Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

At the time Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind there was already considerable confusion as to just what conservatism meant. America’s political parties and movements, dating back to the Revolution, always adopted the names of the European left—Whig and patriot rather than Tory or loyalist, Republican and Democrat rather than anything that might signal affection for Europe’s ancien regime. “Conservative” was not always, before the mid-twentieth century, a curse, but it had a faintly un-American whiff.

When the New Dealers called their opponents “conservatives,” they meant it as a slightly milder version of the epithet “economic royalist.” It conveyed vested economic self-interest and an imputed desire to subvert American progress and popular government.

Most of the anti-New Dealers to whom the term was applied were not conservatives at all in the Burkean sense—in the sense of Kirk’s Conservative Mind. The majority of the new liberalism’s critics were themselves old liberals—classical liberals—or just businessmen and partisan Republicans. They were not “economic royalists,” but they were not conservatives, either. But with the New Dealers having laid irrevocable claim to “liberal,” the anti-New Dealers were left to accept the label with which their enemies had stamped them.

Albert Jay Nock, a radical Jeffersonian who was bemused to find himself called a conservative, remarked on this in a 1936 essay

I saw a headline which said that 53 per cent of the persons polled in a questionnaire or straw-vote conducted by some publication reported themselves as ‘conservative.’ I read further, and found that when all comes to all, this means that they are against the Administration, and that their difference with the Administration is over the distribution of money.

Frank Chodorov, another libertarian radical, later said he would punch in the nose anyone who called him a conservative. But most anti-New Dealers didn’t feel that strongly. They weren’t radicals like Nock or Chodorov but rather, it would be fair to say, “business liberals.” And at first they were ambivalent about being called conservatives—some clung to “liberal”; others of a more philosophical bent, like the young William F. Buckley Jr., adopted “individualist” as their identity of choice.

Roughly concurrently, however, a scholarly rediscovery of Burkean conservatism was under way, thanks to the efforts of figures like Ross S. J. Hoffman, Francis Graham Wilson, Peter Viereck, and Russell Kirk. These men were not a movement, certainly not a political one, but they had enough in common that they came to be known in the 1950s as the “New Conservatives.”

The difference between the New Conservatives and the business liberals who had reluctantly begun to call themselves conservatives could be seen most starkly in the work of Viereck and Clinton Rossiter, both of whom were in practical politics closer to Democrats like Adlai Stevenson than to later conservative Republicans like Barry Goldwater. Had Russell Kirk never written The Conservative Mind, it’s possible that the business liberals would never have fully accepted the word “conservative” because of its association with Burkean New Dealers.

Kirk criticized both classical and modern liberalism, and while he admired Barry Goldwater, he equally admired Eugene McCarthy. But modern liberalism was the more urgent threat to traditional society when Kirk published The Conservative Mind, and business liberals began to embrace him—even if they didn’t understand him. He had redeemed the word “conservative” of its un-American overtones by showing the organic tradition of Anglo-American conservatism, and he had provided a historically grounded conservatism that, unlike the varieties professed by Viereck or Rossiter, unambiguously indicted the New Deal.

So the nascent conservative movement, which was really a movement of Republicans and businessmen and classical liberals, added The Conservative Mind to its canon, alongside Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. Kirk was not the only one to be so misunderstood: Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences became a slogan, but movement activists gave no indication of having comprehended the book, if they read it at all.

There always were genuinely Burkean elements among the anti-New Dealers, and there were business liberals who read The Conservative Mind and were changed by it. This was especially true early on, when conservatism of any kind was a hard road to follow. But over time, as “conservatism” became a career—beginning in the Nixon era and blossoming under Reagan—the partisan and business-minded sides of the movement predominated. Indeed, by the George W. Bush era, they had overwhelmed and marginalized, if not excommunicated, the Burkeans. Who needs Russell Kirk when you have Rupert Murdoch?

The trouble for the Burkeans was not so much that the they had been denied political power—they’d never entertained any illusions on that score—but that their name and history had been stolen, much as the New Deal liberals had earlier stolen the business liberals’ name and history. Today when someone hears that there’s a book called The Conservative Mind, his or her first reaction is bound to be, “What will this book tell me about Sean Hannity?”

In 1953, conservatism was misunderstood and looked down upon by the intelligentsia, but philosophical conservatives could at times pierce through the fog: Viereck did so in 1949 when he published, to great acclaim, Conservatism Revisited, and Kirk did so to even greater acclaim with The Conservative Mind four years later. Today either of those books, published for the first time, would seem bizarrely idiosyncratic and marginal. Indeed, a friend of mine who brought up The Conservative Mind with a movement-conservative publisher was told bluntly that the company would not even consider bringing out such a book today.

This looks like a profound conservative rout, but there are grounds for optimism—nay, confidence. The first is that business liberalism—a.k.a. movement conservatism—has failed comprehensively: militarism, paranoia, and get-rich-quick/beggar-thy-neighbor schemes will always have a following, but a generation of young Americans who have lived with the consequences of needless wars and neoliberalism—unemployment and cultural disillusion, to name two—are hungry for an alternative. The left offers a neoliberalism leavened, if that’s the word, with New Deal welfarism. That sells better than the GOP’s business liberalism does. But an authentic conservatism, articulated with good cheer, could beat both kinds of liberalism because only an authentic conservatism meets the needs of modernity’s orphans. Getting the message out is the hard part.

That’s where The Conservative Mind comes in. Although such a work could not be published today, certainly not to the notice it deserves, we do have the book Kirk published in 1953, and even business liberals acknowledge its authority. (Lip service, if nothing else.) The trick is to teach people, especially conservatives, how to read it.

A few pointers. Note that Kirk’s canons evolve over subsequent editions of The Conservative Mind, retaining their substance but without being static. Those canons are not a checklist of policies—setting out, say, what a conservative of 1953 ought to think about taxes, the Korean War, prayer in school, or civil rights—but a set of principles from which policies, whose specifics must differ with circumstances, should derive. The Conservative Mind has canons; the conservative movement has a checklist.

Second, The Conservative Mind is capacious enough to respect both John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln, and with reservations both Hamilton and Jefferson. These men differed on the most fundamental policies; that means something other than mere policy requires our attention.

Third, the minds profiled by Kirk participated in the mainstream life of their times. They did not restrict their efforts to movements of their own followers or to institutions of their own making. They wrote and acted not for the sake of their own “team” but for the country as a whole. The New Humanists might have been more effective at seizing academic posts had they adopted a more militant, exclusive mindset; Federalists of the John Adams variety might have prolonged the life of their party had they adopted the populist methods and discipline of the Jeffersonians. But that was not the purpose—not power but truth and the betterment of all waswhat these men sought. Power, to be sure, had its attractions, but not at any price.

Benjamin Disraeli was sometimes mocked for his One Nation conservatism and appeals to workers outside the established Tory base. When an Indian delegation to England was denied space to observe their faith by rationalists and small-minded Christians alike, Edmund Burke offered them the use of his own home. These makers of the conservative mind did not damn their countrymen as moochers and reprobates or profess their righteous exceptionalism to all the peoples of the world. They treated those outside their club with respect, or aspired to do so, and knew that only conservatism of this sort has the answer to a nation’s needs.  

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.