Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

In the final chapter of his final book, The Sword of Imagination, Russell Kirk writes that during his 75 years, filled with more honors and blessings than the most celebrated among us experience, he had sought three ends:

  • To defend the Permanent Things against a strong often nihilist tide, seeking to “conserve a patrimony of order, justice, and freedom; a tolerable moral order;and an inheritance of culture.”
  • To lead “a life of decent independence” enabling him to utter the truth and make his voice heard amidst the cacophony of modern life.
  • To “marry for love and to rear children who would come to know that the service of God is perfect freedom.”

He expresses gratitude that his three wishes had been granted and that he had been given the strength to wield “his sword of imagination” against the follies of “the blighted twentieth century.”

Dr. Kirk—he earned the title at the University of St. Andrews—wrote those words some 40 years after he published his first and most enduring work, The Conservative Mind, without which there would be no modern American conservative movement. For those who would question that, let us consider the intellectual state of affairs in America in the early fifties.

In his introduction to The Liberal Imagination—published in 1950—the liberal critic Lionel Trilling wrote that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in America. The conservative impulse, he said, was not thoughtful at all but made up of at best “irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas.”

Trilling was not alone in his dismissal of conservatism. In The Liberal Tradition in America, Louis Hartz explained that by conservatism what was really meant was European feudalism, something altogether foreign to the American experience. In Conservatism in America, Clinton Rossiter concluded that because America was “a progressive country with a liberal tradition,” conservatism was simply “irrelevant.”

Even William F. Buckley Jr. seemed to accept the liberal consensus, stating in his 1951 best-selling book God and Man at Yale that he was not a conservative but an “individualist.” He went so far in his rejectionof the word “conservative” as to become the first president of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.

Trilling, Hartz, and Rossiter cannot be blamed, my colleague Ed Feulner has pointed out, for their misunderstanding of conservatism. At the time there was only a small coterie of disparate conservative writers and thinkers whose philosophical differences seemed to far outweigh their similarities.

The classical liberal F. A. Hayek provided a powerful critique of economic planning in The Road to Serfdom but felt obliged to write an often-quoted essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” in order to separate himself from conservatism. The one-time Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers (much admired by Bill Buckley) insisted he was not a conservative but a man of the Right.

The conservative movement was a movement without a name until Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind that permanently changed the public perception of conservatism. The book stunned complacent liberals who had concluded that conservatism could express itself only in “irritable mental gestures,” and it brought up short gloomy conservatives like Chambers, who conceded he had joined the losing side.

Forty-seven of the first fifty reviews of the work in publications ranging from the New York Times and Time to the Saturday Review and the Yale Review were laudatory. Bill Buckley was so swayed by the near universal acceptance of Kirk’s Mind that in the first issue of his new magazine—launched some two years later—he declared that National Review would be “a vigorous and incorruptible journal of conservative opinion” [emphasis added].

The social scientist Robert Nisbet wrote Kirk that with one book, he had done the impossible—broken “the cake of intellectual opposition to the conservative tradition in the United States.” The conservative historian George Nash said that whereas other conservatives had constructed ”genealogies of evil men and pernicious thoughts, here, at long last, was a genealogy of good men and valuable thoughts.”

Throughout his life, Russell Kirk wrote about good men, like Edmund Burke and T. S. Eliot, and defended time-tested ideas like “a divine intent rules society as well as conscience,” and “change and reform are not identical”—society must alter slowly.

When young or old, lauded or ignored, Russell Kirk was proud to be a conservative, appreciative of what it stood for—tradition and custom—and what it rejected—ideology and hubris. In The Conservative Mind, he presented not the cruel caricature of a conservative—dull, boorish, bigoted and avaricious—but the portrait of the true conservative: a “resolute and strong-minded” clergyman; a farmer who “holds fast” to the wisdom of his ancestors; a truck driver in the heart of the metropolis; an old-fashioned manufacturer, diligent, shrewd, and just; a lawyer who knows we cannot divorce ourselves from history.

The true conservative, Dr. Kirk insists, is a man of the future rooted in the past who knows that life is worth living when grounded in the permanent things. 

Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.