John M. Pafford “Russell Kirk” Bloomsbury, E 24.20
The publication of a new series of short books about conservative and libertarian thinkers ( now in paperback ) is thoroughly good news. While there may be questions about whether the most suitable thinkers have been selected, there can be no doubt that series will prove both useful and important. Useful because now there is an easy way of discovering the wisdom of the right; and important because such a series will make it more difficult for the left to chatter in the way they do about the conservatives being “the stupid party.”
We hope to be examining more of these little volumes as they appear; but the first one to come to hand is in many ways an ideal introduction to the whole project. The late Russell Kirk ( 1918- 1994 ) – pictured above – was probably the single most influential conservative writer of the twentieth century. It is not too much to say that the publication of “The Conservative Mind “ in 1953 marked the start of the post-war conservative movement, a movement which has transformed the political landscape in the United States and Britain. Consequently I take pleasure in my battered copy of it, which I had bought in 1971, for it was signed for me by Kirk in August 1974 at a conference about the literature of the South at The University of Dallas which he addressed.
I met Kirk again at Hillsdale College in Michigan at another conference organised by the ISI two years later. He was a short and rotund individual full of stories and good humour. But he combined his bonhomie with a very acute intellect, a capacity to master a huge body of information and a discriminating- but not infallible-judgement. He was also blessed with a facile pen and an engaging literary style. Personally Kirk seemed to me a shy man, but hid this with a streak of extroversion and even salesmanship. This expressed itself in some carefully crafted eccentricities ( which may at least in part have been intended to differentiate his product! ) But Kirk was no fraud. He was at his very core a man deeply in love with the richness and variety of human experience and expression, things which he knew could be fatefully undermined by the liberal project.
All this is well captured by John Pafford in his attractive book. Pafford who know Kirk well, provides a sound introduction to Kirk’s writings, and to some of the controversies they have occasioned. Although here I must introduce a surprising caveat. While I had, of course, heard of “The Conservative Mind” before first I arrived in the United States in September 1970 the first book of his with which I came in contact was a collection entitled “The Confessions of a Bohemian Tory”. In it were two essays which entranced me. The first was about his friend the writer George Scott Moncrieff who lived in a garret in Edinburgh ( the nephew of Charles Scott Moncrieff who had translated Proust- so well that some preferred his version to the original.) The second was an extraordinary piece about Kirk’s time during the war. Stationed in Utah, he had wandered in the desert, where he experienced the first glimmering of religious faith which was later ( as Pafford points out ) to be such an important element of his thought. Oddly though “The Confessions of a Bohemian Tory” is hardly mentioned by Pafford. ( When I met Kirk I asked him if there were going to be any further collections of essays, but he said that there was no demand for them.) I regret equally that Pafford ignores the journalism that Kirk contributed to “The National Review” and “Human Events”- then more important publications than they are now.
Obviously a biography like Pafford’s must be selective. Just as my view of Kirk is based on my meetings with him, so Pafford’s reflects his experience of his friend and mentor. But there is a risk here for the biographer. The danger is that the biographer will overemphasise that part of his subject’s life which he too experienced. Pafford is well informed about the Kirk that he knew and about his last years and final days. But it is the young Kirk that should draw our attention. Pafford is right when he says that Kirk was not a man of just one book. Nevertheless if it were not for “The Conservative Mind,” Kirk’s role would have been less much significant, and he could hardly have had the career he did without the authority that it gave him.
What must strike anyone who picks up “The Conservative Mind” is not simply its learning- for Kirk shows an intimate knowledge of British and American history- but more importantly its maturity and the sophistication of the judgement that it shows. It was a book which was to be heavily revised in the various editions which it went through. Nevertheless the reader of has to pinch himself to remind himself that it was first published when the author was only thirty four. It is a work which combines deep schalarship, the enthusiasm of youth and a great wisdom. And all this needs to be explained.
We ought therefore to be told much more about Kirk’s youth and about the genesis of his major work. We need to know more about those who moulded Kirk’s mind, and above all about those who taught him, at Michigan State, at Duke University, and most importantly at St Andrew’s, where he wrote the doctorate which was ultimately became “The Conservative Mind.” It would be fascinating to know something about why Kirk decided to embark on such a startlingly ambitious project; interesting too to know something of how it was composed. ( My impression is that it was based on omnivorous but somewhat disorganized reading. When I asked Kirk about the source of a quotation about Scott he confessed to having lost the reference! )
While Pafford avoids serious engagement with the personality of the young Kirk, he deals very exhaustively with the development of Kirk’s religious opinions. Indeed here, perhaps, he devotes too much of his limited space to such matters. I share a lot of Pafford’s and Kirk’s faith. Nor do I have any desire to see the part that Catholicism played in Kirk’s life downplayed. I do feel however that Pafford has not perhaps been able to resist the very natural temptation of reading his own theological concerns into his subject. There is no denying that Kirk was religious man, who was deeply informed about his faith. But unlike ( say ) C.S. Lewis- with whom it is not unfair to compare Kirk- he was not primarily an apologist for Christianity, but an historian, and a political, and to a lesser extent, an economic thinker. While Christianity is crucial to an understanding of his achievement, and provided much of the “background music” to his work, it was not at the forefront of what he did, nor of influence that he wielded. Indeed one of the most fascinating elements of “The Conservative Mind” – written admittedly before his faith had matured- is the way in which it captures both the religious and the sceptical strands of conservativism. Standing as he did then between faith and doubt, Kirk was able to understand both.
Although there may be a little too much of Pafford in Pafford’s discussion of Kirk’s theology, no such criticism can be made of the way in which he deals with Kirk’s views about economics. Kirk was not essentially an economist, and he had doubts about the writings of some free economic liberals. But we should be mindful of the fact that Kirk was an expert on all aspects of nineteenth century history and was therefore informed about the economic theories of both liberals and Marxists; and he also knew about the economic and social conditions of the period. No economic illiterate he was an admirer of the Swiss economist Wilhelm Ropke ( 1899- 1966).
Before I had read Pafford I was only vaguely that Kirk had been recruited to write a text book about economics. I have not yet seen this volume, but from what Pafford says of it, it sounds fascinating. According to Pafford, Kirk integrates the insights of the classical liberal economists with those of the Christian tradition:
“Kirk was firm in his opposition to making economics the key factor in civilization; he had no use for economic determinism whether from left or right. Market economics are good, but not the source of good. Economics is always discussed by Kirk as part of a broader framework. Civilization rests ultimately on spiritual principles derived from revelation and tradition. Within this context, market forces are beneficial in promoting freedom.”
Thus Pafford shows Kirk as being not just a traditionalist and Christian, but also as a serious lover of freedom and of freedom’s concomitant benefits. In doing this Pafford has produced a valuable book, and has painted an appealing picture of an important thinker. For all its minor blemishes this is the perfect introduction- not just to Kirk, but through him to Conservative thought in our time. I recommend it strongly- although at twenty five Euros it is rather expensive. Market forces I suppose!