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Sun, 01 May 2016 00:00:00 -0400The Lure of Technocracy by jürgen habermas translated by ciaran cronin polity, 200 pages, $22.95
Solzhenitsyn's Red Wheelhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/05/solzhenitsyns-red-wheel
Fri, 01 May 2015 00:00:00 -0400
It is not uncommon for readers of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s final novel,
The Red Wheel
, to draw comparisons with another Russian masterpiece, Leo Tolstoy’s
War and Peace
. Like its predecessor,
The Red Wheel
is a massive, sweeping work, six thousand pages divided into four “knots”—“Narratives in Discrete Periods of Time”—and incorporating actual historical events that changed the course of Russian history, and of human civilization, too. It commences as a historical novel, but in sections it turns into dramatic history with no fictional characters at all, only historical ones. Both epics delve into the deepest moral and religious concerns, and the status of the two authors as moral authorities in their own times adds to the parallel.
]]>The Art of Libertyhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/08/the-art-of-liberty
Wed, 01 Aug 2012 00:00:00 -0400 The following is a response to Patrick J. Deneens
The other response, by Paul J. Griffiths, can be found
Thu, 01 Dec 2011 00:00:00 -0500 Moral Combat:
Good and Evil in World War II
by Michael Burleigh?
Harper, 672 pages, $29.99
]]>The Moral Witness of Aleksandr Solzhenitsynhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/10/the-moral-witness-of-aleksandr-solzhenitsyn
Thu, 01 Oct 2009 00:00:00 -0400 With his passing a year ago—on August 3, 2008, at the age of eighty-nine—the world was obliged to come to terms once again with Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn. It was time to sum up and take stock of the Russian Nobel laureate, antitotalitarian writer, and courageous if unnerving moral witness. The response was more abundant and on the whole more respectful than one might have anticipated.
]]>Zinovy Zinik and “The Solzhenitsyn Reader”https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2007/03/zinovy-zinik-and-the-solzhenit
Tue, 13 Mar 2007 00:00:00 -0400 In May 1982, the Russian Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn took time off from his work on
The Red Wheel
, his magisterial literary-historical account of the origins of the Bolshevik Revolution, to respond to his detractors in the Russian émigré community. He had some able and eloquent defenders among the émigrés. But after his exile to the West in February of 1974, the critiques multiplied in journals such as Andrei Synyavski’s
]]>Tsars & Commissarshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/05/tsars-commissars
Mon, 01 May 2006 00:00:00 -0400 The Soviet Union was the worlds first experiment in totalitarianism, the twentieth centurys contribution to the political experience of humankind. That particular system, with its numerous offshoots and satellites, lasted more than seventy years and wreaked havoc on a third of the human race.
Its best analysts”such as Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Conquest, and Alain Besançon”agreed in calling it an ideocracy because of its inhuman effort to govern according to utopian ideological criteria almost wholly disconnected from the lived experience of humankind. The forcible imposition of ideological categories on humanity inevitably gave rise to a perverted social order based on violence and lies. This project drew powerful impetus from the radical Enlightenments dream of a fully rational society purged of tradition, human spontaneity, and monkish superstition. Not surprisingly, then, Communist regimes were treated indulgently by progressive intellectuals, who saw them as the true completion of democracy and the fulfillment of the noblest aspirations of modern rationalism.
The totalitarianism of the Communist sought to realize this philosophical promise through an unprecedented assault on the traditional contents of life. Lenin, the father of the Soviet state, provided a bone-chilling defense of revolutionary despotism: The task confronting the new order was to purge Russia of all sorts of harmful insects.
These insects included religious believers, the bourgeoisie, all the aristocracy, any property-owning peasants or kulaks, and the independent-minded socialists who refused to sever socialisms remaining connections with Western humanism and the liberal and democratic cause.
The Bolshevik regime thus tried to build a caricature of modernity through forced industrialization and a frontal assault on the traditional foundations of the Russian way of life: the peasantry, an independent intelligentsia, and the Orthodox Church. Anywhere between twenty and thirty-five million human beings perished between 1917 and 1956 as this project unfolded.
Alexander Yakovlev has described that assault with grace and controlled indignation in his magisterial 2002
A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia
. As Martin Malia argued in a series of profound books, culminating in his 1999
Russia Under Western Eyes
, there was nothing distinctively Russian about this nihilistic assault on the very pediments of civilized order.
Revolutionaries who had no experience of the old Russian regime or the currents of Russian history replicated a nearly identical pattern of ideological despotism from Petrograd to the China Seas.
Something more universal and more fundamental was at stake than the hovering specter of Ivan the Terrible or the authoritarian legacy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tsars. Communism belongs to universal history.
But there have always been those who have seen in Soviet communism nothing more than the atavistic residue of an authoritarian past, a modernized form of Asiatic despotism. Many on the Left so argued in order to save Marxist theory from being permanently discredited by its association with Soviet practice.
This recourse to the concept of Oriental despotism drew on the intellectual prestige of such thinkers as Montesquieu and Hegel, who painted evocative portraits of a fearsome social order in which the despot alone is free and where nothing limits or constrains his power. The distinction between Western civic culture and the monolithic somnolence of eastern despotism is also central to Marquis de Custines famous 1839 critique of Russian autocracy (Journey from Russia), a critique that became newly fashionable during the heyday of the Cold War.
Not ideocracy, then, but the residue of tsarist autocracy became the interpretive key to gaining access to the radical otherness of the Soviet universe. Rather than being known as the model of a revolutionary regime, Soviet communism was seen as essentially alien to the Western political experience. For the members of this school, Lenin and Stalin were essentially tsars who justified their abuses of power with revolutionary slogans that they did not understand or really believe.
Much the same was said of Mao in China, who was often compared by sinologists to the Chinese emperors of distant millennia (this despite Maos determined efforts to destroy traditional Chinese culture during the decade-long Cultural Revolution). As a result, both enlightenment thought in general and Marxism in particular were spared from any guilt by association with the monstrous ideocracies that claimed them as an inspiration.
The distinguished Harvard historian and Russianist Richard Pipes is the contemporary doyen of this Orientalist approach. His latest book,
Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture
, is an impressive but deeply flawed study of the Russian conservative tradition. In it, Pipes insists that Russia is fated to be ruled by Red or Black, revolution or reaction, and that no middle path is available to this forlorn people. Pipes thus designates Russia and the Russian political tradition the permanent European instantiation of Asiatic despotism. The key to unlocking the Russian enigma is what Pipes calls patrimonial despotism. Invoking Montesquieu and Hegel as well as Marx himself, Pipes defines patrimonialism as a social arrangement where sovereignty and ownership are radically collapsed and where the owner-ruler had no notion that his subjects had legitimate interests of their own.
Pipes previously developed this notion in such important works as
Russia Under the Old Regime
(1974) as well as in his classic two-volume study of the Russian Revolution,
The Russian Revolution
Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime
, and his wide-ranging 1999 investigation of
Property and Freedom
. At times, Pipes concedes that the Communists united revolutionary utopianism and Russian patrimonialism in a toxic mix that created an unprecedented form of despotism. At other times, though, he dismisses the novelty of Communist totalitarianism and sees in it a thoroughly reactionary regime that owes far more to the legacy of the most fearful and despotic tsars than its does to authentic revolutionary ideology.
In a recent op-ed in the
Wall Street Journal
, Pipes went so far as to say that the Soviet Union was a reactionary regime which had more in common with the autocracy of Nicholas I or an Alexander III than with the socialist ideals of the radical intelligentsia. He thus suggests that there is no fundamental discontinuity between the Russian and Soviet experiences.
At other times, however, he renews the argument of conservative-minded political thinkers such as Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville who, in their day, excoriated intellectuals for their abstract or literary politics. In some respects, then, Pipes is a conservative critic of revolutionary fanaticism.
And yet, this turns out to be a decidedly secondary note in his work as a whole. To be sure, he was an honorable opponent of the Soviet regime. But his suspicions of Russia run far deeper still. Pipes one-sided emphasis on patrimonialism as the cause of causes finally lacks all sense of proportion. He has an essentialist conception of the Russian past and present that leaves little room for responsible moral or political agency. He thus fails to incorporate the facts and legitimate insights that abound in his rich but one-sided historiography of things Russian.
Russian Conservatism and Its Critics
, Pipes broadens his focus to encompass what might be called the ideological defense of patrimonialism. If most Western scholars have concentrated on the liberal and revolutionary strands of Russian political thought, Pipes focuses on what he sees as the dominant conservative strain in Russian political culture. And since the character of conservatism is largely determined by particular historical situations, Pipes identifies Russian conservatism with a self-conscious defense of patrimonial autocracy.
He thus draws the sharpest possible contrast between the Western political tradition and what he perceives as the fundamentally
character of Russian politics and Russian political reflection.
If Western politics gradually evolved toward a well-articulated affirmation of formal and informal limits on state power, the Muscovite state increasingly conflated ownership and sovereignty in a manner that defines patrimonial despotism.
Now, Pipes is undoubtedly right that the liberties that flourished in medieval Russia (such as urban
or councils) were superseded in the early Muscovite period by a new political order where the tsar spoke of the nation as his estate and the people as his servants and serfs. Still, he repeatedly downplays the significance”and even the reality”of any fundamental departure from his patrimonial understanding of the relation between rulers and ruled.
Pipes, for instance, ably chronicles how, at crucial moments in the intellectual debates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the pro-autocracy party prevailed over those who wished to affirm significant legal and spiritual restraints on the political authority of the tsarist state.
But these dissenting voices never lost out altogether as they might well have in a genuinely despotic state. Pipes is in his element in describing reactionary thinkers and statesmen such as the historian Nicholas Karamzin (1766-1826) and the jurist and procurator general of the Orthodox Church under Alexander III, Konstantin Pobodonostev (1827-1907), who defended unalloyed autocracy on a variety of philosophical, theological, and political grounds.
These men were indeed theorists of something resembling patrimonialism. They recognized no limits above the will of an autocrat whose responsibility was to preserve the unity of the Russian empire against both foreign threat and revolutionary contagion.
But Pipes thesis is undermined by evidence that he himself provides. Many defenders of the autocratic ideal sharply distinguished between despotism and the moral responsibilities of a Christian monarch.
On the other hand, Slavophiles may have been blind to the defects of the peasant commune and were no doubt prone to romanticize the actual operation of autocracy in nineteenth-century Russia.
But they were eloquent defenders of
(openness) and recognized the need for a sharp demarcation between the responsibilities of a state requires and the freedoms and obligations inherent in any civil society.
Pipes description of the growing power of societal opinion in nineteenth-century Russia belies the description of Russian autocracy as an Asiatic despotism dominated by the caprice of a single ruler.
Pipes also notes that many reform-minded Russians supported autocracy as a means of introducing greatly needed changes and of holding a vast empire together. Such a prudential defense of autocracy has little or nothing in common with support for despotism or arbitrariness
Pipes acknowledges the far-reaching changes introduced by Tsar Alexander II after 1860. The tsar not only abolished serfdom but introduced trial by jury and an independent court system. He liberalized the universities and created a
system of local and provincial self-government. But Pipes faults Alexander II for defending the principle of autocracy”as if it is necessarily coextensive with despotism”and for resisting pressures to give Russia a constitution.
In fact, the tsar was about to approve a national advisory council (where representatives of local government would be invited for consultation) when he was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists in 1881. Pipes is equally critical of men such as D.M. Shipov (1851-1920).
The head of the
movement on the eve of the first Russian Revolution of 1905, Shipov sharply distinguished between autocracy and despotism. Shipov thought that left-liberal constitutionalists of his time made too much of rights and gave too little thought to the responsibilities of citizens and rulers alike.
This Christian of deep conviction favored an enhanced
system and defended the principle To the tsar, power, to the nation, opinion.
Shipovs intriguing mix of autocracy, self-government, and separate spheres for state and society appears merely incoherent to Pipes.
But by lumping the likes of Pobodonotsev and Shipov into a unitary conservative tradition, Pipes conflates the most liberal-minded defenses of autocracy with support for a truly patrimonial social order. Not only does Pipes fail to make the requisite distinctions, but he continually understates the profound changes that occurred in Russia between 1860 and 1917. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, all of these constructive developments came crashing down in 1917.
Pipes and Solzhenitsyn share a deep admiration for Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), the outstanding political figure of the late tsarist period. Both Solzhenitsyn and Pipes agree that Stolypin was a sophisticated conservative liberal, the last of his breed. Stolypin supported the constitutional order established in 1906 and treated societys elected representatives as equals. He introduced far-reaching agrarian reforms that aimed to create a class of independent peasant proprietors in Russia and championed local self-government as the best means to promote civic consciousness among the people.
As Pipes notes, Stolypin did everything within his power to lay the social foundations of constitutional autocracy in Russia. He used the full powers of the state to crush revolutionary terrorism without showing any nostalgia for the discredited authoritarianism of the past.
But while Solzhenitsyn endorses a neo-Stolypinite agenda for contemporary Russia and believes that the great statesman might have led his country to civic salvation if he had not been assassinated in 1911(perhaps even returning to power after 1914 to save his nation from impending disaster), Pipes sees Stolypin instead as a tragic figure whose noble project was doomed to failure from the very beginning. For Pipes, patrimonialism is Russias fate, and not even the most enlightened statesmanship can free her from her authoritarian destiny.
Pipes claims to find powerful support for his thesis in Russias current political trajectory. He sees in Putin an aspiring despot and believes that Russia is on the verge of plunging once again into full-fledged authoritarianism.
But does the evidence support such a catastrophic view? Managed democracy in Russia certainly leaves much to be desired. Putin has certainly done little or nothing to support vigorous local self-government. He has consolidated the states control of national television while allowing hundreds of independent newspapers and radio stations to flourish. (It should be noted that two of the biggest programs on state television in Russia over this year are productions of the anti-totalitarian classics
To his credit, Putin has had the courage to challenge the criminal oligarchy and he has had some success in marginalizing the Communist party. He has also gone some way to restoring the confidence of many ordinary Russians in their nations future after the predatory capitalism of the 1990s.
At a minimum, Putins Russia is less autocratic than, for instance, Pilsudskis authoritarian regime in 1930s Poland. His government should certainly be taken to task when it is tempted to pursue an overtly authoritarian path.
But what”we must ask”does this have to do with some innate propensity of Russians, and apparently Russians alone, to authoritarian governance?
It is that aspect of Pipes thesis that borders on contempt for the Russian people. Regretfully,
Russian Conservatism and Its Critics
, like many of Pipes earlier writings, reads too much like an indictment of Russia itself rather than an attempt to distinguish between better and worse features of her national patrimony.
Daniel J. Mahoney
is professor of political science at
Assumption College and co-editor of
The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005
, forthcoming from ISI Books.
Sun, 01 Aug 2004 00:00:00 -0400Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the great souls of the age. He is also among its most maligned and misunderstood figures. It is hard to think of another prominent writer whose thought and character have been subjected to as many willful distortions and vilifications over the past thirty years.
]]>Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalismhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/01/skepticism-and-freedom-a-modern-case-for-classical-liberalism
Thu, 01 Jan 2004 00:00:00 -0500 We do not lack theoretical defenses of liberalism. Indeed, academic political theorists have produced them by the truckload over the past several decades. Restatements of the case for
liberalism, however, are less common”and, for that reason, all the more needful. In
Skepticism and Freedom
, Richard A. Epstein, a distinguished legal theorist and University of Chicago law professor, provides us with a lucid and vigorous”if ultimately flawed”account of classical liberalism that goes a significant way toward satisfying our need for thoughtful reflection on the foundations of the liberal democratic order.
As the subtitle of Epsteins book makes clear, his is a
case for classical liberalism. Seeking to defend and reinvigorate an older tradition of liberal politics and political economy, he draws freely on economic arguments, the broad tradition of
rights liberalism, the work of Friedrich Hayek, and some of the insights of rational choice theory. In particular, Epstein sets out to modernize the classical liberal tradition by showing how it conforms to the permanent nature and needs of human beings as revealed by both ordinary experience and the full range of the empirically oriented social sciences. Epstein attempts to demonstrate that the premises of liberalism are much more than rational deductions from a priori philosophical principles. He wishes to take the natural in natural law seriously without confusing natural rights liberalism with a crude social Darwinism or with a narrow utilitarianism that is unable to affirm any permanent principles or enduring truths.
Authentic liberalism, in Epsteins presentation, places its confidence in the autonomy of the individual, in legally defined property rights, and a system of torts which redresses force and fraud in an imperfect world. But the true liberal is no anarchist and does not consider the state to be his enemy. The liberal does not hesitate to admit that limited government needs extensive, coercive authority within its own realm. As Epstein puts it near the end of his book, limited government is necessarily a large and complex undertaking.
At the heart of
Skepticism and Freedom
is a distinction between two versions of skepticism, one conducive to, and the other destructive of, human and political liberty. The first kind of skepticism entails a healthy suspicion of the ability of government to substitute itself for the prudence, preferences, and good sense of responsible individuals. The second form of skepticism endorses moral and cultural relativism and denies that a rational defense of the principles of the free society is possible. The first form of skepticism protects free peoples against the temptation of collectivism, the second subverts the possibility of any principled distinction between free and tyrannical social and political arrangements.
Epsteins detailed analysis and defense of what Alexis de Tocque-ville might have called skepticism rightly understood succeeds in vindicating self-interest as the inescapable starting point of individual and collective action in a world characterized by scarcity (and, a Christian would add, original sin). But what of the challenges posed by the behavioral sciences and postmodernist philosophy to the very idea of stable individuality and rationally discernible self-interest? Epstein takes on these comers, too, with his characteristic self-assurance. He freely admits that not every individual is able to calculate his interest with absolute clarity at every moment of time. Nonetheless, the freely chosen preferences of individuals, restrained by the rule of law and a sense of fair play, are in his view our best bet for allowing hundreds of millions of people to coexist in relative peace and without undue constraint.
Epstein”like the older liberal tradition to which he is indebted”is at his best in describing the salutary role that interest plays in individual and collective life. In a classic study of the subject, Albert Hirschman has reminded us that, historically, interests were defended by the likes of Adam Smith and Montesquieu as a humanizing substitute for the destructive martial and religious passions that tore asunder early modern Europe. Market societies, built upon what Leo Strauss famously called the low but solid ground of rational self-interest, have created conditions of civil peace and economic prosperity that are truly unprecedented in the historical adventure of humankind. But if self-interest is a powerful motive of human action, it is of course not the only or highest one.
While Epstein is much less rigid than rational choice theorists who reduce everyone and everything to the sole motive of self-interest (these theorists delight in claiming that even Mother Teresas behavior can be so explained), he still is not free of the cardinal sin of economic liberalism. His approach economizes the affections that connect human beings and make them more than autonomous individuals. To his credit, Epstein does appreciate that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the philosophy of rational self-interest. At times, he takes his fellow political economists to task for failing to appreciate that fellow feeling and a sense of obligation and benevolence sometimes rule the hearts of men. But Epstein is ultimately unable to bring together self-interest and sympathy in a measured account of the motives that orient human action. His excessively individualistic starting point distorts his anthropology. Despite his best efforts, Epstein tends to treat everything outside the realm of self-interest as peripheral to an understanding of the deepest sources of human conduct.
Epstein is at his most impressive in distinguishing salutary skepticism from full-fledged moral relativism. In chapters three and four of
Skepticism and Freedom
, he challenges the fashionable relativism of the academy and reveals himself to be an effective practitioner of commonsense moral justifications. His targets include the overrated Oliver Wendell Holmes (who disparaged all moral preferences as arbitrary choices akin to the choice of coffee with or without milk) and the brilliant pragmatist Judge Richard Posner. In a devastating riposte to both, he asks, Just what is the cash value of a [pragmatist] position that is open to everything and commits to nothing, and takes pride in its elusive quality, and refuses to offer any systematic defense of any institutional arrangements? Epstein rightly concludes that such pragmatism erodes the moral foundations of the free society.
In contrast to the dogmatic relativism of Holmes and Posner, Epstein rightly affirms that we have no choice but to appeal to common sense and ordinary experience in making moral and political judgments. They are the inescapable foundation of a humane system of liberty and law. Pragmatists such as Posner confuse realism with a cruel form of moral skepticism and go much too far in affirming the absolute flexibility of moral judgments. Against the dominant historicism of the age, Epstein does not hesitate to affirm that boundaries of space and time do not block the free movement of moral discourse across or within communities. Against cultural relativism, he defends the reality of a moral consensus across societies and history. No culture has ever defended the absurd proposition that killing, force, and fraud are choiceworthy in and of themselves. These otherwise illicit deeds must be
before the bars of conscience and the law. Epstein goes so far as to criticize the arguments used in favor of abortion on demand as incompatible with traditional moral justifications and as unpersuasive on face value. The utter dependence of the infant on the mother points to an increased duty of care, not to an increased right to repel or abandon another person. Such judgments surely require great courage in an intellectual climate where the morality of choice is simply taken for granted by intellectual and legal elites.
Epsteins defense of individual autonomy as the indispensable foundation of the free society therefore does not make him insensitive to traditional moral justifications. But he does not always help himself make his case. For example, he shows little evidence of having thought through the problematic implications of an appeal to human autonomy or to what Bertrand de Jouvenel called the philosophers dream known as the state of nature. Too often human autonomy is understood to entail an amoral right of self-ownership unbeholden to the moral law or to any intrinsic limitations on self-expression. Epstein shows little to no awareness of this difficulty. He unfortunately relies on philosophical categories that imply the debilitating skepticism he rightly argues is incompatible with true liberalism.
Because Epsteins entry into political philosophy is through economic and legal theory, he tends to conceive of state authority in an exclusively negative light. While, for instance, he justifiably faults the welfare state for undermining limited government and for failing to deliver on its promises of alleviating poverty, his hostility keeps him from providing a fuller account of its origins and (perhaps necessary) place in the liberal order. A more balanced approach is taken by Pierre Manent, who has persuasively argued that some version of the welfare state is built into the very logic of political representation in free societies, which are continuously animated by an imperfect compromise between a destabilizing drive toward individual autonomy and an ordering principle of political command. Of course, if these political interventions are unlimited, they risk undermining the morality of liberalism and weakening the productive engines of a capitalist economy. Yet Epstein goes too far in his exclusive focus on abstract individual rights, including economic liberties, at the expense of the self-government of a democratic people. In light of the inherent complexities of democratic capitalism, Irving Kristols more moderate position”according to which prudent liberal statecraft involves limiting rather than abolishing the welfare state”is a more sensible one.
Only in the brief conclusion to the book are citizenship and self-government taken up as explicit themes. There Epstein concedes that legal and political institutions can only go so far, that enlightened statesmen, an informed public, as well as an informed and deep set of business, political, and intellectual elites are crucial to the flourishing of a self-confident liberal society. Epstein is thus forced in the end to concede that the classical liberal order depends upon a moral framework that it has difficulty articulating and that it sometimes actively undermines. While we should be grateful to Epstein for highlighting the complex ties that bind skepticism and liberty in the modern world, at the same time, his noble failure teaches us that philosophical liberalism is incapable of doing full justice to the goods that are necessary to sustain a free society. As Tocqueville explained with the greatest penetration, liberal democracy is far richer than the theory that is used to justify it. That is a valuable insight for every season.
Daniel J. Mahoney
is Chairman of the Political Science department at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is presently completing a book on the political thought of Bertrand de Jouvenel and (with Edward E. Ericson, Jr.) is editing an anthology of the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
]]>Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Theoretical and Political Lifehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/03/tocqueville-between-two-worlds-the-making-of-a-theoretical-and-political-life
Fri, 01 Mar 2002 00:00:00 -0500 Alexis de Tocqueville is an ines capable presence in the contemporary debate about the nature of the democratic dispensation. His work is used to validate almost every theoretical and partisan current and is appealed to by politicians who wish to establish their intellectual credentials. For many, Tocqueville is primarily the French observer who traveled to America in 1830“31 and recognized the superiority of our institutions and way of life. In this view, Tocque ville is a philo“American who praised us for our robust local institutions, our prodigious art of association, and our ability to make the Christian religion and self“interest well understood cohere in a livable human world. This is a reassuring Tocqueville who informs and elevates, but does not challenge, our democratic self“confidence. There is a great deal of truth to this interpretation.
But a wide range of commentators have brought another, deeper, and more disconcerting Tocqueville to our attention. This Tocqueville is much more ambivalent about democratic modernity. His writings are infused by a worry about an emerging democratic world where such goods as the disinterested search for truth, a proud regard for political liberty, and fidelity to an objective moral order are threatened by a democratic individualism that erodes human connectedness and denies the very principle of authority in the political, intellectual, and spiritual worlds. As the distinguished political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin suggests, in his impressive if flawed new study,
Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Theoretical and Political Life
, Tocqueville was an observer and practitioner of politics who tried to mediate between two sets of oppositions”on the one hand, theory and practice, and on the other, democracy and what he somewhat capaciously called aristocracy (encompassing all the worlds that came before the New World of democratic consent). For Tocqueville, the world of inequality, of authoritative command, was dead and beyond all hope of revival. From the far side of the democratic triumph, it was possible to see that the antiquated world of aristocracy had never sufficiently appreciated the common humanity of man, the profound similarities among human beings. And yet, for all its imperfections, the old regime provided an image of human grandeur that was one crucial ingredient for judging the emerging democratic order. The old regime lived on in Tocque villes soul even if it did not completely form his mind.
As Wolin demonstrates, Tocque ville self“consciously tried to adopt the perspective of God, whom he claimed could appreciate both the justice of democratic equality and the goodness of those particular excellences that were threatened by the democratic revolution. Wolins Tocque ville is a theorist who observed and judged the spectacle of the democratic revolution from a perspective that is neither democratic nor aristocratic but informed by a solicitude for the liberty and dignity of human beings. A sometime parliamentarian and political official (he was briefly foreign minister of France), Tocque villes own political experience was crucial to his reflections on the theory and practice of democracy. He cared deeply about politics and was a player in the ideological drama of his time. In between political engagements he wrote three classic works of political reflection,
Democracy in America
(published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840), his
(written in 1850 and 1851 and published posthumously over forty years later), and
The Old Regime and the French Revolution
(published in 1856).
Wolins book rather remarkably combines generally accurate and sometimes profound readings of Tocque villes wide“ranging corpus with a profound resistance to Tocque villes deepest spiritual and intellectual insights. Tocqueville is filled with what he calls religious terror before the emerging march of equality and he firmly resists every form of democratic dogmatism. Wolin, in contrast, is a passionate partisan of democratic inclusivity and a critic of any hierarchical conception of human life or foundational notion of truth. Why the attraction of this aging New Leftist for the Norman aristocrat whose endorsement of the emerging democratic order was tempered by a sober ambivalence? What allure can Tocque ville hold for a deeply committed man of the left?
Wolin is above all attracted to Tocque villes effort to revive the political sphere of human life, to theorize and reinvigorate
la chose publique
. He suggestively remarks that Tocque ville might be the last influential theorist who can be said to have truly cared about political life. Tocque villes conception of the political was by no means narrowly institutional. It incorporated both the practice of self“government and the traditions, customs, and
that gave support to a vigorous democratic social order. Tocque villes theme was the political culture of freedom and his enemy was an individualism that eroded social attachments and any vibrant expression of public“spiritedness.
The presentation of political life in volume one of
Democracy in America
elicits Wolins most unequivocal appreciation. There Tocqueville pays tribute to the vigorous practice of local self“government in both Puritan and post“revolutionary America. But Wolin wants to separate Tocquevilles defense of political participation from his emphasis on its salutary moral effects. He does not share the ambition of Tocquevilles political science to educate and elevate the souls of men. In a decidedly postmodern spirit (the author is an admirer of Foucault), Wolin opposes any external imposition or restriction on the self“expression of a democratic people. For Wolin, democratic politics begins as a protest against exclusionary politics. It is inseparable from revolution since revolution shatters or rejects many of the established forms of politics. Where Tocqueville wanted to firmly distinguish the democratic and revolutionary spirits, Wolin longs to combine them, despite (or perhaps because of) the likely incendiary results of doing so. For Tocqueville, participation in political life is an intrinsic good because it allows one to pursue a good in common with ones fellow citizens. His case for the political has important classical or Aristotelian resonances. Political liberty provides a light by which one can judge the virtues and vices of men. For his part, Wolin explicitly denies that there is any standard for judging the choices of human beings apart from or above their own wills. For Tocqueville self“government constrains the will; for Wolin self“government emancipates that will.
Wolin is sympathetic to Tocque villes defense of difference against the homogenizing effects of democracy. He ably presents Tocque villes critique of the tyrannical propensities of general ideas that deny the dignity of the particular or the rare. Wolins account of Tocquevilles critique of Cartesianism, with its dangerous validation of private judgment, doubt, abstraction and its narrow conception of method, is particularly good. He highlights Tocquevilles desire to balance a democratic emphasis on generality and equality with an aristocratic emphasis on the need to respect the integrity of the rare and exceptional. And he is sensitive to the Pascalian moment in Tocque villes thought. As Wolin recounts, Pascal provided a modern Christian approach for overcoming both the tyranny of rationalistic method and the debilitating effects of radical doubt. Tocqueville learned from Pascal that certain truths about the human soul could be reasonably articulated even if they were not rationally demonstrable.
And yet, for all that, Wolin is very much the democratic intellectual in thrall to the general idea of equality. Time and again Wolin the partisan of emancipatory democracy forgets the insights so nicely limned by Wolin the exegete. For him, revealed religion is not a salutary reminder of the differentiated character of the world, a protection against materialism and pantheism, but rather a pernicious instrument of social control. He is tone deaf to Tocquevilles arguments about both the truth and the utility of biblical religion.
As the volume proceeds, Wolin increasingly displays the voice of a democratic intellectual. His analysis of Tocqueville becomes less generous, more defensive. The profound critique of the arid rationalism of democratic intellectual life in volume two of
Democracy in America
is said to have an aroma of reaction about it. But surely Wolin must appreciate that the antiquity of ideas is not necessarily an argument against their truth. Wolin likewise emphatically denies that there is any necessary connection between democracy and centralization and remains adamantly committed to his vision of democracy as a participatory utopia. His notion of freedom is essentially antinomian and resists any recognition of the need for self“limitation or the regulation of human passions. In the spirit of Foucault, power is always presented as an instrument of oppressive authority and never seen as serving legitimate social purposes. And the role of the people is by definition liberating and never the source of new oppressions. Tocqueville, the penetrating critic of majority tyranny, knew better than to romanticize the collective will of the people.
The same bias can be seen at work in Wolins confrontation with Tocque villes analysis of the next democratic revolution, the socialist one. In the
, his remarkable autobiographical reflection on the revolution of 1848, Tocqueville presented socialism as an unprecedented threat to human and political liberty. He had no confidence that socialist revolution would inaugurate a democratic utopia; instead, he feared the onset of a soul“destroying despotism. Wolin castigates this judgment as an example of Tocquevilles mean“spiritedness and aristocratic resentment and thereby ignores the overwhelming historical evidence that revolutionary euphoria almost inevitably gives rise to stifling conformity and a rigid centralization of power. The rise of socialism led Tocque ville to forcefully reiterate his conviction that a balanced and regulated liberty de pended upon such aristocratic inheritances as family, property, and patriotism. In Tocque villes view, true human liberty is liberty under God and the law. Amidst the whirlwind of democratic transformation, it is necessary to defend the natural limits at the foundation of any human order.
I have emphasized the remarkable tension between Wolin the exegete and theorist. In fairness, I should also note that this book is largely an effort to delineate Tocquevilles thought and only secondarily a critical evaluation of it. As a broad presentation of the Tocquevillian project it is an impressive achievement. But it lacks the solidity and depth of the writings on Tocqueville by Peter Lawler, Pierre Manent, Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, and others.
Despite its not inconsiderable strengths,
Tocqueville Between Two Worlds
unintentionally reveals the tremendous spiritual deficit at the heart of the postmodern project. Seeing no real enemies to the left, Wolin awaits ever more democratic cures to the spiritual discontents that accompany modernity. He is overwhelmed with contempt for the bourgeois world that far surpasses the measured distaste that Tocqueville sometimes expressed for merely bourgeois existence. Since Wolin dismisses aristocratic grandeur and traditional religion as forms of repression, he has no resort except to what Aurel Kolnai called the idol of the common man. Now, one can certainly admire and support the effort to bring all of the excluded into the human city. But what is one to do with ones freedom? What are the moral truths, if any, that ought to guide human choice? To these vital questions, Wolin responds with a thunderous silence.
Daniel J. Mahoney teaches politics at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on French political thought. His most recent book is
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).