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Intellectuals for and against Revolution

Even before 1789 and 1917 conservative circles were blaming intellectuals, or ‘philosopohers’, for stirring up revolutionary feelings in the masses which threatened to be ultimately uncontrollable, or at least, beyond the control of the old elites. Ironically, a number of these critics, notably those who gave voice to such ideas, were themselves intellectuals (the term is somewhat anachronistic for the French Revolution since the concept only evolved around the Dreyfus controversy in the 1890s). Interpretations of the impact of ‘philosophes’ and intellectuals are as diverse, especially in the wake of cultural history, which has called for extending the analysis beyond thinkers and their ideas to consider the production, diffusion and reception of ideas. This seminar considers Enlightenment philosophes and subsequent supporters and critics of the French Revolution, as well as the complex nature of the Russian intelligentsia and its critics, such as the Vekhi (Landmarks) group.

Seminar Questions

  1. Is revolution ‘the opium of the intellectuals’?
  2. Why were certain intellectuals drawn to revolution?
  3. Why were certain intellectuals drawn to counter-revolution?

Core Reading


  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (excerpts) on (type in ‘Burke’ into the ‘Quick Search’, then click on third link ‘Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France')
  • Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (excerpt: a response to Burke). Follow the instructions above but replace ‘Burke’ with ‘Paine’ in the search box at
  • Condorcet, ‘The Progress of the Human Mind’ (online excerpt)
  • Darrin McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), chp. 2-3, 55-120. [e-book through library catalogue]


  • Gershenzon, M (ed) Vekhi: a Collection of Articles on the Russian Intelligentsia (original Russian ed Moscow 1909 – various translations e.g by Todd, A under title Landmarks and Shatz, Marshall under title Vekhi
  • Stites, R (ed) Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1989)
  • Stites, R. ‘Iconoclastic currents in the Russian revolution: destroying and preserving the past’, in A. Gleason (et al eds.), Bolshevik culture: experiment and order in the Russian revolution, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1985

Further Reading


The historical literature on the philosophes’ contribution to the outbreak of the French Revolution is voluminous. See ‘further reading’ in week 1 on the origins of the French Revolution. For the role of intellectuals in the French Revolution, see:

  • William Sewell, The Rhetoric of a Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbé Sieyès and What is the Third Estate? (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994).
  • Alyssa Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
  • Cheryl B. Welch, Liberty and Utility. The French Ideologues and the Transformation of Liberalism (New York, Columbia University Press, 1984).
  • Martin Thom, Republics, Nations and Tribes (London, Verso, 1995)
  • Martin S. Staum, Minerva’s Message: Stabilizing the French Revolution (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996).
  • James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Considered as One of the First Authors of Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
  • Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Political Writings: Including the Debate between Sieyès and Tom Paine in 1791, Michael Sonenscher (ed.) (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003).
  • Carla Hesse, The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
  • Lenval A. Callender, Kant and Revolution (Bury St Edmunds: Abramis, 2011).
  • Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment:Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).


  • Pipes, R (ed) The Russian Intelligentsia (Columbia University Press, New York, 1961) (esp arts by Pipes, Malia, Schapiro)
  • Burbank, Jane Intelligentsia and Revolution: Russian Views of Bolshevism 1917-22 (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1986)
  • Read, C Religion, Revolution and the Russian Intelligentsia: the Vekhi Debate and its Context (Macmillan, London and Basingstoke, 1979)
  • Read, C Culture and Power in Revolutionary Russia: The Intelligentsia and the Transition from Tsarism to Communism (Macmillan, Basingstoke and London 1992)