“No changes have been made in the text of the book for this printing,” Robert Nisbet wrote in his preface to the 1970 edition of The Quest for Community. Nor have changes been made in the new ICS Press edition, though it does carry a 13-page foreward by William A. Schambra that attempts to locate the central argument of Quest in the contexts of the intellectual climate of 1953, when the book was first published, and that of 1990. Almost forty years after the initial appearance of what ICS fairly calls a classic work, there remains not much to be said—from a mere reviewer’s point of view—about the intellectual and historical merits of its thesis, or about the general accuracy of its description of social, political, and intellectual developments in Western history over the past two millennia.

“The history of a society,” Robert Nisbet writes, “can be considered in many aspects. It can be seen in terms of the rise of democracy, the fall of aristocracy, the advance of technology, the recession of religion. It can be conceived, as Tocqueville conceived it, as the work of equality; as Acton considered it, as the work of freedom; or, in Bertrand Russell’s terms, as the story of power.” In the case of The Quest for Community, Nisbet’s perspective is closest to Lord Russell’s:

I believe that the greatest single influence upon social organization in the modern West has been the developing concentration of function and power of the sovereign political States. To regard the State as simply a legal relationship, as a mere superstructure of power, is profoundly delusive. The real significance of the modern State is inseparable from its successive penetrations of man’s economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances, and its revolutionary dislocations of established centers of function and authority. These, I believe, are the penetrations and dislocations that form the most illuminating perspective for the twentieth-century’s obsessive quest for moral certainty and social community and that make so difficult present-day problems of freedom and democracy. These are the essential subject matter of this book.

That was not a reading of history that the liberal and democratic powers, in the aftermath of great wars fought on behalf of “the more abundant life” and against “the totalitarian threat,” wanted to contemplate in the early 50’s, and nobody who has read—or will read—Professor Nisbet’s fine book can ever wonder at that fact. The largest and most immediate question raised by the appearance of the 1990 printing of The Quest for Community is, therefore, to what extent does it provide a reading of history that the United States of America—self-chastised, humiliated, and dilapidated in the ensuing four decades—is willing to contemplate today? It is a question that William Schambra ecstatically embraces, rushing in where angels fear to tread and politicians only speak.

If Mr. Schambra had chosen to write about the events in Eastern Europe during the past 18 months—about the aggressive puncturing of windbag “ideologies,” about the renewed empowerment of the Roman Catholic Church and the labor unions, about the liberation of ethnic sensibilities, and so forth—I would have been willing to agree with him that, since 1953, there has been some evidence that Western society has grown aware of the wrongness of the notion of the omnipotent and omnipresent state and that, yes, at present a kind of historical momentum has arisen against it. Instead, what I read is this:

President Reagan’s political career, for instance, was based on sentiments captured nicely in a speech from his 1976 campaign, in which he called for “an end to gigantism, for a return to the human scale—the scale that human beings can understand and cope with; the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church organization, the block club, the farm bureau. It is activity on a small, human scale that creates the fabric of community.” After becoming president, he continued to insist that “the renaissance of the American community, a rebirth of neighborhood—that is the heart and soul of rebuilding America.”


Similarly, George Bush repudiated the idea of national community in his vision of “a nation of communities, of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique . . . a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

At the time of this writing, the ethnic solidarity and loyalty of a minority—12 percent of the population, to be exact—is producing a national binge of emotional hysteria on behalf of a man whom one participant called “a dream for the human people,” but who is in fact the terrorist deputy leader of a Communist political party bent on destroying a civilization dating from the 17th century and replacing it with a monolithic totalitarian government instituted upon strictly racial principles. Also at this time, a U.S. Cabinet official was booed and otherwise harassed in San Francisco by an organized group representing a highly oral minority whose differences from the majority have to do with the sensual pleasure they derive from releasing gerbils and other foreign bodies into their (excretive deleted). Days later, their behavior was recognized and rewarded by the national government in Washington, when joint congressional conferees on a civil rights bill decided that it should be illegal to permit businesses in all 50 states and the District of Columbia not to employ as food handlers people who engage in such practices.

It is true that, since the 1960’s, all kinds of associational, interstitial, mediative, and even centrifugal groups have either arisen or declared themselves in the United States; it is also true that the American State, acting from Washington, has done its damnedest to co-opt them all to its leviathan purpose and that, for the most part, it has succeeded in doing so. Robert Nisbet is certainly correct in deploring the fatalism of Western intellectuals, who believe that whatever is truly “modern” is also inevitable. On the other hand, history does acquire a momentum of its own. That momentum has been slacked, at least for the short term, in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, in the U.S., my tax bill is about to go up in order to keep bright those thousand points of light, all of them held in careful orbit so that, like Telestars, they may be in sweet and unbroken communication with the gigantic monitoring station on Capitol Hill.


[The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press) 272 pp., $10.95]