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The Barrington Moore thesis and its critics


The critical response to Moore's Social Origins may reveal as much about the present state of social science as it does about the book itself. While the critics accused Moore of an excessive emphasis on economic factors, the economists and economic historians virtually ignored the book; while Moore's case studies were all historical, national historians have tended to overlook them. The academic group which showed the greatest interest was the new field of “comparative modernization,” which consists mostly of sociologists and sociologically-oriented historians. Critics of this school were enthusiastic about the interdisciplinary and comparative aspect of the book, but tended not to discuss the theoretical issues presented by Moore, except for a vigorous defense of non-Marxist and anti-Marxist positions. In general the critics did not defend value neutrality, which Moore attacked, and were impressed by Moore's case for progressive violence, but eager to move on to other topics, instead of considering the implications of these issues. There were only a few committed cold warriors; Stanley Rothman described Moore as a former fellow traveller, and Gabriel Almond indicated that Moore was soft on communism, but these arguments were the exception rather than the rule.

Moore has demonstrated that an analysis of changes in the structure of social classes is the most fruitful method by which to study comparative modernization. The Moore thesis stands - because the critics either did not attempt to make, or else did not succeed at making, arguments that would lead to its rejection. As the T.L.S. reviewer wrote, Moore's thesis “imposes limitations as well as offering opportunities. But the limitations appear fewer, and the opportunities greater, than in any alternative approach ... this [is] a very important book indeed; it may even be a great one.”

Unfortunately, a large proportion of the critical remarks arose out of a misunderstanding of Moore's method. This suggests that a major weakness of Moore's book is that he did not spell out more clearly the distinction between his method of class analysis and the alternative positivist and empiricist explanations in terms of “factors” and “variables.” In this respect his 1959 essay “Strategy in Social Science” is essential supplementary reading. As Gianfranco Poggi wrote in the British Journal of Sociology, “Moore is not explicit enough ... about his theoretical assumptions and his conceptual apparatus;” it would have been helpful had he “clarified the theoretical significance” of this thesis. It is unlikely that such a clarification of his method would have changed the minds of his positivist and empiricist critics, but at least the issues would be clearer.

Given that Moore has demonstrated the superiority of class analysis of comparative modernization, the question which remains is one of weaknesses in his method and conclusions, aspects in which the comparative class analysis of modernization could be strengthened. The least satisfactory case in Moore's book itself is the Russian one. If the Russian Revolution does not fit his model of peasant revolution, but is some kind of a proletarian movement, it may be necessary to modify the Moore thesis; thus an analysis of Russian developments along the lines set out in Social Origins would be one of the most important contributions to the comparative class analysis of modernization.

The analysis of European developments could be strengthened by making use of the Marxian concepts of the “feudal mode of production” and the “transition from feudalism to capitalism.” Moore covers similar ground by analyzing how the links between lord and peasant in traditional society change with the introduction of commercial agriculture, but he does not begin with an explicit analysis of the feudal system of class relations. Such a consideration would offer a clearer sense of the starting point of the process of change in Europe; it would also provide the opportunity for considering the relationship between demographic change and the social transformations Moore describes.

The comparative class analysis of modernization would be further strengthened by a fuller and more explicit consideration of the ideological aspect of these developments - of the manner in which classes become conscious of their positions, and of the terms in which the conflicts are fought out (or not fought out). Puritanism in seventeenth-century England, to make a familiar case, hardly enters into Moore's analysis - because it was an urban phenomenon, and he focuses on rural society - but it obviously plays a crucial role in shaping the self-conceptions and political goals of the popular revolutionary groups, a role which cannot be understood simply as “reflection” or “superstructure.” (Moore's appendix on “reactionary and revolutionary imagery” provides a significant contribution to the study of ideology in relation to the three types of modernization.)

It would be useful to analyze the histories of smaller countries from the perspective of comparative social class developments. For example, Michael Walzer has suggested that the Moore thesis be used to compare Greek with Yugoslav developments since World War II - by contrasting the “genuinely indigenous insurrection” which established socialist Yugoslavia with the “relatively sophistical intervention” of the British and Americans in Greece to defeat social revolution and lead Greece down the capitalist road. The question Walzer proposes is, “what price has Yugoslavia paid for destroying, and Greece for failing to destroy, the social and institutional basis of old authoritarianism and traditionalist mythology?” It seems likely that a number of comparative studies along these lines would be possible - Southeast Asia and Latin America being obvious choices.

Moore's concept of the “reactionary coalition” of a persistent traditional landed elite with a weak modernizing bourgeoisie is one of the richest aspects of his thesis; it deserves continuing attention. It should be particularly helpful in analyzing social and political developments in contemporary Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Perhaps it would be possible to distinguish variations in the “revolution from above” model to explain why, in some countries, the reactionary coalition remains in a traditional authoritarian phase, while in others it moves toward a fully developed fascism.

Many would appreciate seeing Moore's argument on the industrial proletariat spelled out in greater detail. That the most industrially developed countries have not had proletarian revolutions is a commonplace observation; it would be interesting to learn of Moore's evaluation of the relative importance of capitalist concessions and repression, of liberal hegemony, of reformism in the labor bureaucracy, and of Communist and Soviet strategy.

Finally, there is the question of the practical implications of Moore's thesis, of the relationship of the student of comparative class development to his own work. The Weltanschauung which informs Moore's work is closer to Weber's “heroic pessimism” than to Marx's optimistic attempts to unite theory with revolutionary practice. Moore works as a politically isolated individual; he is associated with no movement, intellectual or political. As Peter Nettl wrote, Moore is “a loner,” “a radical of great and austere scholarship.” He sees his task not as a political one, but as a personal and intellectual one - to work until he can comprehend the whole; to find the facts, and then “face them like a man,” however unpromising that may be. When he has accomplished that, he believes his work is done. Marx, of course, would have thought otherwise.

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Wiener, J.M. The Barrington Moore thesis and its critics. Theor Soc 2, 301–330 (1975).

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  • Class Development
  • Capitalist Road
  • Proletarian Revolution
  • Revolutionary Practice
  • Comparative Class Analysis