Russell Kirk on Immigration

October 31, 2004

By W. Wesley McDonald

Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was a champion of “The Permanent Things” throughout his long career as a leading light of the American conservative movement. But he did on rare occasions express contradictory views.

Kirk`s views on immigration, for instance, underwent a complete transformation during the last few years of his life. Like many others who grew up in the 1924-1965 Great Pause, when immigration was simply not an issue, he was mostly silent about it, but occasionally made positive noises. Then he changed. As his intellectual biographer, I have no doubt that he would be now doing battle with the enemies of America`s national sovereignty, and its traditional ethnic and cultural identity.

Kirk`s tolerance of immigration reached its apex in 1989, when he wrote a high school economics textbook for the Educational Research Council of America. In Chapter 14, entitled `A Cheerful View of Our Economic Future,” Kirk posed this study question:

“Will millions—or hundreds of millions—or people from the less prosperous countries shift into the industrialized advanced countries, taking away jobs from citizens and lowering everybody`s standard of living—besides undermining a nation`s old culture and unity?”

In his answer, Kirk took a strong pro-immigration position. He wrote that the

“…peaceful coming of people from abroad is not usually a cause of economic decay. Rather such migrations mean that the host country is acquiring more human resources. Most such immigrants, especially in the history of the United States, have been hard-working ambitious people who helped to improve their economic condition. Often immigrants are willing to accept the least in the beginning, hard, dangerous, or unpleasant work for which it is difficult to find sufficient labor within a country`s established work force.

“In the long run, most immigrants become strong upholders of the culture, the political system, and the economy to which they come. (Also, aspects of their culture enrich our own.) America`s present economic success is built, in no small degree, upon the hard, intelligent work of millions of immigrants, coming in wave upon wave, decade after decade. New waves of immigrants during recent years already are being absorbed into American social and economic patterns. Some are people who migrate from their native lands in search of employment…many of the highly educated and able. It should not be unreasonable to cry, `The more, the merrier.`”

Barely three years later, Kirk had jettisoned this Pollyannaish view. Patrick J. Buchanan, an insurgent candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in response to what the saw as the betrayals of President Bush the Elder, asked Kirk to be his Michigan campaign chairman. Kirk readily accepted. Buchanan had made opposition to mass immigration a primary theme of his campaign. And in a press release entitled, “Why We Support Mr. Patrick Buchanan`s Presidency Candidacy,” Kirk explained that he was supporting Buchanan because he

“would discourage indiscriminate immigration into the United States, for our country cannot play host to all the world and still maintain its established culture, its successful economy, and its social cohesion.”

Shortly afterwards, Kirk and his wife stressed in an interview with a Michigan newspaper that they were drawn to Buchanan because of his “opposition to affirmative-action programs and more liberal immigration policies…” (Kirk never expressed himself in public about his long-time ally William F. Buckley`s later attack on Buchanan, accusing him of anti-Semitism.)

Significantly, two of Kirk`s disciples have recently taken sharply divergent views on immigration.

Kirk family friend, and speechwriter for the former Republican governor of Michigan, Gleaves Whitney, believes that America became a great nation largely because of its liberal immigration policy.

In his “Afterword” to a new edition of Kirk`s book, The American Cause, first published in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, Whitney explains that Kirk wrote this primer on American civilization to make the case for America as an “exceptional nation.” As proof, Whitney lists seven of “America`s greatest historical achievements” which made this nation “different from other countries and civilizations.”

Among these achievements:

“…the success with which America has attracted and absorbed huge numbers of immigrants. For more than two centuries, we have been the world`s number one destination for people in search of a better life. More than 60 million people have voluntarily come to our shores. No other nation in world history has even come close to that. America represents the greatest voluntary migration of people in human history.”

Quoting Tocqueville, Whitney sees immigration as an unadulterated good:

“One unintended consequence of the constant influx of foreigners into America has been a fascinatingly rich, multiethnic society.”

While Whitney concedes, “America is not Shangri-la,” no other nation in the history of world has rivaled “America`s achievement.”

Moreover, Whitney claims that immigration led to America`s next great historical achievement: Since this nation was built by immigrants “we do not behave the way lone superpowers have behaved in the past.” Whereas superpowers in the past out of “ruthless self-interest” crushed their adversaries, America strives to build a world community based on “mutual cooperation and moral suasion.”

I wonder what Kirk would have made of these words. The teacher I knew was far too convinced of man`s fallen nature to have thought that America can always be counted on to use its immense power benignly. He expressed strong reservations about President Bush the Elder`s Persian Gulf War. If he were still alive, I have no doubt that he would be even more troubled by Bush Junior`s use of military force in Iraq.

The rest of the world does not share Whitney`s view that America is “exceptional” because it refrains from the “ruthless” exercise of power. The growing perception that America is a “cowboy” nation has fed a global tidal wave of anti-American sentiments.

In contrast, another Kirk disciple, John Attarian, has attacked Whitney`s optimistic notions about the beneficial effects of immigration on American culture and economy. Rather than enriching and improving American society, Attarian warns that unlimited immigration will “destroy the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant character of America`s mores, culture, government, and institutions, risk calamitous racial friction, and inflict environmental ruin from overpopulation.” Immigration, he declares, is “causing wages to stagnate and displacing American workers at all skill levels” “creating the worst economic insecurity since the Great Depression. The main problem with conservatives today is that they have forgotten (if they ever knew) the Burkean side of Anglo-American heritage. They have instead become like the economists, metaphysicians, and calculators against whom Edmund Burke famously railed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. “

I believe that Kirk`s earlier pro-immigration position can be attributed to two major influences on his thought:

  • Kirk did believe that cultural diversity enriches society.

He was curious about other cultures and traveled through Europe, absorbing its art, literature and other civilizational achievements. He even delved into the culture and history of North Africa from which he drew material for his fabulous romantic adventure novel, A Creature of Twilight. Later, he traveled to South Africa and wrote admiringly of Zulu culture.

But Kirk`s xenophilia was never indiscriminate. Curiously, Asian cultures never interested him. He once told me that he didn`t have the time (or inclination) to study them. He placed a high value on cultural diversity only before that concept was deformed into multiculturalism—an ideological weapon designed to push traditional Western culture out of existence, and which appalled him.

  • Kirk`s own relatively limited experience with immigration encouraged him in his pro-immigration phase.

Kirk`s home, “Piety Hill,” situated in the tiny village of Mecosta, Michigan, was a gathering place for refugees from communist totalitarianism and natural disasters. Poles, Czechs, Bolivians, Brazilians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Croats, and Abyssinians were among the many peoples welcomed by the Kirks. There they would remain until they were able to find their own means of support. What Kirk saw were troubled, dislocated people who needed to be given a chance to get back on their feet. He offered them that chance. Many left to pursue successful lives. But masses of ill-educated peoples taking advantage of American social programs are of course another matter.

But the pro-open borders immigration ideologues, whom he described as “animated by envy and hatred,” also advocated what Kirk denounced as `the fraud of multiculturalism.”

“Detesting the achievements of Anglo-American culture, they propose to substitute for real history and real literature—and even for real natural science—an invented myth that all good came out of Africa and Asia (chiefly Africa).”

If they should succeed, Kirk gloomily predicted, American culture would “end in heartache—and in anarchy.”

By 1992, Pat Buchanan had apparently convinced Kirk that the nature of immigration had radically changed. The new immigrants were not expected to assimilate into the existing inherited America culture. Instead, they threatened the very existence of the civilization and its achievements Kirk had fought his entire life to preserve.

Today, I am confident that Kirk would not be an enthusiast for the pro-immigration views advanced by Whitney. Instead, he would be joining forces with those on the other side—such as John Attarian, Paul Gottfried, Sam Francis and Peter Brimelow.

W. Wesley McDonald [email him] is a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and the author of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology.