Custine, Tocqueville, and Intellectual Autonomy in Comparative Politics

By Tristan Gans
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

The most obvious and immediate difference between Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Astolphe de Custine’s Letters from Russia is one of style.1 Put simply, Tocqueville’s text is an impersonal social-scientific treatise, while Custine’s is a personal narrative of observation. However, the two men traveled abroad with the common intention of examining societies that functioned through certain idealized political and social paradigms. More specifically, one might say that both examine the role of government and political culture in suppressing the subjective intellect for the purposes of providing and maintaining order and security. This paper argues that the respective forms examined by Tocqueville and Custine, democracy and autocracy, not only define the content of each work, but in fact, through their underlying impact on the individual intellect, dictate the style and outlook of each work as well.

Tocquevillian Democracy, Anonymous Intellect

Tocqueville uses the introduction to Democracy in America to establish himself within the context of 19th century Western political thought. In so doing, he makes reference to the Age of Enlightenment, a term popularized by the philosopher Immanuel Kant several decades previously. Tocqueville makes the claim, as Kant did, that the previous 1000 years of European history outline a trend in political culture towards equality, and furthermore towards the liberation of the intellect:

"Little by little enlightenment spreads; one sees the taste for literature and the arts awaken; then the mind becomes an element in success; science is a means of government, intelligence a social force; the lettered take a place in affairs."[2]p. 4

Tocqueville describes this phenomenon as beginning with the separation of powers through the growth of the church and nobility in the middle ages, developing through humanist and enlightenment philosophy, and culminating in liberal political philosophies outlined by European thinkers and practiced in American government.

Enlightenment Rationality (ER), the system of thought employed by learned men after the Age of Enlightenment,3 separated arguments into separate discourses such as philosophy, religion, science, or morality. Science became the most privileged discourse due to its solid grounding in empirical fact (as opposed to ‘mythologies’ such as religion or morality), and it is the scientific method developed through ER that caused the explosion of technological advances in the past 300 years.4

Tocqueville is considered the father of modern political science because he was the first social philosopher to treat his subject matter as a scientific discourse. Essentially, by removing the subjective experience from his analysis of America’s political culture, he focuses more on empirical evidence and positions that can be demonstrated through surveys and analysis of legislation and other published information. Tocqueville therefore draws the legitimacy granted to science by ER into the realm of what was then called political philosophy—hence the terminology change popularized with his bold statement that “A new political science is needed for a world altogether new” (7).5 The author’s perspective in Democracy in America can be seen as a direct manifestation of this ideological strategy.

However, it is clear that this style is also intricately entwined with the object of Tocqueville’s enquiry. As he himself notes, the complete removal of the subjective experience from a text with a subjective creator (the author) would be impossible, and the assertion of complete impartiality can be dangerously misleading. He simply notes that “the reader must necessarily take me at my word” (14), just as he took the words of numerous strangers and assembled them into a complete portrait of American political culture. Tocqueville’s point at the end of the introduction is that any meaning in the work must be gleaned from the conglomerated mass of subjective material culled from numerous sources that ultimately must remain unverifiable. Though he provides the most empirical data possible by recurring “to original texts and to the most authentic and esteemed works” (14), his establishment of authorial context and integrity acknowledges the weak point of the social sciences: ultimately, results of these discourses must reflect the creative work of the intellect, i.e. they cannot be as purely rational or reliable as those in the pure sciences.

The best strategy, therefore, for the scientization of the social sciences is simply the collection of as much intellectual material as possible, from as many sources as possible. Those with faith in humanity and Tocqueville will then see a greater truth emerge from the muck of popular government. Thus the nature of American political culture enables Tocqueville’s literary-philosophical endeavor:

"As I studied American society, more and more I saw in equality of conditions the generative fact from which each particular fact seemed to issue, and I found it before me constantly as a central point at which all my observations came to an end." p. 3

In America, Tocqueville found a nation in which equality of conditions extended to the rights of intellectual freedom of expression and assertion for all,6 a fact that “extends its influence well beyond political mores and laws…creates opinions, gives birth to sentiments, suggests usages, and modifies everything it does not produce” (3). Tocqueville encountered a nation in which every citizen was, theoretically, an intellectual equal.7 With so many ‘enlightened’ minds—i.e. many citizens with the liberal and mature perspective necessary to sustain the enlightened society described by Tocqueville—Tocqueville could properly analyze American political culture as the conglomerated mass previously described.8 But furthermore, the public trust required in sustaining a democratic society—i.e. the willingness to separate power among many individuals for many small periods of time, and the participatory enthusiasm for a government composed of peers whom one may or may not support at any given time—is exactly the same trust Tocqueville asks of his readers. In America, Tocqueville became one of many active intellectuals; his subjective experience is therefore less important than his participation in a culture of intellectual participation. It is this culture that he seeks to describe, and so this absence of the subjective intellect is required.

Custinian Autocracy, Forbidden Intellect

We have established that democracy, and Tocqueville’s explanation of democracy, attempts to eliminate subjective irregularities by minimizing the impact of the subject through equality of empowerment. In Custine’s Letters from Russia, we see a similar goal attempted by an opposite method: instead of the elimination of subjectivity itself, an autocracy theoretically simulates the impersonality and normality of objective government by enforcing the domination of a single subject. Order and security may be then maintained and even defined through accordance with the one subject, the autocrat.9 Unlike democracy, autocracy empowers only the autocrat, at the expense of the intellectual maturity (enlightenment) of every other citizen. As with Tocqueville’s work on the former, Custine’s literary examination constitutes a manifestation of the latter.

Custine crystallizes his thoughts on Russia about halfway through the work:

"Ambition and fear—passions which elsewhere ruin men by causing them to speak too much—here engender silence. This forced silence produces a forced calm, an apparent order, more strong and more frightful than anarchy itself. I admit but few fundamental rules in politics, because, in the art of government, I believe more in the efficacy of circumstances than of principles, but my indifference does not go so far as to tolerate institutions which necessarily exclude all dignity of human character in their objects." p. 210-211

Custine sees Russia as a nation dominated by fear. Like Tocqueville, he orients his political descriptions through a cultural lens, but in this case, we see a lens of the most subjective kind: emotion. In Custine’s description, a culture of fear begins with the autocrat and is dispersed through a multi-tiered social hierarchy, with social interactions and therefore decision-making defined by the ambition of each subject (in both senses of the term) to maintain or elevate its status through the dissemination of fear. This culture at once nullifies the possibility of enlightenment—since individuals cannot graduate to a system of thought unencumbered by subjective (i.e. irrational) influences—and explodes the conceived importance of individual decisions due to the self-centered nature of these emotions. Custine found himself in an intellectually stagnant country where, seemingly paradoxically, the individual perspective mattered most.

It’s possible that Custine could still attempt to describe Russian culture in impersonal terms. Theoretically, the autocrat is an active intellectual, so the emperor and his direct subordinates might be able to provide information as to how the country actually functions. However, Custine’s work exudes a disheartening sense that empirical data in Russia is rendered impossible by the subjective nature of autocracy. Custine quotes Prince K------ as declaring that “Russian despotism not only pays little respect to ideas and sentiments, it will also deny facts; it will struggle against evidence, and triumph in the struggle…even the great men, are resigned spectators of this war against truth” (73).

After describing a hypothetical instance of such tyranny by Nicholas I, the prince remarks that “such things often take place in Russia, the best proof of which is that we are forbidden to recount them” (75). In light of such views (which Custine has already iterated in his introduction to the text), we can conclude only to trust Custine’s own subjective descriptions. In fact, he assures us that as a direct result of the country’s “political religion,” such impressionistic subjectivity is the only way to approach any sort of truth: “If I have committed errors of detail for want of time to rectify my impressions, I have described Russia in general, as it really is” (8). Custine resorts to the realm of subjective literature because, as with Tocqueville, his best attempt at objectivity is through a variegated collection of truths; unfortunately, the only truths he can establish are his own.

Ultimately Custine knows that an attempt at objectivity would be an utter fallacy due to the intentional deceptions of his hosts at every level of society. He indicates his awareness of such phenomena, relating that “A traveler who would allow himself to be indoctrinated by the people of the country, might overrun the empire from one end to the other, and return home without having surveyed anything but a series of facades” (242). This is a reference to the infamous ‘Potemkin Villages’ that fooled Empress Catherine the Great throughout her own territory. The passage conveys Custine’s knowledge that citizens of every rung of Russian society want to deceive can themselves be deceived. It follows that the reader can only trust Custine.

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