The recent death of Robert Nisbet has removed from our midst one of the premier social thinkers of the century. His works, particularly The Quest for Community (1962) and The Sociological Tradition (1966), will be read as long as literate people consider the nature of human relations. Nisbet brought to his discipline both a rich historical sense and a justified anxiety about the modern state. He viewed the “national state” as an administrative mechanism run by social engineers and born and sustained by the breakdown of traditional community. And he saw the rise of this regime as being tied to another social crisis, the frenzied search among the uprooted for new forms of association and security. For Nisbet, this constituted the greatest danger of modern political life, the continued need for authority in a society that preached individual autonomy. This need for direction turned people toward redemptive political movements and encouraged the state’s attempt to socialize its subjects. Contrary to a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal which argued that the statists, after “making a mess of things economically,” have turned their “penetration point to the arena of family life,” Nisbet maintained that social democracy has always been primarily about social reconstruction. Those who support this patently intrusive system, he explained, are looking for control, not only social services.
Against these flights from freedom, Nisbet had little to offer, except sound warnings and prescriptions about “intermediate institutions.” Though he praised such institutions, the buffer he saw between isolated individuals, often colluding in their enslavement, and an encroaching state was never more, for him, than a last defense. Nisbet thought that the Western welfare state, with fortunes to spend and a monopoly of power, would probably continue to get its way. In the United States it would manage opposition by offering entitlements and by waging crusades against ideological enemies.
The compasses for his social thinking were the genteel skepticism of David Hume and the counterrevolutionary thought of the early 19th century. From these sources he drew his critical views about the superstition of rationalism and about plans to redo societies from the bottom up. Of all social doctrines that Nisbet criticized the one he found most absurd was the belief that individuals could be trained by the state to be autonomous. Men, explained Nisbet, replicating Hume’s critique of John Locke, had never existed outside of fairly constant social units; it was therefore highly doubtful that they could live in any other way or that our social existence until now was somehow unnatural. The state’s offer to help human beings rise above natural social groupings seemed to Nisbet a call for control, one whose advocates would apply force on behalf of a whimsical but far-reaching social project.
Nisbet singled out for praise the critics of the ideal of the socially autonomous and self-defining individual. But his respect for such critics and corresponding distaste for libertarians did not prove Frank Meyer’s passionately held view that Nisbet worshipped the state. The truth is more complex: Nisbet held organic authority to be essential for a stable and satisfying human existence, and he accused libertarians of weakening social resistance to the modern state by imitating its appeal to individual rights and pleasures. Despite this particular censure, it would be a mistake to consider Nisbet a friend of the welfare state. His published remarks on this subject are as vitriolic as those of Murray Rothbard.
It may be permissible for me to express my own considerable debt to Robert Nisbet, the scholar and the man. Whatever I have done in my own field would certainly have less value if his books had not come to my attention as a graduate student. And I studied them closely without knowing of Nisbet’s strong views about American politics. While he and I, as I later discovered, held generally the same political opinions, those opinions were not what drew me to his world of ideas. Though, like him, a conservative, I shared his appreciation of Marx and Emile Durkheim, both men of the left, whom he preferred to that dreary proto-liberal John Locke. Nisbet’s writings had in my case another long-rage effect: they led me toward social history and the history of sociology. Indeed they illustrated that one can be interested in both and respect traditional societies. This pairing of attitudes is also exemplified by the social anthropology of Grace Goodell, an admirer of Nisbet, but it might have taken me decades more to become aware of it if I had not encountered The Sociological Tradition.
Late in life, after I had met him, Nisbet wrote generously about my books and more than once worked to salvage my derailed academic career. What made these efforts particularly noteworthy is that by then he was gravely ill but gave no indication that his health was failing. No matter how afflicted he was, he sounded cheerful in phone conversations. And though an internationally honored author, an Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, and recipient of the Ingersoll Prize for Scholarly Letters, Nisbet spoke to his disciples as an equal. His lack of condescension was obvious to his acquaintances, though Bob’s friendliness never caused me to forget in whose shadow I stood. This always elegantly dressed, affable, and strikingly handsome gentleman looked as academic luminaries should but rarely do. He also bestowed on me and others lifelong ideas; and once while he was complimenting me for something I had published, I joked that he was only noticing what I had cribbed from him. “Go ahead and crib more!” was his jovial response. Those of us who learned from his genial mind will inevitably take that advice, calcando passus gigantis.