January 8, 2011


The Life and Legacy of Russell Kirk (George Nash, July 10, 2007, Heritage Foundation)

[I]n 1955, Kirk's Burkeanism was not the only school of right-wing thought vying for prom­inence. Another intellectual tendency, known in those days as "classical liberalism" or "individual­ism" but generally known to us today as libertari­anism, was also stirring in the United States. Among its adherents, broadly speaking, were such free-market economists as Friedrich Hayek, Lud­wig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, and the novelist Ayn Rand.

To Russell Kirk, "true conservatism"-Burke's conservatism-was utterly antithetical to unre­strained capitalism and the egoistic ideology of indi­vidualism. "Individualism is social atomism," he exclaimed; "conservatism is community of spirit." Spiritually, he said, individualism was a "hideous solitude." On one occasion Kirk even criticized "individualism" as anti-Christian. No one, he assert­ed, could logically be a Christian and an individual­ist at the same time.

Such sentiments, which Kirk expressed with gusto in The Conservative Mind and elsewhere, did not exactly endear him to libertarians. Nor did his frequent fulminations against classical liberalism and the gospel of Progress. In 1955, the editor of the libertarian Freeman magazine, a man named Frank Chodorov, commissioned a critical article on Kirk and his so-called new conservatism. The author of the article was an argumentative libertarian (and former Communist) named Frank Meyer. The trou­ble with Kirk and his allies, said Meyer, was a lack of grounding in "clear and distinct principle." For all the froth and evocative tone of their writings, they failed utterly to provide a crisp analytic framework for opposing the real enemy-collectivism-that was threatening to engulf us all. Kirk had no stan­dards, said Meyer, no principle for distinguishing between what was good and bad in the status quo. Meyer was additionally angered by Kirk's sweeping condemnation of "individualism." The fiery ex-rad­ical, who believed that "all value resides in the indi­vidual," felt that Kirk did not comprehend the principles and institutions of a free society. To underscore the point, Meyer's attack on Kirk was given the title "Collectivism Rebaptized."

For Kirk, such an assault was disagreeable, if not surprising, considering its source. Far more disturb­ing to him was what transpired next. As it hap­pened, Kirk in 1955 was in the process of founding his own magazine-Modern Age-when Meyer's blast appeared. Someone-Kirk believed it was either Meyer or Chodorov-sent a copy of Meyer's critical article to every member of Kirk's board of advisors. To Kirk this was a blatant attempt to undercut him with his sponsors and perhaps kill Modern Age in its womb. So when Kirk learned that Buckley intended to publish Meyer and Chodorov in National Review, the Bohemian Tory declined to be listed on the masthead as an editor. He was not about to accept any appearance of responsibility for publishing the likes of Chodorov and Meyer, whom he labeled "the Supreme Soviet of Libertarianism." And when Kirk discovered that Chodorov and Mey­er had been placed on the new magazine's mast­head, he ordered Buckley to remove his own name from that page, where he had been briefly listed as an associate and contributor. Kirk vowed that though he might write for the same magazine as Meyer and Chodorov, he would not be "cheek by jowl with them in the masthead."

Buckley, who was trying to forge conservatism's diverse elements into a coalition, was perturbed. He insisted that Meyer was not out to "get" Kirk and undermine his influence-although Kirk had what he considered evidence to the contrary. But Kirk did not relent. For the next 25 years, he wrote steadily for National Review-in fact, wrote more for it, I believe, than any other person except possibly Buckley himself. But he did not add his name to its masthead. He remained in National Review but not quite of it.

It is not possible to give you here a full account of the subsequent feud (as some have called it) between Kirk and Frank Meyer. So far as I know, they never met nor fully reconciled, though they did correspond and did, I think, develop a measure of respect for each other. Interestingly, each became a convert to Roman Catholicism-Kirk in 1964 and Meyer on his deathbed in 1972. Perhaps, in the end, they were not so far apart as it seemed.

Nevertheless, for a long time they personified the two polarities in postwar conservative thought: Meyer the arch-libertarian, for whom freedom to choose was the highest political good, and Kirk the arch-traditionalist, who sought to instruct his read­ers on the proper choices. The important point is that the difference between them was more than personal. Other conservative intellectuals in the 1950s and beyond were also disturbed by Kirk's seemingly nostalgic and indiscriminate yearning for a pre-modern world. Kirk's repeated invocation of "the wisdom of our ancestors" was no doubt useful, the conservative scholar Richard Weaver remarked on one occasion, but the question was: which ancestors? "After all," said Weaver, "Adam is our ancestor.... If we have an ancestral legacy of wis­dom, we have also an ancestral legacy of folly...."

Nor was Meyer the only rival with whom Kirk had to contend for intellectual leadership of the emerging conservative movement. Another was the political scientist Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley's mentors at Yale. Never a man to shy from a rough and tumble argument, Kendall openly repudiated what he called the "Burke 'cultists'"- above all, Russell Kirk. Privately, Kendall called his own book The Conservative Affirmation (1963) a "declaration of war" against Kirk.

To Kendall, Kirk's limitations as a conservative teacher were several. Kirk wrote (said Kendall) "with an eye too much to Burke and not enough to the Framers" of the American Constitution. He had insufficient grasp of American conservatism and the American tradition, particularly as explicated by The Federalist Papers. He was "too far above the fray" and too lacking in clarity about the actual issues in the ongoing liberal-conservative "war" to serve as a good guide to the conservative "resistance." Kendall also objected to what he called Kirk's "defeatism"- his sense that contemporary conservatism was fighting a noble but losing battle. In truth, Kendall countered, the conservative cause (properly under­stood) had not been routed at all-certainly not in the political arena, where, in his view, the real battles between Right and Left were being fought. Privately, Kendall contrasted Kirk's "literary" conser­vatism with his own "marketplace conservatism, not very elegant."

So much for Kirk's critics on the Right. Suffice it to say here that from the mid-1950s forward Kirk responded vigorously to the challenges hurled against his formulation of the conservative creed. Toward doctrinaire libertarianism (especially as expounded by someone like Ayn Rand), he remained utterly uncompromising. It was, he declared in the 1980s, "as alien to real American conservatism as is communism." It was "an ideology of universal selfishness," and he added: "We flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already, without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle." To those who asserted that his Burkean conservatism was insufficiently principled and mired in historical contingency, he reinterpreted Edmund Burke as a thinker in the "natural law" tra­dition-a tradition transcending national borders and changing social conditions. To those who thought that Kirk slighted the role of reason in his defense of what he called the Permanent Things, he increasingly grounded his insights on what he called the moral imagination. To those who dispar­aged his conservatism as an alien hothouse plant, he reaffirmed Burke's intellectual influence on Ameri­can statesmen and emphasized the pre-modern roots of American order. Repeatedly, for example, he highlighted the most conservative features of the American war for independence and its culminating achievement, the Constitution.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Posted by Orrin Judd at January 8, 2011 9:36 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus