W. Wesley McDonald Interview; Part II

This is the second part of an interview with Dr. W. Wesley McDonald, author of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology. Part one can be found here. Below Dr. McDonald discusses Kirk’s views on the conservative movement and its various perspectives (libertarian, neo-conservative, and paleo-conservative); American education; and Kirk’s legacy.


8) Kirk seemed particularly intent on keeping conservatism and libertarianism separate; fighting an alliance between the two. Why the vehemence against libertarians?

Conservatives could commit no greater folly, he felt, than to abandon their traditional defense of community to pursue the false god of laissez faire individualism Kirk warned that despite “the potential strength of the conservative instinct in America, American conservatives in this century have had a way of undoing themselves.” He was referring here, of course, to the libertarians. Their principal error, in his estimation, was “their neglect of the need for true community.” The preoccupation “in conservatively inclined circles [is] with economic doctrines and the dry vocabulary of Efficiency and Success.” Having emphasized “economic abstractions at the expense of nearly everything else in society,” he predicted that they “will fail to rouse the imagination and sympathy of the best men and women in the rising generation unless they take a different track.”

9) On the other side, Kirk didn’t seem to foresee the neoconservative development as being that threatening – although he disagreed with them as well. What was his view of the neoconservative perspective?

Though a harsh critic of the libertarians throughout his career, Kirk only aroused himself to respond to the Neoconservatives in 1988, long after they had become a dominant force within the conservative movement. His prolonged silence on the Neoconservative challenge was certainly puzzling. Other than sharing the label “conservative,” he and they had little in common. They did not share Kirk’s appreciation of literature and art–save as something that might be instrumentalized for political value. Their primary interests were policy studies and social statistics, and their admiration for democratic capitalism can be traced to a quasi-Marxist appreciation of its transformative power. Rooted communities, traditions and prescriptive rights did not appeal to them they are viewed as barriers to personal power and political change.

Acknowledging these differences, Kirk complained, late in life, “I had expected the Neoconservatives to address themselves to the great social difficulties of the U.S. today, especially to the swelling growth of a dismal urban proletariat, and the decay of the moral order. Instead, with some exceptions, their concern has been mainly with the gross national product and with ‘global wealth.’ They offer few alternatives to the alleged benefits of the Welfare State, shrugging their shoulders and the creed of most of them is no better than a latter-day Utilitarianism.

‘I had thought that the Neoconservatives might become the champions of diversity in the world instead, they aspire to bring about a world of uniformity and dull standardization, Americanized, industrialized, democratized, logicalized, boring,’ he wrote, “They are cultural and economic imperialists, many of them.”

The last sentence, of course, has turned out to be tragically prophetic.

Kirk, though, was convinced then that the Neoconservatives would not long remain a powerful force. In this instance, though, his predictive powers failed him completely. Not only are they not an “endangered species,” about which “within a very few years we will hear no more,” they today dominate the conservative movement and have managed to largely marginalize Kirkian traditionalism.

10) To hit all the prefix versions of conservatism, the paleoconservatives aren’t exactly Kirk’s intellectual heirs either. What is the relationship between this group and Kirk’s thought in your mind?

Paleoconservatives have also vigorously criticized Kirk’s traditionalism. Emerging out of the internecine conservative wars of the 1980s, they represent the latest oppositional response to the Neoconservatives. Although they share Kirk’s distaste for Neoconservative ideology and his hostility to the collectivist state, they sharply disagree with him on the value of clinging to traditions in the modern era. Paul Gottfried, a Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, who originally coined the “Paleoconservative” label, notes that this group is “mostly Protestant, with a sprinkling of Central European Jews.” Unlike traditional conservatives such as Kirk, they have been strongly influenced by “modernist disciplines,” basing their arguments on the work of sociologists and political theorists from Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, to Antonio Gramsci and James Burnham. The primary threat to individual liberty and civilization, in their eyes, are the leveling and collectivist tendencies inherent in the “welfare-warfare” state. Because they perceive themselves to be a counterrevolutionary force against the modern “managerial state,” they are defiantly indifferent to Kirk’s “redundant” appeals to tradition. The managerial-therapeutic ideologies espoused by the political class, they claim, have distorted and vitiated the traditions that Kirk invoked. Appeals to these already weakened “traditions” presents no threat to state managers and their media celebrants. Samuel Francis, a widely published Paleoconservative author, nationally syndicated columnist, and former advisor to Republican presidential primary candidate Pat Buchanan, describes Kirk by implication as a “beautiful loser,” a fine writer whose work nevertheless has become historically irrelevant. Francis holds up the anti-Communist analyst of power politics and the managerial state, the late James Burnham, as a paradigm of clear-sighted counter-revolutionary thinking—in contrast to Kirk’s mere aesthetic stances.

11) What was it about American education, both higher and primary and secondary, that drove Kirk to “radical” solutions?

Standards in contemporary education have been gravely battered, in Kirk’s estimation, by rash innovators promoting collectivist and egalitarian social agendas. Given its long reaching impact on society, education represented for him a first line of battle against the corruption of the intellectual and moral norms on which a civilized humane social order depends
For nearly four decades, Kirk described and deplored the movement of American education away from its traditional purposes and standards. Confessing his utter exasperation with the apparent irreversibility of this trend, he admitted in a 1980 article for National Review that he felt thoroughly “beaten down, horse, foot, and dragoons” by the educational reformers responsible for the degradation of academic standards. “From kindergarten through graduate school, American education is an extravagant failure.” Not only has there been no improvement “at any level” since he began his National Review column on education in the mid 1950’s, but “on the contrary, standards have been abandoned, average performance has declined conspicuously, and the rising generation will have to pay the penalty.”

Higher learning in America, on which Kirk focused most of his attention in his work, seemed damaged beyond repair. His proposal for a model college established outside the framework of any extant institution of education and his absence of praise for any of the major institutions of higher learning graphically revealed the depth of his dissatisfaction with all existing colleges and universities.

Kirk held that the control of the agenda of education has enormous political and social implications. The norms that a system of education promote will determine ultimately not only the shape of the social order but one of the most basic questions of politics: who governs? If the system serves basically utilitarian values then the result will be the creation of a technocracy that will be ruled by a narrowly technically trained elite of experts. Lacking in humane liberal learning, rule by technocrats, in Kirk’s opinion, would represent an appalling prospect

Four major causes are responsible for the present decline in American higher education. The first involves a sense of purposelessness generated by the loss of “the old ends of formal education” wisdom and virtue. The college has instead become a place of job certification, “socialization and sociability,” a center for the aimless and neurotic, and for public entertainment. Having lost sight of its higher ends, education understandably becomes afflicted with intellectual disorder. “Ideological infatuation,” secondly, is substituted for “the old philosophical habit of mind,” and a “preoccupation with the self and its experience” has replaced “the old concern of the higher learning for order in the soul and order in the commonwealth.” Thirdly, there is the affliction of gigantism in scale on the campus, the emergence of the enormous state university, which Kirk dubbed “Behemoth U.” Lastly, Kirk pointed to a problem that every college instructor has experienced–the inadequacy of preparation for the higher learning in the primary and secondary schools. The typical freshman enters “college wretchedly prepared for the abstractions with which college and university necessarily are concerned.” Kirk blamed the progressive decline of functional literacy in the public schools on the triumph “of ‘look say’ methods of reading instruction over phonetic teaching, and the supplanting of books and periodicals by the boob tube of television.”

America’s colleges and universities can only be described, he affirmed, as “decadent.” As C.E.M. Joad explained in his book, Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry (1948), decadence occurs “when people have ‘dropped the object’ that is, when they have abandoned the pursuit of real objects, aims, or ends and have settled instead for the gratifications of mere ‘experience.'” Kirk elaborated, “[T]he characteristics of decadence are luxury, scepticism, weariness, superstition, also, in Joad’s words, ‘a preoccupation with the self and its experiences, promoted by and promoting the subjectivist analysis of moral, aesthetic, metaphysical, and theological judgments.'” The fundamental object of education is ethical discipline. Higher learning “is meant to develop order in the soul for the human person’s own sake” and “order in the commonwealth, for the republic’s sake.” Any system of education that neglects these aims, Kirk concluded, is decadent.

12) What do you see as Kirk’s legacy? What will he be remembered for?

Kirk is assured a place of prominence as one of the foremost thinkers who anchored conservatism in moral norms and culture. Unlike the Neoconservatives and members of the New Right, Kirk recognized that the key to the recovery of order lies in the discovery or rediscovery of those permanent norms that give meaning to and enrich the quality of life and community. The central principles and insights of his work have a perennial significance because they address the eternal dilemmas of the human condition. Consequently, his essays and books will continue to be studied by generations of thinkers long after the works of some of his critics have been relegated to commentaries on late twentieth-century cultural history.

Aside from his published work, Kirk’s legacy will live on through his disciples. From the early 1950s, a continuous stream of young persons found their way to Piety Hill to work with Kirk as literary interns. Most, like me, were apprenticed to him from several months to several years assisting with his research, correspondence and other library chores. Some who admired his work simply arrived unannounced at his door and were nearly always welcomed. During his tenure as the Marguerite Eyer Wilbur Foundation’s President (1979-1994), Kirk through its Fellowship Program mentored another legion of young people. The program enabled graduate students to receive university credit while working on research projects under Kirk’s direction. The network of Kirk scholars and students solidified and expanded in the 1970s and 1980s through seminars held in his old library under the auspices of The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Kirk, the focus of these gatherings, would engage the participants in discussions about a variety of literary, historical and political topics

13) Why do you think his work and impact have been largely ignored by academia and even mainstream conservative writers?

One of the questions which I address in my book is why one of the most important political minds of the twentieth century was not only scandalously neglected by the intellectual and literary establishment but also by the very movement he helped found.

The fact that Kirk became a “neglected mind” during the last several decades of his life can be attributed to several causes. His ideas often puzzled and troubled conservative activists who do not know exactly what to make of him. Kirk could be often as harsh in his criticism of business as he was of government or labor. He deplored American military adventures and the prospect of environmental destruction as any liberal activist. Although he relentlessly attacked liberal shibboleths, he exhibited no interest in developing alternative conservative policies. Instead, his writings were mostly about long-dead and frequently forgotten political thinkers and literary figures who seemed irrelevant to contemporary concerns. Kirk’s anti-modernist traditionalism seemed as out of place during the Reagan years. This was the time of Neoconservative ascendancy during which the fame and influence of not only Kirk but many of the leading founders of the postwar American conservative intellectual revival markedly declined.

Also, his conservative brethren had trouble grasping the decisive importance he assigned to culture. Because he never offered specific programs on health care, tax-cuts, foreign policy, market deregulation, crime reduction, Kirk’s work appeared irrelevant to those who focused on the attainment and use of political power. They dismissed his work as little more than a literary diversion, or even more disparagingly, call him a “beautiful loser.” For Kirk, culture precedes politics, and unless a healthy, vibrant civilized culture exists, no amount of “conservative” political victories will have an enduring impact. The breakup of the conservative movement in the wake of the Reagan Administration and the short-lived “Republican Revolution” following the 1994 Congressional elections, Kirk would have agreed, can be explained by the failure of conservatives to pay sufficient attention to the moral ills afflicting contemporary culture.

Kirk’s message was not seen as particularly useful to conservative activists. He had little faith in the capacity of politics to cure the moral and spiritual failings of a society. A central characteristic of Kirk’s brand of conservative thought is its non-political inspiration. While Kirk often wrote about contemporary political events (particularly in his syndicated newspaper column) and kept abreast of daily national and international news events (even though he famously did not own a television set), he rarely became involved in political advocacy or partisan politics. Of primary concern for him was the discovery of and apprehension of the “permanent things,” those eternal moral norms that give meaning to and enrich the quality of life. A conservatism identified with a mere laundry list of public policy issues, he believed, would not long endure. The battle for the future direction of America cannot be won by “conservative” political victories either in Congress or at the ballot box when the things of the heart and mind are neglected.

14) For those unfamiliar with his work, which of Kirk’s books would you recommend as the best introduction to his thought?

I strongly recommend The Conservative Mind, his classic history of the Anglo-American conservative intellectual tradition published in 1953. It remains his most enduring work. The Program for Conservatives (re-titled Prospects for Conservatives), which was written a few years later, is a concise summary of conservative principles. My advice for anyone considering making a study of Kirk’s social and political thought is to begin with these two books.

15) What is next for you? Any future books planned?

Having just completed this book, I have not given much serious thought to my next scholarly project. A colleague and I have been discussing writing an essay comparing Kirk’s and Richard Hofstadter’s interpretation of the American political tradition. My colleague, Paul Gottfried, has been urging me to write a book on the collapse of the Old Right. I continue to write short opinion pieces on elections and campaigns.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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