Holding the Pass
It has been ten years since the death, at his home in the village of Mecosta, Michigan, of Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind and one of the main spokesmen for organized American conservatism as it was known throughout his life. While there were other architects of conservatism who were Kirk’s contemporaries, almost all of them have faded from the conservative memory—in part, I think, for the simple reason that several simply died at an early age before the conservative movement acquired the resources to be able to institutionalize them and their memories sufficiently and in part, also, because conservatives themselves are not disposed to remember most of them anyway. Kirk’s fate was perhaps more fortunate since he lived well into the years when conservatism supposedly had “triumphed,” if you believe its court historians. Kirk himself did not believe them then and would not believe them today if he were alive to read them.
Kirk has survived in the conservative memory as something of a cult figure, and there is now a book-length study of his thought by a friend and former student, Wesley McDonald, whose Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology was ably reviewed by Scott P. Richert in the July issue. Reading Mr. Richert’s review and, afterward, Dr. McDonald’s book, I was driven to some thoughts about Kirk himself and his legacy.
A well-educated man of courtly manners, Kirk was undoubtedly the major exponent of what came to be known in conservative-movement circles as “traditionalism,” the principal counterpart and sparring partner of its “libertarian” wing. Traditionalism was not the best term for this persuasion, but, because Kirk himself invoked the concept of tradition so much, it stuck. Essentially, traditionalism is identical to what is otherwise called “Burkean” or sometimes “philosophical” conservatism but which I prefer to think of as “classical conservatism,” the conservatism espoused by the enemies of the French Revolution and Enlightenment in England and Europe of the late 18th and 19th centuries and whose major exponent, in England at least, was Edmund Burke. For Kirk, though not necessarily for other supporters of “traditionalism,” Burke was the icon that defined the persuasion, and, in The Conservative Mind, Burke is the archetypal figure. The several other thinkers whom Kirk discusses there, none of whom shared Burke’s historical stature, appear as mere avatars of the deified Edmund.
Kirk’s classical conservatism was a welcome relief from the tedious and barren libertarianism that strutted about during and after the New Deal and has since managed to thrive as the dominant ideology in the contemporary conservative mind (as opposed to the neoconservative mind, in which democratic socialism remains the prevailing paradigm). Recognizing only one problem (“the state”) and only one solution (“individual liberty”), libertarianism offers nothing to those concerned with the impending destruction of their civilization by forces that are largely irrelevant to its twin obsessions. The tendency, if not the actual argument, of libertarianism in the last 50 years has been to deny that Soviet communism was ever a threat, to embrace mass immigration, to endorse global free trade, to abandon and ridicule both nation and religion, and to welcome the deliberate destruction of traditional culture and morality by whatever forces (in the state or outside it) are waging war against them. The great value of Kirk’s “traditionalism” was to just say no to the sophomoric and dangerous libertarian poison that soon corroded and corrupted the conservative minds of late-20th-century America, at a time when few others of real conservative disposition possessed either the learning, the powers, or the courage to say it.
Yet Kirk was by no means a profound or even consistent thinker, and one virtue of Dr. McDonald’s short book, which today is probably the best short exposition of classical conservatism that I know of, is that it makes clear that Kirk often declined to pursue certain philosophical issues as deeply as he might or to develop his thought into a larger and more coherent intellectual framework. Kirk’s thought was invaluable in offering an introduction to concepts of “order,” “authority,” and “tradition” that were alien to the classical liberal-libertarian ideologues of the day. He laid down (if he did not develop very clearly) a concept of freedom derived from an Aristotelian view of man as a creature of society in contrast to the libertarian idea of freedom derived from a (fictitious) pre-social “state of nature.” If human beings are naturally social, then freedom in the libertarian sense is necessarily in antagonism to the social bond and its institutional supports, and real freedom can exist only in relationships and actions that are compatible with social order. “Ordered” or “rooted” freedom and its supports, authority, hierarchy, and community—and not Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—are the defining norms of classical conservatism.
The problem with Kirk’s traditionalism does not lie in its assumptions or even in his sometimes murky exposition of its themes but in his application of its concepts to contemporary American life and the uses that the conservative movement has made of them. It is a problem that arises from taking Edmund Burke as the central hero of the traditionalist cause.
Burke’s standing as a conservative comes from his important role as an enemy of the French Revolution and a defender of the 18th-century British (and European) dynastic state. It may be open to question whether that state was really worth conserving, but certainly, in comparison to the tyranny, terrorism, and chaos that Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity unleashed, it was a veritable paradise, and, since Burke himself had spent much of his earlier life as a critic of the dynastic state, he cannot be faulted for defending it against its destroyers.
What Burke offered, however, was a defense. The order he championed existed and dominated, and his task was to build a case as to why it should be conserved. That was not the problem that American “conservatives” faced in the period (the late 1940’s and early 50’s or later) when Kirk began to write and when the American conservative movement was formed.
As I argued in this space some months ago, the revolution took place in America well before that time—by some Old Right analyses, in the American Civil War, or, at the latest, in the New Deal-World War II eras, when a new ruling elite, the managerial class, displaced the old bourgeois elites from political and cultural hegemony. Unlike for Edmund Burke and the defenders of the ancien régime of his time, for the American right, the problem was not defense but offense—not conservation but (at best) restoration.
That, however, was not the strategic goal of the American conservative movement as it began to congeal in the 1950’s. The essential premise of any movement that is comfortable with the label “conservatism” is that the order it seeks to conserve is healthy and that it ought to be conserved, and that was the premise with which American conservatism started out in the 1950’s (and with which it has finished up in the first decade of the current century). One of the main influences on it that encouraged it to accept that premise was Russell Kirk.
Reading over parts of The Conservative Mind, Kirk’s major and always his most influential work, that premise leaps out. “In America,” Kirk wrote in 1953 (and the words remained essentially unchanged through the seventh and last edition of 1985),
the Federal Constitution has endured as the most sagacious conservative document in the history of Western civilization; the balance of interests and powers which John Adams and the Southern statesmen defended still operates, however threatened by centralization in this century; and no one advocates a radical revision of political establishments in America, despite the numerous abuses that shelter themselves behind federal and state constitutions.
Private property, Kirk assured his readers, “remains an influence of vast power in Britain and America” (and presumably, therefore, was secure), while “respect for established usage and longing for continuity are not dead among English-speaking peoples, either,” and,
Of the six premises for conservative belief which are listed in the introductory chapter of this book, then, four at least continue to animate the social impulses of a great many people in America and Britain.
Such passages could be extended indefinitely.
The main thrust of Kirk’s conservatism was to assure Americans that everything was really OK, that the society in which they lived and the government and dominant social and political forces that prevailed in the United States were healthy. As Old Right journalist Garet Garrett remarked in his 1938 essay, “The Revolution Was,” “There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road,” and Russell Kirk seemed to be among them. But, as Garrett saw clearly, the truth was that “The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.”
Kirk and most conservatives seemed never to have heard the songs, though I knew Russell Kirk well enough in his last years to know that he did indeed hear them and understood clearly what they meant. Still, he shrank, for whatever reasons, from betraying what today has long since ceased to be a secret of empire: The American order is bankrupt; both political parties and the major ideological identities associated with them are part of the problem; and the regime that prevails in the triple metropole of Washington-New York-Hollywood is the enemy of the American people and of its historic social and political order. The problem today is not how to conserve it, let alone how to persuade Americans that it ought to be conserved. The problem today is how to persuade more Americans that it ought to be—and can be—changed.
Despite Kirk’s own awareness of the corruption of the contemporary American order and the regime that rules it, the conservative movement with which he soon allied himself (reluctantly, as Dr. McDonald points out) made use of his articulation of “traditionalism” to defuse and emasculate any inclinations to radicalism on the part of the American right. Headquartering itself in Manhattan and whatever broom closets in Washington it could ferret itself into, the American conservative movement devoted itself to the defense of a political order in which it was already an unwelcome and embarrassing guest, and, as the New Left of the 1960’s launched its assault on the regime constructed by Franklin Roosevelt and his heirs, most conservatives could think of no response other than an angry endorsement of the regime. The principles of authority, hierarchy, and community that Kirk’s traditionalism had embraced and developed were deployed to explain why liberal or leftist deans who had spent their careers poisoning every young mind with which they had come in contact should not be kicked down the stairs of their own office buildings and why the young Americans whose minds they had poisoned should be drafted to fight an ideological crusade that the ruling class had no intention of winning and no good reason to fight at all.
The irony of Kirk’s position is that, far more than the libertarianism that was its main rival on the right, “traditionalism” offered a full and more persuasive case against both the deracinating regime of liberalism that conservatives began to defend (whence came their alliance with the neoconservatives, who never showed any dissatisfaction with the regime at all) and the savagery of the New Left. But most conservative writers of the time never made that case. Instead, they rallied round the flag, defending the war in Vietnam, the draft, and the essential goodness and health of the society and government the counterculture attacked, smug in their satisfaction that everything was really OK.
Today, we know it is not OK, as we know the Supreme Court has waged a continuous war against traditional morals, culture, freedom, and order ever since Kirk assured us the federal Constitution was “enduring”; as the federal leviathan has swollen ever larger and dug itself ever more deeply into the private lives and minds of Americans; and as the institutions, traditions, and the very people of the American nation are systematically discarded and replaced by the powers that conservatism continues to defend. Perhaps some on the American right did sense that, for all the virtues of Kirk’s classical conservatism as an alternative to libertarianism or the even more pathetic “fusionism,” it simply was not adequate to the mission that serious men of the right in the middle of the 20th-century journey should have taken up. “If you were a marine in a landing boat,” asked Whittaker Chambers with respect to Kirk’s Conservative Mind, “would you wade up the seabeach at Tarawa for that conservative position? And neither would I!”
This article first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.