The Mind of Russell Kirk
How the horrors of war led to the birth of American conservatism.
For 175 years the United States was not a country known for its self-consciously conservative thought. America’s “Tories,” after all, had been on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War. The names of our great political parties—Whig, Republican, Democratic—were everywhere else labels for liberal or radical groupings. Americans may have had their own kind of conservatism, but they rarely called it that.
But something changed after World War II. Not only did books with titles like Conservatism Revisited, The Case for Conservatism, The Conservative Mind, and Conservatism in America appear in rapid succession between 1947 and 1955, but distinctly conservative ideas—not merely pro-business or anti-communist ones—were unmistakable in works by authors such as Richard M. Weaver and Robert Nisbet. Observers called this efflorescence of the intellectual right “the New Conservatism.”
Why did conservatism enjoy a revival at this, of all times, even in as unlikely a place as America? War is the answer: specifically, the disillusionment that thinkers of conservative temper experienced as a result of World War II.
Europe’s turn to totalitarianism before the war had already prompted the first stirrings. “The success of literal ‘National Socialists’ whether Hitler or Stalin, is in their vote-getting synthesis of romantic expansive nationalism with a planned economy,” wrote Peter Viereck in the April 1940 issue of The Atlantic. “In contrast, we conservatives must synthesize the good in the latter, not with despotism, but with freedom—that is, with all our ancient civil liberties, tolerance of minorities, and a peaceful internationalism of Law.”
Viereck was “twenty-three years of age, unemployed, short of cash,” yet confident. His outlook was like that of Guy Crouchback, protagonist of Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honor” trilogy of World War II novels, at the beginning of the conflict. With Nazis and Soviets on one side and the Christian West on the other, everything was clear to Crouchback: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”
But at the end of the war Stalin controlled half of Europe with the West’s acquiescence. For Crouchback, as for his author, this amounted to unconditional surrender of the very principles of civilization for which the West had fought.
Richard Weaver, soon to be a professor of rhetoric at the University of Chicago, felt the same way. The war was over, but, he asked a friend in 1945,
is anything saved? We cannot be sure. True, there are a few buildings left standing around, but what kind of animal is going to inhabit them? I have become convinced in the past few years that the essence of civilization is ethical (with perhaps some helping out from aesthetics). And never has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this. For a long time to come I believe my chief interest is going to be the restoration of civilization, of the distinctions that make life intelligible.
Weaver’s 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences—one of the first classics of postwar conservative literature—was, he explained in its foreword, “a reaction to that war—to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions it left in place of the peace and order that were professedly sought.”
A year later Viereck published Conservatism Revisited, which gave the “New Conservatism” its name. But it was a work by another young scholar, four years hence, that would connect this philosophy with the popular imagination. That scholar was Russell Kirk, and his book was The Conservative Mind.
Bradley J. Birzer begins his definitive new biography of Kirk—Russell Kirk: American Conservative—with his subject stationed in the Utah desert, at Dugway Proving Ground, where the U.S. Army Chemical Weapons Service put its wares to the test. “Coming here,” wrote Kirk to his friend Bill McCann in 1942, “tends to make me lean toward the Stoic belief in a special providence—or perhaps more to the belief of Schopenhauer that we are punished for our sins, in proportion to our sins, here on earth.”
Military life instilled in Kirk a lasting hatred of regimentation. “Greater self-love has no government than this: that all men must wear khaki so that some men may be taught to brush their teeth,” he wrote in a 1946 essay about the prospect of a peacetime draft, one of his first published pieces.
He was even more scathing in a 1949 short story. “America, I Love You” tells of one Private Dahmer, who as Birzer relates “proudly destroyed Albrecht Dürer’s house and stole the fourteenth-century charter of the village of Kempten. It turns out that Dahmer also raped a woman in Munich.” Kirk has Dahmer explain why he intends to remain in the Army after the war: “you’re a king. You take a little stuff from the officers, sure; but then you get a chance to kick somebody else around, half the time.”
Kirk responded to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki much as Richard Weaver did: Americans were wont to talk of “progress,” he wrote to McCann, but “apparently, it has been progress toward annihilation, an end to be accomplished, perhaps, by the improved atomic bomb? We have dealt more death and destruction in the space of ten years than the men of the Middle Ages, with their Devil, were able to accomplish in a thousand.”
That was not the war’s only irony: “the expulsion of American Japanese from the West Coast … might, if necessary, be compared to a number of other well-known exoduses.” While fighting fascism, America had taken its own steps down the road to something similar.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that after the war Kirk left the country to pursue graduate studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Before joining the Army he had already written a master’s thesis at Duke University on John Randolph of Roanoke, a Virginia statesman more Jeffersonian than Thomas Jefferson himself. Kirk didn’t repudiate Americans like Randolph in his St. Andrews doctoral dissertation—which became the basis for The Conservative Mind—but he came to see them as variations on a deeper theme of Anglo-American civilization, whose conservatism was rooted in the life and thought of Edmund Burke.
“In essence, The Conservative Mind offered the West not only something to love but proof that such things had been loved since the eighteenth century and, before that, since antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Birzer writes. There was a personal as well as a philosophical motive behind it: Kirk had come to Scotland in 1948 with a younger woman with whom he was in love. She left him. “Too much a brother, too much a father, too much a preceptor, too much a husband—these things, and my exceeding love, made an end of me,” he wrote in his diary. “With Rosy gone, what am I seeking now from life?” His answer: “An invigoration of conservative principles.”
After he completed the dissertation in 1952, Kirk expected it to be published back home by Alfred A. Knopf. But Knopf wanted drastic cuts, so instead the book was brought out by Henry Regnery in 1953, to an avalanche of reviews. The Catholic press loved it. The liberal literary establishment generally did not—but they took it seriously.
Hostility from one quarter was unexpected. Frank Chodorov, editor of the libertarian Freeman, had been irked by the readiness of conservatives like Viereck to accept the New Deal. Now that Kirk had delivered what was hailed as the New Conservatism’s magnum opus, Chodorov assigned a reviewer to take him down. The task fell to Frank Meyer, an ex-Communist turned libertarian-conservative fusionist. “Collectivism Rebaptized,” Meyer’s 1955 attack on Kirk and the “New Conservatives”—among whose ranks Kirk did not, in fact, wish to be counted—became a cause of enduring animus, not only between Kirk and Meyer but between Kirk and libertarians generally.
Meyer’s involvement in National Review, which launched that same year, made Kirk suspicious. But the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., succeeded in courting him—much to Kirk’s detriment, Birzer contends. “Kirk’s involvement with Buckley and the National Review as well as with the Goldwater campaign lessened his reach and allowed his opposition to question his integrity and consequently the integrity of nonpolitical conservatism.” T.S. Eliot—who had been much impressed by The Conservative Mind and arranged for its publication in Britain—had warned Kirk of this danger in 1956:
I fear that a reader of ‘The National Review’ who does not already share 100% Mr. Buckley’s opinions, might gradually get the impression that it was a vehicle of prejudice, and that all issues were decided in advance. I think that would be a great pity from the point of view of the need for a sane Conservatism in American life…
Two rather different things, both called “conservatism,” came together in the 1950s, with Kirk at the center of their confluence. There was the Burkean philosophical conservatism—the so-called New Conservatism—that Viereck and Kirk had developed in their separate ways. Then there was the resurgent political conservatism—economically liberal, in the “classical” sense, with a vein of populism and nationalism—that gathered force in National Review and the campaign to draft Goldwater for the 1960 Republican nomination. These two conservatisms overlapped, including to some extent in Kirk himself. But they were not the same thing.
Birzer argues persuasively that Kirk’s conservatism is better understood as a kind of “Christian humanism” than as anything overtly political. Kirk incorporated Stoicism and other classical influences with a gothic and sometimes unorthodox Christianity—spiced with a dash of the occult—into his worldview. In 1964 he became a Catholic during his engagement to Annette Courtemanche, yet even thereafter, Birzer suggests, “Kirk was a Stoic pagan who later added Catholicism to his Stoic paganism.”
Chodorov and early on Buckley—in God and Man at Yale, for example, published in 1951—thought of themselves as “individualists” not “conservatives.” (Chodorov threatened to “punch in the nose” anyone who called him a conservative.) But “conservative” was what progressives had called their opponents since before the New Deal, and now that Kirk had traced a respectable lineage for conservatism, the word became popular with many people who had formerly identified as individualists, anticommunists, or simply Republicans. They changed their label, but not their politics.
One of these two conservatisms was aimed at getting power—if only, in theory, to fight communism and bolster free markets. The other was aimed at humanizing power by reforming character and culture, and while Kirk did not join Viereck in embracing the welfare state, he applied the demands of humanism to markets as well as to the state.
The clearest difference between the two conservatisms arose in foreign policy: humanist conservatives, Christian or otherwise, were less apt to support military interventions or restrict citizens’ civil liberties in the name of fighting communism. “A ‘preventive’ war, whether or not it might be successful in the field—and that is a question much in doubt—would be morally ruinous to us,” Kirk wrote in A Program for Conservatives, his 1954 sequel to The Conservative Mind.
Caught up in the Goldwater movement and controversies of the Vietnam era, “Kirk became increasingly hawkish in foreign policy in the 1960s,” Birzer reports. But in the years before his death in 1994, his noninterventionism was stronger than ever: in “attempting to demolish the work and the ideas of the neoconservatives,” Birzer writes, Kirk “found a new intellectual vigor.” He opposed the 1991 Gulf War and shocked a Heritage Foundation audience by observing “not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”
Yet to characterize Kirk—or Weaver, Viereck, or any of the postwar philosophical conservatives—as simply “antiwar” would be a mistake. Their distinguishing characteristic was not what they were against but what they were for: restoring the roots of civilized conduct in literature, philosophy, and personal character.
Kirk’s quip at Heritage earned him accusations of anti-Semitism, which Birzer shows were not only unjust but ironic. His most vicious detractors included certain disciples of Leo Strauss, yet Strauss and Kirk had been mutually supportive friends. Indeed, in 1957 Kirk launched the journal Modern Age in part to defend Strauss against liberals’ aspersions, and he resigned from the quarterly the following year after coming to believe one of his colleagues was anti-Semitic. Kirk wrote of his vision for Modern Age, “I have been endeavoring to steer clear of bigotry, intolerance, eccentricity, and preoccupation with the hour’s political controversies—the curses of American conservatives.”
Birzer, who not coincidentally holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of History at Hillsdale College, provides as much insight into Kirk’s life as Kirk’s work provides into conservatism. His chapters on less known dimensions of Kirk, including his family life and fictional oeuvre—one novel, Old House of Fear, outsold anything else he wrote, including The Conservative Mind—are superb. But most valuable of all is the reminder this biography serves of how conservatives like Kirk sought to recover civilization from the ashes of war and collapse: one book, one line, one thought at a time.
There’s much more to say—but Birzer says it best in Russell Kirk: American Conservative.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.