Revolution, representation and the foundations of modern democracy

Christopher Edward Hobson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Since representation and democracy were reconciled and combined, there has been constant tension and debate over whether representation enables, limits or prevents democracy. If one leaves aside questions over principles and turns to history, the democratic credentials of representation immediately become much clearer. Until democracy was reformulated to mean a representative system of government, it was dismissed as an antiquarian form of rule, inappropriate, if not impossible, for modern states. This article seeks to demonstrate the 'democratic-ness' of representation through historical argument. This focus leads to the revisions and challenges to 'democracy' that occurred during the French Revolution, where crucial developments can be seen in the bringing together of the two previously antithetical concepts of democracy and representation. It is argued that this is when the conceptual and theoretical framework for modern democracy starts to be built in earnest. This is shown through a close reading of two key revisions in how democracy is understood in relation to representative rule, provided by a pair of political actors at the very heart of the Revolution: Thomas Paine and Maximilen Robespierre. What makes these two protagonists so important is that they offer bold and particularly modern revaluations of democracy, which simultaneously challenge both the 'evaluative' and the 'descriptive' sides of the concept. In so doing, Paine and Robespierre conceive of democracy as including representation and, at the same time, paint democracy as something positive and valuable. The reflections and innovations of democracy found in these two central and polarizing figures are exemplary in the unique combination of reconfiguring of democracy and representation - a pairing that may now seem very normal, but in the 18th century was nothing short of oxymoronic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)449-471
Number of pages23
JournalEuropean Journal of Political Theory
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Democracy
  • French Revolution
  • Paine
  • Representation
  • Robespierre

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Sociology and Political Science


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