(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 5 June 2013)


Public demand for a more democratic political regime in Hong Kong has been on the rise. Historically, the emergence of democratic regimes occurred in the old nations of Western Europe and America at the same time their societies transformed from a subsistence–agrarian order to a commercial–industrial one. Among the new nations that have emerged in the past century, and especially those since the Second World War, few of them have been able to make a successful transition towards a democratic regime. Among nations with developing and emerging economies, hardly any of them have made substantial progress transitioning to a commercial–industrial order while under a democracy.


These empirical observations have led many people to wonder about the relationship between economic and political modernization. It has been more than a century since the collapse of the old Chinese imperial regime, but the search for a political regime appropriate to the modern commercial–industrial era is still continuing. The intellectual significance of what political regime will take root in Hong Kong in the future, and what will be the economic consequences, is of deep interest to the people of Hong Kong. But of far greater significance is what will take place in China. If Hong Kong’s economic and political future is the “six million dollar” question, China’s is a “six trillion dollar” issue.


The first explanation I encountered on why China’s quest for modernization ended in a dictatorship rather than a democracy was in 1970 during a first-year social science common core course at the University of Chicago called “Modernization of Old and New Nations”. In that course, I read and was deeply inspired by Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966).


The late Professor Moore (1913-2005), who would have turned one hundred last month, is an American political sociologist in the neo-Marxist tradition. In his comparative study of modernization, he examined the social origins for the rise of democratic, fascist and communist political regimes in Britain, France, the United States, China, Japan and India. He asked a very difficult and important question. Why did these countries, in their transition from a subsistence–agrarian order to a commercial–industrial one, end up with very different political regimes?


Theories of Democracy and Dictatorship


Moore’s study was a groundbreaking work. It revitalised comparative historical analysis of the evolution of human societies in the social sciences, and revived the macro study of societal change characteristic of the monumental works of Adam Smith, Max Weber and Karl Marx. Moore examined the ways that commercialization, industrialization, and the pre-existing agrarian social order interacted to produce vastly different political outcomes and regimes. He drew particular attention to the violence that preceded the development of democratic institutions. He demonstrated why violence was inescapable in the revolutionary transition that created bourgeois regimes with democratic features.


Moore’s book is difficult to read, but intoxicating and alluring. I read Moore’s work again last year. After the second reading, I was appalled to discover how much I had failed to comprehend when I first read it over 40 years ago. I had missed many of the subtle observations and intricate arguments that informed his reasoning. Re-reading Moore was a refreshing and inspiring experience. In this essay, I shall briefly explain Moore’s thesis, and in next week’s essay, I shall try to apply his concepts to understand modern China.


What is Moore’s thesis, then?


Moore often summarized it with the simplifying proposition: “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.” This is a statement of the necessary condition for democracy. The strength of the bourgeoisie in overcoming the residual power of the traditional agrarian structures determines how the path to modernity will unfold. The means they choose – revolutionary or otherwise – shape the political regime they subsequently create. The bourgeoisie is therefore the instrument necessary in the creation of a liberal democratic political order.


Moore’s thesis challenged the prevailing modernization theories of his day, which assumed that all modernizing societies, from the sixteenth century to the present, had undergone essentially the same process even though different scholars described it using different concepts, for example, W W Rostow’s “economic take-off,” Samuel Huntington’s “expanded participation,” or Chalmers Johnson’s “multiple dysfunction.” These were different renditions of Seymour Martin Lipset’s “modernization hypothesis,” where he postulated that political democratization would necessarily follow economic development.


Three Divergent Routes to the Modern World


Moore offered as an alternative a neo-Marxian theory of three divergent routes to the modern world, which he termed “bourgeois revolution,” “revolution from above,” and “peasant revolution.” A “bourgeois revolution” would lead to democracy. A “revolution from above” would lead to fascism. A “peasant revolution” would lead to communism.


The main driver of the path taken is the strength of the bourgeoisie. In countries in which the bourgeoisie is strong enough to substantially weaken the economic structures of the agrarian order, democracy emerges. For Moore, it is not the direct action of the bourgeoisie that is decisive. The strength of the bourgeoisie defines how the landed upper class and the peasantry approach politics in the transition from a subsistence–agrarian order to a commercial–industrial one.


Where the bourgeoisie is strong enough, the landed upper class will adapt themselves to the emerging structures of the market economy and competitive politics. The peasantry enters the market economy. Commercial success is achieved and the agricultural laborer responds and adapts to the requirements of the market economy. This may sometimes result in considerable human cost and lead to violent political conflicts.


“Bourgeois revolutions” for Moore were the violent social upheavals in England, France, and the United States which abolished the domination of the traditional landed elite and brought capitalist democracy. This was the road that England took through the Puritan Revolution (1642-51), the French through the French Revolution (1789-99), and the United States through the Civil War (1861-65). The road followed by Britain, France and the USA achieved capitalism and democracy after a bloody, bourgeois revolution. He concluded that violent social revolution was a prerequisite for the triumph of freedom and rationality in these old nations in creating a liberal democratic order.


“Revolution from above” was the process in Germany and Japan by which the traditional landed elite defeated popular revolution and preserved its dominant position during industrialization. In Germany and Japan, the bourgeoisie was weaker than in England, France, and the United States. The Stein-Hardenberg reforms in Prussia, and both Bismarck’s and the Meiji “revolutions from above”, focused and accelerated the pace of industrialization in these societies.


Such measures included standardization of the legal code and enhanced enforcement by the state, reduction of internal barriers to trade, the creation of modern professional armies and national education systems, and the promotion of a unified national identity. In both countries the landed upper class continued to be politically dominant into the modern era. They cemented a political alliance committed to a program of militarism, nationalism, and expansionism in which the bourgeoisie was a willing junior partner.


This alliance protected large estate agriculture and nascent industry with tariffs. The state also kept wages low by thwarting the attempts of the working classes to organize. The road travelled by Germany and Japan leads to capitalism without revolution, by way of an authoritarian regime that promotes the interests of the landlords and industrialists. Democracy ultimately failed in these cases because the landed upper class and the bourgeoisie had to rely on the dictatorial state to enforce a repressive labor system to defend its economic interests. In the absence of a violent “bourgeois revolution,” modernization passed peacefully through reactionary political forms to culminate in a fascist dictatorship.


The bourgeoisie under a fascist system was small and became state dependent. They became industrialists dependent on state protected enterprises and monopolies. Some of their members were from the landed elites or were allied with them. Interestingly, this pattern is actually quite familiar among most industrializing economies in the emerging markets of the developing world today.  For this reason, the success of state capitalism in these countries has not won a reputation for ushering in an era of openness and freedom.


“Peasant revolution” is the third road, taken by Russia and China. In these countries the bourgeoisie was even weaker and the transition to modernity was delayed. Attempts at reform in Russia and China had the effect of undermining traditional modes of peasant control and replacing them with ineffective forms of state control. Such failures both undermined the power of the rural ruling classes and exacerbated peasant grievances against landlords, creating a peasantry with revolutionary potential.


The third road begins with a peasant revolution that destroys the traditional landed upper class elite, and then installs a communist dictatorship, which produces an industrialized but non-democratic society. The main driving force of the revolution is the peasants led by a revolutionary intelligentsia that is hostile to both the bourgeoisie and the landed elites. In these societies both a “bourgeois revolution” and “revolution from above” have failed.


Class as Determinant of Social Order


Moore’s arguments can be summarized as follows:


(1) Is the bourgeoisie sufficiently strong to pull down the structures of the agrarian order? If the answer is yes then we have the emergence of liberal democracy, for example, England, France, and the United States. If the answer is no then we will ask another question.


(2) Can modernization be achieved by means of “revolution from above” supported by a labor-repressive alliance of the upper landed classes and the bourgeoisie? If the answer is yes then we have the emergence of a fascist dictatorship, for example, Germany and Japan. If the answer is no then we will ask another question.


(3) With the failure of a “revolution from above”, does a peasant revolution lead to the consolidation of power by a modernizing revolutionary elite? If the answer is yes, then we have the emergence of a communist dictatorship, for example, Russia and China. If the answer is no then we have India.


Moore discusses the Indian case and concludes agrarian traditionalism has persisted. Modernization simply does not occur. Democracy is not an impetus to modernization, but is captured and subverted by traditional economic and political interests to perpetuate a traditional society.


According to Moore, all modernizing societies have undergone a version of one of these three types of revolution. Moore concluded that in those countries where the middle-class was the driving force of the revolution, e.g. England, democratic institutions emerged and resulted in a democratic capitalist society. In those countries where the revolts came from the peasants, it established a communist industrial dictatorship. If the revolt came from a coalition of the elites, then a fascist state-capitalist dictatorship came into being. In both these two latter cases, democratic institutions failed to emerge.


In the fascist states, the traditional political and social institutions adapted to capitalist market principles. These societies were able to avoid the revolutionary entrance into modernity that a “bourgeois revolution” exacted. According to Moore, the Civil War in America, the French Revolution in France and the Puritan Revolution in England were the necessary price for transforming and destroying the old traditional agrarian order on the path to modernity.


For Moore, a nation’s eventual political structure is shaped by the strength or weakness of the landed aristocracy, bourgeoisie, peasantry, and proletariat. The antagonisms and coalitions among these social classes are the central issues for understanding their politics. He emphasizes the importance of a country’s history for understanding and explaining the shift and changes of power in society.


The modernization process starts with the transformation of subsistence agriculture to commercial production. The process of commercialization of agriculture has differed tremendously even among the countries that had a “bourgeois revolution.” In England, the peasantry was essentially destroyed through the “enclosure movement” (圈地運動), which led to the formation of large agricultural estates that were increasingly operated on commercial principles. The peasants migrated to the urban centers and became the workers of the English industrialization.


In France, the wrenching of the peasants by the landed aristocracy through the extraction of an increasingly higher surplus became unbearable. The peasants revolted and seized the land of the nobility and divided it up. The preponderance of small peasant owned farms caused French industrialization to follow a more state dominated path than did England.


In the United States, the abolition of slavery ended the economically more productive form of plantation labor in the Confederate South and paved the way for the government to introduce protectionist policies to shield private enterprise located predominantly in the Union North as it industrialized. The Republican dominated era (1861-1933) was the product of the choices made by Abraham Lincoln.


Moore challenges the view that democracy is a stage that all modernizing countries will eventually reach. His thesis helps us to appreciate that the process of becoming a democratic society cannot be “dictated” by one democratic government to a non-democratic government. A number of favorable conditions are necessary for a democracy to occur and, most importantly, to sustain. Is Moore’s thesis still relevant today for understanding Modern China.  This is the topic I shall turn to next week.

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