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

by Barrington Moore Jr.
Beacon, 578 pp., (paperback, $2.95) (paper)

The first point that must be made about this remarkable book is that no single reviewer is competent to deal with it, for its scope is in fact a good deal wider than the title suggests. As described by Moore himself, the task he set himself was to examine the role of two social groups, the landed elite and the peasantry, during the last 300 years or so; and secondly to use the comparative method to try to isolate the factors which are likely to result in political systems of either an authoritarian or a democratic character. To identify these factors, Moore was obliged to look beyond the West to the history of Asia, and to make a close study of China, Japan, and India. As he explains in his Preface, he originally planned chapters on Germany and Russia, but in the end contented himself with a survey of the evolution of England, France, and the US, with frequent comparisons with Germany and Russia. I will be obliged to confine myself mainly to a discussion of Moore’s survey of the history of the Western societies, with briefer comments on China and Japan, while the long chapter on India will be wholly neglected, partly because of my own ignorance, partly because the record is incomplete and the conclusions very uncertain. The major hypotheses of the book stand or fall irrespective of the Indian experience and Moore’s interpretation of it.

If the geographical range of Moore’s book spans the globe, the problems he tackles are far wider than those suggested on the title page. He evidently soon discovered that it was impossible to deal adequately with landlords and peasants without studying what was happening to society as a whole. A social history of the modern world without the haute bourgeoisie is as meaningless as Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. So large sections of the book are taken up with a study of the interaction of the moneyed and industrial elite on the one hand and the agrarian elite on the other. Moore realizes perfectly well that the role of the former is critical even for the limited problem he first set himself, and by page 418 he comes right out with it: “no bourgeois, no democracy.” Nor do the elements in the equation end with lord, peasant, and bourgeois, for his examination of the French Revolution obliges him to take account of the role of the petty bourgeois, the sansculottes, while the study of France, Russia, and China involves some analysis of an agrarian bureaucracy. Thus Moore is forced to examine the social structure in all its operative parts, and as a result the emphasis on landlord and peasant tends to diminish. Indeed, one society, the US, has never had a peasantry anyway, unless one counts the post-bellum Southern sharecroppers (as Moore rather tentatively does).

If the range of the subject matter is far wider than the title suggests, so also is the range of questions asked …

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