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 façade 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.

This leads to the second and more concrete objection to Moore’s analysis of English history, namely that he frankly and openly flies in the face of modern scholarship in his interpretation of the enclosure movement of the eighteenth century as a brutal act of violence, a cruel process of dispossession and depopulation. All recent research confirms that enclosure in England was a slow and continuous process that lasted some three centuries; that many of the enclosures were relatively equitable in intent and effect; and that the eighteenth-century ones in particular involved very little mass eviction of peasants. The population of the English village, after enclosure, was normally greater in the 1830s than it had been in the 1730s. The main result of enclosure was to provide sufficient food to sustain a burst of demographic expansion. Finally, in what sense the tenant farmers of the nineteenth century differed fundamentally from the small independent proprietors of the seventeenth century in status, security, or income is a question that has yet to be solved. Moore cannot be wholly blamed for evading this question since it is one that English historians have not yet examined in any serious way.

In conclusion, then, let us admit that, within certain limits, Moore’s model for England is roughly correct, as far as we know, and makes reasonably good sense. My reservations are confined to a belief that he seriously exaggerates both the degree to which the landlord class had adopted commercial principles (in fact they were mostly rentiers, as he admits in a footnote) and the speed and the violence of the disappearance of the small peasant proprietor. The most important contribution he makes to our rethinking of the English experience is the emphasis he places on the fact that the alliance of landlord and bourgeoisie took place in antagonism to, rather than in partnership with, the state.

What of France? Here Moore tries to determine why a very different social background has led to a not dissimilar political system. In eighteenth-century France the aristocracy took their profit from the land in the form of seigniorial dues, so that commercialization far from weakening feudalism actually strengthened it. The bourgeoisie was feudalized, rather than vice versa, and the aristocracy and large numbers of the bourgeoisie were linked together by mutual dependence upon the state for defense of their hereditary privileges and offices. For the state operated a large agrarian bureaucracy manned by bourgeois and nobles, which also served to strengthen rather than to weaken tenurial relationships, privilege, and dependency. As a result, the Revolution when it came contained within it significant anti-capitalist elements, notably the sansculottes and the peasantry as well as the entrenched official class. The successive revolutionary lurches to the Left proceeded normally until the interests of rural peasantry and urban sans-culottes split apart over the issue of price control. At that point the French Revolution came to an end, with results very different from those of the English Revolution.

ONE OF THE MANY virtues of Moore’s analysis is its sophisticated awareness of the complexities of social change. Not for him the straw man of the rise of a homogeneous French bourgeoisie on the ruins of feudalism, such as Professor Cobban has recently taken such perverse pleasure in setting up and then knocking down. He sees the outcome of the Revolution as a victory for a mixed alliance of disparate groups, one of whom, the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, was particularly favored by the new politico-legal system of opportunity and private property which the Revolution had created. This was the long run effect, but in the short run what mattered was the destruction of aristocratic privilege and the consolidation of a property-owning peasantry. The importance of the former lay in its elimination of the aristocracy from French life, which in Moore’s view saved France from a fascist alliance of landed and moneyed elites, supported by the military, such as occurred in Prussia and Japan. The importance of the latter was that the peasantry, satisfied in its ideological aspirations by the granting of citizenship, and in its material aspirations by the acquisition of freehold, henceforward became a solidly conservative force, holding back the modernization of France from that day to this.

On the whole, this analysis of French development seem acceptable, although one could quarrel over details. One could argue, for example, that the political overthrow of the aristocracy did not happen till 1830, that a proto-fascist alliance of landlords and haute bourgeoisie can be detected in the France of both Napoleon III and Marshal Pétain. One could point out that Moore seriously underestimates the role of the aristocracy in the development of heavy industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but still agree with him that this activity and officeholding were ultimately dead ends down which both the German and the French aristocracy marched to their destruction. Moore’s main points—the fact that French society was modernized in association with the state rather than in antagonism to it, the destruction both politically and ideologically of aristocratic and official privilege, and the entrenchment of peasant proprietorship—are all important keys to an understanding of French history.

Perhaps the least satisfactory of the three chapters dealing with Western societies is that on the US, which sees the critical turning point in American history as the Civil War. Once again, as with the French Revolution and the English Civil War and enclosure movement, Moore considers violence as a necessary step on the way to future liberty, democracy, and economic progress. To accuse Moore of swallowing uncritically the simplistic economic determinism of Charles Beard is willfully to misunderstand what he is trying to say. He fully accepts the modern revisionist theory which views the Southern plantation economy as in no way an economic threat to Northern industrial interests. What he does see is a clash of deep-seated cultural values. The South was anti-urban, aristocratic, elitist, hierarchical, anti-industrial, even if plantations operated with slave labor were fully as capitalistic and entrepreneurial in their management as any Northern factory. The Northern industrialists wanted to preserve the Union as a unified market, and to prevent the authority of the Federal Government being used to protect and extend the institution of slavery, which offended its beliefs in equality of opportunity, individualism, and democracy. The free Western farmers were also afraid of the extension of slavery, as a threat both to their values and their interests. The result was a coalition of Northern industrialists and Western farmers against Southern planters, over issues so deeply embedded in cultural values that they were not negotiable. The alternative to war was in Moore’s view a reactionary alliance of Northern industrialists and Southern planters against slaves, urban workers, and free farmers: to this alternative, the war, he believes, was infinitely preferable, in spite of its cost. Had the war been avoided and the reactionary coalition consolidated in the 1850s, instead of in the 1880s after the failure of Reconstruction, the ideological and political trend toward equality and democracy would have been arrested, and the values officially held up to admiration in America (for all the inevitable failure to fully implement them in practice) would not have been those that are prevalent today. Putting the Federal Government permanently out of the business of enforcing slavery was worth all the blood of the Civil War.

NOW IT IS CLEAR that in this analysis Moore is adopting a highly moralistic tone, which contrasts sharply with his more dispassionate examination of other societies. He concludes this section with a eulogy of Pericles’s Funeral Oration and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which suggests that we have moved a long way from an objective survey of landlords and peasants and the formation of a modern society. Moreover, if, as Moore suggests, a reactionary alliance was in the end formed after the failure of Reconstruction, one may reasonably ask whether the Civil War was in fact not negotiable after all, and whether its results have been as decisive as Moore supposes. Moore’s analysis of American history contains serious inconsistencies, moral and factual, his socio-economic classifications are much cruder than elsewhere, and his optimistic conclusion is at variance with the plight of the Negro in contemporary society and with the persistence in the South of a backward-looking cultural pattern. He seems in this chapter to be a victim of his own theory about the necessity for violence as a prelude to democracy. He seems, too, to suffer from the intensity of his passion for liberty, equality, and democracy. We live in an age when a slick hard-nosed Realpolitik is fashionable in both political and academic circles (an unattractive attitude which has not been noticeably more successful in improving the condition or deepening the understanding of the world than the woolyminded idealism of the Thirties). The word “liberty” has been so abused by politicians to justify their power-oriented policies that even in academic circles one speaks of such things at the peril of being laughed at. It is a pleasure to encounter someone like Moore who still takes liberal values seriously, even if at times his enthusiasm does lead him into error.

IN HIS TREATMENT of the evolution of these three Western liberal societies, Moore repeatedly stresses one thing, and it is here that I find myself in serious disagreement with him. He sees violence, and in particular the violent destruction of the peasantry, as a necessary prerequisite of a democratic society. I do not think this is true. The one society which might seem to fit this view is England, but here modern scholarship has shown that the process was very slow, and largely free from violence. In France, violence was used during the Revolution—not to transform the peasantry but to reinforce it. Democracy and an independent peasantry have not been incompatible bedfellows in France; rather it is modernization and peasantry which seem to be necessarily incompatible. Similarly, General MacArthur and his advisers used force in Japan after World War II to redistribute property to the peasantry, a process which so far has not proved incompatible with democracy. The point is not merely a technical one of interpretation, for it involves a basic judgment about the moral and practical justification for the use of violence on a large scale for the purpose of domestic social transformation. My own reading of history is that almost always such violence is self-defeating; the long-term liberal and democratic objectives are hardly ever achieved, if only because the very use of violence creates a new situation demanding a new solution. Violence leads to bitter cleavages within the society which, as the French, English, and American examples suggest, it may take between seventy and 150 years to weld together. The cost of these cleavages in holding back the society and in preventing its purposeful economic and political development often outweighs any temporary gain from the rapid elimination from power of a backward-looking group.

I am not arguing here that the French and the Russian and the Mexican revolutions were national disasters, in the sense that they did more harm than good, but merely that the evil that they did came out of the violence they employed, and the greater the violence, the greater the evil. Excessive and unnecessary use of violence will probably occur in all great revolutions, but the scale on which it is employed is determined largely by the personality of the leading actors, rather than by the logic of events. The Catharsis theory of history, by which democracy can only be forged in blood, is not, I believe, supported by the admittedly inadequate evidence of the past.

There are admittedly some societies in which extreme inequalities of income and status are carefully preserved and protected by the state, and in which the ruling elite is wholly intransigeant and repulses all attempts to modernize or to reform. I am prepared to concede that in these relatively rare cases perhaps nothing less than a brief but fierce bloodletting will open the way to social progress. But Moore sees this as not the only nor indeed the most important role of violence, and lays far more stress on its function in the destruction of the peasantry at a later stage.

HOW CAN WE sum up Moore’s thesis? Basically it is that for modernization to proceed it is necessary to get rid of agriculture as the major economic activity. This involves the destruction of the political hegemony of the landed elite, and the conversion of the peasantry into substantial farmers producing for the market (or possibly into an agricultural proletariat in collectivized agrovilles). If these two groups, landlords and peasants, are not successfully eliminated, two pernicious ideologies are likely to develop. The first is the aristocratic disease, Amateurism. This leads to balanced judgment on non-scientific matters, and to a devotion to culture and the arts, but it also has its drawbacks, as England knows only too well: aesthetic snobbery, educational stagnation, incompetence, and anti-intellectualism. The second is the peasant disease, Catonism, the backward-looking idealization of the organic beauty and harmony of the rural life, lived close to Mother Nature and away from the sinful cities and the satanic mills of industry. Catonism is a rear-guard action to protect a decaying landlord/peasant society, and soon spills over into paeans of praise for patriotism, war, and death in battle. It is not merely fiercely anti-intellectual, it is also opposed to all the trends of the modern world, including democracy.

Moore believes that it is essential to transform rural society. In nearly all societies, the elimination of landlord and peasant has involved the use of violence at some stage or another. The Communist way is likely to occur when there is a weak bourgeoisie and a reactionary aristocracy, and involves a maximum use of force in order to cram the destruction of both landlord and peasant proprietorship into a single, violent upheaval. The Fascist way is likely to occur if landlord and industrialist unite to use the state power to force modernization on their own terms and at the expense of the lower orders. The democratic way is most likely to occur if the peculiar conditions are fulfilled of a very slow political evolution, the slow elimination of the peasantry, and a union of commercially minded noble and bourgeois in opposition to, rather than in cooperation with, the power of the state. England is the ideal type of such an historical evolution.

As I have already pointed out, I find Moore’s insistence on the legal formulations of Anglo-Saxon constitutionalism in his definition of political liberty both old-fashioned and insular. I also find him old-fashioned in two other ways, of which the first is his suspicious attitude toward the use of quantitative methods in social history. He admittedly has an enjoyable time, both for himself and his readers, in an appendix maliciously entitled, “A Note on Statistics and Conservative Historiography,” and it is true that much of the quantification of the past two decades has been used by right-wing revisionists to take the ideological steam out of historical debate and to prove that things were not so bad after all before the revolution. But a good deal of this revisionism, such as that on English enclosures, can stand up to any criticism, and it would be mere obscurantism to deny the role that statistics must increasingly play in social history. Though Moore specifically condemns “the machine-breaking mentality that rejects figures out of hand,” his arguments are in fact grist to the mill of the neo-Luddites of our time, who still dominate the historical profession in all countries. Bad statistical history is no better, but also no worse, than bad impressionistic history. Finally, he seems old-fashioned in his neglect of demographic change as a critical factor in affecting all social relationships, not least those of lord and peasant. It is demographic growth which leads to land hunger, the flight to the city, agriculture for the market, and a shift of agricultural profits from peasant or tenant to landlord. It is demographic stagnation or decline which reverses the pattern. This fact looms so large in our current interpretation of both the twentieth century and the past that writings which ignore it seem as out of date as textbooks in physics which make no reference to the atom. Different societies will react differently to similar demographic circumstances—as did Prussia, France, and England in the sixteenth century—but all are carried along on a tidal wave of demographic growth of tremendous force. As we have seen, Moore’s interpretation of English enclosures is seriously affected by his failure to deal with the demographic factor, and other examples from the chapters on China and Japan could also be quoted.

Finally, since Moore has willy-nilly involved himself in a vast panoramic survey of the causes and consequences of Revolution and the processes of modernization, his treatment of this, consisting almost entirely of conflicting social forces, seems unduly narrow. A reading of C. E. Black’s recent The Dynamics of Modernization shows what a wide range of human activity is involved in the modernizing process, and in particular the important part played by both ideas and institutions. Moore neglects the ideological factor in history, whether it is Puritanism as a cause of the English Revolution, or the importance of deference as a system of patterned behavior in traditional societies, or the role of nationalism as a prime factor behind the Chinese Revolutions of the twentieth century.

To end on a note of criticism, however, would be both mean and unjust to this valuable book. No one has ever before tried to use the comparative method on such a scale, and with so careful a study of the professional literature. Few have ever before defined so clearly the importance of the peasantry in a revolution, or the political significance of whether the alliance of landlords and industrialists is formed under the patronage of the state or in opposition to it. Few historians treat those with whom they disagree with the generosity and honesty displayed by Moore. Few historians show such respect and admiration for humane and liberal values. Most historians, particularly administrative and political historians, tend to be cynical pragmatists with a Hobbesian view of human nature, the function of the state, and the purposes and methods of international relations.

The book must in the last analysis be judged a flawed masterpiece. The question it poses is not the right one, and the answer given misses the significance of the timing of the alliance of aristocratic and industrial elites. The geographical range is enormous, but it omits two key areas, Prussia and Russia; the analysis of the causes of revolution ignores almost entirely the role of ideology; the discussion of modernization can hardly be conducted within the narrow limits of the interrelationship of social groups, of landlord and peasant, of landlord, peasant, bourgeois, and bureaucrat. The determining force of population growth is hardly allowed for at all. Moreover, the book points up some of the grave difficulties, both methodological and conceptual, of comparative history. Much of it is taken up with straightforward analyses of individual societies, with only a long conclusion to synthesize the whole. In this synthesis, the paucity of the examples, the complexity of the variables, and the differences in the patterns adopted by different societies, all make convincing conclusions extremely difficult to draw. But this is largely because comparative history is still in a very primitive and unscientific stage of its development. Moore’s book is nonetheless a pioneer study, remarkably perceptive in its understanding of social and political developments. It is an excellent introduction to the problem of the role of rural society in the creation of the modern world. Challenging, provocative, and irritating, it is a book which forces its readers to think, often in new ways.

This Issue

August 24, 1967