One of the mainstays of the left these days is to speak ill of “individualism,” while employing an uncritical use of “community.” The U.S. Catholic bishops joined this chorus in their pastoral on the U.S. economy. So did Robert Bellah and colleagues in Habits of the Heart, a useful and good but oddly bent argument. (It omits, for example, the main proponents of small communities, the neoconservatives.) What does the left recommend to cure the “evil of excessive individualism”? In one way or another, it calls for a more spirited “national community” led, paid for, and activated by bigger government. While some on the left now make bows (more so than a decade ago) to “mediating institutions” and “local communities,” all quickly point out that the latter are not enough; centralized national action is indispensable.
Robert Nisbet’s essay in this issue demonstrates brilliantly how these two leftist tendencies came to be linked: A new and diseased form of individualism entered modern history through the massive centralization of the state that grew from the War of 1914. Nihilism arose in the trenches. The massive indifference with which states sent wave after wave of young men to anonymous death helped to sever traditional bonds of individual morality. Logistical support for massive armies led to extreme centralization. Both the self-esteem of the free individual and the nature of the state were altered beyond recognition.
Awarded the 1988 Jefferson Lectureship in the Humanities, America’s highest honor for intellectual contributions to American civilization, Robert Nisbet is one of the great social thinkers of our century. The staying power of his many books (The Quest for Community, The Social Philosophers, The Social Bond, A History of the Idea of Progress, etc.) assures him both fame that will last for generations and a place among such favorites of his as Weber, Durkheim, Tocqueville, and his best-beloved Burke. Few sociologists surpass him in his mastery of the arts of prose, best exhibited perhaps in his marvelous Sociology as an Art Form.
Professor Nisbet has often praised two features of Catholic social thought: its emphasis upon the primacy of morals in social life, and its long and loving care for local communities (“the little platoons” that Edmund Burke celebrated as society’s most vital and dynamic moral units). World War I, Nisbet perceives, disrupted Christian culture throughout Europe, and injured Tocquevillian culture in America.
The Great War bred the Great State, different in kind from the state that had been honored in traditional political philosophy. During World War I the state became massive, centralized, impersonal, bureaucratized. Like a harsh wind, it stripped bare the thick foliage of local communities, leaving behind wintry branches. Then, as the vitality of mediating structures was frozen over, the Great State expanded to gigantesque proportions, filling every vacuum that its own continuing aggrandizement created. No longer protected by small communities, the healthy individual first observed by Tocqueville in America yielded to a diseased type.
The Tocquevillian individual was a full member of many communities, supremely active in multiple associations, happy, vigorous, public-spirited, and inclined to believe that to pursue the public interest contributed to his own self-interest, and that to achieve his own self-interest in an enlightened way was to strengthen the public good. In Europe, individualism in 1830 meant self-enclosure and egoism, Tocqueville observed; in the young United States, the founders took public-spirited precautions against it. Similarly, “self-interest” in Europe meant selfishness, but in America it meant “self-interest rightly understood,” that is, the habit of fulfilling both the public interest and self-interest through the same large-minded and thoughtful actions.
World War I, Nisbet argues, lies at the origin of “the crisis” that today wracks the Catholic Church, western civilization, and indeed even the socialist world (which, alas, provides an ideology for the collectivist ills that have their origins in that Great War). This crisis has two parts: (1) the abandonment of the individual to naked and unprotected desires and wishes—in short, to the winds of inner nihilism—caused by (2) the vast collectivization of the war-spawned central state. By no means is the modern bureaucratic state the state of Aristotle, Aquinas, or classic Catholic thought. By no means is the modern naked individual the community-building, Tocquevillian individual of the American tradition.
The editors believe that Professor Nisbet’s essay is one of the most profound we have yet published, and that it identifies crisply the radical “crisis” it is the mission of this magazine to identify exactly, so that it may be overcome. We promise to publish the best of the varied responses we expect this powerful article to stimulate. Professor Nisbet’s intention was to provoke for the record challenging disagreements.