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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 564-570

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Holy Theory

Olivier Zunz

Sheldon S. Wolin. Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. 650pp. Notes and index. $35.00.

In a letter to his cousin Comte Molé, Tocqueville said of the idea of equality: "In America all laws issue so to speak from a single idea. All of society, as it were, is founded on a single fact; everything flows from one principle. One could compare America to a great forest with a myriad of straight roads built through it, all of them leading to the same point. One need only find the crossroads and everything will become visible in a single glance." 1 It is because Tocqueville identified this central position that he was so popular among U.S. historians of the 1950s, who treated him as the grand theoretician of American democracy. Tocqueville enjoyed a large following from conservatives pushing one version or another of American exceptionalism. But he had adepts also on the left, because his apprehension of a tyranny of the majority in democratic societies resonated well with their critique of mass society.

Tocqueville's popularity among historians, however, declined dramatically in the mid- to late 1960s, as reading American history from the "crossroads" appeared increasingly reductionist. Some specialists of the Jacksonian period even argued that too many ex-federalists and proto-Whigs had been Tocqueville's informants during his famous voyage of 1831 for Democracy in America to be a reliable source of information, no less inspiration. Lost was an appreciation of Tocqueville's larger effort to give intellectual coherence to the joint pursuit of equality and liberty in the modern world.

Since then, there have been important Tocqueville revivals in Europe associated with the collapse of Marxism. During the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, François Furet advanced Tocqueville's interpretation of the revolution as the alternative to Marx's. 2 That year, as the Berlin wall collapsed, discussion groups about Tocqueville's ideas on civil society emerged throughout Eastern Europe. But these important debates have been slow to reach the American historical province.

It is therefore quite an event that Sheldon Wolin, an influential political scientist, widely acknowledged by the "new left" of the 1960s, has written a [End Page 564] major book on Tocqueville. This is no celebration of American exceptionalism. Indeed, Wolin feels compelled to reassure his readers that "economic opportunity" is merely "the means of implicating the populace in antidemocracy" (p. 572). But he nonetheless reads Tocqueville closely. He rejects essentialist interpretations of Tocqueville's work. He understands that Tocqueville usually stands on several sides of issues. Moreover, Wolin embraces the whole work (with some unexplainable omissions to which I will return), including in his analysis not only Tocqueville's three main works (Democracy in America, Recollections, The Old Regime and the Revolution) but a considerable volume of his notebooks and correspondence to leading French, British, and American intellectuals, which contain some of his best thoughts.

Though careful and thorough, Wolin has nonetheless written a very idiosyncratic book. Moreover, it is so dense and complicated that extracting its meaning is no simple task. The message is roughly as follows. For Wolin, Tocqueville is first and foremost a political theorist, who thinks of theory as duty. What is beautiful in Tocqueville is a "persistent tendency" for the "aestheticization of politics." It is also Tocqueville's "disdain for materialism," "longing for grandeur," "rejection of uniformity, homogeneity, and anonymity," and his "feeling the loss occasioned by mass culture" (p. 560). Wolin envisions Tocqueville as getting involved in democracy through "a tactically minded theory" (p. 319). He recognizes in him not just a kindred spirit but a guide for fighting new forms of despotism in our "postmodern political predicament" (p. 564). Much of this large book, I should add, is more on Wolin's project than on Tocqueville's. But since Wolin never says it in so many words, we have to examine his grounds for appropriating Tocqueville, and whether the appropriation does justice to Tocqueville's own...


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