While very few modern conservatives—especially those who sell conservatism as a consumer product—even remember the movement’s founder, Russell Kirk, those who do remember him often do so by envisioning him as an antiquated relic, having passed from this world long after he had contributed much to it. At best, Kirk might well represent a pre-1960s radicalized Western world, and, at worst, he was probably stuck in some early-romantic, nineteenth-century longing for an aristocratic world.
In fact, those who fail to remember him and those who think he is now irrelevant are equally foolish. Kirk’s views on the world are as relevant now—if not more so—than they ever have been.
Even on his angriest days, Kirk was never what one would call a hawk, at least not in foreign policy. Holding traditional Washingtonian republicanism in deepest respect, Kirk knew that the most stable societies promoted and encouraged the order of their own before interfering in the affairs of others. As the first president stated in his farewell address: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” By the end of his life, Kirk had decided that not a single war in which America had participated had been either just or necessary.
If nothing else, it’s worth remembering that the pre-Nixon Republican party was, at least since the end of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, the party of peace and the anti-war party. Kirk solidly came out of this tradition.
From the days of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 to his leaving office in 1989, Kirk believed the Californian an excellent president, a man endowed with intelligence and imagination and, especially, audacity. The presidency of Ronald Reagan and the papacy of John Paul II gave Kirk more hope for the world in the 1980s than he had experienced at any other comparable length of time in his life. For an all-too-brief moment, Kirk held hope that the world had not only stopped the terrors of progressivism, but might have actually reversed progressivism. In 1988, Kirk even willingly trusted that George H. Bush would quietly carry on the legacy of Reagan’s foreign policy. But by 1990, it became quite clear that Mr. Bush had reverted to the Nixonian neo-conservatism of his CIA days.
Kirk saw President Bush’s misuse of Reagan’s Cold War military apparatus as nothing but sheer betrayal of Reaganite, republican, and American principles. In private, Kirk joked that the American people should execute President Bush on the White House lawn. In public, Kirk railed against what he knew to be the beginning of American empire and never-ending war. Far from emulating the righteous Reagan, George H. Bush had taken authoritarian progressives Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson as his exemplars, thus not only derailing the Reagan agenda and legacy, but even more significantly, undoing the true progress of American foreign policy and in the 1980s. Far from being naïve, Kirk knew that such American desires for world domination had existed since the rise of democracy in the nineteenth century, but he also knew that countervailing forces remained and arose from time to time. As Kirk argued, one might reasonably identify this American tension by dividing it into its arrogant and anxious Puritan side and its confident, inward-looking, republican side. If the former one, it would consume the world in pure ecstasy, never imagining what the consequences of such actions might be. The Puritan was ruled by his own passions and his own righteous desires, willing to ride roughshod over not only his fellow citizens but all the citizens of the world as well. What he had once happily done to the Anglicans of the British Isles in the seventeenth century, the Puritan would now do to the peoples of the earth in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Of all of the years of his life, Kirk believed 1991 a watershed year, a year of immense sorrow. “Decisions are being made nowadays, in public policies and abroad and at home, that may be irrevocable,” he told an audience at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, on February 27, 1991. This was, it should be remembered, the day before President Bush declared Desert Storm a success. This was, Kirk told his audience, the most un-Reagan action possible, noting that “the Republican Party, which achieved its greatest vigor in this century during the presidential terms of Ronald Reagan, now seems in the sere and yellow leaf.” For the sake of the “oilcan,” Kirk lamented, echoing Edmund Burke in 1796, President Bush had committed a vain crime against humanity itself. “After carpet-bombing the Cradle of Civilization as no country ever had before,” Kirk continued at the Heritage Foundation, “Mr. Bush sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers to overrun the Iraqi bunkers—that were garrisoned by dead men, asphyxiated.” Not only had we violated the ethical rules of warfare, we had also bribed innumerable corrupt allies to support our cause against another corrupt power. At what point, Kirk wondered, could the use of evil against evil produce good. Nineteen-ninety-one, Kirk argued, would most likely prove as momentous for the twenty-first century (yes, the twenty-first) as 1914 had for the twentieth century. Nineteen-ninety-one marked the beginning of a new period of warfare, a progressive step back toward barbarianism.
Though undoubtedly a decent man of good intentions, George H. Bush nonetheless had allowed his own failure of imagination and his craving for power to corrupt himself, his nation, and his civilization. There never can be “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace” or a “New World Order” except in dystopian fiction, Kirk concluded.
Only a few months later, Kirk further complained that not only had a new American empire arisen on the ashes of Iraq, but it had also adopted an ideology to justify it: that of “democratic capitalism.” Such a new empire would be built not by the bureaucrats alone, but by corporations enriching themselves in conforming the world to the mass standardization of the American model. Just as the Russian communists were failing, Kirk noted with irony, “American planners might out-materialize the Soviet materialists.”
The result of all of this, Kirk predicted, would be a return to fundamentalism as the peoples of the world resist Americanization. “Every living thing prefers even death, as an individual, to extinction as a distinct species,” he claimed. “There exists one sure way to make a deadly enemy, and that is to propose to anyone” that they should “submit” to being remade in “my image.”
When Russell Kirk passed from this earth in April of 1994, he feared that all the great victories of the 1980s had been not only squandered, but perverted and lost. A quarter of a century later, we must finally recognize the powerful Jeremiad of Russell Kirk. Not only are we still in the Near East, but we have destabilized the entire region, and we are even war with our own creation, our very own Frankenstein.
Russell Kirk is not outdated. He’s more relevant today than he has ever been.
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