TOCQUEVILLE AND MARX
By Mike Mercer
The Montreal Review, April, 2010
This is a fictional dialog between Alex de Tocqueville and Karl Marx. It is set in a small Parisian café in the year 1844. During that year both men were living in Paris, Tocqueville was a leading figure in the liberal newspaper Le Commerce, he had published volume 1 of Democracy in America in 1835 and volume 2 in 1840.(1) Marx was writing for the Jahrbucher, he had yet to produce his most revolutionary works, although he was making a systematic study of political economy at the time. (2.) It is possible they could have met and conversed over coffee, the following is an account of what might have been said.
Marx- Excuse me Sir. Are you the author of that wonderful text Democracy in America ? I recently read it and would enjoy the chance to talk with you about some of your ideas.
Tocqueville- Yes that is my work. But before we might discus it, I would know to whom I am speaking to.
M - Forgive my manners. I am a humble scientist and critic of society.
T - A scientist? I took you for a philosopher.
M - Well my philosophy is scientific and perhaps more importantly, practical. I believe it is not merely our place to comment on the world, we ought to try to change it.
T - I believe some of your work is familiar to me; you are the author of that Ruthless Criticism of Everything article are you not? As I recall you did not want to set up a dogmatic flag, but rather you wanted the dogmatists to better understand their own positions. (3.)
M - I am responsible for that and I stand by the idea that most dogmatists, be they religious, political, economic, or scientific, are unconscious about their own beliefs. They do not fully grasp the implications of their own positions. We need critical philosophy, ruthless criticism, to reform their consciousness. (4.)
T - It would seem that we agree there. My own involvement as a writer and a politician has been a constant battle to point out what people may not have noticed and to warn them of the potential consequences of their actions. (5.)
M - Indeed I was quite impressed with some of your predictions, the democratic danger you called the tyranny of the majority and the troublesome, yet seemingly benevolent tendency towards equality in all things. However I found your style to be more art than science.
T- Observation and contemplation are my tools, Sir. It is hardly meaningful to study the behavior of men with a telescope and a slide ruler.
M- To be sure, there are some differences between the social and physical sciences. But it has become clear to me that a detailed and rigorous method of investigation is best. Conjecture must be admitted to be inferior in the face of empiric proof.
T- Do you think I have no proof for what I said in my book? A good number of my conclusions I drew from direct observation.
M- Now don't get upset. I actually wanted to compliment you on your work. In many ways it is a perfect text book on exactly how the elite maintain power. In Europe religion may be the opium of the masses, in America democracy seems to fill that role nicely.
T- What are you saying, Sir? My book is no manual to instruct tyrants.
M- But it may be used as exactly that. For example: The law regarding a man accused of a crime offers him a choice of prison or bail. The poor man can seldom afford bail; the rich can usually pay it. Further more if the rich man wishes to escape an expected punishment they may disappear. This law clearly favors the rich. Yet it is the poor in America who make the laws, as you said. (6.) Why do they allow such a disadvantageous law to exist?
T- The answer to that, as I tried to explain in my book, is the familiarity of the Jurists with English law. The weight of tradition and ease of use outweigh the bad effects. (7.)
M- I would suggest that it is because the majority pay little attention to such details and submit themselves without thinking. They are unconscious to how the superstructure of society is formed. It is exactly this sort of thing that allows the elite to hold power.
T- That is a very technical and isolated point that you seem to be building a large theory upon. I must ask you to explain your thinking more clearly.
M- Perhaps I should explain the realization I came to recently, before we look at another example. My investigations have led me to understand how laws and the structure of the state do not arise as we are usually told, from the noble sentiments of the human mind, but rather their roots are in the material conditions of life. The methods we use to provide subsistence and produce luxuries dictate the forms of civil society. (8.)
T- Are you saying that a farming community is necessarily organized one way and a mining town another, their laws and politics deriving from their industry?
M- Exactly. You have grasped the basic idea with remarkable keenness. Although I expect you may not fully believe it, or be conscious of all its implication.
T- Well then let us continue. I trust your next example will shed more light on the matter.
M- Let us turn to the drive towards equality. As you said there are only two ways to bring about equality in all men: give rights to all or to none. ( 9.) This assumes the aim is real equality and not just the illusion of it.
T- Aah, I see where you are going with this. You are about to say that in America the illusion of equality is strong because people believe they should have it. They want it and so they accept what seems to be it.
M- Indeed I am transparent. That is exactly what I thought as I read your text. It is an excellent tactic. The passion of equality tends to elevate the small to the rank of the great and to pull the great down a peg, as you said. (10.) This is an excellent illusion because it is half true. Although I would clarify your idea by stating that the small men are elevated to medium rank and the medium may be leveled, but the elite are untouched.
T- It is true; there is a danger to be found here. But I maintain that America has more real equality than any other nation. And I certainly do not promote any such tricks as offering false equality as a means of social control.
M- Do not get upset. I never said you recommend such tactics. I merely suggested your book could be read as a guide full of such methods of power.
T- For those with a diabolical mind perhaps.
M- For those who love Machiavelli also.
T- You mentioned the elite several times now, but just who do you imagine them to be in America? There is no king or aristocracy. The legislature and leaders are elected. At each level of government officials only serve short terms and are forever dependant on the opinion of the majority. (11.)
M- A good point to bring up. In America we do not see centralization of power in a royal family or in a hereditary house of lords. We have no Louis XIV claiming "I am the State"
T- It is centralized authority that the institutions and customs of the Americans try to avoid. The right and power to rule rests with the people.
M- I am sure that is officially true, and that is how the majority perceive it. The outward form of a ruling oligarchy has been abolished. But the elite still exist. The bourgeoisies, the businessman, is something of a heroic icon for the Americans. The image many hope to emulate. It is the most wealthy among these merchants whom I call the ruling elite. Just look at the activities of the dozen richest families, they may not all be leaders and legislators but they are close friends with such men. They rule by influence rather than by decree. Their position secure because the majority aspire to be like them.
T - Even if the conspiratorial nature of what you say is true, the elite can have less effect in America than elsewhere. Because democracy ensures that both elected men and their policies must have popular support. Should the elite try to install some great injustice, they will quickly be tossed aside, their unjust law abolished. The elite are a minority, in America it is the majority that govern in the interest of the people. (12.)
M- I think your enthusiasm for an ideal has hidden the subtle truth of the matter from you. But you expressed it now, never the less. If the elite try to install a great injustice they may well fail. But what if they install many small ones? Each act being framed as a good or necessary law, or as in our early example of bail vs prison, a convenient law.
This lies at the heart of my argument about the elite. To the extent that they are officially restrained, they must act subtly. Their political manipulations must go unnoticed, or better yet, appeal to the popular sentiments.
T- I think you underestimate the character of people in America. It may well be true that most Europeans may argue and complain, we have a tradition deep in our bones of obedience to authority. Americans on the contrary have a strong independent and stubborn streak in them. Each time a legislator wants to impose some inconvenience, even if reason approves of it, the people always begin by resisting it. This quality slows the process of law making and gives everyone time to reflect on the implications of the proposed law.
M- I grant you that I may have misjudged their character, but you seem to make too much of their intelligence. Reflection and understanding implications are not common pursuits among any people.
T- At any rate, the Americans do realize that a law only has the force of conscience behind it, most of the time. A law that the majority see as unwanted would be violated so often that having it stand would be an affront to Democracy. (13.)
M- I can not argue with that. Enforcing an unpopular law in a democratic country would be troublesome, and a violation of the basic premise of majority rule. But if anything you have just offered one more support of my claim. The superstructure of a society, its laws and customs, which are popularly accepted if not loved, act to support the elite. Subtlety is used to control the majority. The elite do not make laws to upset the people; those laws usually originate with the middle class do-gooders, who are pursuing dogmatically some idealistic sentiment.
T- Have you an example of this?
M- Yes I believe I can make use of one from your book. Take the sale of strong liquor. (14.)
The concern of the idealist would suggest a ban or some serious limitations on it, because it has been linked to violence and crime. But such a law would be unpopular. Men love to drink, and in America they love their freedom to choose to drink or not. As you said, such a law would fail. However if the elite were involved, their aim would not be about preventing violence and crime, although they may claim that it was. But rather they would aim at control of the liquor market. Their proposed law might express concern with poor quality alcohol and blame it for social ills. A law concerning quality control would be the answer. This would be a law that does not directly upset the public, a law that does put limitation on alcohol makers, especially the small brewers. In the name of the public good the elite could enact a law that effectively limits competition and benefits the big brewers but in no obvious way seems to aim at that end.
T- So your elite businessmen conspire to limit competition, just as Adam Smith predicted they would. I will not argue over the theory. But I will express doubts about how it would be possible to do such a thing in America . Without a strong centralized administration the attempt would at best have only isolated success.
M- I dare say, some success is better than none.
T- Agreed. Although I am not sure what success we have had here today, the hour grows late and I must be away. So I bid you good evening Sir.
Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America . University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Robert Tucker, The Marx - Engels Reader. W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
Tocqueville's Democracy in America
is now available in a bilingual French/English edition. The edition consists of
hundreds of previously unpublished variants, texts, travel notes and correspondence.
The four English volume translation can be downloaded free at The Online Library of Liberty
- Democracy in America , Editor's Introduction, P. XX
- The Marx - Engels Reader, Preface, P. XVI
- The M - E Reader, P.13
- The M - E Reader, P.15
- Democracy, Introduction, P. XXI
- Democracy, P. 44-45
- Democracy, P.45
- The M - E Reader, P.04
- Democracy, P.52
- Democracy, P.52
- Democracy, P.82
- Democracy, P.165
- Democracy, P.215
- Democracy, P.215
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