Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Modernity and Modernisation

The French and Russian Revolutions have been widely seen as dramatic transitions to ‘modernity’. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the French Revolution was considered the paradigm of modernity, from which Russian revolutionaries would later draw inspiration, for better or for worse. But what, precisely, is ‘modernity’, and what role did the French and Russian revolutions play in bringing it about? Historians have stressed various aspects: political (rational bureaucratisation and democratisation), economic (capitalism, industrialisation, state planning) and social (individualism and various forms of equality: civic, legal and social). With the rise of postmodern sensibilities and global history, however, ‘modernity’ has come to be seen by many as profoundly Eurocentric and epistemologically imperialist. Other historians, however, have sought to pluralise the concept, which has begun working its way into the separate histories of non-Western societies. Yet, despite these critiques and appropriations, the concept continues to be used by historians of the French and Russian Revolutions, albeit often in a perfunctory manner.

‘Modernisation’, a term developed by historical sociologists between the 1950s and 1970s, is related to ‘modernity’ but refers more specifically to the development of nation-states and industrialized economies. The term has generally fallen out of favour with historians of late. Still, it is worth thinking about how to characterize the historical significance of revolutionary processes concerning the state and economic development.

Seminar Questions

  1. Is ‘modernity’ a helpful category for understanding revolutions? Can the concept be salvaged in light of postmodern critiques of it? How might the historical importance of the French and Russian Revolutions be conceived of without ‘modernity’?
  2. Although many historians rarely use the term ‘modernisation’ these days, do you think it captures important historical processes in the French and Russian Revolutions?

Core Reading

  • Charles Tilly, ‘State and Counterrevolution in France’, Chapter Three of Ferenc Féher (ed.), The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity (Berkeley: UC Press, 1990), 49-63.
  • Rebecca Spang, ‘Paradigms and Paranoia: How Modern Is the French Revolution?’, American Historical Review, 108: 1 (2003), 119-147.
  • Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, ‘History and the Pre-’, American Historical Review, 118: 3 (2013), 709-737.

Further Reading


  • Darrin McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • Keith Baker (ed.), The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, 4 vols. (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1987-1994).
  • Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007).
  • Robert Darnton, George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2003).
  • Jean-Pierre Hirsch, ‘Revolutionary France: Cradle of Free Enterprise’, American Historical Review, 94: 5 (1989), 1281-1289.
  • Jeff Horn, The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).


  • Siegelbaum L. and Sokolov A. (eds.), Stalinism as a Way of Life (New York, 2000).
  • Hoffman D. and Kotsonis, Y. eds. Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).
  • Hoffman, D. Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).
  • Kotkin, S. Magnetic Mountain. Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)
  • Volkov, V. ‘The Concept of Kul’turnost’: Notes on the Stalinist Civilizing Process’, in Stalinism: New Directions S. Fitzpatrick, ed. (London: Routledge, 2000), pp.117-141
  • Hellbeck, J. ‘Working, Struggling, Becoming: Stalin-Era Autobiographical Texts’ in Language and Revolution. Making Modern Political identities Halfin I. ed. (London: Frank Class, 2002), pp. 135-159.
  • Hellbeck, J.Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006)