russell kirk

Russell Kirk

“Capitalism” and “socialism” both are 19th century ideological tags; they delude and ensnare, as do all ideologies. Zealots for “democratic capitalism” seem to have forgotten that it was Karl Marx who made the word “capitalism” a theoretical concept. Surviving enthusiasts for an abstraction called “socialism” impose killing burdens upon themselves by endeavoring to maintain a cause hopelessly discredited by the squalid oligarchs of actual socialist states.

The conservative, no ideologue, does not believe that human existence is mostly a matter of economics; but both the belligerent “capitalist” and the fervent “socialist” do so believe. I recall the sentences of my old friend Wilhelm Roepke, writing nearly four decades ago in his important book The Social Crisis of Our Times:

“Socialism, collectivism, and their political and cultural appendages are, after all, only the last consequence of our yesterday; they are the last convulsions of the nineteenth century, and only in them do we reach the lowest point of the century-old development along the wrong road; these are the hopeless final stage toward which we drift unless we act…

“Socialism—helped by the uprooted proletarian existence of large numbers of the working class and made palatable for them by just as rootless intellectuals, who will have to bear the responsibility for this—is less concerned with the interests of these masses than with the interests of these intellectuals, who may indeed see their desire for an abundant choice of positions of power fulfilled by the socialist state.”

Amen to that. The ideologies of capitalism and socialism are the two sides of a counterfeit coin. We ought to discourse in other terms, employing some moral imagination and confronting honestly our disorders, public and private, at the close of the 20th century. Indeed we seem to be drifting into what Irving Babbitt called “a devil’s Sabbath of whirling machinery;” but the human condition would not be improved by substituting “socialist” social engineers for “capitalist” social engineers.

Of course one encounters here and there, still, well-meaning individuals who think of themselves, somewhat vaguely, as socialists. But one has only to observe at close range the exiting Labour Party of Britain—which, after all, is more humane than most socialist groups—to apprehend how dismal a socialist order would be. The aspirations of the 19th-century Christian Socialists of France and Germany, or of the British guild socialists, have gone glimmering altogether. How can one make an alliance with ghosts?

The “capitalist” ideologues who proclaim that the Holy Market is the be-all and end-all are working their own destruction. As truly private property gives way to colossal mergers and combinations, the prediction of Marx is increasingly fulfilled: monopolies and oligopolies find few defenders in rough times, and are converted readily into agencies of the state. As the liberals’ moral nihilism dissolves the inner order and the outer, truly things fall apart. For the sake of the permanent things, we ought to transcend mere faction and unite to redeem the time.

But to exchange “capitalist” claptrap for “socialist” claptrap will not suffice. So long as the socialist genuinely remains attached to socialist dogma, he will be the conservative’s adversary.

What defenders of the permanent things should seek is not a league with some set of old-fangled or new-fangled ideologues, but the politics of prudence, enlivened by imagination. Politics remains the art of the possible. The market does have its virtues—in moderation; but let us not worship Kipling’s “Gods of the Market-Place.” The claims of community are genuine—in moderation; but let us not immolate ourselves for what Roepke called “the Cult of the Colossal.” The remedies or palliatives for our present fallen state of spiritual and political ill-health necessarily are complex, never to be achieved by ideological passion.

Some of these matters I discuss in my book Prospects for Conservatives, first published 37 years ago; a new edition will appear early in 1988*; of course I have not space enough here to outline remedial prudent measures. Elsewhere I have exhorted conservatives not to break bread with libertarians, those ideologues of solipsism. I do now entreat conservatives to walk apart from socialists, those ideologues of leveling.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Transcription credit to Bradley J. Birzer’s research assistant, Rachel Heider. Extracted from The New Oxford Review, Volume 54, Number 8, October 1987, p. 18-20.

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11 replies to this post
  1. One question here is whether Marx created the concept of Capitalism or did he observe and identify it.

    Another question regards whether our market-place need moderation or a new system.

    One final point, one cannot define socialism without mentioning the proletariate dictatorship. For as much as socialism includes collectivism, socialism revolves around the control of workers over the workplace as well as society. And those who would make decisions were to be elected by peers. This is where the old Soviet Union comes into play because, as it was started by Lenin, the USSR began by being under elite-centered rule, not a proletariate dictatorship. So was that socialism?

  2. Yes, an important point is made when Dr Kirk notes that socialism was a (foolish) reaction to the 19th C notion of capitalism – which was itself a burst of equally misguided Social Darwinism that mistook Adam Smith’s second book, on how wealth is created, not to mention his first book positing origins for empathy and generosity. So one travesty begot another.

  3. Better the market than the State. Granted both bear watching but the juggernaut of state is never at rest, always the locus of power and control and with an historical record that serves as warning. Usually ignored.
    But as always reading Kirk is ever a repaid pleasure.

  4. Speaking of Marx, I posted a review of his most infamous book on a few years ago:

    1.0 out of 5 stars

    This review is from: The Communist Manifesto (Signet Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)

    How could one little book spawn so much evil?

    That is the question historians looking back on the 20th century will have to answer. This book, along with “Mein Kampf”, spawned ideas that were ultimately responsible for the murder of millions of innocent people, yet we still have no clear cut explanation as to why. After all, communism, according to its supporters, was supposed to be the “perfect” way to organize society, and yet, everywhere it was tried, the result was tyranny, oppression, and misery. How could this be?

    There are numerous explanations, perhaps the most popular being the notion that it simply didn’t conform to human nature. People aspire to achievement and success, these critics claim, and communism squashes these desires in its quest to create a society of social and material equality. But I think it goes much deeper. One of the most obvious flaws of communism was its arrogance. It basically took everything that had gone into Western Civilization, dating back to Athens and Jerusalem, and tossed it in the trash bin. Democracy, individual liberty, human dignity, belief in God, it all had to go. The Communist Party was all that mattered; it set itself up as the supreme authority, and demanded absolute loyalty from its subjects. Communism has been called an economic system, but in truth it was much more. It was, in fact, a religion in every aspect except belief in a Supreme Being, a belief system that was, in essence, based on the worship of itself.

    And that, at the core, was its fatal flaw. From a religious point of view, it was nothing less than a form of blasphemy, with Marx and Engels shaking their puny fists at God as if to say “We don’t need You. We don’t want You. We can create our paradise here on Earth without You!” Is it any wonder then, that communism worked out as badly as it did? That, far from creating heaven on Earth, it created hell instead?

    • Eric,
      How is it that the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf compare? You picked the result. But the question becomes this: How faithful were the implementations of those books to the books themselves? In other words, did Lenin & Stalin faithfully adhere to the Communist Manifesto as the Nazis did to Mein Kampf?

      Here’s the reason why I ask the question. When you read Marx’s essay titled On The Jewish Question, you will find that he praises America for their implementation of his calls for the abolition of private property (see

      The political elevation of man above religion shares all the defects and all the advantages of political elevation in general. The state as a state annuls, for instance, private property, man declares by political means that private property is abolished as soon as the property qualification for the right to elect or be elected is abolished, as has occurred in many states of North America. Hamilton quite correctly interprets this fact from a political point of view as meaning:

      “the masses have won a victory over the property owners and financial wealth.” [Thomas Hamilton, Men and Manners in America, 2 vols, Edinburgh, 1833, p. 146]


      The political emancipation of the Jew, the Christian, and, in general, of religious man, is the emancipation of the state from Judaism, from Christianity, from religion in general. In its own form, in the manner characteristic of its nature, the state as a state emancipates itself from religion by emancipating itself from the state religion – that is to say, by the state as a state not professing any religion, but, on the contrary, asserting itself as a state.

      So how well did Lenin and Stalin follow Marx so far?

      But the most telling criteria is whether the working class was left in control after the Revolution.This was the concern expressed by socialist Rosa Luxemburg, a contemporary of Lenin, when she wrote (see ):

      The basic error of the Lenin-Trotsky theory is that they too, just like Kautsky, oppose dictatorship to democracy. “Dictatorship or democracy” is the way the question is put by Bolsheviks and Kautsky alike. The latter naturally decides in favor of “democracy,” that is, of bourgeois democracy, precisely because he opposes it to the alternative of the socialist revolution. Lenin and Trotsky, on the other hand, decide in favor of dictatorship in contradistinction to democracy, and thereby, in favor of the dictatorship of a handful of persons, that is, in favor of dictatorship on the bourgeois model.

      I am not saying that there isn’t much to criticize in Marx, certainly there is. I am questioning your claim that the Communist Manifesto is to the slaughtering of people by Lenin and Stalin what Mein Kampf is to the slaughtering of people by the Nazis.

      • “But the most telling criteria is whether the working class was left in control after the Revolution.This was the concern expressed by socialist Rosa Luxemburg”

        You’ve made this argument over and over, but citing ONE person as your sole source doesn’t make much of a case.

        That said, I’m sure if you could re-animate Lenin’s corpse and get him to talk, he would refute everything you said, pointing out (correctly) that he planned, organized, led, and carried out the Communust coup in Russia, and also took most of the risks.

        Marxism, by its very nature, was going to produce a Lenin, a Stalin, a Mao. When your ideology explicity rejects the Laws and authority of God, then naturally the most ruthless, cunning, and brutal will rise to the top.

  5. I cited one person above but that isn’t the only person I could cite. I could include Pannakoek, Kautsky, and others. I could also cite historical references such as Orlando Figes’ book on the Russian Revolution.

    And yes, based on history, Lenin would refute what I said. But then again, Lenin persecuted a lot of socialists, that is once he got power.

    My disagreement with you here is that you want to present Marxism as a monolith and being able to produce only totalitarianism. We should note that neither the Spanish Revolution nor the Paris Commune were totalitarian. Regard Russia and some other nations that saw Marxist revolutions, the trouble is that the conditions that existed prior to those revolutions were totalitarian and one cannot rule out that influence on the revolutions. In addition, especially with the Russian Revolution, there were a variety of socialists. And what initially drove people under Lenin’s banner were the pre-existing totalitarian governments (the Tsars and the Provisional government) and the civil war with the White Russians. BTW, a number of nations supported the White Russians.

    Finally, there is no doubt that Marx was not a Christian. Both his and Lenin’s statements about religion, however, were observations more than theoretical declarations. But there is a comment made by Martin Luther King Jr which is relevant here. King called communism evil–here he was referring to the Soviet Union form. But that he had to agree with William Temple, the late Archbishop of Canterbury who noted that communism bound together certain Christian views with antiChristian views. The Archbishop called this a ‘Christian heresy.’

    The point being here is that Marxism has legitimate contributions to make despite its faults. And what we need to be careful of is merging the Western or American views with Christianity in a way that makes them indistinguishable. Certainly some Western and American views have at least a somewhat Christian base but other Western and Christian views are not. If we can’t make that distinction, we will end praising ourselves when we claim that Western and American views are Christian. We cannot afford to look at either Marxism or the West in all-or-nothing terms.

  6. “The point being here is that Marxism has legitimate contributions to make”

    I can’t think of any. Other than perhaps serving as a warning to future generations on what NOT to do.

  7. Eric,
    We disagree on Marx. Then again, I’ve read some of what Marx and his followers have said. If you haven’t given Marx a fair reading, then that could serve as a reason why you can’t think of him leaving any legitimate contributions.

    Again, his criticisms of Capitalism are valid. His solutions are wanting.

  8. Eric,
    The problem here is that you are so willing to externalize evil. Marx had both good and bad things to say. And refusing to recognize the good puts one in the role of the pharisee in the parable of the two men praying.

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