Marx vs. Tocqueville
In their analyses of modern society, Marx and Tocqueville both place a stress on the disintegration of the feudal social order and the social order that has arisen in its place. While both recognize the collapse of hierarchies and the changes that accompany this breakdown, these two thinkers have different understandings of character of these changes as well as the future possibilities for society. Because they view the fundamental nature of the new society in different ways, Tocqueville and Marx reach vastly different conclusions as to the direction of society. Basing their theories on the fundamental equality or inequality of individuals in a modern social order, Tocqueville and Marx view the likely futures of society in terms of their respective visions of equality in the modern world.
In Tocqueville's vision, modern society differs from previous aristocratic societies by its fundamentally homogeneous nature. Whereas previous societies were hierarchical and contained distinct classes, differences in modern society were merely subtle variations in the degree of wealth. Unlike the aristocratic society that preceded it, modern society is to consist increasingly of equal and isolated individuals. In addition, the modern order no longer has the links that united individuals in the past; the strong and specific ties of aristocratic societies are replaced with a much weaker connection to humanity as a whole. As no specific classes can govern, the two possibilities for modern society are democratic and despotic social orders. Isolated members of a modern mass society, lacking the particularistic ties of an aristocratic society, are apt to withdraw into their own activity, creating the potential for a despot to govern in the place of the people. To counter this trend and draw people into the political sphere, the existence of small-scale participatory self-governing bodies is necessary. Whether it is democratic or despotic, this egalitarian mass society cannot be broken apart by revolution; since there are no fundamental class distinctions and the vast majority has a stake in the social order, there isn't any real motivation to dramatically change the system. Adding to the stability of society is the fact that members of an equal modern society are less able to challenge accepted opinions, as they cannot justify nonconformity; because each individual opinion is of equal weight, the opinion of the majority is seen as the correct one.
Marx has a different understanding of the nature and future of the modern social order. For Marx, modern society, like the societies that existed before it, was essentially based on the antagonisms between the ruling class and the exploited classes. However, modern society is distinct from previous orders, as it has simplified class antagonisms to include two main classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Class relations, rooted in economic relationships of production, provide the basis for the political superstructure. As politics is superfluous to the real conflict at hand, political systems will reflect, rather than determine, the social order, and democracy as it exists is a farce that can be eliminated if the interests of the dominant class are threatened. To affect any serious change, the oppressed class must take power and produce a revolution; this requires that the proletariat's class-consciousness be raised. Once the final revolution of the proletariat is completed, classes and class antagonisms are eliminated, creating a social order of fundamental equality and real self-governance. Marx and Tocqueville's positions on the modern social order have a significant impact on the conclusions they draw.
For Tocqueville, modern society is unique in that class hierarchies have been dissolved and there exists a basic equality of conditions. While the rich and poor are not absent from modern society, their status is fluid and there isn't the same class solidarity that existed in an aristocratic order. The poor "are but few, and the law has not drawn them together by the link of an irremediable and hereditary state of wretchedness. The rich, on their side, are scattered and powerless . . . as there is no longer a race of poor men, so there is not a race of rich men; the rich daily rise out of the crowd and constantly return thither" (Democracy in America 635). While Tocqueville realizes that there is the possibility for an 'aristocracy of industry', in which the entrepreneur "becomes more and more like the administrator of a huge empire, and the [worker] more like a brute" (Democracy in America 556), to be created, he does not see this as seriously endangering the state of equality in modern society, as he sees industry as "an exception, a monstrosity, within the general social condition" (Democracy in America 557). Though society is not entirely equal and differences between people exist and are likely to persist, equality is the central trend. Modern society is not dominated by an elite, but rather a large property owning middle class, "an innumerable crowd who are much alike, who, though not exactly rich nor yet quite poor, have enough property to want order and not enough to excite envy" (Democracy in America 636). As the modern social order is based on small-scale manufacture and landholding, it is essentially devoid of class solidarity or conflict and is instead a society of equals.
One result of the demolition of hierarchies in modern societies is an increasing tendency towards isolation as the groups that once held people together are dissolved in the name of equality. "Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link" (Democracy in America 508). In effect, this severance supplants strong allegiance to a specific group with a much weaker connection to humanity in general. "The duties of each to all are much clearer but devoted service to any individual much rarer. The bonds of human affection are wider but more relaxed" (Democracy in America 507). In aristocratic societies, the ties of traditional community used to connect individuals with each other, and the destruction of these ties makes it difficult for individuals to have a sense of community and encourage action that is purely self-interested. If not checked, modern society can "depriv[e] the governed of any sense of solidarity and interdependence; of good-neighborly feelings and a desire to further the welfare of the community at large" (The Old Regime and the French Revolution xiii). This trend has political as well as social ramifications, as the dissolution of aristocratic bodies eliminates sources of resistance to the central government. In an aristocratic order, the various elite powers of a society can develop "a certain proper pride and confidence in its strength, leading it to be the point of maximum resistance in the social organism" (The Old Regime and the French Revolution 111). Modern society does not have such intermediaries or centers of resistance built into it. In its general form, the modern egalitarian state can connect more directly to individuals without going through intermediary channels that could potentially oppose the general order and protect members of specific groups.
The two viable directions that a modern government can take are those of participatory democracy and despotism. For Tocqueville, many of the trends in a modern egalitarian society point towards despotism, as withdrawal and mutual isolation provide ideal conditions in which a despot can take control over a given society. In the case of France during the Revolution, the leveling of society made conditions more favorable for the dictatorship of Napoleon, who, ironically, exerted a stronger control over French citizens than the monarchs who had ruled before him. Resistance to the central power, feasible within the traditional organizations of aristocratic society, becomes difficult when society is broken down into individuals. "With all classes jumbled, together and the individual increasingly disappearing in the crowd, where he is readily lost in the common obscurity . . . and there is nothing left which raises a man above himself, who can say where the exigencies of authority and the yielding of weakness will stop?" (Democracy in America 313) The breakdown of individuals also encourages each person to ignore the world outside in order to pursue his or her own interests. This pursuit of gain acts as "despotism's safeguard, since [it] divert[s] men's attention from public affairs and make them shudder at the mere thought of a revolution" (The Old Regime and the French Revolution xiii). Despotism, in which there exists an equality of servitude and apathy towards "a powerful stranger called the government" (Democracy in America 93), is thus a very real possibility in modern society.
The only way to avoid despotism in a society of equals is to create systems of democratic self-government in which citizens can participate in the decision making process as well as form groups to counter the central power. The maintenance of democratic government is difficult, as people must value political liberty enough to put considerable effort into the enterprise. Participation at a local level is vital to the maintenance of a democracy, as they help to instill democratic mores in its citizens. "Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people's reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government but it has not got the spirit of liberty" (Democracy in America 63). Small scale civic institutions such as juries instill civic virtues and an interest in the general good of society, "teach[ing] the individual not to shirk responsibility for his own acts . . . [and] mak[ing] all men feel that they have duties toward society and that they take a share in its government" (Democracy in America 274). Local participation is necessary for people to look outside themselves, take up the cause of democracy, and put in the effort to self-govern.
Once a government is achieved, it is not likely to be disturbed by revolutions. Tocqueville notes this trend in democracies; while there may be many superficial changes in a democratic social order, members of the society "are very careful not to touch fundamentals. They love change, but they are afraid of revolutions" (Democracy in America 638). Because society is mainly comprised of small property owners who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, the bulk of people are hesitant to risk losing their property in a revolution. "The majority of citizens in a democracy do not see clearly what they could gain by a revolution, but the constantly see a thousand ways in which they could lose by one" (Democracy in America 636-637). Thus the political order is likely to remain stable in such a society, making change unlikely.
Intellectual currents in modern egalitarian societies remain stable as well. In a society in which each individual is seen as equal to every other individual, "the general idea that any man whosoever can attain an intellectual superiority beyond the reach of the rest is soon cast in doubt" (Democracy in America 641). In this way, the atomization of individuals in a mass society makes it difficult to speak against the opinions of the majority or take up unpopular beliefs. In this "theory of equality applied to brains" (Democracy in America 247), opinions held by the majority are seen as correct simply because they are held by the majority, and individuals are unable to claim superiority of opinion. In effect, this causes intellectual renegades to remain within the confines that the majority has set. Tocqueville notes the dangers of this trend and sees this 'tyranny of the majority' as a chief danger in democratic society.
While Tocqueville's picture of modern society stemmed from a picture of fundamental equality, Marx's has its origins in a picture of society that is essentially unequal and plagued with antagonisms. "The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones" (Marx-Engels Reader 474) Like the societies that preceded it, the modern social order is based on class antagonisms that come from the material production in a given society. The mode of production is central to the life of the individual; it "must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life . . . the nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production" (Marx-Engels Reader 150). These modes of production determine the ways that people can work and act. The way in which production is organized is therefore central to the structure of the lives of those involved and, by extension, the social order itself, since relations of domination are determined by possession of the materials necessary for a given form of production. This social order evolves along with the mode of production, changing as the mode of production becomes obsolete and is replaced through revolution.
While modern society, like earlier social orders, is embedded in class antagonisms, the state of antagonisms in modern society has some important differences from older societies. The class structure is much less complex than in previous social orders, consisting of two main groups rather than several gradations of rank. "The epoch of the bourgeoisie possesses . . . this distinct feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat"(Mark-Engels Reader 474). The modern bourgeois social order is also dynamic, as the very nature of the capitalist mode of production causes it to spread and intensify, creating a monolithic global society in which more and more people become capitalist wage laborers for an increasingly tiny elite of capitalists. "The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization" (Mark-Engels Reader 477). This simplified, universalized form of antagonism allows for new possibilities for Marx.
Marx differs from Tocqueville in his analysis of politics, viewing it as merely part of the superstructure of class antagonisms and therefore not a valid means by which to achieve emancipation. "All struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another" (Marx-Engels Reader 161). Politics are simply another means by which the ruling class can exert its domination, and, when a political form is no longer effective for sealing their rule, it can be replaced. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the creation of a viable proletariat faction in democratic caused the property-owning bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie to abandon democratic government by backing a military dictatorship, thereby protecting their class interests.
"By now stigmatizing as "socialistic" what it had previously extolled as "liberal," the bourgeoisie confesses that its own interests dictate that it should be delivered from the danger of its own rule; that , in order to restore tranquility in the country, its bourgeois parliament must, first of all, be given its quietus; that in order to preserve its social power intact, its political power must be broken; that the individual bourgeois can continue to exploit the other classes and to enjoy undisturbed property, family, religion and order only on condition that their class be condemned along with the other classes to like political nullility" (Eighteenth Brumaire 67).
Thus, in a society in which different classes exist, politics can only exist as a farce to cover up the existing class antagonisms, not as a feasible avenue to liberty. Class interests cannot be superceded in the interests of the whole as in Tocqueville, but are necessarily a part of the political system.
For Marx, the modern social order only leaves one viable and ultimately inevitable alternative to bourgeois-proletarian antagonism: revolution. "Revolution is necessary . . . not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew" (Marx-Engels Reader 193). As other class systems were overthrown when the dominated class gained enough power and solidarity, the proletariat can overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie in a similar way. Proletarian activism in unions aids "the ever-expanding union of the workers" (Marx-Engels Reader 481), allowing class-consciousness to build. The revolution of the proletariat is significant in that, as the revolution of the majority of individuals in a simplified two-class system, it can bring and end to all future antagonisms. As "the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority" (Marx-Engels Reader 481), the pending proletarian revolution cannot institute systems of domination in ways that other classes have, thus creating a society in which individuals are no longer enslaved by systems of production.
In looking at the breakup of the feudal social order and the creation of a modern society, Marx and Tocqueville come to different conclusions about the nature of this new order as well as the potential futures that can arise from this order. Whereas Tocqueville sees society as following a trend towards fundamental equality in which industrial capitalism is an aberration, Marx views society as becoming composed of two antagonistic classes which are increasingly polarized as the dynamic of industrial capitalism operates and industrial capitalism becomes more dominant. These viewpoints have important ramifications in these thinkers' works. For Tocqueville, the society of equals creates a mass society in which either democracy or despotism is the outcome. In Marx's picture, class antagonisms and interests can only be ameliorated through the revolution of the proletariat and the subsequent elimination of classes. These perspectives on modern society provide different opinions as to the composition of modern society and possible social outcomes.
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