Category: Richard M. Gamble

The Anti-Conservative Mind


The Age of Trump has shattered old alliances and forged new ones.  Leaving many reeling and disoriented, the Trump phenomenon brings a fresh opportunity to examine the first principles of conservatism.

This coming year supplies an excellent starting point for this project.  It marks the centennial of the birth of Russell Kirk.  His landmark 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, gave post-World War II conservatism much of its intellectual coherence – a coherence that is now in shreds.

At the time Kirk wrote, liberalism dominated the academy as orthodoxy in American politics and culture – so much so that Kirk originally wanted to title his book The Conservatives’ Rout.  It eventually appeared in print not as The Conservatives’ Rout but as The Conservative Mind.  It became a bestseller, and it helped several generations of budding conservatives grapple with the intellectual tradition they suspected they might be part of.  Kirk stitched together a retrospective genealogy for an Anglo-American affirmation of “an enduring moral order,” of the weight of custom in human judgment, the prescriptive power of the past, and the need for gradual reform of the ills of society, along with prudence, healthy diversity, suspicion of utopian schemes to remake man and the world, fear of concentrated power, a respect for and deference to localism, and the primacy of voluntary action within face-to-face communities as opposed to the collectivism of the modern bureaucratic state.

Implicit in Kirk’s retelling of Anglo-American intellectual history lies an alternative temperament we could call “the Anti-Conservative Mind.”  As an ideology, the Anti-Conservative Mind is more unified than the Conservative Mind.  It animates a self-conscious movement.  It marches in lockstep with what it assumes is the winning side of history.  The Anti-Conservative Movement knows its enemy.  It holds itself together by means of what sociologists call the “negative reference group” – the dreaded conservatives.  Conservatives, if they do mobilize, scramble to sand-bag against the rising sea.  Anti-Conservatives topple every impediment to their vision of final human emancipation from the past. 

Progressives tell their own story in this manner, hailing victories over the illiberal past and vaunting their plan for redemption in the future.  But there is another side to their story: the record of what they dismantled in the culture and civilization of the West.

What if conservatives were to turn the tables on the progressives and tell their opponents’ story in terms of their longing to “wipe the slate clean” by stoking the fire on the Altar of Progress?  What if conservatives adopted a rhetorical strategy that named their opponents the Anti-Conservatives?  Russell Kirk subtitled The Conservative Mind “From Burke to Santayana” and later “From Burke to Eliot.”  Surely the same type of genealogical reconstruction might be done with their opponents.

I am not saying the story of radical movements in Europe and America has not been told – far from it!  I am suggesting that conservatives now gather up the threads of that story and rename it to show that conservatism is an affirmation and progressivism is a denial.  We might title this study “The Anti-Conservative Mind” and rework the summary of Kirk’s dissertation at the University of St. Andrews – “a study in politics, literature, and philosophy to trace historically the course of Anti-Conservative thought in Britain and America from the beginning of the French Revolution to the present day.”

Although many texts could be used in this corollary to Kirk’s project, few articulate the Anti-Conservative mind more clearly than progressive historian James Harvey Robinson.  In his book The New History, Robinson examined “The Spirit of Conservatism in the Light of History” – the title of the volume’s final essay.  In thirty pages, conservatism is tried, convicted, and banished for its crimes.  It is possible to distill from this essay a few principles of Anti-Conservatism:

The Anti-Conservative Mind affirms conscious human progress, a comparatively recent phenomenon in the world, a movement that is accelerating, certain, and indefinite.

The Anti-Conservative Mind wants something it calls “our thought” in the present to be “revolutionized” in light of the accumulating knowledge of modern science.

The Anti-Conservative Mind lives in something it calls “our own day” – the standard by which to measure and judge all preceding generations.  The past, even the recent past, is relative barbarism compared to the wonders of the anticipated future.

The Anti-Conservative Mind deliberately “undermines reverence for the past” and works to weaken the past’s authority over the mind and habits of man.

The Anti-Conservative Mind deploys the study of history as a weapon.  Once the province of the conservative, history can and should be turned on the conservative to defeat him as the enemy of progress.

The Anti-Conservative Mind rejects a fixed human nature.  The study of the past shows man to be entirely a product of historical circumstances and therefore entirely a product of nurture, not nature.  As such, the Anti-Conservative Mind believes that man can be altered at will.  Education must be used to radicalize boys and girls and prevent the conservative temperament from being transmitted to posterity.

The Anti-Conservative Mind maintains a mystical faith in human betterment.  In Robinson’s words: “Even those of us who have little taste for mysticism have to recognize a mysterious unconscious impulse which appears to be a concomitant of natural order. It would seem as if this impulse has always been unsettling the existing conditions and pushing forward, groping after something more elaborate and intricate than what already exists.”

The Anti-Conservative Mind believes that only those who agree with the radicals are entitled to an opinion.  Radicals think and operate on a “higher plane” than conservatives.

The Anti-Conservative Mind knows that the conservative’s sins are legion.  Chief among them is his poverty of imagination and intelligence.  He is complacent and lethargic.  He is dead weight on the chariot of progress.  Indeed, the conservative commits the unforgivable sin.  Robinson spotted the guilty party: “[a]t last, perhaps, the long-disputed sin against the Holy Ghost has been found; it may be the refusal to cooperate with the vital principle of betterment. History would seem, in short, to condemn the principle of conservatism as a hopeless and wicked anachronism.”

In 1912, Robinson sounded profound, and his sweeping vision counted as penetrating insight into the pattern of history.  Only two years later, Europe plunged into the bloodiest war to date in human history.  Promises of progress seemed confused at best.  Slaughter had become scientifically, technologically efficient, and the will to use that efficiency proved vigorous and widespread.  The great tragedy was that the Great War turned out to be merely the First World War of the brutal twentieth century.

An expanded study of what has held together the Anti-Conservative Mind over the centuries might show more clearly than ever before what holds together the Conservative Mind.  And what gives coherence to the conservative mind may not be at all what unifies the brand of “movement” conservatism on tap at Beltway think-tanks and media outlets or that helps the Republican Party rally the troops.  Indeed, this project might well redraw the boundaries between liberal and conservative in American life.  Unexpected similarities and differences might appear.

The conservatism that the Anti-Conservatives have always feared and opposed goes much deeper in human nature, history and American culture.  It has not been routed.

The Age of Trump has shattered old alliances and forged new ones.  Leaving many reeling and disoriented, the Trump phenomenon brings a fresh opportunity to examine the first principles of conservatism.

This coming year supplies an excellent starting point for this project.  It marks the centennial of the birth of Russell Kirk.  His landmark 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana, gave post-World War II conservatism much of its intellectual coherence – a coherence that is now in shreds.

At the time Kirk wrote, liberalism dominated the academy as orthodoxy in American politics and culture – so much so that Kirk originally wanted to title his book The Conservatives’ Rout.  It eventually appeared in print not as The Conservatives’ Rout but as The Conservative Mind.  It became a bestseller, and it helped several generations of budding conservatives grapple with the intellectual tradition they suspected they might be part of.  Kirk stitched together a retrospective genealogy for an Anglo-American affirmation of “an enduring moral order,” of the weight of custom in human judgment, the prescriptive power of the past, and the need for gradual reform of the ills of society, along with prudence, healthy diversity, suspicion of utopian schemes to remake man and the world, fear of concentrated power, a respect for and deference to localism, and the primacy of voluntary action within face-to-face communities as opposed to the collectivism of the modern bureaucratic state.

Implicit in Kirk’s retelling of Anglo-American intellectual history lies an alternative temperament we could call “the Anti-Conservative Mind.”  As an ideology, the Anti-Conservative Mind is more unified than the Conservative Mind.  It animates a self-conscious movement.  It marches in lockstep with what it assumes is the winning side of history.  The Anti-Conservative Movement knows its enemy.  It holds itself together by means of what sociologists call the “negative reference group” – the dreaded conservatives.  Conservatives, if they do mobilize, scramble to sand-bag against the rising sea.  Anti-Conservatives topple every impediment to their vision of final human emancipation from the past. 

Progressives tell their own story in this manner, hailing victories over the illiberal past and vaunting their plan for redemption in the future.  But there is another side to their story: the record of what they dismantled in the culture and civilization of the West.

What if conservatives were to turn the tables on the progressives and tell their opponents’ story in terms of their longing to “wipe the slate clean” by stoking the fire on the Altar of Progress?  What if conservatives adopted a rhetorical strategy that named their opponents the Anti-Conservatives?  Russell Kirk subtitled The Conservative Mind “From Burke to Santayana” and later “From Burke to Eliot.”  Surely the same type of genealogical reconstruction might be done with their opponents.

I am not saying the story of radical movements in Europe and America has not been told – far from it!  I am suggesting that conservatives now gather up the threads of that story and rename it to show that conservatism is an affirmation and progressivism is a denial.  We might title this study “The Anti-Conservative Mind” and rework the summary of Kirk’s dissertation at the University of St. Andrews – “a study in politics, literature, and philosophy to trace historically the course of Anti-Conservative thought in Britain and America from the beginning of the French Revolution to the present day.”

Although many texts could be used in this corollary to Kirk’s project, few articulate the Anti-Conservative mind more clearly than progressive historian James Harvey Robinson.  In his book The New History, Robinson examined “The Spirit of Conservatism in the Light of History” – the title of the volume’s final essay.  In thirty pages, conservatism is tried, convicted, and banished for its crimes.  It is possible to distill from this essay a few principles of Anti-Conservatism:

The Anti-Conservative Mind affirms conscious human progress, a comparatively recent phenomenon in the world, a movement that is accelerating, certain, and indefinite.

The Anti-Conservative Mind wants something it calls “our thought” in the present to be “revolutionized” in light of the accumulating knowledge of modern science.

The Anti-Conservative Mind lives in something it calls “our own day” – the standard by which to measure and judge all preceding generations.  The past, even the recent past, is relative barbarism compared to the wonders of the anticipated future.

The Anti-Conservative Mind deliberately “undermines reverence for the past” and works to weaken the past’s authority over the mind and habits of man.

The Anti-Conservative Mind deploys the study of history as a weapon.  Once the province of the conservative, history can and should be turned on the conservative to defeat him as the enemy of progress.

The Anti-Conservative Mind rejects a fixed human nature.  The study of the past shows man to be entirely a product of historical circumstances and therefore entirely a product of nurture, not nature.  As such, the Anti-Conservative Mind believes that man can be altered at will.  Education must be used to radicalize boys and girls and prevent the conservative temperament from being transmitted to posterity.

The Anti-Conservative Mind maintains a mystical faith in human betterment.  In Robinson’s words: “Even those of us who have little taste for mysticism have to recognize a mysterious unconscious impulse which appears to be a concomitant of natural order. It would seem as if this impulse has always been unsettling the existing conditions and pushing forward, groping after something more elaborate and intricate than what already exists.”

The Anti-Conservative Mind believes that only those who agree with the radicals are entitled to an opinion.  Radicals think and operate on a “higher plane” than conservatives.

The Anti-Conservative Mind knows that the conservative’s sins are legion.  Chief among them is his poverty of imagination and intelligence.  He is complacent and lethargic.  He is dead weight on the chariot of progress.  Indeed, the conservative commits the unforgivable sin.  Robinson spotted the guilty party: “[a]t last, perhaps, the long-disputed sin against the Holy Ghost has been found; it may be the refusal to cooperate with the vital principle of betterment. History would seem, in short, to condemn the principle of conservatism as a hopeless and wicked anachronism.”

In 1912, Robinson sounded profound, and his sweeping vision counted as penetrating insight into the pattern of history.  Only two years later, Europe plunged into the bloodiest war to date in human history.  Promises of progress seemed confused at best.  Slaughter had become scientifically, technologically efficient, and the will to use that efficiency proved vigorous and widespread.  The great tragedy was that the Great War turned out to be merely the First World War of the brutal twentieth century.

An expanded study of what has held together the Anti-Conservative Mind over the centuries might show more clearly than ever before what holds together the Conservative Mind.  And what gives coherence to the conservative mind may not be at all what unifies the brand of “movement” conservatism on tap at Beltway think-tanks and media outlets or that helps the Republican Party rally the troops.  Indeed, this project might well redraw the boundaries between liberal and conservative in American life.  Unexpected similarities and differences might appear.

The conservatism that the Anti-Conservatives have always feared and opposed goes much deeper in human nature, history and American culture.  It has not been routed.



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