Russell Kirk: American Conservative

by Bradley J. Birzer

Louisville: University Press of Kentucky, 2015

Conservatism in each country is a mixture of intellectual endeavours and political decisions. Conservative ideas, though permanent, must be adjusted according to different historical challenges, and practical politicians have to adapt them to prevailing conditions. Sometimes conservative ideas influence pragmatic decisions; sometimes, political situations provoke theorists to look for new answers. In the United States it is common to talk about the “conservative intellectual movement” (George H. Nash), which stretched from the 1940s to (at least) the 1980s. In this, a number of passionate people forged both the intellectual movement and the course of practical politics.

Russell Kirk (1918–1994) is not only part of this intellectual development but one of its leading figures and trendsetters. For more than 40 years, from 1953 to 1994, he profoundly influenced the direction of American conservatism. Recently, several interesting books on Russell Kirk’s achievements were published, examining different aspects of his life and work. Especially worth mentioning are the profiles of James E. Person’s Russell Kirk. A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999), Wesley McDonald’s Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology (2004), Gerald Russello’s The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk (2007), and John M. Pafford’s brief Russell Kirk (2013).

The latest contribution to the comprehensive study of Kirk’s oeuvre was written by Bradley J. Birzer. Titled Russell Kirk: American Conservative, it focuses primarily on the intellectual development of Kirk’s ideas, paying special attention to his philosophical predecessors — such as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Leo Strauss, Christopher Dawson, and T.S. Eliot.

Kirk’s reputation as one of the principal architects of the conservative intellectual movement in America is primarily founded on the publication of The Conservative Mind in 1953. Two features account for its outstanding quality: first, the inclusion of a ‘canon’ of principles which define the core of conservatism; and, second, the assertion of a rich conservative tradition in the US starting with its founding and stretching to the 20th century.

The former consists of the following: 1. belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty; 2. affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life; 3. conviction that civilized societies require orders and classes; 4. persuasion that property and freedom are inexorably connected; 5. faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators”; and 6. recognition that change and reform are not identical — societies must change, but slowly to preserve their destined shape. Even if the canon was somewhat altered and amplified in later publications, it contained a clear “table of contents” of what conservatism stands for.

The other and still more important quality of the book was the presentation of a vivid and rich conservative tradition in the US, which often was considered a nation built upon enlightenment beliefs, expectations, and hopes. In order to prove the existence of a great current of conservatism up to the present, Kirk drew upon an impressive number of intellectuals and politicians alike; the main thoughts of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Coleridge, John Randolph of Roanoke, Thomas Macaulay, Orestes Brownson, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and others were dissected in view of their conservative core. It’s interesting to note that not only did Kirk mention Americans but also Europeans. For instance, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Walter Scott, Henry Maine, and Benjamin Disraeli, in some way or other influenced and forged American conservatism as well.

The Conservative Mind had a huge impact on American intellectual life and a great many reviews of it were published. One of the strengths of Birzer’s account is that he mentions not only the laudatory reviews of the book but also critical statements as well. Kirk’s work was praised, on the one hand, as “a monumental contribution” in the upcoming formation of conservatism, a “landmark in contemporary thinking”, and a brilliant performance of a “high-minded religious humanist”. But it was also scolded for its lack of economic theory, for overstating the contributions of Edmund Burke. Burkean ideas, which certainly characterized Kirk’s thought in an extraordinarily strong way, have an ambivalent position in the American conservative tradition, since he was a British Whig.

Birzer’s treatment of Kirk has the advantage of not only summarizing the contents of Kirk’s main books — in addition to The Conservative Mind — but of also emphasizing certain key aspects of his thought. Birzer highlights, in particular, Kirk’s 1954 book, A Program for Conservatives, as “Kirk’s most profound and well-written non-fictional work.” This is a surprising judgment. What argument justifies this assertion? It is the observation that in it, Kirk no longer speaks (historically) through the minds of Adams, Burke, Calhoun, Newman, Santayana, Eliot, etc. but (systematically) on the basis of selected topics such as order, power, tradition, mind, heart, permanence, etc.

The book, which was published one year after The Conservative Mind, directly reveals its author’s positions by picking up a series of core topics of human existence and laying bare his central viewpoints. Whereas Kirk termed his treatise a “polemical book”, Birzer asserts that only Eliot and His Age came closest to matching the intellectual depth and style of A Program for Conservatives.

Birzer notes that Kirk’s wife, Annette, reported that her late husband was most attracted by three thinkers and writers: Edmund Burke, Christopher Dawson, and T.S. Eliot. Burke stood out for, in the 18th century, he had offered the best defence of the Christian commonwealth and its rich humanistic culture, in opposition to the liberalism and secularism of the Enlightenment. Kirk portrays Burke’s position as a model of conservatism but, as Birzer carefully notes, Kirk primarily relates to the older Burke, ignoring the younger and more Whiggish Burke who supported, to name just one example, the patriots in the American Revolution and not the official British policy.

Christopher Dawson, in turn, was one of the most renowned 20th-century historians who wrote extensively about the role of religion in European and world history. For Kirk, Dawson opened the door towards a Christian humanism that he increasingly stressed in his subsequent writings (and, it is worth noting, that in 1964 Kirk became a Roman Catholic).

Finally, T.S. Eliot, the eminent poet and essayist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948, offered Kirk untold wisdom. In his outstanding poem “The Waste Land”, Eliot depicted the decline of Western civilization, the loneliness of the human being, man’s existential fear in face of dwindling order, and the emptiness and hollowness of the modern project. Eliot was, for Kirk, the principal conservative thinker of the 20th century. In fact, the two became friends, and it was not by chance that Eliot is the author with whom Kirk concluded the second through seventh editions of The Conservative Mind. (The first edition of 1953 was sub-titled From Burke to Santayana.) Looking through the prism of these three thinkers, as highlighted by Birzer, the reader begins to detect more and deeper layers in Kirk’s works than he might otherwise have noticed.

Kirk certainly stayed in contact and was acquainted with many more important intellectuals and writers. Under the heading of “Vital Relations”, Birzer mentions some of “his closest friends”, including philosopher Leo Strauss, sociologist Robert Nisbet, political philosopher Eric Voegelin, novelist Flannery O’Connor, and writer Ray Bradbury. As Kirk promoted their works, he in turn received great inspirations from each of them. All of them helped Kirk find and formulate his version of a Christian humanism.

Most important to Kirk, however, was Eliot. He became “the model for Kirk in almost every way for the remainder of his life”, says Birzer. Kirk’s important attempt at setting up a “Republic of Letters” in the Ciceronian sense was inspired by a number of English Christian humanists such as Christopher Dawson and Owen Barfield; but it was T.S. Eliot who led the way.

It was Eliot who maintained that culture guides a society better than politics. Even if political decisions taken in a parliament are visible expressions of a people’s — and their government’s — will, it is the underlying culture that constitutes and steers this will. The culture of a people — being in a high degree the outcome of historical traditions, religious beliefs, and a set of moral values — is much stronger and more influential in governing a people than are mere political deliberations. It stays on the surface of a people, whereas the whole process of civilization — to which the man of letters has privileged access — constitutes the bedrock and substratum on which human beings actually build their lives.

Birzer elaborates on this further, explaining that the foundation of the quarterly journal, Modern Age, by Kirk in 1957 can only be understood against the background of the idea of a “Republic of Letters”. In order to establish such a “Republic”, a journal had to be created, and a dynamic network of friends and supporters maintained. Kirk did both.

With Modern Age, Kirk created a new organ for the expression and dissemination of conservative ideas. It remains probably the most important intellectual conservative periodical in the US today, despite the considerable problems Kirk faced in the very beginning — and which are examined in detail in Birzer’s book. Three years later, Kirk followed with the publication of The University Bookman.

If Modern Age was envisaged as a successor to Eliot’s venerable journal Criterion (1922–39), The University Bookman was a re-launch of the periodical Bookman (1895–1933), a conservative literary journal which had promoted, among many others, the ideas of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, eminent representatives of America’s New Humanism. Kirk’s grandfather, Frank Pierce, had even subscribed to the Bookman.

Despite his high appreciation of literature and his disdain for practical politics, Kirk occasionally entered the political fray as well. From his elevated literary vantage point, Kirk had originally dismissed politics as the sphere of the “quarter-educated”. But eventually he began publishing articles and books on politics and politicians. Especially worth mentioning are his close relationships with Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and Patrick Buchanan in the early 1990s.

Kirk’s articles during these decades comprise a defence of conservative measures, while also condemning, for example, liberal or neoconservative policies and actions.

His political commentaries during these years go even further. Under the heading, “To the Point” and “From the Academy”, between 1962 and 1975 Kirk published almost 3,000 syndicated newspaper columns, covering all possible national and international political issues.

Birzer’s book not only enters this realm of political journalism, describing Kirk’s ambivalence towards his role in it, but repeatedly (and rightly) points to Kirk’s unwavering high esteem for literature and cultural criticism. The novels — for example, Lord of the Hollow Dark (1979) and collection of short stories — such as The Princess of All Lands (1979) — that Kirk wrote over four decades were, Birzer points out, a highly cherished medium for Kirk to communicate his moral and religious ideas. As he tended to do, Kirk expressed his humanistic convictions not only at the historical and political level but on the literary and artistic level as well.

It is one of the great merits of Birzer’s carefully and meticulously written study (96 pages of footnotes and a 44-page bibliography!) that it manages to present the main ideas of one of America’s most passionate representatives of the humanistic tradition — while also putting the author’s own touch on the reconstruction of the Kirkian oeuvre.

The “Platonic soul of Russell Kirk” received a very great tribute in Birzer’s book, which shows that conservatism — the kernel around which Kirk’s thought revolved — is not about adopting a boring, unwavering stance or sticking to old-fashioned values and institutions; it is more about espousing an “attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition.”