How Russell Kirk (And The Right) Went Wrong
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November 04, 2004

[See also:Russell Kirk on Immigration,By W. Wesley McDonald]

Earlier this year the Philadelphia Society, the conservative affinity group, elected neoconservative matriarch Midge Decter its president. The members apparently accepted their new leader happily and even applauded when she announced that she was not (nor had she ever been) a "neoconservative"— no one in Decter's family or social circle, the members were told, would answer to that description.

The reality, of course, is that the neoconservatives have simply outlawed the term as an anti-Semitic libel because they think it no longer suits their purpose.

It mattered little, as Sam Francis noted in his essay in the September Chronicles, [Not online, subscribe to Chronicles] Decter once referred to Russell Kirk, the conservative man of letters who was a cofounder of the group and is still a venerable spiritual presence among its members, as an "anti-Semite." Kirk had been indiscreet enough to joke about the neoconservatives' Middle Eastern fixation.

Having heard the offending remark, I can attest that it was spoken tongue-in-cheek. And even if it were not, does not prove that Kirk deserved Decter's slur.

But the days are seemingly over when this or many other issues can be debated on the Establishment Right.

Sam in his essay located a conservative deficit of vital interest to those of us contemplating this phenomenon.  What Sam underlined in these and other comments is the utter caducity of what on other occasions he has called "archaic conservatism."

Many conservatives continue to indulge an outmoded habit of the anti-Communist Right: glorifying present-day political America as the embodiment of an ancient tradition seen in mortal combat with its enemies. Ironically, this last characteristic is one that Sam also found in Kirk. He praised the conservative essence of the American government throughout his adult life.

Sam noted this hymn to political continuity in Kirk's first classic The Conservative Mind (1953), which claimed to trace conservative thinking in the Anglo-American tradition from Burke to the present.

Moreover, the same theme marks other writings by Kirk, most particularly The Roots of American Order (1974). In this last work, Kirk purported to be showing how the American government and American culture took form from a cultural mix produced by Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. Observe that Kirk insisted on such continuity even though the U.S. was then clearly on its way to becoming a self-identified multicultural society overseen by a post-Christian managerial elite.

Francis dwelled on this contradiction between Kirk and other archaic conservatives and the political-social reality they glossed over:

"[Kirk] shrank, for whatever reasons, from betraying what today has long ceased to be a secret of empire: The American order is bankrupt; both political parties and the major ideological identities associated with them are part of the problem; and the regime that prevails in the metropole of Washington-New York-Hollywood is the enemy of the American people and its historic social and political order. The problem today is not to conserve it, let alone to persuade Americans that it ought to be conserved. The problem today is how to persuade Americans that it ought to be—and can be—changed."

Instead of imagining that the old America was "enduring" in the present one, Kirk and his fellow-archaic conservatives should have been calling attention to a successor regime, whose sources are Washington-New York-Hollywood.

Sam was penning these somber reflections partly in response to an exposition of Kirk's thought done by my colleague and close friend Wes McDonald.

In Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, which Sam recognizes to be the most thorough defense of Kirk and his worldview to have appeared until now, Wes takes some truly daring positions. He is relentless in his efforts to discredit the recent appropriations of Kirk for the Catholic Church. He homes in on Kirk's Protestant values and intuitionist approach to moral truths. Wes reveals his own Scottish Protestant upbringing in the glee with which he exposes the silliness of portraying Kirk as a Catholic Thomist.

But he also depicts his teacher, less accurately I think, as someone who stood above political doctrines and whose main concerns were, as Kirk liked to think, moral and aesthetic.

Kirk's major contribution to the American Right, Wes assures us, was as a literary figure and cultural critic. Accordingly, he never felt comfortable with the paleoconservatives, whom he considered politicized reactionaries and—as Kirk also considered the neoconservatives—obsessed ideologues.

Although Wes does not equate the paleos and neocons as equally unacceptable (it is hard to read the book without noticing McDonald's tilt toward the paleo side), he does emphasize that Kirk kept his distance from button-pushing reactionaries.

But did Kirk and do his disciples shun politics entirely? One does notice that most of those associated with the Kirk Center in Mecosta Michigan loudly endorse President Bush. One of them, Gleaves Whitney, has created the impression that Kirk would be cheering current efforts to export "human rights" by force.

Many Philadelphia Society members define themselves as Kirk-admirers. Do they believe that Kirk would be doing the same?

A very long PBS program on Kirk some time ago explained that there was nothing in his teachings that would contradict the civil rights movement. At this point, I suspect that his devotees would make almost any program launched by a Republican administration fit into Kirk's commodious notion of the "permanent things" or, as Sam Francis demonstrates, into the changing "canons of conservatism" that Kirk attached to successive editions of The Conservative Mind.

Although Kirk, unlike his opportunistic successors, was not a country club Republican or a neocon lackey, he was certainly not politically uninvolved. He was a fairly conventional Republican, but one who did move out of step in 1992 to back his personal friend, Pat Buchanan, for president.

He was also a generous and decent man, who was kind to me when I was struggling thirty-five years ago to get my early books published.

Finally he was a gifted stylist, whose literary handiwork I could never dream to equal.

But he was not a political innocent. In his support of America against its enemies, Kirk did occasionally deviate by commenting on social decadence—a supposed failing that a former McCarthyite, Willmoore Kendall, discerned in his work during the height of the Cold War. But for the most part Kirk could be counted on to end his work optimistically and to stress the traditionalist sources of what by then was a radically changed America.

Above all he did not allow himself to get drawn into embarrassing political fights, e.g., about immigration, anti-white racism enforced by our government and media, and the bloated social-engineering bureaucracies that are poisoning our civil society.

The anti-ideologue Kirk ducked those wars that necessarily concern those on the right who notice the political culture.

And it is possible today to be a self-described Kirkian without having any political opinions except that global democracy is swell and that George W. Bush is a Kirkian president. Most Kirkians now express these views with dismal regularity.

To the extent these utterances are not determined by rank material ambition, we must assume (as painful as it is) that they reflect genuine conviction. And it is Sam Francis's belief, which I happen to share, that a certain worship of America The Virtuous, which was applied to the present age, came out of the postwar conservative intellectual movement.

There was a tendency for spokesmen of that movement to cover over the changes and pathologies in our society and government.

This started long before George Will and Gertrude Himmelfarb took up the practice by finding links between FDR and Aristotle.

Certainly one could find exceptions, like Richard Weaver, Mel Bradford, and Robert Nisbet, as well as anarcho-capitalist outsiders like Murray Rothbard, who also complained about the derailment of our government and the betrayal of our values.

A glorification of imaginary or exaggerated continuity was not the only impulse in the postwar conservative movement. But it was there from the beginning.

And, for better or worse, Kirk (and the Philadelphia Society) both helped nurture that belief.


Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of

After Liberalism.

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