Colonization and Democracy: Tocqueville Reconsidered
by Ewa Atanassow, Bard College Berlin
What is the relationship between Tocqueville’ celebrated account of democracy, based on principles of social equality and popular sovereignty, and his advocacy of colonizing Algeria? How has European expansionism of the past two centuries inflected the global spread of democracy? To address these vexing questions, this article probes Tocqueville’s analytical and practical engagement with colonization, and reconsiders its place in his analysis of modern democracy. The prominence of colonization in Tocqueville’s life and works has been widely noted, yet scholars disagree about its meaning and importance. The perceived tension between Tocqueville’s analytic defense of liberal democracy and his support for colonization continues to be the subject of heated scholarly debate. This essay suggests that Tocqueville’s involvement with colonization is best understood in light of the historical and civilizational vista that informs his work as a whole. Arguing that colonization, and the confrontation of different cultures and ways of life triggered by it, is central to Tocqueville’s account of the global movement toward democratic equality, it advances a new understanding of Tocqueville’s colonial writings, his liberalism, and their relevance today.