In 1953, Robert Nisbet published “The Quest for Community,” a book that reveals to us that our own quest has become something both natural and unnatural. That is, it is natural to desire to belong, but it is horrifically unnatural in the ways we choose to commune.
1953 was a banner year for the conservative soul and intellect. Russell Kirk’s seminal The Conservative Mind came out that year. As did Leo Strauss’s pathbreaking Natural Right and History. Daniel Boorstin published his close study of Americana, The Genius of American Politics. Eliot penned his critical play, The Confidential Clerk, and Ray Bradbury offered the world Fahrenheit 451.
The zeitgeist had yet to exhaust her resources, however, and Robert Nisbet produced his magisterial The Quest for Community, a work that mightily complemented the other works of that year, almost, but not quite, forming a whole with Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Oxford University Press released Quest on February 12, 1953, exactly a month before Regnery published Kirk’s book.
Notes of admiration for Nisbet and his book arrived from Kirk, T.S. Eliot, Presbyterians, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Augustinian priests, vice presidents of major corporations (Nieman Marcus and GM), Jesuits, David Riesman, Reinhold Niebuhr, and numerous others. Reviews glowed with enthusiastic endorsements for this “invigorating” study. Even reviewers who criticized Nisbet for employing too much sociological vocabulary liked the book. Not atypically, the Boston Globe stated: “Perhaps this book is not for the ordinary reader—its sociologists’s jargon, ‘frames of reference,’ and the like, bothered me for a while, but the brilliant backward view of history and the clarity of analysis of what can lie ahead is worth the effort demanded.” Indeed, the paper continued, “Freedom demands alertness to the words of good guides, among whom Dr. Nisbet may be numbered.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch made a similar comment, claiming that, if anything, the author “over documents” his case and “labors his case.”
Still, whatever criticisms appeared upon the book’s initial publication, the book itself has had a long, long life, seeing new editions in 1961, 1970, 1990, and, most recently, in 2010. Each of these versions, though, is really just a reprint of the original, not a full revision as was the case of each subsequent edition of Kirk’s Conservative Mind. It was not, however, merely the right who liked the book.
No changes have been made in the text of the book for this printing. I do not mean to suggest that there are not changes I would make were I writing the book today. Such changes are inevitable: the product of time and circumstance, but chiefly one’s own development of thought. Any effort to incorporate these in a book written nearly twenty years ago would surely, however, be abortive. Far better, it seems to me, to leave the book with its imperfections rather than to try vainly to recapture the setting, mind, and mood from which the book originally sprang.
Yet, had Nisbet revised the book, he said, he would do three things very differently than he had with the original 1953 edition. First, he would write much more on the theme of alienation: alienation from the past; alienation from place; and alienation from things.” Second, he would give much greater analysis to the idea of natural authority as opposed to contrived power. Third and finally, he would have explored in much greater detail, the “wide diffusion of the ideology of centralized power.”
Though a quiet conservative academic leaning toward philosophical and political anarchism, Nisbet became a leading public intellectual through the success of Quest and presented a highly nuanced view of the individual, community, and history, thus allowing him to transcend normal ideological boundaries. As the New York Times reported in its obituary of Nisbet in 1996, the Quest for Community “became something of a cult classic among counterculture radicals.” Roughly twenty years later, though, the same periodical—through the good words of Ross Douthat—claimed the book to be “arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology.”
Transcending ideological differences, to be sure, Nisbet argued forcefully in all versions of the Quest for Community, the human person craves, seeks, and pursues community relentlessly. If he does not find his community in a subtle, organic, local manner—as revealed through the slow unveiling of tradition, especially in the English common law—he will create artificial and, often, gargantuan community. Since the breakdown of the medieval synthesis—in which all things held together through the unity of one faith in one God—the human person has become increasingly alienated from his rootedness in time and space. With the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, thinkers believed increasingly and emphatically that man’s true freedom came from his liberation from the past.
The eradication of old restraints, together with the prospect of new and more natural relationships in society, relationships arising directly from the innate resources of individuals, prompted a glowing vision of society in which there would be forever abolished the parochialisms and animosities of a world founded upon kinship, village, and church.
Many fought back, of course.
“The family, religious association, and local community”—these, the conservatives insisted, cannot be regarded as the external products of man’s thought and behavior; they are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct. Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions. Society, Burke wrote in a celebrated line, is a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Mutilate the roots of society and tradition, and the result must inevitably be the isolation of a generation from its heritage, the isolation of individuals from their fellow men, and the creation of the sprawling, faceless masses.
In each case, though, the opposition could only slow down the progress of degeneration, not stem it.
Sometimes unwittingly and sometimes with full intent, progressive thinkers sought to substitute the old notions of community—and dominate the separate spheres of religion, law, culture, neighborhood, faith, etc.—through the mass organization of the nation state. Thus, as many lost his ties to the old world, the new world increased its power in power, exponentially. As such, Nisbet claimed, there is little difference between the totalitarianisms of Nazism and communism on one hand and the soft totalitarianism of democracies on the other. One is brutal, and the other is subtle. The brutal one, not surprisingly, has taken on all the functions of a religion.
Marxism, like all other totalitarian movements in our century, must be seen as a kind of secular pattern of redemption, designed to bring hope and fulfillment to those who have come to feel alienated, frustrated, and excluded from what they regard as their rightful place in a community. In its promise of unity and belonging lies much of the magic of totalitarian mystery, miracle, and authority. Bertrand Russell has not exaggerated in summing up the present significance of Marxism somewhat as follows: dialectical materialism is God; Marx the Messiah; Lenin and Stalin the apostles; the proletariat the elect; the Communist party the Church; Moscow the seat of the Church; the Revolution the second coming; the punishment of capitalists in hell; Trotsky the devil; and the Communist commonwealth kingdom come.
Yet, Nisbet warned, soft totalitarianism can be just as insidious. He gave the example of the Manhattan Project as a fundamental incident in the history of the loss of community, substituted with something false.
What gave the Manhattan Project the possibility of success, not to mention the possibility of existing at all, with its many restrictions upon normal communication, with all its impersonality and enforced anonymity, was the deep moral compulsion of war, of participation in a spiritual crusade against the enemy. When the end of the war came, many of the demands of secrecy and depersonalization became nearly intolerable, leading in turn to disaffection and, if we may believe the testimony of some well-informed scientists, to a serious reduction in efficiency and achievement.
In many ways, Nisbet argued, totalitarianism is more effective in not only killing natural community but instituting false community as it is always blatant in its likes and dislikes, its hatreds and its favoritisms.
Regardless, all of human society is moving—seemingly in a world without end—toward conformity and dread sameness. Our quest, therefore, has become something both natural and unnatural. It is natural to desire to belong, but it is horrifically unnatural in the ways we choose to commune.
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