Conservatism’s Chief Thinker?

The Real Russell Kirk

An unimpressive anti-libertarian for the warfare state.

Russell Kirk: American Conservative. By Bradley J. Birzer. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 574 pages.

 When The Conservative Mind was published in 1953, its author, like Lord Byron after the appearance of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,awoke to find himself famous. Russell Kirk was a hitherto unknown American academic, but Time magazine, which “devoted its entire July 6, 1953 book review section to The Conservative Mind,” and other organs of establishment thought touted Kirk as the voice of a renascent American conservatism.  

Kirk’s later work never attracted as much notice as The Conservative Mind, but Kirk retained a substantial following as a leading figure of the so-called traditionalist wing of the American Right. For most of his long career as a writer, Russell Kirk hated libertarians. Libertarians, he wrote in an infamous essay of 1981, were “chirping sectaries.” He charmingly remarks: “the representative libertarian of this decade is humorless, intolerant, self-righteous, badly schooled, and dull. At least the old-fangled Russian anarchist was bold, lively, and knew which sex he belonged to.”

How did Kirk acquire so vehement an aversion to libertarians? Bradley Birzer’s comprehensive study of Kirk helps us answer this question. Birzer, who considers Kirk a genius, holds the Russell  Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College and has had complete access to Kirk’s papers, owing to his friendship with Kirk’s widow, Annette. Much to my surprise, it transpires that Kirk in the 1940s was himself a libertarian, or close to it. During World War II, when Kirk was an army draftee stationed in Utah, he strongly opposed America’s war policy, in particular the use of atomic weapons and the internment of Japanese Americans. He corresponded with both Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, both renowned libertarians. Indeed, he favorably discussed them in the first edition of The Conservative Mind, though by the third edition of the book he had removed them. (It is a tribute to Birzer’s scholarship that he has noted the changes in the editions of Kirk’s magnum opus: but he errs in calling Nock a “minarchist.” Nock did not clearly specify in Our Enemy the State the nature of the “government” that he thought should replace the state; but we have no reason to think that he intended a monopoly agency.)

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