Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

Moore, Barrington. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press. 

Barrington Moore’s classic study seeks to understand the role of landed upper classes and peasants in the makings of capitalist democracy, fascism, and communism as distinct paths to modernity. Unavoidably, the book leads him to explore the role of commercial agriculture and urban classes as key factors in determining the various political outcomes in the following contexts: eighteenth century England and France, the U.S. Civil War, revolutionary China, fascist Japan, and post-colonial India. He finds that breaking the power of landed agrarian elites is key for the rise of democratic regimes.

England, where agrarians ended up allying with the urban bourgeoisie arises as the exception to this thesis, but Moore accounts for it by pointing out that intense commercialization of agriculture created a “community of interests” between rural and urban elites.

The key moments driving England’s bourgeois revolution can be traced to the 17th and 18th Centuries, particularly the waves of enclosures and the Civil War. Moore claims that the upshot of these events was that commercial life in both the country and the city grew up largely in opposition to the crown. The enclosures broke the back of the peasantry while strengthening—and was in fact, led by—a yeoman class of ascendant, aggressive capitalists (10).

By strengthening parliament, the Civil War destroyed the remaining vestiges of self-interested royal protection of the peasantry while consolidating the position of a rich landowning class. “The outcome of the Civil War itself, in sharp contrast to that of the French Revolution, was to strengthen greatly the position of the landed upper classes” (22). Indeed, though eclipsed, the power of the aristocracy was still significant, particularly in control of state institutions (32-33). By the 19th Century, particularly with the rise of commercial agriculture, “the lines between the nobility, gentry, and the upper reaches of business and the professions were blurred and wavering” (36) and a more modern regime of governing was in their collective interest.

In France, on the other hand, the peasantry was maintained and exploited by the dues exacted from the nobility, consolidating peasant property “ownership” rather than destroying it as in England. The key difference is that French nobles mainly gained their wealth from peasant dues, not from commerce of agricultural products as in England (52). When nobles did engage in commercial agriculture, it was not in any technologically sophisticated form. “The peasants were left in occupation of the soil but under a series of obligations enabling the nobles, who became in effect commercial landlords, to take a large share of the crop” (53). Feudalism was in practice being reinforced and combined with absolutism. This system required a vast royal bureaucracy, which became a key force inducing the modernizing revolution (57).

However, with the intensification of capitalism (in both thought and in practice), an increasingly united nobility was forced into an onslaught against the peasantry, demanding an ever-greater share of the crops. Bourgeoisie and nobility made common cause amid peasant unrest, which drew increasing approval from subordinated classes in urban areas. Conservative reaction was countered at almost every occasion with a more radicalized response, often from the peasantry.

The Revolution occurred in spurts; each one led by the urban plebes (sans-culottes) whose success rested entirely with peasant support. “It is fair, therefore, to hold that the peasantry was the arbiter of the Revolution, though not its chief propelling force, it was a very important one, largely responsible for what in retrospect seems the most important and lasting achievement of the Revolution, the dismantling of feudalism” (77).

But as the government sought to combat inflation, food scarcity, and speculation through violent means to save the Revolution, the peasants grew increasingly alienated, suffering the brunt of these measures (89). (The government itself failed to distinguish between rich, middle and poor peasants—and alternative that could have saved it from the error.) “The sans-culottes made the bourgeois Revolution; the peasants determined just how far it could go” (110).

In this chapter on the U.S. Civil War, Moore forwards his thesis that “labor-repressive agricultural systems, and plantation slavery in particular, are political obstacles to a particular kind of capitalism, at a specific historical stage: competitive democratic capitalism we must call it for lack of a more precise term” (152). Not only was southern society based on slavery, it was also based wholly on hereditary status and wealth. A southern victory would have meant “a dominant antidemocratic aristocracy, and a weak and dependent commercial and industrial class unable and unwilling to push forward toward political democracy” (153). Burying slavery served a similar purpose as deposing the absolutism in England and France.

Part II of the book, which discusses three Asian “routes to the modern world,” begins with the example of China, where “peasant insurrection and rebellion made a decisive contribution” toward steering the country away from both the “reactionary or the democratic versions of capitalism” (201). Moore explains this course by pointing to the country’s highly bureaucratized imperial regime in which “landed property, degree holding, and political office” were deeply entwined (165). “Landed wealth came out of the bureaucracy and depended on the bureaucracy for its existence” (170) More or less open corruption was the only way the imperial regime managed to sustain this hulking bureaucratic apparatus. Landowning was highly concentrated but worked by countless peasant tenants, a relationship that “was a political device for squeezing an economic surplus out of the peasant and turning it into the amenities of civilization” (179). The rentier landowners had no incentive to commercialize and rationalize production.

As the imperial regime declined and ultimately collapsed, the gentry took control of local affairs by becoming (or allying with) warlords. The Kuomintang essentially sough to maintain the oppressive conditions, which Moore characterizes as “itself a form of class warfare” (193). Indeed, the end of the imperial regime failed to substantially change the political and economic role of the landed upper classes. Of course, these conditions by themselves—even with a Communist Party waiting in the wings—are not enough to provide for a revolution. Moore discusses the array of factors that lined up to make the revolution possible (217-226). But one of his main conclusions is that China was one of those places (like Russia) where “the landed upper classes by and large did not make a successful transition to the world of commerce and industry and did not destroy the prevailing social organization of the peasants” (467). Once again, the response of landed upper classes to commercialized agriculture proved to be a critical variable.

Moore calls fascism a “revolution from above.” In this system, commercialization is carried forth but elites might introduce reforms sufficient for calming peasant unrest and even generating consent. Otherwise, elites depend on repressive agricultural systems that themselves provide “an important part of the institutional complex leading to fascism” (435). “One factor, but only one, in the social anatomy of these [fascist] governments has been the retention of a very substantial share in political power by the landed elite, due to the absence of revolutionary breakthrough by the peasants in combination with urban strata” (438). For this reason, practically all bourgeois revolutions run the danger of being veered toward fascism, but mobilized sectors (often peasants) proved pivotal in steering them away from fascism.

Moore considers the progression of bourgeois capitalist revolution, fascism, and communism a historical sequence in which one is not possible without what came before: “Fascism is inconceivable without democracy or what is sometimes more turgidly called the entrance of the masses onto the historical stage. Fascism was an attempt to make reaction and conservatism popular and plebian” (447). He notes how fascism in both Germany and Italy relied heavily on creating an ideological veneer of glorified national peasant roots. Considering the peasant roots of communist revolutions this was probably a good idea from their point of view.

The process of modernization begins with peasant revolutions that fail. It culminates in the twentieth century with peasant revolutions that succeed. No longer is it possible to take seriously the view that the peasant is an object of history, a form of social life over which historical changes pass but which contributes nothing to the impetus of these changes. (453)

In closing, I will not read a book of more than 300 pages for as long as I can.


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