A tribute to Russell Kirk

With the death of Russell Kirk on April 29th at the age of 75, American conservatism has lost one of its true giants.

Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, by far the most powerful conservative force in the United States was the tradition we now call “classical liberalism” (to distinguish it from the group of collectivist and redistributionist impulses that hijacked the word “liberalism” for itself a few decades back). Classical liberalism was groundedin the Enlightenment’s celebration of the freedom of the individual, and derived from that source the twin concepts of political democracy and a free market economy.

First in the United States and Britain, then ultimately all over the world, these concepts have constituted an immensely successful strategy for liberating the energies of humanity and furthering its happiness. In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Friedrich Hayek brilliantly restated the principles of classical liberalism in the teeth of the socialist doctrines then threatening to sweep the postwar world.

But mankind needs more than a strategy, however grand; it needs a purpose. One group of classical liberalism’s critics, proclaiming the “death of God,” had defined humanity’s happiness as the ultimate purpose, and set about planning this—thus spawning this century’s plague of totalitarian states. Another, more popular in the democracies of the West, had seized on the concept of “liberty” as the ultimate good, and were slowly degrading it into the undisciplined, hedonistic license we see around us today.

That was the state of affairs in 1953 when a young professor at Michigan State University published The Conservative Mind. Russell Kirk was only 34, but in this enormously influential book he almost single-handedly rooted American conservatism in the rich loam of the ancient Judaeo-Christian tradition, and thereby gave it the philosophical heft of a world-view. He also gave it its name: not even Bill Buckley, defending many of the same principles two years earlier in God and Man at Yale, had called the amalgam “conservatism.”

It would take years before Kirk, Buckley, and scores of other writers could anneal the various components of American conservatism into the fighting faith it eventually became, and even longer before their new alloy could be hammered into a political weapon capable of dominating American politics. But Kirk never wavered. Year after year the books rolled from his pen: A Program for Conservatives, Academic Freedom, Roots of American Order, and dozens more. He lived to see himself honored as one of the earliest and greatest prophets of the conservative dispensation.

By coincidence, the April [1994] issue of the American Historical Review carries a perceptive and important article by Professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia University entitled “The Problem of American Conservatism.” The “problem,” according to Professor Brinkley (who carefully disavows “any personal engagement with sympathy for conservative politics”), is “finding a suitable place for the Right—for its intellectual traditions and its social and political movements—within our historiographical concerns.”

For, as Professor Brinkley goes on to discuss at length, “American conservatism has been something of an orphan in historical scholarship.” There are many reasons for this, but ultimately he concludes that what historians must do today is open their minds. “Secular intellectuals,” he writes, including “most historians,” must “concede that they have been wrong in some of their most basic assumptions about America in our time.” They must “recognize that the progressive modernism that most scholars, and many others, have so complacently assumed has become firmly and unassailably established in America—the secularism, the relativism, the celebration of scientific progress—may not in fact be as firmly entrenched as they thought.”

If so, this country owes a huge debt of gratitude to Russell Kirk. Like George Santayana whom he admired, he can “walk contented to the peopled grave.” 

William Rusher (1923–2011) was publisher of National Review for more than three decades. This article is reprinted from his syndicated newspaper column with the permission of Newspaper Enterprise Associates, copyright 1994. Mr. Rusher was, at the time of writing, a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Another tribute to Dr. Kirk from our memorial issue. The former publisher of National Review explains the difference between conservatism and “classical liberalism” and Kirk’s irreplaceable role in intellectual history.