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A Debate Deferred: Kirk, Bozell, and the future of the American Right

The question today is not whether right-liberalism will survive but rather what formerly-fringe movement will rise to take its place.

Left: Russell Kirk in a 1962 publicity photo (Wikipedia); right: Bozell (left) and William F. Buckley Jr. promote their book "McCarthy and His Enemies" in 1954 ( Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library/Wikipedia)

The resurgent relevance of Triumph Magazine has been one of the few pleasant developments in American political discourse in the last decade. It is also something of a surprise. During Triumph’s heyday in the 1960s, its writers – dominant among them L. Brent Bozell, Jr. – were very much voices crying in the wilderness, far out of step with dominant trends in the United States. “The message of TRIUMPH was not popular,” admits the foreword to The Best of Triumph – and indeed the message was so unpopular that the magazine was nearly insolvent by the late 1960s. Today, by contrast, the Triumph writers are the darlings of the new, post-liberal Right. In particular, Bozell’s famous “Letter to Yourselves” reads like a manifesto for the movement. In it, Bozell describes the two great fallacies of American conservatism:

The first is the illusion of an essential dichotomy between “conservatism” and “liberalism”: the belief that they differ significantly in the things that matter. The second is the illusion that politics – the ordering of public life – can proceed without continuing reference to God.

These sentiments were unwelcome when Bozell penned them after Nixon’s election. Today, they are echoed in best-selling books and countless articles. The world has seen the death of the old fusionist consensus and the failure of liberalism: who better to guide the Conservative movement than the man who prophesied all this over 50 years ago?

As a professor at the College born out of Triumph, I see all this as a welcome development. But for all that flogging the “Dead Consensus” of Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley may be gratifying, it is only fair to recognize that it was not Meyer or Buckley that offered the most compelling alternative to Bozell’s radicalism: it was Russell Kirk. This was a fact acknowledged directly by Bozell in his “Letter”, where he paused his evisceration of the Nixon-era GOP to acknowledge the existence of a superior strain of conservatism – Kirk’s “traditionalist conservatism”. If the new generation of Triumph admirers wish to make their case convincingly, they will have to contend with the stronger challenger: they will have to account for Kirk..

At the very least, it would be an interesting intellectual exercise. The old fusionism is an easy target these days thanks to the humiliating capitulations of the GOP, the corrupting influence of Woke Capital, and the moral bankruptcy of libertarianism. Kirk shares none of these weaknesses. He famously rejected libertarians as “chirping sectaries,” while affirming “prudent restraints upon…human passions.” His principles led him to many of the conclusions favored by the Catholic New Right today: for example, towards a skepticism of America’s foreign military adventures, towards a respect for the environment, and towards a hostility to unrestrained capitalism. Similarly, Kirk realized that much conservatism’s history had been characterized by long defeat and slow but inevitable surrender: “[f]or a century and a half, conservatives have yielded ground in a manner which, except for occasionally successful rear-guard actions, must be described as a rout.”

Most importantly of all – and unlike the right-liberal fusionists – Kirk was wedded to a substantive account of the good. His great recurring theme was the quest for right order – both in the soul and in the commonwealth – and his first principle of conservatism is the assertion of permanent moral truths. Indeed, he goes so far as to claim

A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize. But a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

Consciously or not, Kirk here echoes Pope Pius XII’s 1944 Christmas Message: the Pope observed that “sound democracy” must be “based on the immutable principles of the natural law and revealed truth”; without this, “the democratic regime, notwithstanding an outward show to the contrary, [becomes] purely and simply a form of absolutism.” Kirk recognized this tendency and, in dozens of short stories, books, and articles, heralded the demise of liberalism years before Fukuyama announced its victory in 1989.

For all that Kirk’s first principle of conservatism makes him seem a Bozell-like prophet of the New Right, other Kirkean principles seem almost to have been written in defiance of Bozell and his latter-day followers. Kirk grounded the conservative movement in the writings of Edmund Burke, and he learned from Burke a respect for “custom, convention, and continuity” – and for “the politics of prudence.” These politics of prudence can be seen in Kirk’s treatment of American politics. He believed, with Orestes Brownson, that America had a providentially ordained mission, despite all its flaws: to reconcile liberty and law under the authority of God.

America, for Kirk, “was to present to mankind a political model: a commonwealth in which order and freedom exist in a healthy balance.” But this mission could only be realized by respecting the culture, traditions, and folkways America actually possessed – both those it had inherited from England and those that had developed organically in colonial America and the early Republic. Kirk saw danger in any radicalism, left or right, that would sweep away this mass of tradition: as he wrote in his “Conservative Principles,” “[s]udden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.” And he sensed just such radicalism – “the demon of the absolute” – at work in Bozell in his later years.

Thus Kirk’s conservativism stands as a challenge of and rebuke to Bozell’s radicalism. None of this means, of course, that Kirk has the last word on all these matters. One could object, as Bozell did, that Kirk’s fondness for tradition can “run the danger of slipping over into positivism” – that is, that Kirk might consent to an injustice simply because it was old. Or one could note that the continued degradation of our political order – the combination of a dropsically bloated state and a rabid libertinism – is sufficient to falsify Kirk’s vision of the American mission. Or one might question whether Kirk’s generous conservatism is, in the end quite consistent – whether his generosity had led him to embrace principles that could not be wholly reconciled: most members of the New Right would not, I suspect, be entirely comfortable aligning themselves with the entire menagerie of thinkers embraced by Kirk in The Conservative Mind.

All this is true. And yet, for all that, Kirk cannot be easily dismissed. He avoids the howling errors of the old fusionism, and he presents something like a positive account of a conservatism ordered to the good. There is moreover a winsome power to Kirk’s account of conservatism – and I confess a suspicion that Kirk is likely a better ambassador to the masses than Bozell. The combination of Kirk’s defense of the American mission, his comfortable use of the familiar language of American government, and above all his benevolent gentility may well prove more attractive than Bozell’s tortured, acerbic genius. Kirk was the great champion of the idea of American order; for Bozell and the Triumph editors, “the American Creed” was nothing other than liberalism’s “revolt against God.” Either interpretation of the soul of America can be defended – but I have no doubts as to which one is more likely to energize the largely patriotic conservative base.

Because of this, Bozell’s latter-day disciples would do well to grapple with the complicated, monumental legacy of Russell Kirk. In his “Letter”, Bozell deliberately refrained from debating Kirk’s traditionalist conservatism: he judged Kirk and his followers a mere fringe movement; his target was the dominant “conservative-liberal” ideology of 1968. Today, however, the failures of right-liberalism are obvious to all with eyes to see; its wreckage lies all around us. The question is not whether right-liberalism will survive but rather which formerly-fringe movement will rise to take its place. In other words, the time for the Bozell-Kirk debate, long deferred, has finally arrived.


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About Ben Reinhard 3 Articles
Ben Reinhard is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Christendom College. He holds a B.A. from Purdue, as well as an M.M.S and Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this fine article. Although I definitely lean to Kirk’s side of the debate, I am willing to acknowledge that Bozell admirers and others make some legitimate points. Are they willing to make the same concession to us?

  2. I am with Pope Pius XII here. I follow the Catholic Church and am not interested in following political ideologues. They don’t have the knowledge and wisdom that is very typically found in the vicars of Christ.

    In fact, the kind of “democracy” that currently is practiced is – so I have read – more accurately described as Jacobin. (I am not sure exactly why, but perhaps this was a hallmark of their ideology.) The principle that the majority rules isn’t valid. The real principle is that JUSTICE rules. This is demonstrable.

    It is very doubtful that there are many (about 5%?) nowadays who are virgins when married. That doesn’t mean that their prior actions weren’t – objectively speaking – wrong.

    And, of course, the most that these people can possibly have as punishment is a wag of the finger or a sharp word. The state has unjustly abdicated its role as guardian to – especially – the most helpless – children.

    I recall seeing a very old drawing of a monk and his “partner” in the pillory. I don’t recall when it was drawn or if there was a date. The idea of punishing consensual illicit relations nowadays is probably almost unthinkable (except perhaps among some “evangelical” Protestants) and certainly not popular. I know the probable response, “But they aren’t hurting anyone.” (To which I would reply, “But it is wrong.”) Thus speaks HEDONISM.

    Nor are there no consequences. I believe that the illegitimacy rate is around 40%, but, of course, children can’t vote. (Although, I believe that a weighted voting system would be a great idea. The husband “votes” for all of his dependents.) I have personally been forced to change my sleeping arrangements to accommodate the foster children that my parents occasionally take care of for limited periods of time. Perhaps some of them should be in this situation, but it is highly doubtful – based on research – that they would be if they were being taken care of by BOTH of their MARRIED biological parents. (Even if they were FORCED to marry after their crime.)

  3. At least one of the criticisms of the Kirk camp put forth by Mr. Reinhard is a straw man. Neither Burke nor Kirk believed in preservation of evil practices for the mere sake of tradition. Both Kirk and his mentor believed that any good society ought to have the means to reform itself gradually. I am pretty confident neither would have argued for the continuation of child sacrifice among the Carthaginians because it was a long-standing custom.

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