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Robert Nisbet on Tradition and Revolt

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It is a common theme in fairy tales and other stories that the loser of the struggle will tell the victor that their victory will come with a cost. We see a similar theme in the Bible with the prophets–perhaps most famously when Israel finally gets the king they wanted so they could be like the other nations.  Samuel warns them—you have gotten your desires, but they will come at a cost.

Robert Nisbet uses a similar image in the introduction to Tradition and Revolt, a collection of essays, in which he examines the historical conflict between traditionalism and modernism that began in the 18th century with industrial and democratic revolutions.   These revolutions brought about great social change and what is often called the “social question,” which spurred so much writing and analysis from Marx and Engels, to Tocqueville and Leo XIII and the beginning of modern Catholic Social Teaching.

Nisbet notes that in the struggle between modernism and tradition, the moderns won the struggle, but conservatives and anti-Enlightenment thinkers like Burke, Tocqueville, Hegel and other post-revolutionary thinkers still have profound influence on our thought. Their worries stay with us today. Nisbet writes, “In reading their works today, one can discern the outlines of a curse that, in Parthian fashion, they hurled at the victors.”  He argues that the conservatives said “in effect:”

You have defeated our hopes for the revival of the old regime. Europe will become, as you have chosen, ever more democratic equalitarian, affluent, rational, and secular. So be it. But our curse upon posterity is this:

However democratic society becomes, it will never seem democratic enough. The sense of relative and democracy will incessantly enlarge.  However broad and popular the base of political power, the sense of relative powerless will only spread.   No matter how equal men become in rights and opportunity, the sense of relative inequality will grow and fester. Spreading the economic influence will only leave men haunted by the specter of relative poverty.  individualism and secularism, far from buoying up the sense of creative release will shortly leave many of them with the agonizing sense of estrangement — first from community then from self. And over the whole wondrous achievement of modern technology and culture will hover the ghosts of community, membership, identity, and certainty.”

Nisbet continues

Lest the curse I have described seemed fanciful, let me refer the reader to a single work written in the early 19th century by a conservative, the second volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America from which I have drawn it almost word for word.

Nisbet wrote this introduction in 1968 and it is truer now then it was then.  When we look at the claims from progressives for more equality, the chants to “abolish profit,” humanitarian worries about poverty even as poverty decreases, the transgender movement where even biology cannot be a limiting factor, and all the worries about technology divorced from morality, we can see that Nisbet—and his mentor Tocqueville had prescience worth considering.

Tocqueville’s worries about soft despotism and the problems of individualism and centralization are especially relevant today.  If you haven’t read Tocqueville or it has been a while, start with his chapter on what kind of despotism will occur in democracies — Read Democracy in America, Vol 2, Book 4, Chapter 6.

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Michael Matheson Miller Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute

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