Tocqueville and the Fall of the Revolution
For most Chinese, the name Tocqueville was probably quite unfamiliar before Wang Qishan recommended “The Old Regime and the Great Revolution” at the end of 2012. However, many young people may not feel this way. As early as middle school, they had known this Frenchman in ideological and political textbooks. There Tocqueville is introduced as a critic of “individualism.” But he is best known for his research on the French Revolution and democracy.
Charles Alexis de Tocqueville was born into an aristocratic family near Paris. That was 1805, 16 years after the outbreak of the Revolution. At that time, France was already under the reign of Emperor Napoleon. But this by no means means that Tocqueville has nothing to do with the revolution. As the defense lawyer of Louis XVI, his great-grandfather was killed by the revolutionary government, and his parents had already been sentenced to death by the Jacobins, but they escaped by chance only because they caught up with the regime change. Given this history, Tocqueville did not become a die-hard royalist, which is not easy.
Although it did not catch up with the most turbulent years during the revolution, France has experienced many regime changes in Tocqueville’s 54 years of life. He witnessed the Napoleonic Empire, the Restoration of the Bourbon Dynasty, the July Dynasty, the short-lived Second Republic, and the usurpation of Napoleon III, which Marx called a “farce”. In more than half a century, Tocqueville’s motherland has never built a stable democratic system, but he has become one of the most important democratic theorists in modern Western times. This benefited from his field trips in the United States between 1831 and 1832. At that time, Tocqueville, who was a judge, traveled to the United States with his friend Beaumont in the name of investigating the prison system, and wrote the famous “On American Democracy” after returning home.
To say that Tocqueville is a democratic theorist does not mean that he advocates democracy unreservedly. He did realize that democracy is an irresistible trend. Moreover, he went beyond his aristocratic origins to acknowledge the many virtues of democracy. However, this did not make him blindly plunge into the “trend of history” and cannot extricate himself. He calmly pointed out that in a democratic system, there are laws that change from day to day, mediocre politicians, the tendency of everyone to be the same, and the danger of the majority violating the rights of the minority. Tocqueville once made it clear that the value he really loves in his heart is freedom. But democratic government can also threaten liberty. An important revelation he brought to people is that if the power is too concentrated in the hands of a certain political authority, then no matter whether the power is controlled by a hereditary monarch or a majority in the face of the “mass of the people”, the nature of tyranny will be different. Generally the same.
However, the most embarrassing and distressing thing for supporters of democracy is that in the process of anti-authoritarianism, democracy has turned to its own opposite, and eventually transformed into a more severe dictatorship. And this is precisely the end of the French Revolution. In Tocqueville’s view, an important reason for this is the lack of political experience of revolutionaries. This is one of the most enlightening contents of “The Old Regime and the Great Revolution”. Under the House of Bourbon, political power was extremely unevenly distributed. The vital interests of many people are affected by the government’s actions, but it is difficult to affect the government’s decision-making in turn. Correspondingly, under the influence of the Enlightenment, people were very interested in political topics and were willing to give advice, so a kind of “literati politics” was formed, that is, theoretical empty talk that intellectuals divorced from practical considerations. People who are excluded from the political decision-making process cannot help being deeply affected by such rhetoric. In the eyes of Tocqueville, who has served as a member of parliament and a cabinet minister and has rich political experience, the disadvantages of this atmosphere are obvious.
This disconnect between political discussion and political practice not only deepened the gap between those in power and those in opposition, but also led to the blind restlessness of the ruling group when the revolutionary tide finally came. When the French king ordered the convening of the three-level meeting, the people could not help but feel that their chance to formally enter the political stage had arrived. However, the last time such a national three-level conference was held was 175 years ago. Even if the ancestors of revolutionaries had relevant political experience, it has been worn away by time. And once inexperienced idealists are at the helm, jolting, if not subversion, of the national ship is inevitable. The ten-year revolution swallowed up not only the hapless Louis XVI, but also a large number of its own children. In the end, it could only rely on a military strongman like Napoleon to restore order.
Today, when people refer to the extreme tendencies of the French Revolution, they often attribute their ideological origins to Rousseau. But in fact, Locke and his Treatise of Government were more respected by intellectuals in the Enlightenment. The Declaration of Human Rights does not so much embody Rousseau’s republicanism as it embodies Locke’s liberalism. The revolutionaries didn’t want to cut off the king’s head at the beginning, but they had the ambition to establish a British-style constitutional monarchy. Those who criticize the violence of the French Revolution in later generations, if they were in 1791, when the first constitution was promulgated, might lament the superior wisdom of the French. Only through a little bloodshed in the Bastille, they achieved what the British took half a century to achieve. An achievement achieved only through infighting.
However, unlike the British Revolution, the French did not find out a suitable system by themselves, but wanted to directly transplant an idealized system. With this mentality, the difference between whether the system to be transplanted comes from Locke or Rousseau is actually quite limited. Facts have proved that when the people lack political experience for a long time, once they subvert the old system, they may show an exciting scene in the short term, but as time goes by, the revolution will gradually deviate from people’s original good intentions. imagine. This is not surprising, because those assumptions are inherently unfounded.
Therefore, one of Tocqueville’s major contributions is to explain the specific manifestations of “empty talk harming the country” in the political field. But if his analysis of the Great Revolution was limited to this, I am afraid he would not have gained the reputation he has today. “The Old Regime and the Great Revolution” is not a unilateral denunciation of the revolutionaries, but an objective interpretation of the reasons for the revolution. For the negative consequences caused by the revolution, not only idealists who lack the ability to practice politics should be responsible, but also the rulers before the revolution should be responsible. It is precisely because of their deprivation of political freedom that people will devote one-sided energy to bombast. It is not necessarily that the literati and the public do not want to participate in politics, but that they have no channels to participate in politics under the autocratic system. Due to the rejection of the ruled by the ruling class, the latter cannot be accepted into the existing governance system, and cannot form positive interactions with those in power and accumulate political experience.
In addition to the lack of political rights, the tendency of the old system to centralize and expand power also foreshadowed the tragedy of the revolution. At the beginning of this article, Tocqueville’s critique of “individualism” was mentioned. In his view, individualistic psychology has the danger of causing people to retreat into the small circle of personal life and ignore the interests of society. It leads to alienation among people and creates the “atomization” of society. Individualism has various origins, but the expansion of central government power is a factor that cannot be ignored. The absolutist monarchy destroyed the aristocratic-dominated political system and unified power into the hands of the bureaucratic government. In the process, traditional social bonds are broken. As a result, there is no longer a social organization that acts as a buffer between the individual and the state. Every individual exposed to the powerful power of the central government is small and helpless.
The centralization tendency of the French government is not only reflected in degree, but also in scope. In social life, no matter how big or small, you will see the government intervening. This is not surprising either. Since the autocratic government wants to restrict the political rights of the people, it will certainly not rest assured that most of the social affairs will be handled by themselves. Otherwise, the people organized in the daily life of society will sooner or later form a force capable of effectively resisting the government. But the ubiquity of government power comes at a price. First of all, it is inevitable that the administrative department will be overwhelmed and overwhelmed. In France under the old system, in order to complete a simple building construction, it may take two or three years just for approval procedures. If affairs of all sizes across the country are subject to similar red tape, its efficiency can be imagined.
Secondly, since the government is in charge of everything, when people encounter problems, they will naturally hope that the government will come forward to solve them. When Tocqueville looked through historical materials, he discovered that even the most basic social life of farming, some people asked the government to guide them. And once the problem is not solved, or not solved satisfactorily, people will naturally feel disappointed with the government and complain. Many complaints are not justified (for example, someone complains about the government about the weather), but they are not without reason. The result of the government’s impulse to seize power is to impose a burden on itself that it cannot bear, and it should not have to bear this burden.
If it is said that where the government should not be responsible, it must be complained, then where it should be responsible, that kind of complaint is even more inevitable. One of the biggest selling points of “The Old Regime and the Great Revolution” in China is “Tocqueville’s Question”: Why didn’t the revolution take place in the place where the oppression is deepest and the situation is the most miserable, but in a place where it is relatively relaxed and prosperous? However, this question appears to be an oversimplification. The so-called prosperity refers to the overall situation of France in the 18th century. Specific to the period before the Great Revolution, the situation is not so exciting. In fact, by the time of Louis XVI, the economic situation was already quite dire. Rising prices have seriously affected the lives of ordinary people. And if the king hadn’t been helpless in the face of the financial crisis and needed to pass the burden on to the whole people through taxation, he probably wouldn’t have held a three-level meeting to discuss state affairs.
On the other hand, “prosperity” probably feels differently to different classes of people, even when it can indeed be called prosperous. Not all benefit equally from economic development. The suffering of the farmers is particularly shocking. Moreover, the nobles, although they lost their ruling power, still had a large number of privileges, which clearly distinguished themselves from the third estate. On the one hand, the latter was influenced by the Enlightenment theory, which believed that everyone should be equal in society; on the other hand, they lacked political rights and could not find a way to reform the status quo, so it was inevitable that they would feel unfair. This feeling accumulated over time, and finally found an outlet in the revolution.
This institutionalized inequity is reinforced by arbitrary government rule. For example, in order to close fiscal holes, the government will sell some titles and privileges. However, after the bourgeois bought these titles and privileges at a high price, they still faced the danger of the government suddenly taking them back. Even if the highest authority is so contradictory, it is hard to imagine that other sectors of society are willing to abide by the rules honestly. Thus, the government’s contempt for the law breeds the common people’s contempt for the law. When people protect their own rights and interests, what they think is not relying on laws and regulations, but relying on those in power to be lenient and extrajudicial. By the time the old regime was swept away by the tide of revolution, the habit of disrespecting the rules was amplified and paved the way for violence to flourish. The source of this habit, however, comes precisely from the system that was overthrown.
In the final analysis, the consequences of the revolution are indeed worthy of reflection, but this reflection should be two-sided. Looking at Tocqueville from different angles, there will be different revelations. The reason why “The Old Regime and the Great Revolution” aroused heated discussions in China was not only because it was recommended by leaders, but also because all kinds of people could find content that could resonate with it. Tocqueville’s motivation for writing back then was not to endorse a specific class, group or political opinion. Thus, his readings will not be monopolized or exhausted. After all, the interpretation of classics is destined to be a process without end.