More than 'irritable mental gestures': Russell Kirk's challenge to liberalism, 1950-1960.

Author:Birzer, Bradley J.
Position:Company overview

Liberalism "is now fading out of the world," Russell Kirk proclaimed in 1955 in the liberal Catholic periodical Commonweal. "And I believe that the ephemeral character of the liberal movement is in consequence of the fact that liberalism's mythical roots always were feeble, and now are nearly dead." For Kirk, and many Christian Humanists of the twentieth century, liberalism had been an evanescent philosophy. It had taken for granted the virtues from the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions without recognizing their historical or cultural prerequisites, and it had envisioned society as beginning in a social contract. Neither practice, thought Kirk, could give a liberalism any real staying power. Therefore, he argued, "Liberalism is expiring under our very eyes for lack of the higher imagination." (1) For Kirk, it would be hard to find something more damning to write. Without imagination, Kirk noted in his many writings, the person and civilization became barren and meaningless, a wasteland of the inhumane and the corrupt. "The modern 'liberal' world, as I have come to understand it," Kirk wrote in The New York Times in 1956, "is making its way straight toward what C. S. Lewis calls 'the abolition of man'--toward a society devoid of reverence, variety and the higher imagination, in which 'everyone belongs to everyone else,' in which there is collectivism without community, equality without love." Most liberals, Kirk continued, want each man, woman, and child to "submit to a regime of life in death, a colorless mediocrity and monotony in society, an emptiness of heart, a poverty of imagination." (2)

Scholars usually credit Kirk with beginning--or, at the very least, playing a significant role in creating--the post-World War II conservative movement. Rarely, however, do scholars acknowledge that, for him to discover, identify, and explain the conservative tradition in the Anglo-American world, he had to labor vigorously to dismantle liberalism as a historical, cultural, theological, practical, philosophical, and political theory. Indeed, from 1950 to 1960, Kirk challenged what he perceived to be a liberal hegemony in government, education, and the media. Lionel Trilling had argued as much when he wrote in 1950, "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition" in the United States. Some conservative opposition exists, Trilling continued, but its proponents are inarticulate and can "express themselves" only through "irritable mental gestures." (3) Kirk offered more than such gestures when he wrote about what he perceived to be the follies of liberalism in a wide range of academic and popular publications including Commonweal, America, The Review of Politics, the New York Times, Confluence, Measure, and the South Atlantic Quarterly. He wrestled with liberalism; however, his manner remained dogmatic rather than systematic. Additionally, Kirk's rhetoric changed dramatically from article to article. Sometimes he would lambast liberalism in general. "[E]ven when bullying became actual maltreatment, and thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent were thrown into 'relocation centers,' without any charges against them," Kirk brutally asked in 1953, "how many liberals protested?" When the liberals speak of liberties, he continued, they really mean "friendliness toward the rights of collectivists" and "absolute freedom for 'liberals' of their own kind." (4) In a similar piece published two years later, Kirk argued--along with George Santayana--that "the only tie which he [the liberal] would loosen is the marriage bond." (5) Yet, on other occasions, Kirk might praise a "Christian" and "principled" liberal or liberalism. Perhaps for Kirk the model liberal was Reinhold Niebuhr, the leader of the neo-orthodoxy movement. "Although Dr. Niebuhr's articles for popular periodicals continue politically 'liberal,' his books grow increasingly conservative," Kirk wrote in his 1956 book Beyond the Dreams of Avarice. Perhaps, Kirk mused, "many people retain the political tags of their earlier days," while "their real principles may be something else." (6) As explored in great detail toward the end of this present essay, Kirk also found much to admire in the liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Wilhelm Ropke.

Kirk offered a fascinating critique of liberalism, sometimes sweeping in its denunciations but on other occasions as balanced as those put forth by two of his most important Christian Humanist contemporaries and influences, T. S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson. (7) This article attempts to find a coherent argument in Kirk's understanding of liberalism by focusing on his critiques of three foundational liberals--perhaps the beginnings of a hagiog-raphy (or demonology, depending upon one's point of view) of liberalism--John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, and Friedrich Hayek. In the end, though, Kirk chose Wilhelm Ropke, a Swiss economist, as the model liberal. As Kirk is one of the most important founders of modern intellectual conservatism, his first decade of vigorous writing is significant. Indeed, the decade of the 1950s might have represented consensus and conformity, but Kirk's critique of liberalism sparked dissent and profoundly shaped the thought of the political New Right as it emerged from the actions and speeches of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in the 1960s and came to fruition in the "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s.

Ultimately, Kirk argued, if the adherents of liberalism fought for "justice," "order," "liberty," and a transcendent morality, they would find purpose and again give meaning to liberalism. If they failed in this endeavor, they might well "bring to society only a dreary monotony" or, even worse, "a society which would deny men the right to struggle against evil for the sake of good, or which simply ceased to distinguish between good and evil, [and] would constitute that domination of the Anti-Christ." (8) For Kirk, then, liberalism was good only if it embraced a proper understanding of the human person as complex, mysterious, and dignified. Any scholar or writer--liberal or otherwise--must recognize each person as marred by sin, but also as uniquely endowed with certain gifts and abilities and born in a certain time and place. (9) This is what Kirk called the principle of "proliferating variety." (10) Each person, Kirk argued, is a new and singular finite reflection of the Infinite. Here Kirk anticipated many of the writings of Vatican II. (11)

Kirk: Conservatism Defined and Personified

Kirk was an eccentric figure to be sure. He was an historian, a literary biographer, a political biographer, a best-selling novelist, a social critic and essayist, a defender of academic freedom, an economist, an advisor to presidents and presidential candidates, an Augustinian, a Stoic, a Christian Humanist, a convinced believer in ghosts, a nationally known debater and lecturer, a traditionalist, an environmental conservationist, a Justice of the Peace, and, perhaps above all, in his own personal life, truly charitable. He was labeled, among other things, "the American Cicero," the "Sage of Mecosta" (Mecosta is Kirk's ancestral town in central Michigan), and the "Wizard of Mecosta." (12)

Most importantly, though, for the purposes of this article, historians and other scholars typically give Kirk credit for being a key founder of the modern conservative intellectual, cultural, and political movements. (13) In doing so, they focus on Kirk's hagiographic defense of conservative thinkers since the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke and on what he called his "prolonged essay in definition" of conservatism in his 1953 magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. (14) Kirk argued that six tenets held conservatism together: (1) "Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead"; (2) "affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life"; (3) "conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes"; (4) "persuasion that property and freedom are inexorably connected"; (5) "faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters and calculators'"; and (6) "recognition that change and reform are not identical." (15) Kirk offered almost nothing in The Conservative Mind about defense policy, economic policy, or educational policy. Instead, he created a list of conservative venerables--those who had somehow tapped into aspects of timeless truths, as he reckoned it--from Edmund Burke through George Santayana. In his definition of conservatism, the poetic, literary, and theological superseded the political. As Kirk, echoing Irving Babbitt, wrote near the beginning of The Conservative Mind, "political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems." (16)

The Conservative Mind, whether it created the modern conservative intellectual movement or not, disrupted the bland cultural and political conformity of the 1950s. Well over fifty serious American and British periodicals reviewed it. Time Magazine even gave the book its entire book review section in its July 4th issue of 1953. (17) Three years later, Time credited Kirk with being one of America's fifteen most important intellectual leaders, alongside such public luminaries as George Kennan, Paul Tillich, Walter Lippmann, and Robert Oppenheimer. (18) A year earlier, the New York Times expressed enthusiasm for Kirk when the young "man of letters" from Michigan announced the creation of a conservative journal, soon to be known as Modern Age. "We wish him well," the Times wrote, "not because we are so wildly conservative but because we think Mr. Kirk is a thoughtful man with scruples. ... We plan to hang around a while and listen." (19)

John Locke

The major Christian humanists of the twentieth century attempted to locate the beginnings of modern liberalism. Ancient Western liberalism, of course, had been synonymous with...

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