BOOK REVIEW: Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy


Book: Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World

Author: Barrington Moore, Jr.

Publisher: Beacon press.

Total Page:  559.

ISBN 978-0-8070-5073-6

SAU Library Call Number: 301 M8212s

Social Origin of Democracy

Barrington Moore, Jr. is an American political sociologist. His famous book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the making of the modern world, was first published in the year 1966, is a comparative analysis on the societies of England, France, America, China, Japan and India. His other works include Reflections on the causes of Human Misery and upon Certain Proposals to eliminate them (1972) and Injustice: the Social Basis of Obedience and Revolt (1978). This review will focus on the chapters of his famous work concerning analysis on the societal transformation of England, France, China and Japan.

The analysis on the political role played by landlords and peasants in the transformation of the society from the agrarian to a modern one forms the central theme of the book. As a part of his analysis, he takes into account a wide range of modern societies including western democracies, fascist regimes as well as the communist totalitarian governments. The varying role played by the landlords and peasants lead to different outcomes. This book is a great work on the comparative historical analysis that includes the in depth study on many variables including the history, revolutions, nature of society, existing land relationship and role of different sections of the people and institutions ( aristocrats, landlords, peasants, monarch, parliament and so on). He also tries to propose his philosophical thesis for why and how the process results in the different societal outcomes.

The different societies that Moore analyses are the:

  • Western democracies that are present in England, France and America that resulted from the revolution of the bourgeoisie ( nobility and landlords)
  • Fascist regime in Japan and Germany where there was a conservative revolution from above.
  • Communist regimes in China and Russia which was formed from peasant revolution.
  • Parliamentary democracy in India where there was no revolution and he analysis the reasons for such absence of upheaval.

In chapter 1, Moore discusses on the reason and examines the events and roles of many classes in the modernization of the England society. The modern liberal democratic society of England was considered to be the outcome of events that happened in two phases. The first one belongs to the reactionary phase that followed the puritan revolution or the civil war. The second phase denotes the peaceful history of England in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. The economic base that developed in the English society after the civil war was wholly independent of the aristocracy and the political structures. English parliament which was able to abolish the absolutism of the monarch maintained its independent and stronghold

The independent economic base, the strong parliament, the dominance of gentry along with absence of series peasant problems during the seventeenth centuries set the base for the progress towards democracy. Although this transition stagnated during the Napoleonic wars it progressed in the proceeding centuries. There was significant growth of the landed upper class to high ranks both in societal structure as well as the political one. The commercial agriculture flourished in both the rural and urban centers. The industrial revolution of England retained a group of people in opposition for the aristocratic or monarchical rule but did not result in coalition of aristocracy and bourgeoisie, which prevented from following any policy of repression. These factors stood responsible for England’s transition towards modern democracy.

In Chapter 2, Moore analyses the origin, causes and the consequences of the French revolution which formed the basis for the modernization of the French society. Unlike the English, where the transition was more or less peaceful, the French revolution was violent. According to Moore, the Louis XVI’s effort to limit the fusion of the nobility and the bourgeoisie was the main reason for the occurrence of the revolution. The situation and the obstacles in France were very different from England. There was no strong parliament, neither independent economic based class to prevent the absolutism. Both the bourgeoisie and the peasants took advantage of the revolution; with the former in seizing political power while the latter in abolishing the seigniorial system. This revolution turned out to be incomplete, due to the withdrawal of support by the peasants. This took up so long time for the France for its transition to modern democracy, for until 18th century it was under monarchical control.

In Chapter 5, Moore describes the second form of transition to modern society, the capitalist with revolution from above, in case of Germany and Japan. There were no popular revolutions in these countries. As one of the few industrialized countries in Asia, one faction of the old rulers made use of the existing feudal system of Japan to make revolution from above having hold on both agricultural as well as the industrial structures. The Industrial and peasant factors were involved in money making and were weak for a revolution which left the bureaucracy and existing political structures strong. The oligarchic society and the internal solidarity were surviving in throughout the transition in the history of Japan. This adaptability, according to Moore, is one of the main reasons for the absence of revolution in the Japan. The denial of revolutionary solution led to a fascist regime in Japan. The same situation prevailed in Germany too.

The 20th century saw the success of the peasant revolutions in Russia and China. It was largely due to the presence of large landless labors. The agrarian society depended on the central authority. There was absence of commercial agriculture and the peasant was subject to stresses. The link between the government, upper class and the peasants were weak and largely artificial. Although the imperial regime tried to bring on the link by introducing various systems like public granaries, the pao-chia system, the preaching of Confucian philosophy to the population and the clan system, they failed in one way or the other. The rural areas lacked cohesiveness as compared to that of the Indian and European ones. There was a surplus of labor due to intensive workers needed in the rice fields spread through China and they were exchanged to meet the need. The basis for individuals in the Chinese society is the possession of land: No property, No Family, No religion. The policies and maladministration followed lead many to be poor, hungry and without property. This made the landless laborers furious and prepared them for revolution.

Barrington Moore provided a classical comparative text through this well researched book. Though the book is not an easy read, it gives in-depth analysis into the origin, causes and consequences of different revolutions that has taken in the history. It tries to blend the field of comparative politics through history and sociology. He repudiates the euro centrism by his dedication certain chapters for studies on Asian countries such as India, Japan and China. He put forth his thesis based on the different case studies “No Bourgeoisie No Democracy”. His study is comprehensive, inclusive and detailed. Instead of focusing on particular societies, he takes into account various modern societies including the Western democracies, the fascist, parliamentary democracy as well as the communist regimes. His analysis takes into account various class of people including the aristocrats, landed upper class, gentry, nobility, bureaucracy and peasants. The role that land relationship plays is seen throughout. His emphasis on the land, peasants, and the social and economic relationship places him between Weber and Marx.

Although his theory of change could apply to the case studies he has taken, it cannot be universally applied to all societies. His emphasis on the need for revolution for the change in the social and political structure is not true to all societies in its transition towards modern society. India is one of example where revolution did not play a major role in bringing change in society or interfere in its transition towards parliamentary democracy. Moore takes into account only certain variables in analysis on different revolutions. Land and social relations play major role. He links the French, England and American revolutions to the economic and social factors. He does not take into account various other factors like the religious, ideological or political factors that bring revolution in the society. The ideology of Marx which played a major role in Russia and China and the political and religious factors that influential role in the English civil war; French and American revolutions are largely ignored.

Moore thesis that “No Bourgeoisie No Democracy” does not fit into most of the modern societies. There has been peaceful transition to democracy in many countries without any bourgeoisie revolution that Moore talks about. Taking into account the cases of Japan and Germany, Moore’s other proposition that industrial development leads to fascism, if bourgeoisie revolution is absent, is a result of incomplete analysis that does not take into account the role of ideology and circumstances that led to the formation of fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Japan. Moore ignored the case studies of Germany and Russia to avoid adding bulkiness to already heavy book. In each of the case studies he substantiates his argument with historical studies.

Though his analysis of social factors can be attributed to the title Social Origins, it is difficult to accept a thesis without comprehensive analysis. Besides all the critics mentioned, as mentioned; the book is a classical text on comparative historical analysis. One of the major achievements is the comparison of western and the non western societies under one theme. His moves away from the tradition of euro centrism by dedicating half of the chapters for the study of non western societies like China, Japan and India. Recent workings such as Rostov’s five stage of economic growth and Huntington suggests same processes for transition of all societies. Moore’s extensive analysis is insightful in bringing out his own style of argument. Last but not least this book illustrates how various factors are responsible for producing and sustaining democracy

… … …

MANOJ KUMAR is studying M.A (International Relations) in South Asian University, New Delhi, India.

N.B: The review has already been submitted as Term Paper.



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