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Book Review: Russell Kirk: American Conservative (Bradley Birzer)

Once upon a time, it seemed that Russell Kirk might, as he so devoutly wished, “redeem the time.” For two brief, shining moments, in the late 1950s and the early 1980s, Kirk’s efforts must have seemed to him like they might bear permanent fruit. But the moments passed, and it is clear now (in the summer of 2016) that Kirk’s efforts were always doomed. Or maybe only doomed in this age—on the farther side of our Ragnarok, perhaps his star will rise again.

He knew this himself, no doubt. But despair was not his way. More than once in this book he is quoted as using Tolkein’s term, “the long defeat” (the fuller quote, from the elf Queen Galadriel, is “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat”). Kirk died in 1994. As the American of August 2016 peeps above his parapet, to view in the foreground the midget jousting of the moral degenerates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and then sweeps his eye around and to the horizon, across the lone and level sands, to view what in any earlier age would have been deemed the utter ruin of a civilization, yet for now is still animated by wealth and thus able to shamble onwards, it’s probably good that Kirk did not live to see today.

Bradley Birzer’s outstanding biography covers Kirk’s philosophy in detail, focusing on Kirk’s thought and interactions, both with others in the conservative movement and with larger societal currents. In the early 1950s, Kirk singlehandedly revitalized, or perhaps more accurately recreated from nothing, conservatism as an American philosophy. We mostly forget that at mid-century, all of America’s political class and elite regarded liberalism, in its 20th Century sense of large government Progressivism, as having swept the field. This was most infamously captured in Lionel Trilling’s 1950 comment, “Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is a plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Kirk, starting in 1953 with “The Conservative Mind,” proved this wrong. (It is entirely bizarre, reading Birzer’s extensive discussion of the impact of Kirk’s first book, to see the high quality of discourse that used to exist in mass market magazines and newspapers. Whether critical or supportive of Kirk, intelligent people using big words reviewed and commented on his work, addressing it directly and on its own terms. This, alone, shows how far downhill America’s intellectual life has fallen.)

As to the substance of Birzer’s excellent book, it is lucid, well organized and compelling. If you think “conservative thought” is an oxymoron, or, like Obama and his sycophants, you think history began in 1968, you will find little to interest you here. But if the various intersections of Enlightenment thought, natural law and Augustinian thought, and tradition vs. rationalism interest you, or the politico-philosophical currents of the second half of the 20th Century in general interest you, this is a very illuminating book. And it tells much about the development, intricacies and arc of its subject’s own thought.

For forty years, from roughly 1955 to 1995, Kirk dominated the Burkean (anti-ideology, pro-prudential tradition) wing of the American conservative movement. After Kirk made conservatism intellectually respectable, American conservatives grew into varying subgroups, held loosely together for decades by two things: anti-Communism and William Buckley. Other than Kirkian conservatism, the conservative big tent included many former Communists (Frank Meyer; Whittaker Chambers); minarchists and less extreme libertarians (various disciples of Albert Jay Nock); Southern Agrarians (M.E. Bradford, Robert Penn Warren); Straussians; Ayn Rand Objectivists (until expelled from the movement, along with the Birchers); and later, neoconservatives (Irving and William Kristol; Midge Decter).

Of all these, Kirk was the most famous individual, with a mass audience in books, periodicals and newspapers. Other than Rand, few (including Kirk) are remembered in the broader culture today, and many of the people Kirk engaged in constant dialogue, such as Eric Voegelin and Harry Jaffa, are nearly completely forgotten by anyone under the age of forty, conservative or not.

It is, unsurprisingly, difficult to capture in a set program or list of goals the philosophy of someone like Kirk, doubly so when one remembers that he was opposed to all ideology as simplistic and pernicious, and that his own thought developed over decades. But Birzer does a good job of both citing and summarizing elements of Kirk’s thought. For example, Birzer summarizes Kirk, “The best government, regardless of type, should really only offer two things: (1) the security of the pursuit of excellence while restraining the excellent from using their gifts to oppress the less excellent; and (2) acts in harmony with the traditional norms and mores of the people.” Similarly, as to the common claim that the main characteristic of the state is its monopoly on legitimate violence, he quotes Kirk: “The application of violence, though, is the ultimate means only of creating and preserving a political order, it is not its ultimate reason: the function proper of order is the creation of a shelter in which man may give to his life a semblance of meaning.”

More broadly than the specifics of government, Birzer notes that “Kirk consistently made four points about the principles that should underlie politics in Western civilization . . . . First, he believed that every government and society must pursue order, justice, and freedom. Any good society rested on these three principles. Second, he believed whole-heartedly in a Ciceronian natural law as ordering all of creation. Third, he believed that man must live according to a variety of inherited and natural rights, rejecting all forms of egalitarianism except equality before the law. Finally, he thought these three things would thrive best individually and collectively in a republic, the form of government the American Founding Fathers had wisely chosen.”

And finally, Kirk himself set out his view of what a person should be in the whole of his or her life. “A truly humane man is a person who knows we were not born yesterday. He is familiar with many of the great books and the great men of the past, and with the best in the thought of his own generation. He has received a training of mind and character that chastens and ennobles and emancipates. He is a man genuinely free; but free only because he obeys the ancient laws, the norms, which govern human nature. He is competent to be a leader, whether in his own little circle or on a national scale—a leader in thought and taste and politics—because he has served an apprenticeship to the priests and the prophets and the philosophers of the generations that have preceded us in our civilization. He knows what it is to be man—to be truly and fully human. He knows what things a man is forbidden to do. He knows his rights and his corresponding duties. He knows what to do with his leisure. He knows the purpose of his work. He knows that there is a law for man, and a law for thing.”

Most, even his sympathizers, would probably say that Kirk does not have the right of every point. But he rarely goes far wrong, and his prudential approach would certainly aid us if applied broadly today. Kirk can justly be accused of overmuch nostalgia and over-little appreciation of the necessity of participation in politics. He thought the inherent gutter nature of politics sullied the humane man, and he referred to the politically active as the “quarter-educated” (although he still became heavily involved in the Goldwater campaign, costing him some of his influence). But his hero, Burke, was an active career politician, and without champions, the best and noblest philosophy is merely a clanging cymbal. And the conservative movement he founded quickly devolved into internecine warfare, showing the weakness of philosophy. Yes, the movement did greatly assist in getting Reagan elected, but ever since then, the conservative movement has been most powerful in its own mind. It may be a richly textured, fully developed and lushly insightful mind. But it’s more a brain in a vat than the engine of political power, and without political power, ideas lack consequences.

I actually have some personal insight into all this. I came late to the party, but in my youth (the 1980s) I was an active member in good standing of what, later in the 1990s, we ironically called (following Hillary Clinton at the time) “The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.” I met both Russell and Annette Kirk several times, during seminars hosted at their Piety Hill home in the late 1980s, and I was a friendly acquaintance of their two older daughters. I may not still be an active participant in the Conspiracy, but the ironic thing is that there is actually such a thing, though not in the sense Clinton meant. As far as I can tell, today, with a few exceptions, the conservative movement is much less philosophically oriented and much more fractured than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. But it is more of a conspiracy, in that there are close connections among the participants, than organizations on the Left, with their tendency to splinter into ludicrous factions like Trotskyite/Spartacist infighters. Most people on the intellectual Right are within one or two degrees of separation (though the Left has succeeded, through its domination of the media, academia and popular culture, at totally capturing the mechanisms of power, regardless of its greater intellectual fragmentation). And certainly, from my perspective, Birzer’s book is accurate.

My only criticism, if one can call it that, is that the book is 95% an analysis of Kirk’s thought, and 5% a biography of his life. It does draw a compelling, and as far as I can tell, accurate picture of the man. But we learn almost nothing about Kirk’s internal personal thoughts about Kirk or Kirk’s life, other than much detail about Kirk’s personal philosophy of life (basically, a form of Christian Stoicism). Given that apparently Annette Kirk gave Birzer extensive access to Kirk’s papers and correspondence, and Kirk wrote two autobiographies himself which are only mentioned in passing, this seems odd. Maybe Kirk didn’t do much, if any, navel gazing. His seamless and tranquil glide path into orthodox Christianity suggest that internal anguish was an emotion foreign to him. However, I, for one, am still curious about Russell Kirk, the man, beyond that knowledge that can be found in his thought, his own books, and the intermittent bits of information about his personal life that can be found in Birzer’s book.

(One pedantic note. Birzer mentions several times Kirk’s fascination with, and devotion to, the Shroud of Turin. But that is not, as Birzer says, “the cloth that Veronica supposedly used to wipe Jesus’s face while he climbed to Golgotha . . . and became his burial shroud.” That veil, the Sudarium, is a totally different relic than the Shroud.)

Unfortunately, what we need now is not another Kirk. His work is done, and there is no need to repeat or parrot it. We need to preserve Kirk, certainly, something to which his widow has apparently devoted her life. A time will come when his thought, his insight and his wisdom can again contribute greatly to renewing the time. But for now, as far as the broader society, his message falls on barren ground, and what we need instead is hard men who will literally fight the long defeat, in order that on the other side, when the ashes and bones are cleared away, a green and fertile space can exist and abide, upon which Kirk’s ideas may be planted.

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