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Tocqueville’s Lament


It is now thirty years since, in Penser la Révolution française,1 the late François Furet offered a revisionist explanation of the French Revolution; but, if I am not mistaken, it is still the reigning orthodoxy. Which it well deserves to be. For it is simple but profound and is, before anything else, a theory not so much about the Revolution as about what a historian should be doing when writing about that infinitely significant event. His duty, above all else, Furet argues, is to keep his distance: to cling, as a working assumption, to the old adage that “men make history but do not know the history they are making.” For the historians have, for very understandable human reasons, come to treat 1789 as a sort of “zero” date, presenting it in their books and syllabuses as the key to what, historically speaking, lies both upstream and downstream.

But this, of course, is exactly how revolutionaries thought or spoke about it themselves—as, that is to say, the date of the founding of a new world. Thus in adopting this convention, historians have already surrendered their intellectual independence. They are accepting something that the revolutionaries said at its face value—a fatal first step, which leads them to fight the battles of the Revolution over again in the terms in which they were fought originally. This explains why historians of the Revolution have tended to stamp themselves as royalists or liberals or modern-day Jacobins or anarchists. It also explains, so Furet argues, why their histories are methodologically confused, an incoherent mixture of analysis (of the supposed “causes” of the Revolution) and narrative, in which happenings are taken at their face value and presented as true stories.

Furet’s own grand theory of the Revolution thus breaks altogether with the grand and “committed”tradition of Michelet and Taine, Mathiez and Soboul. It asserts that the hoary debate over the causes of the Revolution does not cope with the revolutionary phenomenon itself: that, in the dizzying sequence of events from 1789 to 1794, this phenomenon had a life of its own, in many ways independent of what led up to it.

Any theory that attempts to explain the short- or long-term “causes” of the Revolution has, after all, to take into account conflicting interests in French society. But what flourished during those five revolutionary years was a political theory that denied the existence of such conflicting interests: a politics based on the concept of a unitary “people” and of the “general will”—a seamless aggregate of “right” wills. Admittedly, according to the revolutionaries, the “people” had its enemies, who conspired against it in secret; but they, by definition, were not themselves part of the “people.” As an interpretation of the Revolution this is, of course, of the highest significance to the historian. But it is so only—so Furet would argue—to the degree that he does not let it influence his own scrutiny of events or creep into his own outlook even by the back door.

The name of this form of politics is “Jacobinism” and, as Furet points out, it requires a special kind of leadership. The leader is there not to represent the “people” but to embody it—as under the ancien régime the nation was, in theory, embodied in the King—and his primary role must be vigilance, a hyperdeveloped alertness to treason and plots. He must also have a very special relationship to language. For power, once embodied in the monarchy and now, by a reconsecration, incarnated in the people, lived through “opinion,”of which language is the vehicle. Language—the “right” language, transparent to public opinion—becomes the chosen instrument of power, “the sole guarantee that power would belong only to the people, that is, to nobody.” The Revolution, says Furet, “ushered in a world where mental representations of power governed all actions, and where a network of signs completely dominated political life.”

The Revolution, according to Furet, thus took the particular course that it did in large part precisely because of this empowering of language. The revolutionary phenomenon had a dynamic of its own, which led quite naturally to the Terror. It fed on circumstances; and the events of the revolutionary period which may appear so decisive—the royal family’s flight to Varennes, the declaration of war, etc.—were, in a sense, of its own making.

This brings us to Tocqueville. For the weakness in Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, according to Furet, is that Tocqueville did not understand this revolutionary dynamic. It was, however, Furet thought, more or less the only important weakness in that work, which is for him “the most important book of the entire historiography of the French Revolution.” Tocqueville—more or less alone among historians—had “escaped the tyranny of the historical actors’ own conception of their experience and the myth of origins.” Furet’s own book is in considerable part a meditation on Tocqueville.

Nor is his admiration misplaced. The Old Regime and the Revolution, now published in a new translation and amplified by Tocqueville’s own important notes, is a most remarkable book—exploratory, longsighted, on occasion brilliantly witty, and quite the equal in weight to his Democracy in America. But what is unfortunate is that the present translation contains some serious misrenderings—a fact pointed out to us by Professor Jon Elster of Columbia University, who lists some sixty such errors.2

Tocqueville was the descendant, on both sides, of ancient noble families. His father, Hervé, was an ardent Legitimist and author of books about the Bourbon monarchs, while his mother was the granddaughter of that appealing and heroic figure, Lamoignon de Malesherbes, a good friend to the Encyclopédistes and freethinkers but loyalest of servants to Louis XVI. Tocqueville, moreover, was by no means a renegade from his caste, though bitterly conscious of the ignominy it had fallen into before the Revolution. He was given a freedom and detachment from his origins, however, by his ruling passion, which was for analysis—analysis leading to generalization. It was said of him, rather unfairly, that he had begun to think before he had begun to learn, but certainly it is striking—for instance in his Memoirs3—how any description of an event or a person (he is masterly at character-drawing) is instantly capped or prefaced by a generalization, newly minted for the occasion. Here he is on his political colleague Lammenais:

It is above all defrocked priests one needs to study if one wants to form a proper idea of the indestructible, and as it were infinite, power that clerical habits exercise on those who have once contracted them. It was in vain for Lammenais to wear white stockings, a yellow waistcoat, a gaudy striped cravat and a green redingote; he remained no less a priest, in character and even in appearance. He moved with discreet, hurried little steps, without ever turning to look at people—gliding through the crowd with a gauche and modest demeanor, as if just leaving a sacristy, but with pride enough all the same to trample on the heads of kings and outstare God.4

Tocqueville trained as a barrister, but the July Revolution of Louis Philippe ended his hopes of advancement in the law, and in 1831 he went to America, to study—as a historian—the spectacle of democracy in action. The resulting book, Democracy in America (1835),5 was an immense success. It had a great impact in England as well as France and gained him invitations from J.S. Mill and Nassau Senior to write for English liberal journals. He was in fact an Anglophile, marrying an English woman and taking to heart the fact that in England, unlike the France of the ancien régime, the nobility actually wielded power. It was rather in the spirit of English politics that, in 1839, he accepted nomination to the French Chamber of Deputies, where he served as an opposition member for nine years.

Tocqueville foresaw and warned his friends of the Revolution of 1848 and was closely involved in the bloody “June days” which followed. He was frank enough to say, publicly, that he had not wished for a republic, but that he was prepared to give it his full loyalty now that it had arrived. As a known “moderate,” he was appointed to the committee charged with drawing up a new constitution. There followed an appointment as minister for foreign affairs. It was his one taste of power, and he enjoyed it, experiencing a “tranquillity of spirit and a singular calm.”^6 The appointment lasted, however, only five months. Fresh from (rather successfully, in his own view) settling a dangerous dispute between Austria and Piedmont and another between the Tsar and the Sultan, he, with the rest of the Cabinet, found himself dismissed. Louis Napoleon, the President, had decided (as he said ominously) to appoint new men “who understand the need for an undivided and strong rule and…will be as deeply conscious of my responsibility as of their own.”7

It was now that Tocqueville wrote his political Memoirs, and meanwhile he meditated on a book that would extend the insight he had arrived at in Democracy in America: that as “society had changed shape, humanity had changed its circumstances,” and that the future lay with democracy. For this, he decided, he needed a large historical canvas, no less than the story of the Revolution and what led up to it.

The tentative way in which his book developed is altogether impressive. In 1852 he was still saying he did not know whether he had a subject, though he was “searching for it with desperate energy.” Then, in the following year, chance intervened. He had fallen ill and been sent, for the sake of the mild climate, to a village near Tours; and searching in the local archives he made what seemed to him a startling and quite fundamental discovery. It was that France’s rigidly centralized system of administration, which he had always assumed derived from Napoleon, was actually the creation of the ancien régime. The traditional system of government in France by great lords and hereditary magistrates, among others, had effectively been bypassed: by the institution in the mid-seventeenth century of the Intendant (or provincial administrator), directly responsible to Versailles; by the acquisition of new powers by the conseil du roi (royal council), a body so powerful “that it affected everything, and at the same time so obscure that history has barely noticed it”; and finally by the large and increasing influence of the controller-general, who became responsible not only for finance but also for commerce and public works. By the eighteenth century the country had two separate governments: an ornamental one, involving innumerable grand titles and ennobling offices (the sale of offices being a rich source of income to the State); and a real and working one, firmly centered in the capital.

The implications of this, as he saw, ran out in every direction. It seemed to mean, for one thing, that, in a certain respect, the French Revolution did not change anything. This of course had practical consequences for his book. He had planned, originally, to devote only some thirty pages or so to the ancien régime, but now it would appear to be his major subject, or at least the immediately demanding one. (He was never in fact to complete his second volume, on the Revolution itself.8 )

  1. 1

    Interpreting the French Revolution, translated by Elborg Forster (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  2. 2

    For example: p. 116. “More than anywhere else in the world, the French clergy possessed the right to collect tithes.” The French runs “Le clergé jouissait de plus, en France comme dans tout le monde chrétien, du droit de dîme,” the phrase de plus meaning merely “moreover,” or “in addition.”

    p. 118. “I wish that centralization was a great conquest.” The French is “Je veux bien que la centralisation soit une belle conquête,” the phrase Je veux bien meaning merely “far be it from me to deny”—no wishing is involved.

    p. 135. “…as if the confusion of powers were less dangerous in one direction than another, and even worse.” The French has “comme si la confusion de pouvoirs n’était pas aussi dangereuse de ce côté que l’autre, et même pire“—i.e. the sense is not “were less dangerous” but “were not just as dangerous.”

    It is to be hoped that in any future edition the University of Chicago Press will take account of these and the many other criticisms of the translation that Mr. Elster has made.

  3. 3

    Souvenirs (1893).

  4. 4

    Souvenirs, p. 265; my translation.

  5. 5

    He published a second volume in 1840.

  6. 7

    Quoted in Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France, Vol. 2 (Penguin, 1961), p. 155.

  7. 8

    A translation of the surviving drafts by Alan Kahan is promised, to form the second volume of the present edition.

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