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News from Everywhere

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,1 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. On the face of it, the issue raised in the title, authoritarianism or democracy, is an odd one, particularly since Moore classifies his societies by formalistic, institutional, and legal standards. His thinking is still deeply affected by the sort of constitutional history that used to be taught at Harvard or Oxford forty years ago, which regards the institutions of Anglo-Saxon societies as the last word in political equity and wisdom, and which assumes that the degree of liberty and democracy in a society can be tested by a close analysis of the formal rules of the constitutional game, that is, according to their nominal approximation to the Anglo-Saxon model. Today, we know better, having experienced the total and bitter failure of our efforts to export Anglo-Saxon democratic constitutions to emergent Africa. We are aware that liberty has many faces, not all of which are embodied in the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, or an elective assembly, and that (as Stalin proved) tyranny can flourish behind a faรงade of constitutionalism. We now realize that what matters is the state of mind which governs the rules: that is, a belief in equality of opportunity for all, a spirit of toleration, of compromise, of consensus, a recognition of the moral limitations on the exercise of sovereign power, whether exercised by a minority or a majority. Tribal societies under rule by chieftains and elders may be quite democratic in practice; national societies without agreed national goals cannot work the democratic machinery under any circumstances.

Even if the terms were defined in a less legalistic and more anthropological manner, the problem, first posed to himself by Moore in the late 1940s and early 1950s, now looks rather different in the late 1960s. He wanted to know why in the twentieth century great, modernizing, industrializing societies like Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and Russia had taken an authoritarian path, whether communist or fascist, as opposed to the democratic way adopted by England, France, and the US. This question seemed real enough in the days when smoke was still rising from Hitler’s funeral pyre in Berlin, when Stalin was exercising one of the most relentless and gigantic tyrannies the world has ever seen, when George Orwell was writing 1984. Today, however, the question of the authoritarian versus the democratic way seems much less fundamental, not because we care less about liberty in the Sixties than in the Fifties, but because the constitutional forms seem both superficial and temporary. Our study of primitive and traditional societies has revealed ways of achieving consultation and consent unknown to Anglo-Saxon constitutional lawyers, and Marx’s view of legal institutions as epiphenomena dependent on social structure and economic relationships has merely been strengthened by the test of time. Fascism and Stalinism both now look like short-term transition phases rather than as permanent and deep-seated structural phenomena. Today, the three exfascist states, Italy, West Germany, and Japan, have settled down to a democratic way of life, with safeguards for liberty which are not to be despised. Russia seems to be edging gingerly toward a more relaxed view of personal freedom, and the role of public opinion and pressure groups in determining policy seems to be increasing.

On the other hand, many democratic states of the 1950s are moving in the opposite direction. Greece, once the pride of the architects of the Truman Doctrine, is in the grip of a regime whose authoritarian brutality is only mitigated by its stupidity. In France, political liberty is closely controlled by the manipulations of a paternalistic autocracy, although personal liberty survives (except where it runs counter to Madame de Gaulle’s Victorian notions of sexual prudery). In the US, it is not yet clear whether the formal processes of democratic government will be capable of dealing with the two basic issues of the day: the desire by a powerful section of the elite to make America take on the job of policeman of the world, and the interrelated problems of the Negro and the city. After a bad scare during the McCarthyite days of the Fifties, personal liberty seems fairly secure for the moment. In England, personal liberty is perhaps better protected than anywhere in the world, but the political role and prestige of the representative institution is in rapid decline, and democratic control is becoming confined to the power to turn the rascals out every five years or so.

In the light of these short-term fluctuations in the degree of liberty and democracy in different societies, one may reasonably ask whether Moore is asking a significant question. It might be better if it were rephrased as follows: Under what conditions is a given society likely to (or obliged to, as some theorists of modernization assert) pass through a relatively brief authoritarian phase as it enters the modern world? This is a significant question, but on a long view not a terribly important one, if one accepts the hypothesis that the phase is not likely to be prolonged much beyond the period of industrial takeoff.

FORTUNATELY, HOWEVER, Moore is also asking two related and far more interesting and fundamental questions than this. He is first of all asking what are the social roots and social consequences of Great Revolutions, English, French, Russian, and Chinese, and in particular what part is played in them by landlords and peasants (by peasants Moore means a social group with a long history of legal subordination to an upper landed class, a considerable degree of de facto possession of the land, and a sharply defined cultural pattern). Secondly, he is asking what are the prerequisites for entry into the modern, industrialized, urban world, what changes need to be effected in the countryside to make such an evolution possible, and what is the necessary social cost of such a process.

If these are the questions, what are the answers that Moore provides? He sees three possible roads to modernization. The first and, in Moore’s view, the most desirable, is the road followed by England, France, and the US, which achieves democracy and capitalism after revolution. The second road, followed by Germany and Japan, achieves capitalism without revolution, by way of a Fascist dictatorship of landlords and industrialists. The third road, followed by Russia and China, runs first through a peasant revolution which destroys the landlord, then through a Communist dictatorship which destroys the peasant proprietor, to end up with an industrialized but not a democratic society.

In all the countries which have followed the first road, Moore sees an era of violence as a necessary and essential requirement of the subsequent evolution of political liberty and economic progress. In England this violence took two forms: first, the Civil War and execution of Charles I in 1649, symbolic of the humbling of the Crown and the reduction of state power; and second, the destruction of the peasantry by enclosures in the eighteenth century. The latter he regards as a cruel but historically necessary process, partly since it demonstrates the shift of the landlord class to commercial agriculture, and partly since it eliminated from the scene a potentially reactionary class, the small peasant proprietor, and so opened the way to a more democratic society in the future. Thus, in Moore’s view, England’s peculiar political evolution has depended on four things: the early rise to great power and wealth of a formidable bourgeoisie with aristocratic aspirations; the early shift (thanks mainly to an interest in wool export) of the landed aristocracy to a commercial rather than a feudal attitude to land ownership; the fact that the alliance of these two groups developed independent of, and indeed antagonistic to, the state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and the elimination of the peasantry from English society in the eighteenth century by their transformation into leasehold tenant farmers.

NOW IT IS VERY EASY, but perhaps not very fruitful nor very generous, for the local expert to pick holes in this interpretation of events. Moore’s vision of English society fits in well enough with that of C. B. McPherson, whose recent book on The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism explains English political thought from Hobbes to Locke according to the rise of competitive, individualistic, commercial attitudes to social and economic relationships. The basic objections to this view are twofold. First, it greatly exaggerates the degree to which English society, especially rural society, had gone over to a competitive, individualistic, commercialized value system. The tenantry (whether small peasants or tenant farmers is irrelevant) remained deferential to their betters until the late nineteenth century, while the landlord remained paternalistic in his attitude toward his subordinates. Moore simply does not understand the restraints upon the maximization of profits which are imposed by public opinion in a traditional society and which indeed are usually successfully internalized. Let us agree at once that the farm laborer is likely to get a far larger share of the cake under a system of collective bargaining by trade unions than by reliance on the generosity or sense of obligation of a paternalist employer. That goes without saying. But to ignore the role of the latter is to miss the significance of a set of social relationships that were of supreme importance in the past. Nor is it either willful romanticism or black reaction to argue that they served a morally defensible purpose that was often advantageous to both parties. Moore notes, though he does not make anything of it, that the English peasantry remained passive and quiescent even during the upheaval of revolution in the seventeenth century. The constant, desperate, ferocious peasant revolts of contemporary France up to 1680 simply did not happen in England after 1549.

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    In thinking out my position for this review, I have been greatly helped by the comments and criticisms of students and colleagues (particularly Professors Gillis, Mayer, Schrecker, and Talbot) present at the two sessions of my seminar at Princeton during which Moore’s book was discussed. For the views here put forward I am of course alone responsible.

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