Magazine | May 20, 2019, Issue

Russell Kirk, a Conservative Guide for Our Times

Russell Kirk (Wikimedia)
Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, by Russell Kirk (Regnery Gateway, 128 pp., $16.99)

In 1957, four years after his Conservative Mind had been published to great acclaim, Russell Kirk wrote a letter to former president Herbert Hoover. Kirk mentioned that he had a new book coming out in the spring. It would be, he said, “a species of retort against Bernard Shaw,” the author of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism some decades before. Kirk’s title: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism.

That slim book has now been republished as Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, with a new introduction by historian Wilfred M. McClay. It comes at an opportune moment. As McClay observes, “no one seems able to say with confidence just what ‘conservatism’ means today,” or what an American conservative ought to stand for. Perhaps Kirk can help.

Kirk was born 100 years ago and died in 1994. He would not be pleased with the current scene. Many conservatives, McClay says, have become ideologues dogmatically wedded to abstract principles. They ignore or oppose the particularities of history, tradition, faith, and community that constitute American society. Kirk, by contrast, was a sworn enemy of ideology. “It may well be, then,” McClay says, “that the transformation of a feckless, life-denying, and inhumane culture into something more consonant with our human endowment is the principal task facing conservatives and conservatism.” Easier said than done.

If the mission of conservatism is cultural rather than political, if its task is to preserve and where possible rediscover the masterworks, ideas, values, and ways of Western civilization, then Kirk offers guidance. His conservatism was never limited to a single party or tax cut. But it also has been limited in its appeal, competing for decades with other varieties of conservatism that are friendlier to classical liberalism, markets, foreign intervention, and executive power.

What Kirk offers conservatives is a point of view. He lends us a perspective by which to identify and defend the “permanent things” against those who seek to tear them asunder. He gifts us with a patrimony that begins with Edmund Burke and continues through to the “new humanist” critics of the 1920s and to the poetry and criticism of T. S. Eliot. Humane, literate, spiritual, elegiac, poetic, somewhat nostalgic, and constantly attuned to human weakness, Kirk’s prose evokes feelings of reverence, awe, and mutual loyalty.

Yet Kirk had trouble defining the standpoint he did so much to formulate. “Conservatives,” Kirk writes, “distrust what Burke called ‘abstractions’ — that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances.” Still, he says, conservative thought exhibits some general characteristics. The number, order, and description of these principles varied in Kirk’s remarkable output. Certain themes persisted.

Kirk says in the Concise Guide that conservatives believe: in a moral law “ordained of God”; in “variety and diversity” of economic stations and social types and roles; in equality of rights but not conditions; in private property; in decentralization and diffusion of power; in the wisdom of tradition; in civil society and voluntary associations; in skepticism toward foreign entanglement; in something like original sin or unchanging human nature; and in gradual reform of an otherwise stable order.

One of Kirk’s great skills was the ability to whittle ideas down to a few phrases without denuding them of substance or subtlety. What’s interesting to the reader of this book is his vigilant opposition to what might be called the economistic mindset. The psychology of human beings and their myriad complex interactions, he wrote, cannot be reduced to points on a graph. Economics provides information about the world. It does not provide wisdom. Economic freedom is one part of freedom, not the whole. Like all liberties, economic liberty has corresponding duties.

“I have said little enough about political economy,” Kirk explains, “principally because I think that economics has been overemphasized in our generation. I do not believe that the great contest in the modern world is simply between two theories of economics, ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism,’ as Bernard Shaw tried to convince women a generation ago. No, I happen to think that the real struggle is between traditional society, with its religious and moral and political inheritance, and collectivism (under whatever name) with its passion for reducing humanity to a mere tapioca-pudding of identical producers and consumers.”

Kirk wrote these words in the decade prior to the sexual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Do they still apply? The America of 2019 is far less hospitable to tradition than the America of 1957 was. But it is also a place where aspects of traditional society live on, and where Kirk’s concerns are as relevant as ever. What Kirk identified as the touchstones of conservatism — faith, family, community, and private property — have not been eradicated or changed irrevocably. Indeed, the protection and strengthening of these institutions might serve as the basis of precisely the sort of policy agenda that made Kirk flinch.

The beginning of that program is the defense of constitutionalism. Kirk says, “Two cardinal ideas have taken form in our political structure, from colonial times to the present.” The first is “the belief that men and women have a natural right to make their own decisions in most walks of life; therefore, the powers of government are sharply defined and delimited.” Second, the United States is “a nation characterized by the reservation of governmental power chiefly to local and state authorities; power is only delegated to the federal government.”

Not precisely. It is the people, not the states, who delegate authority to the government. But Kirk’s larger point — that federalism is another great principle of the regime — is absolutely true. “Our government has been a just and free government,” Kirk continues, “because of its elaborate system of checks and balances, which generally has prevented intolerant majorities or selfish minorities from imposing their will upon the nation at large.”

The Constitution decentralizes and diffuses power to prevent the machinery of government from coming under the influence of a single will. Along with religious faith, strong families, and diverse communities, it shields traditional society from bureaucratic controls and the authority of social engineers. Faulty constitutional structures and an absence of constraints on discretionary power endanger the institutions of civil society, voluntary association, and domestic life. They throw society out of whack.

Among Kirk’s favorite words is “balance.” The different branches of the social organism must not be unevenly distributed. At one point he writes, “Justice, order, and freedom are dependent upon a satisfactory balance between governmental authority and private rights.” Later, he says:

For the conserving of freedom of any sort, then, the economy must be free in considerable measure. I repeat that much of the popular discussion of economic questions is obsolete, because it is founded, especially in America, upon the assumption that we still are living in a nineteenth-century condition characterized by the pressure of population upon food supply. But the real problems of the twentieth century are different from those of the nineteenth century, often, especially in the economic sphere, and are in some respects more difficult to approach. Our conservative task is to reconcile personal freedom with the claims of modern technology, and to try to humanize an age in which Things are in the saddle.

An age like Kirk’s; an age much like our own.

This article appears as “Ideology’s Enemy” in the May 20, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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