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September 5, 2000

The Under-Appreciated Robert Nisbet

by Joseph Stromberg


The work of the late Robert Nisbet (1913-1996), conservative and sociologist, still goes unappreciated by many people, libertarians among them, who could learn much from it. At a time when most practitioners of the sociological arts were, at best, bureaucratic liberals, if not outright Marxists and commies, it was remarkable that there were any conservative sociologists at all. When some of those bureaucratic liberals were "mugged" by the New Left and began calling themselves conservatives, things became rather confused. Such "conservatives" wanted to conserve state-worship, order, and the American empire.

Nisbet, who believed in order and liberty, professed a different kind of conservatism, if that is even the best word for it. Like some other right-wing scholars who came to maturity during World War II – one thinks of Richard M. Weaver and Russell Kirk – Nisbet had a real sense of what happens to genuine community, social order, and freedom when the state takes off on some project of world-improvement, unification, or social engineering. Unlike the bureaucratic liberals, who thought the Good War proved that government could and should do anything and everything to make life better – unintended consequences being waived for the moment, or for several decades at a time – Nisbet was never a friend of centralization, militarism, and absolutism, whether royalist or democratic.


Nisbet's first important work, The Quest for Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969 [1953]) was a defense of real, rooted communities against centralizing, democratic, bureaucratic statism. Like Tocqueville before him, Nisbet regretted the modern state's ongoing demolition of those "intermediate social institutions" – family, church, friendly societies – which gave color and meaning to human social life. Absent those institutions, "loose individuals" became more and more dependent on politicians and bureaucrats for their survival. It goes without saying that such "individualism" was part of the problem and not the key to restoring freedom.

This does not, of course, make Nisbet a "communitarian" in the fashionable Bill and Hillary sense. Were he here, he would doubtless pour scorn and irony all over the notion of federal programs to create community, much as he denounced the anti-conservative militarism of the Reagan gang when they were in power.

Genuine privacy was a key to liberty and community. Nisbet writes: "'All freedom,' wrote Lord Acton, 'consists in radice in the preservation of an inner sphere exempt from State power.' The political mystic may boggle at this, but the proposition is, when amended to include any type of power, political or other, irrefutable. Both freedom and the desire for freedom are nourished within the realization of spiritual privacy and among privileges of personal decision. Apart from these, any structure of authority becomes almost limitless in its scope" (p. 246).


Nisbet developed his understanding of society and history in Tradition and Revolt (New York: Vintage Books, 1966) and Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). The former book continues his assault on the state-created "individualism," which always allies itself with political power and against natural, local social organization. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his modern bureaucratic liberal successors come in for a bit of a drubbing. Rousseau, indeed, is Nisbet's bête noire - and rightly so. Corruption of the so-called "behavioral sciences" by government is the subject of one essay, "Project Camelot and the Science of Man." By taking federal money, the good gray social scientists commit themselves to the state's agenda, thereby fulfilling the traditional role of the court intellectual (to use Murray Rothbard's term). The scientists discovered, for example, "that the Viet Cong frequently travel in village groups, with women and children along, and that they eat their meals at fixed times of the day. This intelligence… made possible easier exterminatory actions by American forces" (p. 254, my emphasis). Aside from the waste of money – ordinary military scouts could have learned as much – there was the small matter of the "ethical aspects" of academic participation in the state's projects of organized violence.

The latter book, Social Change and History, stands out because of Nisbet's denial of directional laws of historical change in human society. Bit by bit, he pulls down the leaning tower of progress – whether evolutionist, functionalist, or Marxist – until nothing is left but a 19th-century misunderstanding of how things work. Yes, there is society and, yes, there is change, but change is more likely to result from accident, trade, intrusions, war, and other discrete events than from immediately intelligible "laws" inherent in the social process. In the end, the inevitability of progress through bureaucratic management lies in shambles, and the unintended consequences of that ideology loom larger.


"But what has all this to do with our usual topics, war, peace, and empire?" you might well ask. Quite a lot, as it turns out, as shown by Nisbet's The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). The book starts from the premise, credited to Max Weber, that "war and the barracks life of warriors [are] the true cause of communism. War communism precedes, indeed gives birth to, civil communism" (p. 6). Quick, someone tell the Republican Party hierarchy, if they're not too busy putting on further displays of military brutalism.

The French Revolution, which liberated individuals and made them all equal in the face of the abstract state, made them all equally into cannon fodder, and set Western history on its two-century path of militarism and democratic/bureaucratic egalitarianism. US participation in the process led to a number of debilitating myths – "Can Do, Know How, and No Fault, myths which abide to this minute in American and yield up such disasters as Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon, and Grenada" (p. 17). These paralleled the notion of "America the Redeemer Nation" and the long-established idea of American "exceptionalism." Actually, it seems to me that we had been somewhat exempt from the perils of Old World history until our leaders, finding our happy state too bloody boring for words, plunged us into competition for empire and Weltmacht.

The great villain in bringing America the joys of military and civil communism, or "statism" for those who shy away from red-baiting, was in Nisbet's view, none other than Woodrow Wilson, "the patriarch of American foreign policy moralism and interventionism" (p. 30). Those who fret about Joe McCarthy's persecution of a few Stalinists ought to read Nisbet's account of a real reign of terror, i.e., Wilson's domestic repression of 1917-1918 (pp. 42-50). He writes: "Not Britain, not France, not the hated Germany had the kind of dictatorial power vested in any one figure or office that the United States did shortly after American participation in the war began" (p. 44). Further: "The blunt fact is that when under Woodrow Wilson America was introduced to the War State in 1917, it was introduced also to what would later be known as the total, or totalitarian state" (p. 45). In this light, I think we can quit dwelling on Wilson's un-PC racial views or his reaction to the film The Birth of a Nation, and focus on more important matters.

Wilson's grandiose and inevitably self-frustrating program of world-improvement through military/political means was passed on to his successors, such as FDR and Ronald Reagan. I told you Nisbet was no militarized, kennel-fed conservative. No, indeed. He echoes Eisenhower's critique of the Military-Industrial-(University)-Complex and expresses skepticism that the Cold War had ever required the enormous budgets and programs undertaken in its name.

Nisbet devotes a long chapter, "The New Absolutism," to the domestic consequences of imperial foreign policy, and another long chapter, "The Loose Individual," to the social consequences of aggravated statism at home and abroad. Back in the 1970s, the late Murray Rothbard complained that libertarians are at a disadvantage relative to the Marxists. The Marxists, after all, can blame everything wrong with society on "capitalism," but we can't blame everything on statism. I won't say Rothbard was wrong, but I will say that as more and more decay, collapse, and social implosion confront us, the finger points one way and one way only. Nisbet's body of work is a very good place in which to begin the study of the process.


Ivan Illich used to write about "iatrogenic diseases" – those caused by the physician allegedly curing them. For the last century or so, states have posed as the Great Healers of Mankind. They now stand revealed as quacks and witch doctors. Perhaps we should consider cutting their pay or just plain firing them. My prescription: take two aspirin, don't call me in the morning, and don't vote. As the slogan says, it only encourages them.

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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