The Radicalism of Russell Kirk
At last, over the summer, I made my pilgrimage to Piety Hill. Russell Kirk’s red brick mansion lords over the rust-bitten village of Mecosta, Michigan. The original wooden lodging was built in 1878 by his great-grandfather Amos Johnson. After it burned to the ground on Ash Wednesday 1975, he built this curious Italianate thing.
Two flintlock pistols hang over the mantle, flanking a helmet that looks as though it belonged to Genghis Khan. The dining room was built entirely from the scraps of a local parish church; pews were used for the roof, and statues of angels stand in niches behind Kirk’s old seat at the head of the table. He became Catholic in 1963, but the table in the drawing room was used by his spiritualist grandparents during their seances.
My guest house used to be haunted by his great-uncle Raymond (so Kirk’s 11-year-old grandson tells me) until a visiting priest convinced Ray he’d overstayed his welcome. The Sage of Mecosta’s 10,000-volume library, where he wrote the lion’s share of his essays and books, stands in a little ivy-strewn house adjacent to the main campus.
It is, as I said, a kind of holy place for me. I came to Kirk via T.S. Eliot, whose poetry I read obsessively as a freshman in high school. His longtime pen pal Kirk was my first introduction to politics. Ten years later and I remain a fairly unreconstructed Kirkian.
But what, exactly, is a “Kirkian”?
Hopefully one isn’t judging by the tributes that were written for Kirk’s centennial. Magazines from The Atlantic to Newsmax published eulogies for the Sage of Mecosta. Most of them cast him as a bit player in the founding of National Review—an eccentric, tweedy academic who somehow found himself near the vanguard of the Goldwater movement.
Even during Kirk’s lifetime, conservative officialdom began passing him off as a court philosopher in Ronald Reagan’s White House, existing only to cover the Gipper’s agenda with a patina of intellectual sophistication. Kirk liked Reagan well enough (as he ought to have), but he was not a Reaganite. This is clear to everyone who bothers to read his books. The set of principles and policy agendas that Kirk called “conservatism” bears virtually no resemblance to the ideology that exists under those auspices today.
For one, Kirk wholeheartedly rejected Frank S. Meyer’s and William F. Buckley’s fusionism: the syncretic ideology combining libertarian economics with social traditionalism, which we now refer to simply as conservatism. In his essay “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” Meyer reduces the two to “tendencies” or “emphases” within the same general ideology of conservatism; “both implicitly accept, to a large degree, the ends of the other,” he asserts.
Kirk (and his libertarian counterpart F.A. Hayek, for that matter) rejected Meyer’s thesis outright. As he explained in his essay “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” libertarianism and conservatism are not only disparate: they’re antithetical. He even went so far as to say that “a libertarian conservative is as rare a bird as a Jewish Nazi.”
For libertarians are “utilitarian materialists,” says Kirk, whereas traditionalists believe in a “transcendent moral order.” Libertarians are concerned principally with questions of free versus unfree, wealth versus poverty. For traditionalists, the question of right versus wrong trumps all. Either government stands on the side of Good against Evil, or else it declares itself neutral, and is therefore complicit with Evil. Those are our options.
The belief that all human activity—individual, social, economic, and political—must be directed by this “transcendent moral order” in the service of the Good is indeed the essence of traditionalism. Likewise, Kirk insisted we measure the efficacy of such activity firstly (though not solely) by its “conformity to enduring moral truths.” He remarks in Enemies of the Permanent Things:
Real progress consists in the movement of mankind toward the understanding of norms, and toward conformity to norms. Real decadence consists in the movement of mankind away from the understanding of norms, and away from obedience to norms.
By Kirk’s reckoning, then, the principal function of government is not to ensure the material security and comfort of its citizenry. It is, rather, to stave off immorality and social anarchy.
Man is not homo economicus, as the socialists and libertarians suppose, but the imago Dei. He also must be understood as such in sociological terms. The fact that he is created in God’s image, to love and serve his neighbor as he does his Creator, is not a trifle. It speaks to his deepest creaturely needs: the need for creative expression, fellowship, worship, and sacrifice.
Kirk and his disciples have identified these deepest needs with the Neoplatonist triad of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. They find these embodied in old Christendom: in the teachings, pieties, and devotions of our Christian forebears. Kirk was quick to emphasize that the state has a role to play in providing for these needs—for reinforcing or restoring the Christian order. He repeatedly quotes Burke’s definition of government as “a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” The government must stand with the True, the Good, and the Beautiful against the false, the evil, and the ugly.
Hence his defense of censorship. In his 1956 collection Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, Kirk extols the ancient Roman censor, who has won “the crown of a virtuous political career.” It was his duty to “determine the responsibilities of the citizens, and to see that these responsibilities were properly executed…. They were the guardians of ‘the high old Roman virtue,’ and their powers were very great.” In the exercise of those powers, they were “accountable only to Roman traditions and their own conscience.”
So the censor is the agent of true progress—not the entrepreneur, as the libertarian claims. It is he who guards society against true decadence—not the regulator, as the progressive suggests. The censor ensures conformity to moral norms, which is the lifeblood of a healthy civilization.
Clearly, Kirk doesn’t understand freedom the way modern conservatives do—that is, he does not regard pleas for “freedom” as substantial arguments in and of themselves. This dissonance arises, as Kirk predicted it would, from another sharp and irreconcilable difference in the first principles of libertarianism and traditionalism.
“The libertarian thinks that this world is chiefly a stage for the swaggering ego,” Kirk observes, whereas
the conservative finds himself instead a pilgrim in a realm of mystery and wonder, where duty, discipline, and sacrifice are required—and where the reward is that love which passeth all understanding. The conservative regards the libertarian as impious, in the sense of the old Roman pietas: that is, the libertarian does not venerate ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or his country, or the immortal spark in his fellow men.
Eventually, conservatives were forced to choose between the inviolability of the individual will and the sovereignty of pietas. They chose the former, and so their presuppositions and operating principles became more and more libertarian. No Republican today would dare outlaw pornography, for instance, simply because it’s morally caustic. But for the Kirkian, there is no better reason to outlaw something than the fact that it is simply evil.
Take the example of education reform. In this area, too, conservatives are indistinguishable from libertarians. When faced by Marxist indoctrination at universities, they do not go to battle for the truths handed down from our forefathers in Christendom, as a traditionalist would. They don’t demand syllabi grounded in the Western canon. No: they cry helplessly for “academic freedom” and insist that universities ought to be a “marketplace of ideas,” as a libertarian would.
Meanwhile, real traditionalists in academia—the faculty of classical liberal arts colleges, like Thomas More in New Hampshire and New Saint Andrews in Idaho—very often look across the battlefield at the Ivy League Bolsheviks with a kind of grudging respect, one soldier to another. As Kirk would expect them to:
Conservatives have no intention of compromising with socialists; but even such an alliance, ridiculous though it would be, is more nearly conceivable than the coalition of conservatives and libertarians. The socialists at least declare the existence of some sort of moral order; the libertarians are quite bottomless.
“Every society, usually in theory and invariably in practice, has asserted its right to restrain those who would destroy the foundations of society,” he insists. Believing that young people should be allowed to “think for themselves” in college—that, at the ripe old age of 18, they’re intellectually sophisticated enough to need virtually no instruction from an older and more qualified academic—sounds like the sort of rubbish that would have been peddled by the progressives of the late 19th century.
In fact, it is. And this is why traditionalists may readily agree with Chesterton’s quip: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.” American conservatives have long been defenders of Millian liberalism lightly glazed with Christianity. Kirk had no friendlier words for J.S. Mill than to call him a “defecated intellect.”
“Conformity to enduring moral truths is not servile,” Kirk writes. “Obedience to the conventions of a just civil order is not stupid.” He would have well understood St. Paul’s admonition to the Romans:
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
To this point we may see how Kirk is compatible with a certain pragmatic understanding of modern conservatism. Even if we forget all about Meyer and Buckley—and, indeed, most of us have—we may still use Kirk’s arguments to reinforce the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party and save the Reagan consensus. It may not be theoretically consistent, but it would be rhetorically forceful.
The problem is that Kirk’s thinking does not tolerate the second “ingredient” in fusionism either: he wasn’t an adherent to laissez-faire capitalism. Far from it. In Prospects for Conservatives, Kirk warns the free-marketeers against the innocent assumption that
political and personal freedom will endure, so long as we keep repeating the word “freedom,” no matter how far the process of concentrating economic power in vast corporations nominally “private” is carried…. As the consolidation of economic power progresses, the realm of personal freedom will diminish, whether the masters of the economy are state servants or the servants of private corporations.
These “servants of private corporations” make poor masters of the body politic as well. “Too stupid to even glimpse the necessity for revering and obeying the law that shelters him from social revolution,” he writes in The Conservative Mind, “the capitalist lacks capacity sufficient for the administration of the society he has made his own.”
We shouldn’t expect the capitalist to understand the delicate web of customs, prejudices, and loyalties that comprise a healthy civilization. He buys and sells the labor of others and gambles on their fortunes. They’re not his neighbors or his countrymen, but his investments.
Kirk much preferred Wilhelm Röpke, a Cold War-era German economist who sought a “Third Way” that will “lead us out of the dilemma of ‘capitalism’ and collectivism.” Like Kirk, he could draw no meaningful distinction between the “uprooted proletarian” and the “monopolists and the managers.”
Rather, the two would see a restoration of a decentralized, small-scale economy. They rejected the socialists’ and the capitalists’ shared obsession with growth—the eponymous “dreams of avarice”—favoring mass ownership of property and wide distribution of the means of production. Kirk says of Röpke in The Politics of Prudence:
His object is to restore liberty to men by promoting economic independence. The best type of peasants, artisans, small traders, small and medium-sized businessmen, members of the free professions and trusty officials and servants of the community—these are the objects of his solicitude, for among them traditional human nature still has its healthiest roots, and throughout most of the world they are being ground between “capitalistic” specialization and “socialistic” consolidation. They need not vanish from society, once more they may constitute the masters of society….
Competitive enterprise is not wrong in itself, of course. Kirk would more likely agree with Chesterton that “too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Indeed, here’s Kirk again, now in The American Cause:
Economically and morally, a competitive system is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it provides for human wants, and respects human freedom, far better than any vague scheme of reliance solely upon altruism, or any system of forced labor. In essence, it is not competition which is ruthless; rather, it is the lack of competition that makes a society ruthless….
Kirk simply understood that the laissez-faire system isn’t always conducive to competition. It may just as well produce monopolies, or depressions, or revolutions.
So we should beware those “zealots” who “instruct us that ‘the test of the market’ is the whole of political economy and of morals” and “assure us that great corporations can do no wrong,” Kirk wrote in The Intercollegiate Review back in 1986—halfway through Reagan’s second term.
We must say a brief word also about foreign policy. Kirk’s most famous words on the subject probably come from a 1988 address to the Heritage Foundation, when he remarked that “not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” The comment was tone-deaf but unworthy of the accusations of anti-Semitism that followed, as TAC’s scholar-at-large Bradley Birzer explains in his biography Russell Kirk: American Conservative.
Clearly, though, Kirk was a firm anti-interventionist. But he was not, we must note, an America Firster. His opposition to neoconservatism didn’t arise principally from a fear of wasting American blood and treasure on unworthy peoples.
Rather, he opposed the notion that the United States can “liberate” a country anymore than it can conquer and occupy one. So he writes in his contribution to the collection What is Conservatism?:
To impose the American constitution upon all the world would not render all the world happy; to the contrary, our constitution would work in few lands and would make many men miserable in short order. States, like men, must find their own paths to order and justice and freedom; and usually those paths are ancient and winding ways, and their signposts are Authority, Tradition, Prescription.
Hence he cautioned against those “who fancy that foreign policy can be conducted with religious zeal, on a basis of absolute right and absolute wrong.” Of course, this isn’t because right and wrong don’t matter in politics, or that we should abjure any sort of religious notions. On the contrary. As he said in another Heritage Foundation address in 1991, addressing the Gulf War:
“The blood of a man should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man,” Burke wrote in his first Letter on a Regicide Peace. “It is well shed for our family, for our friends, for our God, for our country, for our kind. The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.” Burke was eager that England declare war against France because of the menace of the French revolutionaries to the civilized order of Europe, and because of their systematic crimes. But he set his face against war for mere commercial advantage. So should Republicans. “The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.”
The problem with interventionism, Kirk explains, is that we can’t redeem the men whose country we invade, because they don’t accept our definition of redemption. It’s hopeless for us to impose our liberal, secularist notions of right and wrong on a fundamentalist Muslim nation like Afghanistan, or a half-Stalinist/half-Orthodox nation like Russia. We should help those peoples on their way to order, justice, and freedom—but only if we’re prepared to accept their notions of authority, tradition, and prescription. If not, we will only cause them (and ourselves) greater harm by interfering.
The conservatism of Russell Kirk bears little resemblance to the Republican Party or the right-of-center media in 2019. Whether they mean to or not, modern conservatives read Kirk selectively, choosing only those quotes or ideas that reify the Reagan consensus.
Of course, one may conclude that Kirk was wrong and Buckley (or Hayek or Strauss) was right. I don’t mean any of this to be an argument for Kirkian conservatism. Nor do I wish to argue that the word “conservatism” itself belongs to the Kirkians, and should therefore not be used by Buckleyites or Hayekians or Straussians.
I only wish to let Kirk speak for himself for once. After 100 years, I believe he’s earned that right. Of course, it’s tempting to simply gild our own ideas with his prodigious intellectual capital, especially now that he’s dead. But perhaps we should ask ourselves: if we respect him enough to invoke his name and quote his books, wouldn’t it be wise to consider his philosophy in toto? Having spent so many years mining his chapters and essays for quotes before replacing them reverently on the top shelf, don’t we owe him a proper read-through?
One has little confidence that older conservatives are now willing to reconsider their views, even if they did take the time to remove their repp-striped glasses and read The Conservative Mind cover to cover. That’s less a reflection on those conservatives than it is on human nature, and the stolidity of old age is usually one of its virtues.
But, thankfully, a striking number of Millennials are falling under the influence of Kirk the radical, Kirk the dissident. My friend Jeff Cimmino published a report in National Review in 2017 describing the “young, anti-libertarian conservatives” who are “increasingly prominent on some college campuses.” These next-gen trads are saturating themselves in the thought of Kirk, Edmund Burke, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. “They are the vanguard of a new generation standing athwart history,” Cimmino declares, “trying to reorient Americans toward ideas and ideals that nourish the whole person: community, truth, goodness, and beauty.”
What struck me most about the piece, however, was Cimmino’s observation that the Catholic University of America sends a contingent to St. Mary Mother of God in Washington, D.C. each year for the Feast of Blessed Karl of Austria: the last Habsburg emperor. The Feast of Blessed Karl at Old St. Mary’s was the first Latin Mass I ever attended. This was back in 2013, when I went as president of the GWU College Monarchists. You might say we were among the first wave of new traditionalists.
Then, when I continued my studies at the University of Sydney, I quickly found another cell of self-professed Burkeans who became my lasting friends. One of our number is collecting essays for a book on traditionalist conservatism, to be published by Connor Court Publishing, which is the largest right-of-center publishing house in the country. Contributors include former prime minister Tony Abbott and Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, though most contributors are Millennials.
I haven’t spent enough time in Britain to know whether this trend holds true in the UK, but I strongly suspect it does. Anyone with social media knows that High Tories like Hitchens, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Sir Roger Scruton have a massive following among Young Conservative activists.
So, whence this traditionalist renaissance?
My generation has seen the West undone by consumerism, lax divorce laws, the Sexual Revolution, outsourcing, urbanization, and centralization. All are defended (even if only half-heartedly) by modern conservatives as “the price we must pay” to live in a free and prosperous country. They’re wrong. Liberty without morality is mere license; prosperity without charity is mere decadence. The traditionalist rejects both perversions while upholding the essential Good that they distort.
To quote Burke: “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” And what is it that Millennial traditionalists want? Friendship, family, community, an honest day’s work, real music, good books, and above all God. Kirk summed it up very nicely when he said that “conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship, and Christians call love of neighbor.”
This is the radical vision he posited against the “dreams of avarice” shared by socialists, progressives, and libertarians. This is what conservatives once fought for. We’ve abdicated that duty in the decades since Kirk’s death, but a new generation of conservatives is taking up the fight again.
Requiescat in Pace Dr. Russell Amos Kirk. Your time has come once again.
Michael Warren Davis is associate editor of the Catholic Herald. Find him at www.michaelwarrendavis.com.