Russell Kirk and Ayn Rand are both past giants of the intellectual Right, seemingly long since abandoned in place of Richard Spencer, Tomi Lahren, and the mad, mad, mad Alex Jones. What happened?
There is a direct correlation between the lack of attention paid to both Rand and Kirk and the intellectual decline of the modern Right. Nowadays, authentic followers of both political theorists seem to be without a movement due to the growth of nationalist populism within the fractious Right. In spite of this recent alliance between traditionalists and libertarians against the emerging alt-right, for the longest time there was not such a cohesion between the ideas of, say, Russell Kirk and Ayn Rand. Before there was a menace to unify traditionalist conservatism and libertarianism together in opposition — Donald Trump — the two movements were often vehemently opposed to one another.
They were of two camps. Conservatives and libertarians. ‘Statists’ and minarchists. Christians and atheists, the list goes on. In other words, the Conservative Mind and Atlas Shrugged did not produce happy bedfellows. Proponents of each were not likely to put aside their differences – at least not happily – in light of the greater enemy of Leftism.
But that fight seems to be mostly resolved now. In light of the Trump moment, conservative magazines such as National Review and the Weekly Standard, as well as libertarian ones such as Reason Magazine, are all unified on the Trump question. And their answer is No. There must clearly be something, then, in the writings of both Russell Kirk and Ayn Rand that emphasized individualism, opposed populist-oriented statism, and rejected unnecessary intrusion into the private life.
And yet there were, and are, important differences between the Randian and Kirkian outlook. Both authors are now deceased, but their wings of the modern Right are still alive and well (and often vicious to one another.) So where do these differences lie?
Well, Russell Kirk, as one of the premier intellectuals of traditionalist conservatism, emphasized what he called a “civil social order” or “an enduring moral order.” It is this that Kirk believed conservatives were ‘conserving.’ To Kirk, a conservative is “one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation”).”Kirk defined traditionalist conservatives as “champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know,” and criticized non-traditionalists (left and right) in claiming “the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire.”
Ayn Rand, on the other hand, though hardly a succinct embodiment of the entire libertarian Right (while Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and Friedrich von Hayek all reached similar political and philosophical conclusions to Rand, they did so for different reasons), strongly disagreed. Whatever group Ayn Rand can then loosely represent – Libertarians? Minarchists? – take severe issue with the ideas that can be attributed to Russell Kirk and traditionalism more generally. “The plea to preserve “tradition” as such, can appeal only to those who have given up or to those who never intended to achieve anything in life,” Rand wrote in Conservatism: an Obituary. “It is a plea that appeals to the worst elements in men and rejects the best: it appeals to fear, sloth, cowardice, conformity, self-doubt—and rejects creativeness, originality, courage, independence, self-reliance.”
This is in stark contrast to Kirk’s view of established knowledge and authority. “Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time,” Kirk wrote. Therefore, it is not the responsibility of a conservative, in Kirk’s view, to stand as an individual and trail blaze.
While Kirk identified “tradition” with safety, security, and wisdom, Rand saw no difference between ‘conserving’ society and regressing. Rand continued on ‘tradition’: “It is an outrageous plea to address to human beings anywhere, but particularly outrageous here, in America, the country based on the principle that man must stand on his own feet, live by his own judgment, and move constantly forward as a productive, creative innovator.” In this important way, Rand fancied herself (and thus, by extension, Capitalists) as Progressive, in the proper sense of the word. While Russell Kirk, on the other hand, is sceptical of progress in most cases.
She continued in her essay, “The argument that we must respect “tradition” as such, respect it merely because it is a “tradition,” means that we must accept the values other men have chosen, merely because other men have chosen them—with the necessary implication of: who are we to change them?” In other words, to Ayn Rand, individual men – the men of today – are the true giants, and it is their responsibility to seek their own truth and their own wealth. Relying on past intelligence would, to Rand, make you a… “looter.”
But the ideas of Kirk would not be destroyed or discredited so easily on the grounds that tradition is comparable to intellectual welfarism. Russell Kirk’s traditionalist conservatism is “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order,” which is is essential to recognize when examining his paleoconservative outlook. “The ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an old-fangled moral order,” wrote Kirk, thus attacking both collectivist socialism and individualist libertarianism of the Ayn Rand variety. “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 honour, will be a good society – whatever political machinery it may utilize,” in his own words.
Despite these important disagreements regarding the role of man in society, the role of government, what is moral and what is not, the importance of tradition of liberty, et al., there is still something that allies the ideas of Kirk and Rand against modern nationalist populism. Perhaps the most telling hint as to what the unifying quality is lies not in the ideas of either Kirk or Rand, but instead in the lack of ideas on the part of today’s nationalist populists.
For example, none of the ideas of Kirk previously mentioned – the principle of prescription, customs, convention, certainly not an enduring moral order – apply to Donald Trump. Additionally, none of the principles of Randism – individualism and anti-collectivism, faith in free markets, etc. – are present in the policies of Donald Trump either. Therefore, it seems that, at least for now, traditionalists and libertarians are unified in their broad opposition to the nationalist populism of Donald Trump.
While this guarantees a moderate degree of harmony between the movements – a “fusion,” if you like – Donald Trump likely will not be around forever. Once the scourge of nationalist populism has been exercised from the arsenal of the modern Right, a power vacuum will likely ensue, and some other method of achieving unity will be required to avoid political disaster. It is time to readopt fusionism and remerge the ideas of Russell Kirk and Ayn Rand.