roughly between 1955 and 1965), the CCF was not primarily concerned with the youth activism that later came to define “the Sixties.” But these events later became the occasion for the neoconservatives’ transformation of Cold War liberalism into a combative conservatism; Irving Kristol made clear in the 1970s that one of the major stakes for the many neoconservatives to have come out of that organization was the defense of “bourgeois” cultural attitudes and norms against the “nihilistic” revolts of countercultural movements. Tocqueville played an important role in the shaping of this liberal-conservative reconfiguration, but the point here is to note that many of his core ideas were highly inconvenient for these twentieth-century thinkers. Though Tocqueville was anything but a revolutionary, his ideas on the culture of democratic societies in important respects had more in common with the radical critics of twentieth-century America than its zealous defenders.


What does any of this matter for today’s politics? Should the student protesters in France today, who frequently draw parallels between their opposition to Macron and the events of Mai 68, be picking up their copies of De la démocratie en Amérique? Perhaps not. One striking thing about these protests is the relative absence of the kinds of cultural critique that so defined the movements of fifty years ago. True, the Marcuse-Goodman-Reisman critique of mass culture was more typical of the American student movements than the French, but clearly in both contexts a defining aim was to revolt against the repressive cultures that existed in modern democratic/capitalist/bourgeois societies. Today, there seems to be little interest in this sort of cultural critique—the closest thing I’ve seen is the rhetoric denouncing Macron et son monde, but even here, the analysis of the cultural dimensions of “Macron’s world” are only suggested. Movements like Occupy Wall Street, Nuit debout, or the recent student occupations are less likely to find what they’re looking for in Tocqueville’s warnings of the Etat tutélaire than in his chapter on “How an Aristocracy Could Arise from Industry.”


We’ll be returning to the topic of Mai 68 and its legacy on the blog over the course of this month (and beyond).


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  • David Priestland says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post. As somebody who encountered Tocqueville first as a 17 year old in the early 80s – L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution was the first text history students were asked to read before arriving at Oxford – I felt at the time that I was being asked to read it through a Cold War lens (Larry Siedentop was required reading), and this may also be where the Oxford-educated Judah encountered him (though I don’t know that). But actually I wonder whether I was being asked to read it through a rather specifically English (even Oxford), quasi-aristocratic variation of the Cold War lens: ie the alternative to evil Soviet Marxism and its ‘Jacobin’ predecessor was not Weberian protestant-ethic bourgeois values a la the American neocons and Daniel Bell (not sure about Aron?), but a gentlemanly, part-bourgeois-part-aristocratic lens: ie the real alternative to Marxism/Jacobinism was a rather liberal-conservative English mixture of individual autonomy and Burkean non-state institutions, which enjoyed freedoms akin to Tocqueville’s pre-revolutionary aristocratic ‘liberties’ (Oxford colleges might be the model here). There is also much of this in Isaiah Berlin. The puritanical, bourgeois values of a Thatcher were seen as as intrusive as those of Marxism. So one might hypothesise that in France, where these Burkean ideas were less plausible, it might have been more difficult for the Cold Warrior right to use Tocqueville to support their case than in England. Anyway, this is just an initial reaction, and I am by no means expert on any of this. I very much look forward to your analysis of why the current French student movement is no longer so interested in the 68ers’ cultural critique of capitalism. My feeling is that the Anglo-American critique of ‘neoliberalism’ has quite a significant cultural aspect to it.

  • Jacob Hamburger says:

    Thanks for this comment David. I hadn’t thought about it through this specifically English angle, but that makes a lot of sense. My feeling on Aron is that although his critique of Marxism and the Soviet Union was as robust as any, he never really formulated an alternative ideal that had the same polemical force as the neocons in the US (who were nonetheless influenced by him in many respects). I think this is the case simply because he was fiercely committed to sociological objectivity, and was more interested in deflating the myths of various political camps than establishing his own (though he likely believed that doing this was very political in its own right). In other words I agree with you that he did not have something like Protestant bourgeois values or Burkean aristocratic values to substitute for the values of Communism. By the 1970s and 1980s though it seems by all accounts that he and his admirers in France came to see American-style neoconservatism as a good approximation for their own views, and so a combative Cold War version of Aron and Tocqueville has stuck there. Le Point just came out with an issue on Tocqueville that writes the following in its opening editorial: “On les a alors redécouverts [les livres de Tocqueville] pour mieux lutter contre le marxisme.”

    As for the place of culture in youth movements, I also think this plays a greater role in the Anglo-American world. You saw these cultural dimensions with OWS. I’ll be working on discussing this later on, hopefully getting a chance to interview some French activists directly.

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