Sheldon Wolin’s magisterial study of Tocqueville is the culmination of a remarkable body of work on the history of political thought, the harvest of four decades of engaged reflection. Politics and Vision, published at the close of the Eisenhower era in 1960, was the landmark that defined this enterprise. In it, Wolin surveyed almost the entire history of political philosophy with the aim of probing the role its canonical texts had played in framing—or alternatively constricting—interpretations of what was at stake in civil wars, from the age of the classical polis to the heyday of Bolshevism. In the exhausted aftermath of these immense struggles, he argued, contemporary thought confronted a quite new situation: the near complete eclipse of the political, as a multifarious tradition of civic discourse, by a new order—the pseudo-consensual management of mass society. The main texts of the classical syllabus addressed only fitfully, if at all, the perils of this erasure of politics. It was now imperative to read them against the grain in order to bring the unprecedented problems of apathetic democracies—which he later more aptly dubbed post-democracies—into sharper focus.

In Between Two Worlds, Wolin brings this line of interrogation to bear on Alexis de Tocqueville. The form of his book is, as he explains, unusual. It is not a straightforward textual study, nor a conventional intellectual biography. If its central focus is the two volumes of Democracy in America, Wolin also pays careful attention to Tocqueville’s penal writings, co-authored with his friend Beaumont, and considers his memoirs of the 1848 Revolution. He treats The Old Regime and the French Revolution much more cursorily, and omits altogether Tocqueville’s involvement—a central concern under the July Monarchy—with the French conquest of Algeria. Biographically, Wolin sketches in the principal phases of Tocqueville’s career, without exploring the intellectual influences on him in any detail, or tackling the existential conundrum of Tocqueville’s tortured relations with Christian doctrine. What Between Two Worlds offers instead is an arresting critique of Tocqueville’s theoretical trajectory, illuminated against the backdrop of his public career.

The iconoclastic charge of the book can be measured against the current apotheosis of the deputy from Valognes. Historically, Tocqueville has always enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an important thinker. In 1835 the first volume of Democracy in America was already a best-seller. But his standing underwent a spectacular elevation with the neo-conservative reaction to the political turbulence of the sixties. The French and American versions of this creed found in Tocqueville the perfect theorist of a converging anti-radical agenda: as an enemy of both revolutionary virtue and emancipated consumerism, he could steel rattled establishment nerves in both Paris and New York. In France the former Communist François Furet, overturning the hegemony of Marxist historiography of the French Revolution—the nouveaux philosophes soon followed—hailed Tocqueville as a sober demystifier of the dangerous mythologies of the revolutionary imagination, a veritable prophet of the Gulag. Here the key text, obviously, was The Old Regime. Neo-conservatives in the US, meanwhile, turned to Tocqueville as the sagacious defender of America’s historically moderate democracy: in their view, student rallies, ghetto riots and the sexual revolution were all the result of a fatal relaxation in the mores of affluent capitalism—a predicament that Tocqueville had apparently foretold. No one had seen more clearly the essential role of religion in stabilizing any democracy. Daniel Bell’s call for a ‘return of the sacred’—the need for a compensatory reenchantment of market society—looked back to the acquisitive, sober, church-going world portrayed in Democracy in America. The two rediscoveries fitted naturally together, since the French drive to eliminate Jacobin and Marxist residues that had led to misplaced sympathies for the USSR during the Cold War required rehabilitation of the US as the desirable alternative instead. Furet was eventually fêted in Chicago as much as in Paris.

Today, the cult of Tocqueville stretches far and wide, and its expressions have never been so extravagant. ‘Democracy in America is at once the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written on America’, declares the distinguished (conservative) constitutionalist Harvey Mansfield, introducing a new edition of the classic. ‘I am hard put to come up with a better book on democracy or a better book on America’, nods the leading (liberal) historian Gordon Wood (New York Review of Books, 17 May 2001). Wolin’s study is a salutary check to such effusions. An admiring demystification of a now almost sacrosanct figure, Between Two Worlds offers an account of Tocqueville’s remarkable vision of modernity immune to the vagaries of fashion. For, from any standpoint, Tocqueville has two irrepressible claims to actuality: he was the first and greatest theorist of a politico-intellectual condition in which democracy is the only legitimate form of government; relatedly, he was an often uncannily acute forecaster of the world-historical significance of American expansion. The stature of Democracy in America rests upon these two considerable achievements.

Wolin begins by comparing Tocqueville to other theorists of modernity. The fundamental contention between Marx and Tocqueville hinges on whether the central social dynamic of modernity is best understood in terms of capitalism or democracy. There are two reasons, he suggests, to turn to Tocqueville. Firstly, Marx never integrated America into his account of the world-historical future of capitalism, an omission that compromises all of his prognoses. Secondly, he argues that Marx, despite his profound grasp of capitalism, cannot help us theorize the specific historical problem Tocqueville confronted: the precarious status of the political as a zone in which the order of human things is in contention. Marx worked on the assumption that the development of productive forces could eventually lead to the supersession of the rule over human beings by the administration of things. By itself his account of class struggles unfolding in and between modes of production cannot register a predicament in which the political as the possibility of transformative collective agency has been foreclosed, prior to the abolition of private property and the state, because it does not see politics as an intrinsically valuable form of existence, whose autonomy is in need of safeguarding.

In their own way, both Marx and Tocqueville were theorists of the world-historical transition to middle-class society, as well as commentators on the same political landmarks of the period from 1789 to 1851. For Marx, the French bourgeoisie was a class whose revolutionary political career was exhausted in the heroic paroxysms of Jacobinism, fated to descend thereafter into the prosaic world of private enterprise, philistine careerism and bien-pensant piety. The possibility of bourgeois-revolutionary agency depended on lofty, ultimately ephemeral, illusions of restoring ancient republican civic virtue. Marx essentially agreed with Benjamin Constant that it was a grandiose historical delusion to believe that ancient citizenship, as a way of life based on the primacy of the political, could be superimposed on the privatized realm of bourgeois civil society—the material foundation of modernity.

For Wolin, Tocqueville’s significance lies in his departure from this early liberal-Marxist consensus. He did not accept its verdict on the fate of the citizen in the bourgeois world. The most pressing historical problem according to Tocqueville was the political education of the European bourgeoisie in the era of transition to democracy. His journey to the United States in 1831 convinced him that it was indeed possible for the middle classes to govern a great state, a still contentious proposition in Orleanist France. But in contrast to Guizot or even John Stuart Mill—a kindred spirit across the Channel—he did not see parliaments as the political training grounds of a new middle-class elite. Despite his later career as a deputy he never became an enthusiast for representative government.