The Conservatives' War on Ideas

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When Russell Kirk, a most engaging intellectual and the father of the modern conservative movement, wrote about terrestrial hells and zealotry, he was referring to ideology. So adamant was he about the perils brought on by ideas and change, Kirk put together an entire book on this, The Politics of Prudence.

To Kirk, ideology is a series of “terrestrial hells” that is not favorable to a statesman’s prudence because it bears the fruit of malevolent revolution against tried-and-true conservative traditions. Hence, it is a serious vice.

Kirk advocates prudence over ideology, telling us that the two are polar opposites. He takes the Aristotelian position on prudence as one of the first of the virtues, and manifests that as the lone antidote to the Left ideologues’ revolutions, extremism, and factionalism. Interestingly, Kirk says it’s ideology that necessarily leads to corrupt power, though he fails to support this belief. Moreover, he erroneously points to Hitlerian and Stalinist ideologies as being the tour-de-force for all of systematic thinking.

However, polylogism is a fundamental principle of Leftist-Marxist revolutionary ideology that relies on separate sets of logic for the varying classes in society. Marxist ideology as such is at best a self-contradicting state of chaos that denies the truths of logic. As Lew Rockwell says, "In Kirk’s hands, conservatism became a posture, a demeanor, a mannerism. In practice, it asked nothing more of people than to acquire a classical education, sniff at the modern world, and privately long for times past. And if there was a constant strain in Kirkian conservatism, it was opposition to ideology, a word that Kirk demonized. This allowed him to accuse Mises and Marx of the same supposed error."

Lumping together all ideologies — without looking at the components of each within its own ideological framework — amounts to an evasion of proper methodology and reasoning. In truth, ideology is not a hopped-up form of political persuasion, but it is purely a systematic way of thinking about the social order. Conservatives have always denied such absolutes as economic law and systematic thought. Nevertheless, to deny the validity of systematic thought is to deny logic itself. On balance, to be "conservative" is to retain that which centuries of custom have handed down while renouncing any immediate change in the prevailing state of affairs, and this necessarily empowers the existing statist polity.

Kirk says ideology is evil because it makes political compromise impossible, and therefore, we put the government and its politicians in a position of no-win, which then prevents the State from performing in its essential capacities. The modern term for this brand of give and take is "non-partisan" politics. This conduct is a specialty of the Left, as well as the New Right, neoconservatives, and conservatives. Kirk did not ultimately reject statism in all its forms, as none of the conservatives do.

Political parties, then, are merely tools of plunder. It’s “let me beat you to the plundering,” and, if need be, the parties compromise with one another to share in the plunder and the power. This, in the Kirkian sense, is the mark of a prudent statesman. In establishing the differences between ideologues and conservatives, Kirk lets it be known that "conservatives, in striking contrast, have the habit of dining with the competition."

In essence, Kirk’s views are an advocacy of retaining the current order in spite of its inherent corruptness. And further, when abstract ideas butt heads with the temptation of political compromise, it is conciliation with thy enemy that most appeases the conservatives. For it is ideas, says Kirk, that ultimately destroy entrenched social institutions and create a world of disorder. So for Kirk, abstract ideas are a cold-blooded and brutal view of life. We deduce, then, that everyone is ideological and therefore a slayer of the human species except a Kirkian conservative.

But those that deny the validity of ideology are the compromisers, gradualists, special interest types, and ultimately, all of them are statists. Certainly, it is not conservative posturing that will roll back the oppressive structures of domination that are inherent in the State. In reality, the moderation of mind and method is a subset of tyranny in the battle to restrain the advancement of theory in favor of retaining unbroken political customs. And the perception that political power structures should retain such a customary pose is entirely consistent with the conservatives’ "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" philosophy. It is this sort of collective conditioning that makes the conservatives a Big Government party as much as the other guys.

Don’t get me wrong, for I think Kirk was heroic in many respects, and one of the most interesting thinkers of modern times. He was a Catholic cultural conservative and social elitist who tirelessly fought the Left and all of its prescriptions to cure imagined social ills. And he always remained suspicious of the State where and when it imperiled the mores of Western civilization.

Nevertheless, it is those that are armed with a multitude of ideas about the advancement of the human condition that are the harbingers of a society advanced along the wheels of the human mind. It is radical thought and the building-up of a cohesive, intellectual movement to advance these ideas that can affect progress toward sweeping change and away from the current tide of moderation.

Putting the educated mindset on the front lines in the battle against the political demonization of liberty is not a vice, but a virtue. And it’s a noble one at that.

Karen De Coster, CPA, [send her mail] is a paleolibertarian freelance writer, graduate student in Austrian Economics, and a business professional from Michigan. Her first book is currently in the works. See her Mises Institute archive for more online articles, and check out her website, along with her blog.

Karen De Coster Archives

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