Revisiting the Foundations of Conservatism: The Writings of Russell Kirk

Revisiting the Foundations of Conservatism: The Writings of Russell Kirk
Political philosopher Russell A. Kirk at his typewriter in the 1950s. (Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Gary L. Gregg

At no time in American history have there been more voices overtly identifying as “conservative” in politics and the media. From newspapers and journals to websites, blogs, a cable news network, and talk radio, voices claiming the mantle of conservatism are everywhere.

Virtually no Republican politician would claim to be anything else, and right-leaning think tanks abound. We are, by almost all outward measures, at the high point of conservative political success.

And yet, what it means to be a “conservative” may be less clear than at any time since the Great Depression. Is it “conservative” to cut taxes, or is the “conservative” policy to reduce the debt we are saddling future generations with? Is the “conservative” policy to promote free and open trade, or is it to raise tariffs to protect domestic industries? Is it conservative to “conserve” the environment, or is it always “conservative” to limit the scope of government regulations? Is it the “conservative’s” primary responsibility to achieve policy victories through any means necessary, or to preserve the institutional arrangements of the constitutional order, even if it means losing some policy battles along the way?

Add to that the fact that despite having so many political outlets, most conservatives feel their country is pulling apart and their culture is disintegrating. How can all these facts be true—that conservatism is at its height, but there is less agreement on what conservatism is, and conservatives have the feeling they are losing the great battles for the future?

In this confusing time, conservatives would do well to revisit the foundations of their modern movement in the great intellectual battles of the mid-20th century. Long before Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, and before Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater bestrode our politics, several great public thinkers were preparing the culture with the books and journals from which would spring a revolution.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important of those writers and offers a chance to consider his lessons for America today.

Russell Kirk

Russell Amos Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan, on Oct. 19, 1918. He served in World War II, and received degrees from Michigan State, Duke University, and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His dissertation at St. Andrews was published in 1953 as "The Conservative Mind." Before William F. Buckley founded National Review and long before the Heritage Foundation was dreamed of, Kirk’s masterwork reclaimed a long tradition of thought that he called “conservative.”

Before Kirk’s big book hit America’s political culture, there were those who were resisting the New Deal, who were concerned about cultural trends, and who were anti-communist, but there was no unifying movement and little self-understanding. With "The Conservative Mind," Kirk was able to demonstrate a long pedigree of great thinkers—from Edmund Burke and John Adams to Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot—who were “conservative” thinkers. The book shook America’s intellectual culture and provided a positive rallying point for a disparate group of thinkers and political activists.

Kirk instantly became an intellectual celebrity. He joined Buckley’s National Review and wrote for it from its inception until 1980. He would go on to found two journals of his own—Modern Age and The University Bookman—both of which are still being published. He would write some 3,000 newspaper columns, 30 non-fiction books, several novels, and dozens of the most meaningful ghost stories you will find anywhere. Among his awards and recognition can be counted the Presidential Citizenship Medal awarded by Reagan. Today, a bust of Kirk sits prominently in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, perhaps the very heart of the conservative policy world.
Despite his importance, Kirk has largely been lost to most of those who call themselves “conservative” in the 21st century. During this centenary of his birth, they would do well to revisit his work and remember his considerable learning and penetrating analysis of the ills of modern society. One can’t even approximate his legacy here, but let me just focus on three lessons the modern reader could learn from spending some time with Kirk in 2018.


First, we can learn Kirk’s lesson that “politics is the art of the possible.” The conservative mind is not a utopian mind. Conservatives deal with situations and people as they are found, not as they ideally would have them. Often, the conservative must settle for the deal that is possible rather than risking everything on an unlikely long shot that might end up doing more damage than good, or pressing politics and politicians for more than politics can offer.

Second, all political sides would do well to remember that politics isn't the highest thing. It may be justifiably said that government intrusion into nearly all spheres of life has called the reluctant conservative to do battle in the political arena. But he or she should come to it as a reluctant warrior called out of necessity to fight, not as the aggrieved and aggressive social warrior seeking the vanquishing of all enemies and the glory of party triumph. To many, politics has become a substitute religion and our disagreements holy battles. Kirk offers the corrective to the extremes.

Third, conservatives would do well to remember that, at their best, they are “conserving” what is good, true, and beautiful. In doing so, they are playing their part in an eternal chain of generations. When we get caught up in the momentary political battle, we often forget that being conservative means conserving what has been our inheritance and by so doing passing it on to the next generation. No one did a better job of reminding us of this essential role than did Kirk. We are a community, he would say—a community of the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Obsession with any given moment or particular policy battles may not serve well this wider community we are called to conserve. This makes prudence the great conservative virtue in politics—taking the longest view possible and not settling for the expediency of the moment.

Kirk helped found the conservative movement and gave it its very name and pedigree. At the height of the term’s popularity, we all would do well to revisit the wisdom found in his work and might start with the outstanding essays published in "The Essential Russell Kirk."
Gary L. Gregg is author or editor of 10 books related to U.S. history and two young adult novels set in Russell Kirk’s beloved Scotland.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We have an Electoral College.”