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Volume 14, Number 1 (Autumn 1973)

Conservatism and Decline

book cover imageThe Conservative Mind, from Burke to Eliot
by Russell Kirk.
Fifth revised edition.
Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1973.

Francis Russell

In 1902, from somewhere on Regent Street, my mother watched Edward VII’s coronation parade. As she saw this gold and scarlet pageant drawn from the ends of the earth—she remembered particularly the jewelled elephants—she had the feeling that such a high point would never be reached again. On that bright and glorious day, she sensed that the sun might indeed set on the British Empire. Kipling had had such a premonition five years earlier at the Diamond Jubilee, when he wrote his much deplored Recessional. But Bloomsbury was oblivious to the elegiac note:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire.

The moment of greatness passes, the fire flickers out. If the British Empire crested between 1902 and 1914, I suppose the United States may be said to have reached its apex in the decade after World War II. The possibility of a Pax Americana lay open, but not the will. This nation, possessed uniquely of the ultimate weapon, could have renounced ever using it except—in the bluntest terms—in the case of another nation attempting to construct a rival atomic bomb. This was what that disillusioned liberal William C. Bullitt demanded. But President Harry Truman, who had used the bomb with premature wantonness at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could not think of ultimates much beyond the next election. For better or worse, the moment passed. There would be no Pax Americana. There would not even be a pax.

Yet Harry Truman in those days had his own vision. In twenty or thirty or forty years, he thought, the American standard of living would rise fourfold or sixfold or more. A happy land, with everyone in a $70,000 ranch house; two cars, a snowmobile, a beach buggy, and a cabin cruiser in every garage; poverty abolished; unemployment become a folktale; every citizen with a B.A. at voting age; our alabaster cities, etc. Above the beach-buggy level, the more sophisticated believed no less firmly in the kind of progressive future they would nurture. The cure for the ills of our democracy would be more democracy, industrial democracy, high-school democracy, everything democracy: A nation after the Galbraith prescription, with an all-wise federal government controlling the cities, housing, the schools, education, arts, and leisure. Peripheral capitalistic activities might exist on sufferance. The blue flag of the United Nations would fly over all, and once we had recognized the error of our ways, the cold war would cease. War itself would be outlawed, though there might be a UN Expeditionary Force for Democracy and Enlightenment to take care of South Africa and Franco’s Spain.

At the time Truman’s dream was at its rosiest, Russell Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind first appeared. A seminal book then, it seems even more pertinent now in its present revised fifth edition. For the Truman dream is shattered. The average American, who since the founding of the Republic always believed so lustily in progress, has come to doubt the future, is belatedly aware that the fire is sinking on the American headland. The decade of the Seventies is to be a time of revaluation, made the more patent by the present Washington scandals.

In Nixon’s overwhelming electoral victory of 1972, the vote was not really for that adroit if less than attractive politician but against McGovern and the so-called counterculture. The underlying impulse of America showed itself as conservative. It also showed the unreality of the liberal intellectuals, as exemplified in Harvard’s straw vote going eight to one for McGovern. Where then do we go from a bankrupt liberalism and a conservatism betrayed by the White House? The American Empire is gone. Can the United States survive? I think there are two roads ahead. First is the superhighway downhill to the welfare state, badly constructed by shoddy contractors. In the end the man on the white horse canters down that road. Only, of course, in America he will spout democracy and more democracy from a white Continental. Or there will be the road back to the conservative traditions of the West that have been so grossly betrayed.

That is why Mr. Kirk’s reissued book seems more important today than it did when it appeared twenty years ago. For it is a guidebook, a Baedeker to conservative thought—as its subtitle indicates, “from Burke to Eliot.” I assume that readers of the University Bookman generally are already acquainted with the book, making it redundant to discuss it in the conventional review sense. Suffice it to say that from his opening chapter, “Burke and the Politics of Prescription,” he follows the thread of conservative thought through John Adams, Scott and Coleridge, Randolph and Calhoun, Cooper, de Tocqueville, John Quincy Adams, Orestes Brownson and Hawthorne, Disraeli and Newman, etc., to the dark intuitions of Henry and Brooks Adams and into the twentieth century with Gissing, Mallock, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and George Santayana.

Mr. Kirk in his introductory chapter lists what he considers the six premises of conservative belief:

  1. Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious problems.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society required orders and classes. The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at leveling lead to despair, if enforced by positive legislation.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
  5. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a touch of progress.

While observing the retreat of conservatives since the French Revolution, Mr. Kirk still feels that in America and England they have retained more than they have forfeited. In his final chapter, written for this fifth edition, he finds four of his six conservative premises still flourishing. Church spires are still in evidence, and whatever their vagaries the churches are in a healthier state than they were in 1789. Religious sanction, the basis of any conservative order, is tolerably secure. The American Constitution, “the most sagacious conservative document in political history,” remains venerated despite all centralizing trends. Private property is zealously cherished, however eroded it may be by income and inheritance taxes. Respect for usage and tradition survives even the decay of community, as can be seen by America’s extraordinary preoccupation with centenaries and bicentenaries and with the compulsive collecting of antiques and artifacts. Orders and classes have suffered most.

Conservatism’s most conspicuous difficulty in our time [Mr. Kirk writes] is that conservative leaders confront a people who have come to look upon society, vaguely, as a homogeneous mass of identical individuals whose happiness may be obtained by direction from above, through legislation or some scheme of public instruction.

All of which brings me back to my mother as a young woman seventy years ago watching King Edward’s coronation parade and sensing the earthquakes that were to follow. So far we have survived after a fashion, and a more coherent conservatism now emerges from the bankruptcy of a liberalism that has brought us so close to disaster. This is the message of Mr. Kirk’s enlightening guidebook. Shall we succeed in stabilizing our society, in reasserting our roots in an apparently rootless age, in reestablishing the sense of community that has been so warped by progressive industrialism? Believing—sometimes in the face of the apparent evidence—in the subterranean workings of Providence, we sense that we must succeed. Otherwise the Moloch state will devour us. 

Francis Russell (1910–1989) was the author of several books on history and historically significant people including The Shadow of Blooming Grove (1968), a biography of Warren G. Harding.

Posted: February 2, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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