by Clyde Wilson
I am saddened, though not surprised, that the legacy of Russell Kirk has been criticised on LRC. Not surprised because in the post-World War II antistatist movement there was little love lost between libertarians and Kirkian traditionalists. Dr. Kirk was heard more than once to refer to libertarians with mild disdain as "chirping sectaries." (His opinions were always mild.)
However, I think the critique of Kirk is overdone, and that his legacy is not so negative or so far from the readers of LewRockwell.com as has been argued. I venture there are many of the most sterling libertarians who regard some of the dubious hangers-on of their cause with a similar and even stronger disdain.
Dr. Kirk never wrote a word against private property or free markets, although he did criticize capitalists who showed bad taste and cultural insensitivity. The core of the argument seems to be that Kirk was at fault for decrying ideology and thereby stultifying rigorous thought on the Right. It depends on what you mean by ideology. Surely anyone, during the century of fascist and communist terror, can be forgiven for being wary of Burke's "terrible simplifiers," and for preferring inherited wisdom to projections of ideal worlds.
That is not the same thing as eschewing systematic thought. I have always thought that the strength and appeal of Austrian economics was precisely that it is not an ideology. It deals not with abstractions but with real behaviours and conditions in the world, which are to be known primarily by history — that is, by tradition. So I see more congruence between the ways of Mises and Kirk of looking at the world than do his LRC critics.
We stand on the shoulders of giants and we ought to claim all our heroes and use all of our patrimony. Murray Rothbard and Russell Kirk came from different directions. Murray was the more rigorous thinker. Russell's weakness was that he was sometimes too eclectic and facile, but anyone who makes his living writing will fall into that some of the time. Both left devoted followers and an influence that continues to succeeding generations. Their careers resembled each other in that each made his way as a scholar and man of letters in a hostile world.
We have to give some credit to Kirk for celebrating Randolph of Roanoke ("liberty and not equality") and Calhoun to a doubting world. And to the anti-establishment courage Russell so often displayed. I have heard him defend Southern plain folk who objected to being integrated by the federal government — before an elite university audience. He condemned the Israeli Lobby and the Gulf War on a public occasion in the bowels of the Heritage Foundation — and endured the usual smear and blockade as a result.
And, folks, it really isn't fair to illustrate Kirk by picturing him with William F. Buckley — a bit like putting together Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt. Kirk, like every other solid thinker and honest man, was ejected from the Buckley realm. That it came late tells us more about Buckley's caution than it does about Kirk.
Kirk's main message, I believe, was not so much to condemn ideology as it was to preach a return to the "moral imagination." The old way of looking at the world as a spiritual struggle rather than as an abstract utilitarian proposition that was to be understood and managed by a Plan. I would say that possession of "the moral imagination" is exactly what distinguishes the message of LewRockwell.com from the immense babble that drowns the good sense of the world most everywhere else we turn.
February 1, 2003
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