Friday, January 12, 2007

Robert Nisbet's Conservatism

American sociologist Robert Nisbet (1913-96) wrote a book entitled Conservatism: Dream and Reality, which was published in 1986. Nisbet was a widely read, erudite fellow and the book adds some things to other writings on conservatism, at least it articulates some conservative principles in a fresh manner. However, there are several things that bother me about the book. One of these is Nisbet's giving far more words to criticism of the French Revolution than he does to the Industrial Revolution. On p. 64 Nisbet wrote:
Yet another aspect of the conservative philosophy of property in modern history is found in the frequent criticisms of capitalism, together with its industrialism, commerce, and technology, by conservatives. As I have stressed above, conservativism is almost as much a response to the industrial as the democratic revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.
I have several problems with this statement: 1) my reading suggests that it is not true that his emphasis has been almost as much on the industrial revolution; as I read him criticism of the French Revolution gets far more attention and always is mentioned first, while the critique of capitalism and industrialism appears as second and something tacked on after fulsome criticism of the French Revolution; and, 2) this "democratic revolution at the end of the eighteenth century" must, in large part be a a reference to the French Revolution and it is at least questionable whether that Revolution was primarily 'democratic' as it had significant elitist elements. In general, I think Nisbet and other conservatives use 'democratic' somewhat loosely. He certainly approves of the republican, representaive system articulated in the U.S. Constitution which was certainly democratic in some sense even if not absolutely so.

His secondary emphasis on the Industrial Revolution and capitalism is important because it seems to me likely that these forces have had far more profound influence upon the modern world than the French Revolution. Certainly this is utterly true of the United States; the U.S. Constitution and federal government were already in place when the French Revolution occurred and although the latter was a topic of heated debate in the U.S. it had minimal influence upon U.S. institutions. However, the only true social revolution the U.S. has undergone is the Industrial Revolution. I believe American 'conservatives' like Nisbet are less consistent in the application of conservative principles to the Industrial Revolution because that would be a bit too non-conformist in the USA. The American Ideology pretty much holds capitalism and the Industrial Revolution in the highest regard for their contribution to American consumer abundance. Nonetheless, I believe it is inconsistent and timid to hold certain principles and yet soft pedal their application where it is politically inconvenient.

Nisbet makes it clear that the revolutionary social change, the destruction of local groups and authority and 'massification' of modern urban capitalist life, the crass materialism, and the individualism of American industrial capitalism are thoroughly repugnant to a genuine conservative philosophy; yet glorification and protection of American industrial capitalism are a major tenet in the pseudo-conservatism of William F. Buckley, et. al. from the the 1950s until today. Under the pressures of political ambition and will to power, actual conservative principles have been jettisoned by American pseudo-conservatives.

1 comment:

Pioneering Over Four Epochs said...

Three years before I retired from FT teaching Robert Nisbet died(1996). I had read everything he had published; although I did not agree with everything he wrote(like the writer here), I was impressed with his erudition and the quality of his prose. One of the many prose-poems I wrote in trying to resolve issues he raised was the following which I submit to this thread, this discussion. -Ron Price, Tasmania

At some time during the Seven(1979-1986) or the Six(1986-1992) Year Plans of the international Baha'i community, I recall a sentence or two of the Universal House of Justice in the Australian Baha’i Bulletin requesting Baha’is to respond to the criticism of some observers of this Cause that this world Order was but another in a long line of ‘total institutions,’ another belief system with its single formula to meet the diverse ends of humankind and account for everything that exists by means of a single description and explanatory system, a system that demands conformity to prescribed norms--in a word--obedience. This poem is an attempt to make a brief response to this request of the House of Justice. It is also an attempt to answer the concerns of Isaiah Berlin in a similar vein: the use and abuse of authority.
-Ron Price with thanks to Leon Wieseltier, "When a Sage Dies, All Are His Kin: Isaiah Berlin: 1909-1997," The New Republic, 12 January 1997, on The Internet, pp.1-7.

He feared the power of the mind

to unify, thinking that unity

was sameness, the sound

of the rhythm of a single foot,(1)

harmony passing into unison....

and so do we all fear, fear,

after the horrors of that century

and its Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots.

He feared that freedom---

nothing more magnificent really

than the right to be left alone---

was under attack. Authority,

he thought, must be legitimate

and here, here on this hill it is,

in this institutionalization of charisma,

with rational-legal pillars

and a divine afflatus.

Here, too, individuals are not made

to sacrifice their own patterns of life,

or their privacy, their private worlds,

to deny what they know to be true,

for in our thought and reflection

we are and must be free.(2)

(1) Aristotle in Twilight of Authority, Robert Nisbet, Heineman, London, 1975, p.286.

(2) ‘Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, Wilmette, 1980, p.40.

Ron Price

27 November 2001