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Robert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist

Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash
Robert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist
Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000
(Hardcover, ISBN: 1 882926 33 1)
By Brad Lowell Stone

G.K. Chesterton's economics parallels Robert Nisbet's sociology.

I think that's a fair statement, and it's borne out in this debut volume of The Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Library of Modern Thinkers, a series of books meant to distill the essential thought of twentieth-century thinkers in short and highly-readable books (a goal accomplished admirably by Mr. Stone in this book).

Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) was a conservative sociologist whose lifework resolved around one grand theme: the importance of communities, those “human groups that spring up to fill perennial human needs and solve problems,” such as families, voluntary associations, and churches.

People need community. Community, Nisbet once wrote, “springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature.” If communities are attacked or undermined, individuals will be harmed.

This firmly-held belief animated one of the main “sub-themes” of Nisbet's work: To the extent the centralized state becomes more powerful, communities atrophy.

This, of course, makes sense, if we keep in mind Nisbet's primary definition of “community” as groups that solve problems. To the extent the omnicompetent state attempts to solve our problems, the role of community diminishes, weakens and eventually disappears–to the detriment of individuals. This has been the readily-discernible path in America's recent past, as the national government's attempt to solve problems on a national scale has crippled families (e.g., by providing economic incentives for women not to marry) and charitable organizations (e.g., by national-scale welfare programs replacing the need for local organizations and churches to care for their poor).

The rise of the powerful state has resulted in harm to individuals, Nisbet believed. He said the contemporary individual is “metaphysically beleaguered.” He said modern man is alienated. Instead of being connected to others and higher realities through communities, he is tossed about in “vast institutions and organizations” that fragment him and leave him “existentially missing in action.”

In this situation, it is not surprising that money has assumed a major role in contemporary society. Without community and the higher functions it embodies, money becomes the common denominator, with the result that every “act of service, responsibility, protection and aid to others is an act presupposing or calling for monetary exchange, for cash payment.” Nisbet called this, citing Thomas Carlyle, “the cash nexus.”

For those interested in the history of ideas, especially when connected to contemporary issues, Stone's recount of Nisbet's sociology is engaging.

Nisbet emphasized two great traditions in Western political thought: political monism and social pluralism. Political monism emphasizes the supremacy and pervasiveness of the state and believes all intermediary institutions must be subordinated to it. This tradition blends “social nihilism and political affirmation.” Its modern proponents include Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, and Lenin.

Social pluralism, on the other hand, emphasizes intermediary institutions. It sees true freedom deriving from strong communities, rather than from the national government: “According to this tradition, no state is deemed free if the government rules over the social, economic, and intellectual spheres. 'Conversely, a government monarchical 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.” This tradition's modern proponents include Burke, Tocqueville, Acton and Proudhon (and Nisbet).

Stone concludes this quick-to-read little book with a chapter that cites empirical evidence and studies showing that the dominance of political monism is destroying communities, especially the family. The studies are remarkable, such as one Canadian study that found that children in step-families are forty times more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents. Stone has little patience for the political monists (in particular, the sociologist Robert Bellah) who ignore such findings and continue to insist that modern society just needs more national political remedies to right such problems.

I opened this review with the statement that Chesterton's economics parallels Nisbet's sociology. That was a bit trite–and inaccurate. They aren't really parallels because the need for smallness in economics and smallness in sociology converge, as Chesterton showed in What's Wrong with the World. Small economic units and small social units overlap, especially in the family. Smallness makes the family strong (and, paradoxically, an emphasis on smallness often makes the family big). But big-infatuated Hudge and Gudge Monists don't see it. They emphasize largeness, to the detriment of small communities–especially the families.


(This review appeared many, many years ago in Gilbert Magazine.)