Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Acton Commentary

Alexis de Tocqueville, socialism, and the American Way

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is perhaps best known among Americans as the author of the influential work, Democracy in America. He produced the book in two volumes -- the first, which came out in 1835 and the second, which came out in 1840 -- after taking a tour of the United States with his colleague and friend Gustave de Beaumont in 1831-32. His thesis in Democracy was simple. After careful observation of American customs, laws, institutions, and religion, he determined that the one defining factor in the United States was equality of conditions.

By this, Tocqueville meant that since there was no feudal tradition with all its social hierarchies, Americans were a highly mobile people. They were mobile socially and economically -- they could become entrepreneurs and build their own wealth without much to constrain them. They were politically mobile -- an American could rise from obscurity to power in America without having to worry about his parentage. And they were geographically mobile, moving westward from place to place in search of their fortunes. 

He determined that the one defining factor in the United States was equality of conditions.

Tocqueville noticed that Americans apparently had the singular ability to prevent equality of conditions from yielding democratic despotism. Through voluntary associations, vigorous local government, a pursuit of self-interest rightly understood, and laws that were based on an accepted moral structure taught in disestablished church bodies, Americans were able to strike that critical balance between private interests and the interests of the community. Thus they were able to enjoy liberty and equality simultaneously. 

He never forgot his trip to the United States. Tocqueville never returned to America, but he carried the lessons he learned with him for the rest of his life. And his was a life lived through a remarkable period in French history. His grandparents and parents were victims of the violence of the French Revolution in the 1790s. He was born in 1805, the same year that Napoleon scored one of his greatest victories at the battle of Austerlitz. He witnessed the Bourbon monarchy restored after the fall of Napoleon -- then saw it fall again by the workings of Louis Philippe in the July Revolution of 1830. He saw Louis Philippe abdicate and flee for England in the February 1848 Revolution, and the beginning of the Second Republic. And he was there in 1852 at the dissolution of the Second Republic and the beginning of the Second Empire with the proclamation of Napoleon III as emperor of France.

In 1839, Tocqueville was elected to serve in the Chamber of Deputies as representative of Valognes, a town near Cherbourg and also adjacent to the Tocqueville chateaux. He served in that capacity until 1852 -- the same year that the Second Empire was proclaimed. In September of 1848, he delivered a masterful speech on the floor of the Chamber to take up the issue of whether the 1848 Revolution was socialist. “The question of socialism,” Tocqueville said, “must be brought into the open, and this Assembly must decide it. We are duty bound to clear up this issue.”

Tocqueville gave this speech to rebut the idea that the government ought to provide a guaranteed income through work projects to deal with rising unemployment in Paris. Such an idea, Tocqueville argued, could be recognized as socialist because socialism was a political program concerned only with materialism. And the supreme irony of socialism as rooted in materialism was that socialists were hostile to the idea of private property. “All socialists, all I insist, attack, either in a direct or indirect manner, private property,” Tocqueville asserted.

But such attacks on private property were not consistent with the Revolution of 1789. That Revolution, Tocqueville said, championed the dignity of work and private property. The evidence for this was that in overthrowing the old order, common people had the unprecedented opportunity to acquire property. Were the French now to reject the idea of private property, embrace socialism, and repudiate the Revolution of 1789? If so, Tocqueville argued, why did the revolutionaries of 1789 even bother to do away with the old order? The old feudal monarchy treated its people in the same way that a republic under socialism would -- as a nanny state taking care of its people’s every need. 

The old monarchy regarded its people as “weak and feeble beings who must forever be guided by the hand” and that “it was necessary to obstruct, thwart, restrain individual freedom” in order to “secure an abundance of material goods.” On this score, what difference would there be between the Old Regime and the new republic under socialism? “The Old Regime believed . . . exactly as the socialists of today do. It was the French Revolution which denied this,” Tocqueville said.

In critiquing socialism in 1848, Tocqueville drew on the ideas of the Revolution of 1789 to argue that to embrace socialism would be to abandon those ideas altogether. A similar strategy may find purchase in contemporary conservative critiques of socialism in America today. 

Perhaps Americans can benefit from a reminder of the ideas of the American Revolution in the same way that Tocqueville reminded his hearers of the principles of the French Revolution. For example, the Declaration of Independence drew on the political philosophy of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689). Locke’s brand of liberalism charted a middle path between absolute monarchism and radical republicanism. When Jefferson drew from Locke to draft the Declaration nearly a century later, he summarized Locke’s liberalism. 

When the United States embraces socialism as its political philosophy, it will have utterly rejected its revolutionary ideals.

The republican writings of the English real Whigs of the early eighteenth century -- figures like Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard -- were particularly influential in the revolutionary period in America, and their ideas are discernible in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights. Both Locke and the real Whigs helped Americans establish republican forms of government in the states and in the federal government under the Constitution.

Many Americans associate socialism today with the left. Thus it is conventional for us to think of American government under the influence of socialism as a move leftward. But this is a mistake. Tocqueville demonstrated that socialism was a rejection of the revolutionary ideals that birthed modern France. In the same way, socialism in America would be a departure -- not a shift to the left, but an abandonment -- of the bedrock of American republicanism. 

Interestingly, Tocqueville observed as much when he was here in America. In his 1848 speech, he looked to America as the exemplar of true liberal democracy in the world. He described American democracy as “alive, active, triumphant.” And far from being the culmination of democracy, socialism is democracy’s foe. “In these republics,” Tocqueville said, describing the American states, “you will search in vain for socialism.”

When the United States embraces socialism as its political philosophy, it will have utterly rejected its revolutionary ideals. Tocqueville recognized this in France in 1848. May we have eyes to see this reality in our country as Tocqueville did in his and do our part to advocate against it in our day.


(For more on this topic, be sure to register to attend, in person or via livestream, Liberty in Equality or Constraint in Munich, Germany on November 29, 2018.)


John D. Wilsey, Ph.D. is Affiliate Scholar in Theology and History at the Acton Institute. He is Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America (Pickwick, 2011) and American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015); he also edited Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous work, which recently appeared under the title Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students (Lexham, 2016). Wilsey is 2017-18 William E. Simon