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Frustrating life of a man of ideas

We remain interested in Tocqueville because of the power of his thought, not his life story


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Alexis de Tocqueville came perilously close to never existing at all. His parents, married in 1793, spent 10 of their first 18 months of matrimony in jail — arrested for the crime of being aristocrats during the height of the French revolutionary Terror. Tocqueville’s great-grandfather was guillotined in April 1794, after being forced to watch the beheadings of his daughter and grandchildren. His newlywed parents were in the queue, awaiting the same fate, but the fall of Robespierre in July meant they were spared.

The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville, Olivier Zunz (Princeton, £28)

Alexis, the third son of the family, would be born in 1805, and go on to write not one, but two, of the most influential works in the history of ideas. His two-volume Democracy in America (published in 1835 and 1840) has been hailed as, variously, the first work of political science, a founding text of sociological analysis, and a landmark in the history of political philosophy. 

It remains a touchstone for those attempting to understand both democracy and the United States, as well as post-Revolutionary France (Tocqueville’s animating point of comparison). His later The Ancien Régime and the Revolution (1856) attempted to locate the long-term causes of the events of 1789, and inaugurated a school of French Revolution historiography that remains alive and influential to this day.

He also enjoyed a moderately successful career as a practising politician, directly involved in France’s tumultuous political upheavals from the 1830s to the early 1850s. Constitutionally frail, and wracked by tuberculosis for the final nine years of his life before dying at just 54, he nonetheless packed a lot in.

As a narrative biography, Olivier Zunz’s The Man Who Understood Democracy succeeds tremendously. The details of Tocqueville’s life — and the events he lived through — are rendered with engaging clarity. The detailed reconstruction of Tocqueville’s nine-month trip to America in 1831–32 is especially valuable, shedding a great deal of light on what Tocqueville saw and, crucially, who he spoke to and took his lead from. Zunz does not shy away from dissolving the myth to reveal the man. Sometimes treated as though he were a gimlet-eyed sage who saw through to the very soul of the fledgling United States, Zunz shows instead the extent to which Tocqueville tended to take too much at face value, especially regarding what he was told by less than impartial interlocutors, frequently failing to scratch below the surface on his whirlwind tour. 

Thus, for example, he went on to write in Democracy in America that the liberty of the United States meant that secret societies were unknown there, entirely failing to recognise not only the extent of Masonic influence in local politics, but also how objections to Masonic influence were a core feature of contestation. A young man, dazzled by the hustle and bustle of the New World, he tended to see what he wanted to see — or what others hoped he would.

Also valuable are Zunz’s careful reconstructions of Tocqueville’s later views and his political career. Tocqueville’s sincere and powerful abolitionism is showcased. But so, too, is his enthusiasm for colonial rule, his support for France’s invasion of Algeria, and his willingness to subordinate opposition to the slave trade in favour of French sovereignty in the face of British interference. Zunz balances these things honestly, and gives us a fair portrait of a complex figure, one hailing from a time not our own. 

Similarly, his reconstruction of Tocqueville’s involvement in the government of the Second Republic (1848-52) is particularly gripping, highlighting the difficulties Tocqueville encountered when running up against the hard truth that being good at political theory is a very different thing from being good at political practice.

Tocqueville was above all the great theorist of democratic paradox

The weakness in Zunz’s treatment, however, lies in the thinness of his coverage of Tocqueville’s ideas. To be sure, Tocqueville lived a more interesting life than most, even by the standards of his time. But the reason we remain interested in him today is because of the lasting influence and power of his thought, not his life story. Democracy in America and The Ancien Régime are sprawling, vastly complex works, to be sure, and no easy summary is possible. But many of Tocqueville’s most arresting and important ideas are either treated by Zunz too simplistically, or never make it into the book at all.

Readers will learn little, for example, of Tocqueville’s central claim that democracy is two things simultaneously: both a system of popular suffrage, but also a social condition where privilege has been abolished and “equality of conditions” prevails. Tocqueville thought one could not succeed without the other, and thus the moeurs of a democratic people were even more important than its institutions. (Zunz over-simplifies dramatically when he claims that, for Tocqueville, democracy and equality were synonymous.) 

Furthermore, Tocqueville was above all the great theorist of democratic paradox. That, for example, while democracies elect poor leaders who pass shoddy laws, and look forever on the point of breakdown, this hides deeper, hidden, strengths: of flexibility and adaptability, and of trading short-term mediocrity in governance for long-term safeguards against the far worse evils of tyranny and Bonapartism. 

Worse, Zunz sanitises Tocqueville’s growing pessimism about the long-run prospects of democracy. His breezy claim that Tocqueville closed the second volume of Democracy in America by coming “down firmly, at last, on the side of democracy in a way he had not before” is impossible to reconcile with the text. 

The close of volume two sees Tocqueville predicting that the competitive egoism of democratic moeurs will result in a new and pervasive form of despotism — one that enslaves the minds, not just the bodies, of its citizens — and which could be more terrible than anything known in pre-democratic times. To fail to present this vital aspect of Tocqueville’s thought is to do him and his intellectual legacy a major disservice.

For a book called The Man Who Understood Democracy, it is striking how little sense is given here of what Tocqueville thought democracy was, and why in turn he understood it so well. For all its undoubted virtues as a narrative biography of Tocqueville’s life, the absence of a sustained and serious treatment of Tocqueville’s ideas means that Zunz’s portrait is frustratingly incomplete.

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