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Željko Zidarić
5th-March-2014, 06:42 PM
A Conservative of the Old School

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i35/35a01801.htm)

Russell Kirk rowed against the liberal intellectual currents of his time. Now his followers want to rescue him from the riptide of contemporary conservatism.

By SCOTT McLEMEE

W. Wesley McDonald, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College, could not have planned for his new book, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology (University of Missouri Press), to appear in the middle of the recent debate over "intellectual diversity" in academe. But someone who wanted to argue that the deck has been stacked against serious engagement with conservative ideas might well take Mr. McDonald's scholarship on Kirk's legacy as Exhibit A.

Mr. McDonald's book is, after all, the first monograph devoted to the thought of one of the founding fathers of postwar conservatism in the United States. It was Kirk's landmark study The Conservative Mind (1953) that provided activists on the right with a sense that their movement had inherited a serious intellectual legacy -- rather than merely being, as the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill put it in 1861, "the stupid party."

Today, 10 years after his death, Kirk is still more likely to be discussed in meetings of the Young Republicans than in the seminar room. The first biography of Kirk appeared five years ago; at least two others are now under way. But Mr. McDonald is the first scholar to try to puzzle out the conceptual architecture of Kirk's work -- a body of writing that included memoir, fiction, and essays in cultural criticism, as well as a daily newspaper column syndicated by the Los Angeles Times that ran from 1962 to 1965. (Not to mention his monthly column "From the Academy" for National Review between 1955 and 1981, in which he criticized developments in American higher education.)

"Though he's a very fine thinker," says Mr. McDonald, "Kirk doesn't really provide a rigorous philosophical argument. That's a weakness. I openly admit that, and I try to take it seriously."

His approach to analyzing Kirk's ideas, says Mr. McDonald, "is dialectical. You only understand what something is by defining it in terms of its opposite." At this point, one might well expect him to begin contrasting Kirk with any of dozens of Marxist thinkers studied in the humanities. But Mr. McDonald seems less interested in that sort of ideological distinction than in the way Kirk's thought differs from the worldview of what he calls "movement conservatives" -- activists who pepper their speeches with references to Kirk, but ignore his work.

"One of the main purposes of my book is to rescue Russell Kirk from the ghetto of movement conservatism," says Mr. McDonald. "My argument is that he's an intellectual worthy of consideration apart from current politics. Conservative thought is really suffering because it lacks substance and direction. Kirk has much greater significance than what these people are giving to him."

Mr. McDonald is not alone in his frustration: Scholars who call themselves "Kirkians" or "traditionalist conservatives" tend to have severe reservations not only about the present Republican administration but also about some of the dominant strains in conservative policymaking, whether libertarian or neoconservative. As if to make things more complicated, some Kirkians also distinguish themselves from a faction known, half-jokingly, as "paleoconservatives," a group that tends to refer to the events in the United States between 1861 and 1865 as "the War of Northern Aggression."

Such fine shadings of ideological difference do not usually register at the ballot box. But they are a reminder of fundamental conflicts over ideas and values that go beyond the familiar and simplistic distinction between left and right. As Mr. McDonald and other admirers discuss Kirk's ideas and influence, they seem to be introducing a new variation on the theme of "intellectual diversity" -- emphasizing that conservatism itself is heterogeneous. And Kirk's variant of it, some argue, gets short shrift within both academe and the movement itself.

Rescuing a Tradition

There was not much competition for the intellectual leadership of the American right during the early 1950s, when Russell Kirk was an assistant professor of the history of civilization at Michigan State College (which became Michigan State University in 1959). The mood of the country may have been conservative, but that by no means meant that there was much public enthusiasm for dismantling the immense social programs introduced during the Great Depression, or returning to isolationist policies as the cold war continued.

In 1950 Lionel Trilling, the prominent literary critic, spoke for many in academe when he wrote that liberalism constituted "not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition" in the United States. Social scientists analyzing political movements on the right treated them as manifestations of "status anxiety" -- if not, indeed, of mental pathology. And in an influential analysis of American history, Louis Hartz, a professor of government at Harvard University, contended that the lack of a feudal past in the United States meant that there had never really been the basis for an anti-liberal political movement to emerge.

So Kirk was swimming against the current when, in 1953, he published The Conservative Mind, which argued that a coherent alternative to liberalism existed within the American political tradition. Its foundation was the work of Edmund Burke, the British statesman who criticized the role of the Enlightenment philosophes in laying the groundwork for the French Revolution. In demanding that existing institutions be measured against abstract ideas of justice and equality (went Burke's critique), thinkers had taken the first step toward turning society upside down, and plunging it into the Jacobin terror.

What Kirk extracted from Burke's thought -- and found embodied in the work of British and American figures as diverse as John Adams, Benjamin Disraeli, and T.S. Eliot -- was a strong sense that tradition and order were the bedrock of any political system able to provide a real measure of freedom. Reformers and revolutionaries might appeal to disembodied, universal concepts to justify changing the world, or to draw up blueprints for a new society. But for Kirk, what must be cultivated was not reason but "the moral imagination" -- a resonant, if ambiguous notion that Mr. McDonald devotes much of his book to elucidating.

The "reason" that Kirk found so objectionable, writes Mr. McDonald, caused liberals to define themselves "as enemies of authority, prejudice, tradition, custom, and habit." For liberal rationality, the social order was a contract among individuals "bound together ... not by love or duty, but rational, enlightened self-interest."

By contrast, Kirk's "moral imagination" enabled people to see their lives as part of, in Burke's words, "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." The obligation to preserve old institutions and ways of life -- and to change them, if at all, only very slowly -- was not a matter of nostalgia. "The individual is foolish," wrote Kirk in The Conservative Mind, "but the species is wise." We have inherited from the past "the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites."

Varieties of the Conservative Mind

The boldness and eloquence with which Kirk made his claims for a serious conservative intellectual tradition drew the grudging respect of some on the left. But the effect on the right was enormous. "Russell gave the conservative movement its name," says Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank.

"If you look at what people in our movement were calling themselves before 1953, you find words like 'individualist,' 'classical liberal,' 'libertarian,' and so on," he says. He gives two examples to illustrate the point. In 1951, he says, when William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale, he identified himself as an individualist, not a conservative. And Barry Goldwater, when first elected to the Senate in 1952, "called himself a progressive Republican or a Jeffersonian Republican ... but not 'conservative.'" By the middle of the decade, though, both had adopted the label that Kirk helped put into circulation.

"It was the force of Kirk's ideas," says Mr. Edwards, "and the power of that book, bringing it all together." When the thinker left academe to write a newspaper column and lecture, his influence only increased -- especially on college campuses.

"In the 1950s and '60s," says Mr. Edwards, "there were two dominant speakers and debaters on the right. One was Bill Buckley and the other was Russell Kirk."

One of the young activists influenced by The Conservative Mind was Mr. McDonald, who wrote his master's thesis on Kirk's political thought in 1969 and later helped him compile The Portable Conservative, published by Viking. He recalls Kirk as a taciturn man of letters, living as a "Tory bohemian" in the small and out-of-the-way town of Mecosta, Mich. Students and admirers came to work with him. And so there emerged a milieu of conservative scholars, including Mr. Mcdonald, who considered themselves "Kirkians."

Among them was H. Lee Cheek Jr., now an associate professor of political science at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., who served as Kirk's research assistant in the early 1980s. "All of my books are things he encouraged me to pursue," says Mr. Cheek, a prolific scholar who has published studies of Aristotle, Edmund Burke, John C. Calhoun, and Frederick Douglass, among others. Where Mr. Edwards of the Heritage Foundation (representing the mainstream of contemporary American conservatism) emphasizes the deep and continuing influence of Kirk on the movement, Kirkians such as Mr. McDonald and Mr. Cheek tell a different story.

"The Kirkian tradition is in the minority within modern conservatism," says Mr. Cheek. "It is skeptical of foreign entanglements. It believes in the minimalist state, but believes that the government does have a role. Kirk had some skepticism about capitalism, which puts him at odds with the libertarians. Our allies sometimes aren't identified with conservatism. We have a lot in common with communitarian critics of American politics and society."

By contrast, the Kirkians say, the mainstream conservative movement in the United States rejects their mentor's emphasis on tradition, self-restraint, and "the moral imagination." Instead, free-market doctrine feeds what, in one of his books, Kirk called "the dream of avarice." And the belief that democratic institutions can be created from scratch in societies that have hitherto lacked them strikes the Kirkians as something like Napoleon's effort to export the French Revolution throughout Europe.

Some of their difficulty in getting a hearing within contemporary politics is, they admit, of the Kirkians' own making. Unlike other schools of thought within conservatism, Kirk's thinking did not lend itself to the drafting of policy proposals. Libertarians found a ready audience for their economic ideas among those with an interest in minimizing government influence in the marketplace. The neoconservatives -- a group of formerly left-wing intellectuals who, as a joke of the 1970s put it, "had been mugged by reality" -- won considerable influence in policy circles through their expertise as social scientists and journalists. By contrast, Kirk's ideas on the continuing relevance of 18th-century ideas about tradition have rather less traction.

"To the discredit of Kirkians," says Mr. Cheek, they "have not done a good job of sustaining the sources of revenue or the foundation support" for their scholarship. The only conservative think tank that Mr. Cheek or Mr. McDonald cite as especially friendly to Kirk's students and followers is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, in Wilmington, Del. Essays by Kirkians appear in Modern Age (a journal Kirk once edited) and other publications of the institute. The author's home in Michigan is now the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, which offers seminars and residential fellowships for scholars working in a Kirkian vein.

The modest degree of infrastructure the Kirkians have at their disposal does not discourage Mr. McDonald, who notes that the thinker has attracted "considerable interest in Europe, with several of his books now translated into various languages there and a Russell Kirk Center in Turin, Italy." But for now, it seems, conservatism's prophet is without honor in his own country.

Days of Future Past

Or are things quite that grim? Kirk published more than 30 books; 10 years after his death, roughly half are still in print. Mr. Edwards insists that rumors of Kirk's neglect are greatly exaggerated. "Kirk's genius was that he was not an ideologue," he says. "You can't put him in any one corner of the movement." Mr. Edwards also notes that young people in the conservative movement still respond with interest to Kirk's stress on "the permanent things" -- in other words, the very cultural and philosophical issues that limit his appeal to policy wonks.

Kirk may still have readers and enthusiasts, but the scholarly task of sorting through his work and extending his ideas has scarcely begun. "Kirk gets a lot of hagiography, and also some vilification," says Jeremy Beer, the editor of Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books, which has reprinted several of the thinker's books. "What Kirk doesn't get is enough engaged, critical attention."

Mr. McDonald's book, Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, is an attempt to rectify that situation. Critics of Kirk, he says, charge the thinker with criticizing reason so strongly that he ends up placing too much emphasis on intuition as the basis for his political insights. "The problem then, the critics argue, is that it all comes down to your intuitions versus my intuitions," says Mr. McDonald. "On the other hand, Kirk also does things that are very confusing to people, like make appeals to natural law, when he's not really a natural-law theorist."

Determining just where Kirkian doctrine departs from St. Thomas Aquinas's political theory is probably not going to increase the influence of traditionalist conservatism on Capitol Hill. But it is a necessary step along the way to sorting out the influences and implications of Kirk's work. That process will continue with the appearance this fall of The Conservative Mind Today (ISI Books), a collection of papers written last year to mark the 50th anniversary of Kirk's landmark book.

"We wanted to bring Kirk into the conversation that traditionalist conservatives need to have about issues like globalization and biotechnology," says Mr. Beer, who is one of the volume's editors. Other contributors discuss the possible connections between Kirk's thought and the work of the communitarian moral theorist Alasdair MacIntyre and Wendell Berry, the essayist known for his work on sustainable agriculture.

A lot of Kirk scholarship," says Mr. Beer, "is backward looking. We're trying to push ahead within Kirk's framework, not just rehash it."

A laudable goal, perhaps -- though it might give pause to the more fiercely traditionalist-minded. Is there not something Kirkian about being content just to look backward, for a while? Why be greedy for the future, which, after all, will be here soon enough?

It is a sentiment that Kirk himself expressed better than anyone else, in a style that echoed an earlier century. "When men or nations sweep away their past in the process of aggrandizement," he wrote, "presently the dream of avarice gives way to a forlorn longing for things beyond recall."

THINKING RIGHT: EXCERPTS FROM THE WRITINGS OF RUSSELL KIRK

A man should be governed in his necessary decisions by a decent respect for the customs of mankind; and he should apply that custom or principle to his particular circumstances by a cautious expediency. ... Even the most intelligent of men cannot hope to understand all the secrets of traditional morals and social arrangements; but we may be sure that Providence, acting through the medium of human trial and error, has developed every hoary habit for some important purpose.

-- From The Conservative Mind (Henry Regnery Co., 1953)

***

Paradoxically, the resurrection of Burke is a product of modern discontents. ... Burke's ideas interest nearly everyone nowadays, including men bitterly dissenting from his conclusions. If conservatives would know what they defend, Burke is their touchstone; and if radicals wish to test the temper of their opposition, they should turn to Burke. Having done this, some conservatives may find that their previous footing was insecure; while some radicals may acknowledge that the position of traditionalists is tenable, or that Burke, too, was a liberal -- if liberalism be in any degree associated with ordered freedom.

-- From Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (Arlington House, 1967)

***

In Britain and America, ordinarily a generation must elapse before a body of ideas sufficiently rouses the public to purposeful action: J.M. Keynes's aphorism that today's classroom lectures become tomorrow's slogans of the crowd in the street is something of a hyperbole. In the United States, the intellectual recovery of conservative ideas commenced around 1950; so Americans are in the middle of the conservative journey. Their destination will be determined by the quality of their imagination.

From the conclusion to the paperback edition of The Conservative Mind (Avon, 1968)

***

Conservatives, it should be understood, are neither angels nor devils. ... Most conservatives hold by their particular social convictions because of early prejudices and experiences; their minds are not susceptible to temperate argument, nor can they express with much lucidity the postulates from which they draw their professed opinions. That, however, is true of the majority of political partisans of whatever persuasion ...

-- From the editor's introduction to The Portable Conservative Reader (Viking Penguin, 1982)

http://chronicle.com Section: Research & Publishing Volume 50, Issue 35, Page A18

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