The New Republic is about the last place anyone would look for a fair reading of traditionalist conservatism. The magazine’s review pages are often outstanding, with such contributors as American historian Gordon S. Wood and classicist Peter Green, and its exposes of Republican crooks can provide almost as much satisfaction to principled conservatives as to liberals. But let’s be clear: The New Republic started out as Herbert Croly’s vessel for evangelizing the gospel of foreign interventionism and modern liberalism, and in the 93 years since then it has changed very little. The political environment has changed considerably, however, and Croly’s then-newfangled liberalism is nowadays hardly distinguishable from what’s called neoconservatism. The difference is that The New Republic continues to court the center-left, while the neocons have occupied the center-right. Lately TNR’s approach hasn’t been working out so well, as hard Leftists have decided that they’ve had enough of these hawkish liberals and have canceled their subscriptions in droves, resulting in a dizzying decline in the magazine’s readership.
This provides some context for the hit pieces against traditionalist and paleo conservatives that have recently sprung up in the print magazine and on TNR’s website. Russell Kirk has been a particular target. First, TNR selected a worthwhile book, The Essential Russell Kirk (full disclosure: I work for its publisher, ISI Books), and gave its reviewer enough space to—potentially—do it justice. TNR deserves some credit here: how many other left-of-center magazines would devote 6,500 words to reviewing an intellectually serious conservative book? But the reviewer, contributing editor and Boston College professor Alan Wolfe, produced an obtuse screed that displayed all the worst qualities of TNR, right down to the East Coast parochialism of poking fun at the imagined discontents of Iowa drugstore patrons. Has Alan Wolfe ever even been to Iowa?
Wolfe’s review elicited responses from Jeffrey Nelson, Daniel Larison, and Paul Gottfried, among others, and now Wolfe has replied to his critics. Helpfully, he has restated the substance of his complaint against Kirk sans his earlier divagations about Kirk’s supposed pornography-viewing habits and other such nonsense. Shorn of material like that, Wolfe’s 6,500-word essay compresses into a single paragraph of eleven points. They add up to a willful refusal to understand what Kirk was saying and why he said it. In essence, Wolfe dislikes Kirk because Kirk was not a liberal and—what may be worse—because Kirk refused to pander to liberal sensibilities in expounding his own point of view. Kirk did not waste any ink apologizing for reading and appreciating Calhoun; nor did he feel the need to explain that in discussing the importance of religion for America, he was not advocating the establishment of a civil religion or state church. Wolfe genuinely seems not to understand where Kirk is coming from. For his benefit, and for the sake of others who may be confused by him, his eleven blunt points are worth addressing in fast fashion.
His first argument is so far from the mark one might think Wolfe is writing in bad faith, but let’s be charitable. His claims that Kirk’s “decision to treat only left-wing ideas as ideological is itself ideological.” The trouble here is that Wolfe’s premise is entirely wrong: Kirk did not treat only left-wing ideas as ideological. Certainly he thought libertarianism was ideological—see “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries,” which is included in The Essential Russell Kirk. Wolfe himself spends two paragraphs discussing Kirk’s acerbic view of libertarians. And while Kirk didn’t consider libertarians conservatives, Wolfe evidently does—he writes that “conservatives from J.R.R. Tolkien to Ayn Rand were … attracted to fantasy.” If Wolfe really does believe that libertarians are on the right and are conservatives, then he must acknowledge that Kirk did indeed criticize at least one kind of right-wing ideology.
In fact, Kirk did more than that, since he also took aim at neoconservatives, in an essay entitled “The Neoconservatives: An Endangered Species” (included in Kirk’s Politics of Prudence collection). He allowed that the better neoconservatives were indeed on the same side as he (“I have wished that certain so-called Neoconservatives … like certain Libertarians for whom I retain a fellow-feeling, would content themselves … with the simple old badge Conservative”), but he cautioned against the group’s tendencies toward ideology—“[Irving Kristol] and various of his colleagues wish to persuade us to adopt an ideology of our own to set against Marxist and other totalist ideologies. Ideology, I venture to remind you, is political fanaticism…”
If Wolfe’s point is merely semantic, that Kirk never allowed that genuine conservatism could be ideological, then he is right but has proved nothing. There is more to an ideology than simply the use of words, and even if Kirk’s application of the terms “conservatism” and “ideology” is tendentious or partial, that does not an ideology make. But Wolfe seems to be trying to convict Kirk of a greater crime than just having a philosophically-charged way with words: he contrasts Kirk unfavorably with Rousseau, who though being a man of the Enlightenment himself criticized the rational excesses of other Enlightenment thinkers. Wolfe’s charge against Kirk is that Kirk doesn’t provide such an “auto-critique” of the Right. But he does: his special use of terms notwithstanding, Kirk was outspoken about the defects he perceived in libertarians and neoconservatives, two groups that Wolfe sees as being on the Right. Wolfe can hardly be accusing Kirk of not being sufficiently critical of Kirkianism, since the Rousseau that Wolfe admires never criticized Rousseauvianism either, even though he took shots other Enlightenment ideologies. Wolfe, not Kirk, is the one who contradicts himself here, by refusing to apply to Kirk the same standards he applies to Rousseau.
For Kirk, ideologies were substitute religions. Wolfe can’t tell the difference between the two. Thus he detects a contradiction between the universalism and infallibility of Catholicism, to which Kirk converted, and Kirk’s critique of the universalistic and infallible claims of ideologies. Wolfe also believes that Kirk’s “reverence for the Constitution cannot be reconciled with the Constitution’s separation of church and state, not, at least, when Kirk simultaneously insists that religion is a necessary prop of social order.” Finally, he complains that Kirk’s “case for religion is never accompanied by an argument on behalf of any particular religion, even though he does offer a discussion of why Judaism and Hellenism are inferior to Christianity.”
Wolfe wouldn’t like Kirk’s response to the first problem he raises, which might be summed up by the old Latin saw quod licet Jovi non licet bovi. God, and an institution directly connected to Him—which is what the Church is to a believing Catholic—does not have the same limitations as mortal man and his institutions. Kirk does indeed recognize a similarity between religion and ideology, but there are several crucial and distinguishing differences, one of those being that ideology denies the need for God. Ideologies are religions of man, which raise him to the level of a divinity, a maker of right and wrong unto himself, individually or collectively. Wolfe may disagree with the contention that if men make their own values, anything, including any atrocity, might be permissible, but there is no contradiction involved in Kirk holding that view and, as a Christian, believing that the Church is categorically different from a government or a business or a the World Bank. (Notably, although Kirk was a Catholic, he never, as far as I am aware, denigrated any other religious tradition as an ideology. He saw a fundamental dissimilarity between anything that points man’s eyes heavenward—whatever the errors of a particular creed might be—and movements and institutions that point man’s eyes toward a mirror.)
Kirk’s non-sectarian Christian political philosophy, far from being the puzzle that Wolfe makes it out to be, is the complement to the other quality that perplexes Wolfe so, Kirk’s respect for the Constitution. Surely even Alan Wolfe—who is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, after all—can understand that a broadly Christian politics and pre-political culture is possible without the establishment of a specific state church, which is all that the Constitution actually prohibits (and even then only on the federal level). A diffusely Christian public life prevailed in America for some 200 years after the ratification of the Constitution, and it did not depend on an “artificial creed” or “generic form of Christianity” as Wolfe supposes. A variety of Christian denominations—sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating—served the civil social order just fine.
If there is a problem here for Kirk’s political philosophy, it is in how to square the American political order with the conservatism of Burke and Coleridge, which did put great weight on the need for a national church. The solution to that problem, in part, is the separation of state and higher education: private universities in the United States can—or could—provide the function of a Coleridgean “clerisy,” which in Great Britain was provided by the established church and the religious public universities. Kirk’s “Reflections of a Gothic Mind,” in The Essential Russell Kirk, doesn’t spell all of this out, but is highly suggestive.
Religious institutions can serve civic ends without being state supported or becoming nationalistic civil religions. Do certain religions, especially some forms of Christianity, serve these civic ends better than others? Wolfe claims that Kirk cannot be in favor of Catholicism (too ideological) or Evangelicalism (too “bibliolatrous,” in Coleridge’s term). But he’s only half-right: Kirk didn’t engage in religious apologetics, but one can see quite clearly where the thrust of his thought leads: he admired most the religious-political views of Anglo-Catholics like Burke, Coleridge, and T.S. Eliot. America’s church-state relationship is different from Britain’s, but it’s safe to say that Kirk’s sympathies lay with Roman Catholics and the more “Catholic” elements in High Church Protestantism.
Wolfe’s next group of complaints centers around slavery and the South. Kirk, you see, admired certain Southern statesmen like John Randolph of Roanoke, who owned slaves. He also admired John C. Calhoun, who was a “radical,” says Wolfe, because “he opted for slavery over country.” And Kirk didn’t believe in abstract human rights, which according to Wolfe, “would have made it difficult for him to find slavery a moral evil even had he bothered to discuss it.”
In fact, Kirk did “bother” to discuss it; he devotes a chapter of his first book, John Randolph of Roanoke, to the institution Randolph called “the Cancer.” Randolph early on detested slavery, and—contrary to Wolfe’s assertion that “the things Randolph wanted to buy and sell included … slaves”—“he never bought or sold slaves, no matter how great his immediate need for money might be,” as Kirk records; indeed, he opposed the slave trade. But Randolph, as Kirk’s study and the work of other scholars makes clear, provides a case study in the conflict between a personal abhorrence of slavery and a belief in the peculiar institution’s embeddedness in the social order: Randolph thought that sudden emancipation would lead to a social or servile war in the South—to a Haiti-like situation. That fear, of course, turned out to be unfounded: instead the U.S. had an even bloodier experience, a national war of unification.
Kirk was no apologist for slavery, and he dealt head-on with the paradoxes in Randolph’s thought. Wolfe however ignores Kirk’s nuance; unlike Kirk, who recognized the flaws in men such as Randolph, Wolfe subscribes to a Manichean worldview, in which the North is simply good and the South utterly evil. But why can’t someone esteem Randolph and the Old Republicans without condoning their view of slavery? Presumably, one is allowed to admire abolitionist sentiment without endorsing John Brown’s terrorism or the atrocities committed by William Tecsumeh Sherman. Then again, maybe Wolfe would approve of those enormities—the ends justifying murderous means.
Calhoun was not the ambiguous figure that Randolph was—he refused to see slavery as an evil at all. But Calhoun was no “radical,” as Wolfe says: he did not want to create a new political order, but rather to preserve his region, his land and people. If doing so meant breaking up the Union, so be it: local loyalties came first. What could be more conservative? As for the contention that one cannot regard slavery as a moral evil without believing in the rights of man—sez who? There are any number of other value systems that provide grounds for condemning slavery: natural law, religious traditions, even a philosophical belief in equality or the brotherhood of man. (The last has been adventitiously linked to rights-talk in the modern world, but the connection is not a necessary one.) It’s true enough that none of these belief systems is necessarily anti-slavery—but then, neither is a belief in the rights of man, if one maintains, as many Enlightenment thinkers did, the slave group is less than fully human.
Wolfe’s final few points touch on the nature of conservatism. Kirk claims that conservatives are prudential; but pragmatists, says Wolfe, tend to be liberals. Kirk was not an outright anti-capitalist, and this, according to Wolfe, “is in tension with his passion for tradition.” And Kirk’s skepticism toward universalism sounds to Wolfe a little like multiculturalism. Finally, he thinks Kirk has misread Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination.
Wolfe profoundly misunderstands what Kirk believed could be accomplished in this world. The “tension” between tradition and capitalism is not something that conservatism proposes to eliminate: Kirkian conservatism depends upon prudence precisely because we do not live in a world in which all forces pull harmoniously in the same direction. No economic system, and likewise no tradition, is ever without its tensions with other sides of life. To propose that such tensions can be extirpated is the dream of utopians, not conservatives. The real question is whether there would have been less “tension” in his thought if Kirk had been a socialist or a rabid anti-capitalist. To answer that question, just think of the social and political upheavals that would be necessary to make the U.S. a non-capitalist county.
Luckily, there is no tension at all in what Wolfe perceives as the paradoxical liberalism of most pragmatists. Here Wolfe makes a mistake that only an academic could make, conflating philosophical pragmatism with practical prudence. The politics of John Dewey and Richard Rorty tells us nothing about prudence as Kirk and Edmund Burke understood the term. In ordinary usage, “pragmatic” can indeed mean “prudent”—but Kirk’s meaning should be clear enough when he says that a conservative, while he may be pragmatic, is not a pragmatist.
Nor, though the conservative values “the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence” (as Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind), is he a multiculturalist. Here too Wolfe overlooks an important distinction: multiculturalism, more often than not, is not antithetical to universalism. It is instead of a kind of universalism itself, an overarching narrative about the evils of Christian and European civilization and the virtues of oppressed peoples—no matter how much interpersonal or institutional violence might characterize the culture of the oppressed. To this way of thinking, hoop skirts were absolutely more evil than human sacrifice.
The Kirkian conservative, by contrast, is circumspect about the cross-cultural value judgments he makes. He prefers his own culture, but allows that it does not have a monopoly on the good, that other ways of life may be appropriate to other times and places, and that other civilizations have their own peculiar virtues and vices. This modesty and respect for civilizational diversity is one reason that Kirkian conservatives are staunchly anti-imperialistic. As Kirk wrote in A Program for Conservatives, “cultural form and substance cannot be transported intact from one people to another.”
Wolfe closes his original review by quibbling with Kirk’s characterization of Lionel Trilling’s preface to The Liberal Imagination: “Lionel Trilling, more than thirty years ago, found the liberal imagination nearly bankrupt,” Kirk wrote. Against that claim, Wolfe quotes Trilling’s famous remark in the same book that (“some isolated and some ecclesiastical examples” notwithstanding) conservatives had no ideas but only “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” This is no refutation at all, since Trilling’s whole point was that liberals, without the challenge of an intellectually stimulating opposition, had grown flabby and complacent. It may be tempting to say that conservatism must be in as a bad shape now as it was when Trilling wrote, if Wolfe is the kind of liberal opposition it inspires. But that would be a mistake: Trilling was wrong in 1950—there were more intelligent anti-liberals than he cared to know about—and whatever the flaws of conservatives today, they shouldn’t be held responsible for Alan Wolfe’s mind-manacled liberal prejudices.
Daniel McCarthy is a senior editor for ISI Books.