Chris Harman


Rebels without a cause?

(May 1979)

From Socialist Review, No.12, May-June 1979, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Injustice: The Social Basis of Obedience and Revolt
Barrington Moore
Macmillan £10.00

This is a very pretentious and a very bad book.

It sets out to ‘uncover recurring elements in the diversity of moral codes’, and then to explain the conditions under which people feel such intense moral revulsion against an existing social order as to rebel against it.

The author attempts this by looking at certain key moments in German history – 1848, the revolutionary years of 1918-20, the rise of Hitler – allegedly on the basis of the experience of the workers who lived through them.

Harrington Moore does not, however, even begin to rise to the task he sets himself. The material he uses to assess workers attitudes is scampy, ‘despite his pretentious claims (usually the biographies of union bureaucrats or the impression of outsiders who made flying visits to the working class, as one source admits in its title Three Months a Factory Worker!)

He draws glib general conclusions that just don’t fit in with other in-depth studies of the German working class (contrast his view of the Ruhr miners and steel workers with with that of Erhard Lucas’ excellent account of the reactions of two quite different groups of workers to the First World War and after, in Zwei Formen der Arbeiterradicalismus).

He interprets material in a quite arbitrary way (for instance, he concludes that the majority of the population in the Ruhr in 1918-19 could not have been ‘proletarian’ by excluding from this category all those employed in the agricultural or government sectors – and by claiming that women workers were not ‘a classical proletariat’!).

Barrington Moore’s worst fault, however, is inserting his own subjective value judgements and giving them the air of being profound factual statements. Again and again he asserts that ‘the evidence shows’ that ‘the workers were not revolutionary’ – yet his evidence consists merely in his own assertions.

Once or twice he nearly admits this: ‘I would hazard the suggestion’, he is honest enough to write at one point, ‘that in any of the great revolutions that have succeeded, the mass of the followers have not consciously willed an overturn of the social order’. Elsewhere he is dishonest enough to treat such ‘suggestions’ as the result of factual research.

Like most academics, he displays a hardly concealed aversion to the notion that the great mass of people can ever discuss political and social problems with the same seriousness as himself.

And so the very real arguments that raged in papers and pamphlets, at Congresses and mass meetings, on picket lines and in detachment of the Bavarian and Ruhr Red Armies, between social democrats and centrists and revolutionaries, disappear beneath his personal conviction that the only practical choices in 1918-20 were those posed by the ‘practical’ leaders of the right – and left – social democratic parties.

Not that Barrington Moore can ignore all the facts that rebel against the straight jacket he imposes on history. After all, he can hardly deny that the Berlin workers (or at least some of them) did rise up in January and March 1919; that the Bavarian soviet republic was declared with widespread working class support; that the 60,000 strong Ruhr Red Army did drive the German army out of the heartland of German industry.

But he belittles these actions by claiming that they were merely ‘defensive actions’, carried through by workers who did not want to overthrow existing society. It simply does not occur to him that workers are human beings, just as capable as himself of knowing that a system that drives them to bitter defensive actions needs to be overthrown.

Underlying all his arguments is a notion that he shares with so many liberals, social democrats and Eurocommunists: that consciousness is a static property of individuals and classes in the same way as hair colouring or physical size.

He just cannot conceive of it as it really is: a dynamic aspect of the interaction between human beings and social and physical environment that is continually undergoing quantitative and qualitative transformations.

Barrington Moore used to be said to be one of the better representatives of academic ‘social science’. This book only underlines how remote that social science is from coming to terms with the flux and reflux of history as it is made by living human beings.

Last updated on 14 March 2010