The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 20, 2018

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Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe (part 1)
Pierre Manent - 04/16/08

1848 was the year of the Communist Manifesto and those bloody June days in Paris when the National Guard crushed the Paris workers’ uprising—one the closing of the national workshops had provoked. In short, 1848 was the initial explosion of the social question, the declaration of class warfare, and the establishment of class struggle.

Let us recall what happened in 1968. We can recall it because we were there; and some even took part in the last burst of the torch that had first been lit in 1848. Recall the Marxist consensus; the bourgeoisie up against the wall once again; their hands again white on the factory doors; Sartre on his barrel; and Raymond Aron holding the mirror of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education up to “the elusive Revolution.” [1]

From 1848 to 1968: it seems to me that we have here the axial core, the inner circle—the magma, one might say—of our modern history. Then, the problem of democracy was called “the social question.” It was Marx who posed this question in the fullest and most radical manner.

Democracy, however, did not come into existence in 1848. In the 1820s it was already “at the point of overflowing its banks” (as the French Doctrinaires put it). The greatest book ever written on democracy was published in 1835 and 1840. Tocqueville organized his Democracy in America around a double comparison. One axis of Democracy in America compares French democracy with American democracy, or the French Revolution with the American Revolution. The other axis compares democracy in general with the social form that preceded it, what Tocqueville calls “aristocracy.” When did modern democracy begin? In any account, it appeared along with the American Revolution; let us then say in 1776, the date of the Declaration of Independence. How can we define this “Tocquevillean” period synthetically? Its problem was not the social question but rather the actualization, the institutionalization, of the new legitimizing principle of the sovereignty of the people. According to Tocqueville, the great difference between France and the United States lay in their differing modes of institutionalizing that principle.

But how do these two great periods connect? The period that opened in 1848 might be understood as refuting Tocqueville’s perspective. As I have said, for Tocqueville, democracy primarily means “the equality of conditions.” The emergence of the social question entailed the observation that at the heart of the new society reigned, not an equality of conditions, but a new inequality of conditions. In Tocquevillean language this is the anti-Tocquevillean meaning of 1848. Tocqueville the political actor became a government minister just as Tocqueville the political thinker appeared to have been decisively refuted. But 1968 represented Tocqueville’s revenge. By an irony marking the inverse of what had happened in 1848, the end of the social question announced itself in the guise of a Marxist consensus. And with that end came the return of a Tocquevillean interrogation of democracy.

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