‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer

January 28, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer

“I’m so happy to find that you’re little, too!” the political philosopher Leo Strauss said when he first met Russell Kirk in Chicago in the mid-1950s. “From your books, I had feared that you might be a great, tall, fierce man.” Kirk can still seem great and fierce.

It was his book “The Conservative Mind” (1953) that first used the word “conservative” to classify various currents of anti-progressive dissidence that ran from the French Revolution to the 20th-century heyday of social democracy. Kirk’s book was an event. After a recommendation from Whittaker Chambers, Time magazine devoted the entire book review section to it. And Kirk had other gifts. He was a capable writer of ghost and fantasy novels. He founded and edited two prestigious journals. Not just Strauss and Chambers but also T. S. Eliot and Ray Bradbury esteemed him. In 1955, Flannery O’Connor, scarcely able to walk, traveled 340 miles in hopes of seeing him lecture in ­Tennessee.

Yet, by the time he died in 1994 at the age of 75, Kirk did look little. His brand of conservatism had come under attack from some of the people it was meant to inspire, including “neoconservative” foreign policy hawks in Washington and Lincoln-revering disciples of Strauss on the West Coast.

In a diligent and adulatory study of Kirk’s life and thought, the Hillsdale College historian Bradley J. Birzer makes high claims for Kirk as both a man of letters and a philosopher, and makes plain why Kirk worked such a fascination on thinking Americans, even non­conservatives, half a century ago.

Kirk grew up in Plymouth, Mich., in a family that was bookish but poor. He was solitary and self-dramatizing, later even a bit of a dandy, affecting sword canes, capes, three-piece suits with watch fobs and fedoras. He wrote his first autobiography in his mid-30s and often referred to himself in the third person. (When his rival Frank Meyer won a foundation grant, Kirk wrote to William F. Buckley, “There is a concerted effort to denigrate Russell Amos Kirk.”) He sought out feuds with anyone he suspected of pragmatism, utilitarianism or logical positivism.

When the publication of “The Conservative Mind” made it possible for him to resign his junior faculty position at Michigan State, he cast his decision as a protest against the institution’s “progressive lowering of standards.”

The principles Kirk laid out in his books once passed for a generic description of conservatism. Today they look idiosyncratic. “The Conservative Mind” grew out of a doctoral thesis on the intellectual heirs of Edmund Burke that he wrote at St. Andrews in Scotland. Kirk was intellectually smitten with Burke, especially with his critical assessment of the French Revolution. He could paraphrase Burke with such subtlety that the reader can almost never tell where Burke leaves off and Kirk picks up.

“The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” Kirk writes. “Prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites.” Kirk stressed the religious roots of Burke’s thought, easily documented but until then of interest to relatively few scholars.

“The Conservative Mind” is Manichaean in its certitudes. It elicits passions and loyalties as a sport does. A conservative is one who plays on the Burkean “team,” fights for the same decencies Burke does and denounces the right opponents: the dastardly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, and Jeremy Bentham, promulgator of “utilitarian” theories that seek “the greatest good for the greatest number,” who is the book’s archfiend. Thus Kirk conscripts the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, a liberal Whig, into his conservative army, only because Macaulay wrote a rather atypical debunking of Bentham in his youth.

Kirk is preposterously Anglophilic. This disposition is justified by the influence of British thought on the conservative parts of America’s constitutional culture, but it quivers with something more literary and emotional, too. When Kirk writes of Britain’s tragic inability to defend “the rural parishes and tight little towns that had nourished English political stability, English literature and English charm,” one hears a note that runs through American literature after Henry James.

“The Conservative Mind” is the work of an American shocked by a first encounter with Europe, and thus with the relative shallowness of his own culture. Perhaps Kirk had a vocation for nostalgia: In his early 20s, he worked at Greenfield Village — Henry Ford’s “living history” theme park — where he did a variety of jobs, including playing the role of old-time preacher.

Kirk’s philosophical conservatism is nothing like the political doctrines that today bear that name: He backed the Socialist Norman Thomas for President in 1944, Barry Goldwater in 1964, Eugene McCarthy in 1976 and Pat Buchanan in 1992. He was not nationalistic. American nuclear strategy, the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, the country’s treatment of American Indians and Middle East policy at the time of the first gulf war — these outraged him. Nor does Kirk extol entrepreneurship. He regrets that “Alexander Hamilton the financier, the party manager, the empire builder, fascinates those numerous Americans among whom the acquisitive instinct is confounded with the conservative tendency.” Kirk worried early on about “vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining.”

Because Kirk cut such an eccentric path through the Western intellectual tradition, it is no mean scholarly feat to discern an overarching project in his writing. At this Birzer succeeds admirably. He gives mini-biographies of those who influenced Kirk, including the Harvard French scholar Irving Babbitt, the Nation editor Paul Elmer More and (in rather too much detail) T. S. Eliot.

Birzer traces a favorite Kirkian-Burkean argument — that societies too rationally organized make easy prey for demagogues — to its origins in Plato’s “Republic.” He shows that the Stoicism Kirk professed in his youth is in profound philosophical harmony with the Catholicism he turned to in the 1960s and that Kirk was not the first intellectual to make the transition from one to the other. He believes Kirk suffered from his forays into politics and from his association with Buckley and National Review.

Birzer’s focus is more on Kirk’s thought than on his life. We do not find out why Kirk remained celibate until he married in his mid-40s or how he managed to spend whole summers in Scotland when he was so often strapped for cash. Like Kirk himself (who called Henry Adams “the zenith of American civilization,” Eric Voegelin “the most influential historian of our century” and Bradbury 20th-century America’s “best prose fiction” writer), Birzer is given to flinging around superlatives. He calls one of the characters in Kirk’s “Lord of the Hollow Dark” “not only a highlight of the novel but also a highlight of 20th-century literature.” He exaggerates Kirk’s importance in the past decades’ revival of interest in Burke and Tocqueville.

Birzer ascribes to Kirk a larger role than the facts warrant in the early stages of Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the 1964 Republican nomination, showing that Kirk wrote two speeches for him in 1962 but giving no account of any conversation the two ever had and citing no Goldwater letters that go beyond political boilerplate. Kirk is too often the book’s hero rather than its subject.

Birzer calls “The Conservative Mind” a “postmodern hagiography.” It is an apt description. Kirk’s mighty intelligence was, in retrospect, that of a curator or anthologist, not that of a creator. To say so is not to demean him. Kirk’s guiding principle was that when the subject is human nature, nothing is ever really created. Institutions, traditions and wisdom are either handed down or, if need be, rediscovered. This remains a deep and necessary insight. “Conservatism” is as good a name for it as any.

An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to the aspect of America’s World War II internment of people of Japanese ancestry that particularly outraged Russell Kirk. It was the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, not the internment of Japanese citizens. (Though many Japanese citizens were indeed interned, a majority of the internees were American citizens.)

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

A version of this review appears in print on January 24, 2016, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Original Conservative.

16 thoughts on “‘Russell Kirk: American Conservative,’ by Bradley J. Birzer

  1. Conrad and CLF,

    Kirk is like an interesting thinker, but a controversial one. Anyone who like Edmund Burke intrigues me. I would consider myself to be a conservative-pragmatist (my polite and self flattering term for being a tea tarik man who used to hang out almost every morning at Mohsin, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail within walking distance from Kamsiah’s Dental Clinic) when it comes to politics and economics. When I return to KL, I try to get copy of this biography. I am starting with Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss, Man of Peace(Cambridge University Press, 2014) ISBN 978-1-107-07499-6. My intention is to recommend this book to my doctoral students at the Techo Sen School as a must read. –Din Merican

  2. Some random thoughts and comments:

    1. Reminds me of the poet William Wordsworth, who was horrified by the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, and thus turned to conservatism.

    2. Marxist historian Eugene Genovese turned to Catholicism and became a
    conservative later on in life. His course on World Marxism was quite popular at the U of Rochester when I was a student there (but I never took it 🙂 )

    3. “Kirk’s philosophical conservatism is nothing like the political doctrines that today bear that name: He backed the Socialist Norman Thomas for President in 1944, Barry Goldwater in 1964, Eugene McCarthy in 1976 and Pat Buchanan in 1992. He was not nationalistic”.

    Before the socialist Bernie Sanders, there were the socialists Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. Kirk probably supported Eugene McCarthy in 1966 (not 1976 as this was Jimmy Carter’s time) because of US role in the Vietnam War. McCarthy was the “peace candidate”.
    Pat Buchanan was very nationalistic and also an America First isolationist.
    Perhaps Kirk liked the latter part of Buchanan’s orientation.

  3. Sigh… how far today’s conservative right has left his ideal. With Falwell Jr providing public support to Trump, this Christian in me still suggests one thing that I would continue to do.

    Love thy neighbour…

    Today’s 1% own more than the rest of the 99%. I merely believe it is time to urge the 1% to realize the rest of the 99% is part of their neighbour also.

    On individualism is anti-Christian, this post-Christian would just say, idolising the following too is anti-Christian.

  4. Continue from previous post ..
    To protect one’s self and one’s material acquisitions becomes the goal of civil society, and property rights define us and our neighbors..
    The above spirit is idolatory, when so much of today’s world economy has been derived from rent seeking and wheeling dealing activities.

    On being pessimistic on human nature, this Christian could not agree more. Yet, today’s post Reagon conservatism in US is all about individualism,and small government, as if individuals could really take care of themselves optimistically speaking. But of course, being over pessimistic too is idolatry.

    Sigh.. all these labels are so meaningless in today’s postmodern world.

  5. Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss, Man of Peace – I think your students should be exposed to everything Mr. Merican. The more weltanschauung they are exposed to, the better so they won’t find themselves shackled to any one particular strain of dogma.

    Having said that, as someone who is very familiar with the writings of Strauss, I didn’t really find the needlessly provocative title of the book or its contents, justified in any way.

    This seems like a kind of a sympathetic revisionism of the man and frankly something Strauss himself would have found contemptible (but useful) in the long run. Which should give you an inkling on what I think of Strauss.

    As for Russel Kirk, sure I have read the Conservative Mind, and sure I think the foundational elements of American Conservatism, is something that I find intellectually appealing but really all these great white conservatives do not stand the test of time.

    In the end, I will always remember that Russell Kirk was an apologist for apartheid rule in South Africa and wrote passionately about how the “civilized” European rule were preferable to black domination.

    Not to mention the crap he wrote about voting rights for blacks in America.
    Yes, they exposed to a wide range of topics and issues related to IR from Political Philosophy and Political Theory to Economics, and sociology and related fields.–Din Merican

  6. The greatest gift of Western philosophers gave the world, is the fundamental concept, that societies should believe that every individual was born with a dignity and a God given right to freedom that no authority had the right to abridge or deny. It matters not whit, whether one pigeonholes/considers oneself a ‘Conservative’, ‘Liberal’ or anywhere in between.

    To their contemporaries, great thinkers like Rousseau, Darwin, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Freud, Jung, Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Sartre etc were somewhat eccentric, weird and spooky. They were all monsters to the people in their personal lives, even as their contributions to the world were much valued – mostly posthumously. In a sense, they were also responsible for the irrationality, chaos, indiscriminate efficient murder, despair and so on.

    Russell Kirk certainly recognized the value of traditions, culture and values that informed his Westernized White Worldview. His nurtured narcissism is, in a sense, a necessity, for anyone who invents his own truth, and thereby his projects his community. Otherwise, there will only be numberless factions who become greedy, envious and power mad self interest groups who will seize control and turn civilization into a series of cruel, doomed machines.

    So Conservative or Liberal, we have to reject the ‘Fashion’ of the Day that favors short-term goals, quick profits no matter the devastating consequences and a marketplace geared to gratify hedonistic cravings while leaving our social, spiritual and cultural needs unfulfilled.

    Instead of compulsively labelling every idea, we must strive to conceive a future not based on the utopianism nor nihilism of our time. We therefore seek not Theories idolatrous or relevant only to our time and environment, but must also be based on traditions and wisdom from which our civilization have ‘evolved’ and been ‘informed’.

    As a parting shot, my favorite canine quote from Kirk, about ‘academic’ sociologists and political scientists: “As a breed – dull dogs”.

  7. “So Conservative or Liberal, we have to reject the ‘Fashion’ of the Day that favors short-term goals, quick profits no matter the devastating consequences and a marketplace geared to gratify hedonistic cravings while leaving our social, spiritual and cultural needs unfulfilled.”

    Don’t know if this is irony but the above is exactly the basis of Kirk’s conservatism.

  8. Yes Conrad (@ 6:34), by this definition and in this sense, we should all behave and act as conservatives. To deny the cultural traditions, heritage and ancient wisdom wholesale, for a single prevailing ideology or overarching ambition, is the lack of discernment.

    On the other thread, the feckless secularism of Europe is a symptom of unfettered disregard for the genus Homo Religiosus and the ‘fanatical’ adaptation of the symbols of the irreligious – couched as ‘pragmatism’. Besides Germany and the Scandinavian (Lutheran) countries, the Romance countries are in the throes of dissolution and will ultimately be mere historical curiosities – wracked by violence and sectarism.

    Atheistic secularism has morphed into a religion – otherwise there’s no need to worship justice, liberty and fraternity as if they were metaphysical Beings.

    Liberalism can only be informed and unfettered from the bondage of faulty ‘pure human reasoning’ if the morality and ethics of bygones ages is taken into account. Intellectualism must come from the heart, not mere binary constructs of on-off binary synapses, like most soulless pseudo-intellects pretend are ‘truths’.

    The Mysteries of Being and the Differences in Reality, is what liberals need to anchor their theories on. Man is Not a binary creature. The Ancients speak of the Heart, Mind and Soul. So-called ‘Liberal’ Intellectuals speak of stomach, gonads and materialistic coefficients as if they were all. Nay, they are not ‘Liberal’ in the sense of Liberty. They are slaves to Technique and Method.

    Modern social, philosophers and so-called physical scientists can’t even approach the problem of ‘Existence’, so they ramble on about nihilistic Existentialism and Absurdism.

    So tell me is there a need to tag what Conservatism or Liberalism, actually means? It is reductionist and not empirical, because we are all Quantum beings.

  9. @conrad thanks. Bloomberg it would be, comes this election. The world could not handle a Bernie and a Trump together in one presidential debate.🙈🙉🙊 alas.. at least i still have 99% as my neighbour.. 1% as my boss.

  10. CLF, by now you should know, I’m wary getting into an intellectual/philosophical/ideological discussion with you because it’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight . But…

    “So tell me is there a need to tag what Conservatism or Liberalism, actually means? It is reductionist and not empirical, because we are all Quantum beings.”

    The difference between the two especially in the ideological sense is one is descriptive while the other prescriptive. The importance of this difference is felt in the codification process.

  11. Actually I would like to see a Sanders/Trump debate. I think it would be very interesting. I don’t doubt Bernie’s sincerity only his belief that his candidacy could change the System.

  12. aitze, Britt (James Coburn) was my favourite character in Magnificent Seven but when it comes to the arcana of ideological metaphysics, CLF will trounce me, before I can emulate Britt…..metaphorically speaking 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.