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Why Men Do Not Revolt

Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt

by Barrington Moore Jr.
M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 540 pp., $17.50

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 prospects of success are small or none, is the only course open to them. Most of the discussion here is general and based on a consideration of sociological or psychological factors rather than on detailed historical examples.

Thus, in spite of the vast range of the author’s reading and a breadth of historical reference unequaled perhaps in any sociologist since Max Weber, in the first part of the book Moore discusses no specific historical situation in depth, and he occasionally therefore relies too much on one particular analysis of the phenomena which he is discussing—for example, Bruno Bettelheim in the case of the concentration camps. This prevents him from making certain distinctions which might be important in analyzing this characteristic political institution of the twentieth century. While it is true that the terrible process of stripping human beings of their dignity and sense of their own worth was the basic means of control in the concentration camps, there were nevertheless individuals and groups who managed to retain some initiative and even to resist, in so far as organization for mutual self-preservation was in such circumstances itself a substantial act of resistance.

Josef Garlinski, for instance, in his Fighting Auschwitz1 shows how resistance among the Poles in Auschwitz far exceeded what has hitherto been generally believed or even regarded as possible. The choice to resist has in fact to be made before it needs to be put into practice. This is indeed implicit in Barrington Moore’s argument that revolt is conditioned by the presence or absence of the possibility of moral choice. The strength of totalitarian regimes lies not in the direct subjection and demoralization which they are able to achieve in the concentration camps but in the fact that they have already succeeded in establishing a broadly based popular belief in the values which make concentration camps a necessary part of the system.

Barrington Moore suggests that the moment of revolt is reached when a ruler or ruling group breaks the implicit social contract by actions which outrage the subjects’ sense of what they can properly expect of their government: if for example the government resorts to what are called in some legal codes “cruel and unusual” punishments. Even then, governments can literally get away with murder if adequate preparations have been made to condition people on what to expect.

Moore places great emphasis on Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment which attempted to discover “at what point and under what conditions human beings would cease to obey legitimate authority when its commands became obviously cruel,” an experiment which had the disturbing result of showing that it was comparatively easy to persuade people to act against their better instincts if they were convinced either by the authority of the person giving orders or by the validity of the purpose which they thought they were serving. (Milgram’s experiments involved putting the subjects in a situation where they believed they were being asked to inflict intense pain on a total stranger in the interest of what was portrayed to them as legitimate scientific research.)

Most often, Moore suggests, revolts break out less as a result of positive action by governments than because the sovereign authority is no longer capable of performing the tasks which can reasonably be expected of it—above all those of providing security and protection for the ruled. It is the breakdown of government—as in Russia in 1917—rather than the tyranny of a strong government which provides the occasion for revolution; and even then it is only when such weakness is far advanced that the act of revolt, the refusal of soldiers to obey their officers and to fire on the crowd, for example, leads to a full-scale revolution. Moreover a successful revolution can only occur when the mass of the people no longer share the moral and political values of the government. A government preserves its hegemony only as long as its subjects accept its basic ideological assumptions. Submission to tyranny is the result of moral and psychological conditioning as much as of physical pressure.

It is considerations of this kind that lead Barrington Moore into his long discussion of German social history between 1848 and 1920 which forms the central and most substantial section of his book. In it he claims to be showing how the processes of repression and revolt “worked themselves out among the German workers during the transition from the artisans’ way of life to that of advanced industrial capitalism.” The choice of Germany as a historical example for a discussion of this kind is obviously valid. Of all the industrial societies of the West, Germany had the most disciplined and the hardest-working proletariat. In Germany the hegemony of an older preindustrial elite was maintained well into the twentieth century without serious challenge, while, under the Nazis, the sense of decency which might have been expected to lead to some form of moral revolt had been sufficiently inhibited to make resistance to Hitler’s barbaric commands almost negligible.

In his discussion of Germany and of the German working class, Barrington Moore returns to one of the themes of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy and questions the validity of the Marxist analysis in the German case. He argues, using statistical tables, that there never was a true proletariat in Germany and, more surprising still, that the extent and effect of urbanization in Germany have been much exaggerated. “It is clear,” he writes, “that the industrial proletariat, no matter how defined, was still in 1907 a very small minority of the German population.” He points out that the big cities of Germany were only five in number and that the majority of such industrial workers as there were lived in small and middle-sized towns. “So much,” he says, “for crowding into cities.” Well, perhaps the accepted picture of the period 1870-1914 as being one, as Sir John Clapham put it, of “a whole nation rushing to town” needs correcting, but before accepting Barrington Moore’s figures at their face value one would like to know where the rapidly increasing population of Germany was going if not into swelling the size of the cities, since by the 1890s they were no longer emigrating. One also cannot help wondering whether an analysis based on categorizing “large cities” as those of over 500,000 inhabitants maybe fails to allow for the industrial areas of Germany like the Ruhr basin, where a number of small industrial towns are conglomerated to form a single industrial district.

However, even if one has difficulties with the details of his argument, Professor Moore is making an important point which has been confirmed by much recent research, that the German working class was neither as strong nor as homogeneous as its political leaders, the chiefs of the German Social Democratic Party, sometimes thought it was. Even if by 1912 one German voter in three was voting socialist and the Social Democrats were the largest party in the Imperial Parliament the possibilities of effective action were doubly limited. They were limited by the structure of the German state in which the old ruling class was determined to ensure that no reform of political institutions should threaten its power. But they were also limited by the extent to which the German working class had a stake in existing society and had too much to lose by challenging the existing state.

Bakunin may well have been right when he maintained that mass insurrections are only made by people with nothing to lose; and the point about the German working class in the Wilhelmine period is not just that it was less numerous, well organized, or powerful than some of its leaders claimed, but rather that its grievances were not bad enough to make workers risk everything by trying to carry out a revolution which they knew could not succeed. The hegemony of the old ruling class remained secure not only because the workers were materially better off by 1914 than they had been forty years earlier but also because they had tacitly accepted many of the moral values of their government, including a strong nationalist sentiment, as the events of August 1914 showed.

Any answer to the question why there was no proletarian revolution in Germany involves an analysis of the perceptions of the rank and file of the workers, and this is a kind of history which it is notoriously hard to write. As Barrington Moore puts it, “In any attempt to catch glimpses of the real life of the ‘toiling masses’ in the ironworks, blast furnaces, and rolling mills of the Ruhr before 1914, one has to cope somehow not only with the mists of rhetoric but also with the obliteration of evidence that time and unconcern have produced.” The British social historian Dick Geary has put it even more bluntly: “We know next to nothing about the views of the great majority of Germany’s industrial work force before the outbreak of war in 1914.” 2

Still, any historian who is trying to get away from purely political history on the one hand or from a purely statistical analysis on the other is bound to make the attempt to reconstruct the mentality of the members of the working class. Barrington Moore, for example, is struck by the contrast between the comparatively effective organization of the coal miners in the Ruhr with the failure of the metal workers to organize on a comparable scale. Yet between 1914 and 1919 the situation seems to have changed and by the end of the war the metal workers were providing some of the most militant elements in the German working class. It is these shifts of opinion at the base which are particularly hard for the historian to trace, so that he is again and again forced back to chronicling the history of political parties who hold congresses, make speeches, and pass resolutions, even though only a minority of the population actually join (as opposed to vote for) political parties.

It is a dilemma Moore cannot escape, and for all his interesting suggestions about what German industrial workers were experiencing and feeling, he still finds himself seeking an explanation of their behavior in the political actions of their party and trade union leaders. His account of German history in the crisis from 1918 to 1920 follows the standard conventional political narratives (notably A.J. Ryder’s The German Revolution of 1918) and in the last resort his explanation of the failure of the German revolution is that it was a failure of the political leadership of the German working class. He sees the truly revolutionary moment in this period as being the spring of 1920 when the seizure of power in Berlin by the right-wing monarchist Wolfgang Kapp was broken by a general strike. The workers in the Ruhr carried on the struggle by establishing a so-called “Red Army,” and turned their resistance to the right-wing rebels into resistance to the legitimate government of the republic.

This was the culmination of the disillusionment of many workers with the political leaders who acted in their name. Opposition to Kapp had temporarily united even left-wing workers with the government: but any such solidarity was soon lost, and many workers must have remembered how only a few months before, in what David Morgan, in his important book The Socialist Left and the German Revolution,3 calls “the bloodiest incident since the revolution,” the security police in Berlin had killed forty-two people and wounded 105. The casualties among workers in the Ruhr fighting were nothing new, and the government must have seemed to have returned to its true instincts in attacking workers’ organizations.

By 1920 the workers, as Barrington Moore says, had realized that “the dominant social organization had turned against them: a main part of their own social organization had failed them. For their own defense they would have to create new social forces from scratch….” But by this time it was too late; however threatening the situation in the Ruhr may have looked to the government (and to the British and French occupying forces, in the Rhineland), the moment for revolution in Germany was past. Had it ever existed? Probably not. The authority of the German state had never disappeared: the will to accept that authority had never been wholly lost. Although expectations of radical social change had been aroused among the workers, their objectives and those of their leaders remained confused and vague. They resented the government’s use of irregular right-wing forces to preserve order; they were disappointed that the workers’ control of the factories and mines, which seemed in early 1919 to be a possibility, had come to nothing and that the workers’ councils which had been formed during the revolution had been brushed aside by the government. But they were reacting against the actions of a strongly entrenched authority rather than preparing the revolution against a weak one.

But perhaps the failure of the Weimar republic—“a major tragedy of modern civilization” as Barrington Moore calls it—was due less to the failure of a left-wing revolution than to the failure of German liberalism, a weakness of the political elite rather than of the working-class rank and file. It has recently been argued by some historians that it is wrong to see the collapse of Weimar and the rise of Hitler as the inevitable outcome of the social structure of prewar Germany; and it can plausibly be maintained that by 1914 Germany was nearer to being a liberal parliamentary state than it had been in 1890, and that the inability of the Weimar republic to carry forward this movement was due to its birth in the humiliating circumstances of Germany’s defeat in 1918. Barrington Moore rightly argues that “particular historical events need not have turned out the way they did,” and that the study of “suppressed historical possibilities” is a legitimate one for the historian and social scientist. We may well speculate what the course of German history might have been if there had been no war in 1914.

Barrington Moore’s books give the reader the impression of experiencing part of the stream of consciousness of a powerful intellect continually ruminating in isolation on the fundamental problems of modern society. The present book seems in part to be filling a gap left in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which did not deal in detail with Germany, though it dealt with almost everything else. Injustice too opens up a number of themes to which one feels the author is bound to return. In particular, the chapter toward the end of the book on “Repressive Aspects of Moral Outrage: the Nazi Example” seems to start on an analysis of National Socialism which is not completed. The argument of the book as a whole suggests that this would be the place for a discussion of the reasons for the Germans’ obedience to Hitler and of their failure to revolt. This would involve an examination of the nature of resistance and of the limits within which resistance against the state in a modern industrial society is possible. It would also include an estimate of the significance of gestures such as that of the Munich students Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were driven by sheer moral outrage to make a nonviolent protest against Nazi rule which in any immediately worldly sense was bound to end in failure and personal martyrdom.

This in turn might well lead to a discussion of the nature of contemporary acts of violent, destructive, nihilistic terrorism such as those of the Baader-Meinhof group or the Italian Red Brigades and to an analysis of why we—or most of us—approve of the Scholls’ gesture but disapprove of Baader and Meinhof. Barrington Moore has already in this book suggested ways to approach a discussion of social protests in which ends and means seem unconnected with each other or with the social origins of the terrorists; and when he has answered his question of why men do not revolt, it is to be hoped that he may consider again the question why some nevertheless still do.

Barrington Moore’s achievement—for all the criticism on detail that can be made of his methods and conclusions and for all the confusion engendered in the reader by books that appear to be about everything—is that he makes historians aware of the patterns and structure of their subject. And he reminds social scientists that they are concerned with the outlook and values of individuals, and that behind their statistics stand real moral problems and personal dilemmas. His is a neo-Hegelian view of the world in which everything is linked to everything else and to raise one question is to raise all questions, so that the answer to any one of them is never definitive and the work of analysis and inquiry never complete.

  1. 1

    Holmes & Meier, 1975. 

  2. 2

    Dick Geary, “Radicalism and the Worker: Metalworkers and Revolution 1914-32” in Richard J. Evans (ed.), Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (Barnes and Noble, 1978). 

  3. 3

    Cornell University Press, 1975.