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The Politics of Liberty and Equality

‘Liberty’ and ‘equality’ were ideological touchstones in both the French and Russian Revolutions, but their mutual compatibility has often been doubted. In the nineteenth century, much ink was spilt explaining the tensions between them, with liberals and socialists staking out different positions. While liberals eschewed equality and often pointed to the Year II of the French Revolution as proof that it was dangerously utopian, socialists believed that true liberty could only be achieved through equality. But what did French and Russian revolutionaries think these principles meant in the heat of political transition? How did they try to reconcile them with other core values and interests? What problems arose in the efforts to realize these principles though legal practices and institutions?

Seminar Questions

  1. How free did French revolutionaries think speech should be? How did they conceive of limits on it and what were the results of their efforts to implement those limits?
  2. How does Hesse’s account of the French Revolution’s impact on women writers challenge prevailing interpretations?
  3. Why did the early Soviet government become a dictatorship?

Core Reading

  • Charles Walton, ‘From Lèse-nation to the Law of Suspects: Legislating Limits [on freedom of expression]’ in Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 97-136.
  • Carla Hesse, ‘Women into Print’ in The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 31-55.


Further Reading


  • Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Stuart Gilbert (trans.) (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955)
  • Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963). Like Tocqueville, Arendt sees a politics of social equality threatening political liberty.
  • Carla Hesse, Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1810 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991): on the crisis in publishing after press freedom was declared (boom/bust cycles, problems with literary property).
  • François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, Elborg Forster (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  • ‘Equality’ and ‘Liberty’ in Furet and Ozouf (eds.), Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution.
  • Joan Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996). On the status of women in the French Revolution.
  • Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).
  • Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007).
  • Jean-Pierre Hirsch, ‘Revolutionary France: Cradle of Free Enterprise’, American Historical Review, 94: 5 (1989), 1281-1289.
  • Patrice Higonnet, Class, Ideology, and the Rights of Nobles during the French Revolution (New York: Clarendon Press, 1981).


  • Read, C Lenin: a Revolutionary Life (Palgrave, London 2006) esp chs
  • Farber, S Before Stalinism: the Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990)
  • Pipes, R Russia under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-1924 (Knopf Doubleday Publishing, New York 1995/2011) esp chs
  • Service, R, Blackburn, R, Farber, S, Rees, J In Defence of October: A Debate on the Russian Revolution (Bookmarks, London 1997)
  • Pirani, S The Russian revolution in retreat, 1920-24 : Soviet workers and the new Communist elite London, New York 2008