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A Thinker You Should Know: Robert Nisbet

Henri Bergson once observed that a truly great thinker says just one thing in his life because he has only one point of contact with the real. By this Bergson meant that although a great thinker might have a variety of interests, he typically embraces one great truth that animates each of his pursuits and serves as a guide to lesser truths. Whether or not this holds true generally, it is true of Robert Nisbet. In virtually every one of his eighteen books, and in the majority of his numerous articles, Professor Nisbet asserts that the twentieth century's preoccupation with community is a result of the erosion of intermediate communities—family, neighborhood, religious association, and voluntary association—caused by the structure and activities of the Western political state. 

In his works, of course, he emphasizes different components of this theme—the nature of genuine community, the conditions of liberty, the contexts fostering individuality, the intellectual sources of statism, and the intellectual Remnant advocating social pluralism. Still, whether the topic is the degradation of academic dogma, the "alienation" of postwar Americans, the crisis in Western authority, or the history of sociological theory, the overarching theme never changes. 

Nisbet first announced his grand theme in The Quest for Community. The book was published in 1953 at the end of a three-year period that produced what Nisbet calls a "freshet of books" with an unmistakable conservative character: Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, Eric Voegelin's The New Science of Politics, William Buckley's God and Man at Yale, and Daniel Boorstin's The Genius of American Politics. The year 1953, Russell Kirk observed, was "the year the liberals began to listen," and, although Kirk's book was probably most responsible for this, reviewers all across the political spectrum gave Nisbet's Quest wide and warm attention. But the book's influence has gone welll beyond its initial impact. The book has been through four editions (most recently, the Institute of Contemporary Studies' 1990 edition) and has been in print for most of the last half century. This is because, in many respects, the book has gained pertinence over time. Although initially it was read most fervently by conservative readers, it influenced certain New Left writers in the 1960s, and, moreover, it swayed the rhetoric and style of American conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s so much that Nicholas Lemann wrote in 1991 of "the triumph of Nisbetism as the stated creed of American politics at the highest level." 

A single sentence in the preface to The Quest for Community summarizes both the aim of the book and what proved to be the master theme of Robert Nisbet's lifework. Nisbet says, "I have chosen to deal with the political causes of the manifold alienations that lie behind the contemporary quest for community." He acknowledges that the "manifold alienations" that spur the desire for fellowship in community—the individual's sense of estrangement, isolation, or insecurity—stem from a variety of economic, religious, and moral changes. Still, he maintains, "the greatest single influence upon social organization in the modern West has been the developing concentration and power of the sovereign political State." He says that to "regard the State as simply a legal relationship, as a mere superstructure of power, is powerfully delusive." Instead, "The real significance of the modern State is inseparable from its successive penetrations of man's economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances, and its revolutionary dislocation of established centers of function and authority." Individual "alienation" and preoccupation with community are manifestations of the decline of genuine communities created by the Western state. 

The quest for community can take a variety of forms. It may lead to "easy religion," the psychiatrist's office, the cult, or the functionless ritualization of the past. But most commonly this quest today ends up in the political party or action group. "It is the image of community contained in the promise of the absolute, communal State that seems to have the greater evocative power." The dark irony, as Nisbet sees it, is that the search for community, itself caused by the state, often combines with the existing political power. Individuals seek "national community" whose vehicle is, of course, the state. Therefore, as communities wane, the desire for communal fellowship leads straight to the extension of state power—further eroding the communities that mediate between the individual and the state. It is a melancholy fate. 

In Nisbet's view, "individualism" and the concentration of state power are not at odds; the slogan "Man versus the State," first used by Herbert Spencer, is faulty. Nisbet argues, following Emile Durkheim, that the isolated, rights-bearing individual and the state are not in opposition because the individual needs the state to secure his rights. The individual and the state are, however, each opposed to a third factor, namely "society." Nisbet notes that "social" was coined in the early nineteenth century when an old term was given new meaning. "Social, as a word, meant family, village, parish, town, voluntary association, and class, not the political state." "Society," as Nisbet uses the word, is composed of the welter of associations and communities that mediate individual experiences, that help fashion true "individuality" by providing stability, and that serve as hedges against the state. Of the two, society and the state, society is both prior to the state and much more important. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, men create the state, but the communities that form society spring from the hand of God. These communities are not the product of conscious deliberation, planning, or individual reason. Indeed, manipulation by those who fail to comprehend their evolving, organic nature, can weaken and maim genuine communities. Society is never static and its pedigree is ancient. "Society," Nisbet says, paraphrasing Edmund Burke, "is a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn." 

Clearly, Nisbet's worldview is at a great disadvantage in the marketplace of ideas. But it has the more than minor advantage of being truthful. For those who are serious about the truths of our social world and who seek guidance on how to better it, his works are an excellent place to start. 

Brad Lowell Stone is professor of sociology and director of American Studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Complement with other thinkers you should know: Eric Voegelin, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Ludwig von Mises


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