The confidence in progress that bureaucrats proclaim in directing historical change was undermined by the absence of a directional law in the realm of historical necessity. History was a series of discrete events rather than intelligible laws inherent in any temporal and material process from which someone can uncover and discern. As Nisbet wrote, change was contingent, episodic, and variable. There were constants in human nature but they were “of little help in accounting for variables” to explain historical change. (SC, 298) The multiplicity of factors that caused historical change were too numerous for the bureaucrat to capture and manipulate for the state’s ends. Like progress, the notion of a directional change in history as discovered and guided by an elite was a faulty one at best and a destructive one at worst.
For Nisbet, the constancy in human nature — the nature or essence of the person — was his ideas as forces in the realm of historical necessity: “everything vital in history reduces itself ultimately to ideas, which are the motive forces . . . Above all, man is what he thinks the transcending moral values are in his life and in the lives of those around him.” (TA, 233) Nisbet allowed for the influence of social, economic, and political factors to influence historical events, but he believed intellectual, moral, and ethical ideas were paramount in the shaping of social community and political sovereignty. In this sense, Nisbet was similar to the neoconservative thinkers in their emphasis upon ideas as the moving forces in history.
However, Nisbet differed from the neoconservatives in two important respects: 1) he recognized other variables, such as economics, culture, and religion, played a vital role in the shaping of events; and 2) he rejected any directional sense of history or conception of progress that was strictly temporal in nature. There was no cause, direction, or movement in history for thinkers to discover, and any attempt to do so would be futile. The only fundamental thing we can know with some certainty was the constancy of human nature and the ideas that they produce.
According to Nisbet, the two great traditions in Western social and political thought were political monism and social pluralism, with the former started by Plato and the latter by Aristotle. Social pluralism made a clear distinction between the state and society and was characterized by a “relationship that exists between the political state, whatever its form of government, and the several institutions of the social sphere.” (TA, 245-46) The form of the government mattered less than its relationship to intermediate institutions, for “a government monarchial or oligarchical in structure can be a free government if — as has been the case many times in history — it respects the other institutions of society and permits autonomies accordingly in the social and economic spheres.” (TA, 246) By contrast, political monism was the preeminence of the state, so that “[s]uch groups as family, locality, neighborhood, church, and other autonomous associations are almost uniformly reduced to their individual atoms, made into unities dependent upon concession of existence by the state, or in some other way significantly degraded.” (TA, 245)
Although Plato was the first political monist in the West, it was Hobbes and Rousseau who were the first modern representatives of this tradition where “the affirmation in each instance is the state conceived as being, not force, not repression, but justice, freedom, and tranquility for the individual.” (SP, 10) The social contract rather than natural or social associations was the basis of political sovereignty: individuals would fulfill their rights not in local groups or traditional associations but in the state. For Hobbes, “the greatest claim of the absolute State lay in its power to create an environment for the individual’s pursuit of his natural ends.” (QC, 137-38) Rousseau went even further than Hobbes in proclaiming that “there is no morality, no freedom, no community outside the structure of the State.” (QC, 140) Whereas Hobbes was content to tolerate individuals to pursue their own ends within the state, Rousseau was 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.” (QC, 140) The state for Rousseau was absolute, indivisible, and omnipotent with its general will reconciling both social and individual conflict through civil religion. (SP, 37-45) The individual lived a free life as determined by the state.
In the tradition of modern social pluralism, with its emphasis on local communal associations against the arbitrary and impersonal power of the state, Nisbet cited the works of Burke, Acton, Tocqueville, Lammenais, Proudhon, and Kropotkin. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was given particular attention by Nisbet as the father of modern social pluralism. Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was rooted in his “profound belief in the superiority of traditional society and its component groups and associations, as well as what he regarded as its inherent organic processes of change, over-centralized political power.” (SP, 53) It was the “rationalist simplicity” of the French Revolution that Burke had feared because of its destructive effect upon the intermediate institutions of traditional groups and local associations. (SP, 56) Sentiments such as love and loyalty were best cultivated in small groups rather than in a “national community.” In fact, a genuine national community could exist only when individuals were able to transcend their local attachments for the greater good, or as Burke wrote, “the love of the whole depends upon the subordinate partiality.” (PS, 58) But if there were no intermediate institutions in society, then citizens would not have anything to sacrifice or transcend for the national community. Paradoxically then, traditional groups and local associations made possible a national community, because they provided something from which citizens could transcend.
The other thinker that was given a preeminent place in the modern social pluralist tradition by Nisbet was Tocqueville: “There is a clear and logical line of descent from Burke’s espousal of traditional groups and associations, his belief in limits on all forms of power, and his advocacy of traditional pluralism and of decentralization to the fundamental principles in Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America . . . .” (SP, 58) According to Nisbet, Tocqueville’s central thesis was that alienation led modern society from intermediate institutions to the state centralization so that the power of modern democracy was rooted in public opinion. (ST, 120)
The solution to further concentration of state power was the preservation of intermediate institutions and federalism: “Fundamental among the causes of continued freedom in American democracy, Tocqueville shows us, is the American principle of division of authority in society.” (SP, 65) The division of authority between the national and state governments — as well as in intermediate institutions that served as a barrier against the state — fragmented the state’s authority and power in society. (SP, 68) Tocqueville’s insights into the federal principle and intermediate institutions as the key features to preserve liberty in American democracy influenced Nisbet’s own work and methodology in studying the United States.
The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom by Robert A. Nisbet (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1953; San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1990). (QC)
“Foreward” to The American Family and the State, edited by Joseph R. Peden and Fred Glahe (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1986). (AS)
“Conservatism and Sociology,” The American Journal of Sociology 48 (September 1952), 167-175. (CS)
The Degradation of Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970 (New York: Basic Books, 1971). (DA)
“The French Revolution and the Rise of Sociology in France,” The American Journal of Sociology 49 (November 1943), 156-64. (FS)
History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980). (HP)
The Making of Modern Society (New York: NYU Press, 1986). (MM)
The Present Age: Progress and Authority in Modern America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). (PA)
Sociology as an Art Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). (SA)
The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Knopf, 1970). (SB)
Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). (SC)
The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982). (SP)
The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1966). (ST)
Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). (TA)
Tradition and Revolt: Historical and Sociological Essays (New York: Random House, 1968). (TR)
This article was originally entitled, “War, Progress, and Sociology in the Age of Ideology,” in The Political Science Reviewer 36:1 (2007): 311-43.