Tocqueville on Socialism and Capitalism

This speech to the French Chamber of Deputies by the author of Democracy in America was formally occasioned by the submission of an amendment to paragraph 8 of the preamble to the Constitution of the Second French Republic, on September 12, 1848. The paragraph was the one which dealt with the State’s social obligations. The amendment of Mathieu (de la Drome) was an attempt to return to the initial wording of the Constitutional Committee of which Tocqueville was a member. The point in question was the “Right to Work,” the degree to which the individual could legally claim, or the State would legally admit, guaranteed employment to every able-bodied member of society. The initial wording (and the amendment) implied a legal claim by every individual to the limit of the State’s resources. The paragraph, as amended, implied only the duty of the State to general public assistance.

Citizen de Tocqueville: If I am not mistaken, you do not expect me to answer the last part of the speech that you have just heard. It contains the elaboration of a complete and complicated system to which I feel no obligation to oppose another system.

My aim here is simply to discuss the Amendment in favor of which, or rather concerning which, the preceding speaker told you, really had two wordings, but basically it had, and continues to have, but a single thought. The words which have been pronounced in this tribune and elsewhere, and more meaningful than the words, the actions, have shown that the formulation first adopted was an incomplete and dangerous expression of its thought. The form has been rejected rather than the thought.

This formulation is now revived. That is what confronts us. The two variations are before us as they should be. Let us compare them in the new light of the facts.

In its second formulation, the Commission limits itself to imposing on society the duty to come to the aid of all hardships to the extent of its resources, be it by work, or by assistance strictly speaking. In saying this, the Commission undoubtedly wanted to impose a more extensive, more sacred obligation on the State than that which was required until now. But it did not want to create something absolutely new: it wanted to expand, consecrate, regularize public clarity; it did not want to create anything other than public charity; it did not want to create anything other than public different. Still more, the Amendment, with the meaning given to it in speeches and, above all, by recent actions, the Amendment, which grants to each individual the general, absolute, irresistible right to work, this Amendment necessarily leads to one of the following consequences. The State may undertake to provide work for all unemployed workers who come forward, in which case it is slowly drawn into the industrial process; and, as it is the ubiquitous industrial entrepreneur, the only one which cannot refuse employment, and the one which usually imposes the least work, it is inevitably driven to become the principal, and soon, in one way or another, the only industrial entrepreneur. Once that point is reached, taxation is no longer the means of running the governmental machinery, but the chief means of supporting industry. The State, by accumulating all individual capital in its hands, finally becomes the sole owner of all property. Well, that is communism. [Disturbance.]

On the other hand, the State might want to escape from the fatal logic which I have just outlined, might want to provide work for all workers who request it, not directly through its own resources, but by seeing to it that they find it in private industry. It is led fatally into attempting the regimentation of industry implied in the last speaker’s system. It is obliged to ensure that there is no unemployment, it is necessarily led to distribute workers in such a way as to eliminate their competition with each other, and to regulate wages, sometimes in order to restrict production, sometimes to accelerate it, in short, to make it the great and sole organizer of labor. [Stir in the Assembly.]

Thus, although at first sight the wording of the Com-mission and that of the Amendment seem to converge, these two wordings will lead to quite contrary results. They are two roads, which, beginning at the same point, are finally separated by an immense gulf. One is ultimately an extension of public charity. At the end of the other, what do we see? — Socialism.

We must not deceive ourselves. Nothing is gained by postponing discussions whose principle involves the very basis of society and eventually comes to the surface in one way or another, sometimes in words and sometimes in action. Today what is involved, perhaps unknown to its author but which I see as clear as day behind the Amendment of the honorable M. Mathieu, is socialism…. [Prolonged disturbance — murmurs on the left.]

Yes, gentlemen, sooner or later this question of socialism, which everybody fears and nobody dares to discuss, must come before this tribune. The Assembly must come to grips with it; we must relieve the country of the burden that it is made to bear by this idea of socialism. And I confess, this is largely why I came up to the tribune. The question of socialism must be resolved on this Amendment. It is necessary that we know, that the Assembly know, that all of France know, whether the February Revolution is or is not a socialist Revolution. [Very good!]

This is heard again and again. And behind the June barricades how many times did I not hear the piercing cry: Long live the Democratic and Social Republic? What do these words mean? The answer must be known. The assembly must state it. [Agitation on the Left.]

The Assembly will understand that my intention here is not to examine all the various systems comprised under this word socialism. I merely want to identify briefly the characteristics found in all these systems, and to see if the pattern revealed by these traits was the goal of the February Revolution.

If I am not mistaken, gentlemen, the first typical trait of all the systems which go under the name of socialism is an energetic continuous appeal to man’s material passions. Thus, some have said that “it is a matter of rehabilitating the flesh.” Others have said that “labor, even the hardest, must not only be useful but agreeable.” Others have said that “men must be rewarded not in proportion to their merit, but in proportion to their needs.” And finally I want to mention the ultimate socialist who informed you that the aim of the socialist system, and, according to him, the aim of the February Revolution, was to obtain unlimited consumption for everybody.

I am therefore right in saying that a characteristic and general trait of all socialist schools is an energetic appeal to man’s material passions.

There is a second peculiarity. It is an attack, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect, but unending and continuous, on the very principles of individual property. From the first socialist, who said fifty years ago that property was the origin of all the world’s evils [Gracchus Babeuf], to the socialist whom we heard here and who, less charitably than the first, by shifting from property to the proprietor, told us that property was theft (cf. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. What is Property?) — all, I say, attack individual property directly or in-directly. [It’s true! It’s true!] I don’t pretend that all attack it in the bold, and, if I may add, the rather brutal manner adopted by one of our colleagues. But I say that all of them, if they do not destroy it, transform it, diminish it, constrain it, limit it, by more or less devious means, and make something else of it than the private property that we know and have known since the world began! [Very vigorous signs of agreement.]

We come to the third and last trait, the one which most clearly characterizes socialists of every stripe, of every school. It is a deep distrust of liberty, of human reason, a profound scorn for the individual in his own right, for the human condition. What characterizes all these men is a continuous, many-sided, incessant attempt to curtail, to restrain human freedom in every way; it is the idea that the State must not only direct society, but must be, so to speak, the master of every man, how should I put it — must be his master, his tutor, his schoolmaster; [very good!] it is the idea that for fear of letting a man fail, the State must always be beside him, above him, around him, in order to guide him, protect him, sustain him, restrain him. In short, it is more or less the confiscation of human freedom. [More manifestations of agreement.] If at this point I had to look for a definitive general conception to express what socialism as a whole appears to me to be, I would say that it is a new form of servitude. [Vigorous approval.]

You see, gentlemen, that I haven’t gone into the details of these systems. I have sketched socialism in its principal traits. They are sufficient to identify it.

Wherever you see these traits, rest assured that socialism is present, and wherever you see socialism, be confident that these traits will be encountered.

Well, gentlemen, what does all this amount to? Is this, as has been so often proposed, the continuation, the legitimate complement, the perfecting of the French Revolution? Is it, as has been so often said, democracy’s inevitable, natural development and completion? No, gentlemen, it is neither one nor the other. Recall the French Revolution, gentlemen. Return to the glorious and terrible origin of our modern history. Did the French Revolution, as a speaker claimed yesterday, achieve the great deeds which shone before the world by appealing to the baser feelings, to man’s material needs? Do you believe that it is by speaking of wage’s, of well-being, of unlimited consumption, of the unlimited satisfaction of physical needs… ? [Interruption by Citizen Mathieu (de la Drome)]: I said nothing like that.]

Citizen de Tocqueville: Do you believe that by so speaking, a whole generation was excited, quickened, armed, rushed to the frontiers, cast amidst the hazards of war, confronted with death? No, gentlemen, no! These great things were done by speaking of higher and finer things, by speaking of love of country, of national honor, by speaking of virtue, of generosity, of disinterestedness, of glory. After all, gentlemen, there is but one real secret to making men do great things — by appealing to great feelings. [Very good! Very good!]

And property, gentlemen, property! Undoubtedly, the French Revolution waged a cruel, energetic war against some proprietors, but as for the principle of private property itself, it always respected and honored it. It placed property at the helm of its constitutions. No people have treated it more magnificently. They have engraved it on the title-page of their laws.

The French Revolution went further. It not only consecrated but distributed individual property. It caused a greater number of citizens to share in it. [Several exclamations: That’s what we ask!]

And today, gentlemen, thanks to that event we do not have to fear evil consequences from the doctrines that the socialists are spreading through the country and within these very walls. Because the Revolution peopled France with ten million proprietors, we can allow your doctrines to be elaborated at this rostrum without danger. They can annoy society, but thanks to the French Revolution they will not prevail against it or destroy it. [Very good!]

And finally, gentlemen, as for liberty, one thing strikes me. The Old Regime, whose opinions admittedly differed from those of the socialists on many points, was far less removed from it in political ideology than one might think. All things considered, they are closer to each other than to us. The Old Regime, in effect, held that wisdom resides in the State alone, that its subjects were weak and crippled beings whom one must always lead by the hand, for fear that they might fall or hurt themselves; that it was good continually to limit, to counteract, to compress individual liberties, that it was necessary to regulate industry in order to stabilize the quality of products, to prevent free competition. On this point the Old Regime thought exactly like today’s socialists. And where, I ask, was this opinion denied? By the French Revolution.

Gentlemen, what broke all these shackles which everywhere limited the free movement of people, of goods, of ideas? What restored man to his individual greatness, his true greatness? All the chains that you want to restore under another name were broken by the French Revolution. And this was not only the work of the Constituent Assembly, that immortal Assembly which founded liberty in France and throughout the world. Not the members of this illustrious assembly alone rejected the old Regime’s doctrines. These Doctrines were equally rejected by the eminent men of all the Assemblies which followed. Even the representative of the Convention’s bloody dictatorship did so. The other day I was reading his words again. Here they are:

“Shun,” said Robespierre, “Shun the old mania of wanting to govern too much; allow individuals and families the right to choose anything that does not harm others. Allow the communes the right to order their own affairs; in short, return to the free individual whatever has been illegitimately taken away, whatever does not necessarily belong to public authority.” [Stir in the Assembly.]

Gentlemen, some would have it that the whole great momentum of the French Revolution will end only with that society which the socialists joyfully conjure up for us — that regimented, regulated, formulized society where the State takes responsibility for everything and where the individual is nothing, where society accumulates unto itself, embodies in itself, all power and all life, where the goal assigned to man is well-being alone, a society without air and almost without light. For them the French Revolution was made, for a beehive or beaver colony, for a society of skilled animals rather than of free and civilized men! And so many famous men died in battle or on the scaffold, so much glorious blood soaked the earth, so many passions were aroused, so much genius, so many virtues came into the world — for this!

— No, no! I swear by those who succumbed for this great cause — no, they did not die for this, but for something greater, more sacred, more worthy of them and of humanity. [Very good!] If this was all that it amounted to, the Revolution was useless, a touched-up Old Regime would have sufficed. [Prolonged reaction in the Assembly.]

I said before that socialism claimed to be the legitimate development of democracy. I will not try like several of our colleagues to search out the true etymology of this word democracy. I will not grub in the garden of Greek roots, as was done yesterday, in order to find out where the word comes from. [Laughter.] I will seek out democracy where I have seen it, living, active, triumphant, in the only country on earth where it exists — where it has been able to establish something great and lasting in the modern world — America. [Whispers.]

There you will see a nation in which all conditions are even more equal than they are with us, where social conditions, customs, laws, all are democratic, where everything derives from and returns to the people, but where each individual enjoys a more complete in-dependence and greater freedom than at any other time, or in any other country on earth.

As I said, observe an essentially democratic country, the only existing democracy in the world, the only true democratic republic known to history. You would search in vain for socialism within these republics. Not only have socialist theories not taken hold of public life, but they have played so small a role in the discussion and affairs of that great nation that one has not even had the right to claim that people feared them!

Today America is the country where democracy is most completely practiced. It is also the one where socialist doctrines, which you claim to be so congruent with democracy, have the least currency, the country in which its preachers are surely at the greatest disadvantage. I confess that I myself would see no great objection in their all going to America, but in their own interest I don’t advise them to do that. [Loud laughter.]

[A Representative: They are selling their belongings right now!]

No, gentlemen, democracy and socialism are not bound to each other. They are not only different but contrary things. What if democracy were by chance to consist of creating the most pestiferous, most detailed, most restrictive Government of all, the only difference from others being that it was elected by the people and that it acted in the name of the people? In that case what would you have done if not given tyranny an aura of legitimacy that it did not have before, and therefore an omnipotence it lacked? Democracy extends the sphere of individual independence, socialism restricts it. Democracy assigns the greatest possible value to every man, socialism makes man 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 in penury and servitude! [Very good, very good.]

Therefore the February Revolution must not be social — and if it must not be, it is important to have the courage to say so. If it must not be, it must be proclaimed forcefully and loudly, as I am doing here. When one rejects the ends, one must refuse the means; if the goal is unwanted we must not set foot on the road which leads to it. Today, it is proposed that we step out onto that road.

We must not follow the policy long ago recommended by Babeuf, grandfather of all modern socialisms. [Approving laughter.] We must not fall into the snare that he himself pointed out, or rather which was recommended in his name by historian, friend, and pupil, Buonarroti. It merits reading even fifty years later.

A Representative: There is no babouvist here.

Citizen de Tocqueville: “The abolition of individual property and the establishment of the great national com-munity was the final goal of his [Babeuf’s] labors. But he would refrain from making it the object of a decree on the day after victory; he believed it would be necessary to act in such a way as to cause the entire people to decide to prescribe individual property out of need and out of interest.”

Here are the chief prescriptions which he counted on using (it is his own panegyrist who speaks): “. . . legally establish a public order in which proprietors, while provisionally retaining their property, would no longer have either abundance, gratification or consideration; where, forced to expend the greater portion of their income on the costs of cultivation and on taxes, crushed beneath the weight of a progressive tax, driven from public affairs, deprived of all influence, no longer anything but a suspect class of foreigners within the State, they would be forced to emigrate while abandoning their belongings, or be reduced to sanctioning the establishment of the universal community of goods by their own approval.” [See Buonarroti’s Conspiration pour l’egalite, dite de Babeuf, 2 vols. in 1 (Brussels, 1828), I, 310-11.]

A Representative: There we are!

Citizen de Tocqueville: There, gentlemen, is Babeuf’s program; with all my heart I do not want it to be that of the February Republic. No, the February Republic must be democratic, but it must not be socialist…

A Voice on the left: Yes [No! No! — Interruption.]

Citizen de Tocqueville: And if it is not socialist, what then shall it be?

A Representative on the left: Royalist!

Citizen de Tocqueville, turning to that side: That might occur if you had free reign [vigorous approval], but it will not be so.

If the February Revolution is not socialist, what could it then be? Is it a pure accident, as many say and think? Must it be no more than a simple change of men or of laws? I do not think so.

Last January, I spoke in the Chamber of Deputies to the then majority, which grumbled on these benches, for other reasons of course, but in the same way that they grumbled just now. [Very good! Very good!] [The speaker points to the left.]

I said, beware, the revolutionary wind is rising — don’t you feel it? Revolutions are coming, don’t you see them? We are on a volcano. I said that, the Moniteur testifies to it. And why did I say it? . . . [Interruption on the left.]

Was I feeble-minded enough to believe that revolutions were coming because this or that man was in power, because this or that incident of political life stirred the country momentarily? No, gentlemen. What made me believe that revolutions were coming, what, in fact, produced the Revolution, was this: I saw that by a profound derogation of the most sacred principles propagated to the world by the French Revolution, power, influence, honors, in short, life itself, had been restricted within the very narrow limits of a single class! There was not a country in the world which presented a single comparable example. Even in aristocratic England, the England which we then so often and mistakenly took as an example and model, even in aristocratic England the people participated, if not completely and directly, made it not only sacred but holy in the eyes of the world — it desired, I say, to introduce charity into politics. It developed a higher, broader, more general idea than that previously held of the State’s obligations toward the poor, toward the suffering citizen.

We must recapture this idea, using all means at the State’s disposal, not, I repeat, by substituting the State’s foresight and wisdom for the individual’s foresight and wisdom, but by coming to the rescue of all who suffer, of all, who, after having exhausted all their resources, would be reduced to misery if the State did not lend a hand.

This is what the French Revolution wanted to do. This is what we ourselves must do.

Is there any socialism in all of this?

On the left: Yes! Yes! It is nothing but!

Citizen de Tocqueville: No! No! No, there is no socialism there, only Christian charity applied to politics; there is nothing there. . . .


The President of the Assembly: It is as clear as day that you disagree; you don’t share his opinion; you will mount the tribune. But don’t interrupt.

Citizen de Tocqueville: Nothing in socialism gives laborers a right vis-a-vis the State. Nothing obliges the State to insert itself in place of individual foresight, in place of thrift, of individual probity; nothing there authorizes the State to meddle with industries, to impose regulations on them, to tyrannize the individual in order to better govern him, or, as is insolently asserted, to save him from himself. Here is nothing but Christianity applied to politics.

Yes, the February Revolution must be Christian and democratic; but it must not be socialist. These words summarize my whole thought, and I end by pronouncing them. [Very good! Very good!]


From the book Tocqueville and Beaumonton Social Reform by Semour Drescher, Copyright © 1968 by Seymour Drescher. Reprrinted by permission of Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.



Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...