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The job of every conservative is twofold: First, he must fight tirelessly against the centralized, unitary state; second, he must do everything possible to promote that which makes the free society not just an ordered one, but a good one…

robert nisbet modern conservatismPrior to the publication of Russell Kirk’s masterful The Conservative Mind in 1953, no real conservative movement existed. Certainly, in the interwar years, there had been a number of writers who had given voice to conservative sentiments. Names such as Willa Cather, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Undset, and Irving Babbitt immediately spring to mind. Others, such as Albert Jay Nock, Friedrich Hayek, Walter Lippman, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Patterson, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Dorothy Thompson, Arthur Bestor, John Chamberlain, and others contributed much as well, though one might not readily label them conservative. Almost no one used the word conservative, with only a few important exceptions. “Individualist” and “libertarian” were the words most often employed to describe those Americans not on the Left.

In 1952 and 1953, however, the entire scene changed with books such as Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community, Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Daniel Boorstin’s Genius of American Politics, and Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Christopher Dawson’s Understanding Europe, and, most especially, Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.

When Nisbet first published The Quest for Community in 1953, he did not consciously consider himself a conservative, though he had spent most of his academic career up to that point writing about the formation of associations and communities as understood by French conservatives and French and Russian anarchists. Certainly, Nisbet had, like many not on the Left in the 1930s, found himself deeply disillusioned by the New Deal, at home and abroad. He had also, importantly, read the works of Hilaire Belloc and Albert Jay Nock, and, most likely, Irving Babbitt. When pressed, though, Nisbet would, in the 1930s and 40s, call himself a “political pluralist” or “neoliberal.”

Though nowhere in his own work, private or public, does Nisbet state this blatantly, it seems most probable that he adopted the term “conservative” almost immediately after corresponding with Russell Kirk and reading The Conservative Mind. Kirk, himself, read The Quest for Community while stranded at a derelict train station in Scotland. He was, he later wrote, at

Thornton Junction, a blot on the green face of Fife, while waiting for a train. Thornton Junction is a series of illimitable railway-platforms and sidings set amid a shamefully desolated region of derelict farmland and bog, sacrificed to open-cast mining and then left dead in a contorted rigor mortis: the very earth is not soil, but a black and gritty abomination, without grass, without houses, without shelter from the wind; and on the wooden platform one sits for lonely hours, with nothing to eat and nothing to look at, waiting for a dirty train to take one slowly to a dirty town. Thornton Junction is a microcosm of our insecure and devastated age, true community sacrificed to alleged “efficiency,” every ethical consideration thrown aside as an impediment to ‘progress.’

While there, Nisbet’s book came alive, a sacramental talisman and a contrast in beautiful prose, Kirk believed, to the horrors of modern man’s neglect surrounding him.

Later, when finally having arrived in Edinburgh, Kirk decided that Nisbet was the modern Tocqueville. Though reluctant to label him a “conservative,” Kirk did know that Nisbet despised all of the same things he despised: communism, fascism, and leftism. Certainly, Kirk had found in Nisbet a crucial ally. If Kirk almost single-handedly brought about the revival of Burke, Nisbet had done the same for Tocqueville. The two pairs—Nisbet and Tocqueville, Kirk and Burke—were, together, the foundation of all modern conservatism.

From 1953 until his own death in 1994, Kirk never failed to praise The Quest for Community as a seminal work in American thought. Importantly, when any person—especially those in opposition—wrote about the conservatism of the 1950s, they always mentioned Kirk and Nisbet as partners. Nisbet thought the “guilt by association” hilarious, but he also approved of it and, even, took considerable pride in that association. Kirk, tellingly, devoted much of the second edition of The Conservative Mind analyzing Nisbet, replacing his work with those in the first edition about Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson.

As noted in previous essays for The Imaginative Conservative, The Quest for Community has never gone out of print. It has, however, arrived in a variety of editions.

1953: The Quest for Community (Oxford University Press)

1961: as Community and Power (Oxford University Press)

1970: The Quest for Community (Oxford University Press)

1990: The Quest for Community (ICS Press)

2010: The Quest for Community (ISI Books)

In a rather stunning and insightful 1993 autobiographical essay published in The Intercollegiate Review, Nisbet admitted that he had always been perplexed that the book did not take off and gain a reputation beyond conservative and sociological circles until adopted by the New Left in the 1960s. Perhaps, Nisbet mused, the New Left had decided that conservatives were allies in their all-out war against mainstream liberalism. To his death, though, Nisbet remained perplexed that he had become a leftist icon in the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 70s.

In that same essay, he also revealed the three greatest influences on his own thought as he wrote the original version of The Quest for Community. First, he cited, not surprisingly, a love of Roman history, and, in particular, the decline of the republic and the rise of empire. In those dread years, Nisbet saw how readily the state crushed the intermediary institutions so vital to the republic, but none more important than family. Second, he found much to love about medieval associations as presented by Otto Von Gierke, F.W. Maitland, and Ernest Barker. Third, he admitted, his book was most certainly a reaction to his own disillusionment with, and then hatred of, the New Deal at home and abroad.

In his own words, reflecting on what he had tried to state in The Quest for Community and for what The Quest for Community might mean in a post-Cold War era, Nisbet warned that the conservative might veer, in his frustration with the modern world, toward a radical individualism or a nationalism. Each, he cited, would result in great evils. A pure individualism would unwittingly surrender all social authority to the state, thus, ultimately, destroying any real individuality or personhood. “I am not, I trust, preaching anarchism.”

Equally dangerous, though, were all forms of modern nationalism and the promotion of a “national community,” no matter how humane or humanistic the propaganda behind either. “It is, I repeat, the serious business of any conservative group to recognize ‘national community’ for what it is and to oppose it at every turn.”

The job of every conservative, then, is twofold. First, he must fight “tirelessly” against the “centralized, omnicompetent, and unitary state” and all that goes with it: debt as well as empire. Second, he must do everything possible to promote that which makes the free society not just an ordered one, but a good one: the intermediary institutions of family, church, friendship, business, and school.

To these words, my soul doth rejoice.

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4 replies to this post
  1. A small caveat: In 1953, Heinlein was beginning to emerge from his Upton Sinclair/EPIC days, still with the idea of Social Credit as a means of economic reform. It was several years later that he became more anarcho-libertarian (with the publication of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress — 1967).

    And, as a sidebar, is a Modern Conservatism still possible? 1953 was over 60 years back, and what have we had in the last few decades? Be generous, what stellar illuminating opus has risen in the firmament since 2000 AD? What recent thing has caught the imagination of the punditry like Kirk and Nisbet did back then?

    In 2018, with the Tribes clashing in the midnight hour like those famous armies, is community still possible? Have we passed the Point of No Return? And how would we know if we had? What would indicate whether there was still a chance for reform, and what would indicate it is everlastingly too late? My own current thinking is that I will live to see the Collapse (as The Gods of The Copybook Headings return, with vigor), but not the Recovery (because the Recovery will mean the Permanent Things have been restored.)

  2. Dear David, it’s always great to hear from you. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comment. As to the second two paragraphs, I just don’t know. Tribalism and the tribal gods is an excellent way of labeling our era. As to paragraph one, I didn’t know this. I have several of Heinlein’s collected letters and essays, but I’ve not delved too deeply into his earlier work. I need to. Thanks much for the caveat–well taken and appreciated. Yours, Brad

  3. While working at Focus on the Family in public policy almost three decades ago, it was my reading of Nisbet and Kirk that moved me towards the Catholic faith. I had previously been reading Molnar and Novak. Then I found Dawson, Belloc, Jaki, and Maritain. I was done for and “converted” within a couple years. So for me it was “conservatism” that actually led me to Catholicism because the Church and everything it stood for, I believed. I think Kirk was High Anglican, but where was Nisbet on religious faith? Thanks! Brad

    • What a great story, Brad. Thanks for sharing. Good first name, too! Kirk converted to Roman Catholicism in August 1964, taking the name Augustine as his patron. Nisbet was raised in a quasi-Christian Scientist household (his mother), but he never took it seriously. He always appreciated the Christian faith–especially the Catholic tradition of community–but he never embraced it as his own. As far as I know, he died an agnostic.

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