books book reviews

Conservatism books


The Conservative Mind
From Burke to Eliot, 7e
by Russell Kirk

Gateway, 1985, 535 pages

Reviewed by T. J. Nelson

R ussell Kirk saw conservatism as resistance to change. Conservatism's tactic was to drag its feet against the forces of change—to stand athwart history, saying stop, as W.F. Buckley famously put it, hoping our adversaries will run out of energy.

It sounds plausible: we see how leftism is advocacy of continuous revolution. It seems that the left, like a shark with one fin, must keep moving left, continually creating problems whose sole purpose is to empower the collective. Indeed, they prolifically invent new causes and new sexes whose newly discovered rights are to be enforced by the state, and they concoct racial strife out of thin air to provide more fuel for their revolution.

This viewpoint was influenced, more than anyone, by Edmund Burke. Kirk calls Burke the conservator of the species. Burke believed that values derived from God provide an unshakeable foundation for society. Kirk likewise believed religious sanction is the basis of any conservative order.

Burke's ideal society was one where tradition was respected:

Liberty, Burke knew, had risen through an elaborate and delicate process, and its perpetuation depended upon retaining those habits of thought and action which guided the savage in his slow and weary ascent to the state of civil social man .... He preferred this epoch of comparative peace and tranquillity, whatever its failings, to the uncertain prospect of a society remoulded by visionaries.

In scientific terms, we would say societies are self-organizing systems which grow naturally in their own ecosystem like a forest and achieve greatness only when left undisturbed.

Kirk channels the ideas of other great conservatives like Disraeli, Coleridge, Randolph, Tocqueville, and Santayana. Conservatism, says Kirk, is adherence to tradition and unyielding resistance to change. But not too unyielding: it is better to surrender gracefully, says Kirk, rather than tear society apart:

Conservatism never is more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation. [p. 47]

From the viewpoint of orthodox Christianity, it would be better far to join the discarded, rather than enter voluntarily upon the next phase of degradation. [p 372]

Kirk's great contribution was to show how conservatism is a respectable and consistent ideology. It was this respectability that his followers tried jealously to protect, often at great cost (see The Great Purge reviewed at right).

Kirk's Legacy

Russell Kirk's appreciation for order and tradition based on Christianity had an enormous influence on Buckley and National Review. The strengths and weaknesses of Kirk's vision are reflected in the strengths and weaknesses of the conservative movement today. Change is needed if conservatism is to survive as a movement.

First is the idea that morality is based on religious belief. Aside from driving atheists from the movement, religion is in worse shape than many would like to admit. Kirk used the metaphor of a tree that has been sawed through but remains standing. Standing it may still be, but it is no longer a secure basis for a political philosophy. Science sometimes gets the blame for this, but it was religion's overreach into cosmology and biology that provided the teeth for the saw that cut it off at the trunk.

Kirk seemed to recognize the risk. Talking about Brooks Adams's gloomy predictions, he asked:

Deprived of the sanctions of religion, does conservative instinct verge toward extinction? [p. 366]

Secondly is his confidence, expressed in the last chapter, that the economic basis of conservatism will remain solid.

It may be true, as Kirk said, that few propose the abolition of private property. But private property is nonetheless disappearing. There's a definite trend, still mostly undiscussed by conservatives, of taxing and leasing private property into oblivion. Young people no longer buy copies of music or movies; they are content to pay a fee on each playing and to allow big companies to yank content off their devices at will. The mortgage crises, property taxes and job insecurity make owning a house less practical. Self-driving cars will soon make owning and driving a vehicle obsolete. Few people now make hard copies of their personal photos or the documents they create at work; soon every document we produce will exist only on the cloud. When it breaks down, only fragmentary records will remain; anything on the cloud will be lost. But people seem not to care.

Thirdly, Kirk and his followers conflate conservatism with traditionalism. What conservatives and libertarians share is the desire to get the government off our backs. But libertarians are not traditional­ists. They want to toss the leviathan into a wood chipper and let the chips fall where they may. Kirk's emphasis on tradition led to a split between libertarians and conservatives that remains to this day.

Fourth, the modern conservatives have largely followed Kirk in accepting the concept that conservatism is resistance to change. But resistance to change produces a brittle leadership that must gradually acquiesce in order to avoid being droned and gulaged. If conservatism were resistance to change, then Khrushchev and Fidel Castro would have to be called conservatives as well. Indeed, leftists have beaten us over the head with this definition for years.

Finally, the idea of yielding to pressure has been enthusiastically adopted by today's Republicans, who in effect changed WFB's maxim from “Stop!” to “Would you please slow down a little?” In practice, it turns conservatism into liberalism-light.

Kirk described how early conservatives resisted Darwinism and technology. Fortunately his vision of a traditional tranquil pastoral landscape dotted with quaint churches turned out not to be incompatible with science, and indeed was supported by it. Conservatism has come to terms with science. Science, like conservatism, is based on unchanging, universal principles, and much of biology in particular has backed up the principles of conservatives, not liberals.

To survive, conservatism will also have to return to its principles, and to stand by them: that the quality of a people are what determines the strength of a nation, that different ethnic groups have the right to live separately, should they so desire, and that biology cannot be denied without turning man into machine.

It will also need to expand beyond Kirk's narrow vision: if allies help the cause they must be welcomed rather than expelled; whether they are atheists or libertarians or Birchers, all that matters is defending the principles. I have no doubt that if Russell Kirk were here today he would agree.

oct 23, 2016; last edited nov 04, 2016, 7:26 am

The Great Purge:
The Deformation of the Conservative Movement
by Paul E. Gottfried and Richard B. Spencer, eds.

Radix Journal, Vol. II, 2015, 206 pages, no index

Reviewed by T. J. Nelson

T here can be little doubt that many, if not most, of the problems in America have been directly caused by liberals. Heck, I would say all of them have been. But why have conservatives found it so hard to stop them?

One reason may be the rejectionism of mainstream conservatism. National Review, for example, has purged many of its top writers, sometimes for straying from the magazine's official position, but more often for saying or writing something in public that threatened their respectability among their leftist friends.

These purges are bad enough, but they're accompanied by denunciations that can be so vicious they call into question the genteel reputation of right-wingers. The victims are often labeled unpatriotic or racist, and in some cases their careers have been destroyed.

The purges are intended to maintain the status and purity of their publication, but they also help the left get rid of its enemies. NR owns the distinction of having fired some of the most brilliant and interesting thinkers of all time. They undermined Pat Buchanan's presidential bid. And their attacks on Donald Trump threatened us with eight years of Hillary Clinton.

Don't like it, NR might say, start your own god damn magazine. Well, that's what many of them did. But NR hurt their own cause, and the writing style of those who remain is starting to suffer.

This book is a collection of essays from some of the victims, including co-editors Paul E. Gottfried and Richard B. Spencer (the founder of alternative­right.com) , with contributions from Samuel T. Francis, William H. Regnery, John Derbyshire, Keith Preston, Lee Congdon, James Kalb, and Peter Brimelow. Paul Gottfried writes:

The establishment opposition will habitually move leftward, often taking up ideological positions previously held by its enemies (for instance, MLK idolatry or moderate feminism). This move builds consensus, to a certain degree, but it ultimately encourages the Left to venture on more boldly. The conservative movement has thus not simply been dragged along by the leftward drift of American culture; it has ensured the success of its putative enemies. [p.26]

That's a serious charge. But it's not just NR. The conservative base also criticizes Fox News, Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck on similar grounds. Their dissatisfaction with the conservative establishment runs across the board; even NR seems to have felt it, as we former subscribers have noticed, with enticing subscription offers showing up routinely in our inboxes.

Keith Preston points out that NR's purge and denunciation of the John Birch society was not, as they now maintain, due to the Birchers' supposed antisemitism or racism, but because they were insufficiently hawkish about the Cold War. Getting military spending increased was almost their sole focus, and it was, says Preston, their only success. On almost every other front they made little headway. Preston writes:

Conservatism has achieved one of its stated goals—the permanent escalation of the military budget and the permanent expansion of America's foreign military presence. On every other issue it claims to care deeply about, the level of failure is staggering ... one is tempted to argue that the former was the only issue that ever mattered all along, and that the libertarian, cultural, religious, and patriotic conservatives who comprised the activist base and key voting blocks were, to borrow a Leninist term, nothing more than ‘useful idiots.’

Rejectionism did more than narrow the range of acceptable views. It weakened and fragmented the conservative movement and created the split with libertarians which continues to this day. Gottfried writes that the ‘cannibalistic habits’ of NR and conservative think tanks make their criticism of liberal intolerance ring hollow. As John Derbyshire puts it, “it is difficult to name anything that the conservative movement has conserved.”

Peter Brimelow of vdare.com, who was thrown out of NR for opposing illegal immigration, says that if NR had opposed the invasion of Iraq we might have avoided it, and if they had taken a stand against illegal immigration we would not now be facing demographic disaster.

Don't expect an even-handed discussion here. In fact, about half of this book is a criticism of neoconservative foreign policy, which has little to do with a great purge, or even a mediocre purge. As a result, neither section has the space to present their case with enough depth.

oct 23, 2016