Moore, Barrington

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Moore, Barrington 1913-2003


Barrington Moore was a major sociologist who used history to wrestle with the philosophical dilemmas of justice and liberty. He saw all society and the maintenance of all values as inherently repressive, and he thought gradualism was far too accepting of the pain and death associated with injustice. Yet, he was convinced that those dedicated to drastic transformation were highly intolerant and repressive.

Moore built on the work of three great scholarsMax Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. He agreed with Marx about the inequality in modern democratic society, with Weber about the restrictions on freedom created by bureaucracy and rational-technical values, and with Freud about restrictions imposed by all societies on individual spontaneity, especially in the sexual realm.

After World War II (1939-1945) Moore focused on the Soviet Union and the impact of the pressures of efficiency emphasized by Weber. His Soviet Politics: The Dilemmas of Power (1950) examined how the imperatives of successful industrialization had led Josef Stalin to repudiate many central tenets of Marxist and Leninist ideology, particularly the values of equality and a nonhierarchical society. In Terror and Progress USSR (1954), published immediately after Stalins death, Moore looked to the future and discussed how bureaucratization and governance through rules could and probably would limit the power of party leaders in the post-Stalin society. These two books influenced a generation of scholars and graduate scholars at the Russian Research Center at Harvard University to see the Soviet Union in terms of long-term social forces rather than simply the ideology of those at the top. Yet, Moore himself never studied the post-Stalin period.

Instead, Moore spent a decade exploring why some countries become more or less democratic and others adopt various types of dictatorship, studying particularly the histories of Britain, France, Germany, Japan, India, and China. This type of comparative work became his most enduring contribution to sociological methodology. The result was Moores most famous book, Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966), which was published during the Vietnam era. The books focus on peasant revolutions, its negative treatment of bureaucracy, its pessimism about gradualism and the repression of modern society, and its use of many Marxist categories but without Marxs universal pattern of history spoke directly to a generation of students.

Moore saw democracy as dependent on a vigorous bourgeoisie and on landlords being ready to accept commercialization of agriculture. He believed commercialization of agriculture was necessary both to break up traditional peasant organizations and to set the stage for a landlord-bourgeoisie alliance against the bureaucracy. The absence of that alliance doomed democracy. But without commercialization of agriculture, the traditional peasant organizations were not destroyed. Moore believed that this left dictatorships highly susceptible to peasant revolt, except in rare cases such as Japan, where these organizations were coopted. He explained the Communist revolutions in China and Russia as this type of peasant revolt. Yet, Moore thought peasants were attracted to doctrinaire and intolerant leaders who were highly repressive. Tragically, these leaders were perhaps most repressive of the peasants themselves.

Moore wrote seven books in the last thirty years of his life. The titles of six of them reflect the moral dilemmas that obsessed him: Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery (1972), Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (1978), Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History (1984), Authority and Inequality under Capitalism and Socialism (1987), Moral Aspects of Economic Growth and Other Essays (1995), and Moral Purity and Persecution in History (2000). Many of them were based on detailed comparative work of diverse societies that included preliterate society, the peoples of the Old Testament, Greece, and India.

The last phase of Moores work was not as influential as the earlier two. He continued to believe that informal norms and values are inevitable but restrictive of freedom, that the prospects for a free and natural society are bleak in the worlds leading societies, and that radical solutions are usually the most intolerant and repressive of all. He called only for a more tolerant and egalitarian society. Most of the time, this combination of views is not psychologically satisfying. Yet, anyone desiring to explore the moral dilemmas of, for example, the current Middle East in broad historical perspective can find no place better to begin than Moores work.

SEE ALSO Authoritarianism; Bureaucracy; Democracy; Dictatorship; Egalitarianism; Freud, Sigmund; Justice; Liberty; Marx, Karl; Peasantry; Revolution; Sociology; Stalin, Joseph; Tolerance, Political; Totalitarianism; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Weber, Max


Moore, Barrington. 1950. Soviet Politics: The Dilemmas of Power. New York: Harper.

Moore, Barrington. 1954. Terror and Progress USSR: Some Sources of Change and Stability in the Soviet Dictatorship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

Moore, Barrington. 1972. Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery and Upon Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them. Boston: Beacon Press.

Moore, Barrington. 1978. Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. New York: Random House.

Moore, Barrington. 1984. Privacy: Studies in Social and Cultural History. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Moore, Barrington. 1987. Authority and Inequality under Capitalism and Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Barrington. 1995. Moral Aspects of Economic Growth, and Other Essays. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Moore, Barrington. 2000. Moral Purity and Persecution in History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Skocpol, Theda, ed. 1998. Democracy, Revolution, and History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Smith, Dennis. 1893. Barrington Moore: Violence, Morality, and Political Change. London: Macmillan.

Jerry Hough

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