The Ancien Régime and the Revolution

With all the hubbub about China as of late, I thought it might be worth reading Alexis De Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution (Penguin: 2008). A number of China Hands say the Party has used this book to inform their approach to domestic stability and harmony.1 I have no idea whether these assertions are true,2 but if one were a leader seeking to understand the drivers of mass movements and revolutions, The Ancien Régime would be a logical item for the reading list.

De Tocqueville seeks to explain the underlying reasons why the French Revolution occurred in France—of all places—while similar trends were manifesting themselves across continental Europe, and in doing so discusses why the great push for liberty ended in tyranny.  This is an excellent book, and would go well with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (a Favorite Book of 2013).

A sampling from the many annotated passages follows.

What the revolution was not in any way was a chance event. Admittedly it took the world by surprise. It was nevertheless only the accompaniment to a long period of effort and the sudden, violent outcome of a task undertaken by ten generations of men. (34)

Of all the ways of differentiating between men and underlining their social status, unevenness of taxation is the most pernicious and the one most likely to add isolation to inequality and, somehow, to make both of these incurable … As almost all public matters begin or end in a tax, from the moment the two classes were unequally subject to tax they had almost no reason ever to meet together again or any cause to have any shared needs or opinions. No one needed to keep them apart; the opportunity and desire to act in concert, in a sense, had been removed from them. (94-5)

… men who protected the old beliefs were fearful of being the only people to remain faithful and, dreading isolation more than heresy, joined forces with the mob while not sharing its opinions. (156)

They seemed to love freedom; it turns out they simply hated the master. When nations are ready for freedom, what they hate is the evil of dependency itself. (167)

It is indeed true that, in the long term, freedom always brings with it, to those who are skilled enough to keep hold of it, personal comfort, wellbeing, and often great wealth. But there are times when freedom briefly disturbs the enjoyment of such blessings; there are others when despotism alone can guarantee a fleeting exploitation of them. Men who value only those material advantages from freedom have never kept it long. What has tied the hearts of certain men to freedom throughout all history has been its own attractions, its intrinsic charm quite separate from its material advantages. It is the pleasure to be able to speak, act and breathe without restriction under the rule of God alone and the law. Whoever seeks anything from freedom but freedom itself is doomed to slavery. (167-8)

In 1780 [nine years before the Revolution], no one was claiming any more that France was in decline; on the contrary it was said that there were no longer any barriers to its advancements. At that time the theory of continuous and indefinite improvement of man took root. Twenty years before, the future held no hope; now nothing was to be feared from it. Men’s imaginations, in taking advance possession of this approaching and unheard-of happiness, made them unaware of the blessings they already enjoyed and hurtled them towards new things. (175)

It was forgotten that the best way to teach men to violate the individual rights of the living is to take no account of the wishes of the dead. (187)

# # #


1 See, for example, Evan Osnos, The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: 2014).

2 Does anyone really know / understand China?

1 Comment

  1. […] Osnos is one of several China Hands to mention that the Party scrutinized Alexis De Tocqueville’s Ancien Régime and the Revolution to understand the causes of the French Revolution—with the aim of avoiding a repeat at home.  So, as questions surrounding China’s domestic stability reverberated through the press, I picked up this classic, and am pleased to report that it exceeded all expectations.  See the post about it here. […]

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