Russell Kirk Against The Ideologues

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Russell Kirk (1918-1994)

In his twenty-nine books on politics, history, constitutional law, literature, social criticism, economics, and fiction, the shadow of the French Revolution and the loosening of the ideologues upon the world deeply haunted Russell Kirk.

Tellingly, his most important influence was Edmund Burke, the originator of conservatism in the post-medieval world and the most articulate spokesman against the French Revolution.   Following the careful scholarship of Raymond Aron, Voegelin, Dawson, and Gerhart Niemeyer as well as the social criticism of Eliot, Kirk argued that one could define ideologies through three of its “vices.”

First, ideologies are political and secularized religions.  They take with them the symbols and energy of religions, but they focus almost exclusively on the material and man rather than the spiritual and the Judeo-Christian God.

Second, by polarizing political and social thought, ideologies render the virtue of prudence impossible.  False absolutes dominate, nuance withers, and compromise—the essence of prudence—becomes impossible.  As man naturally desires something greater than himself, ideology assumes the dogma of established religions.[1]

And, third, being puritans, the ideologues quickly attack ideologues representing other ideologies and especially the deviants from their own ranks.[2]  Usually, Kirk, contended, the half-educated (or even “quarter-educated,” as Kirk sometimes called them) and the bored in the West were the most susceptible to the lure of ideologies.[3]  But, as modernity, and now post-modernity, continue to make inroads, ravenously destroying history, tradition, and religion, more and more persons become prey for the seductiveness of absolutes and easy answers.  They crave something greater than themselves, but have missed the opportunity to embrace true religion and right reason.  They latch onto the first thing that presents absolutes.

Ideologies do not politely contain themselves within revolutionary tyrannies; they slowly have infected all of the West, especially its literature and politics.  Some Americans during the twentieth-century have embraced democratic egalitarianism as a somewhat benign (though not innocent, Kirk warned) ideology.  Others, especially those on the political right, or so they believe, have embraced a form of consumerism or libertarianism as an ideology.  And, to the horror of Kirk, some on the right even claimed conservatism as an ideology.  For Kirk, conservatism is the antithesis of ideology, for it upholds tradition, religion, and history.



[1] St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (RSV; 1:18-24; 2:15)

[2] Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 5-6.

[3] Kirk, The Politics of Prudence, 7.

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