Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

In my recently published Edmund Burke in America, and also in an earlier review essay on conservative historians, I identified Russell Kirk as a highly successful “intellectual entrepreneur.” That term might imply either censure or praise, and I can offer no opinion as to whether Kirk would have taken my description of him as a compliment or a criticism. Intellectual entrepreneurship invites controversy. On one hand it arouses the suspicions of readers who expect “unbiased” or “neutral” scholarship or analysis; on the other hand it is gratifying to readers who seek a practical role for ideas or (as in Kirk’s instance) who derive definite lessons from historical interpretations. As would be the case with any influential writer, the more one agrees with Kirk’s view of history, human nature, politics, religion, and society, the more one will appreciate the dissemination and application of his ideas. So where does that place me?

There are substantial differences between my own understanding of Edmund Burke’s philosophy (and his legacy) and Kirk’s comprehension of the same Burkean texts and their historical reception; these differences extend to include Kirk’s extrapolation of Burke’s insights into twentieth-century issues. Burke was the featured sage in Kirk’s Conservative Mind, as well as the polestar of Kirk’s historical outlook. By contrast, I admire Burke’s genius and I respect (what I call) his Whig vision, yet I do not incline toward the “natural law” school of Burkean thought to which Kirk subscribed. Moreover, the ultimate success of the Burkean revival that Kirk championed in the 1950s was heavily dependent on the raging battle against international communism. Now that the Cold War has been won, Burke remains a “magazine of wisdom,” but his clear-cut anti-totalitarian arguments are no longer his most immediately relevant. Finally, while Burke’s eloquent defense of tradition retains its general appeal, agreeing on exactly what tradition represents in the American landscape is—and has always been—the chief stumbling block to any Burkean consensus in the United States.

So I share Kirk’s enthusiasm for Burke’s writings, but apply Burke’s views more flexibly and not exclusively in the reactionary direction. (“Reactionary” is used here in the descriptive rather than pejorative sense; I think Kirk would agree that modern society has already dissolved its ties with most of what had been worth conserving; hence a restoration of lost values is required.) Still, even in disagreeing with Kirk’s particular take on Burke, I must credit him with rekindling America’s interest in one of the most remarkable political thinkers of the modern age. This last point leads to my much more positive assessment of Kirk’s overall contribution to the nation’s intellectual heritage.

Kirk was intuitively correct when he sensed certain critical flaws in the liberal hegemony of postwar America. All weltanschauungs contain seeds of their own destruction, and Kirk was not alone in his perception that the Enlightenment-rooted cult of reason and its concomitant devotions to secularization, materialism, efficiency, scientific rationality, standardization, technocratic expertise, and its by-products of social homogenization, industrial-militarism, consumerism, bureaucracy, and alienation, did not constitute an uncontestable path of human progress; rather they induced (or were symptomatic of) a mass anxiety that was the pursuit of progress—which was an ever-quickening race toward an always-elusive goal. While Kirk was not alone in this observation, he was unique in the standards of his assessment and he became (after the publication of Conservative Mind) perhaps the boldest and most impactful voice to call for the wisdom of the past as a remedial guide to contemporary maladies.

Edmund Burke had famously declared that “people will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors,” and few would disagree in principle. But what they see when they look will vary according to taste and temperament. Where Burke and Kirk saw order, contentment, and noblesse oblige, modern liberals saw misery, oppression, and ignorance. Both views contained kernels of truth; neither was the whole truth. Possibly Kirk exaggerated his enthrallment with ancient traditions and the mysteries of human life in order to more dramatically challenge the entrenched modern obsession with “objective reality.” After all, if Kirk expected to overthrow the postwar liberal-intellectual order, he had to confront it with some alternative vision of suitable scale and greater majesty.

To me, Kirk was most effective (and also most endearing) when he tried to infuse the history of thought (which includes the present state of thinking) with a renewed coherence and a moral force of gravity. I do not say he succeeded at installing these elements. But in making the attempt he fought the good fight in defense of an instructive communal memory. He was right to counter the militant post-modernism, anti-structuralism, and cultural chaos of the intellectual Left—along with the social fragmentation and mass cynicism to which such movements or attitudes contributed. Kirk and the New Conservatives—in eventual conjunction with political and economic conservatives—accomplished their mission of undermining the authority of progressive-universalist paradigms, thus accelerating the inevitable decline of America’s (centrist-liberal) postwar consensus. But their task was made easier by the deterioration of modernity from within. Central assumptions concerning the idea of Western civilization that had held skepticism and speculation in check (or funneled them into largely constructive channels) for generations, became less convincing to “intellectual liberationists” during the final third of the twentieth century. In place of consensus, America now finds itself intellectually balkanized and culturally adrift. It seems doubtful that a nation that no longer believes in itself—in the sense of a shared tradition, a community of values, or an underlying confidence in unified action—can continue to lead the world toward a brighter future (or even to prevent its own decline).

If all liberals and even most conservatives cannot ultimately accept the specifics of Kirk’s critique of modern society, at least they should consider adopting his holistic-imaginative approach to the subject. Man’s responsibility to himself, his fellow men, his community and country, and his cosmos (Kirk would say his God, but we must allow the prospect of secular spirituality), should be the main focus of personal, professional, and political thought. All else is folly.  

Drew Maciag is author of Edmund Burke in America: The Contested Career of the Father of Modern Conservatism.