Visions of Politics


Sheldon Wolin’s Tocqueville Between Two Worlds has been many years in gestation. It is long, densely written, and difficult. It rests on an immense range of reading in Tocqueville and his commentators; and it tackles large subjects. The largest is nothing less than whether freedom is possible in the modern world. The book is an extended dialogue between Wolin and Tocqueville, but it is just as obviously an extended dialogue between Wolin and himself. It raises uncomfortable questions—about the authority of intellectuals to pronounce on political issues, about the compatibility of high culture and democratic equality, about the possibility of securing disinterested political leadership in the absence of an aristocratic caste—and it provides no answers. Indeed, it ends with the disgusted and despairing observation that in contemporary America, “democracy is perpetuated as philanthropic gesture, contemptuously institutionalized as welfare, and denigrated as populism.”

Tocqueville is an apt partner for Wolin’s enterprise. Almost two centuries after it was written, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America exerts an extraordinary grip on the American imagination.1 Tocqueville is so frequently invoked in contemporary political arguments that it is hard to appreciate how extraordinary his authority is. But think of the circumstances of the composition of Democracy in America and the nature of its author. When he embarked on his visit to the United States—he came for a bare nine months in 1831–1832—Tocqueville was twenty-five; when the first volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1835, he was no older than many graduate students are today. Nor was he likely to be a sympathetic observer of Jacksonian America. He was an aristocrat, and deeply conscious of it.

Charles-Alexis Clerel de Tocqueville was born in 1805, the youngest of his father’s three sons. His maternal great-grandfather, M. de Malesherbes, had perished on the guillotine during the Terror of 1794. Only the fall of Robespierre saved the life of his father, Hervé. After the final defeat of Napoleon and the Bourbon restoration, Comte Hervé became an ultra-royalist prefect in various départements, and the young Alexis grew up in a climate of devotion to the Bourbon monarchy and an intense Catholic spirituality.

Comte Hervé was a thoughtful politician and administrator who exemplified both the aristocratic ideals to which his son remained devoted and the difficulty of living up to them in nineteenth-century France. Hervé wanted to serve his king and his nation; he did not want to serve the bourgeois time-servers who made up the king’s government. When the Revolution of 1830 sent the Bourbon Charles X into exile and put the Orléanist Louis-Philippe on the throne, Hervé de Tocqueville retired from politics. He died at the age of eighty-three in 1857, just two years before his son.

The revolution that sent Hervé into retirement sent Alexis to the United States. In 1827, he became an unpaid juge auditeur at Versailles, a junior magistrate’s position that might be an apprenticeship for higher judicial office or a staging post for a parliamentary career. When Louis-Philippe became king, Tocqueville had to decide whether to sacrifice his future or grit his teeth and swear allegiance to Louis-Philippe. He took the oath, but reluctantly. “I have at last sworn the oath. My conscience does not reproach me, but I am still deeply wounded and I will count this day among the most unhappy of my life….”2 The result was that he was trusted neither by the regime nor by his more intransigent friends and relatives who thought it an act of treason.

It was a good time to go on a long journey. When he returned, French politics might have settled down and his future be easier to plan; personal enmities would have had time to cool. But the idea of exploring the United States had been in his mind for some time. The United States was an unequivocal republican success, but in France, the attempt to establish a republican government after 1789 had collapsed in bloodshed and the Terror. Order had been restored under an emperor. America was a reproach to the British, but not to French monarchists: the murdered Louis XVI had helped bring the American republic to birth. But, America certainly raised the question of how Americans had achieved what the French could not.

Of course, this was not what Tocqueville and his lifelong friend and fellow magistrate Gustave de Beaumont proposed when they asked for leave to visit the United States. As magistrates, Beaumont and Tocqueville were genuinely interested in the prisons of more enlightened and better-organized countries. In October 1830, Beaumont put it to his superiors that although Britain and Switzerland were building model prisons, it was in the United States that true enlightenment was found. Would it not be a good idea if he and Tocqueville, at their own expense, went to the United States to inspect the prison regime? In February 1831, they received eighteen months’ leave of absence. On May 11 they disembarked in New York, and left again on February 20, 1832.

Tocqueville claimed that he went to the United States without intending to write a book. Certainly, the two volumes of Democracy in America were not what one might expect from an aristocratic young Frenchman. By the 1830s there was a well-established genre of travel writing in which Europeans mocked Americans for their uncouthness and naiveté. Mrs. Trollope—the novelist’s mother—was a famous offender.3 In private, Tocqueville was sometimes unkind about the conversation and manners of his hosts; on the page, he celebrated the success of Americans in creating and sustaining a democratic republic, praised their morals and religion, and left his French readers in no doubt that while much of this American success was fortuitous, most was not.

The darker, more abstract, and less popular second volume of Democracy in America spelled out the ways in which egalitarian societies might face new dangers and new forms of tyranny, as well as ways in which they might be less imaginative, less interesting, and intellectually less adventurous societies than their aristocratic predecessors. In writing the two volumes, Tocqueville invented modern political sociology. He showed his successors how to analyze society with as sharp an eye for conflict as Marx’s, but without Marx’s fatal urge to reduce everything to the conflict of capital and labor. Without erecting vast theoretical schemes, he showed how to take conflicts of values as seriously as conflicts of interest, and how to take the need for well-designed political institutions seriously without deceiving ourselves about how much they could achieve.

Who was Democracy in America written for? Mainly for the French, who had already shown a propensity to sacrifice their liberty to a passion for equality—and would do so again in 1848 and 1851. John Stuart Mill borrowed the message for Victorian England—but for the sake of cultural rather than political liberty. Americans have plundered it for their own purposes ever since. It has sustained flattering images of America as the land of pluralism, localism, self-help, and an enthusiasm for voluntary associations; it has also encouraged anxiety whether all those institutional and individual characteristics are on the wane, as well as the fear that Americans have become privatized consumers incapable of imagining an existence beyond the office and the shopping mall, and incapable of framing a political idea not endorsed by public opinion. From this it is a small step to imagine a version of the “soft” despotism feared by Tocqueville, in which manipulative elites use a mixture of economic blandishments and military adventures to distract and stupefy a mass public.

Wolin’s own anxieties about the American polity are in this vein. Freedom has vanished, as Tocqueville feared, and we now have antidemocracy. Wolin believes that “the political” has been subverted by the triumph of the economic:

Democracy is touted not as self-government by an involved citizenry but as economic opportunity. Opportunity serves as the means of implicating the populace in antidemocracy, in a politico-economic system characterized by the dominating power of hierarchical organizations, widening class differentials, and a society where the hereditary element is confined to successive generations of the defenseless poor.

As for the author of Democracy in America, Tocqueville wanted two things for himself as well as his country: he hoped for literary fame for its own sake, and he hoped to translate that eminence into a political career. Before Democracy in America was finished, the two young magistrates’ report on American prison policy4 secured the Montyon Prize for its authors—most of the writing being Beaumont’s—but by this time Tocqueville had resigned from his magistrate’s position and embarked on an extended tour of England and Ireland.

Democracy in America Volume One was a great success; it, too, secured the Montyon Prize, and in December 1841, Tocqueville was elected to the Académie Française. Its publication in January 1835 also made his name in the right political circles; but it took elaborate maneuvering and two attempts before he secured election in 1839 as deputy for Valognes in his native Normandy. Among the problems facing the new deputy, the first was the need to make his political position clear by finding the right seat in the semicircular chamber. Writing to a colleague about the attitude of his electorate, he said: “In the eyes of these people, the spot where you plant your behind has a primary importance…. Isn’t there some hole at the very top of the left center or on the edge of the left on that side where we could ensconce ourselves?”5

For the last nine years of the reign of Louis-Philippe, Tocqueville was a member of the moderate opposition, steering a tactful course between legitimism and outright republicanism. He spoke often on prison reform and on education. Throughout the 1840s, he also took a particular interest in foreign affairs, in which he was an unabashed French imperialist. Grandeur meant much to him, and it is a small irony of the history of ideas that John Stuart Mill, who earned his living managing the affairs of India, had to tread very delicately when urging on his friend the need for great nations to conciliate one another rather than get into fights. The Tocqueville who celebrated the savage and brutal conquest of Algeria is a less obvious recruit for liberalism than the Tocqueville who celebrated the New England township.

The Revolution of 1848 did not at once drive Tocqueville out of politics. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in April, and helped to draft the new constitution and explain it to the Assembly. He moved sharply to the right when the Parisian workers launched the insurrection of the June Days; but when the new Legislative Assembly was elected in May 1849, he was supported by all shades of opinion among his Norman voters. For five months, he was in government, as foreign minister. It was the very brief peak of his political career; after five months, he was dismissed. A year later Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état put an end to the Second Republic, and to Tocqueville’s public life.

In retirement, he settled down to analyze why France was incapable of getting over its fascination with revolution. He sought the explanation in the antecedents of 1789. L’Ancien Régime et la révolution was an unfinished masterpiece, which broke new ground in its explanation of how the most seemingly powerful monarchy in Europe should have collapsed so suddenly in 1789. By the time it appeared in 1856, Tocqueville was very unwell. He had never been robust; at some point, he had contracted consumption, and from the early 1840s onward, had often been disabled by it. He withdrew to the south of France and died in 1859.


Tocqueville’s life is as engrossing as his ideas; indeed it is a mistake to contrast the life and the ideas. The fluidity and delicacy of his thinking is one aspect of the way his life illuminates his ideas, and the way the frustration of his political ambitions provoked his imagination is another. Nor should one be mesmerized by his three masterpieces. He was a gifted letter-writer and an ironic observer of his own performance on the political scene, savage about some of his contemporaries but unsparing of himself. His private life was complicated, and its complications not wholly irrelevant to his political analyses. His wife was a jealous woman and he was highly susceptible to feminine charm, but aside from the promptings of the flesh, there were the promptings of the religious sensibility—he had an intense relationship with Madame Swetchine, a woman whose undogmatic spirituality offered what his wife’s straightforward piety did not.

There is much here to be mined by the political theorist: Was Tocqueville the enemy of democracy or its friend? What religious attachments did he think that a modern democratic society needed if it was to preserve liberty with equality? What should we make of his discussion of the place of women in American democracy? Was it true, as Mill told him when thanking him for his gift of a copy of L’Ancien Régime, that he clung to the past? “Vous tenez beaucoup plus que moi au passé, surtout par son côté religieux,” said Mill, before going on to praise Tocqueville’s passion for freedom and his intransigent opposition to Napoleon III.6

To these questions Tocqueville Between Two Worlds provides some answers, in particular by depicting a Tocqueville who is every bit as backward-looking as Mill said he was. But Tocqueville Between Two Worlds is a very odd book. It is always interesting and sometimes fascinating; but it is perverse. It claims to be an account of “the making of a political and theoretical life,” but eschews any narrative of that life. To take one small instance: Wolin observes that it was significant that the aristocratic Tocque- ville married an Englishwoman of very ordinary origins, but he does not bother to tell us her name—and when she appears in an endnote as the addressee of a letter it is as “Marie” rather than Mary Mottley. Madame Swetchine appears only in an endnote.

Its abstractness makes it a particularly difficult book. Nobody who opens it without already having a good grasp of Tocqueville’s career and ideas will make much of it. The reason is that Wolin has recruited Tocqueville for purposes that are certainly Wolin’s but may not always have been Tocqueville’s. Thus, the first sixty of Wolin’s six hundred pages are dedicated to an account of modern political theory in which Tocqueville hardly features; when Tocqueville is allowed to set off for the United States, we learn nothing about where he went and what he saw, and Wolin’s long discussion of Tocqueville’s Souvenirs—his recollections of the 1848 Revolution—omits all the details that make them so interesting to read. There is a reason for this austerity, but it will not be obvious to all readers.

Wolin says the book “can best be described as a certain kind of biography: of political and theoretical choices made over time”; but it is not a biography at all. This would not be anything to complain of if Wolin had set out to describe Tocqueville the political sociologist, the analyst of democracy in America (and elsewhere), the theorist of the revolution of rising expectations, and the discoverer of “the lonely crowd.” Academic political theorists have long written about their predecessors as the bloodless bearers of the contributions to modern philosophy, sociology, and political science for which we remember them; it has treated them as beings to whom birth and death, residence and conjugal ties are irrelevant.

But Wolin has not done that, either. Tocqueville Between Two Worlds ignores two thirds of the things that other commentators have written about. At a time when Tocqueville has made a comeback among French historians, and his thoughts on the cultural conditions of democracy have become highly relevant for the slow democratization of Eastern Europe on one side of the Atlantic and the erosion of the American voluntary spirit on the other, there is something heroic in Wolin’s indifference to the concerns of his colleagues and readers. Nonetheless, it is sometimes hard not to feel that he has gone too far. It is one thing to tell us that Tocqueville went to the United States without any theory in mind, another not to mention that Tocqueville had been attending François Guizot’s lectures on The History of Civilization in Europe during the previous three years. Guizot’s influence is manifest throughout Democracy in America. Indeed, a criticism of Democracy in America at the time was that its author had read too much Guizot before he had seen America. But Guizot’s name does not appear in Wolin’s index.

To understand what Tocqueville Between Two Worlds is in fact about, the reader needs to engage in some intellectual archaeology. Forty years ago, Sheldon Wolin published Politics and Vision, a widely read and much loved book. Wolin was a charismatic teacher and a hero to students at Berkeley during the 1960s; indeed, he was an inspiring mentor to students at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Princeton for more than three decades until his retirement in the early 1990s. What right-leaning graduate students found in the work of Leo Strauss and his followers, their left-leaning peers found in Sheldon Wolin. An amused observer once divided them into “Right Platonists” and “Left Platonists,” much like the Young Hegelians of the 1840s. Like Leo Strauss, Wolin had an extraordinary ability to persuade his students that the graduate student of political theory was privy to deep truths about political life that ordinary political science failed to reveal or deliberately obscured. As with the effect of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt on their students, those who are deaf to this kind of enchantment find it hard to explain.7

Politics and Vision was certainly the work of an inspired teacher, and many of us have been teaching out of it for a very long time. To call it a history of political ideas would be misleading, however; the book begins with Plato, but the last author to receive extended treatment is Thomas Hobbes (1588– 1679). Had the history of political thinking ended at the very moment when, according to Hobbes himself, echoed by Hegel two centuries later, modern political science had begun? The question did not receive a straight answer, but the titles of the two last chapters of Politics and Vision—“Liberalism and the Decline of Political Philosophy” and “The Age of Organization and the Sublimation of Politics”—suggest a melancholy view of politics in the modern world.

Like Hannah Arendt, who first put the thought in his mind, Wolin has always thought that little of what we call politics deserves that label. Or rather, he expressed that idea by contrasting the political with (mere, everyday) politics: the former is

an expression of the idea that a free society composed of diversities can nonetheless enjoy moments of commonality when, through public deliberations, collective power is used to promote or protect the well-being of the collectivity. Politics refers to the legitimized and public contestation, primarily by organized and unequal social powers, over access to the resources available to the public authorities of the collectivity. Politics is continuous, ceaseless, and endless. In contrast, the political is episodic, rare.8

We would all agree that the manipulation of public opinion by advertising agencies is not the same thing as speaking directly to wide-awake citizens. But “the political,” as described by Wolin, seems to be something much more at home in Athens or in Renaissance Florence than in a country of 300 million inhabitants. And it does not seem to be an obviously democratic vision; Pericles was decidedly not a representative Athenian. Wolin praises, as anyone would, the imagination and courage that has often characterized groups of workers fighting for decent conditions, women struggling for social and political recognition, local communities defending themselves against destruction. But he himself says that these examples are too local, and the concerns insufficiently inclusive, to be truly political in the required sense.

So modern democracy turns out to be a two-edged enterprise. On the one hand we must celebrate the way that (some) modern states have expanded access to the rights of citizenship to workers, women, and people formerly excluded for religious, racial, or ethnic reasons. On the other, we must lament the displacement of ambition away from heroic action on the public stage, directed toward the good of the res publica, and toward the economic satisfactions of private life.

This begins to explain the “two worlds” of Wolin’s title. Tocqueville was “between two worlds” in a variety of senses. He came to the United States from the France of Louis-Philippe, and wrote a masterpiece about American democracy while thinking all the time about the future of France. He was not merely an aristocrat but a deeply self-conscious aristocrat, not so much class-conscious as caste-conscious; but he stared unflinchingly at the egalitarian, undeferential society of the United States and announced that it held the key to the future of France.

He was, if not exactly an agnostic, a man who could not believe in the literal truth of the faith in which he had been brought up; and yet he thought that religious faith was indispensable to the health of the American democracy, and that infidelity had been one of the crucial causes of the 1789 Revolution in France. Above all, he was a man who longed to do great and heroic things in French politics, but was disqualified by his class, his allegiances, and his temperament from playing any such part. Nor was this simply a question of his own personality and origins. There was no stage available on which he could act; the bourgeois politics of trading favors disgusted him. The France of Louis-Philippe was not Periclean Athens.

Tocqueville was a not wholly unsuccessful foreign minister during the interim republican administration of President Louis-Napoleon; but he lasted for no more than five months of 1849 before his complaints at the illiberal policies of the President got him fired. Ambivalent to the last, Tocqueville doubted whether France could sustain republican government, but was one of the members of the Assembly arrested when Louis-Napoleon launched his coup d’état of December 2, 1851. He refused to accept the offer of release until all his fellow deputies were released as well. He retired into private life, but he had long understood that the fame he sought he would achieve by his writings.

All these tensions feed into what Wolin has in mind, and particularly the tension between the life of the theorist and the life of the political actor—not the life of the “politician,” since that does not capture the ambition to do great things for the nation and to practice the politics of grandeur rather than economic interest. The theme of Tocqueville Between Two Worlds runs on from Politics and Vision forty years ago. The opening chapter’s description of the encounter of “modern theory” and “modern power” offers Tocqueville as the tragic embodiment of this encounter. The problem, according to Wolin’s account, is that the modern world defies the attempt to provide a theory of political life that will guide successful political action. For him, the psychological and economic analyses that allow twenty-first-century politicians to pitch their wares to the voter do not count—twice over, since they do not treat citizens as citizens, but as consumers, and they do not acknowledge the distinctiveness of “the political.”

This is a plausible way to approach Tocqueville. Tocqueville was a self-critical political thinker as well as a self-critical political actor. Although he was flattered when John Stuart Mill hailed him as the creator of a new political science, Tocqueville was not the precursor of the number-crunchers and algebraicists of today. He was not in that sense a social scientist at all. He sought a way of understanding the modern world that would allow room for free choice, and was hostile to the deterministic historical schemes of contemporaries such as Auguste Comte; but he was not content with simple narrative. Bare facts need their meaning elucidated; but in politics general truths obscure as much as they explain. In a famous passage of Democracy in America, Tocqueville depicts the tension between the demands of the particular fact and the demands of the comprehensive generalization by observing that God—but God alone—needs no generalizations because He comprehends everything at once.

Tocqueville’s model was Montesquieu. Like Montesquieu, Tocqueville emphasized the centrality of moeurs, the congeries of beliefs and values and the “habits of the heart” that provide the cultural soil in which political institutions can grow. It was American moeurs that allowed democracy to thrive without destroying liberty. The history of America’s good fortune was important because political cultures take time to grow and establish themselves, and popular reactions to present events rehearse half-remembered reactions to past events. Wolin suggests, very plausibly, that for Tocqueville another model was Thucydides, and that when he wrote his account of the dissolution of the Old Regime, he reached for the language of myth as well as the language of fact to capture the world-shattering importance of the collapse of the French monarchy and the rise of the professional revolutionary.

The one great generalization that Tocqueville ventured—that equality was gaining ground in the world with such unstoppable force that we must see it as the manifestation of a divine plan—is couched in terms that are foreign to political science as practiced today. But this mode of expression was Tocqueville’s way of emphasizing that there was room for political intelligence to channel, divert, and direct the tide that cannot simply be resisted. How that intelligence could be cultivated and encouraged, and what sort of politics an egalitarian society could learn to practice, were matters on which he never spoke with complete certainty and on which he changed his mind a good deal.


Wolin criticizes Tocqueville from the left. He complains that Tocqueville was looking for extraordinary politics but failed to see what he was looking for when it was under his nose in the spontaneous actions of the Parisian workers in February 1848 and during the June Days. When Tocqueville encountered the moment of crisis after the February Revolution of 1848, he swung to the right. He joined the party of order and abandoned the party of progress; in short, he displayed what Wolin criticizes as aristocratic ressentiment. This is not wholly unjust but it takes us back to the way in which Wolin has conscripted Tocqueville for ends of his own. Wolin is concerned with the fate of “the political,” and certainly Tocqueville lamented his contemporaries’ deficient understanding of and attachment to la vie politique. Nor is it at all odd that it is to Tocqueville that Wolin reaches back; Hannah Arendt also read the United States through lenses provided by Tocqueville.

What is odd is that Wolin does not see just how hard it is to attack Tocqueville from the standpoint of the insurrectionary left. Tocqueville well understood the explanation of Guizot and Montesquieu for the pre-revolutionary roots of liberalism: freedom required social differentiation, not proletarian solidarity. As Wolin himself points out, Tocqueville thought political liberty required a plurality of attachments to different social groups—among them families, professions, civic groups, and churches—in just the way that Montesquieu, Guizot, and Burke did. It was not enough to argue, as Mill did in On Liberty, that progress requires a cultural and intellectual aristocracy; what is needed is an account of the institutions and social entities possibly willing to actively support it. This is why Tocqueville is a more powerful critic of mass society than Mill: in the absence of cultural, regional, class, and occupational differentiation, we are a flock of sheep at the mercy of our shepherds.

Fighting off the conservative and aristocratic implications of this view, Wolin wishes that Tocqueville had seen in the momentary and spontaneous organization of insurrectionary workers the rebirth of “the political,” but that wish points to an incoherence in Wolin’s idea of “the political.” It is too tightly tied to his enthusiasm for extraordinary politics that will go beyond passive citizenship, and one cannot—logically—want everything to be extraordinary. Logic aside, the point of revolutions in the eyes of most revolutionaries is to introduce a new order; the concept of the permanent revolution is not to be taken literally.

In which case, the supposedly backward-looking and resentful Tocqueville can decently pose to Wolin a question that Wolin shows no sign of being able to answer: What institutional, cultural, economic, familial, religious, and psychological resources does Wolin believe the insurrectionists possess that will turn them into the active citizens he wants them to become? Tocqueville thought they had few or none. After the horrors of the revolutionary twentieth century, it is hard to deny that history has been kinder to Tocqueville than to Wolin.

  1. 1

    E.g., Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

  2. 2

    Letter to Mary Mottley, quoted by André Jardin, Tocqueville (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), p. 89.

  3. 3

    Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London: Whittaker, Treacher, 1832); it must in fairness be said that Mark Twain thought very well of the book as an unsparing but truthful account of American life.

  4. 4

    Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (1832).

  5. 5

    Letter to Corcelle, quoted in Jardin, Tocqueville, p. 298.

  6. 6

    Mill to Tocqueville, December 15, 1856, in The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1849–1873, edited by Francis Mineka and Dwight D. Lindley (University of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 518.

  7. 7

    Democracy and Vision: Sheldon Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political, edited by Aryeh Botwinick and William E. Connolly (Princeton University Press, 2001), a Festschrift for Sheldon Wolin, gives a very good idea of the range of Wolin’s concerns; and its subtitle “The Vicissitudes of the Political” suggests what holds those concerns together.

  8. 8

    Fugitive Democracy,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, edited by Seyla Benhabib (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 31.