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Twelve Alexis de Tocqueville and the Legacy of the French Revolution
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The Revolution as Contradiction

Tocqueville's interpretation of the Great Revolution found its way into his writings before the 1856 publication of L'Ancien Régime , but it cannot be treated satisfactorily without recognizing that it owed its genesis, not only to Democracy in America , but especially to his Souvenirs . His search for an unwavering, relatively stable reference point in himself, to be attained by finding an exit from his personal "labyrinth,"[15] reached an acute stage as he began to ponder the significance of the 1848 Revolution and its aftermath. He confronted his own daimons and the daimons of the Great Revolution in his "secret" Souvenirs , which he began to write at the age of forty-five, claiming that thoughts not subject to public scrutiny were the only ones free from dissimulation. Thus, he argued that if he could be true to himself, he could be true to his subject. For him there could be no questioning the intersubjectivity of such entities as the public and private, the social and personal. They were, he believed, threatened by the development of a government that, in its omniscience, would isolate persons and effectively destroy both their private and their public lives.[16] So in choosing an "unmoved" point in himself, he was not claiming that the points external to himself were subordinate to his will, but only that the world of self and others outside it were in a constant state of flux, and that individuals have no choice but to adopt a metaphysical fixity to make possible an interpretation of the empirical world. The maneuver was a heuristic device not to challenge but to confirm "the chain of history, so that [he could] the more easily attach to it the thread of [his] personal recollections."[17] Just as the 1830 Revolution released the energies that created Democracy in America , so 1848 was a turning point for Tocqueville. It forced him to bring into sharper relief the links he had already been making between the Great Revolution and the emergence of democracy.

When the second volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1840, he had been, if not completely, yet fairly, confident in his analysis of the trajectory of democratic revolution. He plotted it in general terms as a succession of psychosocial stages. In its first stage, enormous energies fueled by boundless ambition are released, bringing to dizzying heights of power groups of men competing with one another and inspiring others waiting in the wings to make the best of the general confusion caused by changes in laws and customs. The power shifts continue for some time after the consummation of the Revolution and take place in an atmosphere in which people cannot respond outside their former contexts of behavior. The second stage is a compound of recollection and a sense of instability, each stimulating further ambitions, while opportunities for satisfying them diminish rapidly. The last stage is


reached with the complete disappearance of the privileged class of the aristocracy, the onset of political amnesia (the blotting out of the memory of the general and specific political struggles), and the restoration of order when the adaptation of desires to available means is reasserted: "the needs, the ideas, and the feelings of men cohere once again; men achieve a new stable level in society, and democratic society is finally established."[18]

Tocqueville's anatomization of the Great Revolution and its 1830 aftermath was, he came to believe, incomplete, because, with the coming of the 1848 Revolution, he saw that what had begun in 1787–1789 had not reached its end. He needed to move into the realm of self-absorption to recognize or rationalize his weaknesses and errors in the Orleanist Chamber of Deputies, to purge himself of them, and to deny his parliamentary colleagues' accusations of underhandedness and slyness. By these means, he overcame his pain; he found that he could, as he phrased it, take pride in his "pride" as a man, politician, and author. He wanted to think that the approval of others was not the source of his pride, which he compared with the restlessness and disquiet of the mind itself.[19] He was preparing himself for his return to the writer's loneliness soothed by the writer's superior stance,[20] the only center for a "sincere"[21] interpretation of the Great Revolution that had been leaving its marks in his imagination for a quarter-century, but which he and others after 1830 had mistakenly thought they had been able to assemble into a coherent whole. Not until he could "re-collect" himself[22] could he begin to recollect —this time, he hoped, more accurately—more of the wholeness of the Great Revolution, in order to reach some understanding of why the actors of 1848 had appropriated from it what suited them and discarded the rest. The only result of pillaging rather than understanding the past was the creation of a wholly new set of false recollections. "The terrifying originality of the facts remained concealed from them," because the enormous powers of unreliable memories, the fictionalization and the theatricalization of the past, hid it from their view. Thus they were hard at work in "acting the French Revolution, rather than continuing it."[23] Acting out could also mean playing at being revolutionaries and, indeed, Tocqueville's evocations of the theater to describe the actions of the politicians support such a view.

The 1848 revolutionaries were in part stuck in a scenario from the past; in fluctuating degrees, and in a chaos of fluttering poses, they were prisoners of its signs and behavioral practices.[24] Tocqueville characterized the dilemma of the subject or the self in the familiar terms of self-interest and lack of distance preventing him from seeing himself as he is; the "views, interests, ideas, tastes and instincts that have guided [the self's] actions; the network of little foot-paths which are little known even by those who use them," wove the intricate network of a veil or a screen.[25] He wanted to use the power of the past, rather than bury it in personal lives and social settings, in order to grasp something even more difficult. It he could emerge from the maze with a


heightened understanding of where he had been, he could help rescue his countrymen from their labyrinth —a term that he had already used in his Democracy[26] —tell them where they had been, where they were likely to be going, and prepare them for the democratic future. But he did not want to slip into the naive belief that the past automatically teaches human beings much about the present, especially when "old pictures . . . [are] forced into new frames."[27] He also wanted to convince readers that the best lesson history could offer was that it never repeats itself despite the propensity human beings have to repeat themselves. He began with an acerbic observation on historians:

I started to review the history of the last sixty years, and I smiled bitterly when I thought of the illusions formed at the conclusion of each period in this long revolution; the theories on which these illusions had been nourished; the erudite dreams of our historians, and all the ingenious and deceptive systems by the aid of which attempts were made to explain a present which was still dimly seen, and a future which was not seen at all.[28]

He then moved on to speak in even less-flattering tones about the politics of revolution. In his brilliant use of the metaphors of the theatre of the grotesque and comic to describe the events of February, May, and June, and later, in drawing his portrait of Louis Napoleon, the new democratic despot whose model for his assumption of power was the first Napoleon, he was trying to warn Frenchmen not to mistake illusory for real change. Shifting his focus to England about a year after he completed his Souvenirs , he used similar language in telling Nassau William Senior that revolutions inevitably lead to masquerades.[29] If the Great Revolution was to be saved from the burlesque into which the majority of its heirs had dragged it—the irony was that they believed they were being faithful to it—its real nature had to be revealed. This could not be done by fashioning a discourse of mutilation—cutting the Revolution from its roots in the Old Regime—nor by indulging in a cynical one dwelling on how it was being travestied—a sure sign of a partial understanding of its causes, and thus a failure to reply to its hidden cues for individuals to engage in choice. If Tocqueville had been an advocate of simple and stark continuity, his commitment to political liberty in a democratic age would have been a species of playacting more perverse than the political acting he deplored: a heavily constrained notion of liberty could only support belief in deep and irreversible social structures. To be sure, fissures and faults, located deep in human archaeology, were always at work, but if they created new resting places it was not without the help of human agency. A reverse advocacy of discontinuity, with implications of radically new directions, would have trivialized his project, since exercising liberty would have been as effortless as wearing comfortable clothes. The issue for Tocqueville was thus not reducible to a discourse on the relative merits of continuity and


discontinuity as instruments of historical explanation. The Great Revolution had to be seen rather as an epicenter from which continuing shocks continued to radiate. In it inhered, as it were, the continuity with the past, and it was itself the very source of the change subverting it, with determinateness and choice engaged in a ceaseless dialectic. Tocqueville was playing on a subtle but vital difference when he spoke of the 1848 revolutionaries as "acting the French Revolution, rather than continuing it."[30] If the differences were obscured, historical continuity would be reduced in the long run to continual reenactments of a single scenario and not be seen for what it is—a continuation of a series or a succession of stages that had begun in France's prerevolutionary past, with the Great Revolution marking a partial embodiment of an obedience to ancient social and political impulses, as well as a harbinger of a new age. If Tocqueville's project is interpreted in the first sense, then change cannot figure in his philosophy of history; if, in the second, it is never far from it.

Tocqueville did not take either path unequivocally. His opening remarks in L'Ancien Régime about unintended consequences may be seen as a compromise, but they remained the basis of one of his abiding intellectual principles; he transformed it into a powerful image focused on the blindness of politicians, who, in their mutual challenges for place and power, actually think that intentions and results are unambiguously related, because, as he put it at one point, they fail to note that "the kite . . . flies by the antagonistic action of the wind and the cord."[31] The end of an action is not necessarily to be found in its intention. The net effect of the Great Revolution is to be sought as much in the unexpected tensions that create it as in those that it creates. Unintended consequences are in any case as important as, or indeed constitute, the paradox that the revolutionaries "used the debris of the old society to construct the edifice of the new."[32] This could be taken both as a silent rebuke to and as an endorsement of Edmund Burke, whom Tocqueville elsewhere criticized as blind to the abuses of the Old Regime and to the grandeur of the revolutionary image of renewal;[33] and it may appear to place Tocqueville on the side of those who see change as mere froth on the tides of an implacable history. Unlike Burke who tended to see change as an inversion or a perversion of a universal natural order but employed legalistic and utilitarian arguments against it, Tocqueville tried to remove himself from these remnants of an older theodicy and from the seductions of utilitarianism. Nor did he see change as part of providential design, as did Joseph de Maistre,[34] Louis de Bonald,[35] and even Mallet du Pan:[36] the first was literal minded and vengeful; the second saw the turmoil of the Revolution as part of an expiatory plan; the much more sober Mallet preferred to speak of a less personal "force des choses." Tocqueville used some of the providential vocabulary, drained it of its conventional religious referents, and substituted for them a far more distant and unknown divine presence, which almost


amounted to a divine absence from human affairs. He therefore ultimately deprived providence of consequentialism, which is its marrow. He tried to be indifferent, as his thoughts on certainty and probability show, to rigorist notions of determinism. In most instances, he envisaged change as the instrument by which long-term trends asserted themselves more clearly and strenuously, shedding the encumbrances of obsolete practices sanctioned by conventional legal practices.

The reverse side of this notion of change, as Tocqueville saw it, was that the exalted ideals that animated the early revolutionaries were delivered a cruel and decisive blow. Whether or not he borrowed the notion of the Revolution as monster from Burke, he called it a creature of diseased minds, a "virus,"[37] but he thought of it as creator as well. The Revolution was both the symbol and devourer of the highest values. Its greatest legacy for Tocqueville was that it was both the child and mother of modern liberty. Nonetheless the temptation to devalue it seemed to be an older and more persistent psychic drive. He was not forgetting the liberties that he believed were once part of the corporate structure of the Old Regime and that had been crushed by the state as it assumed its modern shape and imposed itself over civil society. But he was more concerned about a new and modern liberty that had to find its appropriate political setting. The Revolution as contradiction lived as a reality in Tocqueville's mind so much so that he celebrated 1789 as "that period of [naive] inexperience, but also a time of generosity, enthusiasm, heroic courage, lofty courage and [a sense] of grandeur, a time of deathless memory to which the thoughts of men will turn with admiration and respect long after those who have seen it, as well as we ourselves have vanished."[38] It was in 1789 that Frenchmen were confident enough to believe that they could be equal and free at the same time. The years leading up to 1789, Tocqueville had hinted earlier, however, represented just such time. In that period between the silencing of the imagination characteristic of caste societies and the isolation and "torpor" of a society of conforming equals, "new ideas suddenly change[d] the face of the world."[39] As momentous as such periods in history are, Tocqueville would not let go of his more pessimistic view that liberty vanishes when admiration for absolute government feeds on the contempt human beings feel for their neighors.[40] Tocqueville was once again giving voice to the dangers he had detected twenty years earlier in democratic societies—in which equality and tyranny were likely to coexist—of inflating the benefits of private comfort to the detriment of good citizenship.

The Revolution was thus a paradox. Because Tocqueville could not settle the question of the determinateness of the past, apart from his belief that the "unknown force"[41] at work in the destruction of aristocratic society could only have been regulated or slowed down by human agents with practical


wisdom, the Revolution had been a promise yet perhaps also an unintentional trap. However, he did not draw out the full import of the paradox. He did not write the planned history of the "vicissitudes of that long revolution." His first aim had been to develop the motif that he had set out in 1836 in his État social et politique de la France avant et depuis 1789 , which John Stuart Mill translated and published in the London and Westminster Review . In the État , he took care to say that the revolutionaries had been shaped by the old order and remained recognizable under the superficial change.[42] But, as he put it to Henry Reeve twenty years later, what the Revolution had truly accomplished and what its "violent labors" against the Old Regime had brought to birth that was truly new, were necessarily distinguishable. "But that [such a work] would lead me too far," he added.[43] As he grew older, his doubts about his capacity to explore these tensions increased and reveal how much he was troubled both by the common perception that the Revolution was a total break with the past and by his conviction that this was much too shallow an explanation.

Tocqueville's image of the cataclysmic and unpredictable force of the Great Revolution figured in his lexicon as a perplexing instance of the uncertain effect of human action in history, with the result that it threatened existence with meaninglessness. In the tropes of others closer to the Revolution in time, either as participants or observers, its unfolding caught them in its embrace, inflaming passion, rarely cautioning distance. In spite of his declarations of "disinterestedness," his aim to be "strictly precise,"[44] and his pride in his patient archival research, his adoption of a strategy of detachment was tinged with a degree of self-doubt, but he never quite grasped its roots, possibly because he saw nothing contradictory in passionately avowing his political beliefs while denying that they constituted a species of prejudice, since he could not conceive of it as inimical to or obstructive of his great love for and his need to defend liberty. He wanted to possess the secret of the event and the idea, to capture them, as it were, as they occurred, were thought, or were uttered—to find them in the grid of the Revolution in its actuality. The challenge threw him into a state of perplexity, inducing a state of vertigo.[45] He deeply sensed that he could not achieve the feat of penetrating to the raw reality of persons and movements; that at best his history would be a work of pale representation, but he wanted desperately that it should be more "true" than the work of others. He saw himself as a philosopher-historian and instructor to the future; by appealing to a "superaddressee"—I am borrowing Bakhtin's conception of the writer's ideal audience[46] —he thought he would be able to release the discrete mysteries of the French Revolution as well as reveal the general laws of revolution in their largest sense. But his project was to be accomplished, he promised himself, by resolutely setting himself apart from historians who claimed


"mathematical exactness" in speaking about human affairs,[47] only to fall victim, as politicians and kings were prone, when they thought they were avoiding the mistakes of their predecessors, to errors of their own.

Tocqueville honestly acknowledged that his pose in the Souvenirs paled to nothingness in the light of the power of the events of 1848 upon which, in repose, he was reflecting.[48] And those events, he said, almost immediately assumed a mimetic character. Tocqueville treated the revolutionaries of 1848 as unconscious parodists of 1789, who just as unconsciously contributed to a comic view of the past; the comic was history's revenge; it offered the consolation of laughter; in Tocqueville's scale of values it was ironic laughter; it was the other side of history that is usually thought to have only a serious dimension. Thus the comic did not conceal the nature of human history but was instead a way to a fuller knowledge of it.[49] Are we justified in concluding that in Tocqueville's view the men of 1848 were merely replaying an old script in their floundering uses of the radical rhetoric of 1789, and were unable to devise a new one that would take them and France beyond it? This makes sense if we recall his belief that the 1848 actors did not continue what 1789 had begun. Such an insight nevertheless left Tocqueville with a feeling of deep unease. Could he articulate how what he admired in 1789 might be continued and bring an end to the Revolution, some sixty years after it had shaken the world, without reconstituting the realities of the immense varieties of the conflicts and their participants preceding and during the Revolution? His contemporaries, whose every weakness he caught in verbal caricatures worthy of Daumier, were, he thought, fair game; but they were safely locked away in his "secret" memoirs of the 1848 Revolution, although the fact that he could not keep the Souvenirs completely secret, as his correspondence with some of his friends shows, proves how much his call upon his inner self was determined by his need to make sense of the Revolution, and that he could not begin to do so without reemerging from his solitude.[50] Would he be able to expose the flaws and extol the deeds of the principal actors of the Great Revolution, the "real" but dead actors, those whose actions and whose party labels the politicians and enthusiasts of 1848 ingested so greedily? Would the "real" actors be any more real than their imitators? In theory, the answer could be yes, since, in Tocqueville's framework, they represented a genuine break with the past and their conduct constituted a foundational act. This question, however, he could not confidently confront, though he knew how important it was to open the question of the role of key actors. It was their impotence, volatility, fear, and self-interest that he observed. They were overwhelmed by momentary confidence and longerterm bafflement.[51] He was more comfortable moving around the long antecedents and the long-term effects of the Revolution, despite his conviction that human beings cannot be absolved from and in fact contribute to the making of their own history, whether for good or ill, and should therefore be a proper


subject of historical enquiry. The utterances of the men of 1789 could not be more opaque than the impermeability of the institutions, including language, under which they lived and which had originally shaped them together as a community, which tied them together by invisible bonds and bound them to a more and more remote past. They had to be transparent in some mythic beginning—in the years leading up to 1789, and in 1789 itself—the brief period in which modern liberty for Tocqueville came to life and which came to serve as a constant reminder of what people could accomplish. But, as we shall see, even such a privileged moment did not elicit from him a prolonged interpretation of the leading actors either at the outset of or during the Revolution.

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