Christianity, Democracy, Socialism: Reconsidering Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1848 “Speech on the Right to Work.”
On September 12, 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville delivered a brief but remarkably penetrating speech before the French Constituent Assembly entitled the “Speech on the Right to Work.” As we sometimes forget, Tocqueville was an active statesman as well as a political thinker of the first rank. He was a soul torn by the conflicting demands of thought and action. He had not worked to bring about the revolution of February 1848—in his view France had seen far too many revolutionary upheavals in the sixty years since the original French Revolution of 1789. But he did everything within his power to work for the establishment of a moderate constitutional republic in France in the tumultuous months that followed the February Revolution. He describes his political activities during this period in his thrilling Souvenirs or Recollections of the February Revolution, a book not published until 1893. In that work, he discusses the revolution itself, the chaotic June Days where radicalized Parisian workers confronted the National Guard, his time as a member of the French constitutional commission charged with writing a constitution for the new republic, as well as his tenure as French Foreign Minister under the presidency of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, whose despotic propensities he ultimately opposed.
The issue of the “right to work” arose during the debates about the crafting of a constitution for the Second French Republic. There were some on the French constitutional commission who favored a government-guaranteed “right to work.” They were acutely aware of worker discontent and of the widespread belief that the revolution needed to address the “social question,” the sources of poverty and misery in modern society. The final version of the constitution of the Second Republic spoke more modestly of the state’s obligation to help the unemployed and poor within the limits of its resources. It did not define the precise nature of that obligation. As historians such as Seymour Drescher and Sharon Watkins have pointed out, Tocqueville had been instrumental in the revision of the language of the constitution to drop the word “right” (droit) and to replace it with a more circumscribed expression of the state’s obligation to the unemployed and the destitute. There were some on the republican and socialist Left who wanted to see the restoration of an explicit guarantee of “the right to work.” Tocqueville spoke to the assembly on September 12, 1848 after the deputy Mathieu of Drôme had introduced an amendment to the Constitution that specified “the right of all citizens to education, work, and assistance.” Mathieu was no socialist but Tocqueville was convinced that the French deputy’s proposal was informed by a socialist “logic” that he did not fully appreciate. It is that logic, so fatal to liberty and human dignity, that Tocqueville addresses in his memorable “Speech on the Right to Work.”
Tocqueville’s “Speech on the Right to Work” is both an eloquent political intervention and a statement of his deepest principles.* Those principles can be described as “Christian democratic” in juxtaposition to both socialism and to a libertarian or laissez-faire position that denies that the state has any obligation “to expand, consecrate, and regularize public charity.” What Tocqueville opposes is an absolute “right to work,” one whose “fatal logic” makes the state the “sole owner of everything” or at a minimum “the great and sole organizer of everything.” Tocqueville thus begins by making a firm distinction between “public charity,” which he supports, and “socialism,” which he adamantly opposes. He insists that “the question of socialism” must be forthrightly confronted by the advocates of the February Revolution. It is incumbent for France to know “whether the February Revolution is or is not a socialist revolution.” Tocqueville’s speech of September 12, 1848 aims to explain the difference between socialism and the principles of a political and social order that are both Christian and democratic. The constitutional commission of which Tocqueville was a member aimed “to impose on the state a more extensive and more sacred duty that that which had been imposed until now” but it did not aim to “generate anything other than public charity.” Socialism has its own distinctive “physiognomy,” its defining characteristics, which Tocqueville goes on to discuss in an early section of his speech. Those features are profoundly at odds with both liberty and human greatness as Tocqueville understood them. They point in a very different direction than the moderate republic that he had committed himself to after the February revolution of 1848. As Tocqueville presents it, socialism is the shadow that haunts and deforms both French republicanism and modern liberty.
Tocqueville turns to a discussion of the principal characteristics of all those systems “which bear the name of socialism.” To begin with, all of them make an “energetic, continuous, immoderate appeal to the material passions of men.” They speak of “rehabilitating the flesh” (in the manner of the Saint-Simonians) and of securing “unlimited consumption for everybody.” They appeal to the basest instincts of human beings and thus have little to say about the great feelings and virtues that underlie great deeds. Tocqueville has contempt for the theoretical and practical materialism that defines the major socialist movements.
The second characteristic of all the schools of socialism is their “continuous” attack, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect, on the “very principles of private property.” At its most radical socialism aims to abolish property (one should remember that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously stated in the second part of The Communist Manifesto that Communism could be summarized in a single sentence: the abolition of private property.) Even in its more moderate forms, socialism does everything to “transform it, diminish it, constrain it, and make of it something else than the private property that we know and that we have known since the beginning of time.” Tocqueville belongs to a long tradition of political and philosophical reflection that affirms that there can be no political liberty or human dignity without respect for the institution of private property. Property makes possible both personal independence and self-reliance. The right to property is integrally connected to the human pride and desire for independence (not to be confused with a debilitating atomistic individualism) that is at the heart of liberty.
A constitutionally guaranteed “right to work” that made the state the “master,” “tutor” and “teacher” of each individual not only would reflect “a deep distrust of liberty, of human reason…for the human condition” but it would in fact entail “a new form of servitude.” (Hayek notes at the beginning of The Road to Serfdom that the title of his book was inspired by Tocqueville’s 1848 speech.) Tocqueville insists that “a profound scorn for the individual in his own right” is another characteristic of socialists “of every color, of every school.” Socialism entails “a continuous, diverse, incessant attempt to mutilate, to curtail, and to constrain human freedom in every possible way.” The reader will notice strong affinities between Tocqueville’s portrait of the new servitude promoted by socialism and his earlier critique of “mild” or tutelary despotism in the penultimate chapter of volume II of Democracy in America. Both entail the infantilization of human beings, and aim to keep them in “perpetual childhood.” The socialist state, like the schoolmaster state before it, must above all protect human beings from the consequences of their own actions. For Tocqueville, socialists have an insufficient confidence in the independence and judgment of ordinary people. It claims to be a doctrine of reason and enlightenment, but socialists deeply distrust the reason and capacity for enlightenment of individual human beings. They believe that they are really only free when they are under the tutelage of a protective state.
After this powerful delineation of the principal characteristics of the major socialist currents in the modern world, Tocqueville moves on to a discussion of the relationship between the French Revolution and the socialism that claimed to perfect the February Revolution. No doubt Tocqueville could have emphasized affinities between the French Revolution and a socialism that claimed to complete its work. But he instead contrasts the heroism and nobility that informed the spirit of 1789 with the theoretical and practical materialism of the socialists. “The terrible and glorious origin of our modern history” as he calls it had nothing to do with base appeals to the material needs of human beings. The French Revolution appealed to glory, love of country, virtue, disinterestedness, in a word to those “great feelings” that make possible great deeds. And while acknowledging that the French Revolution “waged a cruel and energetic war against some property owners” (my emphasis) he insisted that it “always respected and honored” the “principle of private property itself.”
In a rhetorical tour de force, he emphasizes the affinities between the French old regime and the mania of socialists to control and regulate the economy. Both believed that “wisdom resides in the state alone,” that its subjects are too “weak and infirm” to govern themselves. Tocqueville even quotes a Robespierre speech from 1793 where the French revolutionary leader warns against the “old obsession of wanting to govern too much” and where he advocated returning to the liberty of the individual “everything that has been illegitimately taken away from him.” Tocqueville no doubt abhorred everything that Robespierre represented. His appeal to the most “revolutionary” period of the French Revolution is at the service of a broader point: the French revolutionaries did not aim to create a “society of bees and beavers” on the model of the regimented utopia put forward by various socialist theoreticians. Their genius and heroism is a direct rebuke to the petty and paltry materialism that is the final goal of socialist doctrine. Tocqueville refuses to allow the socialists to co-opt the spirit of the revolution, even the revolutionary legacy of Robespierre himself.
In the next part of his speech, Tocqueville emphasizes the fundamental difference between democracy and socialism. Here he turns from the French Revolution to America, the theme of his greatest work of political reflection, Democracy in America. Just as socialism claims to be the legitimate development of the French Revolution, so it claims to be “the legitimate development of democracy.” Tocqueville argues that the American “republics” are a direct rebuke to this claim. The United States of America, “the only democracy that exists today in the world,” is the country where socialist doctrines have “the least currency.” Tocqueville wittily suggests that French socialists go to America to find these things out for themselves, although he adds that it is not in their interest to do so. They would soon find themselves without an audience or would convert to American republicanism and would thus leave the world of socialism long behind.
Tocqueville draws a theoretical conclusion: “democracy and socialism are not linked to each other… They are contradictory things.” He can imagine an omnipotent government that has been given an aura of legitimacy through democratic election. But democracy and socialism ultimately point in opposite directions. Socialism now stands for the “equality in servitude” that Tocqueville had so eloquently denounced throughout Democracy in America. Tocqueville draws out this contrast in a soaring passage:
Democracy extends the sphere of individual independence, socialism restricts it. Democracy gives the greatest possible value to every man, socialism turns every man into an agent, an instrument, a number. Democracy and socialism are linked by only one word, equality; but note the difference: democracy wants equality in liberty, and socialism wants equality through constraint and servitude.
It should be noted that here Tocqueville adopts a moral and political definition of democracy that makes support for liberty and human dignity prerequisites of authentic democracy. Democracy and socialism are two manifestations of the social state of equality but their fundamental assumptions about human nature and society, their understandings of liberty, and their conceptions of the good life are so antagonistic, that it is impossible simply to place them in the same species of society without distorting the nature of political phenomena.
Tocqueville insists that the February Revolution must be a political and not a “social” revolution as many of the slogans and placards from that era claimed it should be. What he means by this is that it must not aim to transform or overturn the constituent laws of society. Tocqueville proceeds to spend some time analyzing the program of “Gracchus” Babeuf, the founder of the “Conspiracy of Equals” and the “grandfather of all modern socialists.” The centerpiece of Babeuf’s project was the abolition of individual property although Tocqueville emphasizes the fact that he was perfectly willing to pursue that goal gradually and through indirection, through promoting laws and policies that aimed to crowd out property ownership. But every major socialist theoretician and movement shared Babeuf’s ultimate goal, the abolition of private property. For Tocqueville, that goal was both impossible and undesirable and profoundly at odds with a society of free and responsible individuals.
Tocqueville next turns to a discussion of the causes of the February Revolution. He reminds his listeners of the now famous speech he gave before the Chamber of Deputies on January 27, 1848 in which he announced that the “winds” of revolution were rising and that France was sitting on top of a revolutionary volcano (Tocqueville tells us in his Souvenirs that he thought he was exaggerating at the time although he turned out to be keenly prophetic). Tocqueville goes on to criticize the narrow, oligarchic character of the Orleanist monarchy that ruled France from 1830 to 1848. It was a regime where “all rights; all powers; all influences; all honors, political life in its entirety, was confined within an extremely narrow class.”
The “legal country” of 200,000 property owners and voters was cut off from the country at large. The “people,” so called, were deprived of responsible leadership and increasingly succumbed to the influences of “ineffectual utopians” and “dangerous demagogues.” Tocqueville is second to none in criticizing these utopians and demagogues. But the primary responsibility for this situation lies in a political order that was too narrow and exclusive. As Tocqueville describes it in his Souvenirs, political life more or less disappeared from France with the government resembling a “trading company” more than a polity where free citizens deliberated about great and substantial concerns. For all his doubts about revolution, Tocqueville supported the broad goal of the February revolution, the establishment of a more “democratic” political and social order in France.
Tocqueville wants the February Revolution to be the revolution that ends by completing what is positive in the French revolutionary heritage (he is acutely aware of what is negative in that heritage). The February Revolution must have a “clear, precise, and perceptible meaning.” It “must be Christian and democratic, but it must not be socialist.” These words summarize his entire thought, he tells his audience at the end of the speech. It must aim to bring the people into the body politic without establishing new forms of domination and dependence. Once again, Tocqueville appeals to the example of the original French Revolution. It “did not have the ridiculous pretension of creating a social power which would directly produce each citizen’s fortune, well-being and ease of life.” It did not aim to “substitute the highly questionable wisdom of governments for the practical and self-interested wisdom of the governed.” It aimed to bring “enlightenment” and “liberty” to citizens, not the degrading paternalism of a tutelary state.
It should be noted that Tocqueville opposed not only the socialists but those deputies on the right or extreme right who opposed any government provision for the unemployed and the poor. They assumed that misère was simply part of the order of things. But Tocqueville insists that the French Revolution had rightly introduced “charity into politics.” In Tocqueville’s eloquent formulation, “it conceived a broader, more general and higher idea than previously held of the obligations of the state toward the poor, toward those citizens who suffered.” (Given the confiscation of church property this was also a practical necessity since under the Old Regime the church had principal responsibility for the care of the poor.) But once again he aims for a middle way between the tutelary state and public indifference to the poor.
The state must not aim to substitute its “foresight and wisdom” for “the wisdom and foresight of the individual.” Instead, it must prudently and “efficiently” use the resources at its disposal to “aid those who, after having exhausted all their own resources, would be reduced to poverty if the state did not hold out its hand.” It should be clear that for all his concerns about the dangers of tutelary despotism and the socialist subversion of democracy, Tocqueville did not oppose the welfare state per se, at least in a modest and self-limiting form. Within bounds, it was a legitimate application of Christianity to politics. But support for modest welfare measures should not mean that the state has a carte blanche “to replace individual foresight, thrift, and individual honesty.” It is not, Tocqueville insists, the job of the state to save men from themselves.
Tocqueville’s vision for a newly republican France was “Christian and democratic” and expressly opposed to socialism. Without unduly concentrating on labels, one can legitimately conclude that his “Christian democratic” vision repudiated both libertarianism and collectivism. We misread his powerful and still relevant warning against the tutelary state if we confuse it with an absolute opposition to centralized government within its own sphere or to government provision for the poor. As always, Tocqueville remains faithful to the juste milieu. His “Speech on the Right to Work” reveals that the moral and political alternatives are not exhausted by the socialist confiscation of human liberty or by the ‘utopia’ of an ultra-minimalist state.
- Listen to this podcast with Daniel Mahoney that discusses Tocqueville’s crucial insights in Democracy in America.
* I have drawn on the translation of Tocqueville’s text that appears in Tocqueville on America After 1840: Letters and Other Writings, edited and translated by Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 394-404.