Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind became an immediate sensation upon its publication in May 1953. Prominent newspapers, magazines, and journals throughout the English-speaking world reviewed the book when it came out, sometimes twice, and almost always with depth and respect. Many disagreed with its 35-year-old Michiganian author, to be sure, but they did so with a bit of awe. Amazingly enough for any work of such depth, The Conservative Mind over seven editions sold well over one million copies during Kirk’s lifetime, and has continued to sell well 20 years after his death.
One might readily identify The Conservative Mind as seven books rather than as one. While the first four editions possess a righteous anger about them—Kirk even happily describing himself as reactionary at times—the last three editions carry a more comfortable feel. What had been “extreme” in 1953 had, by the seventh and final edition in 1986, become wise and almost commonplace during the second Reagan administration. Between the first edition and the last, Kirk had gone from a young Bohemian rebel to a respectable elder philosopher, the grey eminence behind conservatism’s success.
Now celebrating 60 years since it was first published, The Conservative Mind and its permutations have as much to teach us about Kirk as they do about the meaning of postwar conservatism and libertarianism over a period of nearly four decades. No fan of Kirk, Sidney Blumenthal of the Washington Post recognized in 1986, the year the final edition appeared, that “The Conservative Mind was crucial in establishing the cause as a valid intellectual enterprise,” as it “offered a genealogy of conservatism.”
Kirk had written the book as his Ph.D. dissertation between 1948 and 1952, under the laissez-faire direction of Professor John William Williams—the “last of the Whigs,” Kirk called him—at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. While Kirk had earlier found good professors and friends at Michigan State as an undergraduate, he had disliked his one graduate year at Duke, where he earned his history M.A. in record time with a thesis on the eccentric Jeffersonian John Randolph of Roanoke. Drafted into the military and stationed in Utah from 1942 to 1946, a wanderlust overtook him after the war. He discovered the work of D’Arcy Thompson, a scientist who described St. Andrews in idyllic terms, and presuming the traditional Scottish university everything he had imagined for an institution of higher education, Kirk applied and was accepted.
His days at St. Andrews were some of the best of his young life, and he relished every class and encounter. Williams, his director, had once earned a solid academic reputation, but by the 1940s students knew him only as a terror in grading, a lazy lecturer, and a drunk. He and Kirk, however, got on famously. Williams “now lives wholly in the world of whiskey, sherry, and literature,” Kirk wrote appreciatively. It is not clear that Williams ever read the dissertation in any form, but the University of St. Andrews awarded Kirk its highest degree, a D. Litt.—essentially a double Ph.D.
From the beginning, Kirk intended the dissertation as a means to revive—or at least give cohesion to—conservative thought in art, literature, and culture. On the day he conceived of the project, he wrote in his diary that he hoped it would provide an “invigoration of conservative principles.” So upon returning to the U.S., where he took up teaching at Michigan State, Kirk sought a publisher.
Alfred Knopf accepted the book, provided Kirk delete roughly a third of the work. Kirk refused, and instead he submitted the manuscript—then called The Conservative Rout—to the publishing firm of Henry Regnery. The book, he wrote in his submission letter,
is my contribution to our endeavor to conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization; and if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon. What Matthew Arnold called ‘an epoch of concentration’ is impending, in any case. If we are to make that approaching era a time of enlightened conservatism, rather than an era of stagnant repression, we need to move with decision. The struggle will be decided in the minds of the rising generation—and within that generation, substantially by the minority who have the gift of reason.
Regnery accepted the manuscript as it was, but he wanted a title change. The two men exchanged several ideas: The Long Retreat, Conservative Ideas, The Conservatives’ Course, and The Conservative Tradition. On December 1, 1952, Kirk wrote to Regnery from his office at Michigan State: “Your servant is hard at work amending The Conservative Mind—for such, pending your approval, I am calling the book.” This decision, Kirk remembered in 1986, “seemed to have converted a rout into a rally.”
Beginning with Edmund Burke and John Adams, Kirk traced the theme of his study from the French Revolution, a horrific event that demanded an expression of conservatism, to the present age—From Burke to Santayana, as the subtitle originally read, or later From Burke to Eliot.
All editions of the book had three main characters—Edmund Burke, John Adams, and T.S. Eliot. Twenty-six other figures—many of whom had been largely forgotten by 1953, such as George Gissing and Orestes Brownson—made up the supporting cast. (The fourth edition omitted Thomas Macaulay, though he appeared fully in the other six versions.)
The list of the characters who support the supporting characters, though, changed throughout all seven editions. In the first two, published in 1953 and 1954, a number of libertarians, anarchists, and individualists made this third tier. Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, and Friedrich Hayek, to name a few, appear early on. The latter two fall out in the third edition, never to return. Others, such as English poet John Betjeman, appear in the third edition and remain through the seventh.
Not only did a Burkean outlook hold these seemingly disconnected persons together, but each, as the young author saw it, also embodied or promoted some permanent—or “timeless,” as Kirk wrote—truth in his own life, being, actions, or writing. The timeless truth one person exemplified need not be the same another did. Indeed, given the vast, often incomprehensible differences among human beings, a multiplicity of finite individuals would reveal a variety of infinite truths, some seemingly contradictory, others simply incompatible. He described this trait of humanity over time as a “principle of proliferating variety.” John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln, consequently, could equally share space in Kirk’s understanding of American history, as each understood a different aspect of something eternally true.
Almost immediately upon the publication of The Conservative Mind in the United States, T.S. Eliot wanted to publish an edition revised for an English audience with his firm, Faber and Faber. Kirk met with Eliot in the late summer of 1953, and the two became fast and intimate friends—though one has to take into account that neither man was overly demonstrative or gregarious. Eliot wanted Kirk to slow down in his writing, take his time with scholarship, and get a serious academic job; he wanted Kirk to take a position at the University of Chicago. Elated to receive such praise from such an important figure, but determined to make his own way, Kirk took the invitation for a second edition to answer some of the critics of the first, to fix typographical and factual errors, and to refocus the book toward what he had discovered in the year since he had finished the dissertation in St. Andrews.
And as he continued to learn, he continued to revise. Thus, Kirk published seven versions of The Conservative Mind over his lifetime. Regnery, or one of its imprints, brought out editions one (1953); two, along with Faber and Faber (1954); three (1960); five (1972); six (1978); and seven (1986). Avon Publications published the fourth revised edition (1968) in its “Discus” series. Though the Avon iteration is the shortest, it is the most powerful in terms of argumentation and writing. Strangely enough, Avon, a Hearst imprint, was known mostly for publishing pulp romances. Its 1968 edition of The Conservative Mind sold for $1.65 as a mass-market paperback, and Kirk seems to have been at the height of his powers with this revision, balancing the righteousness of his youth with the wisdom of his later years.
Most of the changes from version to version were modest. Kirk understandably amends dates or modifies some political comment that had ceased to be relevant—for example, when a figure in power in 1953 was no longer by 1972. Kirk also took advantage of each new edition to dedicate it to a different friend or relative.
Other changes are complex and often subtle, but clearly reflect Kirk’s evolving mind. The most significant changes over the seven versions come in his last chapter of each. The conclusions of versions one through three have much in common. The conclusions of versions five through seven are identical, except for a date change here or there. Again, it is the fourth edition that seems most interesting among the bunch, proudly proclaiming the poet the center of all true civilization.
Three of the larger changes suffice to show the adaptations and permutations of Kirk’s thought between 1953 and 1986. First, Kirk’s interest in libertarianism or its variations declines rapidly after the second version, to almost nonexistent with the third. In the first edition, Kirk lauded the work of individualists and anarchists such as Friedrich Hayek and Albert Jay Nock. He questioned the intent behind the word “individualist” but still appreciated the thought of those who promoted it. His hesitations about “individualism” were no stronger than the ones he had originally offered about T.S. Eliot and the poet’s “ambiguities.”
In the second edition, Kirk both removed any tentative critical judgments of Eliot, now a close friend, and argued rather bluntly that “the principal interests of true conservatism and old-style libertarian democracy now approach identity.” With the third edition, however, published in 1960, Kirk not only included Eliot in the subtitle—officially making Eliot the culmination of modern conservative thought—but he also erased any explicit references to libertarian thinkers or libertarian thought. Nock remained, but he was noted for his criticism of, in Kirk’s words, “the ascendancy of plutocrats and politicians, exercising the influence of an aristocracy of the Old Régime without the compulsions of noblesse oblige.”
What had happened between the second edition in 1954 and the third in 1960 was a fateful meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, a gathering of classical liberals and libertarians, in 1957. Kirk attended at the invitation of his friend Wilhelm Röpke, the German economist, only to become an unnamed object of attack in an address by the society’s president—Friedrich Hayek, whose remarks became the basis for his 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Kirk responded to Hayek extemporaneously at the meeting—and, one may gather, less extemporaneously in revising The Conservative Mind.
Despite the separation from any formal connection to libertarianism, Kirk continued to assault the rise of Leviathan through all seven editions, often very effectively. He warned of a new statism:
This would not be capitalism, nor yet socialism; it is the colossal state created chiefly for its own sake. Socialists may help erect this structure; they will not endure to administer or enjoy it. The New Society, if constructed on this model, at first might seem a convenient arrangement for enforcing equality of condition; but its structure—as if a diabolical [later, “chthonian”] instinct had inspired its building—especially facilitates ends quite different, the gratification of a lust for power and the destruction of all ancient institutions in the interest of the new dominant elites. It is C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.
Certainly these are arguments that should make any libertarian proud. Kirk never backed down from his horror at the rise what he labeled “the machine,” anything in man’s world that lessened the particular gifts and purpose of each person as realized in relationship and community. The machine—whether governmental, corporate, or educational—always diminished the dignity of man. Kirk considered attacking the machine one of the most important aspects of his life and writings.
The second significant shift over the course of The Conservative Mind’s revisions is the toning down of religious language, especially between the first several editions and the later ones. Tellingly, the first of Kirk’s six canons of the conservative mind begins as follows in the first five editions: “Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience.” By 1978, with the sixth edition, Kirk had changed this to a much more naturalistic, “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.”
Even more revealing, in the fourth edition he had proclaimed: “Thus the indispensable basis of any conservative order, religious sanction, remains tolerably secure.” Kirk removed “indispensable” in the fifth edition, and lost it remained. Originally Kirk wrote: “It remains to be seen, within this century, whether the conservatives can contribute to force Sin, the ancient corruption of man, the proclivity to violence, envy, and appetite, back within the moral confines of Western society, injured as the old order has been by the repeated explosions of social radicalism.” With the fifth edition, this became the much less robust: “It remains to be seen whether, within this century, the conservatives can contrive to restore the old motive to integrity.”
Third, and perhaps most significantly, politics takes on increasing significance and even, arguably, surpasses the importance of poetry for Kirk. When the first reviews of the book began to appear in 1953, Kirk revealed considerable frustration over them. Not even the followers of the conservative humanist Irving Babbitt had laid “stress enough upon the ethical aspect” of The Conservative Mind, he lamented. “Politics, I never tire of saying, is the diversion of the quarter-educated, and I do try to transcend pure politics in my book.”
In the first four editions, Kirk affirmed this with increasing conviction. “Society’s regeneration cannot be an undertaking purely political,” he explained in 1968. “Having lost the spirit of consecration, the modern masses are without expectation of any better than a bigger slice of what they possess already.” Thinking of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, and reflecting lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” he claimed, “More than politicians, great poets shape the destinies of mankind.” By 1972, however, Kirk argued instead, “No less than politicians do, great poets move nations.”
There can be little doubt that Kirk moderated his language and arguments in the later versions of The Conservative Mind. In large part, this reflects Kirk’s own views as he aged. After all, the Kirk of 1953 had no real experience in politics or marriage. The Kirk of 1972 had been involved in several campaigns, many of them national, and he was a husband, as well as a father of three daughters. What’s more, despite the radicalization of culture and religion during the 1960s, a conservative vision and movement had begun to take shape.
Today, sixty years after it was first published, does The Conservative Mind have the power to bring together the numerous factions of modern conservatism and libertarianism? That was, in a way, what Kirk had tried to do at the beginning. Implicitly, while never succumbing to the dangers of systematic or ideological thinking, Kirk attempted to link five schools of thought together in The Conservative Mind: the “New Humanism” of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More; the English traditionalism of Edmund Burke and Cardinal Newman; the libertarianism and individualism of Hayek and Nock; the agrarianism of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc; and the dystopian fabulism of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
Tensions existed between these schools, of course, but Kirk remarkably walked the fine line between them by maintaining the focus of the book on personalities and how those personalities manifested eternal truths in their own particular times and places. That path is still open to conservatives—and not just conservatives. After all, if we accept the premise of any of the seven versions of The Conservative Mind, every person is a new and particular reflection of a divine and timeless truth.
Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and the author of intellectual biographies of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Christopher Dawson. He is completing a biography of Russell Kirk to be published by the University Press of Kentucky.