Nisbet on Messianic War

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“The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the twentieth century.” – Robert A. Nisbet (1953).

From his first book in 1953 until his final book on social theory in 1988, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet warned against war as the destroyer of both social stability and liberty. He viewed war as the social force above all forces in society that can lead, and has led, to the centralization of the state, which has made mass politics possible. It undermines men’s faith in local associations, which therefore undermines the cultural pluralism and localism that retard centralization and bureaucratization.

Oxford University Press published The Quest for Community in 1953. Its subtitle was A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom. The book was published early in the Cold War. He finished the manuscript in 1952. In 1952, the United States detonated the first H-bomb. In 1952, the truce which ended the Korean War in 1953 had not been signed. Josef Stalin was still alive when he wrote it; he died in 1953. Joseph McCarthy was gaining influence. The conservative movement was, more than anything else, an extension of the anti-Communist movement. The nation had just elected a general to be President.

There was a free market side of the conservative movement. F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom appeared in 1944. It was condensed in the Reader’s Digest in 1945. Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson appeared in 1946. Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action appeared in 1949. But it was not this intellectual stream which caught the attention and widespread support of conservatives in 1953. It was the anti-Communist crusade.

This is why Nisbet’s book seemed unlikely to become a foundation stone in the development of the conservative intellectual movement in America. It appeared in the same year that Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind appeared. Prior to 1953, there was no intellectual conservative movement in the United States. Nisbet in 1952 had never heard of Kirk. Hardly anyone had heard of Nisbet.

Nisbet’s book remains in print, six decades later, published since 2010 by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which was founded in 1953 as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. The ISI was an early attempt to create intellectual leadership for the fledgling movement. It was co-founded by William F. Buckley and libertarian Frank Choderov.

Nisbet began his public criticism of the modern warfare state in 1953. His final book on social theory began with a criticism of the Pentagon as a betrayal of limited government. This was in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall went down, three years before the Soviet Union committed suicide. The world had lived under the threat of nuclear war the entire time. The fall of the USSR in December 1991 served as the headstone of the French Revolution, the movement that Nisbet had spent his entire academic career criticizing for its totalitarianism. The totalitarian impulse was alive and well in 1953.


Nisbet’s book was an explanation of the rise of totalitarian political movements. In chapter two, he wrote these words.

Contemporary prophets of the totalitarian communities seek, with all the techniques of modern science at their disposal, to transmute popular cravings for community into a millennial sense of participation in heavenly power on earth. When suffused by popular spiritual devotions, the political party becomes more than a party. It becomes a moral community of almost religious intensity, a deeply evocative symbol of collective, redemptive purpose, a passion that implicates every element of belief and behavior in the individual’s existence (OUP ed., p. 33).

Nisbet was an anti-Communist. But he was an anti-Communist who saw deeply into the foundations of human psychology that lead people to become Communists.

The evidence is strong that the typical convert to communism is a person for whom the processes of ordinary existence are morally empty and spiritually insupportable. His own alienation is translated into the perceived alienation of the many. Consciously or unconsciously he is in quest of secure belief in solid membership in an associative order. Of what avail or proofs of the classroom, semantic analyses, and logical exportations to this kind of human being? So long as he finds belief and membership in his Marxism he will no more be dissuaded by simple adjuration then would the primitive token list.

Until we see that communism offers today, for many people, something of the inspired mixture of community and assertive individuality offered two thousand years ago in the cities of the Roman Empire, by the tiny but potent Christian communities, we shall be powerless to combat it. It will not be exorcised by the incantations of individualism, for, paradoxical as it may seem, in the Communist Party community, the individual is constantly supported by feelings of almost millennial personal freedom (pp. 34-35).

By the time Nisbet wrote these words, a series of autobiographies by former communists had found a wide audience. The most famous of them was Whittaker Chambers’ 1952 book, Witness, but there were many others. Within the liberal community, The God That Failed (1949) was the favorite. The authors had remained leftists. But all of the defectors spoke of similar experiences. They had been given meaning in their lives as members of a political movement which they believed to be redemptive. The redemption was not just personal; it was social.

Nisbet wrote: “The greatest appeal of the totalitarian party, Marxist or other, lies in its capacity to provide a sense of moral coherence and communal membership to those who have become, to one degree or other, victims of the sense of exclusion from the ordinary channels of belonging in society” (p. 37) On the next page, he began his critique of war.

The power of war to create a sense of moral meaning is one of the most frightening aspects of the twentieth century. In war, innumerable activities that normally seem onerous or empty of significance take on new and vital meaning. Function and meaning tend to become dramatically fused in time of war (p. 38).

He went on to describe the emotional impact of war.

One of the most impressive aspects of contemporary war is the intoxicating atmosphere of spiritual unity that arises out of the common consciousness of participating in a moral crusade. War is no longer simply an affair of military establishments and matériel and soldiers. It is now something more nearly akin to the Crusades of medieval Europe, but in the name of the nation rather than the Church (p. 39).

He went on to say that socialism is promoted during wartime.

It is a commonplace that nationalism is nourished by the emotions of organized war. We are less likely to notice that many of the historic goals of secular humanitarianism are similarly nourished. More than one historian has observed that it is in time of war that many of the reforms, first advocated by socialists, have been accepted by capitalist governments and made parts of the structures of their societies. Equalization of wealth, progressive taxation, nationalization of industries, the raising of wages and improvements in working conditions, worker-management councils, housing ventures, death taxes, unemployment insurance plans, pension systems, and the enfranchisement of formerly faultless elements of the population have all been, in one country or another, achieved or advanced under the impress of war. The tremendous surge toward unity and the resolution of group differences, which is a part of modern war, carries with it certain leveling and humanitarian measures not to be omitted from the full history of modern warfare (pp. 39-40).

He was just getting warmed up.

Society obtains its maximum sense of organization and community and its most exalted sense of moral purpose during the period of war. Since it is always, now, identified with a set of essentially nonmilitary values – democracy, freedom, hatred of fascism, et cetera – there is an inevitable tendency for the nature of war itself to become more spiritualized and to seem more moral (p. 40). . . .

The centralization and bureaucratic regimentation which have always been native to organized warfare are, in the twentieth century, extended to widening areas of social and cultural life. War symbolism and the practical techniques of war administration have come to penetrate more and more of the minor areas of social function and allegiance. More and more of the incentives of science, education, and industry are made it to rest upon contributions to the war effort (p. 41). . . .

The line between civil and military administration becomes thinner and thinner. It is an easy matter to pass by imperceptible degrees from the primacy of real needs for the war effort to the primacy of reeal needs for the war effort to the primacy and dominance of pretended needs for war. Moreover, the traditional austerity, discipline, and unity of military command, together with all its reputed efficiencies, come to have increasing appeal to large elements of the population. Mere tactical excellences of military officers become converted, to the alchemy of popular adulation, into imagined moral and political wisdom without limit. The military man succeeds in prestige the scholar, the scientist, the businessman, and the clergyman. Inevitably there is a tendency to magnify the importance of civil and moral pursuits by clothing them in military garments, by replacing normal hierarchies of leadership in prestige but the hierarchy of military rank and command. The discipline of war becomes community itself (p. 42).

This book was published in the first year of the Eisenhower administration.

In chapter eight, “The Total Community,” he returned to this theme.

It is the characteristic of the total State, as Peter Drucker has pointed out, that the distinction between ordinary civil society and the army is obliterated. The natural diversity of society is swept away, and the centralization and on the competence native to the war band become the organizing principles of human life. We have already noted the power of war, in the twentieth century, to inspire a sense of moral community. This power is exploited to the full in totalitarian society (p. 206).

Nisbet was arguing clearly that the impulse toward modern warfare is inherently anti-conservative. This is why it is remarkable that this book, written in the early phase of the Cold War, subsequently became one of about a half dozen of the foundation stones of the modern intellectual conservative movement.

He did not believe that war is the only source of such centralization in society. He wrote,

It is not war anymore than it is race or economic class that is central. What is central is simply the absolute substitution of the State for all the diversified associations of which society is normally composed.

In the totalitarian order the political tie becomes the all-in-all. It needs the masses as the masses need it. It integrates even where it dissolves, unifies where it separates, inspires where it suffocates. The rulers of the total community devise their own symbolism to replace the symbolism that has been destroyed by the creation of the masses (p. 206).

In chapter eleven, the final chapter, he returned to this theme.

In this development of unitary democracy, of bureaucratic centralization, contemporary mass warfare has, of course, a profoundly contributory significance. `War is the health of the state,’ Randolph Bourne once declared. It is the health of the state as it is the disease, or rather than starvation, of other areas of social function in authority. Everything we observed earlier this book with respect to the community-making properties of mass warfare in the contemporary world is deeply relevant to the administrative problem of liberal democracy (P. 259). . . .

It is precisely this military imperative of governmental centralization that makes continued warfare, or preparation for war, have so deadly an effect on all other institutions in society. For it is difficult to perform the administrative measures necessary to political and military centralization without drawing in drastic fashion from the functions, the authorities, and the allegiances that normally fall to such institutions as religion, profession, labor union, school, and local community. Quite apart from direct administrative action, the sheer brilliance of the fires of war has the effect of making dim all of the other lights of culture (p. 260).


Thirty-five years later, in his final book on social theory, The Present Age, he returned to this theme. He began the book with a chapter on “The Prevalence of War.” He began with these words. “Of all the faces of the present age in America, the military face would almost certainly prove the most astounding to any Framers of the Constitution, any Founders of the Republic who came back to inspect their creation on the occasion of the Bicentennial.”

The returned Framers would not be surprised to learn that so vast a military has inexorable effects upon the economy, the structure of government, and even the culture of Americans; they had witnessed such effects in Europe from afar, and had not liked what they saw. What would doubtless astonish the Framers most, though, is that their precious republic has become an imperial power in the world, much like the Great Britain they had hated in the eighteenth century. Finally, the Framers would almost certainly swoon when they learned that America has been participant in the Seventy-Five Years War that has gone on, rarely punctuated, since 1914, and all of this, the Framers would sorrowfully fine, done under the selfsame structure of government that they had themselves built (p. 1).

Nisbet understood what World War I had done to this country.

When the war broke out in Europe in 1914 America was still, remarkably, strikingly, pretty much the same country and moral, social, and cultural respects that it had been for a century. We were still, in 1914, the people rooted largely in the mentality of the village and small town, still suspicious of large cities in the styles of living that went with these cities. The states were immensely important, just as the Founding Fathers in the Framers intended them to be. It was hard to find a truly national culture, a national consciousness, in 1914. The Civil War had, of course, removed forever philosophical, as well as actively political, doubts of the reality of the union as a sovereign state. But in terms of habits of mind, customs, traditions, full literature, indeed written literature, speech accent, dress, and so forth, America could still be looked at as a miscellany of cultures held together, but not otherwise much influence, by the federal government in Washington. For the vast majority of Americans, from east to west, north to south, the principal, if not sold, link with the national government was the postal system – and perhaps also the federal income tax, which was approved at long last by constitutional amendment in 1913.

The great war changed all of this, by November 1918 after four years of war in Europe for nearly two years of it for America, the whole world was changed, Europe itself ceased in substantial degree to be a contained civilization, and the United States, after close to two years of what can only a cold wrenching military nationalism under the charismatic Woodrow Wilson, was brought at last into the modern world of nations. State loyalties and appeals to states’ rights would not vanish overnight; they are gone yet in constitutional law, and aren’t likely to be. But whereas prior to 1914 one loss saw the gravamen of American development in the four dozen states, provinces in European terms, by 1920, it had shifted to the national culture, with the states becoming increasingly archaic (pp. 2-3).

Nisbet believed that America under Woodrow Wilson had adopted Wilson’s axiom: “What America touches, she makes holy.” America had seen itself as a redeemer nation since the early seventeenth century, but not a redeemer nation that is armed and dangerous. After World War I, this perception changed permanently: the tools of America’s redemptive mission are military. “Ever since Wilson, with only rarest exceptions, American foreign-policy has been turned not to national interest but to national morality.”

Born Calvinist, with a deep sense of sin and wickedness, and of the necessity of living by God’s grace, and the necessity of preaching and ministering this grace to the multitude, Wilson gradually transferred the content, but not the fire, of his faith to the American republic. His book The State enables us to see how in his mind the true church for him had become not the historic church, the institutional church, but the state – provided, of course, that it was permeated by virtue, goodness, and redemptiveness. . . .

World war was thus cut out for a mind of Wilson’s passionate moralism. What he and America did had to be eternally right, before mankind and God. He had been appointed by God to serve the blessed American republic and to determine what was right in the war. His final decision, which germinated all through 1916, the year of his reelection under the banner of “He kept us out of war,” and came to thunderous expression in early 1917, was that neutrality must be scrapped for intervention. He had been right in his policy of neutrality but the world and the war had changed; and now he must, with equal godliness and righteousness, do the very opposite – that is, plead with heart and soul for immediate American intervention (pp. 30-31).

Nisbet ended the chapter with these words.

No nation in history has ever managed permanent war and a permanent military Leviathan at its heart and been able to maintain a truly representative character. The transformation of the Roman Republic into the dictatorial empire was accomplished solely through war and the military. Is the United States somehow the divinely created exception to this ubiquitous fact of world history? Not, assuredly, if instead of a foreign policy based on national security and finite objectives associated with this security, we indulge ourselves in a foreign policy with an “itch to intervene,” and a purpose flowing out of the preposterous fantasy of a world recreated in the image and likeness of that city on a hill known as the United States of America. That way lies total confusion abroad and an ever more monolithic and absolute military bureaucracy at home (p. 39).

The Soviet Union is gone. The American Empire is not.


From 1953 until his death in 1996, Nisbet declared himself against modern democratic mass warfare. He offered a sociological and cultural defense of this opposition in 1953, and he looked back in 1988 at what the United States military had become, and he saw that there was a pattern in it – one launched in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson. He rejected it, root and branch.

He did not deviate from this position throughout the period of his academic influence. He stayed on target throughout the entire period. He did not trust the Wilsonian vision for America. He saw it as a throwback, not to the American Revolution, but to the French Revolution. Following the tradition of European conservatives after Edmund Burke, he saw the connection between democracy and war. He wrote this in his book, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (1986).

So too there is a close affinity between democracy and the widening and leveling of warfare. It was the Revolution, as all the early conservatives pointed out, that instituted for the first time in history, a national conscription, the famous levée en masse. Warfare, all of a sudden, lost the limited character it had had in the pre-Revolutionary age, with more or less finite purposes – usually dynamic or territorial – a fixed order of battle, and a great deal of post-feudal ceremony. With the Revolutionary armies on the march, war became the crusade for freedom, equality and fraternity that inevitably brought with it the ever-larger armies and ever-expanding purposes seen in the nineteenth century. Taine observed that democracy puts a knapsack on every male while it gives him the ballot (p. 58).

In 1961, he wrote this in Commentary.

Writing as one who dislikes even mild forms of socialism, I can understand readily that Communism, wherever it is, and however isolated it may be, is an evil. But I do not know what this fact has to do with measures that can feasibly be taken by a national foreign policy and defense structure. I see measures that can meaningfully and feasibly be taken with respect to Russia, or to any other hostile and dangerous national socialism in the world, but I can no more imagine a foreign policy directed toward the destruction of “world Communism” than I can one directed toward world paganism.

Today, the government is trying to contain “terrorism.” What he said about “World Communism” applies even more forcefully to terrorism.

Here is the threat:

In human terms, to suppose that the United States can long maintain a political and military machine of containment dimensions without destroying the localism, pluralism, and free enterprise in all spheres that are the true basis of American freedom and creativity, is to suppose utter fantasy. The affinity between militarism and socialist collectivism is, and has been throughout history, a close one. Far closer, let me emphasize, than the affinity between collectivism and, say, the speeches and writings of socialist propagandists.

The American conservative movement has not believed this ever since World War II began. Pearl Harbor did more than sink battleships. It sank the Old Right.

May 1, 2013

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 31-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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