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Barrington Moore

Author of a daring sociological classic

Barrington Moore, sociologist: born Washington, DC 12 May 1913; Lecturer, Social Science Division, University of Chicago 1945-47; Senior Research Fellow, Russian Research Center, Harvard University 1947-79; married Betty Ito (died 1992); died Cambridge, Massachusetts 16 October 2005.

Barrington Moore was one of the greatest American sociologists of the 20th century. He did not found an intellectual school, although he had many successful students. Nor did he establish a paradigmatic concept or theory, although he was a prime exemplar of model scholarship. He did something much more difficult. He showed that detailed historical and comparative analysis of specific societies such as Britain, China and the United States could produce important testable generalisations about how societies change. These generalisations focus on the question that guided his work: which historical circumstances favour, and which inhibit, the making of modern societies that are decent and worth living in?

Moore's most important book was Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which appeared in 1966, when he was 53. It stands alongside Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in 1904-05) and Emile Durkheim's Suicide (1897) as a sociological classic.

In Social Origins, Moore showed that declining social interests and political structures play a crucial part in shaping the new socio-political orders that replace them. Historically, great landowners and rural peasantry throughout Europe and Asia have been threatened by the growth of large cities, and the rise of strong, centralising states. Moore looked at how these threatened classes responded in Britain, France, the US, China, Japan and India.

He investigated the alliances landed aristocracy and gentry (including the samurai of Japan) made with rising interests such as urban business and central government. He looked at the social structures of the peasantry and whether it was gradually eliminated (as in England) or became a revolutionary force (as in France and China). Moore showed how different class-based responses to similar economic pressures produced very different political outcomes in different countries: democracy, Fascism or Communism.

Social Origins was daring for its time. It kicked aside the preoccupation with the role of values as the basis of social order, associated with Talcott Parsons, and put at the centre of its analysis the part played by violence, exploitation and power within socio-political hierarchies. Moore insisted that brutal coercion had been just as important in establishing relatively decent Western liberal democracies as it had been in imposing Fascist and Communist regimes.

Moore was not the first to say this in post-war America. C. Wright Mills, for one, had done so. But Moore made the key breakthrough, creating a cultural and political space for a new breed of historical sociologists including Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, Immanuel Wallerstein, Perry Anderson, Michael Mann and many others. Moore was able to make this breakthrough for two reasons. He had a much wider range as a historical sociologist than Mills. He was also, unlike Mills, unequivocally a man from the top of the American social establishment who not only strongly believed in liberal democracy but also thought capitalism was an important means of achieving it. This made him difficult to dismiss or ignore.

Moore, a keen yachtsman like his father, had an élite education. Between the ages of 14 and 20, he attended St George's School, a private boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. He then entered Williams College in Massachusetts, where Ivy League-trained teachers aimed to give their students, all organised socially into fraternities, a liberal education with a strong emphasis on the Greek and Latin classics. Moore majored in Latin, took eight courses in Attic Greek, and got a thorough grounding in classical and medieval history.

He also took a political science course that introduced him to the work of W.G. Sumner and A.G. Keller. Moore credited these two very different scholars for his own abiding interest in problems relating to inequality, authority, ideological obscurantism, totalitarian regimes and the causes of human misery. This was interwoven with a lurking Hegelianism that made him search unceasingly for signs of emancipatory forces that might realise the human potentiality for creating rational and decent societies.

After Williams, Moore did research on social stratification at Yale, completing his PhD in sociology in 1941. During the Second World War he served as a policy analyst for the American government, working in the Office of Strategic Studies, and at the Department of Justice. He taught at the University of Chicago for a while before moving to Harvard in 1948. He did not find a place in the Social Relations Department, where the Parsonian paradigm prevailed, but instead made his base at the Russian Research Center. He joined this institution in 1951 and remained there for the rest of his long working life. His main intellectual and life companion was his wife, Betty, whom he once described as "home editor and first reader of whatever I write".

His earliest works, Soviet Politics (1950) and Terror and Progress, USSR (1954), are worth revisiting today in the post-1989 world for their analysis both of the internal tensions of the Soviet Union and the role of terror in political relations. By the time he wrote them, Moore had established his friendship with Herbert Marcuse who had been working at the State Department during the war, eventually serving as Acting Head of the East European Section, while Moore was at the OSS. Moore both respected and disagreed with Marcuse, who treated bourgeois capitalism and totalitarian societies as being fundamentally in the same camp.

For Moore dictatorships and democracies were fundamentally different in origins and structure. He explored these differences throughout his career, engaging in a search that took him into anthropology, philosophy, history, and economics. It resulted in ground-clearing exercises such as his Political Power and Social Theory (1958) and ambitious works such as Injustice: the social bases of obedience and revolt (1978) and Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery (1971).

For a brief while in the 1960s Moore pondered whether the upsurge of discontent among African Americans might presage a revolutionary moment in American history but decided not. He criticised some aspects of the student movement in Harvard as an attack on free speech in universities but remained on good terms with those who recognised the integrity and consistency of his position.

Moore continued working after Injustice, producing books such as Privacy (1984), Authority and Inequality under Capitalism and Socialism (1987), Moral Aspects of Economic Growth (1998) and Moral Purity and Persecution in History (2000), the last two published in his late eighties. In all his work, Moore showed that objectivity does not mean neutrality on the profound moral and political issues of the time.

Barrington Moore had a gentle, courtly manner, interlaced with flashes of humour, typically dry and ironic. He was, for some tastes, a little too respectful of the English liberal myth, neglecting to notice the harshness of British imperialism. When he came to Oxford to deliver the Tanner Lectures on Human Values in 1985, he was not at his best, perhaps even a little overawed by Brasenose College.

However, back home in Harvard, dining out in the relaxing cosiness of the Faculty Club, he could be a friendly and stimulating host, reminiscing about Winston Churchill's wartime visit, discussing the historical significance of "masterless men", ruefully regretting the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, and thoroughly enjoying a "steak mignon" served by one of Harvard's students moonlighting as a waitress.

Dennis Smith