Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

Dawn Hugies E. Bandoy

BA Political Science III


Book Review on Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World; Beacon: 1966.


The book attempts to explain the roles of the landed upper class and the peasants as decisive entities for social transformations from agrarian societies to modern industrial ones. Comparing eight major countries, in both the East and the West, Moore looks in detail at the varied political roles played by these two groups and identifies three main paths from pre-industrial to modern world – bourgeois revolutionary, capitalist and reactionary, and communist. Moore’s book allows the reader to have better understanding about the English and American civil wars, the character of Japanese fascism and the social and economic nature of non-violence in India. In general, he offers fascinating insights into alliances and conflicts which have risen between classes and interests over the bones of privilege, commerce and property.


Basically, Moore studies the three ‘social origins’ of modern nation-states. According to Moore, there are three features of each route towards modern states. First, and considered as the earliest, was the combination of capitalism and democracy after series of social revolutions in England, France, and the United States. This route was referred to the transition from bourgeois revolution by Moore himself. Moore called this as the democratic and capitalist route to the modern era as this worked itself out in England, France, and the United States.


Agrarian social features have contributed to the development of the first route which is commonly called as the Western form of Democracy. This is so because Moore believed that there are agrarian societal structures that may encourage and favor the possibilities of democracy. Such happened in the Puritan Revolution, French Revolution and the American Civil War. England, France, and the United States are known to be feudal societies historically and western feudalism contained certain institutions that distinguished it from other societies in such a way being favorable to democratic potentials.


Moore sees the development of democracy as a long and incomplete struggle to do three closely related things: 1) to check arbitrary rulers; 2) to replace arbitrary rules with just and rational ones; 3) to obtain a share for the underlying population in the making of rules. The first feature was then related, according to Moore, to the beheading of Kings, especially during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. The most important feature was that of the other two. It was the growth of the notion of the immunity of certain groups and persons form the power of the ruler, along with the conception of the right of resistance to unjust authority.


Together with the idea of contract as a mutual engagement freely accepted by free persons, derived from the feudal relation of vassalage, this complex of ideas and practices composes a crucial legacy from European medieval societies to modern Western notion of a free society.


The determination of royal absolutism or more generally of a preindustrial bureaucratic rule, in to modern times has formed conditions unfavorable to democracy of the Western variety like what happened in China, Russia and Germany. An important qualification for modern democracy has been the presence of rough balance between the crown and the nobility, in which the royal power predominated but left a substantial degree of independence to the nobility. The notion that independent nobility is an essential ingredient in the growth of democracy has a firm basis in historical fact. If the nobility seeks freedom in the absence of a bourgeois revolution, the outcome is highly unfavorable to the Western version of democracy. This is one reason why a strong and independent class of town dwellers has been a vital element of growth in a parliamentary democracy Apparently, Germany had very weak towns.


Another decisive factor on the development of western democracy is also the transformation of feudalism into commercialism. Take for example the case in England. England is known to be wide producers of wool. Transformations in economic structure will result to a shift from production of wool to the industrial production of clothes and threads.


Second route was the path of capitalism which culminated in fascism. According to Moore, this route was also a capitalist one, but with the absence of a strong revolutionary flow, it passed through ‘reactionary’ political forms which ended in fascism. This route was clearly undergone by Germany and Japan. There capitalism took hold quite firmly in both agriculture and industry and turned them into industrial countries but it did so without a popular revolutionary upheaval.


In the process of commercialization, a landed upper class may, as in the case of Japan, maintain intact the preexisting peasant society, and introduce just enough changes in rural society to ensure that the peasants generate a sufficient surplus that is profit generating. Moore calls such systems ”labor repressive.” He wants to show, then, how and why labor-repressive agrarian systems provides an unfavorable soil for the growth of democracy and an important part of the institutional complex leading to fascism. The following are the factors on why was there a transformation from capitalism to fascism.


First factor was the presence of commercial and industrial class, which is too weak and dependent to take power and rule in its own right. However, even if the commercial and industrial element is weak, it must be strong enough to be a worthwhile political ally. Otherwise, a peasant revolution leading to communism may intervene.


Second was with Japan and Germany as they tried to modernize without changing their social structures. They needed militarism which united the upper classes, and a strong central governments/state apparatuses. These systems turned in to fascism even before their failure.


The idea of anti-capitalism was also feature which most clearly differentiates twentieth century fascism from the nineteenth century conservative and semi-parliamentary regimes. It is a product both of the interruption of capitalism into the rural economy and of strains arising in the post-competitive phase of capitalist industry.


Third route was the communist route, of course. In the case of Russia and China, peasant revolts have made possible the communist alternative. The process of modernization begins with peasant revolutions. Proletariats or the landless laborers are a potential source of insurrection and revolution.


An agrarian bureaucracy, or a society that depends on a central authority for extracting the surplus, is a type weakest to such outbreaks. Turning to the process of modernization itself, the success or failure of the upper class in taking up commercial agriculture has a tremendous influence on the political outcome. Where the landed upper class has turned to production for the market in a way that enables commercial influences to permeate rural life, peasant revolutions have been weak affairs. If this doesn’t happen, the landed aristocrats may leave beneath it a peasant society damaged but intact, with which it has few connecting links. Meanwhile, it is likely to try to maintain its style of life in a changing world by extracting a larger surplus out of the peasantry. This was the case in eighteenth century France and in Russia and China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When there is a strong link between landlords and peasant community, the tendency toward peasant rebellion is weak. Two conditions might somehow lessen the tendencies of social violence and promote social stability: 1) there should not be severe competition for land or other resources between the peasants and the overlord; and, 2) political stability requires the inclusion of the overlord and/or the priest as members of the village community who perform services necessary for the agricultural cycle and the social cohesion of the village, for which they receive roughly commensurate privileges and material rewards. With this, Moore argues that revolutions and social upheavals will be eliminated with strong ties between the landlords and the peasantry.



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