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  1. Ideas
26 April 2023

Why Tocqueville matters

Travel was a vital part of the French thinker’s political philosophy, but this has largely been forgotten in today’s secluded academic institutions.

By Nick Burns

Alexis de Tocqueville was an unlucky traveller. In 1826, aged 21, and on his first ever trip outside France, his ship bound for Palermo nearly sank in a violent storm off the Italian coast. Five years later, ten miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tocqueville’s steamboat actually did sink, into the half-frozen Ohio River. The future author of Democracy in America had to be rescued from a frigid reef by another passing boat.

Always struggling to find comfortable accommodation that did not strain his finances, on the first night of a trip to London in 1857 Tocqueville found a “horribly expensive” place to stay on Albemarle Street, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by water pouring down on his head through the floorboards from the flat above: amid a great storm, the upstairs neighbour had neglected to close the window.

His book on American political life, published in two volumes between 1835 and 1840, was not to be read as a travelogue, he warned his readers. But besides being an aristocrat, liberal theorist and politician, he was also a perennial traveller – something that involved no little risk, both because of the greater inconvenience and danger of travel during his lifetime, and his own fragile health, which frequently cut short his trips and finally cut short his life in 1859 at just 53.

Tocqueville’s peregrinations form the subject of Jeremy Jennings’ new book, Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America – which, despite its title, devotes considerable attention to the famous trip to America, while delving also into less well-known voyages to Germany, Switzerland and Ireland, among other countries. The book’s objective is to “take Tocqueville seriously as a traveller”, which involves dissenting from the view of Tocqueville’s critics, who argue – according to Jennings – that the Frenchman “learned nothing from his travels and was more interested in mixing with the social elites of the country he was visiting”.

In 2004 the American writer Garry Wills, for example, thought Tocqueville did not “get” America. Criticising the lack of statistics in his book on the country, Wills adds a dislike for the author’s “taste for the grand simplification”. Wills might have read a bit more closely: in the book, Tocqueville observes that among the French “the taste for general ideas” is much stronger than in America, where something of the English proclivity for details and practical concerns predominates. Among the French, the tendency toward abstract generalisation is “so ardent a passion, that it must be satisfied on every occasion”. Tocqueville, in other words, was writing for an audience that wanted to read analysis on a grand scale, not a compendium of figures on American industrialism. In any case, it hardly makes sense to expect from an early-19th-century writer the standards of today’s peer-reviewed, social-scientific literature.

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Tocqueville, an aristocrat at heart – despite his serious liberal commitments – who liked to associate with people in similar positions and was influenced by them, nonetheless appears in Jennings’ portrait as a discerning tourist, if not an omniscient or completely disinterested one. Americans, he perceived, shared an implicit belief in human perfectibility and, to a man, “admit that what seems good to them today can be replaced tomorrow by something better that is still hidden”. This kind of observation is what makes Tocqueville such a rewarding author to read: it strikes concisely at an ambivalent quality in the American character, at once inexhaustibly optimistic and cruelly lacking in loyalty.

[See also: Do we really need John Rawls?]

Despite accusations that he was ignorant of rapid social change, burgeoning industry and attendant social inequality in America and Britain, Tocqueville’s visits to Manchester and Liverpool in 1835 show an attention to the consequences of industrialisation. In Manchester, he recognised that a new aristocracy had been created out of industry, one that felt no obligations whatsoever to the people it depended on. In the English countryside, Tocqueville readily saw how modernisation had transformed peasants into wage labourers. These observations, not connected to or informed by any broader economic theory, were made ten years before the publication of Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England.

In passages towards the end of the second volume of Democracy in America that were informed by his travels to England, Tocqueville seems to anticipate the modern welfare state. “The state has [become] the almost unique repairer of all miseries,” he wrote, a consequence of the rise of new industrial classes. This, he foresaw, would create “a crowd of similar and equal men who spin around endlessly”, living an individualistic life without noble aspirations, seeking only to satisfy their “small and vulgar pleasures”, all while supervised by “an immense and tutelary power”: the state.

How ironic that Tocqueville’s nightmare vision of the future now reads to us as a nostalgic description of the postwar boom, when mass democratic societies prospered across the Western world. Our world today is one still defined by the individual search for vulgar pleasure, but no longer with the tutelage of an ever-more hollowed-out state.

Over the course of his travels, Tocqueville’s liberal convictions sometimes led him to unsettling conclusions – or else could be selectively overwhelmed by his national pride. In the report on American prisons that was the supposed reason for his trip to the US, Tocqueville showed himself convinced of the merits of low staffing, the imposition of silence and constant work, as well as arbitrary corporal punishment – a system that seems both punitive and potentially brittle. Tocqueville maintained he was “not animated by that misguided philanthropy which… would make of prison an agreeable stay”.

Tocqueville’s most controversial travel was to Algeria, where he visited the French colony in 1841 and again in 1846. In Jennings’ account, Tocqueville had initial doubts about the practicability and prudence of French colonisation – he thought the French were too content a people to become adventurers like the American frontier settlers, and that the French and Arab populations would never be able to live together in peace. But over time Tocqueville strayed from this reasonable impression, becoming convinced that colonisation was necessary to preserve France’s place in the hierarchy of European powers. He went on to justify the brutal practices adopted by the French army – becoming another participant in what Jennings calls the “century-long tragedy” of French colonisation in Algeria.

If there is a flaw in Jennings’ book – other than the fact that its lengthy digressions on Tocqueville’s major works have little to do with the book’s subject matter – it is that the connections between travel and the central preoccupations of Tocqueville’s political theory could be drawn much deeper.

The connection between political theory and travel is not a small subject. At its most fundamental, to travel is to encounter the other. This can be an unsettling experience – seeing how people live differently elsewhere can prompt the realisation that some things one thought were universal human instincts or practices were only particular customs. This realisation often gives rise to broader questions about how political and cultural institutions affect our lives.

Examples of travel awakening reflection on political theory go back at least as far as the Greek historian Herodotus, who, based on inquiries he made on his travels around the ancient Mediterranean, described debates among aspirants to the Persian throne about the comparative virtues of different forms of government. Political philosophy in Athens emerged from the life of a democratic city-state, but it owed much to a fascination with the odd customs of its rival Sparta.

[See also: Reimagining political philosophy: on Charles Mills]

This link between political thinking and the contemplation of different cultures – whether in person or only through reading and writing – was equally strong in the French-language tradition of political thought, of which Tocqueville was the last great exponent. Montaigne’s 1580 essay on cannibalism, for example, which was based on accounts of the practices of the Tupinambá people of Brazil, turns around notions of savage practices in the New World to critique European society. Considerations on the strange institutions and culture of England was to prove a source of constant inspiration and debate for Enlightenment philosophes Voltaire and Rousseau (as it would for Tocqueville).

But as Jennings mentions, it is the 18th-century French lawyer and theorist Montesquieu who was to be Tocqueville’s closest model. For both men, crucial to political theory was the study of the interplay between laws and moeurs (that is, social customs, manners and morals). The two depended on and influenced each other in complicated ways. A law that didn’t fit with social customs often became a dead letter, but if new laws were successful in entrenching themselves, they could give rise to new customs. For states to endure, there needed to be a healthy symbiosis between the two, but what that looked like differed depending on the regime. Hence why, in The Spirit of the Law (1748), Montesquieu described virtue as the necessary quality for people in a republic, while honour (a less egalitarian quality) was essential for monarchy.

The key point was to discern how a country’s laws and mores functioned together as a self-contained political ecosystem. It was inadvisable to try to criticise one aspect of a country’s legal system or set of customs, or to import such an element, without taking full account of its relationship to the whole. “There are virtually no political institutions that are radically good or bad in themselves,” Tocqueville wrote to his father from America: everything depended on how they were applied.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is nothing less than an exercise in Montesquieuian analysis of laws and mores, using the young United States as a subject of analysis. In this sense, Tocqueville’s famous claim that he was inaugurating a “new science of politics for an entirely new world” was misleading. He was simply applying an old science of politics. Tocqueville’s brilliance lay in his ability to centre the discussion on a key theme – democracy – then investigate the delicate interplay between, on the one hand, democratic principles and laws, and on the other, the practices that gave them form, from everyday social habits to administrative tactics and arrangements.

The sense that the book captured something of America – and of modernity – despite the fact that its author had none of the advantages of modern social-scientific approaches, rightly endures. But this is a testament not only to Tocqueville’s talent as a writer and observer, but also to the generative force of the method he inherited from Montesquieu.

It should be a reason for regret, then, that Tocqueville has had few successors in the grand tradition of political theory informed by, or conducted through, the observation of political practices in different countries. Today, there exists a formal separation between the two in academic political science departments: some scholars study comparative politics; others, political theory. This formal division reflects the mistaken impression that the two are separate enterprises best conducted separately, rather than, as the great political theorists of history demonstrate, complementary pursuits that should be undertaken simultaneously by the same minds. Twentieth-century theorists of politics, such as John Rawls, are best known for books that contain little in the way of observation of how politics is conducted in the world. The field of anthropology has taken over much of the responsibility for commenting on the wide range of human practices – but in a way often separate from directly political concerns.

There are some good reasons why, in recent times, fewer people have sought to combine abstract political reasoning with observation of other countries’ customs. It requires generalisation, which is always a dangerous business, bringing with it attendant risks of stereotyping and misunderstanding. And it can open a door to sweeping judgements that claim some societies are better than others. But today’s social-scientific methods can help replace facile generalisation with acute observation – and Tocqueville’s rule of examining societies on their own terms remains instructive (even if he did not always obey it himself).

The noxious rise of racist theories in the early 19th century has also clouded discussion of these topics. Incidentally, this is a phenomenon that Tocqueville had the chance to respond to in his lifetime. Arthur de Gobineau, a French aristocrat and one-time secretary to Tocqueville, is considered one of the fathers of scientific racism. When Tocqueville became aware of Gobineau’s theories of inherent racial inequality, he responded fiercely, calling them “false” and “pernicious” – but went on to recommend him, if in “lukewarm” fashion (according to biographer Olivier Zunz), for a literary post. The episode seems to have been one of several when Tocqueville’s liberal conscience was forced to submit to the demands of loyalty to his aristocratic background.

Could travel supply new insights to today’s political theorists – if they could manage to forsake the seminar room for long enough to go on an adventure? As recently as 1986, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard published a book based on his travels in America, drawing observations from Los Angeles, New York City and the Western desert into half-appalled, half-amazed contemplations on morals and politics in a shattered, cybernetic postmodern world. Perhaps the tradition of observing foreign cultures as a chance to contemplate broader realities about man and his time is not entirely dead – nor even the tradition of Frenchmen seeing in America a funhouse mirror of the global future.

[See also: Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Nazi legacy and its influence on right-wing ideology]

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