Alexis de Tocqueville


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Tocqueville, Alexis de

 

Born July 29, 1805, in Verneuil (now Verneuil-sur-Seine, in the department of Yvelines); died Apr. 16,1859, in Cannes. French sociologist, historian, and politician.

Tocqueville was a member of an aristocratic family. In 1831 and 1832 he traveled in the USA, studying its penal system. He also made frequent visits to Great Britain, where he made contacts with English liberals. In 1835 he published Democracy in America (Russian translation, 1897). The book made him famous and led to his acceptance into the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in 1838 and the Académie Française in 1841. In 1839, Tocqueville won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1848 and a year later to the Legislative Assembly, where he served as vice-president. He also acted briefly as minister of foreign affairs in 1849. A leader of the conservatives (“the party of order”), Tocqueville was imprisoned in 1851 in the castle of Vincennes for having signed a petition demanding that Louis Napoleon Bonaparte be brought to trial. After his release he withdrew from politics.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville, recognizing that bourgeois democratic reforms are inevitable, examined the relationship between liberty and equality in bourgeois society, as well as the interaction of political power and society in general. According to Tocqueville, negative elements in bourgeois egalitarianism make it a source of despotism. For example, political centralization—which was advocated by those seeking to curtail the privileges of the feudal aristocracy—combined with administrative centralization and consequent bureaucratization greatly increases the power of the state. Conversely, equality gives rise to individualism, restricting citizens’ concerns and interests to the private sphere and thereby creating a fertile soil for despotism. Such a “distorted” tendency toward equality reduces everyone to the level of the mass and leads to “equality in slavery.”

Whether the tendency toward despotism is realized, however, depends to a large extent on the stability of communal institutions and associations that function between the individual and the state. In the USA, according to Tocqueville, these tendencies are opposed by, among other things, a federal form of government, regional diversity, and freedom of political and other association.

In The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856; Russian translation, 1918), Tocqueville sought to trace the continuity between the past and the new order in France. He asserted that the feudal regime could have been abolished without revolution. To understand the origin of the French Revolution, he examined archive materials of the prerevolutionary period.

Tocqueville’s moderately conservative ideas had a great influence on such bourgeois social thinkers as H. Taine, G. Sorel, F. Tönnies, M. Weber, and K. Mannheim.

WORKS

Oeuvres completes, vols. 1–12. Paris, 1951–64.
In Russian translation:
Vospominaniia. Moscow, 1893.

REFERENCES

Mayer, I. Alexis de Tocqueville. New York, 1940.
Nisbet, R. The Sociological Tradition. New York, 1967.

N. N. STRELTSOV

References in periodicals archive ?
(3.) Alexis de Tocqueville, "Memoir on Pauperism," in Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform, ed.
Hugh Brogan is the author of the biographies Kennedy (Longman, 1996) and Alexis de Tocqueville (Profile, 2006).
According to the BBC, Carey has been included on the longlist for his latest novel Parrot and Oliver in America, which is said to be inspired by travels made around the US in the 1830s by the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville. The Australian author won the award in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and again in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang.
But as Alexis de Tocqueville said: "we must face the future with that salutary fear which makes us watch and fight and not that kind of ill horror and laziness that weakens our hearts and empties them".
She is currently a senior fellow at the conservative Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in the nation's capital.
Reflecting on the 1848 Revolution in France, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, At first the people hoped to help themselves by changing political institutions, but after each change they found that their lot was not bettered, or that it had not improved fast enough to keep pace with their headlong desires....
No, not that democracy--though that may be debatable--and not the "Democracy in America" written by Alexis de Tocqueville. A new co-production from Gotham Off Broadway orgs the Foundry and PS 122, inspired by de Tocqueville and conceived by helmer Annie Dorsen ("Passing Strange"), is putting almost every single element of the upcoming production on the block.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide, by Joseph Epstein.

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