A Sympathetic Critic’s View of Kirk’s Legacy

I suspect I might have been asked to join this distinguished company for a very specific reason. Unlike most of the other contributors, I am not considered entirely in agreement with my subject. This certainly does not mean that I don’t respect his work, something I have occasionally risen to vindicate, and most recently in an essay defending Russell against the late Willmoore Kendall who had attacked his “antidemocratic” mindset. Additionally, I was Russell’s close friend for many years. My autobiography, which is now in press with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, witnesses to the extent and longevity of our personal relationship. If I am a critic of Russell’s work, then it should be clear that my critical opinions are mixed with very warm feelings.

Moreover, my quarrel with Russell has less to do with his conservative vision than with the application of that vision to the present age. In my view, Russell’s picture of a conservative order, as put forth in the first edition of The Conservative Mind, has no significant connection to political and social life for most of the current residents of the UnitedStates and Western Europe. And that might have been the case even when his book was published in 1953. Reading Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community about the disintegration of modern society, a consumerist culture, and the pseudo-scientific administrative state, a work produced at about the same time as The Conservative Mind, one obtains a more up-to-date sense of the course of modern Western societies than one does from Kirk’s magnum opus.

Now my intention is not to offer invidious comparisons between two towering figures of the intellectual Right. Bob Nisbet and Russell were friends, who had similar or at least overlapping understandings of cultural and social problems. The reason I am contrasting Nisbet’s social criticism to Russell’s picture of intact conservative traditions is that Nisbet’s approach now seems more relevant. Nisbet engaged those trends in social engineering and social decadence that tell us what is really going on at the present time. Russell, as a classical conservative, sometimes offers misleading comparisons, for example, when he compares at great length England opposing the French Revolution and the United States resisting Soviet expansion. England in 1791 was a traditional stratified society with an established church and a monarch; by contrast, the United States,even in the 1950s, was a welfare-state democracy, and one that by the 1960s would be veering sharply leftward while fighting Communism in the name of democracy and capitalism. As we know, Russell was of two minds about the 1950s. Although he argued that his “six canons of conservatism” remained very much in practice in post-War America, he also bitterly ridiculed the pedestrian character of the Eisenhower administration. And before he was persuaded (presumably by his publisher Henry Regnery) to give a positive spin to his study of the conservative tradition in the Anglo-American world, he had intended to call it The Conservative Rout.

But Russell also had a way of adapting to certain intractable realities. Thus in later editions of The Conservative Mind, his canons of conservatism were made to appear more user-friendly than they had been in the earlier editions, particularly when he shifted his third canon from a defense of “hierarchy and degree” to one of “orders and classes” that precluded “equality of result.” And in a speech delivered before the Heritage Foundation on June 4, 1980, Russell asserted that we were “entering upon a period of conservative policies in the American republic.” Indeed, according to Russell, “in both of the great political parties conservatives will tend to dominate.”

Although Russell eventually changed his mind about this bright future, and in the spring of 1986, he contributed his thoughts to an ISI symposium dealing critically with the Reagan administration, Russell’s earlier opinion was not a random mistake. It had sprung from his view of the historical preconditions for a “conservative movement.” Russell read into what was occurring in 1980 more of a restorationist theme than I believe circumstances warranted. And that was because he underestimated the irreversibility of the changes that had taken place even during his lifetime. He also assumed that the American Right, or at least that part of it that had not been taken over by the then ascending neoconservatives, was “conservative” in the same sense that he was. For the most part this was not the case. Opponents of the centralized welfare state, and here I would include myself, were aiming not to return to Edmund Burke’s England or to a landed society of the kind that might have existed in the nineteenth century. We were looking for something more modest and far less “conservative.” As a traditional small-government Republican, I personally hoped for a leader (which Reagan certainly was not) who would make some start toward dismantling the centralized managerial regime under which we were then living.“The great political parties” were not only not conservative but not even liberal in any classical sense. They belonged to a political class that lived off the state and held on to its power by expanding public administration.

The misfit between an ideal America representing Kirk’s “conservative tradition” and what came to exist here drove Kirk, and even more forcefully his disciples, into formulating their persuasion as “value conservatism.” This was a form of conservatism that would focus on what Kirk, quoting T. S. Eliot, had called “the permanent things.” Conservatives were urged to discuss and find applications for moral principles and concepts; and one way in which they hoped to do this was by searching for illustrations of their values in literary and historical works. There was nothing inherently unworthy about any of these educational activities; and in time they came to appeal to certain young intellectuals—and even more so as these investigations became suffused with a religious orientation which was recognizably Catholic.

Because of these transformations, conservatism, which in Europe involved a defense of an explicitly pre-modern social order against the French Revolution, became a different creature. It came to be identified with Catholic or Anglo-Catholic ethical and aestheticinstruction. It also became something less admirable, which I discuss in my work on American conservatism, the working-up of electoral slogans intended to promote Republican Party victories. What came to be marketed in electoral contests as “family values,” and was designed to appeal to “traditionalist” voters, was turned into a mass-consumer “value conservative” package. In this market-friendly form, one could even change one’s values, e.g., by moving from hierarchy to equality, providing one got the media and large movement conservative foundations to present one’s favored positions as “conservative” or “traditional.”

Although one should not blame Russell for these degradations of the “permanent things,” he may have contributed to them in his own way. He claimed to be discovering “conservative traditions,” when what he was really stressing were the non-radicalized sectors of an otherwise radicalized society. His emphasis on surviving and even flourishing traditions caused him and his disciples to exaggerate the continued presence of what had been “conserved” and then finally to condense the social practices of a traditional order in the form of teachable “values.” But let me not exaggerate the missteps of someone who should be celebrated for his positive achievements. In any case most of what ails the present conservative movement would be afflicting us even if Russell had never lived.

What should be mentioned are three of his major achievements as a man of letters and as a thinker. One, Russell is one of the last political thinkers in the West to articulate a conservative social vision, one that is recognizably such to anyone who has studied classical conservatism. What he is defining as “conservative” is exactly that. It is about status relations, a landed elite, “degrees and hierarchy.” That’s what the anti-revolutionaries, following Burke, were upholding in nineteenth-century Europe. Like the Southern Agrarians before him, Russell is diligent in looking for signs of that tradition not only in Europe but in early American institutions, and particularly among Southern landowners and New England High Federalists.

His willingness to condemn all “liberals,” including in some cases classical ones, does not necessarily stem from the indiscriminate use of a political term. In Russell’s view, all “liberals” were the same, as seen from the perspective of a nineteenth-century disciple of the author of Reflections on the Revolution in France. Although Russell could have found further examples of conservative tradition by extending his investigations to continental Europe, he does find what he wantsto show his reader by focusing on England and early America. This is the case, although some of the Victorian figures whom he highlights in The Conservative Mind, like James Fitzjames Stephens, W. E. H. Lecky, and Henry Sumner Maine, had thought of themselves as “liberals.” But as critics of democracy and the ideal of equality, those bourgeois liberals whom Russell features as conservatives, now seem almost medieval.

Two, while Russell was a less than effective prophet of a conservative renaissance, as a literary and aesthetic traditionalist, he continues to cast a long shadow. Significantly figures as ideologically dissimilar as David Frum and Gerald Russello have held up Kirk as an aesthetic figure whom young scholars should be studying with interest. For Frum, Kirk’s conservatism was for the most part about sensibility and the literary imagination, and the political personalities he sketched in his rich prose style, like his fiction, should be seen as the work of a powerful artist more than as blueprints for political practice. Russello suggests in a recent intellectual biography that his subject was a postmodernist thinker of the Right. From the perspective of his literary imagination and sense of a living past, Kirk developed an arsenal of rhetorical weapons that he turned against abstract reasoning and constructivist social theory. But Kirk did not wage this battle against rationalism from the standpoint of the counterrevolutionary Right: that position was no longer available to him. Instead he joined the postmodernist assault on modernist culture by pointing out the limits and moral irrelevance of rational, universal standards in political life. Although not a systematic thinker, he carried out his work in aphoristic style and on the basis of common wisdom. Also unlike modernists but like postmodernists, Kirk showed an appreciation of pre-modern societies, which had not yet succumbed to consumerist values or exaggerated notions of individual equality.

Three, despite his preoccupation with a classical conservative tradition, Kirk always had one foot in a small-town American culture. Although I’m not sure these two ideals always fitted together snugly, Kirk could appreciate a European hierarchical society and American communal democracy both at the same time. He happily lived most of his life in the Michigan Pine Barrens, in his ancestral home, and he hated foreign wars and large, impersonal cities. He had no compunctions about voting in 1944 for the socialist Norman Thomas, for having resisted the American rush toward war in 1940 and 1941; and he gravitated toward another military isolationist, who in this case had been a critic of the New Deal, Robert Taft, when Taft had sought the presidency in 1948 and 1952. Russell also authored a short, inspirational biography of Taft, with James McClelland, and he compares his subject favorably in this book to the Roundheads who had fought with Oliver Cromwell. His general predilection for royalist and Anglo-Catholic symbols not to the contrary, Russell had no qualms about praising the Puritans when he invoked the American past. This other political Kirk is the one whom I would hope to see in the future more closely studied. It is the one who can still inspire the American Right by describing what the old American ideal of community used to be—in Mecosta, Michigan, and elsewhere in the American heartland.

Paul Gottfried is the Raffensberger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of, among other works, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right (2007).