May 26, 2008


a review of The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, Edited by
George A. Panichas (Alan Wolfe, 07.09.07, New Republic)

As improbable as it may be to find a Stalinist in the
Outer Hebrides, Dr. Jackman's role in Old House of Fear is not to
advance the story, but to give Kirk the opportunity to pronounce on
ideology's dangers. This is also something he frequently does in his
political essays. "Ideology' does not mean political theory or
political principle," he wrote in one of them, "even though many
journalists and some professors commonly employ the term in that
sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism." I can certainly go
along with that. Kirk was not the only modern thinker to warn of
ideology; in fact, the great warnings were the work of modern
liberals. There is something like a fanatic imagination. When it grabs
hold of politics, sectarianism, and sometimes violence, follows.

For Kirk, however, it is not fanaticism in general that gives cause
for worry, but one kind of fanaticism in particular: "the belief that
this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise
through the operation of positive law and positive planning." By this
definition, Jeremy Bentham--Kirk's least favorite philosopher--was an
ideologue, but Edmund Burke--his most favorite one--was not. Reading Kirk, it would seem that there are only left-wing ideologues, and the term "conservative ideology" is an oxymoron that can make sense "only if, with Humpty Dumpty, we claim the prerogative of forcing words to mean whatever we desire them to signify."

Kirk admits of two possible exceptions to his insistence that ideology
is a monopoly of the left, although each of them is cited to confirm
his point. Nazism, too, is an ideology--but we should not forget that
the Nazis, like all ideologues, held "that human nature and society
may be perfected by mundane, secular means." Of all the crimes
committed by the Nazis, the proclivity for human perfectibility is an
odd one to choose; but it is Kirk's choice. And then there is the
"objectivist" ideology of Ayn Rand and her followers, for whom Kirk
expresses deep contempt. Yet Rand, in Kirk's view, is more a
libertarian than a conservative, and libertarians take their
inspiration from that quintessential liberal John Stuart Mill.
Libertarians therefore have nothing in common with conservatives (a
point once made, in reverse, by F.A. Hayek in a famous essay called
"Why I Am Not a Conservative"). "The representative libertarian of
this decade," Kirk wrote in an essay pub- lished in 1981, is, much
like Dr. Jackman, "humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly
schooled, and dull." Libertarians are "mad--metaphysically mad.... I
do not mean that they are dangerous; they are repellent merely, like
certain unfor- tunate inmates of mental homes.'" You will not find
many devotees of Russell Kirk at the Cato Institute.

It seems odd for Kirk to vent his spleen against libertarians, since,
to him, ideologues believe in "positive planning," which is the one
thing that libertarians detest. But liberals and libertarians do share
a trait, and for Kirk it is the definitive one: they both substitute
secular reasoning for the divine laws of God. Ideology, you see, is
religion turned inside out. "Ideology provides sham religion and sham
philosophy, comforting in its way to those who have lost or never have
known genuine religious faith, and to those not sufficiently
intelligent to apprehend real philosophy." (Mill once called
conservatives the stupid party. Kirk is merely returning the
compliment.) This is why conservatives can never be ideologues;
possessing faith, and deeply versed in philosophy, they have no need
of any replacements. "Because ideology is by essence antireligious,"
Kirk once wrote, "Christians tend to be attracted to ideology's
negation, conservatism."

The opposite of an ideological mind, for Kirk, is a prudential one,
and conservatives by their very nature are prudential in a way that
liberals can never be. Liberals believe in abstract principles,
conservatives believe in the lessons of experience. Liberals are
extremist, conservatives are moderate. Liberals are universalists,
conservatives are particularists. Liberals insist on perfectibility,
conservatives insist on the limits of human nature. Unfortunately for
conservatives, we live in an age of ideology. Fortunately for them,
the United States is not an ideological land.

Of what value can a critique be that doesn't comprehend that libertarians believe men perfect, else their ideology couldn't function, and the Nazis were just Applying Darwinism to perfect humankind.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 26, 2008 9:45 PM

Let's see...

Darwin observed an unplanned process.

Herbert Spencer observed that it might have results that some people could attribute to a political program.

The eugenicists then figured that if it was political anyway, we might as well have a government policy to do the same thing.

The Nazis then implemented the program in a totalitarian system.


Adam Smith observed an unplanned process.

David Ricardo observed that it might have results that some people could attribute to a political program.

Karl Marx then figured that if it was political anyway, we might as well have a government policy to do the same thing.

The Communists then implemented the program in a totalitarian system.

Coming up next: a claim that Communism was simply applied capitalism.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at May 26, 2008 11:43 PM

Close. Darwin observed Adam Smith's writings about how to intelligently design an economy. He noticed that farmers likewise intelligently designed their herds and crops. He posited that Nature might function similarly but without intelligence--being driven by survival of the fittest. There is, indeed, such natural evolution within species -- though it has little to do with fitness pressures -- but can't lead to the speciation that he hoped for--such change looks not to be Natural as does the origin of life.

Hitler, who mistakenly believed Darwin to be right, sought to maximize the advantages of the population he was part of. He and his henchmen Applied Darwinism.

The Communists, who didn't believe Smith, used mass murder to Apply Marxism.

Posted by: oj at May 27, 2008 5:40 AM

Although the link does not work, I remember that Alan Wolfe made a remark later in this essay about how Kirk's mention of his (impressive) childhood reading really just revealed his "smallness as a person."

For the record: Kirk was a good friend of many down-and-out people and he allowed at least one frequently arrested homeless man to live in his house for a number of years. I'll bet a bunch of overused metaphors that Alan Wolfe has never done anything half so morally impressive.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 28, 2008 6:59 PM