Thursday, 7 May 2009

Getting Tocquville Wrong: Hugh Brogan's Biography

This is also available at my website Barry Stocker's Webblog in what I consider to be an aesthetically preferable form.

Hugh Brogan’s Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (Yale University Press 2007) has been widely reviewed and widely praised, but none of the reviews or radio interviews I’ve heard have involved people who know anything about Tocqueville.

(Tocqueville, 1805-1859, was a French liberal writer and politician. He wrote three classic books: Democracy in America, The French Revolution and the Old Régime, Souvenirs which refers to his memories of 1848)

Laurie Taylor interviewed Brogan for his extremely good social science program on BBC Radio 4, Thinking Allowed. Click here for the program in which Brogan is interviewed. Taylor admitted to never having read Tocqueville which is refreshingly honest, and Brogan has performed a service by drawing attention to Tocqueville, particularly in Britain where he is not as well known as he should be by a big margin.

This profusion of British reviewers and interviewers who are thinking about Tocqueville for the first time are ignoring some major flaws. I don’t claim to judge the book as a work of biographical or historical research as that is not my field.

However, even in this respect I was struck by how often Brogan refers to André Jardin’s biography (published in French 1984 and translated 1988) directly and sometimes uses stories which I remember from Jardin though Brogan does not mention this.

The biggest faults are with Brogan’s understanding of the term ‘liberal’ and with his bizarre confusion in presenting Tocqueville’s positions during the revolutionary year of 1848.

Brogan is very insistent that Tocqueville was not a liberal, which is most peculiar since Tocqueville is one of the major writers who might be used to illustrate what liberal political thought is. Brogan’s reasons are absurdly poor, he clearly thinks ‘liberal’ means what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did as President of the United States in the New Deal of the 1930s. But the statist policies of Roosevelt are clearly removed from the earlier understanding of the word, as used by Abraham Lincoln, for example, when he referred the newly founded Republican Party as a belonging to the international party of liberals.

It is the New Deal which played a large role in shifting the word ‘liberal’ in American discourse from the way Lincoln would have understood it (individual liberty, a limited role for the state in the economy allowing modest interventionism but no more, opposition to slavery, constitutionalism, the federal state as enforcer of basic individual rights with states of the union), to quite militant statism, including: price and wage controls, encouraging monopolies and cartels, control of distribution by producers, near confiscatory taxes on high incomes, attempting to solve unemployment through public works, attempt to stack the Supreme Court to get the most radical parts of the New Deal through.

I believe Roosevelt was a great democratic leader who did great things in the New Deal and World War II to preserve democracy in America and the world, but the things listed are where I believe he went wrong and which certainly depart from liberalism as previously understood and they’re all things Tocqueville is highly likely to have disagreed with. The things I mentioned with regard to Lincoln, I believe Tocqueville supported in his own life time.

Brogan simply creates a disaster when he insists on judging Tocqueville’s claims to be liberal by the standards of New Deal ‘liberalism’. The disaster is multiplied by Brogan bringing this into the context of French politics in 1848. He whole discussion of 1848 is most peculiar, he insists on condemning Tocqueville as non-liberal because he did not support the failed socialist uprising of June 1848 and did not support socialist demands. This is just obviously absurd, so may seem difficult to believe, but read the book and see. This obvious absurdity is heightened when Brogan himself mentions that Louis Blanc opposed the June uprising. Blanc was one of the major socialist figures of the time in France and the world, even he thought the uprising was rash, so why is Tocqueville ‘conservative’ because he opposed it as well?

The other obviously unsatisfactory aspect of the book is Brogan’s dismissive attitude to Tocqueville’s well known comments in Democracy in America on the particular dangers of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in small communities. Tocqueville thought this was more dangerous that central state oppression, as the moral and psychological force of the majority in a local community is harder to resist than force from a distant power. Tocqueville’s examples include the ways in which blacks were prevented from voting in northern states where there was no slavery and no colour bar on voting. Brogan does not deal with this example of Tocqueville’s argument but boorishly dismisses it. This is bad and becomes worse when we recall that Tocqueville’s concerns follow on from the Federalist Papers (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, 1787) which defended the new US constitution, particularly with regard to the greater power of the Federal state compared with the earlier Articles of Confederation. This work is a well known classic of American political thought and commentary on the constitution, it is the best known and most influential.

I find Brogan’s position here even more bizarre after recently seeing a prominent US Libertarian and politician acknowledge Tocqueville’s concerns. It is Libertarians (in the sense of the party and as a general trend) who tend to interpret ‘Classical Liberalism’, i.e. liberal texts from John Locke to J.S. Mill including Tocqueville, as denying any role for the state other than that of enforcing private contracts and general law and order. I consider this to be a major error, though I sympathise with many of the criticisms Libertarians make of contemporary statism.

But look at this video, from the Reason website (Reason is a Libertarian foundation) where Michael Munger, Libertarian candidate for Governor of North Carolina and political scientist at Duke University, acknowledges that the local state can be just as oppressive as the federal state, and refers to Federalist Paper 51 which suggests that local government can be more oppressive. If a Libertarian can get what the problem is, why can’t Brogan?

The point here is not to defend Tocqueville as a sacred figure above criticism. Brogan rightly draws attention to Tocqueville’s failure to mention the party system in American democracy and his failure to give equal rights to women. I would also add his enthusiasm for colonialism and his assumption that Christianity is superior to Islam. Still this is the early to mid-Nineteenth century we’re talking about.

Brogan keeps comparing Marx favourably with Tocqueville, which is extraordinary when Brogan claims to be judging Tocqueville by ‘liberal’ standards and even more extraordinary when we consider Marx’s own support for colonialism, great power nationalism and his suggestion in On the Jewish Question that Jews should abandon Jewish identity (Marx himself was of Jewish origin but that does not mitigate what he says as an Atheist from a Jewish family which converted to Christianity). And how much emphasis did Marx put on political rights for women?

I can only hope that those who read Brogan will go on to read Tocqueville’s texts and draw their own conclusions about the perversities in Brogan’s biography.

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