Russell Kirk: The Conservative Mind

Edmund Burke

Growing up in a progressive environment, I developed the requisite contempt for conservatism that accompanies the standard leftist political worldview. If you’re a progressive, you will regard conservative ideology as the province of regressive dullards who desperately cling to religious nostrums, rigid notions of the Constitution, and nationalistic sloganeering. This contempt for conservatism has been the hallmark of progressive and liberal reformers since the dawn of the modern democratic age. John Stuart Mill was calling conservatives “the stupid party” long before Buzzfeed and Salon were able to build clickbait empires off of articles which expound upon that single premise. After two centuries of the American experiment which has given us Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Donald J. Trump as the faces of political conservatism, one would not be unreasonable to wonder for what does conservatism stand exactly? Is there anything beyond the God, guns and country caricature that’s promulgated by the progressives? What does the conservative aim to conserve? Russell Kirk’s excellent book from 1953, The Conservative Mind, sets out to answer these questions and much more.

The Conservative Mind

Kirk’s analysis is not an examination of political parties, but an exploration of the foundations of modern conservative thought beginning with the statesman he holds in highest esteem, Edmund Burke. Kirk guides the reader through two centuries of British and American conservatives who lived up to the Burkean standard in different ways. As the title suggests, Kirk lays out a collection of conceptual pillars which comprise the foundation of what he considers the conservative mind. While not explicitly an examination of metaphysics, Kirk is attempting to elucidate the lens through which the conservative sees the world. Where the progressive sees the world through a filter of largely unexamined assumptions which he takes as a given, the conservative makes at least a cursory attempt to ground his worldview in theology or philosophy deeply informed by classical theology. Rather than being a set of rules or laws, he’s providing a detailed sketch of the framework of thought the conservative applies to the challenges of his time. As Disraeli famously said, every conservative is a “creature of his age”, so the conservative must consider the circumstances of his age and the needs of his nation. Given that each age has unique challenges and the conservative is always swimming against an orthodoxy of progress which automatically disfavors historical knowledge and precedent, the conservative is perennially saddled with the stigma of being regarded as both the regressive, inflexible dolt and the fearful, hidebound bigot.

Stephen Colbert famously ridiculed George W. Bush, and all conservatives by extension, when he introduced the word “truthiness.” The entire joke was an attack on conservatives’ alleged prioritization of feelings and instinct over factual analysis. You don’t look things up in a book he deadpanned, you “look them up in your gut.” The joke has extended into the Trump era as Kellyanne Conway’s famous insistence on “alternative facts” has served as fodder for more than a few late night 2 minutes of hate. Even if George W. Bush was a terrible conservative (and he was), the joke landed its punch because there was a grain of truth to it in terms of how the conservative views the world and governance. The true conservative doesn’t see the citizenry as dehumanized units of input to be plugged into an economist’s model or a social scientist’s data sample. The conservative is not trying to radically reorganize society or confer special rights to groups. The conservative is not trying to appeal to a scientific worldview when it comes to the job of governance or the conservation of culture. The conservative is trying to draw time honoured wisdom culled from centuries of cultural and historical knowledge combined with appeals to divine counsel, affirmations of organic social bonds and a recognition of inherent differences between nationalities and ethnicities.

The true conservative knows that man’s nature is fixed and flawed. Subsequently, he also knows that a stable social order requires permanent institutions and a healthy reverence for virtuous authority. He affirms the dual role of Church and State, and that each are natural expressions of divine Providence. He is impervious to the fickle abstractions of liberal reform and knows that true progress is a product of cultural prescription and Providential order. He knows that equality of liberty must accompany equality of virtue, but does not subscribe to the idea of full political equality as it is a recipe for economic levelling. He rejects the liberal fascination with endless innovation for its own sake, its atomistic pursuit of individualism, and its rejection of authority. He vigorously opposes the liberal reformer who seeks to acquire state power in order to confer abstract “rights” or otherwise order society through some mathematical calculation of utility. He is suspicious of the liberal belief in unbounded human progress and academic prescriptions based on positivism. He repudiates the idea that a stable social order can be attained through Reason alone, and that true Reason is ultimately subordinate to moral virtue and the slow accretion of intergenerational wisdom. The conservative is, in fact, the conservator of civilization by ensuring that the transmission of cultural values remains decentralized, localized, and oriented around family and faith. Subsequently, the conservative is a bulwark against the encroachment of overweening politicians and academic busybodies because he knows that the role of government in the democratic era is limited, and must ultimately serve the greater cause of preserving the constitutional covenant between God and the People. To this day, conservatives continue to be assailed by progressives as hidebound ideologues who live in a echo chamber despite being reviled 24/7 by a progressive media monopoly. Even if his worldview is confined to post-Enlightenment/Burkean thought, a conservative is swimming against an overwhelmingly monolithic progressive cultural consensus.

Kirk masterfully guides the reader through two centuries of conservative thought and leadership to document the successes of conservatism given the seemingly inexorable tide of liberal expansionism. The net result is a unique work of political philosophy that is not just a collection of analytical arguments. Rather, it is a painterly portrait of the achievements and contributions of men whose wisdom and insight remains largely underappreciated by a world drunk on the elixir of progressivism. With this book, Kirk attempts to catalog the various ways conservatives have sought to conserve virtuous authority over centralized reform and tradition over liberalism.

The Failure of Conservatism

Paradoxically, this is also a chronicle of the abject failure of conservatism in the liberal democratic age. Despite all of the loving care Kirk expended in carefully curating these stones of eternal wisdom to erect a monument to modern conservatism, the sad truth is that its foundation has been eroded bit by bit in the post-Enlightenment age. The entire liberal project was solely concerned with supplanting the theological and religious underpinnings of conservatism with rationalism and empiricism. Propelled by an unquestioned belief in the institutions of democracy to improve human affairs and ignite civic engagement, the liberal elite have systematically dismantled and undermined every last vestige of traditionalism. Once those foundational precepts were removed, conservatives had no other recourse but to compete in a secular political arena arguing for positions that were borne from a conservative instinct but divorced from their larger context. Subsequently, conservatives have been playing a game that was designed to be stacked against them. Progressives could always claim the mantle of being the clear headed, forward thinking, compassionate revolutionaries because in the liberal worldview, there are only political, scientistic and institutional solutions. Since progressives have monopolized the engines of cultural consensus, the very notion of government not being the central institution driving social change will be viewed as regressive and backwards from the outset. Even worse, the very notions of fixed moral principles, objective truth and conserved tradition would themselves be targeted for elimination in the final quest for global domination of the liberal imperium.

Ultimately, Kirk’s presentation is an attempt to canonize a conservatism that’s borne of the conservative instinct while simultaneously being a product of the liberal worldview to which it’s presumably opposed. Through the course of the book, Kirk continuously grasps for the strands of conservative vitality while, as a reader, you’re left with a sinking feeling that you’re reading a chronicle of defeat. No matter how incisive, how profound or how deep these thinkers were, Burkean conservativism ends up being an empty husk whose seeds of vigor have been rapaciously consumed by neocons, Rockefeller Republicans, Moral Majoritarians and other globalist shills. The glowing endorsement of William F. Buckley Jr. prominently emblazoned on the cover is doubtless meant to confer deep legitimacy to this tome, but I doubt that anyone sees the revivification of the conservative instinct taking flight on the pages of National Review. Let alone from the insipid blathering of Margaret Hoover.

What you see in each chapter is two recurring patterns that persist to this day. On the one hand, you have a cycle of political conservatives being eventually defeated and going through an ideological retrenchment process while attempting to consolidate and assimilate ground ceded to progressives. In the process, the meaning of the word “conservative” gets diluted ever further until it is reduced to a collection of platitudes. Consequently, the gulf between the conservative population and the conservative political establishment continued to widen as the culture shifts further away from any notion of conservatism. The longstanding grievance amongst the rank and file conservatives that the establishment that represents them is weak and compromised steadily accumulates more weight. Meanwhile, the progressives move the political goalposts and conservatives are forced back to playing defense while yesterday’s progressive reform is either forgotten or assailed for its inadequacy. Conservative cultural critics, artists, academics and media figures, whether they’re establishment shills or readers of Modern Age, struggle on the margins to wrest the foot of cultural consensus off the gas pedal of progress from a body politic that’s drunk on the delusion of an eschatological inevitability. That the world will be unified and perfected under progressive, scientific, and increasingly multicultural governance. Herein lies the evil genius of the liberal mindset. It supplanted the traditionally religious outlook with a secular religious outlook. Against this ideological battering ram, both political and social conservatism was and is utterly ineffectual and flat footed.

Nothing captures the absurdity of the plight of modern conservatism better than the presidency of Donald Trump. A former Democrat billionaire who lived a very public and decadent lifestyle prior to entering the political arena becomes the second coming of Hitler upon his ascendancy to the Oval Office simply by taking on the issues that should have been conservative bread and butter from the start. In Trump, we have a man whose public positions on issues were a mishmash of textbook classical liberalism, moderate conservatism and economic neoliberalism prior to his entry into the political arena yet this prompted an unprecedented and neverending howl of national outrage from the progressive establishment. Even when he takes on causes previously championed by progressives, whether rolling back the War on Terror or criminal justice reform, his mere opposition to the global elite consensus is reason alone to brand him a tyrant even if there’s no evidence to support such an assertion.

Kirk’s Oversight

All of which brings us to what is arguably the single biggest oversight in Kirk’s otherwise stellar research into the life of Burke and his intellectual progeny. Was Burke a Freemason? Given that he’s upholding Burke as a conservative gold standard, and the endorsements of known members of Skull and Bones like William F. Buckley Jr. and PNAC/#NeverTrump establishmentarians like David Frum are featured prominently on the book itself, one must ask if this is being proffered as the outer boundary of Approved Thought. Contrary to claims on prominent Masonic websites, Burke’s membership in the Brotherhood has not been confirmed. His affinity for a known Mason, John Wilkes, makes this an especially important unexplored vein of thought.

Since Burke had risen to prominence by opposing the French Revolution, his support for what amounts to the Girondin version of the Revolution which was ultimately exported to the US seems very significant. Furthermore, his opposition to the philosophy promulgated by Freemasonry, deism, and its younger and dumber progeny, atheism, leaves one bewildered that Burke or Kirk felt that “prescriptive” liberty stood any chance against “abstract” liberty in the long run. Kirk points out that both Burke and John Adams apprehended the rot at the core of liberalism early on.

Thus, at the inception of modern liberalism, Burke and Adams saw the canker of liberal decay in the flower of liberal vigor. The postulates of the new liberalism, in France, England, and America, depended on old verities which the liberals themselves already were repudiating: upon the Christian assumption that men are equal in the sight of God, and upon the idea of an enduring moral order divinely sanctioned. The Deists had discarded most of Christian teaching, and Burke and Adams knew that the Deists’ intellectual heirs would reject religious dogma, root and branch. The new liberalism would tolerate no authority.(pg. 103)

All you need to add is the preposition “except its own” to that last sentence, and this insight is flawless. Burke was completely correct, but being right didn’t matter. His temperate vision of conservatism was destined for a collision course with the Freemasonic vision of liberalism espoused by America’s founders. His belief in the primacy of Christianity in public and private affairs was never going to be compatible with an ideology committed to the dismantling of throne and altar. The conservation of faith and heritage would be subsumed by rationalism and empiricism. Within a liberal paradigm which favored scientific materialism and nominalistic reign of quantity, conservatism was destined to be little more than a brake pedal at best and a punchline at worst.

Surely, he was aware that the Catholic papacy had already issued a ban on Freemasonry in 1738. Surely, he was aware of King George IV association with the United Grand Lodge. Surely, he was aware of Masonic sympathies and associations among the various American founders. Surely, he was aware that his narrow construction of the concept of equality was doomed to be crushed under the bootheel of the forward march of an unending appetite for the social and economic leveling he so vigorously opposed. Yet, Burke’s thought legacy defined the modern conception of conservatism in the post-Enlightenment era. But if Burke’s underlying thought is running on the same presuppositional operating system as the liberals, does anyone wonder why conservatism has failed? Traditionalism and liberal secularism are mutually exclusive positions. Yet, this liberal “conservatism” is exactly the virtue Kirk applauds. Why would Burke endorse the liberal project unless he was himself, and Kirk by extension, anointed to direct the other half of the Masonic dialectic?

Liberty, Burke knew, had risen through an elaborate and delicate process, and its perpetuation depended upon retaining those habits of thought and action which guided the savage in his slow and weary ascent to the state of civil social man. All his life, Burke’s chief concern had been for justice and liberty, which must stand or fall together—liberty under law, a definite liberty, the limits of which were determined by prescription. He had defended the liberties of Englishmen against their king, and the liberties of Americans against king and parliament, and the liberties of Hindus against Europeans. He had defended those liberties not because they were innovations, discovered in the Age of Reason, but because they were ancient prerogatives, guaranteed by immemorial usage. Burke was liberal because he was conservative. (pp. 20-21)

Whither Conservatism?

While Kirk certainly does a good job making his case for the conservative mind in the democratic era, it’s not unreasonable to ask what has conservatism actually conserved. What is it trying to conserve in a Western society where the legacy of secular democracy (i.e. multiculturalism, progressivism, Islamism and communism) are the default settings for a significant majority of the population? How can you claim a desire to conserve a strict construction of a collection of revolutionary ideals when the very utterance of an opinion that’s construed as conservative runs you the risk of being drummed out of society and being labeled a Nazi by the #WOKE intelligentsia? Where can you delineate the boundaries of conservatism when the progressive establishment controls the Overton Window of debate and self-identified classical liberals like Jordan Peterson and Alex Jones are routinely branded as alt-right extremists? How can you marshal a mass revival of conservatism when the progressive establishment has weaponized culture against you?

Since there is a concerted effort on the part of the establishment elites to create a technocratic superstate, conservatives have a difficult choice. In a world dominated by a liberal consensus that confines every sphere of life into the realm of politics, conservatives have two grassroots dissident right movements from which to choose: religious nationalism or ethno nationalism.

Though the alt-right consumes all the media bandwidth and are routinely propped up as an imminent threat, it’s unclear exactly how big the movement is from the social media footprint alone. Progressives will never admit it, but they need the spectre of the alt-right in order to justify their draconian agenda. They need the threat of a rising alt-right boogeyman in order to keep the flame of Trump hatred white hot. For the generations of progressives who know nothing but the technocratic administrative state, the caricature of “fascism” they’ve been spoon fed is as close to an absolute moral negative as they’re ever going to get. All moral virtue can be summed up by simply tweeting #RESIST.

While the racial arguments remain controversial and run counter to the progressive consensus, the argument for ethnic and cultural preservation strikes me as quintessentially Burkean. Perhaps it’s even Burkean conservativism taken to its fullest conclusion. Since both the Burkean and the alt-right worldview posit a very generic and unspecific metaphysic at the core which assumes the inherent dignity of people groups, the existence of higher morals, the natural existence of cultural differences, and a hierarchy of order, there is nothing incompatible between these coalitions except the stigma of advocating for racial majority or ethnostate. If prejudice and prescription emerge from a conserved tradition and hereditary knowledge, then what the alt-right propose is fully consistent with those foundational principles. Kirk even concedes as much in the final chapter.

The new laissez-faire will endeavor to create conditions “within which autonomous groups may prosper.” It will recognize as the basic social unit the group: the family, the local community, the trade union, the church, the college, the profession. It will seek not unity, not centralization, not power over masses of people, but rather diversity of culture, plurality of association, and the division of responsibilities. (pp. 489-90)

Not that anyone in the progressive establishment is paying attention, but there is more to the dissident right than the alt-right. Though some among the dissident right would probably not admit their conservative sympathies, this coalition also includes AnCap Rothbardians, paleoconservatives, civic nationalists, minarchist Libertarians, anti-globalist truthers, and increasingly, a faction of post-liberal reactionaries. While most in this latter category are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditionalists, the unifying principle behind these voices is the conviction that liberalism has failed and a return to religious belief must be the central principle animating the revival of the West.

As abhorrent as it may seem to those who still subscribe to a cosmopolitan liberal mindset, I’m increasingly inclined to believe that all these liberty minded people must also confront this stark choice. Sure, there’s a chance that QAnon isn’t a LARP or a psyop, but the likelihood that the cabal behind Q will bring the progressive establishment to its knees is slim. For those who remain committed to the liberal project, The Conservative Mind poses one big question for conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals and anarcho-capitalists alike. What are you trying to conserve given the state of the culture and the demographic transformation that’s already well underway? And if the answer is some variation on “traditional American values” or “liberty”, how do you plan on revitalizing these ideals in the face of a decades long indoctrination campaign which has demonized everything you hold dear?

Now that the Democratic Party are the party of immigrants, overeducated urbanite baristas, public sector workers, academics, tech monopolists, Wall Streeters, neocons, deep state denizens, and Hollywood elites, the Republican Party have inherited the working class that were once Democratic loyalists. And the libertarian elites of the establishment haven’t necessarily warmed up to this reality.

As brilliant as it is, The Conservative Mind already feels like the caricature of conservatism that has been emblazoned into the progressive consciousness. You can already imagine the snarky outtakes in the Borowitz Report or Colbert doing an extended riff off of any given figure Kirk lionizes. Progressives have been conditioned to view the entire conservative worldview with disdain and condemnation from the start. No matter where they align themselves on the rightward end of establishment thought, conservatives end up becoming the kickstand propping up the progressive establishment.

Ironically, Kirk also seemed to outline the walls of the prison that’s been so artfully constructed around us.

This utilitarian utopia, prophesied by Henry and Brooks Adams as the triumph of the cheapest, starves the realm of the spirit and the realm of art as no other domination can. The culmination of liberalism, the fulfillment of the aspirations of Bentham and Mill, and of the French and American spokesmen, it is also the completion of capitalism. It is communism. Rockefeller and Marx were merely two agents of the same social force – an appetite cruelly inimical to human individuation, by which man has struggled up to reason and art. (445)

This is a supremely astute observation. Every aspect of the liberal project, including conservatism itself, can be appropriated to further the final goals of the global progressive agenda. Even a show like Downton Abbey which romanticizes the twilight of the British aristocracy becomes a subtle tool for propagandizing the advent of the technocratic era.

Perhaps Kirk is correct when he suggests that tomorrow’s conservative victories will be built on the ashes of today’s failures. With libertarianism serving as little more than an arm of the progressive establishment to be selectively appropriated as the mandates of political expediency dictate, the true conservative is the only bulwark against the ever encroaching global technocratic despotism. A despotism whose magnitude and ruthlessness Kirk certainly apprehended, but whose remedies are questionable at best.

Facing a progressive establishment whose braindead foot soldiers routinely cheer the removal of dissident voices from the digital public square, the odds seem stacked against the conservative as never before. But has it ever been any different in this age of democratic supremacy? The progressives promise emancipation, but everyone outside the bubble of the true believers knows they intend pure enslavement. As the paucity of substance, principle or virtue in the liberal worldview becomes increasingly apparent, the craving for meaning, purpose, legacy and moral clarity in the traditional mindset will only grow. The Conservative Mind may not have been the barricade against the rising tide of liberalism Kirk intended, but red pills come in many different degrees of strength these days. If nothing else, Kirk allows us to take in the fullness of conservatism’s failure in the democratic age. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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