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Against Democratism and Other Ideologies

From TAC’s Bookshelf: Regnery’s reissue of Russell Kirk’s last book provides a worthy introduction to the thinker.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If books could have children, The Politics of Prudence would be the son of The Conservative Mind. They appeared 40 years apart, an interval during which the “conservative movement” sprang up. When The Conservative Mind was published in 1953, there was no National Review or Young Americans for Freedom, no Federalist Society or Claremont Institute, no Heritage Foundation or CPAC, and of course no Barry Goldwater presidential campaign or Ronald Reagan presidency. 

The Conservative Mind is not a book about American conservatism as most people would recognize it today because it antedated almost all of the institutions and icons of the modern American right. Four decades later, in The Politics of Prudence, it was time for Kirk to pass judgment on this new movement that had taken conservatism for its name.


It was also time for the movement to pronounce judgment on Kirk. Did he have anything to do with the business of conservatism as it stood in the 1990s? The movement conservatives of that time were hotshot policy wonks, apostles of more-than-Reaganite capitalism, saber-rattling neoconservatives who saw the end of the Cold War as a beginning for new wars in the name of liberal democracy, and Republican operatives and single-issue activists whose aim was to beat Democrats and liberals at any cost.

Kirk, an independent scholar and man of letters, seemed like a lightweight to tenured professors who had earned their Ph.D.s in economics or had studied political philosophy with Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, and Harvey Mansfield. Though neither the economists nor the Straussians were keen on the “conservative” label, they were enormously influential within the movement, including on Capitol Hill.

But The Politics of Prudence showed that Kirk was very much still in the fray. As Michael Federici notes in his introduction to the 2023 edition of the book, 17 of the 19 chapters of The Politics of Prudence began as lectures delivered at the Heritage Foundation, the epicenter of the conservative movement in Washington, D.C. (The remaining pieces were a lecture given at Hillsdale College and an epilogue derived from a Heritage talk.) The volume’s title, inspired by Edmund Burke, was apt—within these pages were Kirk’s considered judgements on many of conservatism’s (or at any rate the non-left’s) recent manifestations. “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians,” “The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species,” “Towards a Prudent Foreign Policy,” and “Popular Conservatism” were a few of Kirk’s chapter headings.

Not that The Politics of Prudence departed from the literary and historical roots that Kirk had traced in The Conservative Mind. Such chapters as “The Politics of T.S. Eliot,” “Donald Davidson and the South’s Conservatism,” and “The Humane Economy of Wilhelm Röpke” recapitulated and expanded upon themes that Kirk had already drawn up in 1953. 

Kirk didn’t pull his punches. If “A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians” sounds more easy-going than than title of his earlier essay “Libertarians, the Chirping Sectaries”—in which he unfavorably compared the breed to “the old-fangled Russian anarchist” who “was bold, lively, and knew which sex he belonged to”—Kirk’s conclusion was no less stark. “I venture to suggest that libertarianism, properly understood, is as alien to real American conservatism as is communism,” he wrote. The conservative “is suspicious of any ideology that would rule us by a single abstract principle, whether that principle is ‘equality’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘social justice’ or ‘national greatness.’”


Though he reproved libertarianism as a philosophy—or rather ideology—the Russell Kirk of the early 1990s did make common cause with no less an anarcho-capitalist than Murray Rothbard in opposing the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush and the neoconservatives. “A Republican administration in Washington contrived American entry into the Spanish-American War,” Kirk wrote,

Since then, until 1991, it was the Democratic governments of the United States that propelled the United States to war, sometimes through the back door: the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Indo-Chinese wars. But an unimaginative ‘democratic capitalist’ Republican regime, early in 1991, committed the United States, very possibly, to a new imperialism.

He predicted that “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.”

As for the neoconservatives, Kirk quotes “a well-known literary scholar” who wrote to him, “It is significant that when the Neo-Cons wish to damn any conservative who has appealed for a grant to a conservative foundation, they tell the officers of the foundation that the conservative is a fascist.” Conservatives in the 2020s will find this sounds familiar.

Kirk praised the neoconservatives for some of their work, even in foreign policy, where he singled out Jeane Kirkpatrick for “manfully…or womanfully” opposing “the designs and menaces” of the Soviet Union. But he warned that neoconservatives tend to pursue “a fanciful democratic globalism rather than the true national interest,” and, when they do, Kirk would rather “side with those moderate Libertarians who set their faces against foreign entanglements.” He added a remark that many have held against his memory ever since: “Not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”

Kirk was in his eighth decade when he published The Politics of Prudence, just a year away from his death. Yet his capacity to shock the sensibilities of the politically polite was undiminished—if anything, more electric than ever. After 30 years, the book still stings.

Yet Kirk was not a controversialist for the sake of controversy. As Federici helpfully outlines in his introduction to the Regnery Gateway edition, Kirk’s target, even at his most polemical, was always the sin of ideology—the sin of seeing the world in simplistic, rationalistic, inhumane, and cartoonish terms, and the sin of attempting to make reality conform to the caricature. He accurately anticipated the language in which the ideologies of the next century would present themselves, and warned of “the ideology of Democratism” which “propels America into rashness abroad, all the way to large-scale war.”

Against democratism and other revolutionary ideologies stood conservatism, and The Politics of Prudence is the best introduction to Kirkian conservatism—not the most definitive or deepest expression of his philosophical outlook, but perhaps the one most accessible to modern men and women who known nothing but ideology as a ground of political life. Early chapters of the book present a digest of conservatism under such headings as “Ten Conservative Principles,” “The Conservative Cause: Ten Events,” “Ten Conservative Books,” and “Ten Exemplary Conservatives.” 

The Regnery Gateway edition also contains, in addition to Michael Federici’s new introduction, the original 1993 introduction to the work by Mark C. Henrie, who was at the time the editor of The Intercollegiate Review and a senior editor of Modern Age—the journal which Kirk had founded in 1957 (and which I now edit). The significance of Henrie’s contribution, however, lies not in his institutional affiliation but in his educational pedigree: He was a doctoral student of Harvey Mansfield’s at Harvard, and his introduction is an insightful evaluation of Kirk from something close to Mansfield’s point of view. Henrie knew the Straussian case against Kirk as well as anyone, and he therefore also knew how to make the case for Kirk in terms that readers of Strauss would find compelling, if not conclusive. And although it has been packaged with The Politics of Prudence since 1993, Henrie’s essay is, in truth, an unsurpassed introduction to The Conservative Mind.

But then, that should be said about this edition of The Politics of Prudence as a whole: It is a book-length introduction not only to conservative thought and controversy (even now), but also to Russell Kirk’s oeuvre in full, and his 1953 masterpiece in particular. The Politics of Prudence is a dutiful son, more brash than its father, but a faithful heir.