A review of Tocqueville: Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life, by Sheldon S. Wolin

Yet another book on Tocqueville! This one, however, is a unique achievement. Most books on Tocqueville are either biographies or studies of one, or at most a few, of his writings. Sheldon Wolin's Tocqueville Between Two Worlds is an attempt to arrive at a coherent, comprehensive understanding of Tocqueville's political theory by analyzing and evaluating his political life and writings as a whole. It raises all the important questions, takes texts seriously—Tocqueville's as well as those of other political theorists—and is full of original and provocative readings of these texts.

Making sense of the whole of Tocqueville's life and writings is no mean feat. As most of his admirers know, Tocqueville was "between two worlds" in several senses. Unusually political for a theorist and unusually theoretical for a politician, he spent his life in alternation between periods of sustained intellectual activity and a full-time, if less than brilliant, political career. As a young man, he journeyed to the New World to observe its "great democratic republic" with the intention of edifying the Old World. His Democracy in America, now adopted by Americans as if written by one of their own and for themselves, was in fact intended to clarify France's political choices. Despite his having been born and bred an aristocrat, he consciously embraced the new democracy if not quite wholeheartedly, at least (so to speak) wholeheadedly. He accepted democracy's legitimacy; and so he detailed its merits, even as he lamented the loss of some aspects of aristocracy and warned of the difficulties democracy was likely to pose for the future. Though he had found much to praise in rough-and-ready Jacksonian America, when he finally won elective office in France's mid-19th-century bourgeois regime, he could find little in it that did not inspire contempt or foreboding. With the revolution of 1848, he opted for the contemptible bourgeoisie over the loathsome radicals, avowing his opposition at all costs to socialism and to the centralization, bureaucratization, and depoliticization he thought went with it even more surely than with bourgeois democracy. Retiring from political life with the ascendancy of Louis Napoleon, he wrote his posthumously published Souvenirs and began The Old Regime and the Revolution, books in which he seemed increasingly pessimistic about a liberal democratic political future. Notwithstanding frequent self-doubt and a low opinion of his contemporaries, he retained an enduring appreciation of greatness and an unquenchable thirst for it. 

Wolin appears to have read every word Tocqueville wrote, and he treats thematically each of Tocqueville's three major works, incorporating minor writings, letters, and biographical detail to excellent advantage. His readings of each of these elements are unfailingly intelligent, even if not always persuasive and, on occasion, infuriating. He displays an impressive amount of learning about Tocqueville. Whether he has learned from him is another matter. In the end, it seems fair to say that Tocqueville is the medium through which Wolin, a much-honored political theorist and man of the Left, comes to refract his own thoughts on politics. For often, when disagreeing with Tocqueville, Wolin simply leaves unstated his (presumably superior) opinion and the case for it, as if these should be too obvious to the reader to mention.

Why, one inevitably asks, would Wolin have devoted so much time and effort to this study? Tocqueville, Wolin notes, was perhaps "the last influential theorist to have truly cared about political life." Ultimately, however, to Wolin's manifest disappointment, Tocqueville took politics in one sense too seriously and, in another, not seriously enough. On the one hand, Tocqueville allowed his engagement in partisan politics to affect his theorizing, according to Wolin. On the other, despite the ardent admiration he had voiced in the first volume of Democracy in America for the participatory democracy of the New England township, Tocqueville grew increasingly willing to accept a less meaningful notion of citizenship in America as well as a much narrower suffrage in France. He was oblivious to the political aspirations and capacities of French workers in 1848, as he was to those of workers and peasants under the Old Regime. In the end, Wolin's Tocqueville cannot bridge the gap between the Old and New Worlds by finding a way to secure for all the political freedom and participation that a very few had experienced in aristocracy. Instead, he settled for "rearguard actions" and the attempt, likely to fail, to burden the postmodern world with an aching awareness of the democratic political life that might have been.

Wolin's explication of Tocqueville's works is, to repeat, solid and at times excellent—especially his treatment of the New England township and of the ideological character of modernity. It is his evaluation of Tocqueville that can be, shall we say, idiosyncratic. Democracy in America in particular, Wolin argues, is a book that still appeals to many readers today because it accommodates a range of objections to democracy and the worries of "liberals, conservatives, and social scientists" about its "alleged dangers." Not willing to belong to any of these categories himself and presumably not wishing to see the unwitting seduced by Tocqueville, Wolin looks at attempts to moderate democracy with a more critical eye. 

This is a valuable perspective, even if it leads, on occasion, to misreadings. Wherever Tocqueville distinguishes some few from the majority of human beings, Wolin finds the class bias of an aristocrat against "the many" or "the demos"—Wolin's terms, not Tocqueville's. He does so even where there is no textual basis for the assumption and sometimes good reason to infer otherwise. For example, in a fragment from the unfinished second volume of The Old Regime, Tocqueville ascribes to a few men an "instinctive, irresistible and almost involuntary" penchant for liberty; yet he also suggests that this taste may be characteristic of a free people. How, in any case, could Wolin, in quoting and commenting on the remark, take this to be a quality that one acquires by inheritance or breeding? Similarly, in a discussion of Tocqueville's assertion inDemocracy in America that rights are the appearance of virtue in the political world, Wolin finds an aristocratic "paternalism and moralism," attributing to Tocqueville the view that virtue "is demonstrated by obeying superiors." But Tocqueville speaks of a recognition of a "right to command" in "those like oneself," and thus, more plausibly, of obedience to whoever currently wields legitimate authority. (Leaving aside the issue of class bias, there is an important dispute here between Tocqueville and Wolin on the ground and meaning of rights. One longs for a head-on confrontation over this substantive matter rather than a snide dismissal of Tocqueville's position.) 

In sum, minor departures of this sort from Tocqueville's texts make it easier for Wolin to conclude that, for Tocqueville, freedom is conceivable only in a society "where inequalities of rank and privilege [are] paramount." A more constructive reading of The Old Regime, as Wolin himself astutely observes, might lead one to ask whether it is now still possible to devise institutions and a civic culture in which different social classes are encouraged to cooperate politically.

Another source of consistent misreading or misrepresentation isWolin's skeptical assessment of Tocqueville's attitude toward democratic mores and religion. These, for Wolin, are imposed on the demos by the political or intellectual elites that devise them in order to "repress" it. One might briefly state several objections to this assessment. First, it reflects a vast overestimation of the place Tocqueville expects or desires any self-appointed intellectual elite to hold in a democracy. Second, Tocqueville may speak of the American people as hypocritical in their profession of religion, but he never calls them dupes. Their belief, be it in the breach or the observance, is their own, and in matters of faith, it is this that counts. (I note in passing that Wolin incorrectly attributes some rather cynical remarks about religion and philosophy to Tocqueville rather than to their actual author, his correspondent, Kergorlay.) Third, is it the case that adherence to religious beliefs and habits of morality—including women's marital fidelity—amounts to repression? Wolin never appreciates that for Tocqueville, religion is not so much a means of social control as a source of strength—of empowerment, as we now say—for individuals as well as peoples. Finally, could the New England township as described by Tocqueville and admired by Wolin, have worked without such mores? For Wolin, it seems, there is democratic freedom only when the demos believes itself free to refashion itself at any instant. Just what is the comprehensive vision of human and democratic political life that informs Wolin's rejection of Tocqueville here, and what are the arguments in support of it?

There is another pervasive misreading worth noting. For Wolin's Tocqueville, genuine politics must be "disinterested." Did Tocqueville ever really think this possible or even desirable? Wolin refers to texts proving that Tocqueville is well aware that an appearance of disinterested passion is an attractive quality in a politician. Yet in describing "great parties," in which individual or particular interest may be well hidden, Tocqueville observes that it nonetheless "always plays the greatest role in political passions." Similarly, his aristocrat may be able to deceive others and especially himself about the extent to which self-interest affects his actions and choices, but deception this is. Even Tocqueville's New England township, the model of democratic citizenship for Wolin, works precisely because it manages to interest townspeople not only in their common concerns, but in their shared power. For Tocqueville, the problem is not to persuade individuals to set self-interest aside. Rather, one must demonstrate to them that they have an interest in politics and especially in political activity, and that this activity can be an outlet for considerable ambition and a source of personal pride. 

Later in life, Tocqueville may indeed have become pessimistic about the efficacy of a love of political freedom grounded in interest. But at least for a time, he held out the possibility that, with the support of institutions of political freedom, calculating self-interested ambition might turn into an instinct and repeated action would give rise to a habit and taste for public service. One might say that, for Tocqueville, insofar as anything can be done to preserve political life in the modern world, what must be done is not to purify souls, but to enlarge them by giving men a more capacious understanding of interest. 

As should be clear, Sheldon Wolin and I disagree at times in our interpretations of Tocqueville. Our political disagreements, I suspect, are greater still. What prompts me to recommend Tocqueville Between Two Worlds is the passionate, if not quite disinterested, concern for the survival of politics in our postmodern world that inspires and inspirits it.