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.
Conservatives, he thought, were just as captured by the language of liberalism, with its obsession with abstract “rights” and fantasies of unlimited freedom, and therefore could not really oppose it. The Conservative Mind, as well as his other books, were written to provide a different way of thinking about politics and community. Kirk wrote in the 1950s that liberalism would fail, because it could not maintain a hold on the popular imagination for long; liberalism soon “ceased to signify anything, even among its most sincere partisans, [other] than a vague good will.”
A more dangerous ideology replaced the liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s. Long before the rise of the Internet and reality TV, Kirk prophetically described an “Age of Sentiment” that was dominated by images. The failed Enlightenment experiment liberalism would let loose forces uncontrolled by custom, tradition, or liberal reason. A conservative moral imagination was needed to combat this new age.
Kirk’s Midwestern conservatism was criticized in the 1990s and early 2000s, when “big government” conservatism and military jingoism ruled the Right. Yet his work is now more important than ever. As Rod Dreher wrote recently, drawing in part on Kirk, conservatives need storytelling. Despite their disastrous policies and ideological warfare, liberals control the high ground of culture because the stories they tell are superficially compelling. Until conservatives match them, political battles will continue to be lost. Kirk’s work is a foundation for any true conservative recovery.
Gerald J. Russello is the author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.