Serfdom to Democracy transition analysis

As many would argue, the modern world today results from activities that took place in the past, as well as, the shaping of the society in the years preceding the current. Accordingly, numerous research studies have been carried out to explain this phenomenon, as researchers attempt to define the growth and development of societies. As these studies would illustrate, growth and development of societies are reliant on a number of social, political, and economic factors. These factors determine a society’s route to modernity, with most differing from each other. In an attempt to understand this growth and development, Barrington Moore examines the modernization of Europe and Asia, highlighting a number of countries from each. As he explains in his book, the agrarian and industrial revolutions played a major role in the route to modernity.

Most importantly, it is the assumption of roles by the two main social classes, the elites, and the peasants/serfs, that played a key role in this. Bowman agrees to this in his book, Masters & Lords: Mid-19th-century Us Planters and Prussian Junkers. Bowman states that the roles played by the elites and the peasants played a role in the shaping of societies, both politically and economically. Accordingly, Moore explains that the transformation of countries into democratic societies was highly reliant on liberating peasants and serfs so as to build a strong political and economic structure. This, in turn, allows societies to develop themselves as a

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This paper presents a critique of Barrington Moore’s ideas in the book, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the making of the modern world. The paper also draws attention to the book Masters & Lords: Mid-19th-century Us Planters and Prussian Junkers, by Shearer Bowman in relation to this.  Fundamentally, the paper provides a discussion of the path from serfdom to democracy in modern Europe, illustrating two routes to democracy including commercialization and peasant revolution.

Development of Democratic Societies

According to Moore, the development of democratic societies is dependent on three main factors including the identification of arbitrary rulers, the replacement of these rulers with rational rulers, and the inclusion of the minorities in governance (Moore 158). However, because the early societies were highly characterized by dictatorial and monarchist leadership, the transition to a democratic society was a difficult process. Just as is characteristic of modern society, the conventional societies were characterized by two distinct social classes. These social classes included the elites and the peasants (Moore 56). The elites were considered as the indirect rulers of the society as they enjoyed both political and economic influences over their particular societies.

The peasants, on the other hand, were economically handicapped, and for that reason, were easily subjected to the demands of the elites. This trend was common in most parts of the world including Europe, Asia, as well as the United States.  Though this trend readily supported dictatorial leadership and monarchism, it also favored the possibility of democratic development. As Moore explains, the exemption of certain social classes from an authority, coupled with the right form of resistance, opens the path to democratic development (Moore 230). He argues that this situation inherently led to a significant restructure of the agrarian economic constitution, as the different social classes took on new and different roles. There was a formation of a new group of capitalist farmers, most of whom were previously peasants. Because of their previous lack of access to some of the basic requirements, this group treated their newly owned lands as capital. They worked solely for the attainment of profit because they were included as part of the market after the revolution.

This group of individuals aligned their interests to men of commerce, as opposed to, the Crown, which consisted of the elites and the rulers of the society. For that reason, the peasantry in these societies declined and because the higher percentage of individuals did not show support for the Crown, the weakened Crown was forced to acknowledge the ascendancy of growing bourgeoisies (Moore 418). This, in turn, encouraged the transformation into a generalized aristocracy that signified democratic development. Moore expounds on this concept by highlighting some of the developed countries that experienced a democratic revolution. He compares the activities that took place within these societies, and as he had predicted the trend is similar in each of the countries examined. In addition to this, Moore also looks at the countries and societies that did not embrace the common route to democracy and the effect this had on society.

Upon a closer examination of the ideas presented in his book, it is evident that the path to democracy involved two main routes including commercialization and peasant revolution. With commercialization, different countries took a different route depending on the existing political and economic systems in their societies. Countries such as Germany and Japan embraced capitalism as their preferred means for commercialization. England, on the other hand, took to the application of fascist ideologies in commercialization, thus democratic development (Moore 447).



The agrarian revolution forced more people to convert to businesspersons. This, in turn, encouraged the advance of commerce in most towns and societies. The growth and development of commerce implied an increase in the need for money in these societies, and those in authority demanded more tax payment by citizens. As Moore explains, several countries and societies responded to these changes in different ways. England, for example, resulted in setting their peasants free so that they could develop themselves economically as much as they could (Moore 479). France, on the other hand, opted to have the peasants take over the land as a way of encouraging them to engage in commerce. The response of countries in Eastern Europe was much different, and they opted to maintain the peasant reduce the formerly freed peasants to serfdom. This, in turn, led to the increase, if not maintained in the number of peasants in the society. By maintaining a high number of peasants, the achievement of democracy became a hard task for these societies, with the immediate result of this being the development of a communist dictatorship. According to Moore, the elites and upper class would use various political and social levers to hold down the peasants as their labor force for the transition into commercial farming (Moore 384). Peasants would provide the labor required for the elites to engage in large scale-production of commercial goods. Accordingly, this inherently leads to the realization that commercialization is equivalent to commercial agriculture, and for that reason, encouraged an increase in this practice. In countries such as France, commercialization did not decrease peasantry, but instead, it took a lot more out of it thus contributing to the revolution.

As Moore explains, Germany and Japan opted for the capitalist response to commercialization, and for that reason, these countries easily transformed into industrialized societies. The capitalist response to commercialization also ensured that these states did not experience similar revolutions that other societies were experiencing. The strategy with this type of response is to maintain the existence of peasants in the society and to introduce all the required changes in the society for the assurance of the production of surplus goods for commercialization (Moore 512). The only changes taking place in such a situation would be the fact that peasants took part in the commercialization of these societies. This ensures the generation of profit that could easily by translated into ban economic stronghold for these societies. Moore defines such systems of commercialization as labor repressive systems, which are characteristically unfavorable for democracy but play a fundamental role for the society (Moore 435-437). Accordingly, commercialization helped in shaping democratic societies as we know them today. Moore explains this by illustrating the different paths of commercialization that countries had taken, thus the emergence of democratic societies.


Peasant Revolution

The second and most important route to democracy involves the peasant revolutions that characterized the societies at the time. In the book, Moore explains that the process of democratic modernization resulted from peasant revolutions. Though most of them would fail in achieving the desired outcome, those that succeeded, saw the transition of societies into modernity. Moore states that the large numbers of peasants and landless labor were a potential source for revolution, which is exactly what transpired during this time. According to Moore, the more likely the revolution of peasants in a particular society, the higher the possibility of this society to develop into a democratic society (Moore 435-437). Countries that were subjected to peasant revolutions attained democracy mush faster than those countries that did not. He further explains this by stating that societies that are socially segmented depend on diffuse sanctions for their coherence. By maintaining the peasant population and extracting economic surplus from peasants, there is a possibility that a revolution is likely to occur. This is because peasants, much as they were of a lower social class, did not take kindly to having what they had worked hard for taken from them. Accordingly, these peasants rebelled from such systems of existence and they fought for the attainment of what they considered as the freedom of rights. These revolutions were aimed at assisting peasants in receiving their social rights, as well as, the creation of a different segment or social class that was far above peasantry.

Moore also states that countries that were characterized by agrarian bureaucracy were more likely to experience such revolutions (Moore 217). This is because they depended on a centralized form of authority that had no consideration for the lower class members of the society. Instead, such an authority worked for the benefits of the elites, and the peasants were greatly disadvantaged. In relation to the process of modernization in these societies, the success or failure of the elites in commercialization also affected the political systems in the societies. In societies where elites successfully managed to take up commercial agriculture and to permeate rural life, there was no likelihood of a peasant revolution (Moore 278). This is because such societies provided the peasants with the necessary economic security for development, and for that reason, the peasants did not feel the need to rebel against their authorities. Those societies where the elites tried to take over surplus production from the peasants, were faced with various revolutions, which also assisted them to develop into democratic societies.

Countries such as France, Russia, and China experienced peasant revolution at its highest form. According to Moore, there were two reasons behind this revolution including the competition for land between the peasants and the elites, as well as, social cohesion instability in such societies (Moore 470). Moore believes that the revolutionary violence that was experienced at the time played a great role in the development of these societies into democracies (Moore 227). This is because it encouraged peaceful negotiations that were necessary for the process of change, and the gradual modernization and democratization. Moore explains that the revolutionary violence exposed a past repressive society, which in turn encouraged these countries to work towards a less tyrannical future. This, therefore, ensured the transformation of authoritarian societies into the democratic societies that they are today.



The path from serfdom to democracy in European countries and states was a complex and multifaceted process that demanded a degree of compliance by those responsible for governing the states. Moore examines this transition in his book, and he argues that the need for change, especially in the social, political and economic systems in these societies, was the primary determinant of the achievement of democracy. Accordingly, he identifies two main causes of democratic development in these societies including commercialization and peasant revolutions. He explains that commercialization increased the demand for economic and social freedom, whereas the peasant revolutions saw an increase in the demand for political freedom. This is because commercialization allowed all social classes to experience economic liberalization, something that was new to may especially the peasants. Peasant revolutions, on the other hand, arose from a denial of the achievement of this liberalization. Through these revolutions, oppressed peasants demanded equal treatment, thus the development of modern democratic societies. The violent nature of the revolutions compelled societies into listening to their demands for equal treatment, which in turn allowed these societies to embrace democracy as part of their system of governance.

Work Cited

Bowman, Shearer D. Masters & Lords: Mid-19th-century Us Planters and Prussian Junkers.

New York, NY u.a: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993. Print.

Moore, Barrington, Edward Friedman, and James C. Scott. Social Origins of Dictatorship and

Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Print.


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