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  • Did Tocqueville Foresee Totalitarianism?
  • Martin Malia (bio)

We are now experiencing the second wave of enthusiasm for the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America was an international bestseller, and Tocqueville’s initial period of fame spanned the 30 or so years surrounding the Revolution of 1848, the first self-consciously democratic upheaval in modern history. Before the century’s end, however, he had been eclipsed by another philosopher of 1848, Karl Marx, whose fame at last soared with the Second International of 1889. Here, it seemed at the fin de si’ecle, was the great social theorist of the future, a status that, thanks to Lenin and company, Marx preserved until well into the Cold War era.

During this time the chief intellectual antidote to Marx was Max Weber. Though a liberal, Weber agreed with Marx that the modern world was basically about the economic matter of “capitalism,” not the political matter of democracy, differing from him principally in explaining the former’s triumph in terms of culture (religion) rather than material processes. By the twentieth century’s end, however, it had become clear that the modern world was not just about capitalism and its imaginary antithesis, “socialism”; it was even more about democracy and its very real antithesis, despotism. And so, as the spectre of communism gave way to “market democracy,” Tocqueville’s magisterial sociology of modern politics was carried forward on a second wave of enthusiasm. [End Page 179]

But did he actually foresee the form of “democratic despotism” that the twentieth century called “totalitarianism,” and of which Communism was the first and preeminent example? After all, his prophetic gift seems apparent in the famous conclusion to Volume I of Democracy in America, which compares the two oversized and underpopulated nations of his day, America and Russia: “The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter civilization with all its arms. The conquests of the American are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the Russian by the sword. . . . The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting point is different . . . yet each seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe” (I, 434). Even though others at the time made the same comparison, Tocqueville’s eloquent statement of it renders plausible the claim that he anticipated totalitarianism. A number of other texts would seem to bear this out.

The locus classicus for this contention may be found near the end of Volume II:

The species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world . . . [I see] an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives . . .

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

(II, 318)

Give or take a few details, the anesthetized world of George Orwell’s 1984 would seem to be an appropriate comparison.

Defining Our Terms

Yet before crying “Eureka!” let us read this and similar texts in the historical context that produced them. It should be noted, first of all, that Tocqueville’s vocabulary is pre-social science. Marx, his junior by only 13 years, seems more modern because his central subject is the “objective” sociological fact of class...