The Forgotten Father of American Conservatism

Russell Kirk wasn’t interested in defending a party agenda. He wanted to promote a cast of mind.

Jay McNally / AP

The conventional story of the rise of the conservative intellectual movement in America goes something like this: The Great Depression and Pearl Harbor discredited the so-called superfluous men who had criticized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and U.S. involvement in the Second World War. In the early years of the Cold War, however, a coalition of classical liberals, traditionalists, and anti-Communists took shape. William F. Buckley Jr. consolidated this alliance, bound together by opposition to the Soviet Union abroad and the welfare state at home, when he founded National Review in 1955. Its greatest victory came with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But the collapse of the Soviet Union fractured intellectual conservatism, diminishing its influence and opening it up to challenges from the populist right.

But that story doesn’t fully account for Russell Kirk—and you can’t tell the story of modern American conservatism without him. A writer, teacher, columnist, novelist, and storyteller, Kirk defined and gave substance to American conservatism more than anyone else besides Buckley. Yet he often found himself at odds with prominent spokesmen for the very tendency he helped to develop—arguments that reveal the history of American conservatism to be much more variegated and contested than normally understood.

Kirk’s conservatism was scholastic, literary, philosophical, poetic, and noninterventionist. He clashed with the libertarians, never embraced Joseph McCarthy, held National Review at arm’s length, broke with the neoconservatives over the Gulf War in 1990, and supported Patrick J. Buchanan in the 1992 Republican primary. Throughout his remarkable literary output of more than 20 books of nonfiction, three novels, hundreds of articles and book reviews, and some 3,000 syndicated columns—all while founding Modern Age (1957) and The University Bookman (1960)—Kirk championed the “permanent things” against ideological thinking on both the left and the right. His life’s work points to a path not taken by the conservative movement—one worth reexamining in this moment of uncertainty and flux.

Born on October 19, 1918, and raised in Plymouth, Michigan, Kirk studied at Michigan State and received his master’s degree from Duke University before serving in the Army from 1942 to 1946. Military service reinforced the traditionalist instincts of this shy and bookish young man: He deplored war and bureaucracy, and was horrified when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When he left the Army, he returned to Michigan and moved to Piety Hill, the home of his great-grandparents in rural Mecosta, where he lived for the duration of his life. Kirk traveled often, however, and doctoral studies took him to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

It was from St. Andrews that Kirk wrote to the Chicago publisher Henry Regnery in the summer of 1952. Regnery, a co-founder of the anti-Roosevelt newspaper Human Events, had published Buckley’s controversial debut, God and Man at Yale, the previous year. He was on the lookout for critics of New Deal liberalism and secular humanism.

And then one presented himself. “In my previous letter to you, I mentioned the possibility that I might send the manuscript of my Conservatives’ Rout to you,” wrote the 34-year-old Kirk, “and now I am doing just that.” Alfred A. Knopf, to whom Kirk first sent the manuscript, had requested he cut it in half. “I intend to do nothing of the sort.” Kirk was not the kind of author who ceded editorial control lightly. He intended for the reader to encounter his book as he had written it. “It is my contribution to our endeavor to conserve the spiritual and intellectual and political tradition of our civilization; and if we are to rescue the modern mind, we must do it very soon.” (The University Press of Kentucky recently published an excellent collection of Kirk’s letters, edited by James Person.)

By the time his 500-page book was published in 1953, Kirk had changed its title to The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana. T. S. Eliot replaced George Santayana in the subtitle beginning with the third edition, in 1960. The Conservative Mind was a critical and commercial success, turning its author into an intellectual celebrity. It also gave both a name and a philosophical and literary genealogy to a reemergent political persuasion: conservatism. “This study is a prolonged essay in definition,” Kirk says on the first page. “What is the essence of British and American conservatism?”

It was a question Kirk never quite answered. As he reminded readers for decades, conservatism resists precise definition. There is no conservative platform applicable to all people, in all places, at all times. “Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology,” Kirk wrote in 1982. Rather, “it is a way of looking at the civil social order.” Kirk spent his life circling back to general principles of conservatism, apprehended through the study of notable conservative writers and statesmen. These include belief in a “transcendent moral order”; support for “social continuity”; and adherence to the principles of prescription, prudence, variety, and imperfectability.

The Conservative Mind has provided generations of conservatives a sense of history and point of view. Where before conservatives had felt isolated, on the margins of political and cultural debate, they now could take their place in a great chain of thinkers, beginning in the modern era with Edmund Burke and continuing to the present. Kirk’s gallery of heroes was as idiosyncratic as his personality, grouping Brits with Americans, reactionaries with reformers, Confederates with Yankees. His chapters on John Randolph and John Calhoun, defenders of the slave power, discomfit contemporary readers, yet he also greatly admired Abraham Lincoln. Kirk was as critical of capitalism—he reminded audiences that it was a Marxist term—as he was of socialism. As he put it later: “The intellectual heirs of Burke, and the conservative interest generally, did battle on two fronts: against the successors of the Jacobins, with their ‘armed doctrine’; and against the economists of Manchester, with their reliance upon the nexus of cash payment.”

Kirk’s criticisms of economic utilitarianism, industrialism, and commercialism distinguished him from many other opponents of government planning. “I never call myself an individualist; and I wish that you people hadn’t clutched that dreary ideology to your bosom,” Kirk wrote to Victor Milione, the president of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (later renamed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) in May 1954. “Politically, it ends in anarchy; spiritually, it is a hideous solitude. I do not even call myself an ‘individual’; I hope I am a person.” Libertarianism, Kirk said, was a dead end because it failed to excite the moral imagination. A public exchange in 1957 with Friedrich Hayek exposed the divide. “I recall remarking that Hayek referred to religion as ‘mysticism,’” Kirk told a young correspondent many years later. “I retorted that such a notion merely reveals ignorance of religion.”

This suspicion of classical liberalism is one reason Kirk was reluctant to join Buckley’s National Review. Conservatism and libertarianism might fuse perfectly within the confines of Buckley’s personality, but he was just one charismatic figure. Kirk agreed to write a monthly column for the periodical that appeared from its founding until 1980. But the tension persisted. He never appeared on the masthead, chided Buckley when National Review failed to review his books, and was vilified by its senior editor Frank Meyer. It is noteworthy that Kirk looked upon the flagship publication of the conservative movement with detachment. “James Burnham was a utilitarian, really,” he wrote of another senior editor in a 1990 letter, “and I suppose I may be classified as a romantic—that is, on the side of Coleridge, Scott, and Southey, in the disputes of the first half of the nineteenth century.” When Kirk assembled his anthology of conservative thought for Penguin, he omitted Buckley while including the godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol.

Although he called Kristol “a force for good” in a 1975 letter, Kirk soured on the neoconservatives after the end of the Cold War. In a series of lectures to the Heritage Foundation, Kirk denounced attempts to make an ideology out of democratic capitalism. He often cited the historian Daniel Boorstin to the effect that the U.S. Constitution “is not for export.” In one infamous episode, Kirk said, “And not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” This gratuitous comment, with its insinuation of dual loyalties, became a flash point in the conflict between neocons and America First paleoconservatives. What made it all the more jarring was the fact that Kirk was a vocal opponent of anti-Semitism who, in the same talk, said: “I have many sympathies with these neoconservatives, and admiration for some of them.”

The geographical distance between Mecosta, Michigan, and New York City and Washington, D.C., mirrored Kirk’s personal and intellectual remove from the centers of conservative power in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. It was also a metaphor for Kirk’s waning influence on the movement he had helped define. As the conservative movement became more intertwined with the Republican Party, as philosophical principles were transmuted into public policy, Kirk receded into the background, welcoming curious students to his home, where they joined his wife and four daughters.

Might things have turned out differently had Kirk rather than Buckley become the public face of conservatism in the 1960s and ’70s? Perhaps. Kirk was more litterateur than leader, however. “By almost any twenty-first-century American or Western standard,” writes his biographer Bradley J. Birzer, “Kirk possessed a quirky, eccentric, and unique personality.” It might have put a ceiling on the popular appeal of intellectual conservatism.

Kirk wasn’t interested in defending a party agenda. He wanted to promote a cast of mind. In a 1963 letter to Jerry Pournelle, who would later make his mark as an author of science fiction, Kirk wrote, “There remains in this country a large body of support for an imaginative conservatism. Though the odds are against us, we may succeed in saving a good deal from the wreck of the modern world; and, as Henry Adams liked to say in his mordant way, ‘The fun is in the process.’” He sought to cultivate a moral imagination that allows us to see the world not only from the perspective of others but also from the standpoint of the past and the future. He had no grand plans of social regeneration, no aspirations for universal dominion. “‘Politics is the art of the possible,’ the conservative says: he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom.”

Above all, Russell Kirk reminded the world of what Edmund Burke described as the “partnership” that exists “not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” He brought attention to what his friend and hero T. S. Eliot called the “timeless moments” connecting us to both past and present.

I first encountered Kirk as an undergraduate who had been deeply affected by reading Burke’s Reflections. What struck me was the immensity of The Conservative Mind: not just its sheer size, but also the grandeur, myth, poetry, imagination, and spirit that infused Kirk’s text. I’m aware of the limits of Kirk’s approach as a guide to concrete political action, and of the dangers of nostalgia and of a literary contempt for politics, but I nonetheless recognize that his emphasis on general principle prevents conservatism from being weighed down by or reduced to any one flawed policy or individual.

If we rewrite the standard version of conservative history to account fully for Kirk’s role, a more complex picture of conservatism comes into view: one where the Pentagon and marginal tax rates recede into the background, and religious communities, schools, national and local traditions, literature, and culture come to the fore. Kirk’s writing has much to offer this generation of conservatives—and liberals—as they consider what attitudes to adopt toward artificial intelligence, Silicon Valley, social media, free speech, drone wars, globalization, and entitlement spending. As I remember Russell Kirk on his centennial, I recall with gratitude and appreciation some of his favorite lines from Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: And what the dead had no speech for, when living, / They can tell you, being dead: the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.