The Politics of Prudence
By Russell Kirk.
Introduction by Michael P. Federici.
Regnery Gateway, 2023.
Paperback, 314 pages, $19.99.

Reviewed by James Panero.

The early 1990s appeared to many in America as a moment of conservative ascendancy. Forty years had passed since Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind, in 1953, a book that was originally titled The Conservative Rout. Now it was the progressives who were the ones seemingly being routed. Conservative pundits, publications, and foundations were pushing conservative policy in the onetime liberal redoubts of Washington and New York. Ronald Reagan had won an unprecedented forty-nine states to secure his reelection in 1984; his triumphant presidency paved the way for the election of his vice-president George H. W. Bush in 1992 and another four years of Republican administration. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher had reflected the spread of the conservative mind abroad. Meanwhile, and most astonishingly, the onetime colossus of the Soviet Union had lost its grip on Europe and had been vanquished—its ideological boot lifted from all but a few of the world’s backwaters and faculty lounges.

And yet, the thinker who had put the conservative mind in motion was not declaring victory. In 1993, a year before his death, Kirk published The Politics of Prudence. The collection of eighteen of his lectures given over five years—seventeen delivered at The Heritage Foundation, one at Hillsdale College—was more than a restatement of the moral imagination. It was also a conservative remonstrance to the movement that claimed its mantle. Thirty years on, Gateway Editions has now published a new edition of this collection that seems nothing if not prophetic. As the conservative mind is again on the defensive in America, or at the very least in a state of mental confusion, The Politics of Prudence suggests that no less than the imprudence of conservatives is much to blame for the latest rout. Thirty years ago, few conservatives wanted to hear such a message. Today it calls out as a testament to what went wrong and a corrective for what’s to come.

Conservatism, Kirk argued, is a “disposition of character rather than a collection of reified, abstract political doctrines,” as Michael P. Federici explains in this edition’s new introduction. “It is the rejection of ideology rather than the exercise of it.” The conservative mind, like the book The Conservative Mind, Federici continues, begins with Edmund Burke and the Burkean “opposition to the French Revolution and the rise of radical and revolutionary ideological movements that centralize power as a means to escape the limits of the human condition.”

In his opening chapter, Kirk lays into what he calls the “errors of ideology.” Quoting the American historian H. Stuart Hughes, Kirk writes, conservatism must be the “negation of ideology,” since “all ideologies work mischief.” An ideological false faith in “mystical Progress, with a Roman P” only leads to a “dubious Terrestrial Paradise…. that always, in reality, has turned out to be an Earthly Hell.” This “cult of progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old,” sends us on a “march toward Utopia,” where the “ideologue is merciless.” In the place of true faith, “Ideology provides sham religion and sham philosophy.” 

Absent such an ideology, the conservative must rely on prudence, one that is “judicious, cautious, sagacious,” Kirk explains. “Plato, and later, Burke, instruct us that in the statesman, prudence is the first of the virtues.” Since “‘conservatism’ possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata,” the prudential conservative instead looks to “custom, convention, continuity.” Disciplined in a “state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order,” the conservative understands “variety,” “imperfectability,” and “voluntary community.” A close link exists between “freedom and property,” and power is best retrained and decentralized in the pursuit of genuinely “prudent change.” It was just such “old restraints upon power,” Kirk reminds us, that the “French and Russian revolutionaries abolished,” and which progressives still pursue.   

Delivered late in life, The Politics of Prudence in part serves as a welcome restatement of The Conservative Mind of forty years prior and something of a summary of Kirk’s life work. We are reminded of The American Republic by Orestes Brownson, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, and I’ll Take my Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition. Marcus Aurelius, Ambrose of Milan (“it has not pleased God that man should be saved through logic”), and G.K. Chesteron’s elevation of the “democracy of the dead” all make welcome appearances. T. S. Eliot, the subject of the final chapter in The Conservative Mind and a friend of Kirk’s, also returns here with the wisdom of his Notes towards the Definition of Culture: “one thing to ascertain is the limits of the plannable.” Further chapters reacquaint us with the German economist Wilhelm Röpke (“the age of immaturity, of restless experiment, of youth, has in our time become the object of the most preposterous overestimation”) and the British social critic Malcolm Muggeridge (“the enthronement of the gospel of progress necessarily required the final discrediting of the gospel of Christ”).

As the book continues, just like the lectures these chapters are based upon, what becomes apparent is that such reminders and restatements are also rebukes, intended not for progressive ideologues but for a self-professed conservative audience. In these later chapters, Kirk takes aim at what he sees as an emergent and dangerous conservative ideology, one based in populism, libertarianism, and neoconservatism. In the chapter “Popular Conservatism,” for example, Kirk shows little patience for the wisdom of the masses: “a Populist, whose basic conviction is that the cure for democracy is more democracy, conserves nothing.” 

Libertarianism gets an ever greater drubbing in the following chapter on “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians.” “They might oppose centralized power, but they are also doctrinaires, contemptuous of our inheritance from our ancestors,” Kirk writes, as well as being a “crowd of political fanatics who ‘license they mean, when they cry liberty.’” Theirs is an “ideology of universal selfishness—at a time when the country needs more than ever before men and women who stand ready to subordinate their private interests, if need be, to the defense of the Permanent Things.” Through its shortcomings, Kirk concludes, “libertarianism, properly understood, is as alien to real American conservatives as is communism.”

Beyond these tart assessments, it is Kirk’s subsequent chapter on “The Neoconservative: An Endangered Species” that remains the book’s most heated and controversial. Questioning the power at one point of a “Zionist minority,” Kirk goes on to state that “not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” At the time of its delivery, the historian Midge Decter labeled this remark a “bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives.” In hindsight, the quip was at best ill-chosen, as it isolated Kirk’s voice to the margins of the conservative conversation at the time while distracting from what we would now call his broader paleoconservative critique of neoconservative overreach, all coming at a time when it might have mattered most. 

As Kirk was that rare conservative opponent of the first Gulf War (“A war in Kuwait? A war for an oil-can”), we can only imagine what he might have said of the second. With the election of George W. Bush and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the consequences of NAFTA, the housing meltdown, and the hollowing out of the American middle classes, in the years after his death, many of the concerns that Kirk expressed over neoconservatism have only come into higher relief. 

It wasn’t “Zionism” or allegiance to “Tel Aviv” that proved the neoconservative undoing but rather an unquestioning faith for many in “fanciful democratic globalism” and “democratic capitalism,” as Kirk goes on to write, which he calls a “bit of neoconservative cant.” This “New World Order,” Kirk warns, would lead to an “inhumane economy—bent upon maximum productive efficiency, but heedless of personal order and public order.” Such a concern with the “gross national product and with ‘global wealth’” blinded such conservatives, Kirk argues, to the “swelling growth of a dismal urban proletariat, and the decay of the moral order.” 

“You and I are in the death of the Marxist ideology,” Kirk concludes. As the Soviet Leviathan came to an end, he believed it must not be replaced with some American-made Colossus coming out of the “puerile infatuation of the neoconservatives with ‘a new ideology’ or an ‘American ideology.’”  “Soviet hegemony ought not to be succeeded by American hegemony,” he writes. “Mr. Bush’s ‘New World Order’ may make the United States detested—beginning with the Arab peoples—more than even the Soviet empire was…. Increasingly, the states of Europe and the Levant may suspect that in rejecting Russian domination, they exchanged King Log for King Stork.” At the fall of the Evil Empire, Kirk feared most a rising imprudence in its conservative American vanquishers. “America soon is going to wipe out everything else; and in the dazzling delirious joy of that consummation, forgetting to ask what will happen afterward.” 

In one of the book’s final chapters, “Prospects for the Proletariat,” Kirk takes stock of the consequences of the New World Order in the fate of Detroit. The city was once the “arsenal of democracy.” Now it was falling into abandonment and decay. Could we see here the true result of unquestioning “democratic capitalism”: the uprooting of labor, the slicing up of the city’s fabric through public housing and Federal highway bills? An entire book might be written on Kirk’s critique of the automobile, which he called the “mechanical Jacobin.” Would America’s Rust Belt be any better today without a quarter century of adventurism abroad and “free minds and free markets” at home? Conservatives, Kirk warns, must not fall prey to a “latter-day Utilitarianism.” Free of ideology, conservatives should instead nurture a nation’s culture and the “complex of convictions, folkways, habits, arts, crafts, economic methods, laws, morals, political structures, and all the ways of living in community that have developed over the centuries.” Anything less, we might say, would be imprudent.

James Panero is the Executive Editor of The New Criterion.

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