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Default Gary North: Nisbet vs. Plato and Rousseau

Nisbet vs. Plato and Rousseau

by Gary North

Recently by Gary North: Nisbet on Messianic War

Is civil government the only true government? Does it alone possess legitimate sovereignty? Defenders of the modern state insist that this is the case, and that it should be the case.

Robert Nisbet, as a sociologist, looked to social organizations as the source of political tradition. He explained the rise of the modern state in terms of series of conflicts between the national civil government and other institutions inside its geographical territory. He saw the rise of the modern state in terms of the state's claims of sovereignty, a sovereignty which it refused to share with other institutions. These other institutions had possessed limited sovereignty. He also explained the rise of classical Athens in terms of this insistence on state sovereignty. He explained the Roman Empire under Augustus and later emperors in terms of this quest for unitary state sovereignty: a war-state.

The state claims to be absolute. In The Quest for Community (1953), he wrote:

Like the family, or like capitalism, the State is a complex of ideas, symbols, and relationships. Unlike either kinship or capitalism, the State has become, in the contemporary world, the supreme allegiance of man and, in most recent times, the greatest refuge from the insecurities and frustrations of other spheres of life. Where capitalism has become enveloped throughout the Western world, and the East as well, in a thickening cloud of distrust and renunciation, and where kinship, like religion, has become increasingly devoid of institutional significance and symbolic appeal, the state has risen as the dominant institutional force in our society and the most evocative symbol of cultural unity and purpose (p. 92, ISI edition, 2010).

In this, war is central. "If there is any single origin of the institutional State, it is in the circumstances and relationships of war. The connection between kinship and family, between religion and the Church, is no closer than that between war and the state in history" (p. 93).


What is the meaning of sovereignty? It is the lawful, legitimate authority to invade all rival institutions, and to be immune to invasion by them. In modern thought, it is possessed only by the State. In this sense, the state possesses what in earlier eras in the West would have been identified with God. But God's sovereignty was assumed to be delegated to legitimate institutions: the family and the church. It is also delegated to the individual. The state's sovereignty is not delegated, except under stress. He cited the most influential liberal columnist in America, Walter Lippmann, who wrote in 1929,

A state is absolute in the sense which I have in mind when it claims the right to a monopoly of all the force within the community, to make war, to make peace, to conscript life, to tax, to establish and disestablish property, to define crime, to punish disobedience, to control education, to supervise the family, to regulate personal habits, and to censor opinions. The modern state claims all of these powers, and, in the matter of theory, there is no real difference in the size of the claim between communists, fascists, and Democrats. There are lingering traces in the American constitutional system of the older theory that there are inalienable rights which government may not absorb. But these rights are really not inalienable for they can be taken away by constitutional amendment. There is no theoretical limit upon the power of ultimate majorities which creates civil government. There are only practical limits. They are restrained by inertia, and by providence and even by goodwill. But ultimately and theoretically they claim absolute authority as against all churches, associations, and persons within their jurisdiction (p. 95).

The issue is immunity from state sovereignty. A declaration of such immunity is a declaration of legitimate sovereignty. The state denies all such declarations. Nisbet wrote,

The modern State is monistic; its authority extends directly to all individuals within its boundaries. So-called diplomatic immunities are but the last manifestation of a larger complex of immunities which once involved a large number of internal religious, economic, and kinship authorities. For administrative purposes the State may deploy into provinces, departments, districts, or "states," just as the army divides into regiments and battalions. But unlike the army, a modern State is based upon a residual unity of power. The State may occasionally delegate or place, as it were, in trusteeship certain powers, but anyone familiar with the processes of modern government, democratic or totalitarian, knows that it does this rarely and reluctantly. The extraordinary unity of relationship in the contemporary State, together with its massive accumulation of effective functions, makes the control of the state the greatest single goal, or prize, in modern struggles for power. Increasingly the objectives economic and other interest associations become not so much the preservation of favored immunities from the State as the capturing or directing of the political power itself (pp. 95-96).

Under the state, a form of capitalism emerged. We think of this system as the only form of capitalism. Historically, it has been, but there is nothing inherent in private property and trade to mandate a particular form of capitalism.

The State's development of a single system of war, sanctioned by military power, to replace the innumerable competing laws of the guild, Church, and feudal principalities; its deliberate cultivation of trade in the hinterland; its standardized systems of coinage, weights, and measures; its positive subsidies and protections to those new businessmen who were seeking operate outside the framework of guild and Church; its creation of disciplined State workhouses – all provided a powerful political stimulus to the rise of capitalism (p. 97).

Then what of individual rights? This was not a major concern in the medieval era. Why not? Because the individual's rights were defended by institutions other than the civil government.

In the medieval world there was relatively little concern with positive, discrete rights of individuals, largely because of the differences of political power and the reality of innumerable group authorities. But when the consolidation of national political power brought with it a destruction of many of the social bodies within which individuals had immemorially lived in taken refuge, when, in sum, law became a more centralized and impersonal structure, with the individual as its unit, the concern for positive, constitutionally guaranteed rights of individuals became urgent. European governments may have sought often, and successfully prolonged periods, to resist claims of individual right, but it is hard to miss the fact that states (England, for example) which became the most successful, economically as well as politically, had the earliest constitutional recognition of individual rights, especially property. In retrospect, however, we see that it was the sheer impact of the State upon medieval custom and tradition, with the consequent atomizing and liberating effects, that, more than anything else, precipitated the modern concern with positive individual rights (p. 99).

This raises the crucial question: Which rights were protected by medieval institutions, and which were not? Remember, "rights" mean "legal immunities from governments." It means the right of self-government.


The modern adult is a citizen. What does this word mean? In the Middle Ages, it meant that he was the resident of a town: citizen as in city. A peasant under a manorial lord was not a citizen. He was a subject.

In the Middle Ages, the citizen was literally the inhabitant of a free town. His status under the king, however, was that of subject. The two statuses were sharply distinguished then, and even at the end of the sixteenth century, in the writings of Bodin, we may see the continuation of this distinction. But in the modern history of politics, especially since the Age of Revolutions, the clear tendency has been for the terms citizen and subject to become virtually synonymous. The frame of reference has changed from the town to the nation as a whole, and the citizen is the atom-unit of the political association of the State. But in the modern concept of citizenship there inheres not merely the medieval idea of free status but also the idea of subjection to sovereign political power (p. 100).

A citizen today is the subject of the state. He is the subject of no one else. This liberates him from older allegiances, but it leaves him at the mercy of the state. He receives no support from rival sovereignties, for there are none. "It would be impossible to exaggerate the role of conflict between political power and the social group in the development of modern ideas of sovereignty, freedom, rights, and equality which together form the idea system of the Western State" (p. 100).

In modern terminology, this is a war over turf. The state claims sovereignty. This means total sovereignty over turf. All other claims are dismissed as illegitimate.

The real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between State and individual, but between State and social group. What Maitland once called the "pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history" has been one of the most vivid aspects of the social history of the modern West, and it has been inseparable from the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political State and the social associations intermediate to it and the individual. The conflict between central political government and the authorities of guild, village community, class, and religious body has been, of all conflicts in history, the most fateful. From this conflict have arisen most of the relocations of authority and function which have formed the conflicts of decline of medieval communalism and the emergence of both individual and central political power (pp. 100-1).


In the standard textbooks, the state is presented as a liberating force. It removes the jurisdictions of other institutions over individuals. But this leads to a monopoly of force. There is no other institution to defend the individual. He may be granted rights – legal immunities – by the state, but these may be repealed at any time. This was not true in 1250. "To compare the position of the political power of the State in the thirteenth century with that power today is to realize that fundamental among all the emancipation's modern history has been emancipation of the State from the restrictive network of religious, economic, and moral authorities that bound it at an earlier time" (p. 101). The individual has been emancipated from other jurisdictions, but so has the nation-state.

Nisbet then cited Lord Acton, who is famous for this aphorism: "All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Lord Acton stated this superbly in his History of Freedom. "The modern theory, which has swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it . . . condemns as a State within a State every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, if emancipated the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. . . . It recognizes liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of limited command" (pp. 103-4).

Acton saw this in terms of the quest for power, consolidated in a single institution: civil government. He did not trust it.

Nisbet saw this in terms of a revival of Roman law. This was far more pronounced on the continent than in England, although Nisbet did not mention this. He knew it, however. He had read Maitland, the great historian of the common law, which in theory is judge-discovered law. "In all this the realignment doctrines of Roman rule performed a major function. The source of monarchical aspirations toward centralized power may have been in military necessity and the desire for increased revenue, but the rationalization of such aspirations was commonly drawn from the texts of Roman law (p. 104). Roman law was enacted by a legislator. "The Roman doctrine of concession asserted in effect that all groups were dependent upon the will of the state for the exercise of their functions and authorities. Groups existed, so to speak, only in the legal contemplation of the sovereign. This was a revolutionary doctrine indeed" (p. 104).


Classical Athens moved from decentralization and pluralism to the sovereignty of the state.

In ancient Athens, as [Alfred] Zimmern has pointed out, "what we have to watch is the gradual snapping of the lesser loyalties which formed the intermediate links between the state of the individual, till the citizen stands, free and independent, face-to-face with the City." The conflict between the central government and historic loyalties to clan and tribe was one of the decisive processes of Athenian history. This conflict was apparent in the circumstances leading up to the reforms of Solon, but it was a major factor determining the reforms of the great Cleisthenes. In his desire to centralize political power and to create a scene more favorable to military and economic demands, Cleisthenes was led, toward the end of the six century B.C., to the abolishment of dominant kinship structures as significant legal entities (p. 105).

The great promoter of this was Plato. Nisbet's entire intellectual career can be accurately seen as a revolt against Plato and Plato's intellectual heir, Rousseau. "The problem for Plato, as it was to be the problem for Rousseau two thousand years later, was that of discovering the conditions within which the absolute freedom of the individual could be combined with the absolute justice of the state" (p. 106).

Plato's a solution of the problem was radical. It was nothing less than the extermination of all forms of social and political loyalty which would, by their mere existence, constitute distractive influences upon the individuals and divisive allegiances within the total community of the state itself. "The zeal of the state had come upon Plato," [Sir Ernest] Barker has written, "and had come as a fire to consume whatever was not of the State. A fire will not stop at exceptions, and these exceptions to the organic unity of the State he could not brook. . . . The whole system of Platonic communism is meant to set the individual free of everything which prevents him from taking his right place in the scheme of the state: it is designed to secure those conditions – in other words, to guarantee those rights – which are necessary to the positive discharge of his function in that scheme."

In Plato's view there is inevitable and intolerable conflict when the allegiances of man are plural. Plurality and diversity must therefore have no place in the ideal State. Unity is the condition both of order and genuine freedom. The existence of autonomous economic and social associations can lead only to social disorder, to paralyzing conflict in the consciousness of the individual, and to continuous subversion of the unity of life in society which Plato prized. Plato's hostility is directed, then, not against the individual as such but against the social group. His distrust of the autonomous family is matched his fear of an independent or private religion, and of an independent art, music, and education. All membership and cultural activity must be related closely and continuously to the monistic political community (p. 107).

Plato wrote in the aftermath of the war with Sparta, started by Athens, and which Athens lost.

The state is about war.

In historical terms the State is the outgrowth of war. In its earliest form, everywhere, it is essentially a military organization. But it does not long remain a purely military association. For the consolidation of authority and the gaining of revenue necessary to military effectiveness inevitably bring political power into conflict with other associations that lay claim to obedience and property. The State may conflict now with the clan, now with the church, now with class, or village community, or guild, or university, depending on necessities inherent in the historical situation (p. 110).

Politics is about the assimilation of functions by the civil government. The nation-state replaces all intermediate authorities as the final sovereign. "But always in the history of politics, in one degree or another, we see the conflict that is created necessarily by the existence, on the one hand, of associations, local, sectional, or functional, each claiming limited jurisdiction over its members, and, on the other, an association that identifies itself with all persons in a given territory and seeks to consolidate all important authorities within that territory" (p. 110).

When men accept the state's claim that it is the only sovereign, the only agency possessing the mark of government – denying legal immunity from all other agencies – they become vulnerable to the tender mercies of the state. They have no higher earthly court of appeal. The state claims to be the only legitimate government. It uses coercion to enforce its claim. The citizen, now emancipated from all rival claims of authority, no longer has access to rival courts.


Nisbet's first academic publication was "Rousseau and Totalitarianism," which was published in 1943. He reprinted it as chapter 1 of Tradition and Revolt (1968). He hated Rousseau and everything he stood for: the creation of a messianic state, the suppression of local associations, and the suppression of the liberties of men in the name of the General Will. Above all, he hated Rousseau's view of sovereignty, which was exclusively political. "By far the most rigorous and revolutionary theory of sovereignty is that of Rousseau" (p. 130).

Why is Rousseau important? Because "Rousseau is the first of the modern philosophers to see in the State a means of resolving the conflicts, not merely among institutions, but within the individual himself. The state becomes the means of freeing man from the spiritual uncertainties and hypocrisies of traditional society" (p. 130).

Two entities dominate Rousseau's thought: the individual and the State. In his mind they are simultaneously sovereign and, together, the only basis of a just human order. The result is the confluence of a radical individualism on the one hand and an uncompromising authoritarianism on the other. The parallel existence of these strands of thought in Rousseau's works has been the basis of numerous charges of inconsistency, charges which are, however, not true (p. 131).

This is man stripped of all rival loyalties. He is the citizen of a unitary state. "The traditional bonds of society, the relationships we generally speak of his social, or the ties that to Rousseau symbolize the chains of existence. It is from these he desires to emancipate the individual; their gross inequalities he desires to replace with a condition of equality approximating as nearly as possible the state of nature" (p. 132).

Then what is the civil government? It is an agency of redemption, both individual and corporate.

Its mission is to effectuate the independence of the individual from society by securing the individual's dependence on itself. The State is the means by which the individual can be freed of the restrictive tyrannies that compose society. It is the agency of emancipation that permits the individual to develop the latent germs of goodness heretofore frustrated by a hostile society. . . . The State is thus of the essence of man's potential being, and far from being a check upon his development, it is the sole means of that development. Through the power of the State, man is spared the strife and tyranny that arise out of his selfish and destructive passions. But in order to emerge from the dimensions of society, and to abide in the spiritual piece of the state, there must be "an absolute surrender of the individual, with all of his rights and all of his powers, to the community as a whole" (p. 133).

The State alone provides community. But this community is exclusively political.

The mystic solidarity that Rousseau preaches is not, however, the solidarity of the community existing by custom and unwritten law. The social community, as it existed in the thought of Thomas Aquinas or, later, in the theory of Althusius, is a community of communities, an assemblage of morally integrated minor groups. The solidarity of this community arises out of the moral and social observances of the minor groups. Its unity does not result from being permeated with sovereign law, extending from the top through all individual components of the structure. Rousseau's community however, is a political community, one indistinguishable from the State and sharing all the uniform material qualities of the State. It is, in his mind, a moral unity, but it is a unity conferred by the sovereign will of the State and directed by the political government. Thus the familiar organic analogy is used to indicate the unitary structure of his political community. The same centralization of control existing in the human body must dominate the structure of the community; unity is conferred by the brain, which in Rousseau's analogy represents the sovereign power. The General Will is the analog of the human mind, and as such must remain is unified and undiversified as the mind itself (pp. 133-34).

This is a redemptive religion. It allows no rival religions.

A socially independent church, like any form of nonpolitical loyalty, would constitute an interference with the functioning of the General will. It would represent a flaw in the spiritual unity Rousseau prized so highly in his political order. It would not do to repress the religious propensities of man, for "as soon as men come to live in civil society they must have a religion to keep them there. No nation has ever endured wherever willing to work without religion." But, argues Rousseau, it is not enough that a nation should have a religion. The religion must be identified, in the minds of the people, with the values of national life, else it will create disunity and violate the General will. It is not enough that a religion should make good men; it must make good citizens. Religion has a responsibility towards civic or political pins before any others. It must reflect, above all, the essential unity of the State and find its justification in the measures it takes to promote that unity (pp. 136-37).

Then there is the family.

Hardly less than religion the family itself, as a corporate entity, must be radically adjusted to meet the demands of the General Will. Morality is essentially a specific condition, and without citizens there can be no virtue. "Create citizens, and you have everything you need." To form the citizens is not the work of the day, nor is it a responsibility that can be left idly to the influences of traditional society. The unitary state calls a remodeling of human nature so that there shall be no irritants to the body politic. "He who possesses the courage to give a people institutions, must be ready to change human nature, to transform every individual, who by himself is a complete and separate whole, into a part of a greater whole from which this individual in a certain sense receives his life and character; to change the constitution of man in order to strengthen it, and to substitute for the corporeal and independent existence which we all have received from nature a merely partial and moral existence" (pp. 138-39).

Education is the task of the state, not the family. Nisbet quoted Rousseau.

Should the public authority, in assuming the place of father and charging itself with this important function, acquire his rights in the discharge of his duties, he should have a little cause to protest; for he would only beach altering his title, and would have in common, under the name citizen, the same authority over his children, that he was exercising separately under the name father, and would be no less obeyed when speaking in the name of the law then when he spoke in that nature (p. 139).

For Rousseau, the state is the source of morality. The state can redeem mankind. He quoted Rousseau. "If you would hand the General Will accomplish, bring all the particular wills into conformity with it; in other words, as virtue is nothing more than this conformity of the particular wills to the General Will, establish the reign of virtue" (p. 141). Nisbet then summarized the implications of this statement.

Establish the reign of virtue! This was the moral imperative that was to capture the visions of men of good will everywhere in nineteenth-century Western Europe. But establish it how? Establish it to the sovereign power of the State! Man is born free and good, yet everywhere he lies fettered and corrupt, the product of repressive institutions. Not through kinship, class, church, or association can man be freed, for these are the very chains upon his existence. Only by entering into the perfect State and subordinating himself completely to its collective will will it be possible for man to escape the torments and insecurities and dissensions of ordinary society. The redemptive power of the sovereign State – this was Rousseau's burning slogan for the modern world (p. 142).

Rousseau became the political theorist most respected during the French Revolution. That revolution attempted to enforce the unity and solidarity that Rousseau proclaimed.


When the civil government alone is believed to possesses sovereignty – legal immunity from government invasion – freedom is left without institutional defenses. When the state is widely accepted as the only legitimate form of government, it will extend its power into every nook and cranny of human life. There will be nothing to stop it – no theory of countervailing authority.

In a great scene in A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More challenges another man's view of law. The other man invokes God's law. But what More says applies as well to all laws and immunities possessed by governments other than civil government, and especially the laws of the nation-state. What happens if these immunities are swept away by the state?
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Old 06-09-2013, 05:29 PM   #2
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Nisbet on Messianic War

by Gary North

Recently by Gary North: Encryption and Privacy: Goodbye Copyright Laws

"The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the twentieth century." – Robert A. Nisbet (1953).

From his first book in 1953 until his final book on social theory in 1988, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet warned against war as the destroyer of both social stability and liberty. He viewed war as the social force above all forces in society that can lead, and has led, to the centralization of the state, which has made mass politics possible. It undermines men's faith in local associations, which therefore undermines the cultural pluralism and localism that retard centralization and bureaucratization.

Oxford University Press published The Quest for Community in 1953. Its subtitle was A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. The book was published early in the Cold War. He finished the manuscript in 1952. In 1952, the United States detonated the first H-bomb. In 1952, the truce which ended the Korean War in 1953 had not been signed. Josef Stalin was still alive when he wrote it; he died in 1953. Joseph McCarthy was gaining influence. The conservative movement was, more than anything else, an extension of the anti-Communist movement. The nation had just elected a general to be President.

There was a free market side of the conservative movement. F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom appeared in 1944. It was condensed in the Reader's Digest in 1945. Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson appeared in 1946. Ludwig von Mises' Human Action appeared in 1949. But it was not this intellectual stream which caught the attention and widespread support of conservatives in 1953. It was the anti-Communist crusade.

This is why Nisbet's book seemed unlikely to become a foundation stone in the development of the conservative intellectual movement in America. It appeared in the same year that Russell Kirk's Conservative Mind appeared. Prior to 1953, there was no intellectual conservative movement in the United States. Nisbet in 1952 had never heard of Kirk. Hardly anyone had heard of Nisbet.

Nisbet's book remains in print, six decades later, published since 2010 by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which was founded in 1953 as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. The ISI was an early attempt to create intellectual leadership for the fledgling movement. It was co-founded by William F. Buckley and libertarian Frank Choderov.

Nisbet began his public criticism of the modern warfare state in 1953. His final book on social theory began with a criticism of the Pentagon as a betrayal of limited government. This was in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall went down, three years before the Soviet Union committed suicide. The world had lived under the threat of nuclear war the entire time. The fall of the USSR in December 1991 served as the headstone of the French Revolution, the movement that Nisbet had spent his entire academic career criticizing for its totalitarianism. The totalitarian impulse was alive and well in 1953.


Nisbet's book was an explanation of the rise of totalitarian political movements. In chapter two, he wrote these words.

Contemporary prophets of the totalitarian communities seek, with all the techniques of modern science at their disposal, to transmute popular cravings for community into a millennial sense of participation in heavenly power on earth. When suffused by popular spiritual devotions, the political party becomes more than a party. It becomes a moral community of almost religious intensity, a deeply evocative symbol of collective, redemptive purpose, a passion that implicates every element of belief and behavior in the individual's existence (OUP ed., p. 33).

Nisbet was an anti-Communist. But he was an anti-Communist who saw deeply into the foundations of human psychology that lead people to become Communists.

The evidence is strong that the typical convert to communism is a person for whom the processes of ordinary existence are morally empty and spiritually insupportable. His own alienation is translated into the perceived alienation of the many. Consciously or unconsciously he is in quest of secure belief in solid membership in an associative order. Of what avail or proofs of the classroom, semantic analyses, and logical exportations to this kind of human being? So long as he finds belief and membership in his Marxism he will no more be dissuaded by simple adjuration then would the primitive token list.

Until we see that communism offers today, for many people, something of the inspired mixture of community and assertive individuality offered two thousand years ago in the cities of the Roman Empire, by the tiny but potent Christian communities, we shall be powerless to combat it. It will not be exorcised by the incantations of individualism, for, paradoxical as it may seem, in the Communist Party community, the individual is constantly supported by feelings of almost millennial personal freedom (pp. 34-35).

By the time Nisbet wrote these words, a series of autobiographies by former communists had found a wide audience. The most famous of them was Whittaker Chambers' 1952 book, Witness, but there were many others. Within the liberal community, The God That Failed (1949) was the favorite. The authors had remained leftists. But all of the defectors spoke of similar experiences. They had been given meaning in their lives as members of a political movement which they believed to be redemptive. The redemption was not just personal; it was social.

Nisbet wrote: "The greatest appeal of the totalitarian party, Marxist or other, lies in its capacity to provide a sense of moral coherence and communal membership to those who have become, to one degree or other, victims of the sense of exclusion from the ordinary channels of belonging in society" (p. 37) On the next page, he began his critique of war.

The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the twentieth century. In war, innumerable activities that normally seem onerous or empty of significance take on new and vital meaning. Function and meaning tend to become dramatically fused in time of war (p. 38).

He went on to describe the emotional impact of war.

One of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade. War is no longer simply an affair of military establishments and matériel and soldiers. It is now something more nearly akin to the Crusades of medieval Europe, but in the name of the nation rather than the Church (p. 39).

He went on to say that socialism is promoted during wartime.

It is a commonplace that nationalism is nourished by the emotions of organized war. We are less likely to notice that many of the historic goals of secular humanitarianism are similarly nourished. More than one historian has observed that it is in time of war that many of the reforms, first advocated by socialists, have been accepted by capitalist governments and made parts of the structures of their societies. Equalization of wealth, progressive taxation, nationalization of industries, the raising of wages and improvements in working conditions, worker-management councils, housing ventures, death taxes, unemployment insurance plans, pension systems, and the enfranchisement of formerly faultless elements of the population have all been, in one country or another, achieved or advanced under the impress of war. The tremendous surge toward unity and the resolution of group differences, which is a part of modern war, carries with it certain leveling and humanitarian measures not to be omitted from the full history of modern warfare (pp. 39-40).

He was just getting warmed up.

Society obtains its maximum sense of organization and community and its most exalted sense of moral purpose during the period of war. Since it is always, now, identified with a set of essentially nonmilitary values – democracy, freedom, hatred of fascism, et cetera – there is an inevitable tendency for the nature of war itself to become more spiritualized and to seem more moral (p. 40). . . .

The centralization and bureaucratic regimentation which have always been native to organized warfare are, in the twentieth century, extended to widening areas of social and cultural life. War symbolism and the practical techniques of war administration have come to penetrate more and more of the minor areas of social function and allegiance. More and more of the incentives of science, education, and industry are made it to rest upon contributions to the war effort (p. 41). . . .

The line between civil and military administration becomes thinner and thinner. It is an easy matter to pass by imperceptible degrees from the primacy of real needs for the war effort to the primacy of reeal needs for the war effort to the primacy and dominance of pretended needs for war. Moreover, the traditional austerity, discipline, and unity of military command, together with all its reputed efficiencies, come to have increasing appeal to large elements of the population. Mere tactical excellences of military officers become converted, to the alchemy of popular adulation, into imagined moral and political wisdom without limit. The military man succeeds in prestige the scholar, the scientist, the businessman, and the clergyman. Inevitably there is a tendency to magnify the importance of civil and moral pursuits by clothing them in military garments, by replacing normal hierarchies of leadership in prestige but the hierarchy of military rank and command. The discipline of war becomes community itself (p. 42).

This book was published in the first year of the Eisenhower administration.

In chapter eight, "The Total Community," he returned to this theme.

It is the characteristic of the total State, as Peter Drucker has pointed out, that the distinction between ordinary civil society and the army is obliterated. The natural diversity of society is swept away, and the centralization and on the competence native to the war band become the organizing principles of human life. We have already noted the power of war, in the twentieth century, to inspire a sense of moral community. This power is exploited to the full in totalitarian society (p. 206).

Nisbet was arguing clearly that the impulse toward modern warfare is inherently anti-conservative. This is why it is remarkable that this book, written in the early phase of the Cold War, subsequently became one of about a half dozen of the foundation stones of the modern intellectual conservative movement.

He did not believe that war is the only source of such centralization in society. He wrote,

It is not war anymore than it is race or economic class that is central. What is central is simply the absolute substitution of the State for all the diversified associations of which society is normally composed.

In the totalitarian order the political tie becomes the all-in-all. It needs the masses as the masses need it. It integrates even where it dissolves, unifies where it separates, inspires where it suffocates. The rulers of the total community devise their own symbolism to replace the symbolism that has been destroyed by the creation of the masses (p. 206).

In chapter eleven, the final chapter, he returned to this theme.

In this development of unitary democracy, of bureaucratic centralization, contemporary mass warfare has, of course, a profoundly contributory significance. `War is the health of the state,' Randolph Bourne once declared. It is the health of the state as it is the disease, or rather than starvation, of other areas of social function in authority. Everything we observed earlier this book with respect to the community-making properties of mass warfare in the contemporary world is deeply relevant to the administrative problem of liberal democracy (P. 259). . . .

It is precisely this military imperative of governmental centralization that makes continued warfare, or preparation for war, have so deadly an effect on all other institutions in society. For it is difficult to perform the administrative measures necessary to political and military centralization without drawing in drastic fashion from the functions, the authorities, and the allegiances that normally fall to such institutions as religion, profession, labor union, school, and local community. Quite apart from direct administrative action, the sheer brilliance of the fires of war has the effect of making dim all of the other lights of culture (p. 260).


Thirty-five years later, in his final book on social theory, The Present Age, he returned to this theme. He began the book with a chapter on "The Prevalence of War." He began with these words. "Of all the faces of the present age in America, the military face would almost certainly prove the most astounding to any Framers of the Constitution, any Founders of the Republic who came back to inspect their creation on the occasion of the Bicentennial."

The returned Framers would not be surprised to learn that so vast a military has inexorable effects upon the economy, the structure of government, and even the culture of Americans; they had witnessed such effects in Europe from afar, and had not liked what they saw. What would doubtless astonish the Framers most, though, is that their precious republic has become an imperial power in the world, much like the Great Britain they had hated in the eighteenth century. Finally, the Framers would almost certainly swoon when they learned that America has been participant in the Seventy-Five Years War that has gone on, rarely punctuated, since 1914, and all of this, the Framers would sorrowfully fine, done under the selfsame structure of government that they had themselves built (p. 1).

Nisbet understood what World War I had done to this country.

When the war broke out in Europe in 1914 America was still, remarkably, strikingly, pretty much the same country and moral, social, and cultural respects that it had been for a century. We were still, in 1914, the people rooted largely in the mentality of the village and small town, still suspicious of large cities in the styles of living that went with these cities. The states were immensely important, just as the Founding Fathers in the Framers intended them to be. It was hard to find a truly national culture, a national consciousness, in 1914. The Civil War had, of course, removed forever philosophical, as well as actively political, doubts of the reality of the union as a sovereign state. But in terms of habits of mind, customs, traditions, full literature, indeed written literature, speech accent, dress, and so forth, America could still be looked at as a miscellany of cultures held together, but not otherwise much influence, by the federal government in Washington. For the vast majority of Americans, from east to west, north to south, the principal, if not sold, link with the national government was the postal system – and perhaps also the federal income tax, which was approved at long last by constitutional amendment in 1913.

The great war changed all of this, by November 1918 after four years of war in Europe for nearly two years of it for America, the whole world was changed, Europe itself ceased in substantial degree to be a contained civilization, and the United States, after close to two years of what can only a cold wrenching military nationalism under the charismatic Woodrow Wilson, was brought at last into the modern world of nations. State loyalties and appeals to states' rights would not vanish overnight; they are gone yet in constitutional law, and aren't likely to be. But whereas prior to 1914 one loss saw the gravamen of American development in the four dozen states, provinces in European terms, by 1920, it had shifted to the national culture, with the states becoming increasingly archaic (pp. 2-3).

Nisbet believed that America under Woodrow Wilson had adopted Wilson's axiom: "What America touches, she makes holy." America had seen itself as a redeemer nation since the early seventeenth century, but not a redeemer nation that is armed and dangerous. After World War I, this perception changed permanently: the tools of America's redemptive mission are military. "Ever since Wilson, with only rarest exceptions, American foreign-policy has been turned not to national interest but to national morality."

Born Calvinist, with a deep sense of sin and wickedness, and of the necessity of living by God's grace, and the necessity of preaching and ministering this grace to the multitude, Wilson gradually transferred the content, but not the fire, of his faith to the American republic. His book The State enables us to see how in his mind the true church for him had become not the historic church, the institutional church, but the state – provided, of course, that it was permeated by virtue, goodness, and redemptiveness. . . .

World war was thus cut out for a mind of Wilson's passionate moralism. What he and America did had to be eternally right, before mankind and God. He had been appointed by God to serve the blessed American republic and to determine what was right in the war. His final decision, which germinated all through 1916, the year of his reelection under the banner of "He kept us out of war," and came to thunderous expression in early 1917, was that neutrality must be scrapped for intervention. He had been right in his policy of neutrality but the world and the war had changed; and now he must, with equal godliness and righteousness, do the very opposite – that is, plead with heart and soul for immediate American intervention (pp. 30-31).

Nisbet ended the chapter with these words.

No nation in history has ever managed permanent war and a permanent military Leviathan at its heart and been able to maintain a truly representative character. The transformation of the Roman Republic into the dictatorial empire was accomplished solely through war and the military. Is the United States somehow the divinely created exception to this ubiquitous fact of world history? Not, assuredly, if instead of a foreign policy based on national security and finite objectives associated with this security, we indulge ourselves in a foreign policy with an "itch to intervene," and a purpose flowing out of the preposterous fantasy of a world recreated in the image and likeness of that city on a hill known as the United States of America. That way lies total confusion abroad and an ever more monolithic and absolute military bureaucracy at home (p. 39).

The Soviet Union is gone. The American Empire is not.


From 1953 until his death in 1996, Nisbet declared himself against modern democratic mass warfare. He offered a sociological and cultural defense of this opposition in 1953, and he looked back in 1988 at what the United States military had become, and he saw that there was a pattern in it – one launched in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson. He rejected it, root and branch.

He did not deviate from this position throughout the period of his academic influence. He stayed on target throughout the entire period. He did not trust the Wilsonian vision for America. He saw it as a throwback, not to the American Revolution, but to the French Revolution. Following the tradition of European conservatives after Edmund Burke, he saw the connection between democracy and war. He wrote this in his book, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (1986).

So too there is a close affinity between democracy and the widening and leveling of warfare. It was the Revolution, as all the early conservatives pointed out, that instituted for the first time in history, a national conscription, the famous levée en masse. Warfare, all of a sudden, lost the limited character it had had in the pre-Revolutionary age, with more or less finite purposes – usually dynamic or territorial – a fixed order of battle, and a great deal of post-feudal ceremony. With the Revolutionary armies on the march, war became the crusade for freedom, equality and fraternity that inevitably brought with it the ever-larger armies and ever-expanding purposes seen in the nineteenth century. Taine observed that democracy puts a knapsack on every male while it gives him the ballot (p. 58).

In 1961, he wrote this in Commentary.

Writing as one who dislikes even mild forms of socialism, I can understand readily that Communism, wherever it is, and however isolated it may be, is an evil. But I do not know what this fact has to do with measures that can feasibly be taken by a national foreign policy and defense structure. I see measures that can meaningfully and feasibly be taken with respect to Russia, or to any other hostile and dangerous national socialism in the world, but I can no more imagine a foreign policy directed toward the destruction of "world Communism" than I can one directed toward world paganism.

Today, the government is trying to contain "terrorism." What he said about "World Communism" applies even more forcefully to terrorism.

Here is the threat:

In human terms, to suppose that the United States can long maintain a political and military machine of containment dimensions without destroying the localism, pluralism, and free enterprise in all spheres that are the true basis of American freedom and creativity, is to suppose utter fantasy. The affinity between militarism and socialist collectivism is, and has been throughout history, a close one. Far closer, let me emphasize, than the affinity between collectivism and, say, the speeches and writings of socialist propagandists.

The American conservative movement has not believed this ever since World War II began. Pearl Harbor did more than sink battleships. It sank the Old Right.

“Either you are going to do politics, or politics is going to do you!”
Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times.
Good times create weak men. Weak men create bad times.
“The future has several names.
For the weak, it is impossible; for the fainthearted, it is unknown;
but for the valiant, it is ideal.”
"The left's arrogance is only surpassed by their narcissism....."
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