De Tocqueville in an 1848 lithograph by Theodore Chasseriau

Fear, loathing and revolution

Was Alexis de Tocqueville the first social scientist?


This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Alexis de Tocqueville published what he hoped would be the first of two volumes studying the Ancien Regime and the Revolution in 1856. An untimely death meant that the second volume (dealing more explicitly with the events and the outcome of the Revolution of 1789) was not to be completed.

The context in which Tocqueville published what was an immediate best-seller was another failed revolution in 1848 and a France that now languished under the authoritarian rule of Emperor Napoleon III. Why France had again been unable to establish a constitutional regime based firmly upon the principles of political liberty was the question that Tocqueville wanted to answer.

To that end Tocqueville, now retired from public life, immersed himself in the study of feudal rights, administrative law and the machinery of the pre-revolutionary French absolutist state. He also sought to assess pre-revolutionary opinion, and especially the role played by men of letters in purveying abstract theories of reform and fostering anti-religious sentiment.

In doing so Tocqueville provided a portrait of the dynamics of eighteenth-century French society and governance that was at once both original and compelling. France, Tocqueville told his readers, was the country in which men had become most like each other but where they were also split into isolated and self-regarding groups.

France before 1789: The Unravelling of an Absolutist Regime By Jon Elster
Princeton University Press, £34

It was the country where feudalism had become more detested than in any other country and where the nobility had ceased to play any role in public administration (apart from the administration of justice). “Every Frenchman,” Tocqueville wrote, “felt he was being victimised; his personal freedom, his money, his self-respect, and the amenities of his daily life were constantly being tampered with on the strength of some ancient law, some medieval usage or the remnants of some antiquated servitude.”

Yet no one saw a constitutional remedy for this, the wish to destroy the whole system taking precedence over the desire for political freedom. The latter, Tocqueville wrote, “had been so long extinct in France that people had almost forgotten what it meant and how it functioned”. Above all, Tocqueville saw that administrative centralisation was a product of the old regime and not (as had been widely believed) a creation of the Revolution and the Napoleonic period.

Tocqueville also made two important claims. The first was that “the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways”. The second was that, given the nature of the ancien regime, the Revolution “came naturally from what preceded it”. All the Revolution added was “the savagery of its spirit”.

The Norwegian social scientist Jon Elster, best known for his early work on rational choice theory, has long been an admirer of Tocqueville’s work. In his Alexis de Tocqueville: The First Social Scientist, he set out not only to justify the contentious claim in its title but also to show that Tocqueville offered abstract and general models capable of explaining individual and collective decisions. Specifically, Tocqueville provided “exportable causal mechanisms” capable of delivering “a fine-grained analysis of a given society or regime”.

Not surprisingly, it is in this guise, as someone offering insights into social and political psychology as well as institutional analysis, that Tocqueville figures in Elster’s latest volume. “This book,” Elster tells us, “can be read as a long footnote to Tocqueville, spelling out in more detail his broad and general analyses, and occasionally disagreeing with him.” Where there are disagreements, Elster indicates, they arise from a lack of factual knowledge on Tocqueville’s part.

With no hint of false modesty, Elster concedes that he does not have Tocqueville’s “deep understanding of human nature”. As Elster also volunteers, like Tocqueville, his own “portrait of the regime is always harnessed to the end of understanding the revolution”. Elster’s portrait, like Tocqueville’s, is never less than finely drawn and perceptive. It is also equally compelling.

At this point, two things need to be made clear. Although this was not Elster’s original intention, this volume will now figure as one of a three-volume set comparing the making of the American constitution of 1787 and the French constitution of 1791. It turned out, Elster writes, that an understanding of both events required a substantive presentation of their psychological and institutional aspects.

Second, as Elster freely admits, the subtitle of this volume is a little inaccurate as the unravelling of the absolutist regime will largely be dealt with in the third volume. That this is the case only increases the similarities with Tocqueville’s own first volume.

A cascade of contempt descended from rank to rank

Thus, Elster’s ambition is to provide a description of what was an incredibly complex social and institutional system and to do so by going beyond formal institutions to show how they worked in practice. In doing so, he believes that he can demonstrate that there was more contingency to the onset of the French Revolution than Tocqueville allowed and that, in his terminology, these events are intelligible in light of “widely applicable mechanisms” rather than as being “uniquely determined in the light of general laws”.

So much for the academic paraphernalia and on to the interesting stuff, and this is the portrait of France before 1789 that Elster provides. Here there is simply too much to convey. Most of the actors of the old regime were moved by material interest and usually with a short-term horizon. Strapped for cash, the royal government rarely adopted a long-term perspective. Passions were largely negative, triggered by the violation of a perceived right or the attempted enforcement of an illegitimate right.

The norm of “préséance” or status and rank pervaded most social groups, including the peasantry. A cascade of contempt descended from rank to rank. Peasants were beneath contempt. At the court the fear of ridicule was all-pervasive. The noblesse de robe, if motivated by financial interests, were motivated even more by vanity, transmuted into a sense of honour. The peasantry was subject to multitude forms of exploitation (or mechanisms of surplus extraction), generating what Elster describes as a sense of both horizontal and vertical injustice.

The imposition and unequal payment of the taille or tithe was one such injustice. Recruitment to the militia was another. If taxes were seen as legitimate when something was received in return, over time this was perceived to be less and less the case, with particular exception being taken to funding luxury at the court. Perceptions of injustice induced its victims to seek someone to blame. This included hoarders of grain, speculators, the nobility, the king’s ministers, and, eventually, the king (and at least one queen). Parish priests were for the most part defined by their opposition to their bishop.

Another key element in this portrait is that the royal administration had only the most approximate knowledge of the geographic, economic and demographic make-up of the country. So taxation was determined by the needs of government rather than by what the country could afford to pay. Nor did government know how much it owed. Opening private letters was one of the most pervasive ways of finding out what was going on.

Knowledge of how the economy worked was also almost non-existent. Mercantilist theory counselled against increased wages on the grounds that it would induce idleness. Rumour played a central role in belief formation, with the authorities only too ready to conclude that all protests were the result of conspiracy.

For all this chaos, kings had internalised the idea of absolute power. Elster merits quoting on the consequences. “When an average individual,” he writes, “was imbued with an inordinate desire for glory, he could not succeed by the route of competence. Instead he used his equally inordinate power to remove or resist competence in others.” So ministers came and went in rapid succession and the monarch resorted to the many discretionary instruments at his disposal to exact obedience and silence. A lettre de cachet was one; censorship (however inept) was another; having troops stationed in your home — dragonnades — was still one more. Most, if not all, representative institutions maintained at best an episodic existence.

What conclusions does Elster reach? First, we must accept the limits and incompleteness of our knowledge. Practices, be they of individuals, institutions, social orders, towns or provinces were shot through with exceptions and exemptions. So there never will be a canonical interpretation of the old regime. Substantively, both extremes of the social hierarchy were characterised by a scarcity of resources. Scarcity induced urgency, which in turn engendered uncertainty in decision-making and their outcomes.

Perceptions of injustice translated into collective action, sometimes in the form of passive resistance but sometimes as attacks on property and persons. Given that riots and rebellions in different parts of the kingdom often took place simultaneously, the authorities often concluded that they were the result of a hidden conspiracy. Wars were a major drain on public finances. The bankruptcy of the French state was therefore a permanent possibility, forcing up the cost of loans.

Where does Tocqueville into this? According to Elster, Tocqueville’s strength lies in his stress on the subjective perception of misery and oppression and his attention to emotion as the spring of action. The central tripartite relationship Tocqueville pinpoints was a hatred of the peasantry for the nobility, the envy felt by the urban third estate towards the nobility, and the contempt of the nobility for the urban third estate.

“I suggest,” Elster writes, “that the French Revolution became inevitable when the reaction in members of the third estate to the contempt of the nobles changed from shame to anger.” This remark, he concedes, has only the status of an unverifiable speculation but it is a remark that all who hold those beneath them in contempt would be wise to reflect upon.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover