Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: The Conservative Mind

The Conservative Mind
by Russel Kirk

Haven't done one of these in a while, they were taking too much time.  This will just be some brief comments.

First, this is a conservatism that makes sense.  I still don't agree with it as a whole, though I certainly agree with many parts of it, but this doesn't leave me scratching my head wondering what the hell these people are talking about, which has become my normal reaction to anyone identifiable as part of movement conservatism (this should be sharply distinguished from people who simply identify themselves as conservative or on the right).

Something that especially pleased me is that Kirk made some distinctions about the relation of the individual to political philosophies which I had begun to think Conservatives no longer made in the US (considering he's been dead for some time they may not today).  Specifically, he recognizes that ideologies such as socialism are extremely individualistic, they rely on a concept of an "atomized individual."  His version of conservatism is by contrast explicitly corporatist, emphasizing family and community connections along with the broader concepts of tradition and culture.  This was very refreshing to hear.  These are basic concepts necessary for discussing most any aspect of broader social theory or identity, the constant contrasting of the individual vs. socialism that I hear constantly grates on  me since it shows a complete lack of understanding of either concept.

Readers who have been following for awhile will remember this was a major issue I took with Hayek when he conflated the corporatism of Nazism with the collectivism of communism.  These are completely distinct concepts, while Kirk never discusses the German far right he does show an understanding of the distinctions between Communism and socialism and other means of social identity.  I was glad to see there are some well known conservative writers that get these distinctions, it's not Glenn Beck all the way down.

After reading it I was left pondering the major mistakes of both the left and right.  One of these for the left, is that too often they are prone to seeking change without fully considering the costs and benefits of a new system vs. the old one, too often they only look at the ills of the old and the potential benefits of the new.

On the right, it would be good to reflect more often on if they are actually defending treasured old institutions or simply resisting new ones that may either be able to exist alongside existing institutions or may be seeking to fill a gap caused by the collapse of old institutions that are beyond hope of restoration.

[Edit: Figured I should mention a little more about the book itself.  Kirk provides a good overview of conservative thinking in the US and Britain, starting with Burke.  It makes no apologies for presenting this intellectual history through a thoroughly conservative frame (it calls the American revolution a conservative revolution for instance, many scholars would dispute this) but knowing this going into it adds to the appeal of the book for someone wanting to understand conservative thought.  I certainly wouldn't recommend it to someone that doesn't already have at least some knowledge of intellectual and social history however, the view is that of a single interpretation of this history (and not necessarily the strongest interpretation) and would give someone unfamiliar with the material a very slanted view of intellectual development in the relevant periods, the interpretation given wouldn't be considered by most scholars to be the most accurate description of intellectual development over this span of time.

What it does communicate very effectively however is an intellectually defensible interpretation of political thought.  There is a highly developed worldview running throughout the work presenting a poweful vision of both the past and of how this can be used to interpret the present.  Kirk's literary style is somewhat unusual, he quotes heavily from the author's he is writing about while restating many of their ideas in his own voice.  At times it can be confusing, as I reader I sometimes wondered if Kirk was trying to communicate how the author being studied should be interpreted against that author's contemporaries or Kirk's contemporaries, but despite this occaisional confusion the reader is left with an overall impression of what Kirk believes the conservative worldview and political program should look like.  It's a valuable book to read for anyone wanting to understand the conservative point of view, though comparing this to what I'm hearing from conservatives contemporary to me I am left wondering if Kirk's vision is still influential or if it has been jettisoned in favor of other worldviews.  In any case, it is still a valuable read for anyone interested in intellectual history and conservatism, though with the caveat that it's not valuable as a starting text, other sources should be pursued first so that a prospective reader has a firm grounding in general political thought before tackling this text (this text is written to be approachable by the general reader, the intent of the work is a political program however so the reader needs enough background to realize it is this rather than an unbiased overview of political thought).]

No comments:

Post a Comment