Robert Nisbet feared that modern totalitarians had succeeded in undermining the very foundations of goodness, truth, and morality. They had not only redefined liberty as power, but they had transformed the modern political state into a secular church, exchanging real religion for civic religion, creating a “New Leviathan.”

Like most Americans during the Great Depression, Robert Alexander Nisbet considered himself a proponent of Franklin Roosevelt’s economically and culturally interventionist New Deal policies. At the age of twenty-three, though, sometime as he completed his undergraduate work and prepared for his graduate work, the precocious Californian encountered the great English distributist, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton’s closest friend. The other half of the ChesterBelloc—a mostly friendly criticism of the powerful allies—had considered himself to be a liberal, but, importantly, of the nineteenth-century variety. Belloc’s 1912 book, The Servile State, not only defended the person’s right to the ownership of property, but he wanted as many persons as there are persons to own property. As such, Belloc savaged what would later be known as “crony capitalism,” and he considering Progressive-era alliance of banks, corporations, and government almost as wicked as out and out socialism and certainly unholy. When Nisbet read the book twenty-four years after its initial publication, it hit the nominally liberal budding sociologist with immense force. After all, Nisbet reasoned, Belloc had predicted the morass of the twentieth century long before World War I and the Great Depression and long before the rise of fascism and communism in the totalitarian states. By comparison with 1936, the year in which Nisbet encountered Belloc, 1912 was an age of innocence. How had the English Christian Humanist prophesied so well? To be sure, Nisbet admitted, Belloc saw almost the entirety of the western tradition since the Reformation as a fall. As a non-Catholic, however, Nisbet found this line of argumentation interesting but more than a bit excessive.[1] Still, he concluded, Belloc had to have figured out something before everyone else. Whatever it had been, Nisbet admired it. Reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America three years later, in 1939, solidified Nisbet’s hatred of the planned, managerial state, whether it went under the name of communist, fascist, or democratic. As with Belloc, he saw those who lived under the state as servile, and, with Tocqueville, he believed that whatever managerial aspects had and would arise in America would be forms of soft despotism rather than blatant jackboot thuggery.[2]

By the end of his formal academic career, in the late 1970s, Nisbet considered this chance encounter with The Servile State in 1936 to be one of the most significant turning points in his professional life. Indeed, he counted The Servile State one of the five most important books he had read in his life, ranking it alongside Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity; Frank Teggarts’s Processes of History; and Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. “Suffice it here to say that never again, after reading Belloc’s work, did I imagine that there could be genuine individual freedom apart from individual ownership of property.”[3] Equally important, Nisbet noted, it forced him to realize that the liberals of the twentieth-century had profoundly corrupted the vision of their nineteenth-century ancestors. Additionally, at least in the mind of Nisbet, The Servile State, along with Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Thomas More’s Utopia, Smith’s Wealth of Nations, William Graham Sumner’s The Forgotten Man, and Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy The State as one of the most important anti-government books of the modern West.[4]

From 1936 until his death in 1996, Nisbet dedicated at least half, if not more, of his academic and public writings to the dangers of the modern nation-state.[5] Though he labeled himself a conservative—with admittedly anarchist sympathies—no respected or respectable libertarian of the past century could match Nisbet’s vitriol toward “the State.” He despised nearly every aspect of it, considering it an illegitimate manifestation of power, undermining intentionally and unintentionally the very fabric of civic life and humane society as best expressed by persons working in community toward some purpose. Far worse than anything that existed in the ancient world, the modern nation state claimed for itself the powers of church as well as of state, Nisbet noted. These new states, Nisbet believed, intruded and manipulated in ways never previously imagined, yet each existed today as progressive descendants of ancient Eastern, Neareastern, and Persian despotisms.

In his analysis of the modern nation state, Nisbet followed three approaches. First, he found the origins of the modern nation state in the writings of the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and in the enlightenment thinker’s promotion of totalitarianism and equality. Second, Nisbet promoted the various little platoons and intermediary associations so vital to a thriving civic society, as he had learned so perceptively from the works of Edmund Burke and Tocqueville. And, finally, third, Nisbet deconstructed the various parts and aspects of the modern nation state, claiming each to be a design antithetical to the natural law and to human dignity. This essay, as such, considers these three critical components in Nisbet’s anti-Statism.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacque Rousseau “is, for me, the real demon in the modern mind,” Nisbet wrote to Russell Kirk after having read the latter’s masterpiece, The Conservative Mind. “I think his was the most malevolent genius of the whole modern era.”[6] If the conservatives of the 1950s created a conservative narrative, lineage, and hagiography—as Kirk most certainly did in The Conservative Mind, they also created its counterpart, a demonology. For Kirk, the great demon of the modern world was Machiavelli, but, for Nisbet, it was definitely Rousseau.[7] From his 1940 University of California at Berkley dissertation, “The Social Group in French Thought,” to his 1953 classic, The Quest for Community, to the end of his writing career in the 1990s, Nisbet deepened his thought regarding the eighteenth-century French philosopher, but he never changed his mind. In his dissertation, Nisbet argued that Rousseau took the English individualism of John Locke and, dangerously, fused it with the English totalitarian state of Thomas Hobbes.[8] Though this unholy alliance of ideas, Nisbet claimed, Rousseau defined sovereignty for the modern world, bypassing all voluntary and intermediate associations and linking each individual to one another through the sole organization of the state. As such, Rousseau’s theory destroyed family, community, school, church, business, and fraternal associations. All modern revolutionaries, with the exception of the Americans, Nisbet continued, found solace and certainty in Rousseau.

Even in one of Nisbet’s last books, The Present Age, published eight years before his death, the author spent a considerable amount of time identifying Rousseau as the fountainhead of all modern totalitarianisms and ideologies. Without Rousseau, Nisbet claimed, there could have been no Lenin, no Mussolini, no Hitler, and no Stalin. He was the anti-Augustine, the man who blends the City of God with the City of Man, rather than acknowledging the necessary separation of the two. As a matter of course, Rousseau’s thinking must, Nisbet insisted in 1988, lead to a political state as a new leviathan, a political and secular church. Unlike the horrific tyrants of the twentieth century, though, Rousseau is “clean” with almost zero bodies found in the gulags or Holocaust camps.[9]

Nisbet’s most sustained attack against Rousseau came in his widely and justly acknowledged masterpiece, his 1953 Quest for Community. Though reusing much of his argument from an academic essay published a decade earlier, Nisbet’s Quest brought together all of Rousseau’s works before carefully dissecting them. Not surprisingly, he finds On The Social Contract to be the enlightenment figure’s seminal work. To prosper, Rousseau argued, men must, in some way, find an escape from the state of nature. In such a state, men might progress briefly, but they would find it, ultimately, detrimental, being too barbaric. To fight the chaos inevitable in a state of nature, men must “act in concert,” solidifying into a body politic. Yet, Rousseau cautions, man must never surrender his freedom to the tyranny of society. A social compact, then, improperly implemented, will collectivize without freeing. “To find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force and by the means of which each, uniting with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before,” serves as the central paradox for a social compact. As a solution, Rousseau continued, man must break ties with all subsidiary associations and subdivisions, becoming fully a citizen of the whole. In other words, the only association that will work, is the association of the whole, each utterly equal before the group as a whole. A true social compact must involve “the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community.” If so constructed, Rousseau believed, “each gives himself entirely, the condition is equal for all, and since the condition is equal for all, no one has any interest in making it burdensome to the rest.” Even if one individual did want to claim more for himself than for his fellows, he would fail as he has no practical or theoretical basis to a claim. Only the claim of equality works, each exactly the same as each. The claim to equality can, additionally, only be enforced by the whole, as creating a superior or representative would deny the equality. As a collective, if one loses, all lose. If one gains, all gain. “If, then, one sets aside everything that is not of the essence of the social compact”—such as family, school, church, and corporation—“one finds that it can be reduced to the following terms; Each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an individual part of the whole.” If, Rousseau assured his readers, a city might be identified with a hierarchical (that is, real and existing) society, while what he proposes is a true “Republic or a body politic, which its members call State when it is passive, Sovereign when it is active, Power when comparing it to similar bodies.” Further, he wrote, as for each person as an individual member of the body politic, “they collectively assume the name people and individually call themselves Citizens as to participants in the sovereign authority, and Subjects as subjected to the laws of the State.”[10]

One can readily see the influence of Hobbes and Locke, but also Plato and Thomas More, on Rousseau. One can also readily understand how a Rousseau might influence, in various ways, a Thomas Jefferson or a Vladimir Lenin. His holistic totalitarian republic might be democratic as well as fascistic or communistic.

It is exactly this elasticity that both intrigues and worries Nisbet. “Two entities dominate Rousseau’s thought: the individual and the State. In his mind they are simultaneously sovereign and, together, the only basis of a just human order,” Nisbet marveled. “Both strains come together in the Social Contract and make of that work a manifesto which served with equal adequacy on the libertarian principles of ’89 and the authoritarian principles of ’93,” he wrote, making references to the beginning and end stages of the French Revolution.[11] “This affinity between social individualism and political power is, I believe, the most fateful fact of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Nisbet explained. “It forms the very substance of the ideology of the political community,” and it wraps itself in the language of morality and virtue.[12] To fight the State, in Rousseau’s understanding, is the same as fighting the good, the true, and the beautiful. The state, as such, becomes nothing but the secular (but true) Church.

According to Nisbet, Rousseau’s Social Compact would, if implemented, prove the most revolutionary political doctrine in the history of the world. Not only does Rousseau equate the actions of his State with morality and virtue, but he also has claimed that through it, he can reconcile all conflicts internally and externally, thus providing stability and harmony to disorder. “Rousseau is the first of the modern philosophers,” he wrote, “to see in the State a means of resolving the conflicts, not merely among institutions, but within the individual himself.”[13] Thus, in the morality of the State, “man is spared the strife and tyranny that arise out of his selfish and destructive passions,” obviating any claim to original sin as a permanent basis of human relations.[14] Further, Nisbet claimed, Rousseau conveniently and brilliantly inverted the meaning of liberty, making it synonymous not with its traditional pairing, sacrifice and freedom, but, rather, with power and utility.[15]

One should not, however, presume that Nisbet thought Rousseau’s strength of argument relied on originality. While his combining of the libertarian and authoritarian is original, his own ideas as a whole represent a deviation from the norm of the western liberal project. Just as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Polybius, and other ancients had viewed the republic as organic, a body that experienced birth, middle age, and death and with a soul that could be divided into the rational, the reasonable, and the passionate, Rousseau envisioned his General Will as analogous to the mind. In consequence, Nisbet wrote of Rousseau’s theory, it “must remain as unified and undiversified as the mind itself.”[16] By taking only the particular aspect of the body politic as representing the mind and not accepting the three parts of the soul so lovingly and carefully understood by the ancients, Rousseau had inadvertently mechanized the republic, destroying any hope of nuance. Just as Rousseau wanted to protect the unity of the mind (and body politic) from all division and gothic uncertainty, he also, necessarily, abolished the decision of any two or three minds to gather and become something separate from the whole. Thus, there could exist no communities—or communities within communities—in the General Will. Either the will was general, or it could not exist, fundamentally. “Society is to be an aggregate of atoms held rigidly together by the sovereign will of the State alone,” Nisbet lamented.[17]

Rousseau recognized that something must exist that held together the General Will, something that animated and inspired it. Just as every people had always and everywhere practiced some form of religion, so must the proponents of a unified body politic accept that some form of religion must serve as the glue, holding all together. As the Christian church proved divisive and corrupt, historically as well as theologically, Rousseau held, the perfected State must create its own religion, a religion that “must be identified, in the minds of the people, with the values of national life, else it will create disunity and violate the General Will.”[18] While the perfected General Will must turn to the Catholic church as a model, it must not copy it, making its adherents slaves rather than citizens. Citizens, like worshippers, must be indoctrinated from birth. The State, therefore, must co-opt all educational authority from the church and the family. In particular, the perfected State must destroy the honored name of father, transferring such authority and loyalty away from the private family and toward the public good. Nothing, Nisbet thought, more revealed Rousseau’s blatant adoration of totalitarianism as the necessary destruction of the family, replacing each with love of the one community rather than the local community. “Family relationship is transmuted subtly into political relationship,” Nisbet explained, “the molecule of the family is broken into the atoms of its individuals, who are coalesced afresh into the single unity of the state.”[19] In transferring the allegiance of the individual from family to state, Nisbet concluded, Rousseau offered the first modern exploration and advocacy of institutionalized and permanent revolution.

Intermediary Institutions

If an eighteenth-century French thinker had been the doom of the modern world for Nisbet, a nineteenth-century French thinker explained what might save the world. As much disdain as Nisbet held for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he held equal (if not superior) fondness for Alexis de Tocqueville. Nisbet considered Tocqueville not just a great of the modern world, but a great in the history of the West and of the world, a thinker worthy of Socrates and Cicero.

Tocqueville might have been the greatest thinker of the nineteenth century, as Nisbet believed, but he, too, came out of a long tradition, stretching all the way back to the ancients. His most recent exemplar, though, has been the greatest of the eighteenth-century thinkers, the Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke. Together, Burke and Tocqueville stood at the forefront of the conservative and libertarian revival of the mid-twentieth century—of which Nisbet played a major role, along with Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Friedrich Hayek, Christopher Dawson, Peter Stanlis, and several others—playing the role of not merely anti-fascist or anti-Communist, but as proponents of limited constitutional government and the dignity of the individual human person.

Because of Burke’s influence on Tocqueville and Nisbet, it is worth considering Anglo-Irish statesman’s ideas at some length.[20] In his 1790 masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France, he had been most blatant about the necessity of the small communities, interacting, overlapping, and vital to the existence of the good. Toward the beginning of his book, he wrote, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”[21] Burke, though the single most important British defender of the rights of the Irish, of North Americans, of Roman Catholics, and of Asian Indians, believed that the French Revolution not only violated human dignity but also perverted a proper understanding of the natural law and of natural rights. In its desire to follow Rousseau and make all things equal through the “sovereignty of the nation”—as Article III of the Rights of Man and Citizen had proclaimed—the French Revolution denied the very thing that made life worth living, our love of those most closely related to us, by blood or conviction. Toward the end of his book, Burke concluded,

We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting-places. Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill. The love to the whole is not extinguished by this subordinate partiality.[22]

Even that which partially represents the whole, does, indeed, represent the whole. If, for example, we do not love our fathers, we most likely will not love our country. If we do not find the beautiful in our mothers, we will not see the beautiful in life. Each act of charity represents the whole, each a partial reflection of the complete Logos.

Following the lead of his Anglo-Irish exemplar, French scholar and statesman, Alexis de Tocqueville, believed that the flourishing of intermediary associations could attenuate the inevitable decay of a democratically-oriented republic, especially one as expansive as the United States.

Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but also they have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, [intellectual], serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this way they create hospitals, prisons, schools. If, finally, it is a matter of bringing a truth to light or of developing a sentiment with the support of a good example, they associate. Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.[23]

Just as one could not ably or successfully predict the choices of any one individual over the long term, so one could not predict the choices and the various aspects and missions of the voluntary association. Taking together the sum of all associations in America, Tocqueville argued, one could only admire their “infinite art,” with each individual association as well as the whole of associations fueling the very life of American civilization. Not only do Americans solve their various social ills through associations, but associations help create and maintain an ethical and morally-sound and ordered society. In associations, “sentiments and ideas are renewed, the heart grows larger and the human mind develops only by the reciprocal action of men on each other.”[24] They each served the common good, only by the “efforts of a great number of men, and in making them march freely toward it.”[25] Not only has the forming of associations become habit for Americans, it has—at least in the minds of the citizens of the United States—become the only means imaginable by which society solves its problems. “The liberty to associate is, therefore, more precious and the science of association more necessary among [free] peoples than among all others and it becomes more precious and more necessary as equality is greater.”[26] When men associate, they feel their power, and that power animates them to greater charity rather than to pride. Whether men seek to propagate a new idea or truth or solve a problem, “they seek each other out, and when they have found each other, they unite.”[27] As a French aristocrat and somewhat practicing Roman Catholic, Tocqueville found it hilariously absurd that American evangelicals would pledge abstinence from the consumption of alcohol. What madness must this be, he wondered. When, however, he saw that thousands upon thousands of men actual did this and kept their vow, he understood the power of the voluntary association not only to accomplish its specific goal, but to serve as a model for others seeking either the same goal or another one related to it. The individuals of the association not only grow in ethical and moral excellence, but they also present a witness and example for others to follow and do good in their respective spheres and corners of the world.

Whether this would always be the case, Tocqueville asked, he presumed not. For democratic peoples, he wrote, “all citizens are independent and weak; they can hardly do anything by themselves, and no one among them can compel his fellows to lend him their help.” If they do not quickly learn to associate as groups of like-minded individuals, each member of society becomes solitary, weak, and impotent. If, even once, individuals lost the habit of solving societal problems with associations, they would most likely begin a slippery slope toward the loss of all of them. Should such be the case in America, barbarism would become the norm. The greater government becomes in assuming the powers of association—whether in ending homelessness, feeding children, or starting and maintaining business enterprises—the more individuals, losing the idea of association, will need it to come to their aid,” Tocqueville lamented. “These are causes and effects that engender each other without stopping.” As the government intervenes to attenuate or even halt social problems, it does so clumsily, not only draining society of its charitable urges and verve, but denying individual virtue by replacing it with a myriad of mandatory rules. As a result of the latter, communities not only lose a taste for charity, but they begin to conform one to another as they adhere to the commands offered by the central power in Washington. At the very moment that the government “tries to emerge from the political sphere in order to throw itself into the new path, it will exercise an unbearable tyranny, even without wanting to do so,” Tocqueville explained, anticipating a century early the public choice theory of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. “For government only knows how to dictate precise roles; it imposes the sentiments and ideas that it favors.”[28] Finally, Tocqueville wrote, when it came to associations, one should not make too much of a distinction between the associations of family, the associations of school, and the associations of business. Each involved—at varying levels and to varying degrees—the right to private property. To interfere with a business would provide the same excuse to interfere with a family and vice versa.

Given how profoundly Tocqueville would shape the fundamentals of every aspect of Nisbet’s thought, it is astounding to realize that Nisbet did not first read him until 1939 as he was almost done with his dissertation and, equally, near the completion of his Ph.D. Yet, the year in which he encountered Tocqueville mattered. “Of a sudden, a great deal about modern Western history and society took on new meaning for me,” he remembered. “I found myself for the first time seeing social democracy, including the New Deal (of which I had been a fairly ardent admirer) in a different light.” Reading Tocqueville made Nisbet see Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin not as opposites, but as rivals. Nisbet was horrified to find that “absolute power could go with social humanitarianism” and could find its greatest strength not in the elites, but in the populace as a whole. Further, he feared, “the very political agencies that had been created in the name of the people to cope with” various social ills and protect liberties, could be turned to totalitarian purposes, not by perverting them, but by fulfilling them. “Totalitarianism could be understood best, not as reversion to a dark past, but as a product, however corrupt, of democratic modernity.”[29] Perhaps if Nisbet had first read Tocqueville in 1936, when he first read Belloc, or in 1943, as he shipped off to fight in the Pacific theater, the nineteenth century French philosopher would not have affected him as much as he did. Who knows?

Certainly, Nisbet agreed with Burke and Tocqueville—rather fully and emphatically—when it came to little platoons and intermediary institutions. To these varied by mysterious institutions, which could never be planned but only celebrated, Nisbet devoted most of his academic scholarship as well as his popular writing. He stated it as clearly as he ever would in his 1953 Quest for Community:

The major moral and psychological influences on the individual’s life have emanated from the family and local community and the church. Within such groups have been engendered the primary types of identification: affection, friendship, prestige, recognition. And within them also have been engendered or intensified the principal incentives of work, love, prayer, and devotion to freedom and order.[30]

Nothing in life, Nisbet believed, shaped a person’s existence as an individual more than did his immediate relations, chosen or not. Indeed, one could not understand the reality of any person without recognizing his context and his associations. The well-ordered social organization of society is, at base, “a pattern of institutional functions into which are woven numerous psychological threads of meaning, loyalty, and inter-dependence.” Again, it must be noted, such social organization can never be planned, but it must be cherished, nourished, and protected.

As with Tocqueville, Nisbet believed that America—at least in her founding and in the early republic—had gotten things right as often as not, serving as the model for a healthy society. The decisions of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock to covenant with one another, writing the Mayflower Compact; the federalism built into the U.S. Constitution; and even the voluntary communities of the wagon trains traversing the mid-nineteenth century Oregon Trail all revealed how deeply humane and communitarian America was.[31]

Leviathan

For Nisbet, however, it was not enough to have the example of America. Whatever America had once gotten right, the forces that embraced power and centralization had raged in the world since the French Revolution, at home and abroad. Under the direct influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, modern totalitarians had succeeded in undermining the very foundations of goodness, truth, and morality, Nisbet feared. They had not only redefined liberty as power, but they had, most critically, transformed the modern political state into a secular church, exchanging real religion for civic religion. Armed with bureaucracies, taxes, police, militaries, educational institutions, and propaganda, the modern state had proclaimed itself heaven on earth. As a result, the ancient and medieval attacks on the powers and functions of governments had become obsolete. Unlike the Roman Empire which Christ had told his apostles to render some things unto, the modern state had become an abomination, a false religion.

What existed in the post-French Revolutionary and post-Rousseauvian world was what Nisbet called a “New Leviathan” or a “New Despotism.” These new forms of state have happily and readily attracted to them a new “clerisy.”

The political sphere captured the allegiance of the modern intellectual class as only the church had in earlier centuries. Around the state was built a clerisy very much like that which attended the church in the Middle Ages: a clerisy composed, as was that earlier one, of scholars, scientists, philosophers, and technologists, as well as those—kings, assemblies, bureaucracies and electorates—who actually managed the national state. What capitalism could never accomplish—winning the allegiances of intellectuals—the political state assuredly did, and, as Lord Keynes observed, a very great deal of hard, practical political policy in the West had its origins in the works of ‘some academic scribbler of a few years back.’ To a striking degree, the modern intellectual has been the political intellectual, often as confident of the capacity of political power and membership therein to save man from temptations of the flesh and other sinful impulses as the medieval intellectual tended to be of the capacity of the church and the City of God.[32]

Most importantly, though, was that the modern nation state had learned how to combine the drive toward the humane and the humanitarian with the harnessing of power. Thus, as an example, to be against the state had morphed into the equivalent of believing that the homeless man should be left to die on the street. By taking the perceived moral high ground, the state can manipulate its population into just about anything, physically as well as spiritually. In claiming morality, the state can also function as directly and intrusively as it sees fit. After all, who wants to limit that which is morally correct?

In the late twentieth-century, Nisbet thought, the state had been morally successful in two different ways. First, it had adopted the “cult of equality” as preached by clerics such as philosopher John Rawls.[33] Intentionally or not, the cult of equality had promoted nothing less than absolute power for those in charge. Far from actually lifting everyone up toward a grand equality, the elite clerisy pushed all citizens down, not into equality, but toward uniformity and blandness, killing the desire to achieve excellence. More often than not, the clerisy and the state accomplished this bland uniformity by attacking the family, and especially the institution of fatherhood, and by prompting that which equalitarians always love, war. Not equality, but mechanization, has resulted from all of these efforts.[34]

Second, the modern state and its clerisy had begun to embrace the idea of therapy as a replacement for punishment. Good and evil become obsolete in the language of therapy. “Our villains have vanished along with our heroes, and each disappearance is related to a spreading state of mind that sees less and less responsibility devolving upon the individual for his acts,” Nisbet argued.[35]

It must be noted, especially toward the end of this essay, that Nisbet never embraced anarchism, though he admired many of the nineteenth and early twentieth century French and Russian anarchists.[36] Additionally, he held tradition in great respect. Far more so than any anarchist would.[37]

Instead, Nisbet juxtaposed government with state and power with authority.[38] In essence, authority served ordered liberty, while power destroyed it. Power, Nisbet wrote, exists as “something external and based upon force.” Power, unlike authority, comes from a distant region, imposing itself upon numbers and numbers of people it will never know nor wants to know. As such, it seeks the destruction of difference, often cloaking its own language in the celebration of equality or diversity. When it cries “equality,” though, it really means uniformity, regimentation, conformity, and mediocrity. Not surprisingly, once again, Nisbet’s arguments come directly from Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. As Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, power is the law that can be enforced only by its “own terrors.”[39]

Authority, however, arises necessarily from a free people in a variety of ways. Indeed, types of authority will arise in as many varied ways as there are communities and persons. “Authority, like power, is a form of constraint, but, unlike power, it is based ultimately upon the consent of those under it; that is, it is conditional.” No one should ever mistake authority for its perversion, “authoritarian.” Real authority arises with parenthood, with education, with business, with social networking, and, especially, with religion. Indeed, for Nisbet, the ultimate expressions of authority within a free society come from the family and the church.[40]

No community, Nisbet argued, can avoid structure and hierarchy. What it can choose, however, is how many authorities, what kind of authorities, and how many levels in the hierarchy. More often than not, though, these choices are not mechanical or regulated, but organic and spontaneous. In a free society, the human person belongs to a myriad of communities: some competing, some compromising, some overlapping, some conflicting, and some merely concentric. It is in the space between these concurrent communities, that the human person finds real freedom. As such, “authority and liberation, convention and revolt” form the very essence of history, “the creative rhythms of civilization.” These rhythms “are as vivid in the history of politics as in the histories of art and poetry, science and technology, education and religion.” After all, Nisbet wisely asks, “if there is not a recognized authority or convention, how can there be the occasional eruption of revolt and liberation that both the creative impulse and free mind require.”[41]

In Sum

While Robert Nisbet always backed up his claims with scholarly research and penetrating thought, he never shied away from naming what he hated and naming what he loved. He also never shied away from praising those he hated—such as Rousseau, or later, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson—and praising those he admired—such as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. In his hatred of all radicalism and liberalism, he proclaimed himself a conservative. Yet, while he admired a whole set of nineteenth-century anarchists, he disliked and berated populists.

In tearing down what he considered ill, however, he did not, as did most of his fellow conservatives of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, remain in the realm only of the critical. He could deconstruct something with the best of them, but he always offered alternatives. Yes, he hated the modern state, but he loved local community more than he hated the modern state. Unlike many conservatives then or now, he did not simply destroy and critique, he built and he encouraged. While we would be foolish to dismiss Nisbet’s arguments against Leviathan, we would be even more foolish to forget that with every criticism, the great man offered an alternative, something that—in its polycentric complexities—ordered society and allowed man to achieve his best.

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[1] Nisbet’s parents practiced a mix of Christian Scientism, Presbyterianism, and rationalism.

[2] The two best examinations of Nisbet’s view of the modern nation state are Robert G. Perrin, “Robert Nisbet and the Modern State,” Modern Age (Winter 1997): 39-47; and Brad Lowell Stone, Robert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000). Perrin, who was Nisbet’s close friend and student, posits a very anti-Statist Nisbet. Stone, however, downplays his anti-Statist aspects by focusing more on his desire to promote the building of communities. Of recent scholars working on Nisbet, most have focused on his more nuanced sociological views of developmentalism and have been much less interested in Nisbet’s cultural and political views. On Nisbet’s interest in developmentalism, see, to begin, Robert Nisbet, Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 3; and Robert Nisbet, The Making of Modern Society (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 84-85.

[3] Robert A. Nisbet, “Introduction,” to Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (1912; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1977), 14-15.

[4] Nisbet, “Introduction,” to Belloc, The Servile State, 24; and Nisbet, “Besieged by the State,” Harpers 286 (June 1984), 49.

[5] See, chronologically, Nisbet’s dissertation (1940); The Quest for Community (1953); Community and Power (1962); Tradition and Revolt (1968); The Social Bond (1970); Twilight of Authority (1975); The New Despotism (1976); Prejudices (1982); The Present Age (1988); and Roosevelt and Stalin (1988).

[6] Robert A. Nisbet to Russell Kirk, September 10, 1953, in Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, Mecosta, Michigan. Though scattered across the United States, Nisbet’s private correspondence and papers are well worth examining, revealing a man who continued to develop his profound intellect while becoming, socially, increasingly introverted. One may find his papers at the Library of Congress, Syracuse University, Penn State University, the University of Albany, Brigham Young University, Columbia University, the University of Rochester, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of California-Riverside.

[7] Scholars a generation or two older than Kirk and Nisbet, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, had argued the same regarding Rousseau. See, especially, Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919).

[8] Robert Nisbet, “The Social Group in French Thought,” dissertation, 1940, University of California, Berkeley, published by New York Times Books/Arno Press, 1980, pg. 69. See also Nisbet, “Rousseau and Totalitarianism,” Journal of Politics 5 (May 1943): 107.

[9] Nisbet, The Present Age (Harper and Row, 1988).

[10] All quotes regarding the Social Contract are from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed. and translated by Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge, ENG: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 49-51.

[11] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 126-127.

[12] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 140-141.

[13] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 125. On Rousseau’s State as synonymous with virtue, see Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 137.

[14] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 128.

[15] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 134.

[16] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 129.

[17] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 131.

[18] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 131.

[19] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 134.

[20] See, especially, Nisbet’s excellent “Burke’s Guide to Revolution,” Wall Street Journal (June 5, 1972), 12.

[21] Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999), 136-137.

[22] Burke, Reflections, 307.

[23] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. by Eduardo Nolla and trans. by James T. Schliefer (1835-1840; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2012) 2: 896.

[24] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 2: 900.

[25] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 2: 897.

[26] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 2: 899.

[27] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2: 901.

[28] Tocqueville, Democracy in America 2: 901.

[29] Nisbet, “Many Tocquevilles,” in The Making of Modern Society (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 157. On his growing hatred of the New Deal, see Robert Nisbet, “The Perversion of Our Values,” The Register (April 21, 1978) page D 15.

[30] Nisbet, The Quest for Community, 45.

[31] See, for example, Nisbet, “Citizenship: Two Tradition,” Social Research 41 (Winter 1974): 616.

[32] Nisbet, “Citizenship: Two Traditions,” 629-630.

[33] Nisbet, The New Despotism (Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies, 1976), 20ff; and Nisbet, “Cloaking the State’s Dagger,” Reason (October 1984), 42-45.

[34] Nisbet The New Despotism, 27; Nisbet, “War, Crisis, and Intellectuals,” Wall Street Journal (January 25, 1971), 10; and Nisbet, “The State,” in D.J. Enright, ed., Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 192ff. Nisbet’s review reflects, almost identically, those first proposed by Christopher Dawson in his Christianity and Sex (London: Faber and Faber, 1930) and T.S. Eliot in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948).

[35] Nisbet, The New Despotism, 31.

[36] Nisbet, for example, greatly admired Calvin Coolidge, something no respectable anarchist would do. “Most underrated: Calvin Coolidge. A monarch was known through most of Western history for the age he presided over. The 1920s is probably the single most resplendent age of culture the United States has known. In the novel, in poetry, drama, criticism, in music (jazz, blues, etc.) and art—if only in the motion picture. Coolidge has as much right to an ‘Age of Coolidge’ as Louis XIV or Elizabeth I had to theirs.” See, Robert Nisbet, “History/Charm, good looks often inflated ratings,” Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (July 3, 1988), D7. On Nisbet’s respect for several anarchist intellectuals, see Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (1975; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000), pp. 224-225.

[37] Nisbet, “Genius and Milieu,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 126 (1982): 446-447.

[38] Nisbet, “Dilemma of Conservatives in a Populist Society,” Policy Review (1978): 92.

[39] Nisbet, introduction to his own, Community and Power (New York: Galaxy Books, 1962).

[40] Nisbet, introduction to his own, Community and Power (New York: Galaxy Books, 1962).

[41] Nisbet, introduction to his own, Community and Power (New York: Galaxy Books, 1962).

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Artist and His Family” (1795) by James Peale (1749-1831), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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