How Russell Kirk (And The Right) Went Wrong

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
.