Robert A. Nisbet rooted his eleven ideas of conservatism in contributions from sociology as an academic discipline. Sociology, in contrast to liberalism and radicalism, had merely focused on the aspect of being social and had thus best reflected the more obscure aspects of nineteenth-century conservatism. That conservatism, though, reflected some of the most important concerns of humanity.
While most of us at The Imaginative Conservative would give Russell Kirk and his 1953 magnum opus, The Conservative Mind, primacy of place when considering the foundations of post-conservatism, Kirk did not, of course, create the movement in a vacuum. Somewhat famously, in The Conservative Mind, Kirk offered six canons—or tenets—to describe conservatism. Hoping vehemently to avoid the creation of conservatism as an ideology, he recognized that conservatism offered a way of existence based on dogma rather than on system. As some points, Kirk offered six tenets, but at other times the numbers fluctuated from a low of four to a high of ten. The first time Kirk offered his tenets was actually a year before The Conservative Mind appeared, describing four principles in the periodical, World Review. These included 1) “a moral view of the nature of society”; 2) the supremacy of the natural right of property above all other rights and against the threats of “leviathan business and leviathan union”; 3) the “preservation of local liberties, traditional private rights, and the division of power”; and 4) “national humility.” Taken together, Kirk called them, presumably with no small amount of irony, “a brief programme.”
In that same year, 1952, Robert A. Nisbet also published a list of conservative tenets, but he did so in an academic journal, The American Journal of Sociology, and he presented eleven different points of conservatism. Though it is extremely unlikely that Kirk or Nisbet read each other’s work, prior to 1953 (when they became close friends and intellectual allies), the similarities between Kirk’s definition and Nisbet’s definition are startling. Not surprisingly, Kirk’s definition is more poetically written, and Nisbet’s leans much more toward the language of the social sciences. Yet, despite these differences, there is far more in common than not, and it makes the present-day reader realize just how many minds and hands and souls it took to bring conservatism into being.
In his excellent article, “Conservatism and Sociology,” Nisbet rooted his eleven ideas in contributions from sociology as an academic discipline. After all, he stressed,
Sociology may be regarded as the first of the social sciences to deal directly with the problems of dislocation involved in the appearance of a mass society. Economics, political science, psychology, and anthropology long remained in the 19th century faithful to the precepts and perspectives of 18th-century rationalism. Sociology, however, from the very beginning, borrowed heavily from the insights into the society that such men as Burke, Bonald, and Hegel had supplied.
Correctly, Nisbet presumed that most of the social sciences had been shaped, rather dramatically, by radicalism, secularism, liberalism, and various ideologies. If anything, the nineteenth-century liberals and radicals had become rather smug in their assumptions.
All the major tendencies of European history—the factory system included—were widely regarded as essentially liberating forces. By them, men could be emancipated from the ancient system of status and from communities within which initiative and freedom were stifled. For most minds in the 19th century, conservatism, with its essentially tragic conception of history, its fear of the free individual and the masses, and its emphasis upon community, hierarchy, and sacred patterns of belief, seemed but one final manifestation of that past from which Europe was everywhere being liberated.
Sociology, in contrast to liberalism and radicalism, had merely focused on the aspect of being social—that is, man being in relationship—and had thus best reflected the more obscure aspects of nineteenth-century conservatism. That conservatism, though, reflected some of the most important concerns of humanity. “In the contextual ideas of history there are also conservative ideas,” he explained. “Such ideas status, cohesion, adjustment, function, norm, ritual, symbol, are conservative ideas not merely in the superficial sense that each has as its referent and aspect of society that is plainly concerned with the maintenance or conserving of order but in the importance sense that all these words are integral parts of the intellectual history of European conservatism.”
In almost every way, the neglected and minority position of conservatism in the nineteenth century had transformed into the dominant position of the twentieth century. Originally, Nisbet claimed in direct contrast to Kirk, real conservatism did not harken back to Socrates, but rather emerged in reaction to the horrors and confusions of the French Revolution. Indeed, it arose in direct response to the French Revolution, just as the revival of conservatism in the twentieth century emerged in direct response to the horrors and confusions of Communism and Fascism. Slowly, in the nineteenth century, the reaction took shape as a coherent school of thought. “An idea system which possesses no decisive importance in one generation or century frequently provides the materials of the dominant intellectual perspective of the generation or century following,” Nisbet explained. “Such is the historical significance of the idea system of conservatism.” Critically, then, “a historical structure of ideas, conservatism has received much less attention in the history of ideas then have individualism and rationalism, systems which so notably held the intellectual field in the 19th and early of 20th century, conservatism has come to exert a profound influence upon the contemporary mind.”
In the long run—meaning by 1952 for Nisbet—conservatism had proven its worth, for no respectable scholar or thinker of the 1950s thought only in terms of change and progress. Rather, by the middle of the twentieth century, he rightly focused on the needs of order—in the human soul and in the human community.
Today, we plainly find a radically different orientation. The major orientation is not change but order. Gone is the rationalist faith in the power of history to solve all organizational problems, and gone also is the rationalist myth of the autonomous, self-stabilizing individual. In the place of these older certainties there now lies a widespread preoccupation with phenomena of institutional dislocation and psychological insecurity. More than any other, it is the concept of the social group that has become central and contemporary sociology. As a concept it covers the whole set of problems connected with integration and disintegration, security and insecurity, adjustment and maladjustment.
All of this, Nisbet noted, contrasts dramatically with the more naïve claims to individuality as the sovereign center and unit of study.
Taken as a whole, he continued, the conservative of the nineteenth century identified three major areas of concern within human existence. First, the conservative had worried about the rise of the masses, “of populations relentlessly atomize socially and morally by the very economic and political forces which the liberals and radicals of the 19th century hailed as progressive.”
Second, the nineteenth-century conservative understood that with the rise of the masses, the individual would find himself (or herself) alienated from existence, “of widening aggregates of individuals rendered steadily more insecure and frustrated as the consequence of those moral and intellectual changes which the rationalist saw as leading to creative liberation from the net of custom.”
Finally, third, the conservative of two centuries ago recognized the great dangers posed by the rise of power as opposed to authority, “of monolithic power that arises from, and is nurtured by, the existence of masses of rootless individuals, turning with mounting desperation to centralized authority as a refuge from dislocation and moral emptiness.”
This essay is the first of two in Bradley J. Birzer’s “Robert Nisbet’s 11 Tenets of Conservatism” series.
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The featured image is The Conversation (c. 1935) Arnold Lakhovsky (1880–1937) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.