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International Socialism, Spring 1963


David Cairns



From International Socialism, No.12, Spring 1963, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Social and Political Thought of Alexis De Tocqueville
Jack Lively
Oxford. 25s.

A modern appraisal of the work of De Tocqueville was badly needed, for in spite of the fact that he is one of the most frequently quoted of all nineteenth century social historians De Tocqueville’s words have been bandied about by writers of all shades of political belief with little regard for finding out what he really meant; in fact, he has been called to, the witness box by both prosecution and defence in many an intellectual dispute. This applies particularly to his graphic picture of mid-nineteenth century America, which has remained the most profound and lasting image of American society ever presented.

Most sane people no longer try to apply the Tocquevillian image to, American society (which doesn’t mean to say that the feat is not frequently attempted) and Jack Lively’s book does not set out to do this. What he does is to work thematically through the French aristocrat’s main contribution to social and political thought. It is to De Tocqueville that we owe many acute warnings as to the problems of mass societies; the importance of decentralization, of the tyranny of the majority, of the rise of nationalism, and so on. Certainly, much of what he reported in Democracy in America was not true even of the America of his own time and he was also very starry-eyed about the possibility of a classless society and ignorant of economic forces, but as Mr Lively shows, his work is full of insightful observations on social processes, as is shown for example, in the chapter on religion; for it is to the work of De Tocqueville (and Marx) that modern functional theories of religion can be traced.

Mr Lively’s book is an extremely useful, though not exhaustive, exposition of De Tocqueville’s thought, one notable merit being his willingness to relate his subject to recent history. As he says, De Tocqueville’s recommendations ‘are not so much inappropriate as inadequate to modern conditions ...’ We should, however, still read his work, and critiques of it.

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