Is “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” still a relevant work for comparativists?

In 1966, Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy was published by Beacon Press.  The book has since become a pivotal, must-read for students of comparative politics.  But are his theories which link political development to commercial landowners relevant in a post-Cold War era?

Early Paths to Democracy, Fascism, and Communism

During WWII, there emerged three distinct forms of the modern political state – democracy, fascism, and communism.  As the Cold War raged, Moore attempted to use the unique history of commercial agriculture across Europe and Asia to explain the reasons why certain states developed into certain political systems.  As a product of the times, Moore is a strong proponent of democracy as the ideal form of government.  As Leslie Anderson noted in her doctoral-level introductory comparative politics course at the University of Florida, Moore is creating a hypothesis and its null.  His hypothesis is that certain conditions are necessary for democracy to develop.  Where the conditions are not present, countries developed into the null categories of government – fascism and communism.1

What are Moore’s conditions for democracy?  His book provides a useful, very simple explanation, “No bourgeois, no democracy.”2   In which case, we can expand the empirical framework further to state:

However, this is a gross oversimplification of the argument Moore makes.  Indeed, his description becomes much more nuanced as the book progresses.  If he were employing quantitative methods, his model would gradually include additional independent variables and differentiate several hypotheses to explain how each form of government arises.  Rather than go into too much detail here – I’ll simply provide them in the traditional empirical form.

Of course using an empirical model to describe Moore’s work can be hazardous.  He employs the bread-and-butter of comparative politics – the case study method – to establish evidence to support his theory.  But Anderson’s usage of hypothesis testing to explain Moore’s thesis is a useful way to conceptualize the argument.  This is the last I’ll talk about hard methods.

The bulk of Moore’s book focuses on five key case studies.  England, France, and the United States act as evidence for democratic developments.  Japan (with some comparisons to Germany) acts as a case for fascism.  And China (with some comparisons to Russia) acts as a case for communism.

He concludes that the above internal forces play a critical role in shaping the types of violence (revolutions) and their outcomes (political systems).  The final case study, India, is somewhat of a wild card for Moore.  He is unable to draw tangible conclusions or predictions about India’s political future.

Relevancy to Post-Cold War Institutionalism?

Moore’s thesis is an important explanation of historical developments that led to democracy, fascism, and communism up until WWII.  His work is still assigned to most students of comparative politics.  Yet, as a student myself, I wonder about the relevancy of his work in today’s globalized, post-modern society.  What would Moore say about the EU, a new form of post-sovereign mega-state?  What would he say about the pseudo-democracies that have resulted from the international normative stance on democracy building? Just as his former student Theda Skocpol criticized the work for being to domestic-centered and not accounting for the inter-societal influences on the development of state structures,3 I too wonder if in today’s society, a country can truly build its political system while remaining completely immune to outside pressures.  If given the chance, would Moore have attempted to fit cases like Uganda into his existing model, or would he have created new categories of modern states to reflect the evolution of political systems since 1989?

The work certainly continues to be an informative piece on the historical progression of political systems, on the domestic influences that help create the political features of a state, and on the case-study method in comparative politics.  But as a tool for explaining developments in international politics since the end of the Cold War?  While elements in his thesis might be useful, it is simply not enough to explain wholly developments in political structures within today’s global society.


1. Anderson, Leslie.  Lecture for Introduction to Comparative Politics (CPO 6091), University of Florida, 18 September 2012.

2. Moore, Barrington.  Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Beacon Press: Boston, 1993, p.418.

3. Skocpol, Telda.  “A Critical Review of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.” Politics Society, 4:1, 19


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s