By August Nimtz
To understand Karl Marx and Frederick Engels's reading of the
United States it would be useful to begin with an overview of
their communist project, its origins and evolutionone which
has often been misrepresented, particularly its democratic component.
Like many German Rhinelanders of their generationthose
who came of age politically in the aftermath of the French
Revolution of 1789they sought an answer to the most pressing
political question of the day: how could Prussian authoritarianism
be replaced by democratic rule and who or what segment of
society would lead such a transformation? For the young Marx,
working as a cub reporter in 1842 for the liberal daily Rheinische
Zeitung (Rhineland Magazine), and frequently at odds with government
censors, there were more specific questions. Why
would a government deny its citizens such basic liberties as freedom
of the press and free speech? Why are peasants and the
poorer layers of society routinely disadvantaged in the political
process? Why are the wealthy privileged?
Marx saw the need to return to Hegel, the intellectual mentor
of his generation, who had drawn on the insights of the liberal
economists James Steuart and Adam Smith to produce the
best that Western thought had to offer on political theory and political
economy. Standing on Hegel's shoulders, Marx soon recognized
the inadequacies of this towering intellect, especially his
disdain for "true democracy." It was precisely the quest to realize
"true democracythe sovereignty of the people," that motivated
Marx to begin his lifelong inquiry into political economy.1
His inquiries pointed to the emergence and role of private
property in social evolution, a development that reached its logical
conclusions with the rise of the capitalist mode of production
in the second half of the eighteenth century. Along with the
alienation of individuals from one another, or the erosion of
community, came the commodification of all of society including
most of all human labor. Private ownership of the means of production,
uniquely associated with capitalism, generated increasing
inequality. The simultaneously unprecedented increase of
wealth and poverty appeared as one of the most striking aspects
of the new system of production for those who survived its arrival.
The inequalities of previous class societies, those based on
private property, began to pale in comparison.
Marx concluded as early as 1843 that as long as social inequalityclass
societypersisted, real democracy, the "sovereignty
of the people," was impossible. His position was not
unique. As C. B. Macpherson persuasively argues, almost all
Western visions of democracy before the nineteenth century assumed
a "classless or a one-class society, not merely a political
mechanism to fit such a society."2 Unlike other socialists and selfstyled
communists, Marx argued that the fight for social justice
could not be successfully pursued unless it was linked to the
struggle for democratic rights. Thus, the prerequisite for the socialist
revolution was the democratic revolutionthe conquest of
political democracy, which provided the best terrain on which the
oppressed could prepare itself for taking power and self-rule. As
Hal Draper correctly notes, "Marx was the first socialist figure to
come to an acceptance of the socialist idea through the battle for
the consistent extension of democratic control from below. . . . [H]e
was the first to fuse the struggle for consistent political democracy
with the struggle for a socialist transformation."3 Many years
later, Engels acknowledged that it was the Chartists, the working
class fighters for democratic rule in England in the second quarter
of the nineteenth century, who taught them about the importance
of the political struggle.4
Based on his newly-arrived at claim that the proletariat constituted
the only class that had both the capacity and interest to
realize the "sovereignty of the people"to which his aforementioned
letter to Lincoln alludedMarx, now in partnership with
Engels, provided the small communist tendency of the broader
socialist movement for the first time an explicit program that
clarified its relationship to the democratic struggle. Drawing on
Engels's draft for the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx incorporated
the essence of this position in its second section,
"Proletarians and Communists": "the immediate aim of the
Communists is the same as that of other proletarian parties: formation
of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois
supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat." The
goal of this struggle, is as stated later in that section, "to win the
battle of democracy."5 For communists, the most "advanced" or
"extreme wing," as they described it, of the "democratic party,"
the fight for political democracy is an essential task.
It must be stressed that in moving from radical democracy to
communism Marx and Engels did not abandon the demand for
the former. Marx polemicized in 1847 that, like the Chartists in
Britain, the German proletariat, "can and must accept the bourgeois
revolution as a precondition for the workers' revolution. However,
they cannot for a moment accept it as their ultimate goal."6 Clarity
on this essential point distinguished communists from other
democrats. As they stated repeatedly, political democracy was the
best means for socialist transformation and, thus, had to be fought
for and defended. When a critic charged in 1892 that Marx and
Engels ignored forms of democratic governance, Engels retorted:
"Marx and I, for forty years, repeated ad nauseam that for us the
democratic republic is the only political form in which the struggle
between the working class and the capitalist class can first be
universalised and then culminate in the decisive victory of the
proletariat."7 The task now is to see more concretely how the two,
particularly Marx, arrived at their conclusions about the relationship
between democracy and communism.
The Lessons of the "Most Progressive Nation"
To reach such conclusions, Marx's new method required that he
draw on, as he liked to call it, the "real movement of history." He
emphasized, above all, the actual course of the democratization
process in various settings and times. For him, the reality of the
United States, "the most progressive nation," as he sometimes
called it, provided the best example.8 It was also, as he described
in his notebooks some fifteen years later, a "country where bourgeois
society did not develop on the foundation of the feudal
system, but developed rather from itself . . . where the state, in
contrast to all earlier national formations, was from the beginning
subordinate to bourgeois society, to its production, and
never could make the pretense of being an end-in-itself."9
Though lacking a feudal base, what was so revealing for Marx
was the fact that class inequality was quickly emerging there in
the absence of a tradition of class inequalitya claim supported
by modern scholarship to be discussed later. This offered crucial
evidence for his thesis about the consequences of private ownership
of the means of production.
What was the specific evidence about the U.S. reality that the
young Marx drew upon to reach his communist conclusions? As
the "most progressive nation" in the world, it was especially
useful in his method of inquirythe study of a "pure" case.
"Naturalists seek by experiment to reproduce a natural phenomenon
in its purest conditions. You do not need to make any
experiments. You find the natural phenomenon of freedom of
the press in North America in its purest, most natural form."10 A
year later in his critique of Hegel he addressed the issue of elections
and suffrage. Though he made no explicit reference to the
United States there is no doubt he had the United States in
mindthen the country with the most democratic elections. But
for Marx, it was a question "of the extension and greatest possible
generalisation of election, both of the right to vote and the right
to be elected."11 To what degree the United States conformed to
such a standard is an issue to be discussed shortly.
Marx's first sustained discussion of the U.S. political reality
came at the end of 1843 in his two articles, "On the Jewish Question."
Again, it must be emphasized that this was written during
Marx's pre-communist years, or perhaps more accurately, en
route to his communist "world view."12 Some of his discussion
about civil society and the state carried with them much of the
"phraseology" of German philosophy. He admitted as much two
years later in The German Ideology, the work that first presented
his and Engel's historical materialist perspective.13 Arguably the
key text of this period, the central claim of the "Jewish
Question"notwithstanding its titleis that political liberation,
or what would later be called liberal or bourgeois democracy,
however much an advance for humanity, should not be mistaken
for human emancipation.14 To substantiate his argument,
Marx drew on the reality of what was until then the two most
advanced developments in political democracy, revolutionary
France and the United States. As the German Ideology explained,
"one has to 'leave philosophy aside'. . . one has to leap out of it
and devote oneself like an ordinary man to the study of actuality,
for which there exists also an enormous amount of literary
material, unknown, of course, to the philosophers."15 The U.S.
"actuality" would provide the most insights.
Firstly, as he argued, it was in the United States that the "political
state exists in its completely developed form . . . in its purity"
because "the state ceases to adopt a theological attitude
towards religion."16 Yet, in that most "developed" state form religion
was pervasive in society"pre-eminently the country of
religiosity." The "existence of religion is the existence of a
defect"because it promoted narrowness and sectarianism,
alienating humans from one another, an earlier conclusion that
Marx and the Left Hegelians had reached.17 Thus, the U.S. case
revealed that even in the most developed state such a "defect"
could exist. The problem, then, was to be sought in the nature of
the secular state, in its limitations and its own narrowness. This
necessitated an interrogation not of religion but the state itself.
The question in particular was why the secular state is not only
inadequate for the achievement of but an obstacle to "human
emancipation," or, as Marx explained, "the relation of political
emancipation to human emancipation."18
It's worth noting that in his critique of religion Marx was
actually arguing for freedom of religionin this case, for Jewsespecially
since he wrote this shortly before his often misrepresented
comment about religion being "the opium of the people."
It makes clear that his critique wasn't part of a campaign to ban
religion. Rather, it expressed his concern to know why such defective
thinking persisted. The answer, he argued, and the motivation
of his lifelong political economy project, was to be found
in civil society, the basis of the secular state.
Secondly, Marx looked at the limitations of political emancipation
in another arenaprivate property. Indeed, as revealed
by laws in various U.S. states, the state might free itself of private
property by banishing property qualifications in voting. But
such a measure did not abolish private property, it "even presupposes
it." The basis for the state's claims of universality,
which comes with the banishment of property qualifications,
rest on the existence of private property. The particularity of private
property was, in other words, a necessary given for the universality
of the secular state. The state, therefore, "allows private
property, education, occupation, to act in their way. . . . to exert
the influence of their special nature. Far from abolishing these real
distinctions, the state only exists on the presupposition of their
existence."19 As long as inequalities in wealthas well as education
and occupationpersisted, Marx noted, there would be inequalities
in access to the electoral process including the "right
to be elected"a reality of U.S. politics that obviously has deep
roots. Again, the U.S. case revealed that "political emancipation
is not human emancipation."
Thirdly, as the "most progressive nation" the United States,
along with France, was where "the rights of man" existed in
"their authentic form." But these rights were those of the citizen
on the one hand and the individualistic man of civil society on
the other. They did not, however, lead to real liberation as long as
they were treated as uncritiqued givens. They rested on the erroneous
assumption that human fulfillment was based "not on the
association of man with man, but on the separation of man from
man" and the related claim that individualistic or "egoistic" man
was the actual basis for society.
Real "human emancipation" could only be accomplished by
rejoining individual and political man in every arena in daily
lifecitizen and manmerging his individual and social being
as the realization of his real "species-being."20 Marx set himself
the task of trying to understand how the reintegration of the
social and political being of humans could be accomplished. His
critique of private property, the material basis of civil society's
individualistic character, would soon lead him to a critique of
capitalism and a program for its overthrowthe necessary step
for human or, in later terms, social emancipation.
Finally, the United States revealed how "money has become a
world power" even within the world of Christianity. Anticipating
the even more blatant commodification of religion in today's
America, Marx stated "in North America . . . . the preaching of the
Gospel itself and the Christian ministry have become articles of
trade, and the bankrupt trader deals in the Gospel just as the
Gospel preacher who has become rich goes in for business
deals."21 Marx was describing one manifestation of what later historians
called the "market revolution" of Jacksonian America
about which more will be said later.
While critical of the "most progressive nation," Marx made
clear that "political emancipation is. . . . a big step forward,"
though not the "final form of human emancipation in general."
22 His acknowledgment of what had been achieved in
North Americaa necessary step on the road to real emancipation
was indeed sincere. If citizenship was limited because it
represented only political emancipation, it's acquisition was not
to be dismissed. In the German Ideology, again written within
two years of the "Jewish Question" thus expressing the views of
the communist Marx and Engels, they were clearly supportive
of this advance. "The workers attach so much importance to citizenship,
i.e., to active citizenship, that where they have it, for instance
in America, they 'make good use' of it, and where they
do not have it, they strive to obtain it. Compare the proceedings
of the North American workers at innumerable meetings, the
whole history of English Chartism, and of French communism
and reformism," the two wrote.23
Later, when one-time ally Ferdinand Lassalle told Marx in
1862 that the "Yankees have no 'ideas'. . . . 'The freedom of the
individual' is merely a 'negative idea', etc.," he dismissed Lassalle's
comment as "antiquated, mouldering, speculative rubbish."
24 The theoretical and therefore, political import of the
U.S. case for Marx was that it revealed the best that "really
existing" democracy had to offer. It was just such a conclusion
that drove Marx to look beyond "political emancipation"to
reach communist conclusions.
Where did Marx obtain his evidence about the United
States? How valid was it? He drew on three sources in the
"Jewish Question" articles, one of which was Tocqueville's
Democracy in America, published eight years earlier. Other than
employing the latter to substantiate his point about the U.S.
being "pre-eminently the country of religiosity," Marx did not
make any other explicit reference to Tocqueville. He was informed
by the writings of Tocqueville's travel companion to
North America, Gustave de Beaumont(1802–1866) and secondarily
Thomas Hamilton(1789–1842), an English writer.
Though Beaumont's work, Marie or, Slavery in the United
States was a novel published in 1835, the same year as his companion's
bookabout a romance between a young Frenchman
and mulatto woman doomed by the racial prejudices of the erait
contained highly informative appendices and notes about
Blacks, Indians, women, religion and other subjects. His data
about religious life was the basis for Marx's observations about
its role and character in U.S. society. In reference to the overall
theme of his bookracism in the United StatesBeaumont addressed
in the foreword why his book might give the reader "different
impressions" of the United States than Tocqueville's work.
"The true reason is this: M. de Tocqueville has described the institutions;
I myself have tried to sketch the customs. Now, in the
United States, political life is far finer, and more equitably shared,
than civil life [la vie civile, in original]. While men may find small
enjoyment in family life there and few pleasures in society, citizens
enjoy in the world of politics a multitude of rights."25 This is
revealing in that it suggests that Tocqueville, like Marx, also employed
the civil-political society distinction. This might help explain
why Tocqueville treated the reality of Blacks, Indiansand
women alsoas peripheral to his analysis of democracy. The apparent
assumption that the U.S. political community could be explained
without an examination of civil society or, more
specifically, slaveryand vice versawas exactly what Marx argued
and fought against.
It might be argued that Beaumont's comment refers only to
the first volume of Democracy in America and not to the second,
published five years later, where the author addressed "customs"
and "mores"themes that properly belong to civil society.
There is some merit to the retort but what Tocqueville does
present is a very incomplete description of civil society. (Neither
is it always clear, unlike the first volume, if Tocqueville is referring
to United States or European realities.) Political economy,
regarded then by many as the central component of civil society,
is most undevelopedan issue to be addressed later. Whatever
the case, the reality of slavery, Blacks, Indians, and women is
even more tangential to his concerns in the second volume.
Thomas Hamilton's two-volume travelogue, Men and Manners
in America, was published two years before Democracy in America
and Marie. Beaumont drew on it in his discussion of U.S. religious
life.26 Although the only explicit reference to Hamilton in the
"Jewish Question" concerns electoral laws and the pervasiveness
and commodification of religion, Marx's extant notebooks indicate
that he keenly read Hamiltonin all likelihood the first detailed
account of the United States he had encountered.27 There is
much to suggest that it was Hamilton's reading of the United
States that Marx prioritized for his assessment of the country and,
by implicationif my argument about the impact of the U.S. reality
on him is correctplayed a decisive role in the communist
conclusions he would later draw.28 Again, the focus here is the
pre-communist Marx who had not yet concluded that the proletariat
was the truly revolutionary class. Precisely because he
doesn't understand this phase in Marx's development, let alone
his overall project, Seymour Lipset gratuitously claims that Marx,
on the basis of the latter's reading of Hamilton, thought that socialism
was on the U.S. political agenda as early as 1829.29
The focus here is only on what Marx noted and excerpted from
Hamilton's work and what were some of the central claims Hamilton
made about U.S. society. Aside from the above-mentioned references
to Hamilton that Marx made, his notebooks excerpted
other matters from the book. Among them were the details of Virginia's
electoral laws, specifically, the fairly high property qualifications
for who could vote and be electedevidence for Marx
about the limitations of the suffrage in what Hamilton called "the
most democratic state in the Union."30 Marx cited a discussion on
public schools in New England including the interesting observation
by Hamilton that their purpose was so that "every man. . . .
shall qualify. . . . for a useful member of the State. No member of
society can be considered as an isolated and abstract being, living
for his own pleasure, and labouring for his own advantage."31
Could this have been an inspiration for Marx's major argument
about the desirability of rejoining egoistical and political man?
Lastly, there are the very important excerpts from Hamilton
regarding class inequality and conflict in New York City and the
activities of what was apparently the recently formed Workingmen's
Party, the first working class party anywhere. These realities
seemed to have escaped Tocqueville's observant eyes during
his visit to the city at almost the same time, several months before
Hamilton, in May 1831. Hamilton's observations were exactly
the evidence that Marx could rely on to make his case about
the limitations of "political emancipation."
The last point speaks to a central difference between Hamilton's
entire book and Democracy in America, its greater attention
to both the class and racial inequalities in the United Stateswhile
recognizing at the same time what had been gained in the
way of political democracy. It's useful to note that his visit and
book were prompted by the many claims being made in the
newly-reformed parliament in London about the wonders of
U.S. democracy. While Tocqueville sought to see what EuropeFrance
in particularcould learn from the U.S. experience,
Hamilton came with a certain degree of skepticism about the
United States as a model.
As for the class issue, Hamilton noted that it was the
"Workies," as he called the Workingmen's Partya tendency he
was clearly leery of probably because they were in the forefront
of the democratic impulsethat demanded "equal and universal
It is false, they say, to maintain that there is at present no privileged
order, no practical aristocracy, in a country where distinctions
of education are permitted. . . . There does exist thenthey
arguean aristocracy of. . . . knowledge, education and refinement,
which is inconsistent with the true democratic principle of
absolute equality. . . . There are others who go still further, and
boldly advocate the introduction of an AGRARIAN LAW, and a periodical
division of property. These unquestionably constitute
the extreme gauche of the Worky Parliament. . . . 32
Marx's above-cited comment about how the "state allows
private property, education, occupation, to act in their way . . . to
exert the influence of their special nature" may indeed have been
inspired by the "Worky" program. It should be noted again that
Marx wrote this before he had concluded that the proletariat
would be the class to achieve the realization of real democracy
and, thus, human emancipation. Thus, it may well be the case
that the conclusions he would draw within a year and a half of
writing the "Jewish Question" were profoundly influenced by
what he learned from Hamilton. The latter had more to say not
only about the Workies but other aspects of class inequality and
tensions in the United States, along with the prospects for class
struggle. Again, this is in sharp contrast to Tocqueville's account
which says virtually nothing about the growing workers's
movement in the country.
The other major theme in Hamilton's account is its attention
to racial inequality and the impact of slavery. Throughout both
volumes he depicts the horrors of the institution and how it fostered
racism beyond the slave holding states. He rejected the
views of the slave owners, with whom he discussed the issue,
who claimed that they too favored abolition but were "slave
holders by compulsion alone." Hamilton dismissed their
excuses. The abolition they wanted was "of a peculiar kind,
which must be at once cheap and profitable. . . [to] enrich his
master." The real reason slavery was maintained was that its end
would "put a stop to the cultivation both of sugar and rice in the
United States, and the compulsion of which the planters speak is
the compulsion of money."33 It was the "pecuniary interests" of
the planters that explained its continuance. For Hamilton material
interests drove the "peculiar institution."
More than anything, Hamilton viewed slavery as an affront
to the democratic claims of the country, a "national disgrace." He
was especially appalled by what he saw in the nation's capital.
"Washington the seat of government of a free people, is disgraced
by slavery. . . . While the orators in Congress are rounding
periods about liberty in one part of the city, proclaiming,
alto voce, that all men are equal, and that 'resistance to tyrants
is obedience to God,' the auctioneer is exposing human flesh to
sale in another! [One day in Washington he remembered
when] the members of this enlightened and August body [the
Senate] were driven to the Capitol by slave coachmen, who
were at that very moment waiting to convey them back, when
the rights of man had been sufficiently disserted on for the day.
. . . [T]hat slavery should exist in the district of Columbia, that
even the footprint of a slave should be suffered to contaminate
the soil peculiarly consecrated to Freedom, that the very shrine
of the Goddess should be polluted by the presence of chains
and fetters, is perhaps the most extraordinary and monstrous
anomaly to which human inconsistencya prolific motherhas
The reality of Washington helped to explain what he also took
note ofthe disproportionate influence of the slavocracy in the
national government. As for the future of the "peculiar institution:"
"To suppose that slavery can long continue in this country
when other nations shall have freed themselves from the foulest
stain which has ever polluted their humanity, is to contemplate a
period when the United States will become a nuisance upon
earth, and an object of hatred and derision to the whole world."
And in anticipation of the Civil War, Hamilton proclaimed: "My
own conviction is, that slavery in this country can only be eradicated
by some great and terrible convulsion. The sword is evidently
suspended; it will fall at last."35 In no uncertain terms
slavery for Hamilton had indeed made the United States into a
"defiled republic"what Marx would later note in his letter to
Lincolnand undermined any claims for it as a model of democracy.
As will be seen shortly, this was clearly not the portrait
that Tocqueville had painted.
Though none of this found its way into Marx's extant notebooks
it's unlikely that it didn't influence his reading of U.S. democracy.
For example, when he argued in the "Jewish Question"
that even if the state was free of religious affiliation, religion
could still have a hold on its citizensthe tendency to encourage
narrowness and separationit's likely that he had Hamilton's
narrative in mind, particularly, his account (see below) of racial
segregation in Protestant denominations.36 Whatever the case,
Hamilton's book, in combination with Beaumont's Marie, introduced
Marx to the reality of race and slavery in the United States
and doubtlessly was influential in his argument about the limits
of political emancipation.37
Although the only explicit reference Marx made to Democracy in
America concerns the country's religiosity, it's instructive at this
stage of my analysis, before turning to the communist Marx, to
look more closely at Tocqueville. To start, how did the evidence
from Hamilton and Beaumont that Marx employed in the "Jewish
Question" and excerpted in his notebooks compare to what
Tocqueville had to offer? Secondly, how did Tocqueville's account
compare to what Hamilton had to say on the social inequality,
race and slavery issues discussed above? And finally,
how did Tocqueville's conclusions about U.S. democracy compare
to those of Marx?
Regarding the United States as "pre-eminently the country
of religiosity," Tocqueville, as already noted, was one of Marx's
sources for this characterization. "On my arrival in the United
States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that
struck my attention," he stated. But what is most notable about
Tocqueville's account is the relative lack of concrete evidence
about U.S. religious life. His tendency instead was to make
broad generalizations without supporting evidence. About the
United States, for example, and no doubt betraying his admitted
pro-Catholic sympathies, "they,"the Catholics"constitute
the most republican and the most democratic class in the United
States."38 Or, in regard to Christians in general, "They are not
hostile to anyone in the world. . . .they love their contemporaries
while they condemn their weaknesses and lament their errors."39
To appreciate the reality of religion in the United States,
Marx turned to Beaumont and Hamilton. The picture they presented
was more complex than Tocqueville's portrait and revealed
that all was not as brotherly as he suggested. Hamilton
was critical, for example, of the racial practices of Protestants.
"No white Protestant would kneel at the same altar with a black
one. He asserts his superiority everywhere, and the very hue of
his religion is affected by the colour of his skin."40
Beaumont cited Hamilton's observation, possibly because it
praised, he wrote, the Catholic church for including "worshipers
of all colours and classes" in their servicesthe basis, perhaps,
for Tocqueville's claim about Catholicism's democratic and republican
credentials. Beaumont also provided details on Christian
sectarianism, particularly "l'hostilité des protestants contre les
catholiques; la seconde est l'hostilité de toutes les sectes chrétiennes
contre les unitaires."41 As a product and victim of Germany's long
history of religious sectarianism, all of this no doubt struck a responsive
chord with Marx. Religious sectarianism and the racial
practices of Protestants to him were evidence of the "defect" of
religionagain, the separation of humans from one another.
That Marx saw the need to cite Tocqueville only once doesn't
mean, however, that he dismissed his account. On the contrary,
a case can be made that Tocqueville's observations about U.S. religiosity
played a key role in the conclusions Marx drew about
the limits of its democracy. The major theme in Tocqueville's discussion
on religion was how, in distinction to Europe, the separation
of church and state actually increased the influence of
Christianity. "In the United States religion exercises but little influence
upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion;
but it directs the customs of the community, and, by regulating
domestic life, it regulates the state," Tocqueville wrote.42 He believed
the influence of Christianity was one of the "causes to
maintain democracy" in the United States.
The reality that Tocqueville described in the United States
led Marx to draw very different conclusions. To understand why
it must be noted that in his prior writings, especially his critique
of Hegel, Marx had argued that the problem in Germany, that of
how to realize democracy, had to take into account the reality of
civil societyhumans in their social relations outside the state,
such as the religious sphere. Tocqueville's insight about the consequences
of the separation of church and state in the United
States may indeed have been the basis for what Marx noted in
The Holy Family, his first collaborative work with Engels and
written about a year after the "Jewish Question": "religion develops
in its practical universality only where there is no privileged
religion (cf. the North American States)."
Marx continued, "in the developed modern state . . . the dissolution
of religion by the abolition of the state church, to this
proclamation of their civil death corresponds their most vigorous
life, which henceforth obeys its own laws undisturbed and
develops to its full scope."43 Both statements are clearly consistent
with Tocqueville's explanation for the flourishing of religion
in the United States.44
Secondly, while Tocqueville saw the non-Christian as suffering
from an "aberration of intellect,"45 for Marx, it was the religious
believer who was afflicted with a "defect." If Tocqueville
thought that Christianity's regulation of "domestic life" sustained
democracy because it regulated the state, Marx most certainly
did not, as he argued in opposition to Hegel. Not only was
religion a form of defective thinking, butin anticipation of
some feminist critiques of liberal democracy"domestic" or
"family life" for Marx meant the world of "patriarchal laws"
which therefore made it "unfit . . . where it was a question of the
political [i.e. democratic] state, of citizenship.46
In effect then, Tocqueville provided Marx with just the kind
of evidence he needed to support his thesis about the limitations
of a state-centered theory of democracy. If in the most democratic
country in existence religious influence could not only persist but
actually increase, then indeed political emancipation wasn't sufficient
for human emancipation. Tocqueville's evidence and insight,
therefore, allowed Marx to ground his thesis in a way he
had not been able to until thenfor Marx, a necessary step on the
road to a communist perspective. What this suggests, thenperhaps
a moment in the development of nineteenth century political
thought not appreciated until nowis that Tocqueville served
as an important foil for Marx's political development.
With regard to suffrage and related issues of private property
and education, Tocqueville claimed that "universal suffrage
has been adopted in all the states of the Union." Furthermore, it
was "the most powerful of the causes that tend to mitigate the
violence of political associations in the United States."47 Another
factor that helped to still the passions of the masses was that "in
America there are no paupers. As everyone has property of his
own to defend, everyone recognizes the principle upon which he
holds it."48 Regarding education, Tocqueville noted that access to
formal education was very limited and varied from one part of
the country to the other, the least available in the South and
West. The "learned,"he offered, are very "few." Yet, he "was surprised
to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens
and so little among the heads of government."49 The most educated,
evidently, were not privileged when it came to the political
arena. For Tocqueville, an inveterate elitist, this was not
admirable. " 'When the right of suffrage is universal, and when
the deputies are paid by the state, it's singular how low and how
far wrong the people can go', he had noted in his diary."50 An example
of such an outcome was the election of Davy Crockett to
the House of Representatives in 1828 from Memphis. If Crockett,
probably the most popular figure in the country after Andrew
Jackson, was a real hero for those wary of the increasingly elitist
character of rule in the country, he was, for Tocqueville, someone
" 'who has had no education, can read with difficulty, has no
property, no fixed residence, but passes his life hunting, selling
his game to live, and dwelling continuously in the woods. His
competitor, a man of wealth and talent, failed.'" Tocqueville's diary
account leaves little doubt about for whom he would have
voted and his real opinion of universal suffrage.
As noted before, Hamilton's account made clear that contrary
to Tocqueville's assertion, universal suffrage was not a
norm; property qualifications were very much in force. His comments
on education, however, were virtually in agreement with
those of Tocqueville. These included the above-mentioned point
about the low correlation between levels of education and occupation
of political office. Most divergent were their treatments of
the issue of class and social inequality. Tocqueville did not deny
the existence of social inequality in the U.S. With manufacturing
came, he stated, "rich men," although "the class of rich men does
not exist. . . .[they don't act as a] definite class."51 But as is so often
the case in Tocqueville's second volumewhere he addressed
such questionsit's not always clear if he referred
specifically to the United States. Whatever the case he clearly
feared that the acquisitive nature of U.S. society, especially that
associated with the growing industrial revolution, would aggravate
social inequality.52 This was something Marx expected, "the
effects of private property" acting "in their way."
At the same time, Tocqueville found that in the United States,
"fortunes are scanty and insecure" and the "equality of conditions
. . . prevents any [member of the community] from having resources
of great extent."53 His chapter in the second volume, "Influence
of Democracy on Wages," is oftentimes insightfulit even
mentions "the constant struggle for wages. . . between these two
classes," i.e. "the workman" and "employer"54but is not necessarily
informed by the U.S. reality.
Thus, absent from Tocqueville's descriptions, especially in
contrast to Hamilton, was the specificity of class conflict in the
U.S. context. His overall tendency was to focus on the factors
that mitigated its possible eruption. And since slavery, the most
unambiguous expression of class inequality, was peripheral to
his analysis of democracy, his forebodings about it centered at
best on racial, not class conflict. In effect, Tocqueville didn't inform
his reader about the class conflicts already underway in the
United States, let alone prepare them to understand how those
conflicts would actually advance the democratic struggle.
Tocqueville's cursory attention to the class question reflects a
larger problemthe absence of any sustained discussion on the
U.S. political economy, particularly industrial development. It's
clear from his diary, notes and travel schedule that he simply
had little or no interest in the matter, not only in the United
States but also in England, which he visited a few years later.
"Beaumont also felt at a loss in trying to orient his friend [Tocqueville]
where it was a "question of political economy."55
This is in sharp contrast to his countrymen, Michel Chevalier,
who traveled to the United States a couple of years later, for
the same amount of time, and wrote extensively on the economic
changes underway in the country. That the latter was a follower
of the utopian socialist Claude Saint-Simon (1760–1825) was no
doubt determinant. That Tocqueville, on the other hand, was
largely ignorant of political economy of any variety was also determinant
in ways to be discussed later. Suffice it to note here
the earlier observation, based on a comment by Beaumont, that
political economy for Tocqueville appears to have been in the
sphere of civil society and therefore, like race, and gender, tangential
to the concerns of Democracy in America. To the extent that
he interested himself with economic matters in and beyond the
book he came close to being a land determinist, believing that
"[e]ssential political and psychological relationships in a society
depended on the existing pattern of landholding."56 The contrast
with Marx, who would soon conclude that socio-economic relations
were central, couldn't be starker.
Although Tocqueville relegated the Black experience to the
periphery, it's important to look at what he did have to say.57 First,
his views on Blacks can only be described as racist: "we are almost
inclined to look upon him as a being intermediate between man
and the brutes," Tocqueville claimed.58 He betrayed, as well, an
essentialist opinion of race relations: "wherever the whites have
been the most powerful, they have held the blacks in degradation
or in slavery; wherever the Negroes have been strongest, they
have destroyed the whites: this has been the only balance that has
ever taken place between the two races."59 It's possible to dismiss
such opinions on the grounds that they were representative of the
times, which is partially true; it's not as if Hamilton was that much
more progressive. However, there were others in France who proceeded
Tocqueville who had far more enlightened ideas, specifically,
Abbé Grégoire, the author of the well-known anti-racist
tract, De la littérature des Nègres, ou, Recherches sur leurs facultés intellectuelles
(1810). In this polemic, he criticized Thomas Jefferson's
thesis of Black racial inferiority. Tocqueville had to be familiar
with Grégoire's views. 60
As for his spin on slavery, Tocqueville is certainly more tentative
than Hamilton. It's true that he considered that the free states
were more "populous and prosperous" than the slave states. Neither
did he defend the institution"God forbid that I should
seek to justify the principle of Negro slavery."61 But in devoting
as much time as he does to explaining why it would be almost
impossible to get rid of the "peculiar institution" he comes close
to being its apologist.62 Perhaps this explains why his narrative,
in comparison to Hamilton's, gives little or no sense of the horrors
of servitude for the slaves themselves. Tocqueville noted that
while the laws in the South were atrocious for slaves, the slavocracy,
in fact, has "not. . . augmented the hardships of slavery; on
the contrary, they have bettered the physical condition of the
slaves."63 His description of sugar-cane cultivation in Louisiana is
strikingly at variance with Hamilton's. Tocqueville was impressed
by how "exceedingly lucrative" it was for the slave ownerswhy
it would be difficult to abolishwhereas Hamilton,
upon visiting such a plantation, was struck by how it "was only
carried on at an appalling sacrifice of life" for the slaves.64 In providing
a richly informed description of the depths of racial prejudice
in the Northagain, no doubt based on Beaumont's
researchTocqueville suggests that things were actually worse
there for Blacks than in Southern bondage.
Given the tone of his treatment, it's no surprise that, unlike
Hamilton, there is no sense of outrage in Tocqueville's account
about slavery. While he had no hesitation in asserting that Jefferson
was "the most powerful advocate democracy has ever
had," Hamilton saw Jefferson, the slave owner, as the embodiment
of the "national disgrace."65 It becomes obvious why Democracy
in America, as well as Beaumont's Marie, "appear to have
excited no hostility toward [the authors]. . . in the South. They
caused no indignation among slaveholders."66 Or, it's "no wonder
that despite [Beaumont and Tocqueville's] condemnation of
the principles and practices of slavery. . . their works on America
furnished ample material for the spokesmen of the anti-abolitionists
in France."67 Neither is it surprising that a leading Black
abolitionist "accused Tocqueville's writing of aiding 'the perpetuation
of American slavery.'"68
With regard to slavery's future and that of the union, Tocqueville
made a most telling comment about his methodology:
"Slavery has not created interests in the South contrary to those
in the North. . . . Slavery, then, does not attack the American
Union directly in its interests, but indirectly in its manners."69
The differences between the North and the South, in other
words, were not to be sought in matters of political economy, as
Hamilton suggested, but rather in "manners" and "habits"theoretical
premises about which more will be said shortly. If
Tocqueville didn't anticipate a war between the states to be
fought over the slave question, he was nevertheless pessimistic
about the future of race relations in the country. Given the situation
in the North, "I do not believe that the white and black races
will ever live in any country upon an equal footing."70 Hence, he
predicted an all-out race war or the recolonization of Blacks back
to Africa as the only outcomes to the conflict. Yet, in spite of his
hedging, he was clearly opposed to slavery, but in typical Tocquevillian
fashion he seemed more fearful of what it would take
to bring it to an enda lot of bloodshed. He doubted that such
a price was worth the effort because "if liberty be . . . given . . .
to the Negroes . . . they will before long abuse it."71
In contrast to Hamilton, Tocqueville failed to foresee the
Civil War and its significance for the advancement of democracy.
His foreboding about the coming carnage was sustained but
clearly not in the way he thought. Because of his assumption
about democracy's supposed fulfillment in the United States, it
could never occur to him that war would be necessary to make
real democracy a living reality. Thus, the absence of any discussion
in his Democracy in America of the seven year war that
brought the democracy he so admired into existence. Since slavery,
for him, was a collateral issue, he could only be pessimistic
about what it would take to end it. Any struggle to abolish it
would be a detraction from the democratic impulse rather than
an advance for it. These, we'll see, were just the opposite of the
conclusions drawn by Marx and Engels.
What most significantly distinguished Marx from Tocqueville
at this stage in the analysiswas the former's conviction
that the vanguard example of the democratic
movement was still very much a work in progress. Tocqueville's
portrait, including his claim that the United States
was the "absolute democracy," supplemented by those of
Beaumont and Hamilton, revealed to Marx what remained to
be done. The criteria he employed in reading Tocqueville,
based largely on his critique of Hegel, allowed him to be more
sober. Rooted on terra firmathe reality of the United StatesMarx
was now in a position to undertake the requisite inquiry
to learn what it would take to realize real democracy, the "sovereignty
of the people."
The most politically liberated society had taught that as long
as private propertythe fundamental underpinning of civil
societywas in place then human emancipation, the rejoining of
the social and political, was not possible. If there was now clarity
on the diagnosis of the problem, then a prescription for its solution
was in sight. This was the next stage in Marx's quest.
Only as a result of his political economy research in the next
two years leading to what he and his new partner called their
"materialist conception of history," would he be able to say in no
uncertain terms that the overthrow of slavery was the necessary
condition for full political emancipationand thus, eventually,
human emancipationnot only in the United States but in Europe
as well. Again, the conclusions Marx reached in 1843 about
the limitations of the U.S. polity, based in part on his reading of
Tocqueville, were a necessary step in the position he would soon
take on the "peculiar institution."72
The Judgement of Recent Scholarship: A Balance Sheet
How has Tocqueville's portrait of U.S. democracy stood up to the
test of modern scholarship? What about the conclusions that
Marx reached? To be clear, the comparison at this time is their differing
assessments of Jacksonian America, the period which informed
Democracy in America, as well as the texts of Beaumont
and Hamilton. This was the historical moment, based on these
texts, that informed the young Marx en route to communism in
making his earliest claims about the U.S.73 In subsequent chapters,
especially Two and Three and the Appendix, I will subject
Marx and Engel's views about developments leading up to and
after the Civil War to the same kind of scrutiny.
Perhaps what testifies bestfor the purposes of this bookto
Marx and Engels's accomplishments in the next two years is
that their historical materialist perspective, and not Tocqueville's
analysis, served as the framework for what is now considered to
be the definitive account of the period, Charles Sellers's, The
Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846, published in
1991. Sellers notes at the outset that his study is informed by "the
most powerful conceptual tools for understanding America's
central transformation," namely, the perspectives of Marx and
Engels.74 The central theme of his work is that the Jacksonian period
can best be understood as one engulfed in a gigantic class
struggle between what he calls, on one side, the "developmentalist
capitalist" forces and, on the other, the array of "patriarchal
republicans." The former constituted those who were prepared
to employ and expand an activist state to put in place the requisite
institutions and infrastructure to promote a capitalist mode
of production. The latter embodied the Jeffersonian ideal of the
small rural white male property owner.
A particular strength of Sellers's work, and more relevant for
present purposes, is that it treats the religious ferment underway
in the country that Tocqueville and Beaumont reported on as a
key component of the anti-developmentalist coalition in all of its
contradictory manifestations. As Sellers demonstrates, there was
a deep reactionary side to the second "Awakening," one that exhibited
the kind of defective thinking that Marx associated with
religion. Sellers shows how all of this was reflected in the political
realignments of party politics. With Jackson as its titular
leader, the coalition sought to put a halt to the market revolution
engineered by the "developmentalists." At stake was not just the
country's heart and soul but its very direction: would it become
a full-fledged and, later, advanced capitalist country with all that
implied for class formation, or the agrarian republic in the image
of Jefferson. The outcome, of course, was victory for the developmentalists.
But as Sellers, pointedly concludes, on the eve of
the Civil War, "market revolution made slavery the great contradiction
of the liberal American republic."75
The portrait that Sellers paints is quite different than that of
Tocqueville. It isn't the case that the latter necessarily misrepresented
reality but provided a description that was totally incomplete.
With his almost exclusive focus on what Beaumont described
as the political "institutions," Tocqueville offers at best a
snapshotfull of errorsthat lacks a sense of the big ferment
underway that Sellers describes or the seismic forces that drove
the "great contradiction." What Tocqueville presents are political
institutions, minus the driving force of the politics of civil society.
Little wonder that much of modern political science analysis
finds Tocqueville so attractive.76
In contrast, there is the even more incomplete evaluation by
Marxagain, on the road to communist conclusionsbut one
whose outlines anticipates Sellers. Though the historical materialist
assumptions of his analysisparticularly, the tensions and conflicts
between different modes of productionwould take Marx
and Engels two more years to formulate, the attention that Sellers
gives to the religious tumult underway in Jacksonian America is
exactly what Marx honed in on while reading Tocqueville, Beaumont,
and Hamilton. He already grasped, unlike Tocqueville, that
religiosity, religious conflict and sectarianism reflected more fundamental
aspects of civil society that political institutions alone
couldn't explain. It was indeed this realization that led him to an
examination of, as he would later explain, the "anatomy of civil society,"
that is, political economy. Two years later, the "new world
outlook" of historical materialism would emerge.
Bruce Levine's Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War,
published a year after Sellers's book in 1992, covers similar terrain
but fleshes out the details of the "great contradiction" that
the latter concludes with. As the title indicates, Levine's masterly
synthesis of extant research argues that the Civil War was the result
of "two antagonistic systems of social organization." Consistent
with Marx's historical materialist perspective, he
demonstrates convincingly that the "distinctive ways in which
North and South organized their labor systems left their mark on
all aspects of regional lifeincluding family, gender, and leisure
patterns and both religious and secular life. Such cultural
changes, in turn, deeply influenced political life."77
Tocqueville, it may be recalled, didn't view the differences
between the North and South in their political economies but
rather in "manners" and "habits." The latter, for Tocqueville, appear
to have an independent existence. For Levine they are the
product of the two very different systems of production.
More recently, Anthony Gronowicz's, Race and Class Politics
in New York City Before the Civil War verifies at the local level
many of the developments that Sellers and Levine describe nationally,
but with the added emphasis on race. Gronowicz
proves that previous research on the period, especially, Sean
Wilentz's classic study, Chants Democratic,78that tried to explain
the class struggle without taking into account race and
racial slaverywas woefully inadequate. While Tocqueville also
slighted the effects and dynamics of chattel bondage in his
accountthat he spent time in New York during his visit is noteworthy
for Gronowicz they are central in understanding the
city's politics in the Jacksonian era.
The limitations of the workers's movement prior to the Civil
War on the race and slavery questions, what Gronowicz focuses
on and what Sellers in part means by the "contradictions" of the
anti-developmentalist coalition"patriarchy, racism, and feesimple
property"79is exactly what Marx alluded to in his 1864
letter to Lincoln. More completely, he wrote: "While the working
men, the true political power of the North, allowed slavery to
defile their own republic; while before the Negro, mastered and
sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative
of the white-skinned labourer to sell himself and choose his
own master; they were unable to attain the true freedom of
labour or to support their European brethren in their struggle for
emancipation." Or, as he put it in Capital three years later: "In the
United States of America, every independent movement of the
workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of
the Republic." As long as the movement of free labor, therefore,
failed to fight for the liberation of bonded labor but rather
"boasted" of what David Roediger calls the "wages of whiteness,"
its own struggle against the "developmentalists" could
never succeed. The details of Gronowicz's work will be examined
in chapter 3.
As for the many specific claims in Democracy in America,
there exists a fairly extensive body of literature that severely
questions Tocqueville's portrait. Edward Pessen's book, Riches,
Class, and Power before the Civil War, remains the most detailed
and exacting challenge. Its purpose was "to determine the extent
to which" the claim that Jacksonian America was an 'era of the
common man,' whose "chief architect . . . was Alexis de Tocqueville,"
is actually "borne out by the evidence."80
Pessen subjected key claims in Tocqueville's work to empirical
data. Regarding Tocqueville's assertion that the "equality of
condition" in the United States prevented any of its citizens
"from having resources of great extent," he concluded: "The notion
that antebellum America lacked substantial fortunes is not
borne out by the evidence, primarily, as will be noted, because of
its faulty assumption concerning the alleged distribution of 'resources
to all members of the community.'"81 The data also questioned
Tocqueville's most basic claim about "the general
equality of condition among the people." Facts "establish that
increasing inequality rather than equality was a central theme of
American life during the 'era of the common man.'"82 As to the
claim that the wealthy were not involved in the country's governance,
the data suggested otherwise: "the more affluent classes
and 'those who carried on the business of the country' had a
great deal of influence over the government of the nation's cities
during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. . . . [to the
contrary] the rich appear to have been a true 'governing class.'
Despite his possession of the suffrage, the common man had little
influence, let alone power, in the nation's cities during the era
named in his honor."83 In general, the young Marx would not
have been surprised at Pessen's findings given the position he
had reached earlier about the "effects of private property . . . to
act in their way."
As for the suffrage question, Alexander Keyssar purports to
contest in his recent work the supposed findingwhose "most
well-known early celebrant" was Tocquevillethat "the history
of suffrage," at least in the United States, "is the history of gradual,
inevitable reform, and progress." He presents overwhelming
evidence that this was simply not the case. Tocqueville's
specific claim that "universal suffrage has been adopted in all
the states of the Union" was patently false, not only for women,
non-slave Blacks, migrants, the poor and felons but also for significant
numbers of working class white males at the time when
Democracy in America was published in 1835. While it is true that
the latter acquired, on average, more access to the vote before
their cohorts in Europe did, Keyssar shows convincingly that
they did so prior to becoming members of the working class as
small farmers or petty artisans. The "critical fact," he concludes,
is "that the reforms of the antebellum era were not designed or
intended to enfranchise a large, industrial, and partially foreignborn
Levine also disputes Tocqueville's mantra about the
equality of condition in the non-slave owning areas of the
United States. He begins chapter two with a quote from Tocqueville
to this effect and then systematically presents evidence
to the contrary. The particular focus is on increasing
disparities in wealth and ownership of property from the inception
of the republic to the Civil War. Levine presents data
and opinions about U.S. social reality during the period of
Tocqueville's visit that convincingly challenge his claim. He
concludes with the bleak assessment made by Philip Hone in
1847: "Our good city of New York has already arrived at the
state of society to be found in the large cities of Europe; overburdened
with population, and where the two extremes of
costly luxury and living, expensive establishments, and improvident
waste are presented in daily and hourly contrast
with squalid misery and hopeless destitution."85 Tocqueville's
description of the city in 1831 would not have prepared its
readers for such an evolution.
Various retrospectives were made on the enduring value of
the first volume of Democracy in America on the sesquicentennial
anniversary of its publication. In 1985, a number of these were
collected in Reconsidering Tocqueville's Democracy in America, edited
by Abraham Eisenstadt. The volume brings together a number
of distinguished scholars from various disciplines who
subject Tocqueville to a critical review. To varying degrees they
raise serious questions about his classic as an accurate portrayal
of the reality he claimed to have describedcriticisms that are
elaborated on in the aforementioned works.
The most recent, and perhaps most well-known, challenge to
Tocqueville's overall reading of the United States is the monumental
effort of Rogers Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of
Citizenship in U.S. History. Smith argues that the main problem
with the Tocquevillian interpretation is that it focused only on the
"political life" of the United States, which appeared "remarkably
egalitarian in comparison to Europe."86 Such an interpretation
tends to ignore the "array of fixed, ascriptive hierarchies"
throughout the history of the countryespecially, the subordination
of women, Native Americans and Blacksthe painstaking
details of which is the substance of his tome. The title of chapter
eight, "High Noon of the White Republic: The Age of Jackson,
1829–1856," leaves little to the imagination. Smith describesin
great detailhow the country that Tocqueville visited in
1831–1832 was in the process of creating a democratic republic
that excluded non-whites. "If ever an era fit [an] account in which
racist, nativist, and patriarchal views structured American political
development and conflicts as fully as liberal republican ones,
this is it."87
Smith's critique, nevertheless, is fundamentally within Tocqueville's
own framework. Like the latter, his is the "political
cause of liberal democracy."88 What he faults Tocqueville and his
modern-day followers for is ignoring the existence of the "White
Republic" for most of the country's history and failure for not
advocating a more inclusive liberal democracy. The young Marx
would have argued, on the other hand, that even if the ascriptive
hierarchies had been dismantled, the liberal democratic polity
would still have been inadequate for the task of human emancipation.
89 Given his affinities with Tocqueville, it's no accident
that as comprehensive as Smith's case is it is devoid of what
Marx considered crucial, the undemocratic impact of private
property on the political processin other words, the class question.
I will critically revisit Smith's thesis in the Conclusions.
Finally, there is Michael Goldfield's recent book, The Color of
Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics, an inquiry also
informed by Marx and Engels's perspective.90 His main interest is
the historical interaction between race and color in the United
States. In the process he draws on a number of their observations,
some of which have been quoted earlier. Much of what Goldfield
has to say will be addressed in subsequent chapters. Suffice it to
note here that with facts and figures he is able to show convincingly
that there was in the United States in the decades leading up
to the Civil Warthe Jacksonian era, and contrary to what Tocqueville
suggesteda national ruling class profoundly tied to
wealth, whose economic base was slavery.
In sum, then, modern and current scholarship challenges,
successfully in my readings, the portrait Tocqueville painted of
Jacksonian America and sustains the incipient class analytic perspective
of the young Marx. As a last piece of evidence for this
claim, a case can be made that Marx offered a convincing explanation
why Tocqueville's interpretation of the era misses the
mark. To do so requires an appeal to Marx the communist, who
was now armed with his historical materialist framework.
In a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer in New York in 1852, Marx
observed: "in the United States bourgeois society is still too far
immature for the class struggle to be made perceptible and comprehensible."
91 He was referring, specifically, to the pre-eminent
economist in the United States, Henry Carey, and the limitations
of his analysis, but his comment could just as well have applied,
and even more justifiably, to Tocqueville, whose work was based
on observations made two decades earlier.92 There was a striking
similarity between their views. Both saw class conflict as relevant
only in the European setting and certainly not in the United
States, which lacked a feudal legacy. If, as Marx suggests, that it
was difficult to see the class struggle in 1852, then for Tocqueville
in 1831, before the "developmentalist coalition" had
consolidated its rule, it was even harder.
Marx's observation is valid but it begs other questions; why
was Hamilton able to be sensitive to the incipient class struggle
in the United States and Tocqueville not? To employ the mature
Marx again and his own experience, which he himself acknowledged,
it was not until he went to the homeland of Hamilton in
1845the site of the most advanced capitalist country, Britainthat
he fully appreciated the industrial revolution then well underway.
It was no accident that it was Engels, who had spent two
years in Manchester, in the entrails of the industrial revolution,
who led Marx to study political economy.
Tocqueville, owing to his class and national originsthe relatively
underdeveloped character of France vis-à-vis Britainhad
too many feet in the past to be fully cognizant of what was
underway in the United States. Hamilton was located in a framework
of the most advanced developments. As noted earlier, Tocqueville
had difficulty interesting himself in political economy.
Even in his first trip to England in 1833 his "interest . . . was in castles
and landed estates rather than its factories and railroads."93
Neither did Tocqueville's intellectual ancestry prepare him
to grasp what was unfolding. Marx believed that his contributions
were based on the pioneering work of intellectual giants
like David Ricardo, Adam Smith and James Steuart, as well as
Hegel, none of whom Tocqueville, as far as can be determined,
had been exposed. To the extent that Tocqueville was informed
by a theoretical presupposition, it was, as he stated in the introduction
to his work: "The gradual development of the principle
of equality is, therefore a providential fact"a claim that he repeated
in prefaces to subsequent editions of his book.94 Divine
intervention in the final analysis was the explanation for what he
claimed to have found in the United States. In a letter to John
Stuart. Mill in 1836, he described himself as a " 'new kind of liberal,'
seeking to base a stable civic culture not upon a materialistic
individualism but upon a socially integrating religion."95
What this revealed, as Seymour Drescher correctly argues, is that
Tocqueville lacked a "systematic theory of social change."96 For
Marx, the appeal to religion as a foundation for a philosophical,
methodological or political perspective was exactly the kind of
defective thinking that he criticized in Hegel and to which he
sought an alternative. That Christianity for Tocqueville was the
only valid religionIslam and Hinduism certainly weren'twas
further evidence for Marx of the paucity of thought that religion
fostered, expressing itself in all forms of sectarianism.97
Having said this, I am fully aware of Tocqueville's subsequent
travels to Britain and the impact it had on him. But this
raises another interesting question. Why didn't he address in introductions
to later editions of Democracy in America any reflections
on new ideas or changes under way in the United States,
which he no doubt followed? Marx and Engels often used prefaces
and introductions to new editions of their works to revisit
claims based on new developments or new data. That Tocqueville
did utilize the occasion of the twelfth edition of his
work in 1848, in the aftermath of the revolutionary upheavals in
France and elsewhere in Europe, to acknowledge the "sudden
and momentous . . . events'" revealed that he could indeed be
conscious of the times in which each edition appeared. Not only
did he not recognize the need to rethink anything about his
analysis but he advocated even stronger for the United States as
a model for Europe.
What the preceding suggests is that in addition to the inadequacies
and defects of his framework, there was another dimension
of Tocqueville that figured significantly in the image he
drew of the United Stateshis own political core, his most basic
political instincts. Like Marx and Engels, Tocqueville, too, was
the product of the French Revolution, perhaps even more so than
Marx and Engels.
But just as Stalinism in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution
left for some doubts about the desirability of revolutionary
overturns, the Terror in France had performed the same
function for many in the aftermath of its Revolution. Tocqueville,
owing to his class origins, was a victim of the Revolution
and a prime example of such sentiment. The guillotine had
taken its toll on his own family. Thus, his particular spin on the
United Statesthe realization of democracy without a revolutionary
strugglethat has many latter-day adherents. While the
drive toward equality was, as he argued, inexorable, his story of
the United States showed that it could be forged without revolutionary
intervention by the masses.
As Europe erupted in revolution in 1848, beginning in France
in February, he urged the European readers of the latest edition
of his book to look to the United States as the embodiment of
democratic governance. "The institutions of America . . . ought
to be a subject of study for republican France. It is not force
alone, but good laws that give stability to a new government. After
the combatants comes the legislator; the one has pulled
down, the other builds up," he wrote. And in recognition of the
revolutionary situation he had to facefor a truncated time
hopefully"each has his office."98 The belief that the legislative
arena and not the streets was the center of politics is what Marx
and Engels soon came to callon the basis of practical experience
with individuals who held views similar to those of Tocqueville"parliamentary
Nothing better captures Tocqueville than this admission in a
self-reflective moment sometime between 1839 and 1841:
'My mind is attracted by democratic institutions but I am instinctively
aristocratic because I despise and fear mobs. At the
most fundamental level, I passionately love freedom, legality,
respect for rights, but not democracy. I hate demagoguery, the
disordered action of the masses, their violent and unenlightened
intervention in public affairs. . . . I belong neither to the
revolutionary nor the conservative party. But, when all is said
and done, I incline towards the latter rather than the former because
I differ from the conservatives over means rather than
ends, while I differ from the revolutionaries over both means
This suggests that Tocqueville was not incapable of seeing what
Marx and Engels anticipated and later explained, and is now
verified by current scholarshipU.S. class formation and conflict
in the making. His second volume, published in 1840 five
years after the first tome, clearly saw the possibility for such a
messy reality since it was already underway in Europe. But the
political conclusions he would have had to drawthe need for
a revolutionary mass movement to prevent Sellers's "developmentalists"
and all that Tocqueville despised about them from
establishing their hegemonywent against his political grain.
The Revolution and the Terror had cast too long a shadow over
him. Tocqueville's disposition reminds one of the individual
that Frederick Douglass had in mind in his oft-quoted speech
on the eve of the Civil War: "Those who profess to favor freedom,
and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops
without plowing up the ground." Perhaps it was his fundamental
dislike for the plow of mass struggle that led Tocqueville
to overstate the size of the harvest that he so desired, without
sweat, blood, and all that accompanies the "disordered action of
Marx and Engels's political core was just the opposite of Tocqueville's.
They reveled in the fight. They were heartened
whenever the oppressed anywhere went into motion against
their oppressors. Sheldon Wolin, in his new book on Tocqueville,
is right to say that in contrast to the latter, "Marx
thought of politics as a form of combat." But the remainder of
the comparison is invidious. To posit that "Tocqueville might
be the last influential theorist who can be said to have truly
cared about political life" and that "[f]ew of his contemporaries
did," is dead wrong.100
There was nothing in Marx's life, nor that of Engels, to suggest
that either "truly cared about political life" any less than Tocqueville.
But what he and his partner understood and the latter
could not fathom was that "caring" wasn't enough. Combat is at
the heart of class politicson either side of the barricades. The
question is whether one is willing to put in the requisite time, energy,
and sacrifice to join the battle. History revealed that Tocqueville
was not so disposed while Marx and Engels were, and
single-mindedly so. The excerpt from Douglass's aforementioned
speech could easily have been authored by either of them.
Exactly because they sincerely believed, like Douglass, that "If
there is no struggle there is no progress," they understood in
their bones what it would take to bring about real democracy in
the United Statesthe subject to which we now turn.
- For details on Marx's political evolution at this stage see my Marx
and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (Albany,
N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2000), chapter 1.
- C. B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 10.
- Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol I. (New York:
Monthly Review Press, 1977), p. 59.
- 27, p. 405.
- 6, pp. 498, 504. In the catechismic style of his draft, Engels wrote,
in reply to the question, "What will be the course of this [proletarian]
revolution?": "In the first place it will inaugurate a democratic constitution
and thereby, directly or indirectly, the political rule of the proletariat."(6, p. 350)
Draper, The Annotated Communist Manifesto (Berkeley: Center for Socialist
History, 1984), pp. 175–77, makes a convincing case that unlike
Engels in his draft, Marx was deliberately vague in his usage of "democracy"
here and in other passages in the Manifesto, mainly because
he was not as clear as his partner on the role of the democratic struggle
in the transition to socialism. Within a year, however, he had clearly
embraced Engels's position.
- 6, p. 333.
- 27, p. 271.
- 38, p. 102.
- Marx, Grundrisse (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1973), p.
884 (hereafter, Grundrisse).
- 1, p.167. Marx wrote this in 1842. Note the similarity to what he
said twenty-five years later in the Preface to Capital about his reason for
beginning the inquiry with the analysis of the commodity: " . . . in the
analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents
are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both. But for
bourgeois society, the commodity-form . . . is the economic cell-form,"
or, later, "its elementary form." Capital, Vol I. (New York: Penguin,
1977), pp. 90, 125. The commodity, in other words, as the "pure case"
for understanding of capitalism.
- 3, p. 120.
- This crucial fact about Marx's writings in this period is exactly
what Seymour Lipset ignores or doesn't understand in his clumsy effort
to challenge Marx's understanding of the U.S. reality. See his "Why
No Socialism in the United States?" Radicalism in the Contemporary Age,
eds. Seweryn Bialer and Sophia Sluzar (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press,
1977). More about Lipset's legerdemain later.
- For a most informative discussion on Marx's usage of "civil society"
see Jan Rehmann, " 'Abolition' of Civil Society?: Remarks on a
Widespread Misunderstanding in the Interpretation of 'Civil Society,' "
Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall–Winter 1999).
- Draper's discussion of the articles and their context is first rate as
well as his appendix, "Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype," which
convincingly disputes the anti-semitic charge often directed at the work
(Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, vol. 1, respectively, chapter 5 and pp.
591–608). Gary Teeple's reading of the two articles is also useful, especially
if read together with Draper; Marx's Critique of Politics: 1842–1847
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), pp. 100–108. For a more recent
reading that also does justice to Marx's argument, see Y. Peled,
"From Theology to Sociology: Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx on the Question
of Jewish Emancipation," History of Political Thought 13(3): 463–85,
- 5, p. 236.
- 3, p. 150.
- The replies of evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson to a reporter's
questions about his study of religion would have probably resonated
with the young Marx and the Left Hegelians. While religion
may have promoted what he calls a "guarded egalitarianism" and
"willingness of people to cooperate with others," it could also be divisive.
"Religions and other social organizations may preach kindness
and cooperation within the group, but they often say nothing about
those outside the group, and may even promote brutality toward those
beyond the brotherhood of the [bee] hive. That has been the dark side
[Marx's "defect"] of religion" (New York Times, Dec. 24, 2002).
- ibid., p. 151.
- ibid., p. 153.
- ibid., pp. 162–68.
- ibid., p. 171. Commenting on the brief spurt in religiosity in the
U.S. in the aftermath of September 11, Robert Wuthnow, director of the
Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, made a comment
that Marx would have understood all too well: " 'We are in some
ways a very religious country, especially compared to Western Europe,'
Mr. Wuthnow said. 'But we're of two minds, and the other mind is that
we are pretty secular. We are very much a country of consumers and
shoppers, and we're quite materialistic. And as long as we can kind of
paste together a sense of control through our ordinary work and our
ordinary purchases, we're pretty happy to do that' "(New York Times,
Nov. 26, 2001, p. B6). Marx later remarked on the U.S.–Western Europe
difference; see below, pp. 12–13.
- ibid., p. 155.
- 5, p. 217. It's possible that Marx relied on Thomas Hamilton's observations,
cited below, about the Workingmen's Party in New York in
making this point.
- 41, p. 390.
- Gustave de Beaumont, Marie or, Slavery in the United States (Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins Press, 1999), p. 7.
- Thomas Hamilton, Men and Manners in America, 2 volumes (Edinburgh:
William Blackwood, 1833). Unfortunately, the 1999 edition of
Marie doesn't include the appendix on religious groups that refers to
Hamilton's book. For the reference, see Marie ou L'esclavage aux États-
Unis, 5me Édition (Paris: Charles Gosselin, 1842), p. 271.
- Marx/Engels, Gesamtausgabe, Abt. 4, bd. 2 (Berlin: Dietz Verlag,
1981), pp. 266–75. Hamilton's characterization of the money-grabbing
New Englander"The whole race of Yankee pedlars . . . resemble the
Jews"may have been the basis for Marx's central argument in the
second article about the Judaization of the Christian world. See Hamilton,
Vol. 1, pp. 229–30.
- Maximilien Rubel, "Notes on Marx's Conception of Democracy,"
New Politics, vol. 1, no. 2 (Winter 1962), pp. 83–85, also argues that
Hamilton exercised a decisive influence on Marx. His treatment, however,
is far more suggestive and less systematic than what is presented
here. Lewis Feuer, "The North American Origin of Marx's Socialism,"
Western Political Quarterly, vol. XVI, no. 1 (March 1963), pp. 53–67,
makes a similar argument but with particular focus on Hamilton's
treatment of the Workingmen's Party of New York and in greater detail.
A close reading of both Rubel and Feuer reveals that my argument
differs significantly from their reading of Marx's reading of the United
- Lipset, pp. 35–36.
- Hamilton, vol. 1, p. 217.
- Marx and Engels, Gesamtausgabe, Abt. 4, Bd. 2, pp. 268–69. For
the comparable pages in Hamilton, see Vol. 1, pp. 221–22.
- Hamilton, Vol 1, pp. 299–301. For details on the party in New
York at the time see Anthony Gronowicz, Race and Class Politics in New
York City Before the Civil War (Boston: Northeastern University Press,
1998), chapter 3.
- Hamilton, Vol. 2, pp. 226–27.
- ibid., pp. 142–43. Hamilton also denounced Thomas Jefferson for
hypocrisy: "Continually puling about liberty, equality, and the degrading
curse of slavery," he not only fathered children by his slaves but
later, according to Hamilton, sold them into slaverya charge that has
greater credence given the recent DNA findings about his descendants.
See Vol. 1, pp. 324–25.
- ibid., pp. 225, 227.
- ibid., p. 210.
- There are other interesting issues addressed by Hamilton worth
noting but are not necessarily germane to the topic at hand. One, for
example, was the protective tariffs' policy of the U.S. government,
which Hamilton opposed. It's possible that this was not only Marx's
introduction to the topic but one from a perspective, i.e. against protectionism,
that would figure significantly in his political economy
writings. It should be made clear that no claim is being made here that
Marx necessarily agreed with all of Hamilton's views.
- Tocqueville, vol 1, p. 311.
- ibid., p. 324.
- Hamilton, vol. 2, p. 210.
- Beaumont (1842 edition), pp. 272–75. Again, unfortunately the
recent English edition of Marie does not include the appendix, Sur le
Mouvement Religieux aux État-Unis.
- Tocqueville, vol. 1, pp. 314–15.
- 4, pp. 116–17.
- If Marx was indeed informed by Tocqueville's insight, it reveals
especially in the context of his larger argument in which these
statements originatethe difference between the feudal and the modern
state, Marx went much further to explain the fundamental differences
between both states, i.e., beyond just how they related to religion.
- ibid., p. 321.
- "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law," 3, p.
94. Tocqueville's claim must have seemed contradictory to Marx given
his assertion that other components of U.S. civil society such as slavery
and the treatment of Indians were "collateral" to an explanation of democracy.
His other assertion, that the Catholic Church was a paragon
of democracy, must have appeared ludicrous to Marx in view of his critique
of the Church (p. 51).
Marx's critique of "patriarchal laws" anticipates Rheinhardt's critique
of Tocqueville's defense of "America's gendered hierarchy"(p. 69).
- Tocqueville, vol. 1, pp. 206, 204.
- ibid., p. 254.
- ibid., pp. 327, 207.
- George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 608.
- Tocqueville, vol. 2, p. 170.
- I owe this insight about Tocqueville to Laura Janara, specifically,
chapter 4 of her dissertation, "After the Mother: Authority, Autonomy
and Passion in Tocqueville's Democracy in America," University of
- Tocqueville, Vol. 2, pp. 250, 258.
- ibid., p. 199. Tocqueville makes another interesting observation in
explaining why the modern state tends to grow in power: "the manufacturing
classes [workers] require more regulation, superintendence,
and restraint than the other classes of society, and it is natural that the
powers of government should increase in the same proportion as those
classes." ibid., 327. Here, he makes clear that he is only referring to Europe
though the implications for the U.S. in his thinking can only be
- Seymour Drescher, Dilemmas of Democracy: Tocqueville and Modernization
(Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968), p. 54n.
- Ibid., p. 56.
- Though it would be instructive to look at Tocqueville's views on
American Indians, given the almost complete absence of anything
comparable in Marx I have confined this discussion to the situation of
Blacks in his analysis. For a thoughtful critique of his views on Indians,
see William E. Connolly, "Tocqueville, Territory and Violence," Theory,
Culture & Society, Vol. 11(1994), 19–40.
- Tocqueville, vol. 1, p. 372. Regarding Marx and Engels's views on
Blacks, see, p. 25 n.85.
- ibid., p. 373.
- Tocqueville was active in France's abolitionist circles (more about
in Chapter Two), a milieu that was influenced by Grégoire's book. For
the new English edition, see Henri Grégoire, An Enquiry Concerning the
Intellectual and Moral Facilities, and Literature of Negroes (New York: M.
E. Sharpe, 1997).
- Tocqueville, vol. 1, p. 394.
- For a somewhat similar assessment, see Peter Augustine Lawler,
"Tocqueville on Slavery, Ancient and Modern," Comparative Issues in
Slavery, ed. Paul Finkelman (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1989).
- ibid., p. 395.
- ibid., p. 378n; Hamilton, vol. 2, p. 229.
- Tocqueville, vol. 1, p. 280.
- Drescher, Dilemmas of Democracy, p. 184n.
- Ibid., p. 177.
- Reinhardt, p. 64. In the section of his book from which this comes,
Reinhardt makes a case similar to the one presented here. Tocqueville's
"evasion of the politics of actively confronting slavery is more than a
refusal to invent easy and fanciful solutions to complex and stubborn
problems; it amounts, despite his moral distress and the acuity of his
analyses, to the subversion of his condemnations, to a backhanded legitimation
of this condition." (p. 66)
- ibid., p. 412.
- ibid., p. 389.
- ibid., p. 397. This is a curious comment. Was he referring to the
Haitian Republic or, perhaps, the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, the year
of his visit, to which he made no explicit reference anywhere?
- The argument here is anticipated to some degree in Maximilien
Rubel, "Marx and American Democracy," Marx and the Western World,
ed. Nicholas Lobkowicz (London: University of Notre Dame Press,
1967), and Robert Weiner, "Karl Marx's Vision of America: A Bibliographical
and Bibliographical Sketch," The Review of Politics, vol. 42
(Oct. 1980), No. 4. However, a close reading of both articles reveals that
in the former the thesis is not really proven to the degree it is here while
in the latter the significance of Marx's reading of Tocqueville is not
- It's likely that other materials also informed him but the extant
record only reveals these sources.
- Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America,
1815–1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 6n.
- Ibid., p. 396.
- This is not to imply in any manner that Marx and Engels, in their
move toward political economy, ignored political institutions. To the
contrary. Any close and honest read of the young Marx would reveal
not only sincere interest in but detailed attention to the state and its
various institutions. For a useful summary of the evidence for this
claim, see Teeple, chapter 5.
- Levine, pp. 14–15.
- Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the
American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York: Oxford University
- Sellers, p. 6.
- Edward Pessen, Riches, Class, and Power Before the Civil War (Lexington,
Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1973), p. 1. See also, Pessen's debate with a
Tocqueville partisan on some of these questions in Revue Tocqueville
- ibid., p. 26.
- ibid., p. 43.
- ibid., pp. 298–89.
- Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy
in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. xvii, 76.
- Levine, p. 70.
- Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in
U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 199.
- Ibid, p. 472.
- This was exactly what he understood about the oppression that
Jews faced in Germany in both the political and civil spheres; he was
resolute, it should be quickly added, in defending religious and political
freedom for Jews. For details, see Draper, Karl Marx's Theory, Vol. 1,
- Michael Goldfield, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainspring of
American Politics (New York: The New Press, 1997).
- 39, p. 62.
- See Eric Foner's "New Introductory Essay" in his Free Soil, Free
Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. xxi.
- Drescher, p.
- Tocqueville, vol. 1, pp. xi, 6.
- Jack Hayward, After the French Revolution: Six Critics of Democracy
and Nationalism (New York: New York University Press, 1991), p. 149.
- Drescher, p. 278.
- For a critical assessment of Tocqueville's religious views, see
Michael Levin, The Spectre of Democracy: The Rise of Modern Democracy
as Seen by its Critics (New York: New York University Press, 1992), pp.
- Tocqueville, vol. 1, p.ix.
- Tocqueville, Mon Instinct, mes opinions," quoted in Antoine
Rédier, Comme disait M. de Toqueville (Paris, 1925), p. 48; quoted in Hayward,
p. 149. See Also, André Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography (New
York: Farrar, Straux, Giroux, 1988), p. 305, for a more abbreviated version
of this statement. To understand in a broader sense what Tocqueville
meant see Roger Boesche, The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de
Tocqueville (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), and Alan S. Kahan,
Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt,
John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Oxford University
- Sheldon S. Wolin, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of
a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2001), p. 5.