Define conservatism: Read the 1953 book that changed America's way of thinking

The conservative mind? In 1953 it didn't even seem to exist. When Russell Kirk first published The Conservative Mind: From Burke To Eliot in 1953, the New Deal meant prosperity, the United Nations meant perpetual peace and scientific sociology meant true human fulfilment. The book was absurd, even impudent. And very successful. Kirk quotes famous critic Lionel Trilling writing, in 1950, that "In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." Trilling was less than thrilled with the vitality of liberalism, Kirk adds, "but he could perceive no alternative body of ideas."

Kirk challenged this orthodoxy as part of a reinvigorated, literate conservatism that included, two years later, William F. Buckley founding National Review magazine expressly to stand athwart history, yelling "Stop." But not irrationally, not inarticulately, and not futilely. Kirk's book found an audience, first with influential reviewers at the New York Times Book Review and Time magazine. Then, as Kirk himself put it in his 1986 foreword, "the book's success exceeded his [own] hopes ... Directly or in someone's paraphrase, presently its chapters reached those people who, [British political jurist Albert] Dicey says, are the real (if unknowable) shapers of public opinion: a multitude of thinking men and women, obscure enough, who influence their neighbours and their communities. The book was read by professional people in particular."

His readers learned that there were coherent themes in conservative thought going back to the Age of Reason, to Edmund Burke and the American Founding Fathers, based not on dyspepsia but on intelligent, reasoned skepticism about human perfectibility especially given the real experience of the French revolution. And he described a vital ongoing tradition with dozens of supple, vigorous minds engaged with their times, from politicians like John and John Quincy Adams, to novelists like James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne, plus Benjamin Disraeli who was both. He even claimed Sir Walter Scott. If such familiar and trusted counsellors, friends of our youth, espouse true conservatism, it must be intellectually and morally reputable, not some dreadful thing lurking under the basement stairs. And evidently they do espouse it, given the many witty, compelling and distinctly non-progressive quotations Kirk presents.

The book has its flaws, including Kirk's eccentric denial that conservativism is an "ideology" reducible to articulate principles even though he himself lists them in his very first chapter. He also gets a bit arch; by the 20th century the hope of conservatism is meant to be T.S. Eliot who, perhaps, ought to have been a pair of ragged claws but if so most people do not know why and never will. But the main problem is that the book is too long. By the time he asks, on page 396, "How is one to sum up the work of W.H. Mallock, which fills 27 volumes, exclusive of ephemerae?" the reader wonders desperately instead how to prevent any such attempt. But by the time one feels compelled to stand athwart the book yelling stop, any even remotely sympathetic reader sees he has made his point with compelling force and too many examples to permit quibbling about individual cases.

By this point it is clear that the programs put in place by liberals half a century ago enjoy powerful political support due to their redistribution of income away from the wealthy few and the inarticulate poor to the organized and articulate middle classes. But by now it is difficult to discern very many liberal ideas in general circulation, though a reactionary liberal impulse frequently asserts itself in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas. It is in part due to The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Kirk.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson