The Canon: The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World

November 12, 2009

The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World By Barrington Moore Jr.

Britain, the US and France became rich and free, while Germany, Russia and Japan, no less full of modernising energies, ended up totalitarian dictatorships of the Right or Left. Why? No book explains anywhere near as richly how economic forces and clashing class interests made this happen as does Barrington Moore Jr's The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966).

"Clashing class interests"? Such talk makes liberal historians wince. They like to think of societies as making progress by argument and consensus, not battling classes. And no wonder - the latter, if it leads to violence, threatens freedom. Moore loves free expression and free voting as much as any liberal. Only in his reading of history these things were won precisely because classes fought. There is a bracing aroma of cordite around his book. No scholarly history has such a robust, unashamed account of what Moore terms "the contribution of violence to gradualism": the English Civil War cleared the way for parliamentary liberalism; France might have been saved from eventual fascism by the smashing of its aristocracy in the revolution; only a bloody civil war broke the stranglehold of a reactionary American agrarian elite based on slavery.

Yet Moore was no Marxist. Words like "reactionary" and "progressive" fall readily from his lips but he is worlds removed from the jargon-proud, dogmatic theorising, scanting human reality of a Perry Anderson. In Moore's class dynamics, there is no pre-determined overthrow of capitalism. British and French freedom is owed to bourgeois commercial interests taking power from agrarian aristocracies and carrying through economic modernisation. Hence Moore's famous universal rule: "no bourgeois, no democracy": hardly a slogan to please Marx. And often, it is the resilience of supposedly doomed classes that ushers in the future. In Germany and Japan, the traditional order retained political power when the economy modernised. Everything is more complex than textbook Marxists thought.

Moore wrote at the Cold War's height but his book doesn't mean to give comfort to the West or to the Soviet Bloc or China.

Moore has a rare, stern sense of reality. He sees that violent social revolution has gargantuan human costs, but so has its absence. Like all great works of history, this is about the present.

Today it is capitalist ideologues made fools of by society's dynamics, their lack of Moore's sense of human reality all too evident. They could learn a lot from him, but probably won't.

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