Right Thinking

The Pure Theory of Politics

by Bertrand de Jouvenel
Yale, 220 pp., $6.00

M. de Jouvenel is a writer of great historical learning, political imagination, and literary force. He is, I think, the ablest recent representative of a tradition of French libertarian thought stretching from Montesquieu and Rousseau through Royer-Collard and Benjamin Constant to Alexis de Tocqueville. It is not surprising therefore that in a period notable for its inability to produce political philosophies in the classical manner, works such as On Power and its sequel, Sovereignty, should find an eager audience. Nevertheless, M. de Jouvenel’s reading of history is so myopic, his dialectical confusions so serious, and his political nostrums so inapropos that the large claims often made for him cannot be sustained. Indeed, I suspect that his admirers are attracted by his ideological tendencies as much as they are by his philosophical gifts: for M. de Jouvenel is an unrelenting critic of democracy, socialism, and every form of modern “radicalism,” and his typical admirers are notable more for their political allegiances than they are for their devotion to philosophy. If the democratic Prince requires an anguished aristocrat as his court philosopher he would do better to call Tocqueville to the post. For Tocqueville offers a juster analysis of the problems involved in plucking the flower of liberty from the nettle of equality.

The ostensible topic of M. de Jouvenel’s most distinguished work is the growth of Power. But his actual topic is more restricted: it is the growth of public Power or Authority. M. de Jouvenel takes it as axiomatic that Power tends to magnify itself, and he sees this tendency confirmed in the multiplication of laws, in the augmentation of bureaucracies, and in the growth of armed forces which characterize the modern state. War is, he thinks, Power’s business, and the capacity of democratic states to impose progressive taxes and to exact universal conscription (capacities never possessed by even the most absolute of monarchs) permits them to engage in the “total” wars which afflict our period. If democracies are the natural antagonists of peace, so are they, contrary to the general view, the natural antagonists of liberty. In the Middle Ages God was deemed Sovereign, and the Power of the king was limited by Divine Law and ancestral custom. But in the modern democratic state the people is sovereign, and the power of the people, unlike the medieval king’s, is unlimited. “The authorization of Power passes from parliament to the victorious machine, and elections are no more than plebiscites by which the people puts itself in the power of a small gang.” The only possible issue is submission to a power-hungry clique, deploying the powers of the state and acting in the name of a sovereign people.

At a time when the destructive powers of the state derive from modern technology, rather than the size of the citizens’ militia, M. de Jouvenel’s demonstration of the connection between total war and the sovereignty of the people may be set aside. But his contention that the advance of democracy is incompatible with…

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