Classic Kirk:
a curated selection of Russell Kirk’s perennial essays

A Note from the Editor

In an extended review essay, Russell Kirk closely examined two of the most significant books of twentieth century American criticism: Richard Weaver’s The Ethics of Rhetoric and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community: a Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, both published in 1953. I have taken the liberty of abridging this rather lengthy essay by excising the section on Richard Weaver in order to focus on Robert Nisbet’s thought. The Quest for Community has recently attracted renewed interest and its themes could not be more timely. Should you prefer to read the complete version, however, it can be found here.  -CKN

Ethical Labor

From Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: Essays of a Social Critic, Henry Regnery Company, 1956.

Thirty years ago, Irving Babbitt wrote that the highest order of true work is an ethical working, labor of the spirit; and that no important problem of economics or politics can be solved within its own terms. “When studied with any degree of thoroughness, the economic problem will be found to run into the political problem, the political problem into the philosophical problem, and the philosophical problem itself to be most indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.” Now for almost the whole of the twentieth century, the study called ethics has been abandoned by Dr. Dryasdust, degraded to a subject abstract and often purely semantic, dully lectured upon in decaying departments of philosophy at universities dedicated to material aggrandizement. Here and there a stubborn man or an old-fashioned college stood out against this neglect of the most humane of the sciences; but by and large, the sterile “ethics” of Bentham or of Dewey, grubbing in the dust of barbarous vocabulary and arid generalization, have smothered the Aristotelian tradition. Many clergymen, even, have confounded the science of ethics with a dim creed of “service” or with moralizing. The world, taking the hereditary guardians of Ethics at their own valuation, was prompt to assume that ethics somehow was a vestige of systematized primitive conventions, or a bookish conspiracy to restrain the natural heartiness and freedom of man; and, in the absence of any convincing alternative (for every age must be saddled with Ethics, whether it knows this truth or not), the world reverted to an ethical principle still more nearly primitive than tribal convention, “That they shall take who have the power, and they shall keep what they can.” Two tremendous explosions, subsequently and consequently, have suggested to some of us that ethical studies need to be undertaken on a plane higher than this.

We are far gone in the decadence of ethical apprehension; but a regenerating power stirs in certain quarters of America today, and two new books—one by a critic of letters and thought, the other by an historical sociologist—are a heartening sign that the current of opinion is beginning to shift and to force its way through the Sudd of turgidity and determinism which, for two generations and more, has obstructed our approach to ethical knowledge. These two authors, Mr. Weaver and Mr. Nisbet, men of high talents and masculine prose, are conservatives in the most intelligent and penetrating sense of that abused word “conservative.” That conservative works of this order are beginning to be published and read attentively in America suggests that we Americans have not really passed from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization: for conservatism is a product of enlightened maturity in society. An immature society is violent and radical; a senescent society either does not care to conserve the legacy of past generations, or else cannot. Our nation, having come of age, now awakens to the consciousness that it is the principal guardian of order and justice and civilized existence in this fierce time. Mr. Weaver’s book is an endeavor to preserve the honesty and dignity of the Word; Mr. Nisbet’s, to describe and save those ancient ties of man to man which distinguish a true community from an aggregation of proletarians dominated by a total state. Both these authors know that literature and society subsist by ethical truth; and that when letters and states live a lie, they do not live for long.

* * * *

The Quest for Community suffers from none of the usual vices of sociological writing which Mr. Weaver describes: it is not equivocal, or marred by pedantic empiricism, or afflicted by meliorism, or afraid of metaphor, or dominated by a caste spirit. On the contrary, it is a readable and manly book, almost wholly emancipated from the barbarisms of social-science rhetoric, as its author is free from the dreary pedantry and poverty of imagination which characterize most of his colleagues in the social sciences. Mr. Nisbet is dean of letters and arts at the new University of California at Riverside, one of the most promising undertakings in American education today; and, strong in the knowledge that Good and Evil are real, he understands that any sociologist worthy of the name must sit in the school of ethics. Undeluded by god-terms and charisma, Mr. Nisbet is concerned to restore the words “community,” “liberalism,” “individuality,” and “democracy” to true significance. Robbed of ethical association, these terms are mere impostor-cries, utilized by unscrupulous men to gratify their will and appetite; but apprehended properly, they are ideas with a power for good almost incalculable. Mr. Nisbet, who knows a great deal about French conservative thinkers of the nineteenth century, is himself a conservator, anxious to save the concept and reality of community upon which civil social existence has depended for centuries, and to rescue sociological speculation from its infatuation with Benthamite dogma and method.

Mr. Weaver suggests that some of the worst faults of sociologists’ writing, particularly their unfortunate and ludicrous descriptions of man in the abstract, might be remedied by the employment of a language close to that of the Biblical parable, or else “the language of the best British journalism”—for instance, the prose of the Manchester Guardian. Mr. Nisbet’s style, indeed, commonly is as lucid as the latter model. He begins candidly and confidently:

One may paraphrase the famous words of Karl Marx and say that a specter is haunting the modern mind, the specter of insecurity. Surely the outstanding characteristic of contemporary thought on man and society is the preoccupation with personal alienation and cultural disintegration. The fears of the nineteenth-century conservatives in Western Europe, expressed against a background of increasing individualism, secularism, and social dislocation, have become, to an extraordinary degree, the insights and hypotheses of present-day students of man in society. The widening concern with insecurity and disintegration is accompanied by a profound regard for the values of status, membership, and community.

Well! Here is a sociologist to conjure with. Dr. Johnson tells us that we criticize a woman preacher on the terms we apply to a dog walking on his hind legs: we are surprised not that the thing is done imperfectly, but that it is done at all. I do not intend to demean Mr. Nisbet by this odious comparison; he writes well, though seldom sparklingly; but it being seldom that a sociologist has any mastery of rhetoric, we are brought up with a start when we read so straightforward a passage as this. And what matters still more than Mr. Nisbet’s lucidity of style is the impartial scholarship his chapters reflect, illuminated by originality of reflection.

Much of this book I read at an ugly place called Thornton Junction, a blot on the green face of Fife, while waiting for a train. Thornton Junction is a series of illimitable railway-plat­forms and sidings set amid a shamefully desolated region of derelict farmland and bog, sacrificed to open-cast mining and then left dead in a contorted rigor mortis: the very earth is not soil, but a black and gritty abomination, without grass, without houses, without shelter from the wind; and on the wooden platform one sits for lonely hours, with nothing to eat and nothing to look at, waiting for a dirty train to take one slowly to a dirty town. Thornton Junction is a microcosm of our insecure and devastated age, true community sacrificed to alleged “efficiency,” every ethical consideration thrown aside as an impediment to “progress.” The Quest for Community struck home at Thornton Junction. The next day, I sat with a great poet and critic in an Edinburgh hotel, talking of the baneful influence of utilitarian sociology, its barrenness of imagination reflected in its loathsome style: a school of opinion apparently bent on converting all the world into a macrocosmic Thornton Junction, or at best into a moral wasteland like Sweden. My companion remarked upon the curious turgidity and obscurity of sociological writing in our time—which, as Mr. Weaver suggests, is in part a deliberate endeavor to impress by mystification, the social scientists now being invested with many of the attributes of caste; and I was able to commend The Quest for Community as a book different in end and method from the usual sociological treatise. Mr. Nisbet is a sociologist in the sense that Tocqueville was one: a student of society, truly, but possessed of a scholarship enlightened by moral ideas and historical perspective.

Tocqueville looms large in The Quest for Community. The great French conservative-liberal’s dread of democratic despotism, his concern for the traditional liberties of localities, associations, and persons, and his warning against the corrupting forces of material aggrandizement and consolidation are the principal topics with which Mr. Nisbet is concerned, in his analysis of the nature of true community, and the need for it:

The family, religious association, and local community—these, the conservatives insisted, cannot be regarded as the external products of man’s thought and behavior; they are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct. Release man from the contexts of community and you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demoniac fears and passions. Society, Burke wrote in a celebrated line, is a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Mutilate the roots of society and tradition, and the result must inevitably be the isolation of a generation from its heritage, the isolation of individuals from their fellow men, and the creation of the sprawling, faceless masses.

The towering moral problem of our time, Mr. Nisbet declares, is the problem of community lost and community regained. We long desperately for a sense of continuity in our existence, and a sense of direction; these are denied to most of us by the decay of the family, the obliteration of the old guild-organization, the retreat of local spirit before the centralized state, and the forlorn condition of religious belief. The most conspicuous result of the revolutionary destruction of traditional society and of utilitarian industrialism has been the creation of the Lonely Crowd—a mass of individuals without real community, aware that they matter to no one, and often convinced that nothing else matters. The assault on institutional religion, old-fashioned economic methods, family authority, and small political communities has set the individual free from nearly everything, truly: but that freedom is a terrifying thing, the freedom of a baby deserted by his parents to do as he pleases. In reaction against these negative liberties, presently the confused and resentful masses incline toward any fanaticism that promises to assuage their loneliness—the Communist or Fascist parties, the lunatic “dissidence of dissent,” the totalitarian state which promises to gratify their appetites. Men still cry that they are seeking freedom; but, as Santayana says, freedom from what? From the consequences of freedom.

Increasingly, individuals seek escape from the freedom of impersonality, secularism, and individualism. They look for community in marriage, thus putting, often, an intolerable strain upon a tie already grown institutionally fragile. They look for it in easy religion, which leads frequently to a vulgarization of Christianity the like of which the world has not seen before. They look for it in the psychiatrist’s office, in the cult, in functionless ritualizations of the past, and in all the other avocations of relief from nervous exhaustion.

Collectivism, which is the antithesis of true community, “comes to reveal itself to many minds as a fortress of security against not only institutional conflicts but conflicts of belief and value that are internal to the individual.” It is not poverty which induces the masses to support the totalitarian parties, but the longing for certitude and membership. “To say that the well-fed worker will never succumb to the lure of communism is as absurd as to say that the well-fed intellectual will never succumb. The presence or absence of three meals a day, or even the simple possession of a job, is not the decisive factor. What is decisive is the frame of reference. If, for one reason or another, the individual’s immediate society comes to seem remote, purposeless, and hostile, if a people come to sense that, altogether, they are victims of discrimination and exclusion, not all the food and jobs in the world will prevent them from looking for the kind of surcease that comes with membership in a social and moral order seemingly directed toward their very souls.” Mr. Chester Bowles, Mr. Walter Reuther, and a good many other persons who seem to think that “standards of living” rule the world ought to read The Quest for Community; but I hardly suppose they will.

Institutions decay when they are deprived of function: thus, Mr. Nisbet proceeds to show, the family is disintegrating before our eyes not because of “sexual maladjustment” and “family tensions” (those darling phrases of the sociologists), but because it has been deprived of its old economic and educational advantages. So it is with aristocracy, local government, guild, church, and the other elements which bound man to man for many centuries. It is very doubtful whether new voluntary associations have helped in any considerable degree to supply the sense of community which these venerable institutions nourished; and thus the social planners, who once expected to arrange matters easily by a Benthamite calculus, “frequently find themselves dealing not simply with the upper stratum of decisions, which their forebears assumed would be the sole demand of a planned society, but often with baffling problems which reach down into the very recesses of human personality.”

All history, and especially modern history, is in some sense the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss. In this process, the rise of the modern State has been by far the most powerful influence. “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.” There is every reason to regard the State in history as, to use a phrase von Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.” Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its absolute power, the State has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of those ancient institutions which were the guardians of true community—aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association. What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the State’s maintenance. Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration-camp are only the more recent developments of this system. The “pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history” which Maitland discerned has been brought to pass, in large part, by “the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political State and the social associations lying intermediate to it and the individual.” The same processes may be traced in the history of Greece and of Rome; and the consequence, in the long run, was social ennui and political death. All those great gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association which characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.

Dean Nisbet’s analysis of Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau, writers who in an increasing degree asserted the jurisdiction of the State over every aspect of human existence by their doctrines of sovereignty, is marvellously clear and compact. “It was Rousseau’s subtle achievement to clothe the being of the absolute State in the garments of the terminology of freedom. By his insistence upon popular sovereignty he has become classified as one of the minds who have helped free the civilized world from despotism.” But the real tendency of Rousseau’s influence, Mr. Nisbet continues, has been just the contrary. “The individual renounces the social loyalties of traditional society, surrenders to the state the rights of association which are the fundament of religion, family, and community, and by so doing becomes free for the first time. Herein lies the lure of Rousseau’s philosophy for absolutists and here too is the essence of the confusion of freedom and authority that underlies contemporary totalitarian philosophies.” For as severely just a criticism of Rousseau, we need to re-read Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism, and his Democracy and Leadership, books that the course of events in the past generation has justified with an awful emphasis.

Liberation from the dead hand of the past was the object of the devotees of romantic emancipation and the “will of the people.” But because men who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it, this expected emancipation from tradition has become, in the twentieth century, a tyranny more thorough and inescapable than anything known to the despotisms of antiquity, let alone the Old Régime, throughout half of Europe and a great part of the rest of the world. “Permanent revolution” means permanent insecurity and permanent injustice. The grim dream of Marx (whose “withering away of the state” was in part simply a terminological trick and in part self-deception) is the logical culmination of the levelling and centralizing doctrines popularized (in different guises) by Rousseau and Bentham. Marx predicted the ultimate merging of all things into an amorphous and characterless whole—even “the gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equal distribution of population over the country” (as at Thornton Junction). And as the old elements of true community have been hacked away, men increasingly have been induced to bring Marx’s dream to realization, seeking in the vast impersonal State a substitute for all the old associations that, dimly, they know they have lost.

The nineteenth century, Mr. Nisbet says, was many things; but, most important of all, it was the century of the emergence of the political masses, created by the new industrialism and the destruction of traditional institutions. “Between the State and the masses there developed a bond, an affinity, which however expressed—in nationalism, unitary democracy, or in Marxist socialism—made the political community the most luminous of visions. In it lay salvation from economic misery and oppression. In it lay a new kind of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In it lay right and justice. And in it, above all else, lay community.” Thus the total community, the omnipotent State, found in the new restless masses the instrument for its triumph. This total State intends to destroy all rivals to its power and to subordinate all human relationships to its might. The slogan of the total State varies from country to country and year to year; it does not really matter, this slogan, for it is a mere pretext, a simple rallying-cry to unite the masses against minorities and against traditional associations. “It can as well be radical equality as inequality, godly piety as atheism, labor as capital, Christian brotherhood as the toiling masses.” In all of its forms, however, modern totalitarianism is not constructive, but revolutionary. The Nazi and Fascist parties were destructive instruments, made possible by the hysteria and loneliness of the masses who supported them with enthusiasm; though now and again these ideologies might endeavor to disguise themselves by talk of “family” and “tradition,” this was no more than pretense: their whole nature and object was revolutionary. “Far from being, as it is sometimes absurdly argued, a lineal product of nineteenth-century Conservatism, totalitarianism is, in fact, the very opposite of it.” The totalitarian order destroys minorities by force and terror, but employs flattery and bribery to retain the support of the masses. The modern totalitarian state is never an unpopular creation.

To destroy or diminish the reality of the smaller areas of society, to abolish or restrict the range of cultural alternatives offered individuals by economic endeavor, religion, and kinship, is to destroy in time the roots of the will to resist despotism in its larger forms. In its negative aspects totalitarianism is thus a ceaseless process of cultural nihilism. How else can the individual be separated from the traditions and values which, if allowed to remain intact, would remind him constantly of his cultural past? A sense of the past is far more basic to the maintenance of freedom than hope for the future. . . . Hence the relentless effort by totalitarian governments to destroy memory. And hence the ingenious techniques for abolishing the social allegiances within which individual memory is given strength and power of resistance.

Liberalism is a dead thing; its life, indeed, as movements go, was very short, commencing in the last years of the eighteenth century. The leaders of liberalism assumed that a man is sufficient unto himself; and that assumption was fallacious, for man cannot subsist without community. Individualism and popular sovereignty, the two chief objects of the liberals, have been overwhelmed by the masses and the total state. But the conservatives, who never abandoned the idea of community, still retain vitality, and with them lies the hope for arresting the growth of totalitarianism. “Whatever the basic intellectual significance of existentialism, its present popularity, especially in Western Europe, is one more example of the flamelike attraction that moral atomism and solipsism have for the disinherited and the alienated. When even the ideas of humanitarian liberalism are consigned by the intellectual to the same charnel house that holds the bones of capitalism and nationalism, his emancipation is complete. He is now free—in all his solitary misery.” Rousseau and his disciples were resolved to force men to be free; in most of the world, they triumphed; men are set free from church, class, guild, town, family; but they wear, instead, the chains of the state, and expire of ennui or stifling loneliness:

It is absurd to suppose that the rhetoric of nineteenth-century individualism will offset present tendencies in the direction of the absolute political community. Alienation, frustration, the sense of aloneness—these, as we have seen, are the major states of mind in Western society at the present time. The image of man is decidedly different from what it was in the day of Mill. It is ludicrous to hold up the asserted charms of individual release and emancipation to populations whose most burning problems are those arising, today, from moral and social release. To do so is but to make the way of the Grand Inquisitor the easier. For this is the appeal, as we have seen, of the totalitarian prophet—to “rescue” masses of atomized individuals from their intolerable individualism.

Yet real individuality is desperately needed in our age; and so is democracy—not unitary democracy, like that of Turgot or Rousseau, but the democracy which means genuine participation of the citizen in communal affairs; and so is liberty—though not the dogmatic “liberalism” of the last century. All these are barriers against totalitarian power. How may true individuality and democracy and liberal spirit contend successfully against Leviathan? Why, first of all, by acting upon the venerable principle that the will is free. More than anything else, the influence which has aided the growth of the total state has been the assumption that such is the inevitable course of history. The prophecies of Marx, like the prophecies of Knox, were of the order of those that work their own fulfillment. (One of the clearest instances of this, by the way, is the pessimism of Henry and Brooks Adams, who surrendered to the predictions of Marx even while they detested his whole system.) If a conviction of the inevitability of gradualism prevails in the minds of men a few years longer, “the transition from liberal democracy to totalitarianism will not seem too arduous or unpleasant. It will indeed be scarcely noticed save by the ‘utopians,’ the ‘reactionaries,’ and similar eccentrics.”

Centralization and political collectivism, however, are not irresistibly ordained, the fashionable current of opinion among the “intellectuals” notwithstanding. “Among modern intellectuals the cardinal sin is that of failing to remain on the locomotive of history, to use Lenin’s expressive phrase.” The fashionable intellectual is wrong through and through in this assumption, as he is in nearly everything else. Men are rational beings, not creatures of circumstances purely; they still have it in their power to arrest this totalitarian evil, which is a necessity only to hopelessly decadent societies.

To check centralization and usurpation of power, Mr. Nisbet continues, we need a new laissez-faire. The old laissez-faire was founded upon a misapprehension of human nature, an exaltation of individuality (in private character often a virtue) to the state of a political dogma, which destroyed the spirit of community and reduced men to so many equipollent atoms of humanity, without sense of brotherhood or purpose. And this old laissez-faire, once confronted with the brute force of the masses and the intricate machine of collectivism, necessarily collapsed because it had no communal force behind it; the individual stood defenseless before the commissar. Our new laissez-faire, however, “will hold fast to the ends of autonomy and freedom of choice.” It will commence not with the abstract Economic Man or Citizen, but with “the personalities of human beings as they are actually given to us in association.” The new laissez-faire will endeavor to create conditions “within which autonomous groups may prosper.” It will recognize as the basic social unit the group: the family, the local community, the trade union, the church, the college, the profession. It will seek not unity, not centralization, not power over great masses of men, but rather diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority. Repudiating the error of the total State, it will espouse the sort of State through which, as Burke says, Omniscience designed that men should seek their perfection as persons.

It is a State that knows that the political absorption of the institutional functions of an association, be it family, local community, or trade union, must soon be followed by the loss or weakening of psychological devotions to that association. It is a State that seeks to diversify and decentralize its own administrative operations and to relate these as closely as possible to the forms of spontaneous association which are the outgrowth of human needs and desires…It seeks cultural diversity, not uniformity. It does not make a fetish of either social order or personal adjustment, but it recognizes that the claims of freedom and cultural autonomy will never have recognition until the great majority of individuals in society have a sense of cultural membership in the significant and meaningful relationships of kinship, religion, occupation, profession, and locality. It will not spurn the demands by which such demands can be met through spontaneous association and creation rather than through bureaucratic rigidities of formal law and administration.

This State is very like the just State which the greatest modern defender of ordered liberty, Edmund Burke, perceived half-realized in the English constitution; and very like the future which John Adams sought for the United States of America. In such a State, the primacy of ethics is recognized, and the true freedom of the person, which subsists in community, is guarded with jealousy. It is good to hear a voice from California saying these things; this is one more proof that our country, coming of age, has begun to return to a respect for the wisdom of our ancestors.

Mr. Weaver and Mr. Nisbet are two sane men in a frenzied time. They are bold, but moderate; severe, but generous-minded. The rising generation of thinking Americans speaks through them. They know that language is not a mere device for expression of sensations, but an instrument of divine origin, intended for the promulgation of Truth. They know that community is no mere aggregation of individuals under democratic despotism, but a voluntary union of numberless groups for their common improvement. I think that they, and men like them, will dam the current of “necessity” which for a century has swept veneration and freedom and variety down toward the salt flats of the total state and the life-in-death culture. When ideas like those of Mr. Weaver and Mr. Nisbet begin to be apprehended widely, a more profound reform than any mere political or economic scheme will have been set in motion. Imagination rules the world still. When we are able to distinguish god-terms from the true meanings of words, we will cease to call a jack-boot despotism “progressive,” or a unitary power “democratic”; and we may amend our actions accordingly. When we are able to distinguish Economic Man from the civil social person, we shall begin to prefer Justice over a dubious “Efficiency.” Fallacious first principles have debased rhetoric and ravaged community for more than a century and a half. Back to sound first principles, if we value human nature and civilization, we must turn very soon. These two books point the way for us.

© The Russell Kirk Legacy, LLC


* indicates required
The University Bookman
Permanent Things newsletter

Support the Kirk Center’s Work

If you would like to help us continue this digital archive project, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Share This

Subscribe to the University Bookman