The Ghost of Russell Kirk

Column: What would the original 'Conservative Mind' think of today?

Russell Kirk and Ronald Reagan
The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal Facebook page
October 19, 2018

Recently I've been haunted by the memory of Russell Kirk. October 19 is the centenary of the author of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (1953). The spectral metaphor fits Kirk, who died in 1994. He was as celebrated for his Gothic horror fiction as for his dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of columns on philosophy, history, academe, politics, and what he liked to call "humane letters." He made some money from his ghost stories, too, which helped Kirk and his wife Annette raise four daughters and host countless guests, students, and refugees at their home in rural Mecosta, Michigan. This almost-forgotten father of American conservatism gave the movement a name and an intellectual ancestry. How would he respond to the world of 2018?

My guess is he wouldn’t like it. With his capes, cravats, three-piece suits, pocket-watches, and walking sticks, Kirk belonged more to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than to the twentieth. He was a man out of time. His friends included T.S. Eliot, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O'Connor. His enemy was ideology—the attempt to reconstruct social order according to subjective, abstract, rationalist plans. His weapon in this battle was the "sword of imagination." Infused with myth, poetry, history, and quotations from great works, Kirk's prose was meant to elicit from his readers a sense of connection not only with other persons but also with generations past and generations to come. "My historical books, my polemical writings, my literary criticism, and even my fiction," he wrote to his publisher Henry Regnery in 1987, "have been meant to resist the ideological passions that have been consuming civilization ever since 1914—what Arnold Toynbee calls our 'time of troubles.'"

He succeeded with this reader. I picked up The Conservative Mind as a college junior after coming across a reference to it in Jonah Goldberg's G-File. Like many others over the last 60-odd years, I was taken by Kirk's prose style and considerable learning. His interpretations of Edmund Burke and John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville inspired me, even as I was leery of his attitude toward John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun. Kirk's reliance on tradition, prescription, and prudence sparked a heated argument with a close friend over the extent to which principle and natural right ought to inform our judgments of society. From Kirk I moved on to Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences (1948), but got lost in its attack on William of Ockham, who died in 1347. The conservatism of Kirk and Weaver was rich and thought provoking, but it didn't strike me as particularly relevant to the foreign and domestic politics of the early twenty-first century. Only later would I hear David Brooks's joke that you can tell what kind of conservative you are by how far back you would turn the clock.

I understand now that in some ways my reaction confirmed Kirk and Weaver's theses. They and other thinkers such as Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) and Leo Strauss (1899-1973) argued that we have moved so far from the traditional self-understanding of Western civilization that we are unable to recognize or comprehend it. Hence the task of the conservative intellectual, according to Kirk, was reawakening our sense of the past. He wanted to reintroduce the mental frameworks through which the eminent conservatives of literature and politics had interpreted the world. "The intellectual foundation which Burke and his associates took for granted," Kirk wrote in the introduction to his Portable Conservative Reader (1982), "was what since has been called the Great Tradition—that is, the classical and Christian intellectual patrimony which then still formed the curriculum of schools." And has largely disappeared.

Kirk offered his readers neither 10-point policy agendas nor well-wrought plans for reform of Social Security and the defense acquisitions process. He provided general principles or canons of conservatism: belief in the existence of a transcendental moral order; a fondness for customs, prescriptions, and prejudices (rightly understood); a reliance on prudence; love of variety of social roles and orders and classes; support for private property; fear of concentrations of power in government, business, and labor; an understanding that order precedes both justice and freedom.

In a 1990 missive collected in James Person's essential Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk, Kirk told Adam Meyerson, then-editor of the journal Policy Review, "For conservatives, the first necessity lies beyond politics. It is the regaining of a spiritual and moral object in life, the lack of which is the cause of most of the troubles that afflict mankind nowadays. Without a recognized end in existence, we are flung into what Burke called the 'antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.'"

The danger to this approach, Irving Kristol (1920-2009) pointed out, was that it might reduce conservatism to nothing more than nostalgia for a romanticized past. What was necessary, Kristol wrote, was nothing less than an ideological conservatism—a conservatism that "thought politically." To think politically, Kristol said, was to be interested in "shaping the future."

By the era of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution, it was clear that Kristol had won the argument. "From having been the party of resistance to the liberal agenda, the Republican Party is now preparing to be the governing party with its own agenda," he wrote in The Washington Post in 1995. "And in a modern democracy, integrated into a dynamic world economy, with a high degree of individual liberty and individual mobility, any successful conservative party has to be (a) future-oriented in its economic and social agenda while (b) retaining powerful links to traditional moral and cultural values."

Pay attention to the words following item (b) in the above paragraph. It's clear that, despite their semantic differences, Kirk and Kristol had something in common. Indeed, in a 1975 letter, Kirk pronounced Kristol "a force for good." He included the editor of The Public Interest (1965-2005) in his conservative anthology. Interestingly, Kirk excluded from that volume William F. Buckley Jr.—possible revenge for all the books of Kirk's that National Review did not review.

One of the great counterfactuals of conservative history is what might have happened had Kirk and the paleoconservatives not broken with neoconservatives. The two camps fought over the appointment of William J. Bennett as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the direction of the Rockford Institute and Chronicles magazine, and Operations Desert Shield (1990) and Desert Storm (1991). These antagonisms contributed to a breach in the conservative intellectual movement that only has grown worse. Kirk expressed this perpetual distrust of neoconservatives when he callously said, in a lecture to the Heritage Foundation, that some of them mistake Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States. Here was a rare example not only of Kirk giving offense but also of mixing up his facts. The capital of Israel, as we all know, is Jerusalem.

The truth is that, for all of its emphasis on spirit and the imagination, Kirk's conservatism necessarily implies certain real-world applications. Taken together, these constitute a dreaded "agenda." An America-First foreign policy is only one of them—and the most divisive. Most conservatives would agree with the rest of a program inferred from his conclusions. Another corollary of Kirk's thought, for example, is strict constitutionalism. Kirk called the U.S. Constitution "the most successful conservative device." He was indefatigable in its defense. That is reason to approve of President Trump's originalist and textualist judges, while advocating judicial restraint over engagement.

An opponent of bureaucracy and centralization such as Kirk would also support the deconstruction of the administrative state through deregulation, a pause in rule-making, the reassertion of congressional imperatives, and judicial enforcement of the separation of powers. And he would oppose technocratic elitism. "To prate of 'democracy' but actually to invest decision-making in the hands of administrators at the nation's capital," Kirk wrote in 1990, "is either hypocrisy or dense ignorance."

Conservative critics of Silicon Valley might also seek guidance from Kirk. He was a critic of libertarianism and free-market dogma who often referred to trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt as a conservative hero. Kirk, for whom television was an abomination, would be horrified at the "bread & circuses" of debt-financed entitlement spending and Candy Crush Saga for Android. Followers of Kirk are antagonists of progressive elitism as well as demagogic populism. The power of our tech oligarchs should be diffused, our avariciousness reined in, and "King Mob" prevented from assuming his throne.

Years of conservative political power have not arrested the decline of character-building institutions such as family, school, and church. The task for traditionalist conservatives is to build a shelter over the places where children are raised to be self-governing citizens, insulating them as much as possible from the stultifying and corrosive effects of political correctness and cultural decadence. That means protecting religious freedom, extending school choice, the home-school movement, apprenticeships, and vocational training, and encouraging federalism and localism, as well as making family formation easier by increasing the supply of housing.

Kirk would remind us that government should first do no harm. Allow people to renew civil society as best they can. "Conservatives should not expect overmuch of public policies, especially policies projected by the federal government," he wrote. "Most restoration and improvement must be contrived and effected by individuals and voluntary associations, and in local communities. This is true of schooling especially. A policy of discouraging grandiose and visionary policies, abroad or at home, would be the most prudent of all policies."

Russell Kirk's shade points us to a less dogmatic and more modest conservatism. This is a temperament willing to adapt to present circumstances. Nor is it afraid to ignore the admonitions of economists and central planners. Kirk's is a conservatism of the heart centered in the old places where human connections are multiple and enduring. It is well versed in the Great Books. It is eager to defend hearth and home, faith and family, and classical and religious education against the gathering armies of wokeness. Revisiting Russell Kirk on his hundredth birthday, our eyes are opened not only to the intellectual lineage of conservatism. We also glimpse the daunting future that awaits it. And yet, as Kirk put it, it is precisely by facing these challenges honestly that conservatives might "succeed in capturing the imagination of the rising generation."