Olin HomeAboutLecture SeriesConferences Faculty

The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy

The Meaning of Modern Revolutions

May 17-19, 1996



The collapse of the Soviet Union marked a crisis in revolutionary political culture. The regime born in Russia in October 1917 was characterized by all the quintessential ambitions inseparable from the modern idea of revolution: the wrenching of a society from its past and the voluntaristic construction of a new world and a new man through the violent seizure of state power. The total failure of the Soviet experiment should lead us to a critical reexamination of the entire revolutionary project. That project received its legitimacy from the development of the modern West. Over the last three centuries revolution gradually took shape as the preferred mode of historical change. No longer possessing the cyclical sense it had drawn from both classical political philosophy and astronomy, the idea of revolution took on its modern traits. It combined the belief in the omnipotence of volition and the vision of society as an artifact. Revolutions came to be understood as stages in the realization of an overall modern movement toward greater freedom or equality based on secular and universal principles. Henceforth, the idea of revolution constituted a response to the political deficit of liberalism.

The object of this conference will be to analyze the formation, the stages, and the characteristics of revolutionary culture in Western history since the seventeenth century, through successive examinations of the English, American, French, and Russian Revolutions, finishing by a debate over the implications of the downfall of Soviet-type regimes. In each discussion of a particular event, we would like to ask what the idea of revolution meant in those particular circumstances, and in doing so we would like to keep in mind a comparative perspective in which each of these great modern revolutions is seen in light of the others. We hope to collect the papers given at the conference into what we hope will be a very exciting book.

Conference Schedule

Friday, May 17

10:00 am

The Theoretical Understanding of Revolution

The Ancient and Modern Meanings of Revolution
Nathan Tarcov

From Reason to Revolution: the Modern Revolutionary Experience
Pierre Hassner

2:30 pm

The English Revolution(s)

Revolutionary Thought of 17th & 18th Century England
Jonathan Clark

The First Modern Revolution(s)
Mark Kishlansky

Saturday, May 18

10:00 am

The American Revolution

How Revolutionary Was the American Revolution?
Paul Rahe

The Success of the American Revolution
Gordon Wood

2:30 pm

The French Revolution

Revolutionizing Revolution
Keith Baker

The French Idea of Revolution
François Furet

Sunday, May 19

10:00 am

The Russian Revolution

Lenin and the Cult of Revolution
Abraham Ascher

Red October: the Revolution to End All Revolutions
Martin Malia

2:30 pm

The Collapse of the Soviet Union & The Future of Revolution

Was the Collapse of Communism a Modern Revolution?
Francis Fukuyama

The End of the Revolutionary Age?
Charles Fairbanks

Olin HomeAboutLecture SeriesConferences Faculty

©1999, 2000 The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, University of Chicago
Revised: January 2nd, 2000