June 7, 2017


Tocqueville Unplugged (SAMUEL GREGG, 6/06/17, Law & Liberty)

In the midst of all this political maneuvering, there was one segment of opinion with whom Tocqueville refused to have any dealings. Some first-time readers of the Recollections may be surprised, if not shocked, to discover just how much Tocqueville loathed Jacobins, socialists, and the radical left in general. Throughout the Recollections, he refers to them derisively--but, as it turned out, accurately--as "Reds." These groups are portrayed as inimical not only to liberty and order but to civilization itself. Their goal, Tocqueville comments, was "not to change the form of government but to alter the order of society." Another way he expressed this hostility was to say: "Wherever I see liberty, there is no socialism."

Consider Tocqueville's description of one of the most prominent revolutionary socialist leaders: Louis-Auguste Blanqui. He is presented as someone "whose memory has filled me with disgust and horror," not to mention "sickly, nasty, and filthy, with the sallow pallor of a rotting corpse" who "looked as though he had just emerged from a sewer." Here it's worth noting that Blanqui's unswerving commitment to violence in the pursuit of radical goals, which appalled Tocqueville at the level of both means and ends, exerted considerable influence on Vladimir Lenin but also Benito Mussolini.

Tocqueville's visceral reaction to the "Reds" matters because what immediately struck him about the February 1848 Revolution was that it "had not been just primarily but solely and exclusively a popular uprising that had bestowed all power on 'the people' in the strict sense of the term, meaning the classes that work with their hands."

The socialist politicians, says Tocqueville, were the most dangerous because "they more fully reflected the true character of the February Revolution and the passions it unleashed." It was, he adds, fortunate that they were "more men of theory than men of action." One cannot help but recall that figures like Lenin--that rare intellectual who was also a consummate man of action--studied the 1848 revolution in great detail to learn from their predecessors' mistakes.

Nor did Tocqueville believe that radical socialists or other revolutionary elements could be handled with kid gloves. He regarded them as demagogues, their ideas as bordering on criminality, and their motives as rooted in envy and malice. This may help explain why Tocqueville does not hide his enthusiastic support for the Provisional Government's decision to call in the regular army and the National Guard under the command of General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac to engage in what Tocqueville acknowledges was the take-no-prisoners crushing of the June Days uprising.

His readiness to support those willing to act directly, even mercilessly, against those bent on the destruction of life, liberty, and property was one reason why Tocqueville belonged to what was called the Parti de l'Ordre. This grouping of moderate monarchists and conservative republicans had no truck with Bonapartism or absolutism. But it was even more opposed to the radical Left's naked thuggery. The repression of the June Days insurrectionists by what he calls "our forces" was "awful" but also "necessary."

Posted by at June 7, 2017 10:18 AM