Review – Kirk, “The Conservative Mind”

Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Mind” (1953) – There’s a big pull quote on most editions I’ve seen of this book — and there’s been lots, conservative presses keep it in print — by William Buckley, saying something like that the modern conservative movement would be inconceivable without Russell Kirk, and “The Conservative Mind” in particular. Like much of what Buckley says, it’s neither quite true nor quite lie. Russell Kirk was a funny little nerd, an accomplished horror writer, wikipedia tells me, along with being a conservative ideologue. His ideas on what conservatism meant were sufficiently heterodox that a lot of big names on the right registered serious disagreement with him, and with this book in particular. You have to figure the right-wing juggernaut of the second half of the American twentieth century could have missed one divisive nerd.

That said, there is some truth here. The fifties were a good time to be an anglophone pedant with a systematizing streak. A country that not twenty years earlier was suffering a massive depression and ideological ferment which led right, left, and center to borrow like mad from foreign sources was now, all of a sudden, the center of the world, the source of authority and economic value. That’s a weird set of circumstances to adjust to, and it was the guys on the spot — not necessarily the smartest guys (gendered pronoun used advisedly) with the best ideas — who got to take advantage of sitting on the commanding heights. On the liberal side of the fence, structural functionalist social scientists like Talcott Parsons were, so they thought, comprehending social reality and finding that it looked a lot like fifties America. Among leftists… well, there weren’t a lot left. 

With conservatives, guys like Buckley’s pal Kirk had a similarly wide-open field to define conservatism. It might look like a thankless effort at the heyday of the liberal postwar order, when liberal social scientists like Daniel Bell were proclaiming “the end of ideology” and Lionel Trilling was calling conservatism less an ideology and more “an irritable mental gesture.” But it wasn’t. Buckley wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, but he was cunning, and he knew plenty of people hungered for the old prejudices, and that the liberal order had holes in its game a mile wide (if your best defenders are guys like Bell and Trilling, you’re in trouble). Arguably, the biggest problem he had was that the whole right of the political spectrum was associated with the Nazis, and in America with opponents of the New Deal and other popular liberal reforms, many of whom liked the Nazis until the Nazis forced them to pretend otherwise. You can go back and forth on whether Gore Vidal was right to call Buckley a “Nazi” (I typically don’t seriously call people that unless they hate the Jews- “fascist” does just as well). But it wasn’t a good look. 

Russell Kirk, in what I imagine was a gormless, pedantic way, helped give Buckley and his coterie an out. Kirk waved his hand at the whole tradition of conservative, reactionary, and counter-revolutionary thought since the French Revolution and said that pretty much only the British and the Americans count. He lets Tocqueville in the door, an honorary Anglo-American, but that’s it. Hegel and anything he touches- out, his impious dialectics too divorced from traditional life, or something. Frenchmen like Maistre? Right out. A nice nod near the beginning and then shown the door. Certainly, no fascists need apply (in keeping with the custom at the time, and with Buckley’s own program, he could be more “nuanced” in support of slavery and the Confederacy), what with their “totalitarian” designs. The point of conservatism is to “CONSERVE,” remember??

Corey Robin tee’d up on this book and knocked it down so hard there’s very little redeeming any of its central arguments. The title of Robin’s breakout book, “The Reactionary Mind,” is a play on Kirk’s title, and gets at what actually animates the right: not “conserving” anything, but reacting to advances on the part of the lower orders of society. Robin did most of his work through the simple expedient of a thoroughgoing reading of figures Kirk thought he had a near-monopoly on, like Edmund Burke, and broadening his scope a smidgen to include people outside Kirk’s large but limited hall of fame. There’s a reason, between Robin’s work and the time that it reflects, the era between 9/11 and the Trump election, that “the point is to CONSERVE, it’s there in the NAME,” went from being common sense to a joke to everyone except a small clique (including a disproportionate number of op-ed writers, alas) of liberal-conservative dead-enders.

Well, that lonely gal Minerva’s owl tends to fly at dusk. To bring in another animal metaphor, Robin shut the barn door after the horse got out (arguably, in an effort to get us to… not ride horses? What would the metaphor here even be?). It’s unlikely that Kirk did it all on his own. Not that many people read his ponderous tome. But it helped establish a foothold for the idea that conservatism was genteel, thoughtful, and not at all scary, violent, or fascistic like the experience of the thirty or so years before 1953 might indicate. He defined the Scotsman in such a way that Buckley’s new club could deny entry to anyone who would make the new conservative movement look bad (including actual Scotsman and major right-wing thinker Thomas Carlyle- kind of hard to imagine a meaningful history of conservatism without him, but people like Isaiah Berlin were saying he was a fascist progenitor at the time, so best to leave him out). 

Mutatis mutandis, “The Conservative Mind” presents conservatism as the sort of thing Buckley could sell to Anglo-American audiences at the time, a collection of gentlemen standing athwart history yelling “stop!” No-good philosophers, soulless bureaucrats, and the dumb masses that follow them want to tear down all that’s good in the world and replace it with abstractions, which inevitably leads to terror. What’s needed is a few good men grounded in reality to fight a rearguard action against them and salvage what they can to keep civilization going. How to create a whole ideology out of the particulars of a given reality that spans time and space? Well, Kirk doesn’t really answer that very well. Mostly he punts to religion, which is a non-answer as his conservative minds, if they were born two hundred years earlier, would have been co-signing the slaughter of their fellow conservatives because they called it “church” instead of “mass.” But this was Eisenhower-era America, which saw the promulgation of “Judeo-Christianity” as a bulwark against the left. It could play then. And Kirk also throws out enough stuff about how conservatism promotes individuality, and liberalism/leftism supposedly doesn’t, that it fit in with Buckley’s aim to make American conservatism seem cool and rebellious. It played- it shouldn’t have, but it did. 

You’d think a book with this kind of agenda, and that was wrong about its major points, and that was written by a man motivated by deep pedantry and ideological fervor, would be bad. Well, in many respects it is. But I actually enjoyed a lot of it. Kirk really did go deep, in his vein. He told interesting, if often bathos-laden, stories of interesting figures. Being forced to stick to Brits and Americans, he had to go rummaging around to fill the bench out. So we get the stories of weirdos and assholes like John Randolph of Roanoke, Fisher Ames, Orestes Brownson, assorted Lords who farted out some essays about how revolutionary France was bad before overdosing on laudanum and beef. They’re genuinely interesting. He sent me to wikipedia time and again to learn what this or that old-timey politician, philosopher, or faction was. I like that kind of read (I never get why people nowadays have an issue with references to figures or words they don’t know, when they carry the internet in their pocket). 

That’s not to say that “The Conservative Mind” also didn’t irritate me. I’m also a pedant and have trouble sitting through presentations of dumb ideas peaceably. Kirk tries to carry his argument with a high-serious tonality — another artifact that reminded me of the War on Terror era — and yields a patronizing head pat from anyone who knows better. And, of course, he was writing this as the Civil Rights struggle started. He sort of waffles about slavery. He was a northerner, he doesn’t find it good, and he embraces at least some anti-slavery figures, including John Quincy Adams. But he puts himself in the hands of the Dunning School — abolitionists were fanatics, ala the sans-culottes, and Reconstruction was a corrupt failure — and trusts the cliches Dunning at al taught to generations of American schoolchildren to get him through to his readers. I imagine they heard him loud and clear. 

But my star ratings come from goodreads, originally, and goodreads says they’re based on enjoyment. I put this in a similar category to David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed.” Every now and again people ask me if I’ve read it. As the askers are perhaps impressed by the book’s heft and range of research, I have to let them down gently when I tell them that its thesis — that American culture, from 1609 on down, is defined by four (4) British subcultures with no meaningful change or even mixture or adaptation in the intervening four centuries of epochal historical change — is ludicrous, the kind of thing Fischer could not have published even ten years later. But- I keep my copy of it around, because it’s kind of a fun “let’s dip in and see how Scots-Irish ‘folkways’ surrounding childcare differed from equivalent Quaker ways” sort of book. Just don’t take it seriously. It’s the same here. Read for the stories of drunken swaggering “orator” John Randolph of Roanoke or T.S. Eliot transforming himself from Tom from Saint Louis into aged sage Tiresias, you probably don’t need to take the whole thing at one go. ****

Review – Kirk, “The Conservative Mind”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s