Russell Kirk

Bradley J. Birzer has published an encyclopedic biography of the paleoconservative icon Russell Kirk, which together with all its endnotes comes to almost 600 pages. The work includes just anything one might care to know about the late-great resident of Mecosta, Michigan, and since I’ve already reviewed Birzer’s impressive study elsewhere, it might be proper to focus here on a particular aspect of his book that would interest readers of this website.  Birzer includes short but fascinating comments on the relation between Kirk and Murray Rothbard, and at least some of the memos quoted about Murray’s early attitude toward Kirk were made available through the assistance of David Gordon. As those who reads this website must know and as Birzer tells us, in 1992 Russel and Murray met (together with me and other invited guests) to “strategize” about the presidential bid of Pat Buchanan. At the meeting the two erstwhile opponents got along splendidly, and one might never have known that they had once been furiously flailing away at each other.  Whereas Rothbard in the 1950s and even later accused Kirk and others of his persuasion of “blatantly attacking liberty” and polluting antistatism “with wicked doctrine,” Kirk returned the compliment by identifying Rothbard with everything he detested about libertarian philosophy.  As Birzer points out, Rothbard had “epitomized for Kirk the libertarian “who can bear no authority temporal or spiritual” and who often descended into “sexual eccentricity.” Encounters: My Life wi... Paul Gottfried Best Price: $5.20 Buy New $5.60 (as of 08:10 EST - Details)

It is possible to see this verbal combat, which went on mostly in the 1950s, as characteristic of an early phase in the careers of its participants. And there is ample evidence for this contention. The mutual attacks did stop after a while; and at least in Murray’s case, the charges that he levelled against Kirk in the 1950s for being “antidemocratic” and being associated with the “Christian, Red-baiting Right” do not sound like the Murray Rothbard whom I knew the from the late 1980s on. (Rothbard’s disciple and biographer David Gordon sees more continuity in Murray’s political positions than I.)  By 1992 Murray had established himself, like Pat Buchanan and Lew Rockwell, as a figure of the populist Right; and so had Kirk, judging by the political project that he shared with Murray.

It is also apparent that there were other considerations that drew the two men together, something that I tried to explain on the basis of guesswork in my autobiographical EncountersKirk was not especially interested in politics. He did support various candidates for office and everything being equal, voted Republican. But unlike establishment Republicans he was critical of foreign intervention. He expressed revulsion for the destruction wrought by American bombers in World War Two and was never comfortable among the apocalyptic anti-Communists whom he reluctantly associated with at National Review. Like Murray Rothbard, he strongly opposed American intervention in the First Gulf War. Kirk, as Birzer stresses, abhorred libertarianism as an aesthetic- moral stance and lost no opportunity to denounce it as such. But what he denounced was associated in his mind with one of his chief bêtes noires Ayn Rand and with the hated utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill.  Libertarianism for Kirk was not about those issues that he and Murray came to agree about, the rejection of liberal internationalism as an American foreign policy, the need to dismantle the modern administrative behemoth, the imprudence of accelerated immigration from the Third World, and the need to resist the cultural Left. On all these points Kirk and Rothbard were exactly on the same side when they met with Pat Buchanan. The Conservative Mind:... Russell Kirk Best Price: $6.07 Buy New $9.00 (as of 06:30 EST - Details)

There is a feature of Kirk’s work that the isolationist Right objected to; and it may be necessary to understand it in the context of his other views. Kirk was an impassioned Anglophile and his magnum opus The Conservative Mind (1953) celebrates a specifically “Anglo-American conservatism.” Kirk’s stress on America’s English inheritance and his indifference to or dislike for continental political thought (particularly of the German variety) have led some to believe that he belonged to the pro-English, read, interventionist, side in international relations. But in Kirk’s case there was no carry-over from his cultural predilection to his political choices. He leaned consistently toward the non-interventionist side in foreign wars and was profoundly hostile to the neoconservatives, who still whoop it up fitfully for Churchill and the “Anglosphere.”

There are two positions taken by Kirk that Birzer does not mention but which I recall clearly from conversations. Kirk seemed to have taken the side of the Argentines against the neocon heroine Margaret Thatcher. (He may have been understandably reacting to the hysteria in the American media, and especially in the neocon press, against the “Latin fascist” Leopoldo Galtieri and the sudden feigned popularity of the English monarchy at the time of the Falkland Island conflict.) Also Kirk was sympathetic to the Scottish nationalists before they became transparently leftist. His remarks about these matters confirmed for me how little Kirk’s Anglophilia determined his political stands. He was always personally gracious to Leo Strauss and, according to Birzer, helped found Modern Age in 1956 as a forum for the ideas of Strauss as well as for those of others on the right. But as a Christian humanist heavily marked by ancient Stoicism and as an instinctive non-interventionist in foreign affairs, Kirk had little in common with Strauss, and even less with Strauss’s disciples. Since good turns rarely go unpunished, those same disciples freely insulted Kirk as a dimwit and used their positions on the council of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan years to prevent Kirk from being named a Jefferson Day lecturer. Perhaps to his disadvantage, as I learned from Birzer’s biography, it was Kirk who recommended to Reagan the ill-fated Southern conservative literary scholar M. E. Bradford for the directorship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The conservative wars that thereafter broke out, as Birzer  notes, “continue to this day.”