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French Historical Studies 24.1 (2001) 113-123

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Review Essay

Tocqueville’s Revenge: A Review

Eugen Weber

Tocqueville’s Revenge: State, Society, and Economy in Contemporary France, by Eugen Weber. (Cambridge, Mass., 1999)

As its subtitle tells us, Tocqueville’s Revenge is about relations between state and society in contemporary France and the effect of these relations on the nation’s economy. Since Tocqueville had much to say about state and society, but very little to say about economic matters, it is ironic that this stimulating and perceptive book should focus on the latter. But Professor Levy’s remit is about centralization and decentralization, dirigisme, liberalism and neoliberalism, Paris and the provinces; and all these themes adjust quite comfortably to Tocqueville’s principles and to his prejudices. Indeed, Levy, who heads his introduction with a quote from Ernest Gellner, could easily have replaced that with a passage from the Norman laird’s second discourse on pauperism: “It is harmful to ceaselessly attract toward the center all the disposable capital of the provinces, which could be used to fertilize localities.”1

The author of Democracy in America had been impressed by the way American institutions developed organically, seemingly from the bottom up, through township, county, and state, before joining in a federal union that was little more than the sum of its parts. He noted with approval a Georgia planter’s description of the republic in which “every state is a small nation, every town is a small nation, every ward of a town is a small nation, has its particular interests, its government, its representation, in a word its political life.”2 This is what nowadays is often defined as civil society, by opposition to a national political realm in which the state looms large: a space for neighborhoods, churches, voluntary [End Page 113] associations, serving or self-serving bodies of like-minded individuals that, functioning effectively together, foster and bolster fellow-feeling and a sense of belonging. “As long as France will be in Paris only,” his interlocutor tells him, “you will have a government of the populace, not of the people.”3 American patriots knew that public liberty and civic vitality thrive only in a commonwealth of true citizens, vigilant against concentration of power in some distant center. That vision which Tocqueville thought to convey is central to Levy’s argument.

One of the problems of post-Revolution France to which Tocqueville returned over and over was that the inchoate mass of “citizens,” no longer grouped or ordered according to abolished hierarchies, was not yet united by civic, or other, solidarities. In the circumstances, the state had taken over: “Our central administration controls the social machine, directs all its activities unto the least detail. Departments, towns, villages, are its wards.”4 Long before the term providential state was coined, social challenges and political convenience had begun to shape a central administration increasingly expected and increasingly drawn to replace individual foresight or initiative, to intervene in industry and markets, to impose norms, regulate business, wages, employment, unemployment, and, as Tocqueville nicely puts it, to “tyrannize individuals the better to govern them or save them from themselves.”5

Things haven’t changed too much since the 1840s, when Tocqueville glimpsed these proclivities on the horizon of the fledgling democracy, to the 1990s, when Levy describes and analyzes their effects and the hesitant attempts of the last decades to deal with the problems they raise. For Tocqueville, social and local institutions, stifled since the Revolution, were essential not just to maintain liberty (and liberties) but to spur prosperity and progress. But Tocqueville’s point of view was ignored, argues Levy, his (more or less) liberal arguments swept away and forgotten. Practice, and tradition too, discouraged local assertions against the central administration, distrusted particular interests indifferent to the common good, and condemned social or associational entities that might ignore government, defy it, or compete with it. Squeezed between selfish individualism and providential centralism, the frail civil society that could help generate “a vibrant political and economic order” withered or never took shape. That is why Levy&#8217...


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pp. 113-123
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Archived 2004
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