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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Minorities: Revolutionary Agents

Great revolutions will grow rare, to Tocqueville, because there will be nobody for the great mass to face. In democracy, large class antagonisms have fallen. Wealth is hidden and no man can harm another without somehow harming himself. Tocqueville, though, maintains that democratic nations are not safe from democracies—rather, they “ward them off.”3 For him, only minorities will execute revolutions. The reason for his account is that only minorities are aware of themselves as a people, and not just a person. Democratic men “forget” the public until the public faces them. They unite with other men only in the antagonism of the atomized mass. Since minorities are conscious of themselves as people, only they can form the antagonisms necessary to execute a revolution.

Revolutions need a recognition of inequality. “Every revolution which has changed the shape of nations has been made to consolidate or destroy inequality,” writes Tocqueville. Revolutions occur when a critical mass takes account of an inequality and wants to change something about it. Historically, revolutionary antagonisms rested on wealth. “Either the poor were bent on snatching the property of the rich, or the rich were trying to hold the poor down.”1 Each class recognized their enemy through the disparity of wealth—then they antagonized the other. Revolutions of the past rested on the appearance and recognition of a wealth disparity.

In democracy, financial disparity is hidden. The rich are “scattered and powerless,” and their wealth is “invisible.”1 There is “no longer a race of poor men…[nor] a race of rich men”1 and the mass of citizens, interwoven without class distinction, “would hardly know how to attack [men] without harming itself.” Because wealth is not apparent, class antagonisms based on wealth disparities cannot appear. Classes grow homogenous: an individual man is implicated in all other men. Revolutions cannot come from a large mass of citizens, because any given large mass extends throughout the entire population. The single class has no opposite to antagonize.

Yet within this large mass, “every man tends to live apart, centered in himself and forgetful of the public.” Though each individual man is implicated in the race of all men, he lacks a constant consciousness of himself as part of that race. A rich man, displaying that he is rich, can never escape his class. A classless man forgets class altogether, so he forgets other men. The single class cannot combine to carry about a great revolution, for it has no enemies—but it cannot combine to defend itself either, since each man forgets the public. When everyone is everyone, nobody is everyone.

Minorities are a class conscious of itself because “public opinion brings immense weight to bear on every individual.” The mass fails to see classifications between men. Minorities, though, are ideologically separated from the mass. They see themselves in opposition to public opinion, a public opinion which they cannot escape. Individuals in the minority identify with one another on the basis of their opposition to public opinion. Political antagonisms in democracy no longer concern wealth, for wealth is invisible; rather, they rely on ideology. The minority identifies with others on an intellectual basis. The majority forgets to identify with others altogether.

Tocqueville writes, “in democratic societies it is only small minorities who desire revolutions, but the minorities may bring them about.”3 The mass does not defend itself, for it cannot recognize itself. Men in the majority do not combine. Antagonism is brought about by minorities, who are the only people conscious of other men—of being with other men. Only minorities can bring about radical shifts in social structure, because only minorities radically act in concert.


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