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The European Revolution & Correspondence with Gobineau (1959)

by Alexis de Tocqueville

Other authors: comte de Arthur Gobineau (Contributor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Tocqueville, Gobineau and the Meaning of History

If ones encounters with racialist, historicist doctrines comes only from the incoherent triumphalist, yet violent, shrieking of contemporary racists, as it does for most of us, the correspondence between Tocqueville and Gobineau will come as a pleasant surprise. I mean to say that it is a surprisingly civilized discussion between two strongly opposing points of view. At no point, however, does their strong disagreement with each other ever impinge upon their deep friendship. Now, this correspondence isn't complete in this edition. Our editor explains that besides the purposefully excluded period between "January 1850 and April 1852 which are of somewhat less importance than the others since they mostly comprise Gobineau's lengthy accounts about Switzerland - all hitherto (1956) available letters are included in this volume. (p. 179-180, editor's 'Note on Gobineau'.)" I believe that it is thought that even today that some letters of Tocqueville have yet to be published. The letters themselves go from page 188 to page 336 in this specific edition. It is the 38 late letters that range from 1852 to 1859, and at that only the ones that most especially contain the discussion of their disagreements regarding race and history, that will concern us here. Now, exactly what did Tocqueville find so objectionable?

But before we get to that, please allow me a few more words on this specific book, especially since it seems to be long out of print. Besides this correspondence, it contains the material that would have eventually made its way into a second volume of Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and the French Revolution". That second volume was never finished. Nor is all the material found in Tocqueville's manuscripts and notes intended for this unattained second volume publshed here. The specific book here being reviewed was published in 1959 and John Lukacs was the editor, translator, and he also provided a useful Introduction and the 'Note on Gobineau' quoted above. Now, some might wonder how it makes sense to publish these two seemingly disparate texts in one book. Our editor explains that while the first volume of Tocqueville's 'The Old Regime and the French Revolution', "illuminates the scene of France, in the second volume his illustrations begin to spread out from France, first of all to Germany;" but "their ultimate concern is civilized Europe. I know that the most inspiring expressions of his philosophic propositions about the prospects of that Europe may be found in his correspondence with Gobineau. The complementary connection should, I think, justify the combination of these two separate parts of the Tocquevillean heritage in this volume. (p. 7, Introduction)" This is also, in part, why Lukacs' chose to title these texts "The European Revolution" and not 'The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Volume II'.

Now, on to the correspondence between Tocqueville and Gobineau, and the criticism of the latter by the former. Tocqueville denies that racial appearances tell us, scientifically, very much at all. "Thus, despite their very different forms, bulldogs and lapdogs successfully mate, while horses and donkeys, similar to the point of potential visual confusion, are unable to produce but the seedless mule. (Tocqueville, May 1852, p.2 22)" So, mere appearance tells us that bulldogs and lapdogs are quite disparate, while it tells us that horses and donkeys are almost the same. Genuine science, however, draws a far different conclusion. But science aside, it was always the political and spiritual consequences of Gobineau's views that Tocqueville feared most. "...I confess that after having read your book I remain, as before, opposed in the extreme to your doctrines. I believe that they are probably quite false, I know that they are certainly very pernicious. (Tocqueville, November 1853, p. 227)." Oh, they are very dangerous indeed. Eighty years after this letter an admirer of Gobineau, Adolf Hitler, would come to power...

Another problem that Tocqueville had with Gobineau is his 'materialistic' understanding of history. "Do you really believe that by tracing the destiny of peoples along these lines you can truly clarify history? And that our knowledge about humans becomes more certain as we abandon the practice followed since the beginning of time by the many great minds who have searched to find the cause of human events in the influence of certain men, of certain emotions, of certain thoughts, and of certain beliefs? (Tocqueville, November 1853, p. 228.)" Tocqueville, we must recall, was a very great historian in his own right, whose writings anticipate the famous 'sociological' turn of the last century. Regarding Tocqueville's 'sociological history', Lukacs (also a historian) says, "it has become more and more obvious that, with the social and democratic character of our age, the requirements of historiography have changed, that it is no longer possible to concentrate exclusively on the actions of leading protagonists of the politically active classes, that it is less and less possible to separate what Faguet called 'surface' history from what lies 'beneath' it. And this Tocqueville already knew. (p. 11, Introduction.)"

So, Tocqueville opposes Gobineau's racism and materialism. What else? Well, Tocqueville says of the pessimism and determinism that he finds in Gobineau, "your book supports these tendencies: despite yourself, it promotes the spiritual lassitude of your already weakening contemporaries. (Tocqueville, December 1853, p. 232.)" Three years later we find him hammering home the same point again. "A book which tries to prove that men in this world are merely obeying their physical constitutions and that their will power can do almost nothing to influence their destinies is like opium given to a patient whose blood has already weakened. (Tocqueville, January 1856, p. 270)." But our editor correctly reminds us (Introduction, p. 6) that Tocqueville was no mere enlightened optimist, "his judicious criticism of the false optimism about human nature..." intimates that there might be some small agreement between our correspondents - regarding pessimism, that is. ...Well, perhaps.

Now, Gobineau really does not argue this point, "I am not telling people: 'You are acquitted' or 'You are condemned'; I tell them: 'You are dying'. (Gobineau, March 1856. p. 284)." Later, in the same letter, to the same European Civilization he says, "Establish kingdoms, dynasties, republics, whatever you want; these things may be possible. I am not opposing you. Go disturb the Chinese in their home, polish off the Turks, drag the Persians into your schemes; these things may be possible and even inevitable. I shall not contradict you, but in the final account, the causes of your enervation are gathering and they will continue to gather by these very actions.(p. 285)" As you can see, there really is no 'white race triumphalism' here. However, the very next sentence shows his contempt for all others: "And no one in the world will replace you when your degeneration is completed." About this last sentence, obviously, one can have severe and serious doubts...

Now, why should this 150 year old correspondence be of the slightest interest in our postmodern times? Well, my concern is this: in the nineteenth century devotion to the Christian faith, in Europe most especially, was waning. And Christianity was at that time in the process of being replaced by two very different secular world-views. One was 'scientific' socialism, the other was 'scientific' racism. Both claimed to be modern and scientific and historical while also claiming that the several different religious doctrines then extant were merely old and superstitious and traditional. ...But how does all that concern us today? After all, 'really-existing' socialism has fallen and the 'really-existing' racism that first appeared (as theory) with it fell even earlier at the end of WWII. But my suspicion, my fear, is that with the recent disappearance of socialism, the many people disenchanted with our postmodern capitalist world but immune to the blandishments of traditional religion will eventually find their way back to the racialist camp.

This brings us to another major point that I wanted to make and that our editor underlines regarding Tocqueville's letters in the final period (1852 - 1859). It is the seriousness of his commitment to Christianity. According to our editor, Tocqueville once wrote,
"I cannot believe that God has for several centuries been pushing two or three hundred million men toward equality just to make them wind up under a Tiberian or Claudian despotism. Verily, that wouldn't be worth the trouble. Why He is drawing us toward democracy, I do not know; but embarked on a vessel that I did not build, I am at least trying to use it to gain the nearest port. (Editor's Introduction, p. 28, an unsourced quote, of which I was disappointed to find that there are several in this edition. From something I saw on the internet I believe this quote originates from Tocqueville, "Oeuvres Complètes", V, (1), p. 289. If anyone knows any different please leave a comment.)" It may, or may not, be fair to think of Tocqueville as a pessimist regarding human activity, but he never thought this of the human spirit. His faith prevented that.

I will permit myself one more Tocquevillean quote regarding God; that is, the spirit of Christianity. He asks Gobineau, "is it not its unique trait to have abolished those racial distinctions which the Jewish religion still retained and to have made therefrom but one human race, all of whose members are equally capable of improving and uniting themselves? (Tocqueville, January 1857, p. 305)". Yes, that was the heart of the matter for me while I read this book. With the contemporary evaporation of socialism, the continuing enervation of Christianity, universalism no longer has a vital position amongst people in the Western world. And among our 'elites'? - It is even worse; postmodern particularist nihilism continues to work its way through the Academy. Regarding the importance of universalism, I am in the habit of saying that if one reads the philosophers as Spinoza read the Bible, noting where the sources agree and excluding all else, one is left with two points only: the philosophical struggle towards universalism, the philosophical war against nihilism. ...But where is the universalism in our postmodern world?

And those were the concerns that stayed with me as I read this text. Now, in closing, I do not want to leave the impression that I found the text to the never-finished second volume on the 'Old Regime' uninteresting. Far from it. Actually, I enjoyed it more than the published volume. It concentrates on the Revolutions consequences for all Europe, and therefore the world. But this review had another focus. Now, as our editor points out, both the correspondence between Tocqueville and Gobineau and the historical material included here are interested in our future and not merely our past. Regarding this, and pertinent to the direction of this review, Tocqueville, in the course of explaining the rise of Napoleon, will say:

"The parties themselves, decimated, apathetic, and weary, longed to rest for a time during a dictatorship of any kind, provided only that it was exercised by an outsider and that it weighed upon their rivals as much as on themselves. This feature completes the picture. When great political parties begin to cool in their attachments without softening their hatreds, and at last reach the point of wishing less to succeed than to prevent the success of their opponents, one should prepare for servitude—the master is near." (Tocqueville, The Revolution, Book III, chapter II, p. 138 - 139)

When political parties cease to believe in anything but their very real hatred for their enemies, 'the master is near'. My God! It really is too often forgotten how effectively the sober Tocqueville could play the part of prophet! 'The master is near.' ...I fear that this is more and more becoming the situation in these United States. On the one hand we have two extremely antagonistic parties, that when in power, behave in an almost homogeneous manner. And, on the other hand, an electorate growing ever more disgusted with the temperature and torpor of national politics. This is a recipe for disaster, as Tocqueville well knew. To his credit, Gobineau is not blind to these particular considerations, "it is from above that inspiration and direction are fated to descend to the people: and when in these spheres of authority there no longer is any belief, no more confidence, no more will, no striving for the good and the better, one may state with all the certainty of a mathematical proposition that power will fall to the first corporal who, in passing, will seize it. ( from 'A Note on Gobineau', p. 187, This Gobineau quote is from a surprisingly unnamed 'posthumously published essay' of 1870.) That corporal, who Gobineau would have loathed, was Adolf Hitler.

Loathed? Yes, loathed. The war between France and Germany would have horrified him and Gobineau was never a raving anti-semite. No? "And what did the Jews become, in this miserable corner of the earth? They became a people that succeeded in everything it undertook, a free, strong, and intelligent people, and one which, before it lost, sword in hand, the name of an independent nation, had given as many learned men to the world as it had merchants. (Gobineau, "The Inequality of Human Races", NY, 1915, p. 59)" So you see, there are vast differences in degree even between the various 'racialist' ideologies.

All in all I found both parts of this book, the history and the correspondence, very satisfying reads. This review focused on the controversy between Tocqueville and Gobineau as revealed in the correspondence between them. It would take another review to even begin to deal with the issues raised in the essays gathered here as the 'European Revolution'. ( )
1 vote pomonomo2003 | Nov 30, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Alexis de Tocquevilleprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gobineau, comte de ArthurContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baskin, LeonardCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lukacs, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lukacs, JohnEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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