The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk
By Gerald J. Russello
Reviewed by Mark Wegierski
Russell Kirk (1918-1994) is one of the most prominent American conservative thinkers in the post-World War II era. It should be remembered that just after the war, the entire “right-wing option” stood as discredited in the eyes of most people in the Western democracies, although very many traditionalists, conservatives, and nationalists in Europe had fiercely opposed Nazi Germany. What was called Eastern Europe (including Poland, which had been the first to fight Hitler) was handed over to Stalin and his henchmen. All those societies, which would have remained traditional by democratic choice, were consigned to be devoured by Stalin’s terror-apparatus.
In the United States, immediately after the war, Theodore Adorno produced his studies of the authoritarian personality, which essentially considered conservatism as a mental aberration required to be removed from society by public education and if it were to be discovered in an individual, by semi-coercive “therapy.”
That the American conservatives of the 1950s were able to achieve what they did may in itself be quite amazing. Leading the revolt against the supremely confident liberal intellectuals of the day, was Russell Kirk’s book, The Conservative Mind, published in 1953. The title itself must have caused tittering among the cognoscenti.
Gerald J. Russello’s book is a very interesting look at the thought and life of Russell Kirk. The book explicates to a new audience the main lineaments of the thought of Russell Kirk, and also explores its putative affinities as well as divergences with so-called postmodern thought.
Russell Kirk has often been characterized as a highly unsystematic thinker. In this book, Russello attempts a grand summation of Russell Kirk’s philosophy. Kirk was not a “systematizer” precisely because his whole philosophy was highly skeptical of “abstract reasoning” and “system-building.”
The main focus of Kirk, according to Russello, is on the imagination as an interpretive key to understanding human society and history. Kirk has argued that reason alone is not what drives society and human behavior, but rather inspiration by better or worse forms of imagination. The worse forms are what Kirk called “the idyllic” (which he saw especially as embodied in the highly impractical thinking of Rousseau, which can lead to destructive consequences), and “the diabolical” – where human beings give themselves over to their darker impulses. The better forms of imagination are what Kirk called “the moral” and “the historical” imagination.
Russell Kirk’s endeavor to revive conservative thought in a comparatively inhospitable period was itself, argues Russello, a re-creation—an exercise of imagination. Russell Kirk was, consciously, both a participant and observer of conservatism. His role and place in the conservative movement he helped to build was clearly a carefully worked-out persona. A certain contrived element in the creation of one’s personality is not necessarily a bad thing: William Butler Yeats suggested that each of us fashions himself a mask, puts on that mask, and then eventually becomes that mask through consistent, conscious effort throughout his life.
Moving on from Kirk’s own persona, the most important issues this book raises address how the tradition-minded person can try to address the late modern society, and how he can try to continue to exist, or perhaps even try to flourish, in such a hostile climate.
It may be noted that Russell Kirk was able to very comfortably support himself and his family from his writing, and later from the support of large, so-called mainline conservative foundations, such as Heritage. It would seem unlikely that a traditionalist thinker could find a comfortable sustenance today from the sales of his books and other writings. It could be argued that despite the huge ascendancy of liberalism in intellectual circles in the 1950s, most of the American population was considerably more socially-conservative than is the case today—and hence there was huge ready audience for Kirk’s books. The comparatively deep social conservatism of Fifties’ America is remembered by the keepers of our court culture as a virtual fascist nightmare. Indeed, the Fifties’ South is often seen as one vast Gulag for black people. One doubts the reality could have been anywhere near that. What the Fifties in America probably lacked most was a sense of the heroic, of self-sacrificing struggle on behalf of an evocative ideal. This blandness dunged the field for the seeds of the Sixties.
As far as the possibility of a traditionalist bestseller today, it could be argued that what gets published in America today, as far as highly successful books, is mostly determined by about a hundred prominent literary agents in New York. Most publishers simply won’t look at unagented manuscripts, and the agented manuscripts must come from so-called bona fide literary agents. A large number of persons calling themselves literary agents are either duping desperate authors by charging hefty up-front fees, or, while being decent persons trying to do their best for the author, are simply hopelessly out-of-the-loop in regard to the major publishing houses. As far as freelance publication in various journals, magazines, and newspapers (even leading aside the question that many forums are closed to certain authors or opinions), it is unlikely that it could ever be the basis of a comfortable income. So the tradition-minded person is faced today with the problem of finding a niche on the staff of some think-tank, college, or publication.
In my opinion, much of the appeal of Russell Kirk lies not so much in his ideas themselves, but in his ability to live—while remaining comparatively faithful to tradition and conservative principles—a flourishing life in the post-World War II America. I still recall my own visit to Piety Hill (Russell Kirk’s famed manor-house in Mecosta, Michigan), over the U.S. Thanksgiving Weekend of 1987 as one of the happier moments of my life. I was coming from a Canadian university environment where—notwithstanding the allegedly conservative federal government of Brian Mulroney—left-liberalism was regnant and exultant, and sloppy epithets such as “fascist” flew fast and free. Toronto was an environment in which it almost seemed—as Orwell once put it—that the only thing that belonged to you was the few cubic centimeters inside your skull. Before the Internet, the sense of sheer intellectual and cultural isolation for any kind of traditionalist or conservative in such a megapolitan center was chilling. Coming to Mecosta at that time gave one hope that there was still some kind of active, living conservative tradition in existence.
The main institutional heritage which Kirk helped create, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)—certainly a fine example of what Weber had called “routinized charisma”—continues today as probably the most truly serious of the major think-tanks and institutions of “movement conservatism.” Almost uniquely among such institutions it consciously places an enormous emphasis on fighting the culture war. Too few self-described “conservatives” understand today an appreciation of the culture crisis is an enormous “force-multiplier” in all social and political debates. To its advantage, ISI endeavors to not be explicitly tied to any one religion or denomination. That doesn’t render it bland or secular, however. Quite the contrary.
Russell Kirk also recognized the importance of a certain degree of prudence in laying forth a conservative philosophy in the intellectually inhospitable terrain of post-World War II America. While unquestionably cherishing and valorizing white, Western, Christian civilization, he never got caught up in excessively racialized and biologically-reductionist modes of argument. Also, in line with his prudence, he endeavored to descry a highly conservative provenance for the American Founding, and had considerable praise for Abraham Lincoln (while certainly aware of certain Southern conservative criticisms). While suspicious of various projects of equalitarian leveling, he absolutely stressed the need for equality in the courts of law. Translated into contemporary terms, he favored equality of opportunity, rather than of results. Nearly all commentators have agreed that Russell Kirk was a gentleman who was generally polite to those whom he came into contact with. (Russello displayed a little prudence himself by being relatively deferential in this book to the neoconservatives and the various followers of Leo Strauss. Perhaps such deference to the realities of power within the conservative movement is justified, given the genuinely traditionalist, paleoconservative notions animating most of the book.)
Many people have been taught to believe that “the politics of cultural despair” are an entirely “fascist” mode of thought—mainly because of one influential academic book. This is a pernicious myth. Looking at the spectacle of current-day America, driven by “political correctness” and antinomianism, could well push any more decent, more reflective person to the brink of despair. It’s the task of the institutions that remain to us (such as, to some degree, ISI) to properly channel and focus this almost instinctual revulsion into a creative social, political, and cultural direction.
It is not often considered that between the so-called Great Men, and impersonal social and economic forces, there are various types of “cadres” (or whatever one may choose to call them), that could perhaps be seen as the true motor of history. One can see in the history of the Twentieth Century that various “cadres” – whether Leninist, left-liberal, fascist, nationalist, or theocratic have appeared to drive historical and social developments. The system which dominates most current-day Western societies has been termed by its critics the “managerial-therapeutic regime”—a combination of a soulless corporations and therapeutic governmental and quasi-governmental bodies. Conservative institutions which seek to push back against this regime should aim at integrating people with visceral conservative impulses into coherent “cadres” that can fight for the best of Western civilization—no small task.
The great success of the current-day regime, for the majority of people, is tied to its generous provision of lower pleasures and considerable economic prosperity—and its willingness to dismantle the strictures of traditional religion. (Such strictures, if taken seriously, would conflict with the untrammeled enjoyment of lower pleasures, and the profits gained by catering to them—so out the strictures go.) These habits of pleasure, and the pleasant fantasy that we are moving towards the unmitigated bliss of multiculturalism and diversity, help blunt the mind. When conservatives try to point to some possible apocalyptic-dystopian consequences of—for example—multiculturalism and mass immigration, these warnings fall flat. People are fat, distracted, and happy (or at least, content). When a conservative calls the current-day regime “soul-killing,” he’s answered with a shrug.
In such a situation, Russell Kirk’s stress on the imagination is extremely important. Decent and reflective people in current society must be moved to think and feel what the most acute critics and diagnosticians of late modernity thought – and especially felt.
For this, they need inspiration—which can be found in many places and periods. Polish history in the Partition Period (1795-1918), and the Polish resistance against the occupations by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, offer some approximation of the essential idealism of traditionalist dissent in late modernity. In the words of the Polish national anthem (approximately translated), “Poland is not lost, while yet still we live.” For others, the Jacobite cause, the heroes of the Vendee, or the Southern heritage may constitute a similar locus of a heartfelt, Romantic resistance. As Russell Kirk might have argued, the resistance to late modernity begins in feeling, and only then grows to encompass reasoning.
In resisting the present trends, one can only be moved by heroism. By grounding the resistance to late modernity in heroism and idealism, we increase the chances it will appeal to the decent and reflective among us. Certainly, we won’t find much inspiration in merely economic criticisms of the Left. Russell Kirk believed that people are not usually moved to great, decisive action by purely economic motives. He considered the term capitalism—which he frequently noted was originated by Marx—as a reductionist abstraction. Kirk is indeed one of the many traditionalist critics of mere capitalism—alongside Samuel Taylor Coleridge, G. K. Chesterton, and E. F. Shumacher. There is also an opening in Kirk’s philosophy to ecological /environmentalist understandings of the world. Kirk even displayed a nuanced interpretation of diversity – which he (very interestingly) considered a conservative principle.
Among the most intellectually important aspects of Russello’s book is its distinction between “post-modern” and “hyper-modern” – a highly eclectic usage. The term “post-modern” or “postmodern” today usually signifies the piling onto Western societies of ever more extreme forms of social liberalism, to promote the allegedly unlimited plasticity of human life, society, and existence. Russello chooses instead to speak of the “hyper-modern,” accentuating the fact that most of the social, cultural, and intellectual excesses of the post-Sixties’ period emerge from the worst tendencies of modernity itself. According to traditionalist conservatives like Kirk, these tendencies can be boiled down fairly simply to the unceasing, unrelenting urge to tear down, to destroy, to deconstruct, to smash to bits, any notion of the normative, the decent, and the natural. The term “post-modern” as Russello uses it, implicitly recognizes that there are of course better aspects of modernity—such as the unquestionable benefits of science and technology, and the classical liberal freedoms, which cannot be discarded on the path to social and cultural renewal. Russello’s “post-modern” thinker acknowledges that society is indeed continuing to evolve, but must eventually begin to move to a new synthesis. What would that look like? Kirk’s writings, incisively distilled by Russello, offer some clues.
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