a curated selection of Russell Kirk’s perennial essays
A Note from the Editor
In 1957, Russell Kirk wrote a slim book titled The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism—a retort to George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. The book was long unavailable but has been rediscovered and published in a new edition, retitled Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism (Regnery Gateway, 2019).
In his introduction to the new edition, intellectual historian Wilfred McClay writes that the work is “as delightful as it is instructive…Kirk’s insights about family, the importance of private property, education, religion, and a dozen other subjects not only remain completely sound but now seem downright prophetic.” This section on the family as the core of a healthy society is taken from chapter V.
Conservatives and the Family
from Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism (Regnery Gateway, 2019)
“The germ of public affections,” Burke wrote, “is to learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” We cannot feel any affection for our country unless we first love those near to us. The conservative feels that the family is the natural source and core of any good society; that when the family decays, a dreary collectivism is sure to supplant it; and that the principal instrument of moral instruction, ordinary education, and satisfactory economic life always must remain the family. What makes life worth living is love; and love is learnt in the family, and withers when the health of family-life is impaired.
Now very powerful forces are at work to diminish the influence of the family among us, and even to destroy the family for all purposes except mere generation. Some of these forces are material and unintentional: certain aspects of modern industrialism, which break up the old economic unity of the family; cheap amusements and transportation, which encourage members of the family to spend nearly all their time outside the family circle; the assumption of the old educational functions of the family by public schools, in considerable part. The real conservative seeks to modify or reverse these tendencies by reminding men and women that family love is more important than material gain; and he tries to devise practical means to reconcile family unity with the demands of modern life.
But other forces hostile to the family are not merely impersonal and unconscious: they are more or less deliberate, and they may be countered by intelligent action in the social and educational and political spheres. The chief of these ominous forces is the deliberate desire of certain people to have the political state assume nearly all the responsibilities which the family once possessed. This movement is the most thorough and disastrous form of collectivism. That some of the people who advocate such a course are well-intentioned does not excuse their design. We all know what hell is paved with. A distinguished historical sociologist, Dr. R. A. Nisbet, in his Quest for Community, describes the scheme of the totalitarians, the Nazis and the Communists, for extirpating the family:
The shrewd totalitarian mentality knows well the powers of intimate kinship and religious devotion for keeping alive in a population values and incentives which might well, in the future, serve as the basis of resistance. Thus to emancipate each member, and especially the younger members, from the family was an absolute necessity. And this planned spiritual alienation from kinship was accomplished, not only through the negative processes of spying and informing, but through the sapping of the functional foundations of family membership and through the substitution of new and attractive political roles for each of the social roles embodied in the family structure. The techniques varied. But what was essential was the atomization of the family and of every other type of grouping that intervened between the people as society and the people as a mindless, soulless, traditionless mass. What the totalitarian must have for the realization of his design is a spiritual and cultural vacuum.
George Orwell, in his novel 1984, describes London children taught to spy systematically on their parents, and approved for bringing about their destruction. This final disintegration of family love, and all love, already is a reality in the nations dominated by the Communists. And if the family continues to decay in the rest of the world, such a culmination is conceivable even in our society.
Some of the deliberate or quasi-deliberate techniques of the mass-state for undermining the family are these:
(1) Taking the instruction of children entirely away from their parents by the official adoption of theories that prescribe “educating the whole child” in the state schools, with a corresponding depreciation of parental intelligence and rights.
(2) Creating “youth organizations” to take young people quite out of the sphere of the family in their leisure hours, and to indoctrinate them in the ideology of the mass-state.
(3) Abolishing the inheritance of family property, through confiscatory inheritance taxes or through income tax policies that leave small margin for family saving.
(4) Planned encouragement of divorce, “sexual freedom,” and “deprivatization of women,” through positive legislation or official propaganda, with the aim of weakening the bonds of affection within the family that offer a strong barrier to the wishes of the total state.
And there are yet other ways in which political authority is employed to make the family into a mere household—and into only a fragile and impersonal household, at that. Against these deliberate attacks on the family, as against the less deliberate assaults of modern life, the conservative sets his face. He knows that if the family is to survive, thinking men and women who believe the family to be a great power for good must take prompt countermeasures. He knows, with Professor Pitirim Sorokin, that the family must be restored and reconstructed among us, not merely praised in vague terms. As Dr. Sorokin writes:
The family . . . should become again a union of bodies, souls, hearts, and minds in a single collective ‘we.’ Its basic function, that of inculcating deep sympathy, compassion, love, and loyalty in its members, not only in relation to one another but toward humanity at large, must be restored and fully developed. This is necessary because no other agency can perform this function as well as the average good family. This type of family will become the cornerstone of a new creative social order.
For, as Dr. Sorokin suggests, the intelligent conservative does not simply stand still. In this age particularly, tradition and established institutions are being broken up by terrible forces, and the conservative has to look into the future, as well as study the past, if he is to conserve the best in our heritage. He must restore the family in order to keep the family from extinction. He may create a new and better social order, not by cooperating in the grim process of social collectivization, but by infusing new life into the ancient and well-loved institutions of family, church, and community. The family is true voluntary community, inspired by love and common understanding. The only alternative to the family is the total state, governed by force and central power.
The conservative is in favor of many kinds of freedom. He supports, for example, political liberty, under just and balanced constitutions; economic liberty, under the rules of morality; intellectual liberty, balanced by a sense of intellectual responsibility. But there are alleged “freedoms” that the thinking conservative knows to be anarchical and malevolent. He does not recognize any natural freedom to take someone else’s goods, or to subvert law and order, or to demolish the moral principles which have created true freedom itself. And he denies that any person, or any collective body, rightfully enjoys the freedom to break down all the subtle ties of affection and interest that have created the family. Such an appetite is not liberty, but license. Demands for reducing marriage to a mere legal form of sexual union, if even that; for converting man and woman into a mere blur, with identical functions and tasks; for “liberating” the child from the influence of his parents; for abandoning the moral precepts which are the accumulated wisdom of the race, in favor of some collectivistic “new morality”—these demands are not part of ordered liberty, but are the negation of true freedom.
The family is more than a simple arrangement for the gratification of sexual impulses, and more than a mere housing-device. As Dr. Sorokin says, “More successfully than any other group, it has transformed its members into a single entity, with a common fund of values, with common joys and sorrows, spontaneous cooperation and willing sacrifice.” It keeps sterile collectivism at bay. It teaches us the meaning of love and duty, and what it is to be a true man or a true woman. It is the primary “little platoon we belong to in society.” The conservative knows that, the family lacking, nothing very important in our culture can be preserved or improved. The traditional family—which, like many old-fashioned things, is an indispensable thing—gives us those roots without which we all would be just so many lonely little atoms of humanity, unprincipled and at the mercy of some iron political domination.
© The Russell Kirk Legacy, LLC