Russell Kirk, the Canon, and the Conservative Movement

Recently at Takimag, there have been a number of critiques by the articulate, provocative, and acerbic Austin Bramwell. Bramwell questions the idea of the “conservative canon” as something of a put up job by the conservative establishment, and argues that many of the canonical conservative authors would not be in print”€”must less read”€”without the support of their respective coteries. Bramwell asks the pointed”€”and critical”€”question: “€œTo what extent would anyone read the authors of the movement conservative canon (Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer et al.) if a conservative movement did not exist to promote their works so relentlessly?”€

One of the authors he uses as an example is Russell Kirk, who was born ninety years ago this October. Bramwell’s piece provides an opportunity to reflect on Kirk’s continuing importance.

In response to Bramwell, Daniel McCarthy for example, has come to the defense of the canon and certain of its members. McCarthy sees little connection between a conservative canon and the current movement. He writes that “€œKirk endures more because of a dedicated corps of Kirkians”€ rather than any approval by the “€œmovement.”€ In the end, Bramwell makes the less incendiary, but more pertinent, observation that his “€œpoint is not that the authors of the canon shouldn”€™t be read but simply that they shouldn”€™t be read as canonical.”€ To which argument, I think we can all heartily agree, and even can acknowledge that many of the criticisms Bramwell do in fact indicate flaws of the movement, though not of the authors now considered canonical. One could not imagine an assemblage that would be more ill-at-ease at a CPAC gathering that Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Robert Nisbet.

In some sense, this debate is reminiscent of the stale core curriculum debates of the 1980s and 1990s. Liberals argued for inclusion, ignoring merit and basing their decisions on ideological criteria. Conservatives, meanwhile, defended a “canon” whose elements were in some circumstances barely a generation or two old. Both sides missed the point. Conservatives lost the sense that merit is always context-based, so that one could not flash-freeze a set of canonical works. Liberals, on the other hand, gave up the idea of merit altogether and combined that rejection with disdain for the Western cultural heritage.

With respect to Kirk, or almost any author, it is unclear whether he would be in print without, for example, the efforts of some coterie of supporters. But why would that matter? Could not the same thing be said of someone like Freud? The question isn’t whether authors are somehow supported, or even in some quarters considered canonical, but whether, once out there, their work remains valuable aside from their status as a movement icon. Bramwell tries to distinguish conservatives reading say, Burnham, with liberals reading Mill, because Mill was not only a liberal but was also a “€œgreat thinker.”€ This of course begs the question of who may qualify as a great thinker, and by what standard”€”liberals also read Foucault and Derrida.

Kirk’s work, I would argue, does remain valuable. (The other members of the canon each has his defenders, I suppose. I for one never really warmed to Kendall, whose prose I liked but whose liberal-conservative divide focuses too much on party politics for my taste. Weaver, while his prose is full of penetrating insight and criticism of our cultural decline, falls harshly on my non-Southern ears). The cultural and social vision Kirk lays out in The Conservative Mind and his other works was a stark contrast to the liberal worldview of the 1950s”€”and also of the postmodern world of today. While Nisbet and others focused on empirical social science, and so retain academic cachet, that was never Kirk’s objective. He was writing for a wider group of people, to give them an imaginative reworking of the Western intellectual tradition as a resource to counter the dominating liberalism of the last century. It is not a trivial point to note that Kirk was a newspaper columnist for decades, with an audience far beyond the conservative base.

One metric by which to value the work of a writer, even one considered canonical, is the importance placed upon it by its enemies. Kirk certainly satisfies that criterion The neocons, for example, have had little use for Kirk. He has always been a target for those seeking to punish deviationism from whatever the current right-wing groupthink happens to be. However, it should be noted that David Frum “€“ whose intellectual positions I think he would agree have little to do with the conservative order Kirk espoused”€”wrote an appreciative and thoughtful piece on his legacy. Similarly, when Kirk’s collected essays appeared, The New Republic featured a blistering and hate-filled attack by Alan Wolfe. The New Republic is still one of the central standard-bearers of intellectual liberalism. One would not mount such an offensive unless the threat were perceived to be real. Coulter and Limbaugh get mockery among the liberal press. Kirk gets the true vitriol. Has the liberal press devoted that much recent space to any conservative thinker aside from Buckley?

Bramwell asks serious questions about the future of the conservative movement, not the least of which is why so many writers and scholars with conservative sentiments have shied away from the movement itself. This may be a problem with the movement, as Bramwell suggests, but the movement’s problems may have little connection with the books it chooses to admire”€“but perhaps not read.

Gerald J. Russello is the author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.



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