Debating Democracy: Reform and Revolution

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Course Description

Can social and political reform ensure that all are free to participate in a democratic society? Or is revolution sometimes needed? What is revolution, anyway? And what is reform? How has this distinction been developed in the history of democratic political thought, for example in relation to the distinction between representative and direct democracy? What is needed today?

We debate these questions by engaging major texts in the history of political theory, philosophy, and social thought, always in connection with current events. The course offers an excellent introduction to historical debates in these fields and a strong foundation for future work.

In the first week, we explore the revolutionary rise of democracy in the modern period. After considering the practice of democracy in ancient Athens and the distinction between democracy and liberalism, we consider Locke’s and Rousseau’s different views on individual liberty and the social contract. Then we turn to debates around the American and French Revolutions, in the work of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. Finally, we look at Tocqueville’s account of the social effects of democracy in the United States.

In the second week, we focus on the nineteenth century. We consider how the realities of slavery in the United States pressed many to call for reform and even revolt, through reading the work of David Walker and Frederick Douglass. We grapple with Marx’s critique of liberalism and radical call for what he calls “human emancipation.” We examine John Stuart Mill’s liberal defense of representative democracy and efforts to achieve social reform. We conclude by assessing Hannah Arendt’s theory of political action, in the twentieth century, and her call to take up what she calls the “revolutionary tradition” today through direct participation in political life.

In addition to laying a foundation for future work in political theory, philosophy, and related disciplines, students will be encouraged to form and articulate their own views about democracy, reform, and revolution, both in the contexts of the debates we consider and in our own times.

Prerequisites: None


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPS0942
  • Length: 3 weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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