Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt
For at least a century and a half the specter of revolution has haunted the ruling classes of the West. Tocqueville’s fears in 1848—“Don’t you feel…a wind of Revolution in the air?”—Bismarck’s anxieties that in the 1870s international socialism presented a real and immediate threat, the red scares in the United States after both World War I and World War II all reflect the conviction that revolution was likely and at certain moments imminent. Yet the revolution in the advanced industrial countries of Europe and North America never came: the demands for an end to the capitalist regime or the fears of its collapse have never been realized.
The result for historians and political scientists of the absence of the revolution in the countries where they had been led to expect it (not only by Marx) has been to turn their attention to the study of why societies and institutions are able to avoid revolutions rather than to the investigation of what causes revolutions. Barrington Moore, Jr., in the best known of his earlier books, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, tried to explain on a worldwide scale why some societies developed liberal and democratic institutions and others did not. In his new book he tries, among other things, to answer the question why the proletarian revolution has not taken place in advanced industrial societies; and this leads him on to an even more fundamental question: “Why,” as he puts it, “men and women do not revolt.” This inquiry carries him far afield. It leads to a discussion of moral and political philosophy, of the nature of the social contract, and of “the proper purposes of authority”; it also involves him in a discussion of why there was no revolution in Germany in 1918-1920, and he raises, even if he does not answer, the question of why there was in Germany so little resistance to Hitler.
The themes of this book are inter-twined, and it is not always easy to distinguish them: but the questions it raises are of fundamental historical, political, and moral importance, and the answers which Barrington Moore suggests are as stimulating and controversial as readers of his earlier work would expect. The first part, in which the author is trying, as he says, “to isolate the more important social and psychological mechanisms that produce both submission to socially imposed hardships and resistance to such pains,” has much to say about the nature of authority and the point at which subjects of a ruler are so outraged by the breaches in an implicit social contract that they rebel.
In this section Barrington Moore discusses, among many other topics, some of the explanations that have been given of men’s willingness to accept intolerable conditions—the docility of slaves, for example, or of the inmates of concentration camps—and he also analyzes the nature of the realization by the oppressed that things have gone too far and that revolt, even if the …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.