THE POSTMODERN IMAGINATION OF RUSSELL KIRK
University of Missouri Press, $44.95, 264 pages
REVIEWED BY KEVIN HOLTSBERRY
Russell Kirk occupies a paradoxical place in the history of modern American conservatism. Nearly everyone agrees Kirk was a critical force in the right’s resurgence after World War II. His most famous work, “The Conservative Mind,” helped to spark and define this resurgence while its six canons of conservative thought remain a touchstone of what it means to be conservative.
But Kirk is also in danger of becoming an empty historical gesture, a reference made out of habit. Despite his prolific career — Kirk probably wrote more than any other conservative figure save William F. Buckley Jr. — mainstream conservatives rarely engage his ideas today. He seems to have left few clear followers or doctrines to carry his influence forward.
In his informative and thought provoking new book, “The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk,” Gerald J. Russello seeks to better understand Kirk’s unique conservatism and to situate it within both the wider American Right and the intellectual currents of the time. He asks the question: Is Kirk still relevant?
Provocatively, Mr. Russello answers this question by viewing Kirk through the lens of postmodernism. Mr. Russello notes that conservatives have long had a “contentious relationship” with postmodernism. To the mainstream right the term has become a symbol of all that is wrong with contemporary culture: “relativism, amorality, lack of respect for tradition, and a slavish devotion to innovation.”
But according to Mr. Russello, Kirk was “one of the first conservatives thinkers to see in postmodernism an opportunity for conservatism to reassert itself amidst the collapse of modernity.” The failure of modernity and the resulting erosion of the then-regnant liberalism presented this opportunity:
“First, for Kirk modernity was characterized most significantly by what he believed was an excessive reliance on a straightened form of rationalism to solve fundamentally moral problems arising from humanity’s fallen nature. Liberalism — with its focus on ‘rational’ solutions to social problems, reliance on trained experts, and mechanistic view of human imagination — is the political expression of modernity. Second, Kirk saw the liberal order as failing for want of imagination, and he saw emerging from it a new age that had discarded both liberal rationality and the premodern tradition represented in the writings of Burke.”
Kirk shared with many postmodern critics an antipathy to modernity and its dogmas. And he saw that this rigid system was giving way to something new. Kirk sought to step into this gap with a moral imagination that would guide society in a conservative direction.
This perspective explains the style and tone of Kirk’s work:
“Dialectic, the logical analysis of the human condition according to abstract notions of the individual or society, that is characteristic of most forms of liberal modernism, presents, according to its critics, only a ‘thin’ theory of life. In contrast, Kirk’s writing was almost defiantly imaginative, frustrating even his admirers for not being sufficiently ‘analytic.’ He concentrated on the formation of images and the cultivation of imagination, for ‘[w]hether to throw away yesterday”s nonsense to embrace tomorrow’s nonsense, or whether we find our way out superficiality into real meaning must depend in part upon the images which we discover or shape.’”
The difficulty was that traditional conservatism was caught in a philosophical bind by the nature of modernity. So much of custom and tradition is not easily defensible on purely rational or utilitarian grounds. Conservatives thus find themselves constantly on the defensive and yielding too much philosophical ground to the liberalism they are seeking to defeat.
After the publication of “The Conservative Mind,” critics pointed to the lack of a significant conservative tradition in America as a problem for traditionalists. Conservatives were forced to take up the un-conservative task of inventing one.
For Kirk, however, “invention need not be antithetical to conservatism” as “tradition always partakes of invention. Facts have no life of their own: it is imagination that makes tradition from history.”
Seen in this light, Kirk’s conservatism was “an attempt at reconstruction; it was a recognition that engagement of the sentiments through an imaginative rendering of history was as important as an appeal to reason. His conservatism in other words was not merely a defense of existing institutions … It was also a critique of those institutions.”
Kirk’s rejection of modernity and his attempts to create conservatism for a postmodern age set him apart from the other segments of the postwar American Right. Mr. Russello notes that many on the right had “adopted some of the intellectual underpinnings of liberalism such as a belief in equality, the primacy of individual rights, and the universality of American political and popular culture.”
Neoconservatism, for example, was based not on a rejection of the primacy of reason or social science but on a belief that the radicalism of the far left undermined the very middle class culture and values that made America. Rather than attack the modern mindset, they used social science to criticize what the saw as deeply flawed liberal policy.
Kirk’s famous feud with Frank Meyer over John Stuart Mill illustrates Kirk’s disagreement with individualist libertarians who saw him as too communitarian. And the Straussians vehemently disagreed with Kirk about the nature of the American founding and the role of history.
Mr. Russello points out that even the paleoconservatives — who like to claim Kirk — have little in common with Kirk’s literary and aesthetic conservatism, having more in common with the works of Gaetano Mosca, Max Weber and James Burnham.
While the introduction, first chapter and conclusion focus on the debate outlined above, in the middle chapters Mr. Russello charts Kirk’s thoughts on three specific areas: History, politics and jurisprudence. Each chapter lays out Kirk’s thoughts as they evolved — noting the clearly articulated views and those less clear, as Kirk was rarely a systematic thinker — places them within the wider conservative perspective and compares and contrasts them with postmodern views. This helps readers better understand Kirk’s ideas and think about the nature of the conservative approach to these issues.
Mr. Russello touches on Kirk’s understanding of the subjectivity of history and its role in creating tradition, on his view that “a fractured common law system working through a federalized structure could avoid the dangers of ideology,” on how “politics permeates a discussion of a society’s future and its values” and how Kirk believed that “the prudent reformer combines an ability to reform with a disposition to preserve.”
Today Kirk is caricatured by the left and largely ignored by the right. But Mr. Russello demonstrates that Kirk should not be so easily dismissed, as he still has much to tell us. “The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk” is an intelligent and thought-provoking call to re-engage with this important thinker.
Kevin Holtsberry, a freelance writer from Ohio, is managing editor of StopHerNow.com.
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