February 21, 2016


A Conservative's Odyssey: Russell Kirk and Twentieth-Century American Conservatism (Samuel Gregg, 2/17/16, Acton Commentary)

Kirk--like William F. Buckley, Jr.--considered it necessary for American conservatism to distinguish itself from the "extremes of the movement." Kirk was thus among the first on the right to excoriate the John Birch Society (in the pages of the Jesuit magazine America, no less). Kirk also dismissed Ayn Rand as a "freak" and argued that conservatism was damaged by "absurd simplifiers who fancy that calling everyone in Washington a communist [is] hunky-dory." Kirk was especially censorious of anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic tendencies among segments of the American right during the 1950s and 1960s. Not only did Kirk regard such mindsets as wrong in themselves (even before he converted to Catholicism); he plainly viewed them as counterproductive, not least because so many of the American non-left's intellectual heavyweights were Jews or Catholics. Clearly, those inclined to view Kirk as naively inattentive to issues of presentation amid the complexities of American politics are mistaken.

The picture of the American conservative moment that emerges from this book is one characterized by surprisingly deep fractures that, in many respects, have never been resolved. Some may be beyond resolution. This makes it all the more ironic that one of the most revealing aspects of Birzer's book is the degree to which Kirk worked with and even promoted people with whom he had intellectual disagreements.

Traditionalists may be surprised, for example, to learn just how much Kirk admired Leo Strauss's thinking. "Even as late as 1990," Birzer writes, "on the eve of an implosion of even a semblance of unity within intellectual conservatism, Kirk continued to praise Strauss." Kirk was particularly taken with Strauss's conception of natural rights. Certainly, the two men disagreed in their interpretation of Burke, and Kirk strongly disapproved of some of Strauss's followers. None of this, however, impaired what Birzer describes as the positive influence exerted by Strauss on Kirk's thought.

Other friendships developed by Kirk with figures such as the sociologist Robert Nisbet, the novelist Flannery O'Connor, and the political philosopher Eric Voegelin were characterized by a similar pattern: affirmation of many points in common and recognition of a mutual seriousness of purpose, accompanied by clear but civil disagreement about other important issues.

Given Kirk's interest in helping to mold American conservatism into a movement through which many people with not always compatible positions could collaborate in a common struggle against modern liberalism and the left more generally, some may find it paradoxical that, as Birzer highlights, Kirk consistently rejected the typical right-left division of modern politics. In part, this flowed from Kirk's principled rejection of ideology.

Kirk understood ideology as "inverted religion." Here, one senses Voegelin's influence. With this phrase, Kirk rejected the tendency to think that we can realize heaven on earth through implementation of a political program. Whether such agendas were derived from socialism, libertarianism, progressivism, or even conservatism was, for Kirk, irrelevant. According to Kirk, there was a straight line between ideology in this sense and regimes willing to abandon all natural and legal restraints in order to realize political goals. Historically speaking, this has predominantly manifested itself on the left, assuming demonic form in the case of Communist governments. But there have also been instances in which ideology, in Kirk's sense of the word, has flourished among sections of the right--nationalism (as distinct from patriotism) being a prominent example.

Posted by at February 21, 2016 11:19 AM