The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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

This essay is adapted from Pierre Manent, Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, translated by Paul Seaton and recently released from ISI Books.

Today we speak of “democracy” in the singular. In this sense, popular usage joins scholarly discourse. And both join Tocqueville, who presented democracy as an immense phenomenon that came from afar and is leading us toward unknown shores, but also as remaining essentially the same throughout its long development. According to Tocqueville, democracy is first and foremost “the equality of conditions.” The democratic movement is a movement toward an ever-greater equality of conditions.

Thirty years ago our manner of speaking about democracy was different. The substantive “democracy” was usually accompanied by an adjective. One spoke of “liberal” or “bourgeois” democracy, of “socialist” or “popular” democracy. Scholarly opinion very much doubted that there was something called democracy tout court.

These changes in popular and academic discourse invite us to begin our inquiry into the European nation by attempting to retrace the movement of democracy in the main lines of its history, or at least to discover the rhythm of that movement. Inquiring after the various ways in which the question of democracy has been posed, we can see how it came to the point where it finds itself today.


The two dates most generally acknowledged to have structured or punctuated the development of modern European democracy are separated by more than a century: 1848 and 1968.

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.

This return to—or of—Tocqueville occurred through a critique of regimes that claimed to base themselves on Marx: the critique of “totalitarianism.” The totalitarian experience required the Tocquevillean question—that of the sovereignity of the people and the different modes of its actualization—to be posed again, but this time in an even more intense way.

Regarding “the events of ’68,” could one interpret them in Tocqueville’s terms? The answer, I believe, is yes. Putting matters in a very condensed way, ’68 was “an explosion of mildness” or “softness,” an explosion of what Tocqueville called “democratic mildness.” Thus, it also marked an upsurge of the democratic sentiment par excellence, that of “human resemblance.” As I suggested earlier, Tocqueville saw in this sentiment the active source and intimate cause of all the transformations characterizing democratic life. And what was the most visible sign of this? The democratic eruption abolished or at least significantly diminished distance between the governors and the governed in the political realm (it was the end of Gaullist “hauteur”) and between teachers and students in the educational realm (it was the end of “Napoleonic” discipline).

If the preceding remarks have any validity, then it is legitimate to say that the “Marxist” period of democracy, that of the social question, was preceded and followed—was in fact enveloped—by a large and powerful Tocquevillean “bed,” to use a geological term. After 1968 democracy rediscovered its unchallenged authority. One could even say it attained an unprecedented degree of legitimacy. It was then that the reign of democratic consensus or uniformity began. This consensus was so powerful that communism itself, through the mouth of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declared itself defunct!

Do we still live in this “Tocquevillean” period? My answer, put a bit abruptly and emphatically, is no! In my view, we are now leaving the Tocquevillean period that was preoccupied with institutionalizing the sovereignty of the people and reducing social “distances” or inequalities. This period was opened in 1776 by the Americans. We can date its closure with an event that also first concerned the United States, although its consequences rather quickly revealed a growing divergence between the European and American orientations. I refer of course to September 11, 2001.

What defines this new period? Because it has barely begun I can venture only some conjectures. One important fact appears quite clearly. The sovereign state and the established people—i.e, the nation—were called into question by means of, and under the cover of, the democratic consensus at the end of the previous century. This was done in the name of democracy itself, or as a result of democracy having reached its final limits. Yet the state and the existence of an established self-governing people were the very conditions that made democracy possible in the first place.

With an unequaled comprehensiveness and precision, Tocqueville described how democracy recomposes all human relations, including the self’s relationship to itself. This process of recomposition, however, took place within the context of the nation-state. Tocqueville did not seriously envisage the substantial transformation, much less the disappearance, of this particular political form. As a statesman his sole concern, his sole horizon, was “France” itself. He raised questions about the power or sovereignty of the people. Today one has to inquire about the people’s very existence. While America recently went to war and sacrificed a good deal of its standing in world opinion for the sake of “national defense” as it understands it, Europeans find themselves in a very different situation. They are caught between their old nations and the new European Union and are perplexed as to which way to go. Europeans ask themselves: What sort of common life do we want?

Thus, we enter into a third circle, one in which the political form that is the condition of democracy is either being further developed or is on the road to being lost. The reader should imagine three concentric circles arranged on a temporal axis. The first circle is that of the social question, its diameter running from 1848 to 1968; the second circle concerns the sovereignty of the people, with its diameter joining 1776 and 2001; finally there is the third circle, that of the sovereign nation-state. Its diameter runs from approximately 1651­—the year Hobbes published Leviathan and sketched the architectural plan of the modern state—to a date we cannot as yet give. But that date will become apparent when the nation-state gives way to another political form—if indeed that moment ever comes.

The following remarks are an effort to grasp the mainspring of the sovereign state as clearly as possible. This effort is quite urgently needed due to the differing evolution of the European nations, where this spring is ever weaker, from that of the United States, where it was recently strongly activated.


Philippe Raynaud has recently underscored the following important point: the original understanding on which the modern state was founded strongly linked individual rights and public authority or power. [2] Today, however, rights have invaded every field of reflection and even every aspect of consciousness. They have broken their alliance with power and have even become its implacable enemy. From an alliance between rights and power we have moved to the demand for an empowerment of rights. The well-known phenomenon of the sovereign “power of judges” claiming to act in the name of human rights is the most visible manifestation of this trend. This elevation of rights at the expense of power—I speak here of legitimate political authority—certainly constitutes an increasingly decisive and debilitating factor at work in the political life of the European nations.

The protection, and first of all the recognition, of equal human rights was strongly tied to the construction of the sovereign state. Strongly tied—with rights serving as the moral end and the sovereign state as the political means. Put another way: the sovereign state is the necessary condition of the equality of conditions. “Sovereign” means that the state’s legitimacy is qualitatively, instrinsically, unconditionally superior to any and all authorities found in society. The state is essentially superior to all social authorities, whether based on birth or wealth or on intellectual or spiritual competence. In short, the sovereign state brings equality into being; it produces the plane of equality—the equality of conditions, the equality implied in the human condition—without which we simply cannot conceive of a decent common life, despite our many differences and differences of opinion.

We must then ask why we have of late turned against this precious instrument. What animates this deep hostility toward what is, after all, conceptually and politically the necessary means to equality, the end we find most desirable? I will limit myself to three of the principal reasons.

From the conceptual and practical beginnings of the modern state it was clear that this otherwise irreplaceable instrument of our equal liberty could be turned against liberty; after all, the state retained all political legitimacy. We needed to protect ourselves against our protector. This was achieved by establishing distinctively liberal arrangements, whereby pride of place was given to the separation of powers. In this context, the current widespread hostility to power can be understood as a prolongation and radicalization of the “liberal” distrust, which fortunately has accompanied the modern state since its birth.

I just called the sovereign state “the instrument of our equal liberty.” But one can do away with an instrument once it has done its work. One takes down the scaffolding once the building is finished. The sovereign state compelled our ancestors to acquire the mores of equality. For several generations, these democratic mores have been incorporated and assimilated. They have become our second nature, so to speak. Since we are “governed by mores”—to cite the expression Montesquieu used to characterize the Europe of his day—we no longer have any need for this outsized instrument, the sovereign state. Or so we think.

The third reason is the most relevant to us today. Contemporary democracy does not simply want to abandon this instrument, one it formerly used and found useful; nor does it want to turn away from it as though simply disgusted and ungrateful. Today democracy turns actively and aggressively against the state. One can generalize the comment I made earlier in reference to the democratic rejection of Gaullist “hauteur” and the reduction or effacement of distance since 1968. Democracy, as the sentiment of human resemblance, a sentiment that today grows ever more powerful and aggressive, turns against this final Difference—the superiority of the state vis-à-vis society. This final Difference, as I said, was also the first Difference, since it was the condition of equality and of human resemblance. An earlier critique of the state, put forth by conservative-minded liberals, saw the state as the instrument of democratic “leveling.” We have now reached a time when the leveler is to be leveled in turn! We seem to believe that no eminence, or only of the most modest sort, should disturb the horizon, the peaceful monotony of the plains that appears to be our destiny.

The delegitimating of the sovereign state can be documented in any number of ways. The most revealing indicator is a massively significant contemporary fact that should occasion more reflection than it typically does: the abolition of the death penalty in all European states.

  1. Manent alludes to Raymond Aron, La Révolution introuvable: Réflexions sur la revolution de Mai (1968) (Paris: Fayard, 1968); English language edition: The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt (New York: Praeger, 1969). In this work Aron wrote about the events and “spirit” of 1968 in a vein comparable to the one in which Flaubert and Tocqueville wrote on the revolution of 1848. (Trans.)
  2. 2. P. Raynaud, “Le droit, la liberté et la puissance. Portée et limites de la juridicisation de l’ordre politique,” Revue européenne des sciences sociales, t. 38, no. 118 (2000), 75–82.
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