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Robert Nisbet, in direct contrast to Russell Kirk, argued that conservatism was purely a modern ideology. For Nisbet, the entire history of conservatism began as a reaction to the French Revolution…

When it came to the history of conservatism, the grand sociologist and man of letters, Robert Nisbet, disagreed with the mighty founder of modern conservatism, Russell Kirk. The two, however, not only admired the ideas of the other, but they also became fast friends from their first exchange of correspondence in the early 1950s. As if by providence rather than coincidence, their respective masterpieces, The Conservative Mind and The Quest for Community, each arrived on bookshelves in 1953, along with a number of allied books that augmented the formation of the conservative movement: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History; and Daniel Boorstin’s The Genius of American Politics.

Truly, 1953 was an annus mirabilis.

For Kirk, following the teachings of Irving Babbitt, conservatism transcended all specific manifestations of culture and could be readily found in places as diverse as Confucian China, Hindu India, ancient Greece, Stoic Rome, medieval England, and colonial America. Kirk saw conservatism as a natural longing to preserve the best of human thought as divined by, through, and across the slow process of the experience of humanity, tied to an omnipotent source of creation. Though Kirk made a convincing case for his vision of conservatism through a myriad of books, essays, and speeches, he never convinced even the majority of those identifying as conservatives that he was correct.

Nisbet, in direct contrast to Kirk, argued that conservatism was purely a modern ideology. For Nisbet, the entire history of conservatism began as a reaction to the French Revolution between the years 1790 through 1795. Perhaps even more dramatically, the entire beginning of conservatism as a modern ideology rested upon the mind, soul, and writings of one man—the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke. Though conservatism developed as a reaction to late eighteenth-century revolutionary and enlightenment thinking, Nisbet continued,it also reacted against the industrialization of England. Industrialization was, however, only and always a secondary inspiration for conservatism. Its primary cause was and always would remain the French Revolution. “All of the central tenets of conservatism are direct responses to the varied laws and decrees which issued forth from Revolutionary assemblies between 1790 and 1795 and which, to many minds, threatened the destruction of European society.”

Imaginative Conservative

Robert Nisbet

Nisbet, then, traced Burke’s conservatism into the nineteenth century, claiming that one could find equal parts of it in Alexis de Tocqueville’s republican Democracy in America and, probably rather surprisingly to readers of The Imaginative Conservative, in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anarchist What Is Property?. What all three—Burke, de Tocqueville, and Proudhon—shared in common was a fear of centralization of power and a love of natural association and community. The radicals of the French Revolution, in contrast, wanted nothing short of nationalism, collectivism, and the necessary destruction of all intermediary institutions.

Beginning with Burke as conservative touchstone, Nisbet claimed, one could readily find eight tenets of conservatism, culminating in a ninth that tied all of the previous eight together.

First, the primacy of religion in the life of any people. No mere accidental or materialist thing, religion, more than anything else, ties together natural associations and intermediary institutions, allowing and even encouraging virtue, ethical behavior, and trust. Second, the centrality of the natural two-parent family as not only pre-political but also as the basis of all stability in society.

Third, the need to recognize distinctions in human abilities, achievements, and excellence, all in direct opposition to the desire to homogenize and conform the human person.

Fourth, the understanding that property rights are not merely the rights to own land, but, even more importantly, to own one’s self. Nisbet also claimed that conservatism prized landed property, but, really, anything that was manifested tangibly as a result of human labor and creativity.

Fifth, that human persons find their identity only in relation to time, space, ancestors, friends, and neighbors.

Sixth, that all political power should devolve to the lowest and most immediate level possible—what Catholics would call subsidiarity.

Seventh, that laws should derive from tradition, habit, and custom, rather than the latter being formed by the former. As Burke put it, no law should exist that must be enforced only by its own terrors.

Eighth, closely related to number six, but certainly not identical, all national authority should possess “the highest possible degree of decentralization and diffusion of power.”

Finally, Nisbet wrote, claiming that his ninth point was really a summation of all of the previous eight points: “Separation of society from political state, that is, preservation of autonomy of society and its groups, along with the economy, from what Burke called ‘arbitrary power’ in the state.”

The danger of liberalism, classical or modern, Nisbet regretted, was and is that it saw and sees the individual, not the free association of individuals, as the primary determinant in society. Real power and liberty, he believed, could never come from any one person or the people as a whole, but rather as groups of individuals in competing and overlapping associations. Nisbet is worth quoting at length on this:

Unlike liberalism, conservatism gives stress to social authority, recognizing that apart from the checks supplied upon the moral and social lives of individuals, any genuine political freedom is impossible. The increasingly collectivist character of liberalism during the past century could have been predicted by any conservative, indeed was, in effect, by Burke. For, dealing with the discrete, atomized individual as classical liberalism did, and ignoring the importance of social groups and associations, it was inevitable that the liberal would in time have only the state to turn to, to meet the social problems arising from industrialism and mass democracy.

Though Nisbet labeled conservatism an “ideology,” there is nothing in his definition or the implications of conservatism as outlined above that a Russell Kirk would find disagreeable. Indeed, with Kirk, Babbitt, Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Willa Cather, and a host of other conservatives, liberalism—classical or modern—lacked the ability to imagine, that is, the ability to connect one thing to another, to see the mysterious bonds of brotherhood and friendship, to understand the nuance of family, or to appreciate the romantic notions of place and space.

Instead, these conservatives all believed that one could approach an understanding of society only in humility, only with trepidation, and self-consciously aware of the failings as well as the glories of the person, not the individual.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community is a marvelous book; a well-worn copy belongs on every conservative’s bookshelf.

  2. “…property rights are not merely the rights to own land, but, even more importantly, to own one’s self.”

    This is certainly not a conservative idea but a classical liberal notion that is opposed to a traditional (and certainly to a Christian) perspective.

    • Robert, thanks so much for the comment. I must admit, I’m not sure how a natural right to self is not Christian. Seems to be the most Christian thing in the world–each of us uniquely made in the image of Him. Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts. Yours, Brad

  3. Words cannot begin to tell how profoundly Nisbet’s THE SOCIAL PHILOSOPHERS has shaped my thinking, Particularly the chapters on “the Pluralist Community” & “the Ecological Community.” Chapters on “the Military” & “the Revolutionary Community” have often come to mind in recent years–particularly his borrowing of Gershom Scholem’s concept of “the Holiness of Sin” as a feature of the Revolutionary Community.

  4. Sorry, I should have been clearer.
    The classical liberal idea of “self-ownership” runs into problems from a Christian perspective. As Oliver O’Donovan puts it: Liberalism is “based on a projection that the individual is atomic and self-possessive. It’s as though I possess myself as a supreme bit of property. I own myself in this ultimate way, and I own my life, and every kind of social interrelation is a sort of negotiation between self-own, self-possessive barons, each with their barony trying to do trade-offs. This fails to get the real genius of human sociality right, the way we are actually created with and for one another from the ground up, something I think Christians have always been rather good at asserting.” Or, one might simply stick with St. Paul. See : 1 Cor 6:19-20, 1 Cor 15:22-23, Rom 8:9, to cite only a few relevant passages. Hope this helps.

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