Autor: Stanislav Matějka
The goal of this article is to provide some insights into the issue of conservative thought and its importance in the USA by using an example of one extraordinary thinker, writer and generally interesting person, Russell Kirk. The reason to write about US conservatism is that this line of thinking is recently becoming marginalized or even “demonized” in a way. Goal in this research was to find out core ideas of conservative thinking and understand what are recent so called “Neo-conservatives” or “Neo-cons” building their thoughts and policies upon.
First part will deal with US conservatism in general, its history, some main protagonists and its overall importance in the development in American thoughts.
Other chapters will be broadly analyzing the work of Russell Kirk and its added value. His books and papers did influence people active in either politics or in academic life. This text will shortly summarize his life as it also plays important part in the way he articulates his thoughts and what people he influenced the most. This paper will also analyze arguably the most important book of Kirk called The Conservative Mind that was published in 1953. George H. Nash wrote that this particular book “stimulated the development of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement in America. It gave the movement an identity it previously lacked.” [blockquote cite=”” type=”left, center, right”]Russell Kirk was a hero for conservative intellectutals…[/blockquote]
Russell Kirk was a hero for conservative intellectutals as he was able to articulate arguments that repulsed most of the charges of liberals. He also proved that “intelligent conservatism was an attitude toward life with substance and moral force of its own.” He wrote his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind when he was only 35 years old. Since then he wrote many other masterpieces from The Roots of American Order to The Sword of Imagination. He also wrote regular column in National Review.
Conservatism in the USA
Mickey Edwards, a prominent representative of the conservative movement in the United States wrote the book called Reclaiming Conservatism, How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost – and How it Can Find Its Way Back. Mickey Edwards was member of Congress, chairman of the American Conservative Union and founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. In his book Edwards claims that conservatives in the Congress nowadays abandoned all conservative principals and became champions of what they once feared the most. He writes about the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to deal with president’s Bush decisions to basically ignore the division of power and certain laws.
Edwards is probably one of the most credible people in the US to ask about the history of the Conservative thoughts and movement and what does it mean today. As Russell Kirk is one of the very important heroes of the story it is vital to describe the view of Edwards on that matter.
He concludes briefly that what the conservatism meant in Europe for centuries is not at all the same thing as the US conservatism. While European conservatives were those advocating for the ruling classes, trying to preserve the structure of the society as it was since, they would say forever, American conservatives are those preserving revolutionary understanding of liberties and rights of individual against the bad intentions of the government. Conservative movement in United States emerged as a defense against growing influence and power of the government. Conservatives say that the Constitution as designed by the founding fathers was intended to protect those liberties and rights they fought for. Once the government started to concentrate the power, conservative movement emerged as a counterforce.
One of the confusions with the labels like conservatives and liberals is the distinction between European and American meaning of these words. American conservative would be ideologically closer to European liberal. They share the view that the government should be small and its main purpose is to protect citizens, their rights and liberties. Whereas American liberals could nowadays be compared to left-leaning European politicians. That means they are more willing to expand the role of government in areas as social security etc.
USA celebrates itself as a nation of the liberal tradition, yet it has, in fact, a strong conservative base. When we push for new rights, for example that we think should be in place we always look back to the past for traces so that we may prove them to be right and thus justify them. “We rely on the future to redeem the promises of the past. Americans are proud of their rebels, but only if they are long dead. United States are the youngest of major world powers and yet has the oldest written Constitution. If the environment in the United States is incompatible with conservatism as it is so often claimed than conservatives proved demonstrated diligence in politics, literature economy together with other areas.”
In 2007, George H. Nash gave a speech about the legacy of Russell Kirk at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Nash was there asking one very good question: Is Kirk more admired than studied and is his teaching still live option for the 21st century America? There is a book called Essential Russell Kirk, where author, George Panichas made his argument that indeed not only his work is still essential now in the 21st century but also he himself is still essential.
Russell Kirk wrote 26 nonfiction books, 9 volumes of novels and collected stories, 255 book reviews 68 introductions and forewords for other peoples books, 814 essays and nearly 3000 newspaper columns. There were only two so-called fathers of modern American conservatism that productive – him and William F. Buckley Jr.
Russell Kirk was born in 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan. His father was a railroad engineer. Russell shared prejudices against “assembly line civilization” with his father. At the age of eight he already read books of Sir Walter Scott who he later called his literary mentor. After graduating from high school in 1936 he entered Michigan State College. Later he studied at Duke University where he published his Master’s thesis called Randolph of Roanoke. There he sympathized with antebellum Virginians’ aristocratic, states’ rights agrarianism. He considered himself as a “Northern Agrarian”.
In 1941 Kirk briefly worked at the Ford Company. This experience did nothing to change his attitudes, if so than only in a way that he disliked bureaucracy even more. He even denounced military draft as “slavery”. In 1942 he was indeed drafted to US Army. For four years he lived in Utah and Florida as sergeant in Chemical Warfare Service. As a clerk he had a lot of time to spend reading books. After being discharged from the Army he was appointed an assistant professor at Michigan State University. In 1948 he went to Scotland for studies at St. Andrews where he became the first American to earn Doctor of letters degree. He spent next four years in Scotland and rural England. This experience affected his lifestyle as well as way of his thinking and reinforced his classical philosophy of education. He himself later noted that “his was not Enlightened mind, it was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure”. In Scottish countryside Kirk found enough to nourish his imagination. His gothic novel Old House of Fear was set in Scotland. It sold more copies than all his other publications put together.
Most important event during his stay in Scotland was his discovery of works of Edmund Burke – his intellectual hero. Kirk acclaimed Burkean traditionalism as the true school of conservative principle. Burke was basically core inspiration for Kirks dissertation called The Conservative Mind.
The Conservative Mind
The most influential volume of Russell Kirk was The Conservative Mind published in 1953 when Kirk was only 35. At the time Kirk was not very well known. This book changed that and also a lot about how the conservative thinkers saw themselves and how the others have looked on them.
As Nash put it: “Liberal practitioners and Kirk in his Conservative Mind demonstrated that intelligent conservatism was not a mere smokescreen for selfishness. He showed that conservatism is an attitude toward life with substance and moral force.”
Conservatism has been under attack for more than a century when Kirk published his volume. John Stuart Mill dismissed conservatives as a “stupid party”. In 1950s eminent literary critic asserted that liberalism was the sole intellectual tradition in the United States. This changed after Kirk. His thoughts made it respectable for some sophisticated people to identify themselves as the people of the Right.
The Conservative Mind stimulated the development of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement in America in the early years of the Cold war. Some say it gave the opposition of liberalism an identity. This is probably to most important added value of both Russell Kirk and his work in particular.
[blockquote cite=”” type=”left, center, right”]The Conservative Mind stimulated the development of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement in America in the early years of the Cold war.[/blockquote]
Interestingly enough, given its importance and its remarkable accomplishment, it was not a political book in conventional sense. Kirk instead of laying out any agenda for legislation reminded his readers that political problems were fundamentally religious and moral problems. He emphasized that goal was social regeneration that required action at level beyond the political and economic. This is why this book outlived the special circumstances of its birth. Instead of focusing on means it brought attention to ends. That is also why we may find important lessons even after six decades have passed.
Kirk grounded his conservatism in religion, particularly in Christianity. In times when public discourse in USA was secular he spoke of the soul and of his conviction that God rules society. While social sciences were on rise he instead cited poetry.
In 1953 Kirk resigned his teaching position at Michigan State University appalled by the administrations’ deliberate dumbing down of educational standards. He moved to Mecosta, Michigan to live with his widowed grandmother and great aunts. One can imagine how such environment affects the thinking of a man. On the other hand though Kirk managed to attract students and even some scholars to Mecosta to attend his lectures and from time to time even organize a seminar.
In 1955 William F. Buckley Jr. decided to ask Kirk to write a regular column to his about to be launched magazine – National Review. Kirk agreed but refused to be identified as one of magazines editora as he had some argument with other editors before.
His Burkeanism was not the only school of right wing thought competing for prominence. There were those arguing for classical liberalism or individualism – nowadays known as libertarianism. To Kirk, real conservatism was utterly antithetical to unrestrained capitalism and egoistic ideology of individualism. He criticized individualism as anti-Christian. He claimed, “Individualism is social atomism”. No one can be individualist and Christian at the same time. These sentiments that he expressed in his articles provoked a heated debate in intellectual spheres. In libertarian Freeman magazine Frank Chodorov commissioned critical article about so called new conservatism of Russell Kirk. The article was written by Frank Meyer who criticized Kirk for not distinguishing what is good and what is bad, for not having clear and distinct principle. Kirk and his allies according to Meyer failed to provide a crisp analytic framework for opposing the real enemy – collectivism. Meyer was particularly unhappy with Kirks attack on individualism. He felt that Kirk did not comprehend the principles and institutions of a free society – that was according to him based on the fact that all value resides in the individual. Title of this article was Collectivism Rebaptized.
Byrum E. Carter wrote a review of The Conservative Mind published in Indiana Law Journal a year after the book was published. This review gives a very throughout analysis of the main arguments of the book while revealing both strengths and weaknesses of the volume. Carter claims that Kirk has changed the interpretations of various US histories in which he says the main heroes were mostly liberal politicians or thinkers. Kirk brought new perspective and turned this upside down. Consideration of the volume fall according to Carter into two basic divisions: statement of the six canons of conservative thought and examination of proposals made toward the development of a modern conservative program. These six canons are as follows. Political problems are, at heart religious and moral problems. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life. Conviction that a civilized society requires order and classes. Recognition of the dependence of freedom upon property. Here Kirk argues that economic leveling leads inevitably to the destruction of liberty. Fifth canon is a deep faith in tradition and prejudice as guarantors of social order. The last one is recognition that change and reform are not identical.
Carter continues in analyzing what lies behind these canons. He says that the main objection of conservative thinkers to classical liberalism is the belief of the latter in innate goodness of man. Conservatives presumably claim that people are not good and reasonable on their own. Prejudice and tradition according to conservatives exist so that there is a social order in the world. Conservatives did placed Christian doctrine of the original sin in the central position of their philosophical outlook. It seems like Carter argues that pessimism is ingrained conservative attribute. Liberals lost their optimism after the horrors of 20th century wars. Their case got more difficult and one very pessimistic argument arises from the discussion about the reason of peoples’ evil. Even those trying to reform the society and repair the damages caused by human evil, whatever their intentions are, they will create new evils and injustices in their efforts.
Response of the conservatives and that of Kirk in particular, is that we have to keep what we have. Civilization stands on traditions and prejudices and it will always be only a thin veneer beneath which is hidden latent savagery and bestiality.
Russell Kirk was one very interesting scholar, thinker and influential mentor of many. Whether we do or do not agree with all he ever advocated for we should remember his thoughts that reshaped the way of thinking about conservatism. Once we know that these ideas were already introduced and made their way through academic or political discourse we may build on that experience and develop new, innovated thoughts and arguments in this never ending debate about the importance of the social order.
Conservatism is certainly still relevant in both philosophical and political or even more practical discourse nowadays.
Kirk reminds us that the core political problems and questions are more about our morals. Kirk together with other conservatives does not believe in people being naturally good. Our morals were built throughout ages and the tradition is what keeping the social order intact.
What was then his place in world of American conservatism? Nash concludes “He elevated the tone and substance of conservative discourse more than any other writer of his era. He was a bridge builder to the classics of western culture. His legacy as a moralist endures despite some controversies concerning his interpretations of either Burke or American Revolution.” It is definitely worth a while studying his writings and his arguments should be remembered if we wish to develop further our political thinking.
Buckley F. William Jr., American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, The American Heritage Series, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. New York 1970, 554 p.
Carter, Byrum E. The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk, Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 29. Iss.22, Article 11, available http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/ilj/vol29/iss2/11.
Edwards Mickey, Reclaiming Conservatism, Oxford University Press, New York 2008, 230 p.
Levy W Leonard, Young Alfred, Foreword In: American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, Bobbs-Merrill Company,Inc., 1970, p. xi.
Nash H. George, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Basic Books, New York 1976, 463 p.
Nash H. George, The Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk, Heritage Lectures, No1035, Heritage Foundation, 2007, 8 p.
Panichas A. George, Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism, Writings from Modern Age, ISI Books, Wilmington 2008.
 Nash H. George, The Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk, Heritage Lectures, No1035, Heritage Foundation, 2007, p.1.
 Ibid. p.1.
 Edwards Mickey, Reclaiming Conservatism, Oxford University Press, New York 2008, 230 p.
 Levy W Leonard, Young Alfred, Foreword In: American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, Bobbs-Merrill Company,Inc., 1970, p. xi.
 Panichas A. George, Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism, Writings from Modern Age, ISI Books, Wilmington 2008.
 Nash: The Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk, p. 2.
 Nash: Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk, p.4.
 Nash: Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk, p. 4.
 Nash: Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk, p.5.
 Carter, Byrum E. The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk, Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 29. Iss.22, Article 11, available http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/ilj/vol29/iss2/11.
 Ibid. p. 309.
 Nash: Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk, p. 7.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]