Moore's Paths to Dictatorship and Democracy

Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Social Origins), while hardly an appropriate choice for bedtime reading, is not restricted to an audience of erudite, arcane academics. Unlike, for example, Neumann’s Behemoth, Moore does not make numerous references to obscure philosophers and events, degenerate into tangents, or write in long-winded or convoluted prose littered with “isms.” Instead, in such a manner that it can be comprehended by policy makers, academics or intelligent non-specialists, Moore clearly articulates his thesis, which is that there are three methods –parliamentary democracy, fascism, and communism– by which countries reach modernization* and what sets a country’s course along one of these paths is determined by the interplay of five variables.

What occupies his pages is primarily the influence and fluctuation of the five factors in the modernization of England, France, and the United States, which developed parliamentary democracies; fascist Japan and Germany; and communist Russia and China. Moore draws upon a wide range of secondary sources supplemented by primary research in selected areas.

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What are these five elements that alter and illuminate our times? One determinant is the response the agrarian elite has to commercialization, and closely linked with this element is the extent to which this upper-class participates, or fails to participate, in a revolutionary break with the past (430-31). Another two factors are the relationship that the agrarian upper class has with both the peasants and the bourgeoisie; it is significant if an alliance is formed with either or neither. The last factor is the degree to which power is decentralized in pre-modern social structure, in other words, the relationship the nobility have with the central authority (423).

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It is these five variables that Moore argues answers the crucial question of how major areas of the world advanced into the modern one it is today. Written during the Cold War while the memory of fascism was still vivid, Social Origins provided a powerful explanation for Moore’s question.

Moore’s means of ascertaining the social conditions that yielded the modern world are through the comparison of histories of states that develop similar governments and those with opposite results. A social historian, he is also a strong believer in the concept of historical causality. Peeling away the layers of history, Moore discerns the primary factor which influenced England’s future, as well as that of other nations: the response of the agrarian elite, or nobles, to the commercialization of agriculture. It is this response that prompts him to declare England’s revolution a bourgeois revolution, a term that has confounded other reviewers. In the New York Review of Books, Moore’s terminology is attacked without attention paid to his definition; claims are made that, because the bourgeoisie were submissive and without full political control, even in the nineteenth century, a term such as “bourgeois revolution” is inappropriate (Stone 32). Moore explains that bourgeois revolutions are, by his definition, ones with liberal legal and political consequences, such as “security for the rights of property” and the practice of, in theory, an “objective system of law” (429). As he clearly demonstrates with his explanation of the wool trade and the upperclass’s alliance with the elite townspeople, the agrarian elite, interested in their own survival disposed of the old feudal methods of farm production and invested their surplus in industry. The nobles were assimilated into a bourgeois worldview; the few who lingered in the shadows of the past-perished (38).

Merely becoming a capitalist society, however, does not necessarily produce a democracy. This was a radical assertion in Moore’s time, a deviation from the idyllic image of Papa parliament and Mama merchant going hand in hand. Instead, he argues cogently, it was the alliance between the bourgeoisie and the upper classes against the monarchy that produced a democracy. The Tudors and Stuarts had for a long period of time been fighting a battle for political control with the nobility. The sovereign’s interference with the enclosures, which will be discussed below, brought the industrial elite in the towns to the nobility’s side, since both were threatened by sanctions against their economic maneuvering (14). The collaboration of the agrarian upper classes and the bourgeoisie in an effort to further their livelihood, Moore argues, culminated in the Puritan Revolution, Charles I’s loss of his head and a defeat of royal absolutism from which the English monarchy never recovered (423-25).

So, the reader concludes, an alliance against the English monarchy between the bourgeoisie and agrarian elite that is interested in commercialization resulted in the eventual reduction of the monarchy’s power, and was necessary to forming a parliamentary democracy. But what about the peasants’ role in creating this polity? According to Moore, they contribute by being eliminated. The method by which the nobility gradually eased into industrialism was to reclaim the “common,” or general farmland used by a peasant village, so as to produce wool (21). The consequences were mass migrations to towns and a constant supply of inexpensive labor for both the urban commercial elite and the nobility, since the remaining rural peasants could no longer support themselves by farming the common (26). Thus “sheep ate men,” eliminating any possible peasant response to the social and political appeals of communism or fascism, and at the same time, the English nobility waltzed (relatively easily) into capitalism (426).

England’s history concludes, however, not with Moore smiling and spreading his arms wide with a sage smile like that of a wizened storyteller, but with a grim reproving frown. He reminds the reader that, in the case of England for example, “the costs of moderation have been at least as atrocious as those of revolution, perhaps a good deal more” (505). As a strong supporter of democracy, however, he proves to be equally appreciative of the fruits of the English modernization route. To determine whether the benefits reaped from modernization outweigh the cost, and whether a gradual revolution can produce a score card that is at least balanced in the areas of pain and profit, one needs to examine the costs of alternate routes to modernization.

Unfortunately, Moore, though he did conduct an immense amount of research on the subject, did not include chapters either on Germany or Russia. They are, however, included as supplements to the extensive chapters on Japan and China. Moore notes preconditions in feudal and later times that are similar in all these countries. The histories of these four countries reveal a similar negative response to commercialization, a centralized government through which the nobles perpetuate their livelihood and an attempt to maintain very much intact the old feudal positions of authority.

A difficulty in reading Moore’s study of fascism is that he seems to have trouble in reconciling some of the differences between the German product and the Japanese, which is not surprising since they differ greatly in their societies’ structure and values. For example, in German culture there was no equivalent to the Japanese destitute nobility, the samurai, who Moore claims were influential and occasionally engaged in peasant revolts, but on whom he does not expand (257). He is much more successful in noting the general similarities that existed in feudal times than when attempting to compare both of their immediate entrances into modern times.

Both the Japanese Shogunate and China’s agrarian elite perceived a potential threat in the merchant. Bourgeois success in China would injure the scholar-gentry by eroding the system they had developed to justify their privilege–Confucius’s teaching and emphasis on tradition–and thus they taxed and manipulated the merchants so as to restrict their power (174-75). In Japan, because of the expensive lifestyles the Shogunate required of members of the court, the nobility found their profits going to the merchants in return for luxuries. They responded by chaining the struggling bourgeoisie in social fetters; the nobility denied them political influence, restricted their trade, and because of an anti-foreign policy, the merchants could not defend themselves with western ideology (253-54). Thus the bourgeoisie were restricted from creating any revolution.

The peasants of early Japan and China, being an equal if not greater threat than the merchants, were also repressed with a series of legal moves and social institutions. This system, which Moore categorized as “labor-repressive,” required constant participation by the central authority on the behalf of the aristocracy (434). It is an interesting point, which Moore does not fully develop, that the orchestrators of oppression were much more clearly defined for the Japanese and Chinese peasants, whereas the English nobility, after the enclosures, allowed their views to be mediated through the market. The reader suspects that it is this difference in the treatment of peasants–directly with political authority or indirectly through market mechanisms–that either provides or hinders peasant revolutions, although Moore never formerly addresses this question.

He does, however, examine several important factors that influence the possibility of a peasant revolution, especially after noting that, though the rural lower classes of various societies may suffer equally with each other, only certain conditions prompt such a revolution. After discussing the similarities between the Chinese and Japanese Shogunate’s treatment of the rural underclass, he is prompted to consider the two important points on which they differ: the relationships that the agrarian upper classes maintain with the bourgeoisie and peasant. For example, the Japanese government and landed elite, called daimyo, eventually exhibited a strong interest in modernization in response to threat of western capitalists–but modernization without a redistribution of wealth or change in status (244). Thus, in the later Meiji period the daimyo condescended to ally with the weak bourgeoisie, who leaned on them for political protection, against a peasant insurrection (432; 438). The Chinese, however, so strongly resisted the commercial influence of the West that there were virtually no indigenous merchants to collaborate with, since any talents that could be exercised in trade were channeled into the aristocratic bureaucracy. Thus the nobility faced alone the peasant revolution that took place (478).

Yet the Chinese peasants, who were only indirectly forced to bear the brunt of modernization, unlike the Japanese peasants, were the ones who successfully revolted. Moore ponders this dilemma and eventually provides a solution: the Japanese aristocracy had managed to develop a tight system of control over their peasants, whereas the Chinese gentry had overlooked the importance of such a system. Moore has determined three important preconditions that will regulate discontent: the intensity of a binding relationship between the peasant and landlord, the class and property divisions within the peasant class itself, and the extent to which a peasant community can be united (468). While the Japanese aristocracy attended to all three of these factors, the Chinese nobility were removed from contact or even a supervisory position over their peasants (201). Further, while the Japanese aristocracy carefully skimmed off the upper layer of the peasantry whenever wealthy and potentially discontent peasants ever rose into view, making them into new class landlords, the Chinese allowed the peasantry no opportunity for advancement–no incentive for an increase in production (274).

The Chinese left the peasant community intact, although disgruntled and in constant competition with each other over limited resources (222). However, the Japanese, in the Meiji period, transformed their peasants into tenant farming communities and established the pao system, which was unsuccessful in China but adopted by the Japanese aristocracy, this system operated with group punishment if any individual shirked his tax duties (260). Thus the daimyo were able to keep a tight reign on their peasantry, whereas the Chinese peasants were aggravated and with little contact or sympathy for their landlord.

Even with their nerves rubbed thin, however, Moore doubts that peasant revolution was imminent. He claims that the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930’s was the “decisive ingredient” because it prompted the agricultural elite to abandon their land holdings and move to the towns, leaving the peasants to their own devices, and also unified the lower-classes against the “extermination campaigns” that the Japanese military pursued (223). It is here that one glimpses a flaw in Moore’s arguments, not because he may necessarily be wrong about what triggered the Communist revolution, but because it is one of the few moments when he recognizes the importance of a country’s relationship to the world. Often what is lacking in Moore’s book is attention paid to the role timing and external forces had on the modernization path of a nation. In this instance he notes the importance of the Japanese invasion; however, for the most part, Moore ignores the world systems theory and therefore neglects the influence of core and periphery countries on each other. Moore concedes that England, for example, being the first to industrialize, held an advantage in the market for a period of time, but as other countries followed suit its success diminished (439). How much of England’s “peaceful revolution”–a term he argues is untrue–is due to its head start? Would it have chosen a different path if other countries had modernized sooner? It is hard to imagine the English not creating a parliamentary democracy, but the extent a revolution’s success is owed to timing and its relationship to the world is a significant factor, and one that does not only appear in Chinese history but needs to be examined thoroughly in all countries studied.

The universality and insightfulness of Social Origins is especially apparent when one recognizes its relevance to modern events. What has hindered democracy in Africa and South America, or aided the development of reactionary parties in these countries, bears a striking resemblance with what hindered democracy in China or culminated in a reactionary response in Japan of some of the agrarian elite. Unfortunately, what one wonders when one recognizes the wisdom of Moore’s conclusions, is whether he is correct in stating that “the costs of moderation have been at least as atrocious as those of revolution, perhaps a good deal more.” Such a prospect bodes for a dismal future, for, if no state can escape the contagion of modernization, whether a country confronts the monster and escapes with scars, or stagnates and suffers the consequences, as in the case of India, it will still be racked with pain and rage with fever. It is for future nations’ sake that one hopes Moore is in error concerning this point and that a cure can be found which alleviates the pain of modernization.

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Moore's Paths to Dictatorship and Democracy. (2016, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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