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Twelve Alexis de Tocqueville and the Legacy of the French Revolution
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"Le Mal Révolutionnaire"

Tocqueville feared being swallowed up in an ocean of materials, and he swam away from its undertow by subordinating the actors to his theory that the choice made in favor of liberty was blown off course—more—that the totality of human actions, rather than persons, took on a pathological character, for which he invented the locution, "le mal révolutionnaire." Imprecise though it was, it may best be understood as an inversion of the will that amounted to a kind of illness or impoverishment of the spirit. Images of disease, sickness, defective organs, and the need to dissect them to find causes were meant to expose the sources of the Old Regime's defects.[52] That was one path to understanding. Physiological metaphors for political breakdown were commonplace before Tocqueville's time. So were metaphors of unsettled and "unnatural" states of mind for deviant political and social action. He made use of both, but his language suggests that, although he found plausible explanations for the violence of the Revolution, he was more perplexed by revolutionary mentality than by the breakdown of entrenched polities. It should be noted that he did not integrate these as part of a single dynamic process. He could write with comparative ease about the signs of a complacent and dying social order and a well-intentioned but ineffective, inept, and often mendacious administration, but he found "le mal révolutionnaire," which followed the breakdown of the Old Regime, too intractable a subject. From the context with which he surrounded the phrase, it is safe to say he meant the successively more violent stages of the Revolution itself. Le mal révolutionnaire, he seemed to be arguing, was synonymous with revolutionary government, which was illegitimate, although he did not say how, except by suggesting it was due to the excesses of democracy itself. The newness of democratic equality led to scenes of brutality and inhumanity. The violence, which he contrasted with the benign nature of democratic theory, possessed a virulent quality that grew out of the very texture of the lives of oppressed people and need not therefore be surprising. Le mal révolution-


naire was also more importantly a kind of philosophy and theory of action; the likelihood was that, even when it exhausted itself along with the concrete particularities giving rise to and created by revolutionary society, it would not disappear but would remain as a permanent, if shadowy, human passion. It had always been at, or the Revolution had brought it to, the surface of human experience; and it was repeatable.[53] We cannot know whether he thought the mal révolutionnaire was a fall or an original flaw, since he seems to have been unable to choose between these two explanations. Thus he could scarcely have found it a simple matter to speak of individual responsibility, and he retreated to the notion that, if anything, the "mal" manifested itself and could best be represented as an example of a profound break with the past, which, in its turn, descended into incoherence and error.[54]

The development of such incoherence—the revolutionary disease—may have been given, he was suggesting, its impetus and rationale by the pamphleteers who were especially prominent in 1788–1789. Tocqueville's notes reveal a fairly close inspection of several of their ideas; there is no evidence that he ever looked at the later, more revolutionary papers and pamphlets. The earlier ones were produced by men whose ideas, he claimed accurately, constituted more than just a transition point between the old and the new political discourses. The outlines and often the substance of their ideas were already, if not fully in every case, establishing a lexicon of revolutionary challenge. The prime example was Sieyès, whose pamphlet, Qu'est ce que le Tiers-Etat , Tocqueville described as a veritable cri de guerre —"a specimen of the violence and the radicalism of opinion, even before the struggles that are said to have provoked violence and radicalism." In doing so, it was the germinal expression of the Revolution ("le plus congénital de la Révolution"). In his call for full-scale war against the ancient social and legal structures of France and the absolute and unlimited triumph of his theories, without due regard for their practical effect, Tocqueville sounded a note of outrage and wonder at the breathtaking presumption that could ignore the cultural and political heritage of an ancient civilization and reduce politics to the mechanical counting of heads.[55]

Two crucial points emerge from his analysis of Sieyès's powerful and decisive pamphlet, which he resumed and expanded in his evaluations of pamphlets written by Mounier,[56] Barnave,[57] Brissot,[58] Rabaud-Saint-Etienne,[59] and Péthion.[60] The first was their animus against the idea of favoring the united action of the legal orders and social ranks, exemplified by the decision of the three Estates at Vizille in the province of Dauphiné to remain a single body.[61] The second was the almost total repudiation of Montesquieu's constitutionalism, which Tocqueville said was distorted by the pamphleteers who saw it as a screen to promote the special interests of the privileged. All of them were too blinded by their aversion for the Old Regime to grasp the


benefits of a gradual readjustment of the balance of political forces in the monarchy.

For example, Mounier's great error was to allow himself to be carried away by the bizarre notion that a bicameral assembly was to be avoided because only a unicameral one could effect the changes France required. Only after they were introduced did Mounier feel secure enough to entrust the nation to a divided assembly. Such a formula, which placed the political future of the nation at the mercy of a single class or a single party, Tocqueville complained, was "excellent indeed for making a revolution, but hardly the one to bring an end to it at the right time." The obliteration of all the features of an orderly society in these circumstances degraded liberty, and equality, left on its own, simply became another name for servitude.[62] Such a process in Tocqueville's eyes was a striking demonstration of how the powers of centralization were strengthened. Mounier's precise aim, he said, was not to support centralization, but he supported the steps that led to it[63] ("Il ne veut pas précisément la centralization, mais ce qui y conduit"). This instance of unintentional consequences was once again the reward of false premises.

Barnave, too, had originally spoken out against innovation, when the monarchy dared to invade the rights of the magistrates in 1788. He did so, Tocqueville observed with approval, in the spirit of Montesquieu's detestation and fear of despotism. Tocqueville marveled at Barnave's youthful appeals for a union of all classes and interests, his praise of the "illustrious families" of France that protected the monarchy with their blood, and his "sincere" appeals to natural equality and democracy; and although Tocqueville wondered about the prospects of a permanent union of all the forces ranged against the despotic state, he conceded that such a union had reached the limits of the possible.[64]

Thus, though he kept coming back to the theme of united action, noting that the future Girondin, Brissot, had appealed for caution, conciliation, and harmony, he acknowledged that Brissot's opposition to the exclusivity of the first two orders was his major and most decisive argument. As a result of his stay in the United States, he had become convinced that a Convention was a necessary step toward the remaking of the political map of France. For Tocqueville this was a truly revolutionary idea. Whether or not Brissot's text justifies Tocqueville's reading of it, Tocqueville derived a certain pleasure from and accorded his respect for Brissot's understanding of the conservative nature of the American political experience. As proof, Tocqueville mentioned the American decision to adopt a bicameral legislature. He may also have been recalling his praise of the makers of the American Constitution. Recognition of the utility of American practices was much more desirable in Tocqueville's opinion than the views of the "worst imitators" who had "taken from the United States the abstract principles of their con-


stitution without having felt the need of applying them conservatively which had been achieved in America."[65]

From Brissot Tocqueville went on to consider Rabaud-Saint-Etienne who, he dryly observed, took four years to discover that he was tired of acting the part of the tyrant and was executed for admitting that he was mistaken for thinking that the regime of privileges was more to be feared than royal power. Rabaud's sudden insight, Tocqueville could not resist adding, was a good case of human intelligence knowing too late that it was liberty that needed support; instead, the mind had mistakenly turned its energies to equality.[66] But there was more in Tocqueville's interpretation of the desire shown by all the pamphleteers to move swiftly against any political ploy to retain any semblance of traditional representation. What choices did they have, Tocqueville finally asked himself? Almost none since, in their desire to end privilege, they were unable, because of the profound political differences between France and England, to adopt the English political model to enable them to reduce and limit rather than abolish what had to be ended.[67] Similarly his notes on a pamphlet attributed to Pétion show how he continued to perceive that the revolutionary discourse was moving further and further away from Montesquieu's ideas and that, although liberty was not foresaken, the "final word of the Revolution" came to be "let us try to be free by becoming equal, but it is a hundred times better to cease to be free than to remain or to become unequal."[68]

The revolutionaries who then came into their own were "men who carried audacity to the point of sheer insanity, for whom no innovation was surprising, no scruple could act to restrain, and who would never hesitate to execute an action." Tocqueville was again sounding the theme of equality, the hunger for which had become so overwhelming that it was elevated above and displaced for all practical purposes everything else that the actors of 1789 were bringing to political consciousness in their desire to regenerate France. Those who were responsible for the deflection were not, however, "new beings," nor "the isolated and ephemeral creation of a single moment, destined to disappear with it. They had rather formed a new race of men that endured and gained ground throughout the civilized world, everywhere preserving the same features, the same passions, and the same character. They were already here when we were born, and they are still with us."[69]

Humanitarianism and generosity, two of the noblest features of the Enlightenment, had been blighted by an inhuman revolution.[70] Le mal révolutionnaire had produced murderous effects and was always ready to be summoned up from the depths of human experience. On what grounds was he making these ominous claims? In part, he was calling on Burke's outrage at the climate of revolutionary suspicion of all established opinion. But he was more interested in exposing the origins and consequences of popular opinion. He did so delicately but devastatingly. He was far from denying the connec-


tion between ideas and actual events; but he refused to extend to the extreme actions of Year II a footing in solid ideas. At best, those actions and the ideology inspiring them constituted the revolutionary degradation of political ideas and conduct. He had little regard for most of the men of letters of the Old Regime, whom he mistakenly represented as misunderstanding the nature of politics, and who assumed, so to speak, the role of an unofficial public opposition, but did so irresponsibly by producing streams of impractical ideas.[71] At the same time, he made a distinction between abstract ideas and popular expressions of opinion. To the first he conferred a kind of dignity by conceding the good intentions of their theorists, while condemning the savage practices of the uneducated, unlettered, and disorderly elements in society, who took control of and shaped the violent phases of the Revolution. The humanitarians who were trying to transform political culture had no way of controlling their intellectual products, as the latter began to attract a mass audience.[72] In Democracy , he had already dissected the power of public opinion; in L'Ancien Régime , he adverted to the processes by which public opinion achieved its force in the political and cultural structures of monarchical France. In democracies, he noted in his earlier work, opinion truly came into its own as mistress of the world, because equality erased trust among private men but enhanced their faith in the infallibility of public judgment.[73] In the French Revolution, books were used by the populace, including the peasantry, to satisfy their "lust for revenge."[74] This led to the inevitable deterioration of opinion, as it descended downward to the people from the literary figures and self-styled philosophers.[75] Tocqueville's intention was to make the link between his earlier belief that the ubiquitous nature of public opinion in democratic nations stifled the critical mind and his later belief that nothing could resist its tyranny in revolutionary times. As if to underline this point, he expressed envy for the way in which the English upper classes had made a revolution in 1688 and carefully controlled it by ensuring that it did not pass into the hands of the people. Not so the National Assembly, which had wavered in its resolution. It failed to pass Lally-Tollendal's "timid" motion of 22 July 1789, urging popular moderation, and thus transferred sovereignty to the people of Paris.[76]

Tocqueville saw in the democratic revolution a single but agonistic event that tore its principal actors apart: for him it was indeed the specter haunting Europe, but it was also the creator of a new society. He may have departed from the full import of his original assertion that democratic peoples must "secure the new benefits which equality may offer them . . . [and] to strive to achieve that species of greatness and happiness which is our own,"[77] but he did not doubt even then that were the descent of democracy into democratic despotism to become more and more irreversible, it would be because human beings were wrong to believe it right but were still willing to satisfy their inclination to simplify rather than diversify the means to reach their


greatness.[78] However, he questioned his own pessimism when he opposed Arthur de Gobineau's racial theories. He contrasted the "illness" of the revolutionary belief in total self-transformation with the "illness" of the postrevolutionary belief in the futility of will and virtue, and rejected both such expectations and such nihilism.[79]

The theme of continuity that has so enthralled readers of Tocqueville has blinded them to what he regarded as new in the Great Revolution and its echoes in the nineteeth century and after. He did not intend to support, nor may he be read retrospectively as doing so, the claim that the Terror foreshadowed the broad outlines and experiences of the univers concentrationnaire of the twentieth century. So respectful was he of the unique rather than the uniform circumstances of events that he distinguished the 1793 Terror that "still preserved in its crimes a certain hypocrisy of forms and honesty missing" from Louis Napoleon's repressive policies that were sending thousands of unfortunate victims into exile without trial.[80] He made the same point after 1856 when he described the "perfected atrocities" characteristic of the Directory, that is, the deportations to Guiana of journalists and politicians, the imprisonment of priests, the forced loans, the confiscations, and the law of hostages, which were, he said, much more cruel than any of the laws of 1793 and were not necessarily consequent on them.[81]

His general remarks on the Terror are couched in language he had consistently used. His conviction that the majority's loss of its rights and willing acquiescence in its own exploitation by tyrannical minorities recalls Montesquieu's conviction that individuals have a profound propensity for subjection. What had to be painted, Tocqueville promised in his notes, was the state of the revolutionary mind by means of which the majority rendered the tyranny of the minority possible. He admired Mallet du Pan's Mémoires for adverting to an explanation of the Terror that bordered on his own concerns. It was a powerful force that he said came close to organizing disorganization and uniting the forces of despotism and anarchy, and which was, he agreed with Mallet, not a singularly French but a European phenomenon, one of the most "active and contagious diseases of the human mind."[82] Quite early on, in the first volume of his Democracy , he noted that any legislative body, such as the French Convention, which had usurped the role of government, was destined to self-destruction because, while its power was subject to shifts in the popular will, it tyrannized society in the name of that will, by claiming a false identity with it. Its vigor was thus an artifice, subject to imminent disclosure.[83] The insight is reminiscent of Montesquieu's depiction of the operations and ultimate impotence of despotism.[84] Something like the overthrow of the despotism of the legislative power, Tocqueville intimated, must have begun but was not completed at Thermidor. By the end of his life, he was satisfied that he had discerned the contours of the new democratic despotism. He had shifted his concern from the powers concentrated in the


legislative body to those in the clenched fist of the executive power.[85] The study of the Revolution's inflation of the popular will strengthened his conviction that it was the key to popular subjection.

It is not at all certain that he was prepared to entrust liberty to the bourgeoisie of his own day, who were hardly the same as they were at the beginning of the Great Revolution.[86] He was less interested in embarking on an analysis of their newer sources of wealth than in commenting on the development of their power and their total inwardness. They had undergone a sea change in two generations. Tocqueville was once again reflecting on the ironies and paradoxes of unintended consequences. By triumphing in 1789 and after, the bourgeoisie ended the unity of opposition to the crown. That union had captivated Tocqueville's admiration because it symbolized a willingness for self-sacrifice. By contrast, 1830 was the triumph of selfishness—it gave the bourgeoisie the chance to establish their full identity and their hegemonic power to demonstrate how they would utilize it. Tocqueville excoriated their abuses of power over the next eighteen years, noting disdainfully that they were enduring ignominies in 1848 similar to those suffered by the nobility whom they had displaced. The new governing class, "through its indifference, its selfishness and its vices," proved "incapable and unworthy of governing the country."[87] Just as he inveighed against the old aristocracy for its exclusiveness, he turned against a similar shortcoming in the bourgeoisie of his own time but found that, despite their common defect, one difference between them was striking, perhaps decisive. The middle class was far from being a homogeneous body. It expanded and contracted, it bordered on other classes, and, for this reason, was hard to locate, define, or attack, even if it tried to retain its exclusivity.[88] Indeed, it was liable to greater vulnerability than the aristocracy and would, in the light of 1848, be forced to face the fact that property was no longer shielded by the system of odious privileges that had been abolished in the Great Revolution, and was therefore more directly open to attack.[89]

Tocqueville just as determinedly ridiculed what he thought were the illusions of the socialist sects. There could be no question of entrusting them with the defense of liberty. But we should not forget that he adverted to the existence in the eighteenth century of conflicting views of political economy,[90] calling into question the paramountcy of private property. He thus helped to bring to consciousness the question of how the desire to free the market from legal restraints, traditional conventions and customs, and the power of the state triumphed over the challenges to a market society and had become the established dogma of the discourse of political economy. Tocqueville's reactions to the observed effects of the new political economy, rather than to its growing but by no means assured status as a body of noncontingent truths, were far from positive. Although he admitted that the growth of the modern economy conferred technological benefits, and


although he affirmed that commerce prepared individuals for freedom,[91] he had, long before his work on the Revolution, believed it necessary to look at the "concealed relationship between . . . liberty and commerce." From his examination, he drew the conclusion that freedom in its largest sense gave birth to commerce.[92] Indeed, he was in some important ways more sympathetic to some of the dying moral principles that underlay a premodern economy, while denying at the same time that they had any final purchase in a world that was being instructed by its leading political economists not to confuse commerce and ethics. In Democracy , his views on individualism and jeremiads against the effects of economic success and well-being on the prospects of personal political liberty made up his testament to the ultimate vacuity of restless ambition in a world that had ended endemic scarcity and had enthusiastically embraced material gratification as a goal, while investing with intense passion the power that such self-concentration gave to people in a democratic society to act in the name of but almost invariably against civic responsibility. It was as if he were saying that in some inexplicable way the relationship between modern political economy and liberty had been distorted—that commerce, the child of liberty, might in due course strangle its parent, rather than preserve it, and thus help to smother civic responsibility whose leading principle was liberty.

His conviction was not without its sense of desperation, and the problem was how to overcome or at least to mitigate it. As is often the case in interpreting Tocqueville's thought, what he failed to integrate into his deft crafting of his consistent view of the past holds the key to the question. When in Democracy he charted the development of equality in America and in France, the two societies in which forms of democracy had been reached by different routes—one without, the other with violent revolutionary struggle—he saw equality not only as a legal and political reality, but also as a desirable condition for expanding economic capabilities in the eyes of those who yearned for it. One may therefore read L'Ancien Régime in a state of forgetfulness of the immensely significant role Tocqueville gave in his Souvenirs to the bourgeoisie's defense of property in the prelude to and aftermath of 1848, in the course of which, as we saw, he took a much harder line against the nonpropertied majority. If we remain forgetful, we may also overlook the extent to which he had seen the 1830 Revolution as a license for the bourgeoisie to plunder society. He castigated them for not taking care to see how their apotheosis of and seduction by wealth would generate bitter social conflict. And after 1848, he predicted darkly that fate decreed alternations between license and oppression, rather than a regulated and stable system of liberty.

Tocqueville thought about liberty's and history's elusiveness as a positive inducement to human beings to see them both as reminders of their fragile hold on life's meaning. The only liberty that mattered was the liberty that allowed human beings to obey the laws they themselves enacted, provided


the nations of which they were part made a proper use of it.[93] He valued "the stable, regulated liberty, restrained by religion, custom and the law" about which he spoke in his Souvenirs ,[94] and not the unregulated liberty that led to the undoing of the "authentic" liberty he believed was one of the great unclaimed legacies of the Enlightenment.[95] It is therefore an error to think that Tocqueville would have been ready to concede that in democracies "the new sense of equality, society and humanity [could] only be reconciled with liberty on condition that it never be realized." This conclusion is reached on the grounds that actualization would see human beings "slipping into the imaginary which would effect a split between the reign of opinion and the reign of power, between the reign of science and men who are subjugated."[96] Tocqueville, it is true, warned against this. The revolutionaries, he complained, had moved recklessly into an embrace of their own artifice, "une société imaginaire," and had produced a disaster. Instructive for Tocqueville in his understanding of the Revolution was that it provided additional evidence of the fragility of modern liberty. In Democracy , he had spoken about the practical measures he believed necessary to strengthen liberty. But after 1848, after writing L'Ancien Régime , and during the last three years of his life as he reflected further about the events of the Revolution, he could not resist coming back to those moments before and during the earliest stages of the Revolution when a rare moment had united all classes. That is the only meaning that may be given to his belief that 1789 would remain enigmatic so long as human beings were caught in the tangle of reliving, rather than continuing, what it had begun. He had set out to escape from the labyrinth of the past, constructed a coherent view of it to instruct his fellow creatures to avoid its deepest recesses, and invented his own imaginary future to keep the image of liberty alive.

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