the imaginative conservative logo


In neither his private correspondence nor his books or articles did Dr. Kirk write much regarding the so-called Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s. As some of his critics have gleefully noted, Russell Kirk seems to have simply let “McCarthyism” slide by, thus neither attempting to stop nor even to attenuate it. As one of the most prominent conservative voices of his day, the argument runs, Kirk should have spoken against openly against HUAC, blacks list, and the like.

These critics are simply wrong.

In fact, in a the following little known and never reprinted essay, “Conformity and Legislative Committees,” Kirk did address the issue. . . after a fashion, a very Kirkian fashion.

Kirk never wanted to be silent about this issue or any other, and he certainly never desired others to be silence.

In the article (excerpts below), Kirk, not surprisingly, placed the issue of “McCarthyism” in a larger context than anyone else at the time.  The problems, such that it was, was an outgrowth of the arrogance of democracy and the belief that politics should be ascendent in all things. While citing de Tocqueville on the limits of democracy and its tendency toward soft despotism and conformity, Kirk did acknowledge and address the specific problem of a legislature acting in a judicial fashion.

The most important issue of the entire matter, though, was the issue of loyalty. For an educational or political system merely to stamp a conformity on its pupils or citizens would be as inhumane as it would be ultimately counterproductive. Real loyalty can only be inculcated through example and tradition. True loyalty springs from a love that develops organically and naturally in the breast of the individual citizen.

In essence, through this article, Kirk rather brilliantly attempted to de-politicize the very loaded issue of “McCarthyism.” Perhaps, to be somewhat charitable to Kirk’s critics, those who stalwartly opposed “McCarthyism” could only imagine a political solution.  Kirk, of course, imagined a much greater solution.

To my mind, he succeeded.  Enjoy the quotes.


Russell Kirk, “Conformity and Legislative Committees,” Confluence 3 (1953): 342-353.

“Loyalty cannot be forced, any more than love. The patriotism which is the product of fear or of self–interest is truly the last refuge of the scoundrel. We may prosecute for perjury on men who swears fidelity to the state, and then breaks his oath; but positive law cannot create loyalty.” [Page 342].

“For all that, the menace of democratic despotism, the silent tyranny of the majority at any given moment, is never absent from American life;… Democratic opinion, it seems, is constant only in its passion for conformity. What the masses detest is dissent, rather than any particular system of opinions. Having grown accustomed to the flattery that the people always do right, democracies always endanger themselves by their glowering hostility toward bad criticism and that lively protest of minorities which keep any state from stagnation.” [Page 343].

“He and even when bullying became actual maltreatment, and thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent were thrown into “relocation centers,” without any charges against them, how many liberals protested? I am afraid that quite as much of the present talk about “academic freedom” means no more than freedom for the disciples of John Dewey, so a good deal of the present solicitude for civil liberties means no more than friendliness toward the rights of collectivists.” [Page 344].

“A surrogate impulse, in short, is the power that sustains the present demand for loyalty. Conservation of what? Not of “democracy” per se, for that word really was not especially popular in American politics before 1932, and the majority of Americans at the last national election were not Democrats. What the Americans are anxious to safeguard is a complex of rights and laws far less abstract than idealized democracy. They demand loyalty, first of all, to the federal Constitution and the state constitutions; then they seek to exact fidelity to certain prescriptive institutions and habits which they apprehend with reasonable clarity: private property, liberty under law, freedom of worship, a just distribution of political power, and a respect for individual personality. I do not mean that many Americans can state this concept of loyalty—of course they cannot—no people are generally glib at expounding their own first principles. But they know well enough, for all that, what they dread in collectivistic designs for social alteration, and to what ethical and social standards they would have us repair in our present discontents. The great majority of Americans have very little understanding of, or sympathy with, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of United Nations; it is not loyalty toward abstractions which they seek; they are zealous, brother, for loyalty toward the prescriptive values of American society.” [Pages 346–347].

“The zealots for absolute freedom of opinion and action (by which they commonly need absolute freedom for “liberals” of their own kind) might do well to remind themselves that there is something even more precious than absolute liberty, and that is absolute survival.” [Page 349].

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. Russell once told me that he never signed on to any cause: "There are no lost causes, because there are no gained causes," was a saying he used often. He admired McCarthy greatly–Eugene McCarthy, that is, who was a poet in politics and although a Democrat, never an ideologue. I do think that Russell would have liked Stan Evans's book on Joe McCarthy, "Blacklisted by History," because it puts the whole messy times in perspective. Remember, Joe McCarthy was not the problem. Communists were the problem, but it was hard to bring it up in polite ways. Russell preferred to remind us in every way that he could that politics was not where we should be putting our moral efforts.

Leave a Reply