I want to introduce our first contender to the ring… the young and sprightly Alex deeeee Tocqueville! To those who don’t know who Alex de Tocqueville is, you’re really missing out on a truly fascinating character. He was a rich French boy who left aristocratic France to check out this new thang called ‘democracy’ taking place over in the U.S over 200 years ago. He noted down in his famous books Democracy in America I & II that this ‘new world’ had way better living standards and better social conditions than those witnessed back in Europe. But he also criticised and critiqued the peoples’ relationship to the market and the nation-state in amazing detail. Another fascinating aspect of his writings essentially predict the ensuing racial issues that the U.S.A still suffers from to this day. An event like the continuing protests and acts of violence in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore are not just isolated incidents instigated by solitary racist police forces in either Southern ‘hick territory’ or a shitty post-industrial city. According to Tocqueville, the very foundations of the American narrative are intrinsically tied in with their history of slavery and oppression – it is part of the DNA of modern America. The election of a black president matters for little – the United States is not post-race, and an understanding of Tocqueville’s writings indicate that it never will be. The damage has been done, according to Tocqueville, and assimilation (and therefore equality of conditions between blacks and whites) will never really take place. Furthermore, he delves deeply into the foundations for capitalism, just before the Industrial Revolution really took off. He writes:
Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
Which brings me to our next heavyweight. In the right corner we have Karrrrrrl Maaaaaaaarx! Karl Marx was just as fascinating as Tocqueville – if not more so. Another well to-do kid looking for adventure, he set about understanding what was happening to everyday people with the rise of industrialisation and the nation-state. He essentially argued that the state (i.e a nation) was run on behalf of a ruling class (in the case of Australia – your James Packers’, Gina Rhineharts’ and Rupert Murdochs’) while pretending that they were representing the common interest for all of us. He was also methodical in mapping out the internal contradictions within capitalism, and believed these inherent issues would lead to capitalism’s self-destruction and replacement with a new system – Communism. He’s been described as one of the most influential figures in human history, and just like Tocqueville, is having a bit of a resurgence in popularity these days. What both of these characters uniquely have in common is their amazement in the power and malleability of the ‘free market’, and focus on conflict between between differing groups of people (whether it be race or class).
So just to give you a very, very brief overview of Democracy in America, Tocqueville claimed (at the time of writing his two books; 1835 and 1840) that a “great democratic revolution” was taking place and that it was the “most continuous, the oldest and most permanent fact known in history”.
All good and well, but my question is this: based on Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto (written in 1848) would he agree with Tocqueville’s claims?
Let’s delve into this rabbit hole and find out if and why these two great social theorists might be clashing heads; the PDF files for both works in focus are here (Tocqueville) and here (Marx) to help you follow along (if you wish to do so).
The very first line of Alexis de Tocqueville’s epic Democracy in America praises the “equality of conditions” witnessed in the United States – well, at least amongst the white folk. He reckons that he was witnessing a ‘great’ democratic upheaval; one whose permanence in history would be reflected as ‘fact’, and whose progression was observed with great interest by the author. However, only a few year later on the other side of the world, Marx also wrote of a similarly revolutionary transformation sweeping across not only the United States but also the globe – capitalism. Both Tocqueville and Marx are meticulous in their analysis of modern society and both stress the disintegration of the feudal social order and the new social order that has arisen in its place. Where Marx differs from Tocqueville is in his acknowledgment of this ‘revolution’ and its relation to democracy. So to help break down how Marx would have interpreted Tocqueville’s findings, I’ve divided my findings into five rounds to be fought out by these two heavyweights of social theory.
1. IT’S THE CLASH OF CLASSES, STUPID: Marx would argue that what Tocqueville saw as abnormalities in equality was actually the beginnings of class antagonisms. The United States, as Tocqueville rightly states, was founded on wanting “to make an idea triumph”. He notes that at least in north-east U.S (i.e. New England) a rough equality prevailed from the start, but later concedes that inheritance laws “provide effortlessly an opulence that they [the inheritors] have not acquired”. Marx would be quick to assert that “property relations… are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and its rule”. The United States is not a new marketplace for democracy as Tocqueville claims, but rather Marx would argue that the ‘discovery of America’ provides a “fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie”. Private property is, according to Marx, a symbol of capital and therefore has ‘class character’ attached to its very existence. Look no further than America’s contemporary obsession with house ownership and the toxic repercussions of that. Tocqueville even notes that as the masses turned toward what he classifies as democracy “the particular class occupied with industry becomes more aristocratic”. Tocqueville essentially goes on to illustrate the very foundations of Marx’s critique of capitalism and the division of labour by describing the rise of this new industrial aristocracy: “As the division of labour is more completely applied, the worker becomes weaker, more limited and more dependent”. Marx – with the advantage of foresight, would argue that what Tocqueville was actually witnessing was the demise of any true representation of democracy in America, and the rise of the propertied and industrial class – the bourgeoisie. That’s French for ‘group of people who fuck you over’.This is evidenced in a report that came out just a couple of days ago noting that technically speaking, America is now a ‘oligarchy’. Good to know…
2. WELL THAT’S A VERY LOOSE INTERPRETATION OF DEMOCRACY: The next point of issue Marx would have with Tocqueville’s description of a democratic revolution would be its scope and its historical narrative. According to Marx, the working class must be raised to the position of the ruling class to “win the battle of democracy”. However, the issue with the democracy that Tocqueville details is that sizeable sections of the populous – women, Negros (slaves and freed – his words, not mine) and Natives (again, his words) – are excluded. He states that no ‘class of persons’ are excluded and within the same sentence notes “except slaves, domestics and indigents”. Ummm, so it’s not really democracy then, is it Alex? Tocqueville is not exclusively talking about complete political democracy; it is also a social condition – of which universal suffrage is clearly not yet included in the America he describes. Democracy not only extends to voting but also the unique traits inherent within the American society that encapsulates striving for ‘equality of conditions’. Democracy is, for Tocqueville, nearly interchangeable with the concept of equality. But this definition fails to encapsulate all peoples within that society – nor does it try to. As Marx notes in relation to gender, “the bourgeois sees his wife as a mere instrument of production”, and along with the ‘barbarians’ (i.e. anybody who’s not white) who are drawn into ‘civilisation’ they make up what Marx would describe as a ‘proletariat’ (i.e working class) under-class. In regards to Tocqueville’s claim that what he is witnessing is “the most permanent fact known to history”, Marx would refute this by providing class antagonisms as a continuous and superior alternative. Even Tocqueville duly notes that the ‘democracies’ witnessed in Athens and Rome were in fact ‘aristocratic republics’. Marx would see this as further evidence that “all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” – not democracy.
3. TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY AND EXPLOITATION: Tocqueville writes on politics and its foundations extensively in Democracy in America. To justify the existence of the democracy he witnesses, he notes that all political parties are “willing to recognise the right of the majority”. However, there is a catch – they all hope to “turn those rights to their own advantage at some time in the future”. Marx would no doubt see this revelation by Tocqueville as a concession that the political class is nothing but a tool for enforcing a ‘pursuit of well-being’ for the individual. As Marx succinctly puts it, “political power… is merely the organised power of one class oppressing another”. According to Marx, the political workings of the America that Tocqueville details play a key part in creating the right conditions for class antagonisms – not democracy. Politics inevitably reflects the social orders and influence of the bourgeoisie, and therefore isn’t a valid means of the people achieving full emancipation. Tocqueville personally witnesses this distinct class antagonism that Marx develops by writing “between worker and master relations are frequent, but there is no genuine association”. Marx would see this as further proof that the class antagonisms prevalent in Europe are quickly becoming a reality in the United States.
4. THE STATE IS ANTI-WORKING CLASS: The democracy that Tocqueville writes of can’t function in its purest form within the realms of the modern state. Marx would argue the “working men have no country” and that the nation is a construct of the bourgeoisie’s attempt to completely dominate commerce. According to Marx, the modern nation-state of the United States is nothing “but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. Tocqueville even concedes that within the United States the recognisable classes form “so many distinct nations in the same nation”. The beginning of modern day capitalism is what Marx would argue Tocqueville was actually witnessing within the US at the time. It is this new nation-state, according to Marx, that writes laws that facilitate “free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted in it, and the economic and political sway of the bourgeois class”. The United States is nothing but a ‘new market’ according to Marx, with ‘new wants’. The creation of the nation-state, in whatever form it takes – democratic or otherwise – was needed for the bourgeoisie’s insistence on the “universal inter-dependence of nations”. According to Marx, the state is a capitalist invention and therefore a capitalist tool; in the “modern representative state, [the bourgeoisie have] exclusive political sway”. According to Tocqueville, justice is the most obvious characteristic of democracy that leads him to conclude it is ‘revolutionary’. Tocqueville goes on to state that a “nation is like a jury” that should represent ‘universal society’ and apply that justice in its own laws accordingly. But again, I reckon that Marx would argue that when the bourgeoisie dominate other nations of the world this hinders the ‘justice’ put forth by other nations in favour of the ruling class.
5. INDIVIDUALISM BREEDS APATHY AND EXCESS CONSUMERISM: Another point of disagreement would be with the general effect democracy has on the populous. According to Tocqueville, democracy has a tendency to break society into individuals. Americans equate their ‘freedom’ as the “greatest guarantee of their [material] well-being”. Their main focus becomes that of acquiring the “goods they desire”. Marx would agree with these general points, noting that “the discovery of America paved the way” for a ‘world market’ based on isolation of the working class and mass consumption. Another point of difference refers to the tyrannical nature of democracy that denotes absolute and arbitrary power. Tocqueville amasses at least three different kinds of tyranny in his writings; ranging from the “authority of a single man”, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and increasingly in the second volume a domineering provident state that reduces the nation to a “herd of timid and industrious animals”. Is all this starting to sound familiar to modern life not just in America, but Australia and the rest of the developed world? To Marx, this form of tyranny is already present in the United States, as Tocqueville notes the ‘men of democracies’ fear a ‘revolution’ – the exact kind prescribed in The Communist Manifesto to help the people “lose their chains”. If the American’s can’t see that a revolution will “ruin the industrialists and businessmen” as Tocqueville concedes, than according to Marx the people mustn’t be ready for a true form of democracy – and by their very inaction they will inevitably help the bourgeoisie “create a world after it’s own image”.
So there you have it, five grueling rounds and it seems that Marx has landed the knock-out blow. But just as the judges can have the final say on a fight, it’s up to you to interpret these feisty social theorists however you like. Whilst I’ll happily concede that there are one or two things that these authors would agree upon, you can easily see that a revolution of the democratic kind wouldn’t be one of them. By comparing the blows traded by Tocqueville against the rallying words of Marx you can see that they’re simply not compatible. Whether it be a case of hindsight and the historical; the differing definitions of democracy, tyranny and suffrage; or the role of that state and the individual, one fact becomes certain – Marx wouldn’t have agreed with the opening statements provided by Tocqueville in Democracy in America. As the Manifesto boastfully concludes, the people “have a world to win” – and according to Marx, the real revolution is yet to begin.