Symposium: The Conservative Mind at 60

The sixtieth anniversary ofthe publication of The Conservative Mind marks a major milestone in the history of the post-World War II conservative intellectual movement. Nearly all contemporary conservative writers, including those unsympathetic or even hostile to Russell Kirk’s particular brand of traditional conservatism, acknowledge this work as one of the most important catalysts for a resurgent conservative movement. Yet, it must be noted that inspiring a political movement formed no part of Kirk’s original intention. “Being no leader of the crowd” he admitted in the foreword to the seventh revised edition (1986), he was genuinely “surprised to find that he had contributed through the power of the word to a large political movement in America.”

Kirk was also no student of marketing. The title of manuscript he submitted to his publisher, Henry Regnery (1912–1996), was “The Conservative Rout,” explaining in a letter to his publisher that “there is a rather fife-and-drum sound to ‘rout.’” Regnery, who would over his long career publish many classic conservative tomes, immediately saw a problem. Who, outside of scholars specializing in Anglo-American intellectual history, would read a book about a movement that in Kirk’s words “had been beaten back from ditch to palisade”? The Left would take a perverse delight in the author’s defeatism. Kirk’s characterization of conservatives as largely losers would confirm the most damaging accusation hurled by the Left at the Right: conservatives are nothing more than a deservedly marginalized angry gaggle of eccentric naysayers. Moreover, why would conservatives bother with a book that made them feel even more pessimistic about their political fortunes than they were already? If Kirk’s lengthy study was to be a commercial success, Regnery knew, it badly needed rebranding.

One of Regnery’s associates recommended “The Long Retreat,” which only compounded the problem. Then, after some brain-storming, someone suggested “The Conservative Mind.” Thus, a conservative classic was born. The revised title actually reflected Kirk’s intentions better. His book was not just a history of the long train of defeats suffered by conservative thinkers and political leaders. It was a “prolonged essay in definition” explicating the principles and sentiments that “sustained men of conservative impulse in their resistance against radical theories and social transformation ever since the beginning of the French Revolution.” Conservatives were not the “stupid party,” as John Stuart Mill famously quipped. Kirk had proven they had a “mind.”

The Conservative Mind will endure as one of the major political works of the immediate postwar era. The question remains just how much of an impact did the ideas that form the intellectual substance of Kirk’s thought have on what became known as the “conservative movement” or more generally on contemporary America culture, ideas and society? Were the early critics of Kirk, such as Clinton Rossiter, who famously labeled conservatism as “the thankless persuasion” and Peter Viereck, who believed Kirk’s conservatism was ill-suited for American politics, essentially correct?

To address these questions, let us consider the famous six canons of conservative thought that Kirk somewhat reluctantly cites in the first chapter of his book in an effort to delineate the defining principles of conservatism. They are briefly: “a belief in a transcendent order,” an “[a]ffection for the proliferating variety and mystery of man’s existence,” the “[c]onviction that civilization requires orders and classes,” the [p]ersuasion that freedom and property are closely linked,” a “[f]aith in prescription” and a distrust of social engineering, and lastly a belief that change does not always mean beneficial reform.

Which one these ideas defines the thought of prominent movement conservatives today? Who espouses such arguments? Noted conservative spokesmen such asRush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Jonah Goldberg, or commentators on the “conservative” Fox News Channel rarely, if ever, refer to Kirk and at most would probably be attracted only to his arguments on the sanctity of private property and distrust of governmental attempts to reconstruct society. Furthermore, the five beliefs that Kirk identifies with radicalism appear to be ascendant today: the perfectibility or at least the improvement of man, the contempt for or better yet the ignorance of traditions, political and economic leveling, and lastly a dogmatic secularism. These are sad times for conservatives of Kirk’s ilk.

Kirk in his numerous subsequent works was generally optimistic, although he frequently decried the contemporary “antagonist world”—the world of ideological disorder. He was convinced that history moves incycles. Ideas once thought discredited have a way of re-emerging unexpectedly and sweeping all before them. He even predicted in 1980 a coming “Augustan Age” of conservative ascendency. Yet, by the 1990s conservative publications were replete with gloomy discussions about conservative drift and loss of vitality. The Reagan Administration did little to advance any of Kirk’s ideas.

What would Kirk make of all this today? His conservatism was about the long view, not short term political victories. Even if conservative ideas fail to be restored, he concluded at the end of the first chapter of The Conservative Mind, “we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.” Conservatives take note. These grim words take on renewed meaning as the social and political institutions, traditions, and “the permanent things” Kirk defended and cherished steadily erode.  

W. Wesley McDonald is a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.