ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Autumn 1968


Lil Power

Liberal Revolutionary?


From International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, p.37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
Barrington Moore Jr.
Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 63s

This book seeks to explain why parliamentary democracies did or did not arise in a number of countries in terms of the varied political roles played by the landed upper classes and peasantry at the time when these countries were transformed from agrarian societies to modern industrial ones. According to Moore, this transformation took place through three major routes: first, that of bourgeois revolution leading to capitalist democracy where a group in society secures an independent economic base and is able to over-rule or work with the landed aristocracy and the peasantry to attack obstacles to a democratic version of capitalism (the countries discussed here are England and France); second, that in which a relatively weak commercial class is forced to rely on dissident elements in the older and still dominant ruling class to put through the political and economic changes required for a modern industrial society under the auspices of a semi-parliamentary regime, which ultimately results in Fascism (Germany, Japan); finally, where a great agrarian bureaucracy predominates to the extent of dwarfing any urban element, the encroachment of the modern world on a huge peasantry tends to precipitate an explosion which provides the main destructive revolutionary force to overthrow the old order (Russia, China).

The focus is primarily on what activates the peasantry to revolt, and the ways in which the landed upper classes and the peasants react to the challenge of commercial agriculture. But while this is where his emphasis and interest lies, Moore does not make the mistake of attempting to understand the peasantry in isolation from the rest of society. He rejects simple economic interpretations of revolt in terms of absolute deterioration of the peasant’s situation under the impact of commerce and industry, as well as the thesis that a massive threat to their entire mode of life, to the very foundations of peasant existence necessarily brings about a revolutionary situation. Too many interacting variables are present for such a simplistic answer. From these, Moore selects four which he considers crucial; the character of the link between the peasant community and the overlord, property and class divisions within the peasantry, the degree of solidarity or cohesiveness displayed by the peasant community, and the extent to which the overlord is able or willing to come to terms with the bourgeoisie. The last is fundamental to his analysis. Thus in France, a major cause of the revolution was the fusion of the nobility and the bourgeoisie, which took place through the crown rather than in opposition to it, resulting in the feudalisation of a considerable section of the bourgeoisie rather than the other way round, as in England. The eventual result was to limit very severely the ability of the crown to decide what sectors of society were to bear what burdens, a limitation which finally precipitated the revolution.

The scope of this book is enormous, covering as it does England, France, America, China, Japan, and India, with frequent incursions into Germany and Russia, at disparate and rather arbitrarily selected periods of time. Because of this, there are occasional omissions which seem glaring (notably a failure to discuss the caste system in India in any great detail). But it is undoubtedly an extremely valuable book which should be compulsory reading for anyone studying non-industrial societies. It is also heartening – or perhaps a little worrying – to find a pillar of American academe advocating revolution, and revolutionary violence at that, to the extent that he defines a sick society as one in which revolution is not possible. Isn’t that taking liberalism a little too far?

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 5.2.2008