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Founding Interpretations

Both the French and Russian revolutions dominated the political and intellectual climate long after they had run their immediate course. They became models. For the left they were, by and large, to be imitated and admired. For the right, they were examples to be avoided at all costs. One of the first expressions of this binary is contained in the writings of the Anglo-Irish conservative thinker, Edmund Burke, and the English radical, participant in the American and French revolutions, Tom Paine. Throughout the nineteenth century historians and analysts – Guizot, Taine, de Tocqueville, Marx and many others – used the French revolution as a point of reference. The emergence of ‘professional historians’ around 1900 led to the emergence of more detailed, researched histories of the French Revolution, but the moral, didactic dimension remained. (Aulard). After the Russian Revolution, Marxist interpreters drew the two together (Lefebvre, Soboul). Initial interpretations of the Russian Revolution tended to remain in the hands of participants and activists, notably Trotsky. The battle among Russian emigrés to establish ‘blame’ for the ‘catastrophe’ led to a fierce battle of memoirs and some historical studies of why events went so ‘wrong’. Initial western reactions to the revolution in Russia were mixed. Official, conservative and diplomatic views were hostile (Foglesong, Swain, Meyer). Some on the left supported it uncritically, initially at least (John Reed), but many writers on the left (Bertrand Russell) were highly critical and, even though desperately wanting to be sympathetic, labour delegations returned from ‘observational’ visits to Russia in the early 1920s with very mixed and reserved opinions. However, ‘fellow travellers’ increasingly came to dominate discussion (Caute), though ultimately many of them ‘repented’ (The God That Failed). The first systematic history in English was written by an American newspaper correspondent based in Moscow, W.H. Chamberlin, whose two volume account of the Russian Revolution, written in the late 20s and early 30s, was extraordinarily objective, perhaps because all subsequent histories of 1917 have observed it, consciously or unconsciously, through the potentially distorting optic of the Stalin era. The Grand Alliance of the Second World War brought a brief ‘thaw’ in views of the USSR and its revolution, but the post-war return to hostile attitudes developed to new levels as the Cold War gripped cultural and intellectual life in the Soviet bloc and in the west. The Chinese revolution (1949) added a new dimension of analysis. (Rosenberg and Young)

Seminar Questions

  1. Who first shaped the ‘images’ of the French and Russian revolutions? How did these initial interpretations gain traction?
  2. ‘British mainstream views of the French and Russian revolutions have been largely hostile from the beginning.’ Discuss. Compare American, French, Russian mainstream views.
  3. Did the early Cold War mark a turning point in analysis of the French and Russian Revolutions?

French Core Reading

  • Benjamin Constant, Ancient and Modern Liberty Compared (excepts), in Baker (ed.), The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985), 452-461.
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Stuart Gilbert (trans.) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955), Part 1, Ch 1 (p. 1-5) and Part III entire (138-211).
  • Timothy Tackett’s introduction to Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, R. R. Palmer (trans.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005 [orig. 1939]).

Russian Core Reading

  • Trotsky, L The Russian Revolution (3 vols) in MIA [dip into a chapter or two]
  • Reed, J Ten days that Shook the World (many editions)
  • Russell, Bertrand The Practice and Theory of Communism.(1st edition 1920. Most recent - Arc Manor, Rockville, Maryland, 2008)
  • Chamberlin , W.H. The Russian Revolution (2 vols. 1st ed c.1931. also New York, 1965) [dip into a chapter or two]

Further Reading


  • Joseph de Maistre, The Generative Principle of Political Constitutions: Studies on Sovereignty, Religion, and Enlightenment, Jack Lively (ed.) (Transaction Publishers: 2011) and Considerations on France, Richard A. Lebrun (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • Madame de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Duke de Broglie et Baron de Staël (eds.) (New York: James Eastburn and Co., 1818).
  • Edgar Quinet, La Révolution, Claude Lefort (ed. and intro) (Paris: Belin, 1987 [orig. 1865]). Untranslated but important interpretation. This edition has an introduction by Lefort, one of the most influential political and social theorists in late 20th century France.
  • Jules Michelet, History of the French Revolution, Charles Cox (trans.), Gordon Wright (ed. and introduction) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).
  • Hippolyte Taine, Les origins de la France contemporaine, 6 vols. (Paris: Hachette, 1878-1894). For the volumes on the French Revolution translated into English, search ‘Taine’ at
  • Jean-Jaurès, Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française, Albert Soboul (ed.) (Paris: Éditions sociales, 1968-1973 [orig. 1901-1907]).
  • Alphonse Aulard, The French Revolution: A Political History, 1789-1804, Bernard Miall (trans.) (London: Unwin, 1910).