Tocqueville's brilliant analysis of the US may be outdated but, says Hugh Brogan, the historian still has a lot to teach us about liberty and equality 200 years after his birth
It cannot be denied that Alexis de Tocqueville is a classic. Beyond the piles and piles of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford, visitors venturing to the second floor will find almost as conspicuous a display of The Old Regime and the French Revolution , including a copy in the original French ( L'Ancien Régime ). Tocqueville is the only French historian, and the only historian of the French Revolution, to be given such treatment.
Next to L'Ancien Régime sit copies of the standard biographies by Pierson and Jardin. But the display does not reflect the spontaneous enthusiasm aroused by, say, Harry Potter. It is syllabus and exam driven.No copy of any other work by Tocqueville is to be seen outside the second-hand books department on the third floor. Shoppers may well come away wondering if the term "classic" has any force nowadays, and if the history of the revolution is still as vital a subject at Oxford University as it used to be. Never mind, there are stacks of books for sale about Napoleon's battles and sex life.
These are not wholly frivolous observations. Tocqueville's fame rests on his investigation of US politics and society - which was published in two parts in 1835 and 1840 as Democracy in America - as much as on L'Ancien Régime . Furthermore, it is not very bold to suggest, 200 years after his birth, that neither book is entirely up to date. Prospective readers may reasonably wonder if they need bother. Besides, neither topic has quite the attraction or the urgency that characterised it until recently.
One of the side-effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union has been to discredit the cult of the French Revolution. The Bolsheviks always insisted that they were the true heirs to the Jacobins, to which, nowadays, the response must be, "so much the worse for both of you". Even the Parisian Left is not so absolutely assured of its infallibility as it was. The centrality of the revolution to world history is no longer self-evident.
The America described by Tocqueville - a republic of farmers and slaves, commerce and Quakers, settlers and reformers, the first modern democracy - is startlingly unlike today's plutocratic superpower. And the US, which held itself up for so long as the shining alternative to the Soviet Union, is a more unattractive model than it has ever been. Tocqueville was a most reluctant democrat, and regarded the revolution as a disaster; but he is so identified with his two subjects that it would not be surprising if his reputation suffered along with theirs.
But booksellers tend to know what they are about. If anyone wishes to learn about the French Revolution and already knows something of its history, L'Ancien Régime is an excellent book with which to start serious study. Indeed, it is essential, because Tocqueville pioneered such an approach to the matter. Before him, the revolution was usually chronicled as melodrama, as we find it in Thomas Carlyle, in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities , and the thrillers of Baroness Orczy. Since Tocqueville published, it has become an affair of archives, sociologists and economic historians, which is at first sight less exciting, but in the end more satisfying to the intellect, to the moral sense and even to the imagination. It is really not hard to understand the continuing vogue for L'Ancien Régime . But why is Democracy in America comparatively neglected, in Oxford at any rate?
The question as to whether democracy can work is still urgent, and the US still offers only a dubious answer. Perhaps America was once a success - if so, Tocqueville describes it. Perhaps its imperial degeneracy was inevitable - if so, Tocqueville shows the seeds of disaster (he is excellent, for example, on the dispossession of the Indians). Perhaps the US may yet redeem itself by a return to its first political principles - Tocqueville tells us what they were. The world has changed, but the book still has much to teach. No one who is susceptible to the charm of a clear mind, a fine style and a deep concern with the fate of modern humanity will lightly dismiss Tocqueville. True, his principles are vague: he acclaimed those of 1789, but was no more able than anyone else to say exactly what they were. True, his ideas are mostly liberal commonplaces of his period, and not very advanced ones at that - he had no interest in women's rights and regarded the first feeble steps towards the welfare state with deep suspicion, thinking that they compromised the rights of private property.
For bolder, more rigorous thought, we must look to his friend John Stuart Mill. But Tocqueville is a far more attractive writer. Although no one could mistake his attitudes, syntax and vocabulary for those of a 21st-century author, his voice manages to be modern, which can be said of Stendhal and Baudelaire but not of many others among his contemporaries - certainly not historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay or ideologists such as Marx. This may in part be explained by his place in history. Tocqueville came from ancient aristocratic stock. His parents only just escaped execution in the Reign of Terror. His family embodied two rather contradictory traditions: on his father's side, of loyalty to the king, on his mother's, of pride in the parlements - the corporations of lawyers - of the old order.
Tocqueville felt the appeal of both, but he knew the game was up. Whatever the future held - he was afraid that it would be dictatorship and was ready to settle for a law-abiding democracy - it could not be a genuine restoration of the old order. He hankered for the good old days of a legendary medieval past - in this respect he was a child of the Romantic era - but he never allowed this nostalgia to affect his conclusions. He went to America in 1831 to get some idea of what the democratic future might be like. Democracy in America was the triumphant result. One reason for reading the book is the moving spectacle of a mind struggling with itself and with the problem that may crudely be summed up as the great question: how can liberty be reconciled with equality?
Tocqueville's personality, cross-grained, critical and slightly priggish, has also left its stamp on his work. After the publication of Democracy in America , Tocqueville threw himself into politics. He was a member of France's National Assembly for 12 years and Foreign Minister for five months, but he could never firmly attach himself to any party.
The restored Bourbons brought on the revolution of 1830 by their obtuseness, while the regime of their successor, King Louis Philippe, was timid, smug and corrupt and brought on the revolution of 1848. Napoleon III, the man who subsequently took power, first as president, then as emperor, was, like his uncle, a dictator of the sort that Tocqueville had always dreaded. Tocqueville gave sincere support to the brief Second Republic that Napoleon III ultimately snuffed out, but helped wreck it by supporting the brutal repression of Parisian workers in June 1848. In the Recollections , he savagely threw his thoughts and feelings about the revolution onto paper. The book remains one of the best accounts of the events of 1848 while also starkly revealing its author's strengths and weaknesses. The cruel sketches of his friends, relatives, colleagues and enemies, though unfair and unpardonable, are also irresistible.
Tocqueville was thrown out of politics by Napoleon III's coup d'etat in 1851 and he turned to history. He would investigate the great revolution of 1789, which seemed to have plunged France into permanent crisis, and reassert the value of liberty. He died of tuberculosis a few years later in 1859, and L'Ancien Régime is only the first volume of the unfinished project. But he still achieved much of his ambition, both historical and ideological: "Despots themselves do not deny the excellence of liberty; only they want to keep it all to themselves. They do not think that anyone else is entirely worthy of it." We are all devoted to liberty nowadays, but perhaps our Government could ponder that observation profitably.
It must also be recorded that Tocqueville was the most untiring and inquiring of travellers, and had a genius for understanding how societies work. His portraits of the US and pre-revolutionary France (and also, in his travel diaries, of England and Ireland) bring those countries to life still, though they are now sunk in the past; they provide matter for fierce argument and challenge readers to test their own beliefs.
They are indeed classics, restoring meaning to the word. Perhaps they will still satisfy the imagination and challenge the intelligence when Hogwarts, Narnia and even Middle Earth, as alternative worlds, have been entirely forgotten.
Hugh Brogan is a research professor of history at Essex University. His biography of Alexis de Tocqueville will be published later this year.