More than a century and a half after it was published, Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution” has become an unlikely best-seller in China.

Wang Qishan, China’s anti-corruption czar, is reportedly among the senior leaders obsessed with what he sees as the book’s cautionary message: that increasing prosperity and piecemeal political reform didn’t protect France’s pre-revolutionary regime from violent overthrow.

The mass energies unleashed by large-scale industrialization and urbanization have exposed China’s existing political institutions as weak and inadequate. In Wang’s reading of Tocqueville, Chinese leaders must prepare for more upheaval ahead.

It is easy to see in Tocqueville’s subtle opinions, which can’t be pigeonholed in the contemporary way as “left-wing” or “right-wing,” what you want to see. John Stuart Mill claimed to be inspired by his writings. British conservatives in the 19th century also deployed his criticisms of American democracy to argue against the extension of adult franchise.

Unlikely Gurus

Understandably, Chinese leaders are eager to learn from European thinkers and Europe’s early and immense experience of socioeconomic change. Visiting India two weeks ago, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang quoted both Max Weber and Georg Hegel.

But Tocqueville, an aristocrat, seems an unlikely guru for Chinese leaders, even the “princelings” among them, who may find that 19th-century German philosophers and economists offer more practical instruction than French or English ones.

Germany under Otto von Bismarck came relatively late to industrialization; its leaders were determined to avoid the traumas and upheavals of England and France. The country’s influential economists, mostly opposed to Adam Smith’s laissez-faire individualism, enshrined a major role for the state in running and regulating the modern economy; the state was also supposed to alleviate the class antagonisms and hardships that the great shift from agrarian to industrial societies made inevitable.

Accordingly, Bismarck’s Germany pioneered social welfare guarantees of health insurance, disability and old age pensions; it was also ahead of European nations in enacting legislation aimed at protecting the laboring classes from exploitation and degraded working conditions.

People in other late industrializing societies, including the U.S., took careful note. As the historian Daniel T. Rodgers showed in his study of the Germanic roots of American progressivism, the experience of studying economics in Germany in the 1890s “knocked the provincial blinkers off a cadre of young Americans,” liberating them from “the tightly, syllogistically packaged intellectual paradigms of laissez-faire.”

The American economy has gone through many refinements since the age of robber barons. We no longer remember well “the disordered, violent camping expedition that was the U.S.,” in its early phase of industrialization in the late 19th century.

It was, as Rodgers wrote, “a country on the run, too busy with its private affairs to bother knitting its pieces together, tossing its cast-off goods wherever they might land, scamping public life in its drive to release individual energy.” It was the German-educated Americans who “brought back an acute sense of a missing ‘social’ strand in American politics and a new sense, as unnerving as it was attractive, of the social possibilities of the state.”

Tender Mercies

The Japanese, as the historian Kenneth B. Pyle and others have shown, were even keener students of the German example. Kanai Noburo, Japan’s most influential economist for three decades, studied in Germany about the same time as many American proto-progressives and New Dealers.

Traveling through England, he witnessed the very inadequate protection for the country’s poorest people; he became convinced that the state had a duty to intervene on their behalf. They couldn’t be left to the tender mercies of free marketeers (whose quasi-religious faith in the invisible hand had condemned millions to death in unrelieved famines in British-ruled Ireland and India).

But Kanai, a strong critic of free-market individualism, was no socialist. On the contrary: His ideas were aimed at diminishing class antagonisms, averting violent revolution and maintaining the power of the Japanese bureaucratic state, which alone promised to guarantee national unity and strength.

“If workers are treated like animals,” he wrote, “then after several decades unions and socialism will appear.” And that, he was convinced, would be a very bad thing for a country that was still very weak compared with European nation-states. For Japanese leaders seeking to justify their power, mobilize a sense of nationality and avoid social unrest, this was just the thing they wanted to hear.

Having tasked an agrarian people to build an industrial society through quasi-traditional notions of loyalty and obligation, Japanese leaders faced in the early 20th century fresh problems resulting from their success: widening disparities of income, class cleavages, and the loss of old values of family and community.

Laissez-faire liberalism was no good to them; and it was also in retreat around the world. Fortunately, the Germans had proposed an attractive new identity for the technocratic state: one that, in the words of the German economist Gustav von Schmoller, “legislates above the egoistic class interests, administers with justice, protects the weak and elevates the lower classes.”

That is the persona that the Chinese leadership now seeks for itself as it cracks down ostentatiously on corruption, and enacts progressive legislation aimed at the rural poor. This fresh search for an appealing self-image largely explains its broadening intellectual references, particularly the vogue for Tocqueville.

Ego Boost

For, as the shrewd China-watcher Rebecca Liao writes, “Tocqueville’s conservative admiration of a learned aristocracy with a healthy sense of noblesse oblige is ultimately a validation of the party’s pride in (still maturing) modern Chinese governance.”

Reading Tocqueville, in other words, can be good for the ego. Still, Chinese leaders navigating the global traffic of ideas will find more familiar landmarks in some late 19th century German and Japanese policies -- those meant, as Weber wrote, “to unite socially a nation split apart by modern economic development.”

It remains to be seen whether they -- and the rest of us -- will avoid the perils of yet another big and overly centralized state tasked with both economic growth and social cohesion. The young Max Weber, after all, was an ardent imperialist, convinced, like many of his German peers, that his country’s economic development depended on the acquisition of foreign territories and resources.

Trying to sustain their power both domestically and internationally, Japanese groups controlling the state erected too many ideological defenses against healthy dissent and debate, finally taking their country into an unwinnable war.

In any case, Chinese leaders boning up on Bismarckian and Meiji conservatism or Tocqueville outline a piquant irony: that the Chinese revolution of 1949 -- one of the pivotal events of the 20th century -- has become a deeply conservative project, designed to forestall social fragmentation and unrest and perpetuate the Communist Party’s long monopoly over power.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at pmashobra@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.