Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Seventh Revised Edition, Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing Inc., 1953, 1985, 535 pp., US$19.95
In Canada conservatism has been a form of political thought, a movement, and even a political party, from the very beginning. The foremost of the Fathers of Confederation, and the first Prime Minister in the first Canadian parliament of 1867, was Sir John A. Macdonald, leader of the Conservative Party. The traditional Canadian conservative was a monarchist, an Anglophile, a supporter of the British Empire and later the Commonwealth, who had old-fashioned social and moral views, was a Protestant, usually Anglican or Presbyterian, and was a pro-business economic nationalist. Until the 1960s, the province of Quebec was traditionally very conservative, although in a French and Roman Catholic sort of way.
In the United States, there was no conservative movement as such until after World War II. The reason for this should be obvious – the United States had been born out of a revolution led by men espousing liberal and in many cases radical ideas. The American revolutionaries used the word “Tory”, which was the name for the royalist traditionalist party prior to its nineteenth century reorganization under the name “Conservative”, as a term of contempt for the Loyalists who later became the first English Canadians. From its very conception the United States identified itself as a liberal republic. Even the American regions that were the most culturally, socially, and religiously conservative, were often very liberal – in the classical sense – politically. Thus Southern conservatism, which predates any type of national conservatism in the United States by well over a century, historically combines a defense of a Tory social, moral, cultural, and religious order, with that of a Jeffersonian liberal political order.
The United States developed a “Right” before it developed a conservative movement. This was in response to the changes that took place within American liberalism between the two World Wars. American liberalism was originally very individualistic and committed to the ideas of minimal government and maximum personal freedom. During the Wilson administration in the First World War American liberals, impressed with the ability of the state to administer and manage the national economy to meet its wartime goals, began to ask why the state could not do the same in peacetime to meet progressive social goals. The Great Depression of the 1930s gave them the opportunity to experiment along these lines and under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, liberal Democrats became Keynesian interventionists, government expansionists and centralizers, and the architects of the American welfare state. Those who continued to hold to liberalism in its classical form and were alarmed at liberalism’s drift towards statism were surprised to find themselves forced into the role of the reactionary, i.e., the advocate of the old, traditional, order – in this case the American liberal republican order – against progressive innovation. Thus the American Old Right, which included historians Charles A. Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, social critics H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, journalists Garet Garrett and John T. Flynn, publisher Colonel Robert McCormick and Republican Senator Robert A. Taft, was born. Most of these continued to think of themselves as liberals, some calling themselves “true liberals” or “classical liberals”, although Mencken and Nock in acknowledgement of the position into which they had been forced began to refer to themselves as “Tory anarchists”.
One of the results of World War II, American entry into which the American Old Right had firmly opposed until Pearl Harbour, was a geopolitical realignment in which the United States became the dominant power in the liberal Western world which was now threatened by a Communist Eastern bloc headed by the Soviet Union. Since both superpowers had the atomic weapons their rivalry took the form of a “Cold War.” It was in the context of this Cold War, that William F. Buckley Jr. reorganized the American Right, forged out of an alliance between Old Right liberals, now called libertarians, defectors from Communism such as James Burnham, Frank Meyer, and Whittaker Chambers, Europeans who had emigrated to the United States and were either Catholic monarchists like Thomas Molnar and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn or philosophical critics of modernity like Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, and Burkean traditionalists like Robert Nisbet and Richard M. Weaver. This latter group had begun to emerge immediately after World War II, beginning with the 1948 publication of Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, a short book that traced the moral and spiritual decay of Western civilization into the materialistic technolatry that made the development of the atomic bomb possible back to the nominalism of the thirteenth century. Although it is the ideas of the last two groups that most match those that have historically been associated with conservatism Buckley gave the name conservative to the entire movement he was putting together. His inspiration for doing so came from a book which was first published in 1953 under the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana by a man of letters from Mecosta, Michigan named Russell Kirk.
Kirk had begun writing this book while studying at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland to which he submitted it as his doctoral dissertation. He had originally titled it “The Conservative Route”, but was persuaded by his publisher, Henry Regnery of Chicago, that a less pessimistic sounding title would be more appropriate. He was accused by his critics of having manufactured a long pedigree for a newly created movement but this does not do him justice. What Kirk was actually doing was tracing the influence of the thought of Edmund Burke in England and the United States – Canada alas is omitted – during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
By making Edmund Burke the founder of what he calls conservatism, Kirk was, of course, consciously abridging the tradition of conservative thought, which he acknowledged in his introduction where he gave his reasons for starting with Burke rather than earlier conservative thinkers like Bolingbroke, Hobbes, and Filmer, or even Hooker and Falkland. It is ironic, perhaps, to describe Burke as the father of conservatism, when he was a Whig (liberal) rather than a Tory through most of his Parliamentary career but he earned his conservative credentials with his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke’s friend, the lexicographer, moralist, and staunch Tory Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary defined a Tory as “One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England, opposed to a Whig” and in the Reflections, Burke defends the constitution and monarchy of England , the Christian religion and the established church, against doctrines of the kind that had been turned against the monarchy, aristocracy, and Roman Catholic Church in the French Revolution. Whenever I read Burke’s Reflections I get the strong impression that Burke was writing, not only for himself, but for Dr. Johnson who had died in the decade prior to the French Revolution and could no longer speak for himself, even though Burke retained his admiration for the Whig revolution of 1688 and showed no hint of his friend’s Jacobite sympathies At the time Kirk was writing this book, Irving Kristol was still a liberal and had yet to define a neo-conservative as “a liberal mugged by reality” but the description would seem to fit the Burke of the Reflections to a tee. Thus, the line of thought starting with Burke that Kirk called conservative, might be more precisely called “neo-Tory”.
In the introduction, entitled “The Idea of Conservatism”, Kirk identified six canons of conservative thought. These are general principles, because Kirk insisted that conservatism is not to be thought of as an ideology, by which he meant a rigid formula for an ideal society. The canons, which are the most referenced part of this book, are as follows: 1) “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience”, 2) “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems”, 3) “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society’”, 4) “Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked”, 5) “Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs”, and finally 6) “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform”. (pp. 8-9) Although the fourth canon is something that liberals, or at least classical liberals, also adhere to these are a good, concise, summary of those basic conservative concepts that both a Tory supporter of kings and bishops and a right-leaning American republican could agree upon.
The longest chapter in the book is devoted to Burke, naturally, which focuses upon his defense of prejudice, “the answer with which intuition and ancestral consensus of opinion supply a man when he lacks either time or knowledge to arrive at a decision predicated upon pure reason” (p. 38), prescription, prudence and principle against abstract reason and innovation. What Kirk then presents in the following chapters is not an unbroken chain of thought from Burke to the mid-twentieth century, with each link directly connected to the one that precedes and the one that follows, but rather a collection of snapshots, arranged in a rough chronological order, of individuals and movements on both sides of the Atlantic that have adopted a Burkean stance in one context or another. Although his next chapter discusses the early American Federalists, and particularly John Adams’ defence of constitutional ordered liberty against egalitarian, democratic, populism, Kirk did not limit himself to statesmen and politicians. One chapter discusses conservatism among the Romantic poets, particularly Sir Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his later years, who opposed Benthamite utilitarianism. Another chapter is devoted to Benjamin Disraeli, both as novelist and Tory statesman, and John Henry Newman the leader of the Oxford Movement, the catholic revival in the Church of England in the 1830s who eventually “crossed the Tiber” to become a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. Newman was a strong intellectual critic of theological, ecclesiastical, social and political liberalism as both an Anglican and a Roman Catholic. By contrast, a convert to Roman Catholicism who gets prominent treatment, nineteenth century New England Transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, went through virtually every radical cause and idea imaginable, before finally settling down as a Catholic and a conservative.
The final chapters of the book focus on the retreat of conservative ideas in England and America in the late nineteenth century that the book’s original title alluded to, but they are not entirely pessimistic in tone. Various groups on both sides of the Atlantic began to rearticulate conservative ideas in the early twentieth century and Kirk discussed several of these, with a focus on the New Humanist critics Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt. One of Babbitt’s students at Harvard University went on to become a prominent Modernist poet and moved to England, where he became a British citizen and shocked the Bloomsbury Set intellectuals by converting to orthodox Anglicanism. This was T. S. Eliot who, in his capacity as director of Faber and Faber, published the British edition of the book. Eliot objected to the original subtitle on the grounds that George Santayana was not significant enough to warrant being placed on the level of Burke. Amusingly, Kirk’s response was to replace Santayana with his friend’s own name, which is why every edition from the second on has been subtitled “From Burke to Eliot” even though Eliot is only briefly discussed. It is from Eliot that Kirk borrowed one of his favourite phrases “the permanent things” and Kirk later wrote an entire book on the poet who became, not just a conservative, but a High Tory, calling himself a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”
The Conservative Mind has now reached the sixty-first anniversary of its first publication and Kirk is still honoured as a prophet by the American conservative movement, although the honour is mostly lip service. The American conservative moment was long ago taken over by those whose primary interest is a Pax Americana in which the United States uses its vast military might to spread liberal, capitalist, democracy throughout the globe. This is a concept that Kirk would have found appalling. As a young man he had been influenced by American Old Right figures like Albert Jay Nock who were noted for their opposition to military interventionism as an instrument of government expansion. He shared the horror of the Old Right and Richard M. Weaver over the barbaric atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and at the end of the Cold War he joined Patrick Buchanan and the other paleoconservatives who argued that the time had come for America to bring her troops home and opposed the first President Bush’s plans for a New World Order to be policed by an America-led coalition of free countries and his intervention in the Iraq-Kuwait crisis.
Here in Canada, Russell Kirk and his magnus opus have never really been given their due by conservatives. The older type of Canadian conservative, the Loyalist and royalist Tory, often dismissed Kirk as an American liberal republican, and ignored how so many of the ideas he held dear such as Eliot’s “permanent things”, the Burkean concepts of prejudice and prescription, the idea of society as multigenerational and organic rather than contractual in the Lockean sense, were key elements in their own tradition. The newer type of Canadian conservative, who prefers the imported American brand of conservatism to our own domestic variety, shows little awareness of Russell Kirk and would probably wonder what his idea of established order and liberty, stemming from a living tradition with roots stretching back through medieval Christendom to Greco-Roman cultural and civilization has to do with lower taxes and economic deregulation.
It would probably do both Canadian and American conservatives much good to dust off this sixty year old conservative classic and give it a read.
My Last Post
10 months ago