01/31/2013 07:11 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Tocqueville in the Middle Country

L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), written by the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), is now a bestseller in China, a phenomenon which can be explained, at least, by three obvious reasons.

First, the book published under Napoleon III is the second chef-d'oeuvre of a "genius of perception," "an intelligence organized for almost perpetual intellectual penetration" in the words of Joseph Epstein. The German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss commented about his first masterpiece Democracy In America (1835) that "no book comparable in breadth and depth has ever been produced afterwards."

Second, if the Old Regime and the Revolution is one of the greatest analyses of a key historical event, the French Revolution, it contains also timeless wisdom. While a large literature pretends to anticipate the future state of the world, Tocqueville's lucidity sobers: "Philosophers and statesmen may learn a valuable lesson of modesty from the history of our Revolution, for there never were events greater, better prepared, longer matured, and yet so little foreseen" (Book I, chap. 1).

Third, some observations of the Old Regime have for today's Chinese readers a certain degree of relevance. In the chapter on the relative economic prosperity of Louis XVI's reign, Tocqueville reminds us that "revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse," and, he also states, "Though the king used the language of a master, he was, in reality, the slave of public opinion" (Book III, chap. 4).

However, it would be fallacious -- and certainly not Tocquevillian -- to infer from these apparent similarities that China would be on the verge of major political convulsions.

In the steps of Aristotle and Montesquieu, Tocqueville fully appreciates the importance of the historico-cultural contexts, and concluding his inquiry on the causes of the French Revolution he refers to the uniqueness of the country which generated it: "When I examine that nation in itself, I can not help thinking it is more extraordinary than any of the events of its history" (Book III, chap. 8).

More importantly, the features surrounding the socio-political rupture which is the topic of the Old Regime have only a superficial resonance in the post Deng Xiaoping's China, they are not the harbingers of upheavals to come but they operate as a framework to better comprehend China's recent past.

It is the 1911 Xinhai movement which marked the end of over 2,000 years of imperial system followed by the Maoist revolution 64 years ago which constitutes a discontinuity comparable with the French revolution.

Tocqueville was not the mere reporter of the ups and downs of political vicissitude, he conceptualized the transition between two worlds, the fall of aristocratic values and the rise of equality, a profound transformation whose dramatic dynamics have been beautifully captured by Lampedusa's Leopard .

What Tocqueville, in his preface to the Old Regime, called the "three truths," offer, in retrospect, a perspective on China's 20th century. Republican China has certainly witnessed the destruction of the Chinese aristocracy -- the first "truth" -- and the establishment of the equality of conditions among the individuals which is the mark of a democratic society.

But the two other "truths" which coexist with the inevitability of the aristocracy's ruin manifested themselves in the Chinese environment: without aristocracies despotism imposes itself more easily, and "despotisms can never be so injurious" as in societies of this nature.
In the Old Regime, Tocqueville warned: "I do not hesitate to affirm that the common level of hearts and minds will never cease to sink so long as equality and despotism are combined." He theorized what would become in the Chinese context the tragedy of the cultural revolution, the unchecked despotism over equal but isolated individuals, the command of an emperor without the imperial hierarchy, rites and customs to channel and moderate its dominance.

If the current popularity of the Old Regime in the Middle Country should not be interpreted as the imminence of another Chinese revolution, one should not stop reflecting in the midst of an equalizing globalization on the best ways to preserve liberty.

Tocqueville understood the principles and consequences of a democratic era, he adjusted to a world where "everything changes but nothing differs" but he lived with a nostalgia for the aristocratic values, with a poignant longing for a world where "nothing changes, but everything differs."

In Democracy in America, while he depicts the new but monotonous spectacle of social homogeneity, he continues to affirm his preference for the difference: "I am very far from thinking that we ought to follow the example of the American democracy, and copy the means which it has employed to attain its ends ... I should regard it as a great misfortune for mankind if liberty were to exist all over the world under the same forms" (Book 1, Chap. 17).

If the Middle Country finds itself attracted by Tocqueville's insight, no doubt that China's 21st century efforts to invent new forms of political modernity would have been for the French aristocrat a most extraordinary source of intellectual stimulation.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.