(This is one of a series The Imaginative Conservative is publishing in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Essays in the series may be found here.)
The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk
It has been sixty years since The Conservative Mind burst onto the scene, garnering lengthy and often enthusiastic reviews. Reviewers expressed surprise and some satisfaction that a conservative book could engage in such deep and reasoned analysis regarding the essentials of political and cultural life, showing that conservatives were not merely the “stupid party.” The book did more than spark a renaissance of conservative thought for, in America at least, there had been no self-conscious conservative tradition until Kirk, in essence, forged it. Linking Adams and Babbitt with Burke and Coleridge, America with Britain, he showed that American conservatives need not view themselves as isolated pilgrims, lost in a hostile wilderness. They were, instead, part of a long tradition and a wide culture with deep resources on which to draw in troubled times.
Kirk’s book was a part of, and a significant impetus toward, formation of a self-conscious conservative community, more confident than ever before in its identity and beliefs. And this community spawned a movement complete with important books, high journalism, and political force. Generally seen as culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan to the nation’s highest office, this movement institutionalized itself with magazines, foundations, and an apparatus of political power. There were, indeed, heady days for conservatives during the 1980’s, around the halfway mark of the life of Kirk’s great, fat book.
Today, of course, such prideful dreams lay in ruins. America is in the tightening grip of social democracy, committed to the federal government as the guarantor of a shabby existence for all at the cost of liberty. The nation is in the grip of a cult of equality, which has reduced the great variety of life and opinions to individual “lifestyle choices” supported by tax monies and punitive laws forbidding effective dissent. Meanwhile, the “conservative” establishment counsels and even demands capitulation in the name of “electability.” And the institutions that once touted Kirk to their donors abandon his legacy for shallow civil religion and the pursuit of power and lucre.
Was, then, Kirk’s work in vain? Is The Conservative Mind merely an intellectual curiosity, having delineated a tradition of thought doomed to irrelevance as we enter a time of ever-greater uniformity, with the left and right wings of the social democratic state fighting over which set of elites should run the machines of power in their own interests?
One should not counsel optimism in such times, for ours truly has become a culture of death, lost in its smug self-assurance as it imposes ideological uniformity on a people ever-more-impoverished in its mind and soul. But we would do well to remember the original title of Kirk’s seminal work: The Conservatives’ Rout. We would do well to remember that the book itself contains acerbic criticism of such important figures as John Quincy Adams and the rise of habits of abstraction and reductionism. And we would do well to remember that Kirk spends the bulk of the book reciting the often lonely efforts of great men—from Burke, to Walter Scott, to Brownson and Eliot—to restore our connections with the great tradition of Christian humanism that formed our way of life. Indeed, his work begins with the formation of an overt conservatism reacting to the calamity of the French Revolution and its then-unrecognized threat to our civilization.
The Conservative Mind was not intended to be some call to arms or ideological handbook for political victory. It was, and remains, something far more important: an introduction to tradition. The story Kirk provides of the ongoing struggles of important thinkers and statesmen allows his readers to become part of that chain linking each one of us to former generations and linking God to man through the institutions, beliefs, and practices of our civilization. This, and not some formula for political victory, is most important for us in our times of cultural decay. For, as Kirk observed, “only by means of a reawakened moral imagination…might order and justice and freedom be sustained through our time of troubles.”
Conservatives are, in fact, in a worse position than they have been in quite some time. Today Progress is the new god, and it demands a “creative destruction” that seeks to leave nothing standing that is customary or even old. And what joins conservatives, as Kirk noted, is “resistance to the destruction of old patterns of life, damage to the footings of the civil social order, and reduction of human striving to material production and consumption.” Both political parties currently are dominated by the mavens of consumption and distribution, understood in only slightly different terms, so that we must find our way without the aid of large-scale political protections.
The conservative knows that no paradise can be built in this world, though Hell is admirably attainable through ideological means. But today, after decades of self-delusion, it has been made clear to us that there can be no “victory” through reliance on the “great men” of political movements and parties in a system committed to power and money. And this means that we can reject the peddlers of false hopes, work to restore our own local communities, and stand ready to pick up what pieces remain when liberal and social democratic dreams crash on the rocks of human nature and physical reality. We may even be in a position to rebuild somewhat of what has been left behind, knowing as we do that “custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order.” The task, then, is to retain memory and some practical reality of custom, constitution, and prescription in a time of ideology.
In 1986, in the midst of the Reagan Presidency, and taking some satisfaction in the success of his book and the conservative movement itself, Kirk focused on the deep, underlying crisis of our culture. And that crisis is not political, but spiritual. In the forward to the seventh edition of The Conservative Mind, he quoted Swedish philosopher Tage Lindbom: “We have now to deal with a secularized generation for which material existence is everything and spiritual life is nothing.” It is this rejection of the Kingdom of God in favor of the Kingdom of Man (or of “choice-making-self”) that lies at the root of our decay. We now are faced with the children of this secularized generation. We are now seeing a generation rising, not only without religion, but without the knowledge of religion, without the books, the narrative understanding or even the tales of their Judeo-Christian heritage, who find it all but impossible to even understand a non-utilitarian argument for virtue. Religion, for them, means the promise of an afterlife perhaps making proper action here a worthwhile bargain. Their god may make virtue profitable for us, but cannot, in their minds, bring us to self-sacrifice through love.
Our goal today, as Kirk’s was sixty years ago, cannot be to “take back” political power, or even cultural predominance. We can only hope to salvage something of our patrimony, of the customary ways in which our people have made concrete the permanent goods of truth, beauty, and wisdom. And this is where Kirk’s book will remain important for at least sixty more years. Readers of The Conservative Mind are apt to emphasize Kirk’s canons of conservatism because they provide a useful, thumbnail sketch of the things we recognize and value as proper guides to our public life. But Kirk himself was somewhat reluctant to produce a crib of conservatism. Far more important, he knew, was the book itself, telling the story of conservatism. It is by engaging with the narrative of the struggles of conservatives to preserve our knowledge of the Permanent Things, that we will learn to place ourselves within a tradition, and learn the importance of connecting with prior generations, so that we might learn our duties to ourselves, our fellows, and those who are yet unborn.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.