Conservatism is in disarray. It has forgotten its roots in the Western tradition of liberty and community. That’s why we need to return to Russell Kirk.
The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk, was published 60 years ago this summer. It was an immediate intellectual sensation, reviewed in both popular magazines and scholarly journals. Time, for example, devoted its entire review section to the book.
Kirk, then a young professor, became the father of modern American conservatism. He went on to write more than two dozen other books, hundreds of essays and newspaper columns, and had a long-running column in National Review, where he was one of its first writers. He was also a prize-winning ghost story writer, tales which he based on his wide travels and the wilds of rural Michigan, where he lived in a town founded by his ancestors until his death in 1994.
Conservatism was born in opposition to the French Revolution. That revolution was spurred by a dangerous ideology — that man was perfectible and that government could make its citizens perfect. This, Kirk saw, was the way to the gulag and, we might say now, the modern surveillance-welfare state. Against this rigid ideology, Kirk defended what he called the Permanent Things. Kirk believed in enduring norms but he does not fall into the trap many conservatives fall into, that a set schema of virtues and vices that can be applied across time and space. These virtues cannot be imposed from above, as liberals believe societies can be “improved” with a little more expert intervention or government money. Rather, they must be exemplified in individuals and cultural practices that can support their growth.
Some opposed Kirk’s Anglo-American creation. Political scientist Richard Hofstadter demeaned conservatism as a reflection of resentment and fear rather than a real intellectual tradition. Others called Kirk — descendant of Puritans and a Midwesterner with deep roots — un-American for linking our nation to the longer tradition of the West. Kirk strongly rejected the notion that America was an “idea nation” whose values could be packaged and exported. Rather, he saw every culture as a complex of customs and practices that could not be abstracted into a political catchphrase.
For Kirk’s conservatism is not that of the beltway or the Republican Party. In a sense it was not political at all. Rather, Kirk abhorred bigness of any form — political or economic. He was a defender of free markets but argued both liberals and conservatives had made a fetish of economic man. He argued for an individualism rooted in community that would protect against the depredations of both destructive capitalism and enervating socialism. He opposed extensive military engagements as the surest way to destroy local communities spur big government. Almost alone among major conservative thinkers, he opposed the first Iraq war as unjust and not in America’s interest.