The Contribution of Alexis de Tocqueville to the Development of the Theory of Revolution


The 100th anniversary of the October Socialist Revolution of 1917 in Russia attracted the attention of many people. Evaluations of this fact of history differ to a great extent, but the scale of the consequences caused by it is undoubtedly comprehensible. In this respect the history proves very interesting, for this event significantly influenced the development of many processes of the twentieth century. The desire to understand the laws governing the emergence of any revolution as a social, political and legal phenomenon involuntarily pushes us to a broader understanding of the French bourgeois revolution, which in its time influenced at least the course of European history.

Making Sense of the French Revolution

The concepts of “theory” and “revolution” are fundamental in this essay in order to reveal Alexis de Tocqueville’s contribution to the development of the theoretical understanding of a fateful phenomenon for many nations.

In most reference books, the word “theory” (from the for Greek “consideration,” “investigation”) is interpreted as a state of the main ideas in a particular branch of knowledge; a form of scientific knowledge that gives a holistic view of the regularities and essential links of reality. It is in this sense that we will consider “theory” in this paper.

The term “revolution” appeared in the 14th century. Its use in a scientific context is associated with Nicolaus Copernicus, who used the term in his work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543). This term had a natural-scientific meaning and denoted rotational, circular motion in describing the trajectories of celestial bodies. New times secured for the concept independence from Providence and it gained autonomy and constancy in motion. Later, in the 17th century, it was filled with political meaning and meant a cyclic change of rulers. In this sense, it was used in 1660 in relation to the restoration of the English monarchy—it meant a political process that led to a sharp and profound change in the political and social structure of the state.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, which has also been translated into Russian several times, attracts attention within the framework of reflections on social revolution. It is not so well known to a wide range of readers, but is of no less interest than his earlier study, Democracy in America. The importance of The Old Regime and the Revolution for the study of the process of the origin and realization of revolution may be appreciated at least because the famous French historian, François Furet, in his study of the French Revolution, repeatedly refers to this work by his predecessor, which he highly appreciates. As a characterization of this study, Furet quotes the French historian Georges Lefebvre from the Introduction he wrote to Tocqueville’s book, republished in 1952: “The Old Regime and the Revolution remains in my eyes the main book in the whole of revolutionary historiography. This is also why it has always been, for more than a century, the poor relation of this historiography, more quoted than read, and more read than understood” (p. 35). By the way, in the second half of the 19th century, the appearance of Alexis de Tocqueville’s book in Russia caused a sharp public discussion. It involved representatives of different political views, and therefore their assessments of this book differed significantly from each other (p. 19-22).

In 1835 Tocqueville published an essay, “The Social and Political State of France Before and After 1789,” for which he received the Legion of Honor (1837). It served as the basis for writing The Old Regime and the Revolution, and opened to him the doors of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (1838) as well as of the French Academy (1841). Not surprisingly, he wanted to apply the knowledge he had accumulated in the field of law to the social and political sphere. Around the same, he began his political career.

In 1851, Tocqueville left political activity, and in 1852 retired to his estate, where he began writing The Old Regime and the Revolution, published in 1856.

In this book, Tocqueville raises questions of a social political and legal nature. He immediately warns the reader that the book is not exclusively a history of the Revolution. In the Preface, he reveals the intent of his work: “The immediate task of the work, which I offer to the public, is to explain why this great Revolution, which was being prepared at the same time on almost the entire continent of Europe, broke out in our country earlier than in other places; why it seemed to emerge by itself from the society that it was to destroy, and finally, how the old monarchy could fall so finally and so suddenly” (p. 18). The analysis of these events would not be very convincing if it were based only on speculative reasoning. To understand the meaning of what happened, Tocqueville focused on the internal politics of pre-revolutionary France. He viewed this form of government itself as a political phenomenon. It is indicative that the term “regime” used by Tocqueville (and translated into Russian as “order”) is used in modern political science along with the concept of “political system.”

Originality of the Consideration of the Problem

As many researchers have noted, Tocqueville offered an original vision of the French Revolution—not as a rupture, but as the completion of a process that began several centuries earlier, the result of which was the centralization of the state. For him, therefore, the revolution was not an accidental phenomenon. He showed how Louis XVI precipitated the revolutionary transformation by his actions: “Of those reforms which were made by himself, some abruptly and without sufficient preparation, changed old and respected habits and sometimes violated acquired rights. Thus, they prepared the Revolution not only by breaking what stood in its way, but even more by showing the people the methods for its realization” (p. 224). Tocqueville says that the Revolution instantly, with a convulsive and painful effort, without gradual transitions, without precautions and without mercy, put an end to what would later end little by little by itself (p. 44).

Tocqueville believed that the experience of France could reveal the general mechanisms of historical development from a reformist scenario to a revolutionary one (p. 20). In the study of the French philosopher there is not only a description of the “old order,” but also talks about the consequences of its collapse. He reproaches Edmund Burke that he “does not notice that in front of his eyes is the Revolution, which shall destroy this old law, common to all of Europe; he does not see that it is all about this and nothing else” (p. 45). The political-legal approach distinguishes Tocqueville’s consideration of the forms of government. Thus, absolutism for him is not arbitrary, which is characterized by inaction of laws, but despotic rule (he also used synonyms—omnipotence, tyranny), where the power of the ruler has limitations. It is a transitional form of political organization of society from aristocracy to democracy, based on laws, but not taking into account the interests of the common good.

Based on the study of the historical specifics of pre-revolutionary France, Tocqueville in the first chapter of the book talks about the paradox that France was the first country to experience a great revolution that fundamentally changed the social order, although the country was politically the most developed. Sixty years later, Vladimir I. Ulyanov (Lenin) made the opposite claim about Russia: he spoke of the possibility of the victory of the revolution (socialist) in one, separate country, which represented “a weak link in the chain of imperialism.”

Tocqueville’s Methodology

Characterizing Tocqueville’s work on the book, Professor of the Imperial Moscow University Pavel G. Vinogradov in the Preface to the Russian translation in 1896 wrote: “…his book is the best introduction to the subject and the best judgment on the causes and direction of the revolution” (p. 11) Vinogradov also gave a flattering characterization of Tocqueville’s research qualities. He noted a remarkable feature of this work: “…the finished work represents, despite its historical theme, a model of political reasoning; there is nothing superfluous and random in it; all the material offered to the reader is used to establish conclusions” (p. 12). Vinogradov noted that the conclusions formulated by Tocqueville in his book are not abstract, as the writer “…was deeply interested not only in theory, but also in practice, of the democratic movement and political freedom” (p. 12). He came to them by familiarizing himself with a huge number of documents, which gave his work a unique value.

Tocqueville’s main method of research was the historical method, which was supplemented by others. In particular, he used the method of comparison, which allowed him to find common and particular features of the past and present in the life of French society: “…I confess that while studying our old society in all its parts, I never quite lost sight of modern society” (p. 20). In his work, we can find the rudiments of the prognostic method. The use of the above methods was supplemented by the application of such principles as objectivity, reasoning, thoroughness, and so forth (pp. 15-21).

Sometime later, the history (or rather, the historiography of the French Revolution) was re-examined by the French historian François Furet in his writings, particularly in his final work, which received in Russian translation the title, “Penser la Révolution française” (1978). In it, he criticized a number of positions put forward by Tocqueville. However, this criticism is not so indisputable. Furet is much inferior to Tocqueville in the degree of immersion in historical sources, referring in his works to the opinions of other authors (p. 176). At the same time, he shrewdly noted the incompleteness of the study of that revolution, arguing that a truly impartial history of the French Revolution has not yet been written, even in France itself.

Probably, a similar judgment may be formulated about the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia.

The changes gradually occurring in society and conditioned by its comprehensive development (technical, economic, political, cultural, spiritual, etc.) have appropriate regulators commensurate with the level and complexity of the problems that require resolution. But these solutions are far from always able to completely remove the contradictions that gradually “sludge up” the social organism. It is the problems arising in the depths of the old society that lead to the need for its radical “cleansing” from the accumulated obstacles through revolution, which ensures the dynamic development of society.

Social evolution and social revolution as forms of social development represent a unified whole corresponding to the needs of a particular society at a certain stage of its development. Both concepts are related to other kindred concepts, such as “change,” “development,” “progress,” “leap,” and others.

One of the chapters of Tocqueville’s book is entitled, “On how everything that preceded itself led to the Revolution.” It implicitly testifies to the presence of a systematic approach in his research. In this chapter, he notes one of the interesting features of the French Revolution: “The contrast between the softness of theory and the hardness of action, which is one of the strangest features of the French Revolution, will not surprise anyone if we take into account that this Revolution was prepared by the most civilized classes of nations, but was carried out by the most uneducated and rude” (p. 243).

Revolution: Accident or Necessity?

But if “everything that preceded itself led to the Revolution,” the question arises: does a revolution need leaders? One can find various answers to this question. It seems to us that in any social process that is filled with political content, at a certain stage there is a need for coordination and leadership. As historical experience shows, chaos gradually gives way to order and coherence. Tocqueville described the situation of the development of revolution in the following way: “… when this mighty generation, which started the revolution, was exterminated or exhausted, as is usual with any generation that undertakes such actions; when, following the natural course of such events, the love of freedom cooled down and grew tired amidst the anarchy and dictatorship of the rabble, and the nation in confusion began as if groping for a master—then the absolute power found for its revival and justification surprisingly easy ways, which were easily discovered by the genius of a man who became at the same time the continuer of the Revolution and the destroyer of its cause” (p. 245).

The question of whether the revolution is a random event or a natural one is resolved in favor of the regularity of this phenomenon. Many authors are inclined to this interpretation of the problem. Already at the beginning of the October Revolution of 1917, the French author Pierre Pascal, who was in St. Petersburg at that time, wrote in his diaries, published later: “The Russian Revolution, whatever the reaction that followed it, will have the same huge response as the revolution of 1789, and even much more: it is not an accident, it is an epoch…” (p. 120). French historian Albert Soboul also insists on the inevitability of the French Revolution, referring to his distinguished predecessor: “Tocqueville, in turn, with his characteristic insight, showed the inevitability of the Revolution. ‘Anything less the Revolution was not an accidental event. True, the world was taken by surprise by it, but nevertheless it was only the completion of a longer work, the swift and tumultuous end of an endeavor on which ten human generations had labored’” (p. 168).


In this short essay on Alexis de Tocqueville’s contribution to the development of revolutionary theory, his work, The Old Regime and the Revolution, has been briefly analyzed for the French author’s consideration of the cause-and-effect relationship in the maturation and implementation of the revolutionary transformations in French society.

As a result of analyzing the text and statements of the compatriots of the French author, as well as Russian researchers, it can be stated that Tocqueville:

  • carried out an intense study of the documents and materials related to a significant historical period of French history;
  • his book, The Old Regime and the Revolution is a comprehensive study of the events of the pre-revolutionary period of France’s development and the events of 1789;
  • Tocqueville takes a multifaceted look at the causes of the revolution and the conditions that led to its occurrence precisely in France;
  • he laid the foundation for the historiography of the French Revolution, providing an example of an in-depth study of the factors that influenced the course and outcome of the revolution;
  • through the detailed study of the phenomenon of the French Revolution, Tocqueville created the possibility of multiple interpretations of this event, spreading and rethinking the general patterns of the revolution in relation to other countries.

The analysis of Tocqueville’s theoretical ideas allows us to conclude that the French political thinker and historiographer made a significant contribution to the development of revolutionary theory within the framework of the research paradigm that existed at that time. His ideas help us to take a new look at some aspects of the revolutionary events in France in the late 18th century, to compare them with the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century, and to better understand the events of our time.

For full references, please consult the original:

Alexei V. Soloviev is Associate Professor in the Department of the Philosophy of Politics and Law, Faculty of Philosophy, Lomonosov, Moscow.

Featured: Journée des Tuiles le 7 juin 1788 à Grenoble (Day of the Tiles on June 7, 1788 in Grenoble), by Alexandre Debelle; painted in 1889.