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Violence and Terror

Violence is arguably the most vexed topic in revolutionary studies. Moral judgments and political sympathies often seep into analysis, generating contentiousness among historians but also sharpening their critical approaches. A central point of contention is whether violence should be seen as intrinsic or extraneous to revolutions. Historians also argue over the relative weight various factors should be given: circumstances, ideas, individuals, groups, and psychological or cultural dynamics. Methodological approaches vary, as historians draw inspiration from other disciplines, such as psychology, political theory, sociology and cultural anthropology.

In the 1970s, historian François Furet, a former member of the French Communist Party turned ‘liberal’ interpreter of the French Revolution (he now rejected Marx and embraced Tocqueville), famously asserted that ‘the French Revolution is over’. He meant by this that the totalitarian nature of modern democratic revolutions had been exposed once and for all. His statement came in the wake of the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which recounted the history of Soviet oppression and terror. For Furet, there was no point in celebrating and identifying with the Jacobin Revolutionary tradition. While he agreed with Marxists that 1917 owed much to 1789, he eschewed their optimistic teleology, which saw bourgeois revolutions as anticipating socialist ones. He held a dim view of the French Revolution. For him, it bequeathed utopianism and totalitarianism, not representative government and human rights. He implicitly favoured the Anglo-American liberal tradition and found wisdom in a few French liberal theorists, such as Benjamin Constant, Madame de Staël and Alexis de Tocqueville.

New interpretations have emerged since the Cold War. In response to the excesses of liberal regimes over the past decade – unprovoked belligerence, financial recklessness, curtailment of civil liberties, growing social inequality, and increased state surveillance – historians have begun looking more critically at liberalism, seeing it as a problematic element in the French Revolution and an exacerbating external force in the Russian Revolution.

Core Reading

  • Arno Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), chapters 1-6; then selectively.

Seminar Questions

  1. What ‘signposts’ in Mayer’s The Furies do you find helpful for interpreting revolutionary violence? What is new in his perspective? What interpretations of revolutionary violence is he seeking to challenge?
  2. Mayer’s study was published a decade after the Cold War. Do you see his approach moving beyond Cold War preoccupations or still engaged with them? Does he partake in the ‘cultural turn’ of the late 20th century?
  3. Is ‘vengeance’ a useful category of historical analysis for understanding revolutions?
  4. Mayer is a self-proclaimed, ‘unflinching’ Marxist historian. Does The Furies strike you as Marxist? What does its methodological approach say about how Marxism and cultural history can be brought together?

Further Reading

  • For criticism of Arno Mayer’s The Furies, see the issue devoted to it in French Historical Studies, 24: 4 (Fall 2001).

Theoretical works on political violence that have influenced historians of revolutions

  • Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1963).
  • Carl Schmitt, Dictatorship (London: Polity Press, 2013), which was a response to
  • Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’ in Illuminations (Schocken, 1969).
  • Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Daniel Heller-Roazen (trans.) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) and State of Exception, Keven Attell (trans.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  • Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966).
  • René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Patrick Gregory (trans.) (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
  • For interpretations of revolution in political science, a good place to begin is:
  • Rosemary H. T. O’Kane (ed.), Revolution: Critical Concepts in Political Science, 4 vols. (London: Routledge, 2000).

French Revolutionary violence

  • See the bibliography listed in Week 2: ‘Radicalization and Terror’.

In addition

  • Albert Soboul, The Parisian Sans-culottes and the French Revolution, 1793-94, Gwynne Lewis, (trans.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).
  • Richard Cobb, The People's Army: The armées révolutionnaires: Instrument of the Terror in the Departments. April 1793 to Floréal Year II, Marianne Elliott (trans.) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
  • Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

Russian Revolutionary violence

  • George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959).
  • Brian Singer, ‘Violence in the French Revolution. Forms of Ingestion/Forms of Exclusion’, in Ferenc Feher (ed.), The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity (Berkeley: UC Press, 1990), 201-218.


  • Ryan, James Lenin’s Terror: Ideological Origins of Soviet State Violence (Routledge, London 2012)
  • Leggett, G The Cheka: Lenin's political police, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage (December 1917 to February 1922), (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981)
  • Gerson, L.D. The secret police in Lenin's Russia, (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1976).
  • Holquist, P. ‘“Information is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work”: Bolshevik Surveillance in Its Pan-European Context’, The Journal of Modern History Vol. 69, No. 3 (1997): 415-450.
  • Priestland, D. Stalinism and the Politics of Mobilization: Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-war Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).