The ground for receptivity to Burke, then, was well prepared by 1953 when Kirk's The Conservative Mind appeared and dramatically catalyzed the emergence of the conservative intellectual movement. Kirk was no stranger to the thinking of the American Right. Born in 1918, the son of a railroad engineer, Kirk grew up in the little villages of Plymouth and Mecosta, Michigan. A romantic traditionalist by instinct, as it were, Kirk early came to share his father's prejudices against the "assembly-line civilization" already penetrating Michigan under the aegis of Henry Ford. After graduating from high school in 1936, Kirk entered Michigan State College, whose spirit of "conformity," utilitarianism, and "dim animosity toward liberal education" grated against his sensibility, much as Texas A&M was offending Richard Weaver at the same time. By dint of wide reading on his own (and a Depression-induced frugality which meant peanut butter and crackers for many a meal), Kirk persisted in his studies and graduated in 1940.
For the next year Kirk was a graduate student in history at Duke University; there he wrote a master's thesis later published as Randolph of Roanoke. In it he clearly sympathized with the Virginian's aristocratic, strict-constructionist, states' rights agrarianism. During this year the young scholar from rural Michigan began to get acquainted with the South--"a conservative society," he later recalled, "struck a fearful blow eighty years before and still dazed...." He read approvingly the Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand; he read Donald Davidson's The Attack on Leviathan ("Southern agrarianism at its almost-best"). Like many an antebellum Southerner, Kirk was ecstatic about the fiction of Scott: "Sir Walter is the only novelist I can re-read anymore." Simultaneously, his life as a graduate student was ripening his already deep suspicion of progressive education. "There are simply not enough real brains in this country to fill the graduate schools," he complained. We need far fewer high schools and colleges, not more." In 1941, in his first published article, he revealed his developing conservatism. We must, he said,
"foster Jeffersonian principles. We must have slow but democratic decisions,
sound local government, diffusion of property-owing, taxation as direct as
possible, preservation of civil liberties, payment of debts by the generation
incurring them, prevention of the rise of class antipathies, a stable and
extensive agriculture, as little governing by the government as practicable,
and, above all, stimulation of self-reliance."
It was, in general, the midwestern "individualist" conservatism of Robert Taft.
In the summer of 1941, the "Jeffersonian" Kirk found himself working at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village. A few months later he was transferred to the mammoth Rouge plant, "a fearful and wonderful sight" which made him "shiver." Even before his experiences at the Ford company, Kirk had developed a distaste for big business, big labor, and big government. Unions, he told a friend, were often "more restrictive and selfish than the soulless corporation." He praised the trustbuster Thurman Arnold and hoped that he would run for president. Kirk's year or so at Ford did nothing to change his attitudes; his letters during this period expressed his scorn of unions, management, and federal "parasites." Indeed, his dislike of bureaucracy was, if anything, increasing. He denounced the military draft as "slavery." He was furious at the government's removal of Japanese-Americans from their homes on the west coast shortly after Pearl Harbor. At one point he dreamed of becoming a farmer; perhaps that would be a refuge from the Leviathan State. On another occasion he thought about becoming a kind of wandering poet for a few months: "the Vachel Lindsay of Michigan." Looking back years later in this period in his life, Kirk described it as one of "marking time." He had fallen victim to "an apathy which the modern industrial system induces...."
Kirk's drifting ended abruptly in August 1942 when he was drafted into the army. For nearly four years he lived in the desolate wastes of Utah (and, later, at a camp in Florida) as a sergeant in the Chemical Warfare Service. Kirk had not wanted to join the army. Although sympathetic to the Allies (he followed the Italian- Ethiopian sector closely), he had opposed American intervention in World War II and had believed that President Roosevelt was deliberately trying to maneuver America into the war. In 1944 he even voted for the Socialist Party's Norman Thomas for president to reward Thomas's anti-imperialist speeches before Pearl Harbor. Kirk's wartime letters showed the persistence of his libertarian convictions; his correspondence was replete with disgust at conscription, military inefficiency, governmental bureaucracy, "paternalism," and socialist economics. He denounced liberal "globaloney" and feared that America was doomed to live in a collectivistic economy.
As the war came to a close, Kirk, anxious to return to civilian life, grew increasingly worried that the army, unnecessarily alarmed about Russia, would strive to perpetuate conscription. On one occasion he even accused New Dealers of seeking a way to maintain scarcity and enhance prosperity: in order to avoid what it thought would be a post-war depression, the administration would prolong the state of war even after the end of hostilities. In this way it could keep men under arms from glutting the job market. Then, he predicted, the New Dealers would deliberately create an enemy abroad; it could only be the Soviet Union. Vehemently opposed to the peacetime draft, Sergeant Kirk published a vigorous article on the subject in 1946. "Abstract humanitarianism has come to regard servitude-so long as it be to the state-as a privilege," he charged. Yet "...there is no tyranny more onerous than military life."
In one respect, though, Kirk's wartime experience had been extremely valuable: as a clerk with largely routine duties, he found a large amount of time to read. And read he did--Nock's Memoirs, Chesterton's Orthodoxy, Irving Babbit's Democracy and Leadership, the novels of George Gissing, the political thought of Bagehot, and countless classics of English and ancient literature. One product of Kirk's extraordinary private exposure to a "humanistic" education was a blistering article he published in the South Atlantic Quarterly (something of a conservative outpost) in 1945.
"We have turned from the classics to the lathe because of our fetishes of creature comforts and material aggrandizement.......We talk of education for leadership, but actually we educate for mediocrity."
Unabashedly "classical" and aristocratic in his outlook, Kirk denounced the four "sins" of public education: equalitarianism, technicalism, progressivism, and egotism. Fearlessly attacking everything from progressive education to campus sports-mindedness to utilitarian vocationalism to modern psychology ("that muddle of physiology and metaphysics"), Kirk warned against expecting federal aid to solve the ills of higher education. His blast--coming in 1945-- was still another sign of the revolt against the masses. Significantly, one of the delighted readers of his essay was Bernard Iddings Bell, who wrote to Kirk, inaugurating a friendship of more than a decade's duration.
After completing service in the army, Kirk divided his time between teaching the history of civilization at Michigan State College and pursuing his doctorate at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Kirk, who was deeply attached to rural and ancestral ways and whose "Gothic mind" cherished "variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the aweful," immediately loved Scotland and England. There he saw "the metaphysical principle of continuity given visible reality." As a college professor Kirk believed fervently that his profession was a conservative one. Moreover, during World War II he had planned to write a book about Americans who had fought against there age-men like Fisher Ames, John Randolph, and Henry Adams. In part, no doubt, for these reasons, Kirk selected as his dissertation topic the Anglo-American or Burkean conservative tradition. Here, indeed, was a body of thought that seemed to be against the age. Deeply pessimistic about the apparent demise of this school of thought in the modern world, Kirk at first intended to call his work The Conservatives' Route. But when the book was published early in 1953 as The Conservative Mind, the sense of despair was lacking. Instead, readers discovered an eloquent, defiant, impassioned cri de coeur for conservatism. The essence of this philosophy lay in six "canons":
"(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience.... Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems...(2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.... Society longs for leadership....(4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress.... (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of "sophisters and calculators." Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite.... Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man's anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical.... "
Who were the conservatives whom Kirk analyzed with such enthusiasm? Above all, Edmund Burke, the "founder" of "the true school of conservative principle." From the incomparable Burke flowed a still vibrant, if battered, tradition: through such men as Scott, Coleridge, Disraeli, and Newman in Britain, and the Adams family, Calhoun, Hawthorne, Brownson, Babbitt, and More in America. Conservatives have been "routed" since 1789, Kirk admitted, "but they have never surrendered." Indeed, Kirk claimed to discern a number of auspicious trends; conservative ideas were now "struggling toward ascendancy in the United States...."
Kirk's text was not only a huge, 450-page distillation of the thinking of 150 years of the intellectual right; it was also a relentless assault on every left-wing panacea and error imaginable. The perfectibility of man, contempt for tradition, political and economic leveling-these were, in Kirk's view, the most prominent among post-1789 attacks on social order. Liberalism, collectivism, utilitarianism, positivism, atomistic individualism, leveling humanitarianism, pragmatism, socialism, ideology ("the science of idiocy," said John Adams)-these were some of Kirk's targets. Moreover, at times he criticized capitalism and industrialism; the automobile, for example, he labeled a "mechanical Jacobin." Kirk, in short, left no stone unturned. Here was a full-scale challenge to modernity.
The response to Kirk's massive volume was, in the words of its publisher, "beyond all expectations." Conservatives were delighted. Robert Nisbet, for example, wrote to Kirk that no book could have been better timed for the edification of American intellectuals. Kirk, said Nisbet, had done the impossible: he had broken "the cake of intellectual opposition to the conservative tradition in the United States." T.S. Eliot reported that he was "very much impressed" by The Conservative Mind; soon it was published in Great Britain. Kirk, too, was pleased; forty-seven of the first fifty reviews, he wrote to Eliot, were favorable. Everywhere, it seemed, the book was being discussed; Henry Regnery later recalled that its impact was "hard to imagine."
To some extent Kirk's extraordinary success was attributed to an unusual series of accidents. When his Randolph of Roanoke appeared in 1951, a friend had reviewed it favorably in the New York Compass--at the time, according to Kirk, a fellow-travelling. far- Left newspaper. Kirk believes that his unexpected support in that quarter predisposed segments of the intellectual Left to respond sympathetically to The Conservative Mind. More crucial was Kirk's obtaining a favorable review in the New York Times; once again, luck was with him. When Gordon Keith Chalmers's The Republic and the Person was published, Kirk had praised it in The Living Churchman. When Kirk's book appeared, Chalmers, anxious to return the favor, asked the Times to give him that book to review. It did so, and in May 1953, Chalmers joined the ranks of laudatory critics.
With the approval of the highly influential New York Times now secured (as Kirk tells the story), the fame of his book spread outward. Among those who contributed significantly to its popular impact were the editors of Time, who apparently became interested once the Times had "endorsed" his book. When the senior editors discovered that their own book review editor seemed adamantly unwilling to review Kirk's work, they called on a former associate, the ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers, for advice. Chambers was blunt: The Conservative Mind in the 1953; deeper trends favored its success. First, as Kirk himself later noted, these were the early days of the apparently conservative administration of President Eisenhower; perhaps Kirk's book could yield clues about the aspirations of the resurgent Right. More important than the book's timing was its substance. Here, in one fat volume, was a fervent synthesis of many conservative criticisms of the Left in the postwar years. Here was a handbook-the ideas not just of one man but of a distinguished group of men, covering nearly two centuries. Other traditionalists had constructed genealogies of evil men and pernicious thoughts; here, at long last, was a genealogy of good men and valuable thoughts. No longer could it be said, as John Stuart Mill had once jibed, that conservatives were the "stupid party." Thanks to Russell Kirk they could claim an intellectually formidable and respectable ancestry. Kirk had demonstrated that conservatism should be taken seriously; he had, as a friend later put it,"devulgarized" conservatism. Like Friedrich Hayek, Kirk had made it respectable again to be a man of the Right. He had done even more. If Peter Vierecks's Conservatism Revisited had given the postwar conservative impulse a label, The Conservative Mind had decisively catalyzed a self-conscious, unabashedly conservative movement. In the words of Henry Regnery, Kirk had given an "amorphous, scattered opposition" to liberalism an "identity."
Kirk had contributed to American conservatism in another, less obvious way: half of The Conservative Mind was devoted to American thinkers. It is customary--and correct--to point to Kirk as the principal disciple of Edmund Burke in the postwar era; less often noted is his recovery of an American conservative tradition. Kirk, of course, was not the first or only one to undertake such a quest. In the 1940s, Richard Weaver had delineated Southern conservative traditions in a few articles, and Kirk himself had done the same in Randolph of Roanoke. In The Case for Conservatism, Francis Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, had devoted a chapter of the conservative tradition, including the Federalist and Paul Elmer More, "the greatest of our intellectual conservatives." Elsewhere in these years, Daniel Boorstin, sometimes considered a neo-conservative, reinterpreted the American tradition in The Genius of American Politics and singled out its unique, nonideological, inimitable character as a brake on crusading internationalism. By revealing a usable conservative American past, Kirk's book strengthened this "Americanizing" impulse. Nevertheless, the dominant thrust of the new conservatism before The Conservative Mind (and, two years later, Clinton Rossiter's Conservatism in America) was not toward America but toward Europe. The principal perspective in which to place Kirk's book was Europe and Burke; it was Kirk's argument, in fact, that the American tradition was fundamentally Burkean.
With the advent of Russell Kirk, the new conservative or traditionalist segment of the renascent American Right reached full bloom.