Review of "The American Cause"

Russell Kirk’s book The American Cause purports to present the conservative values that inform and compose the best aspects of America in order to reinforce potentially “weak loyalties” and skeptical attitudes to America. Conceiving such viewpoints not just as an intellectual weakness but a social disease in need of treatment and prevention, the author outlines what he takes to be the quintessential values of American political and economic life. Taken at it’s own word, the book is largely successful in accomplishing this. As outlined by Kirk the American Cause is unabashedly capitalist yet also profoundly, legally conservative in nature. Though Kirk admits it is not perfect or some sort of Utopian paradise, this conservative/capitalist dynamic may as well be adjacent to utopia or at least a close approximation. However, in order to present this narrative of American exceptionalism and delineation of its superior values, a number of important distinctions are obscured, counter-factual episodes in history are not mentioned and potentially disruptive comparisons are not made. The result is that the American “fortress of principle” that Kirk describes is often smoke and mirrors.

Kirk begins his treatment of the laudable aspects of the American cause by foregoing discussion on slavery and the dispossession and genocide of indigenous people to outline how Americanism and Christianity are, if not the same, than are extremely similar. America is, to Kirk, a Christian nation if not in law than at least in principal and practice. The values and natural duties within the Bible are described as being the guiding force behind early American political life and civic institutions. Yet this Christianity and America Kirk describes is of such broad outline that it obscures the various groups which have struggled for political and cultural hegemony over such terms. The history is abstract and idealist. For one, the composition of the various churches and religious institutions are not given the most cursory outline. If we are to believe Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the majority composition of early American religious groups was not intellectually informed Christian insight but personalistic salvation with presuppositions often at variance from the Bible. Additionally, the Jewish faith is not interrogated as being distinct from the Christian one and is simply subsumed within it as it is Abrahamic. The major variances between them is often something that I see goyim doing, but interestingly enough only done by those rabbi’s speaking at inter-faith dialogues. Additionally Quakers, Catholics and various other Christian denominations that have fought to achieve some degree of greater social justice or just legal parity are seemingly absent from America. Despite going into any of this Kirk, without proffering scriptural quotation or exegesis, instead states that the true Christian inheritance is “resignation: not to expect perfection in this world” (29). Based upon readings of the Tanakh and Talmud, I do know that this is alien to the Judaic concept of “tikkun olam” or “healing the world”. Also, the current Pope’s declamations that unfettered, market-based capitalism is tyranny, and equivalent to the worship of false gods would also bear examination in light of Kirk’s compression of Americanism/Christianity/Capitalism into one. While not able to address the intricacies of most of the other religious groups differing scriptural counter-interpretations, and mentioning only in passing the discriminatory laws enacted against several religious groups in early America I’ll say that this abstract, idealist conception of American history continues on in his treatment of the “Founders”.

In his treatment of those political figures which played a key role in composing the major tenants of life, liberty, etc. Kirk continues to blurring of differences. There are brief mentions of variations of political views, but this are fleeting and no serious discussion of divergences between Federalists and Anti-Federalists is given – nor the many other sharp divisions within early America. According to the image presented by Kirk, there was simply a number of enlightened politicians fighting for American’s inexorable movement towards an ever more perfect ordered liberty. He does state that this political movement was not abstract in its understanding of Rights, like the French Jacobins, but a conservative imposition of pre-established social principles previously enunciated and won by the British. Those that Kirk calls the “greatest principles” consist of justice, order and freedom. However, their contestation within a historical, legal framework is absent, thereby giving the impression that existed impartially – like concepts making their way into the world without deforming despite the harsh handling by the mothers and midwives who brought them into the world. In this noisy celebration on the freedom from caste and the liberty to buy and sell, analysis of counterfactual judicial and regulatory trends towards specific classes of people is negated in his presentation and the order of the market, inscribed with the police and the military is hidden. The war between the states, the conditions which allowed privatized police forces to repress workers striking, the judicial suppression of various perspectives, the backroom deal-making which saw vast swathes of public funds go to help private citizens and enterprises is not even given a cursory sweeping under the rug. As Kirk presents it, it simply never happened! These criticisms of Kirk should not be construed as signifying that America is guilty for not being perfect from inception, but that the presentation of American in the manner that Kirk presents it is unrealistic, idealistic and unfitting to the task that he sets for himself considering his opening statements critical against “ideology”.

The American founders are not alone in their cavalier, ahistorical treatment of differences. Communism, the enemy of Americanism for Kirk, is equally given poor treatment. Again a variety of political tendencies, in this case those that claim guidance from the writings of Marx, are compressed into a singular word. However in the history of Soviet Communism the varieties of political governance and practice represented by Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin, etc. reach a level of polarization not found in the United States until the Civil War. Here the real and imagined differences that would lead to political trials, purges, mass incarceration, forced labor and judicial executions, are all merely one and the same thing: Communism. To Kirk it is seemingly of no consequence that the Stalin’s OPGU, later the NKVD, was formed explicitly to monitor, undermine and destroy any group in any country associated with Trotsky’s Fourth International. While Kirk does later make allowances for differences between Socialism and Communism, the latter for him has no proper referent outside the Soviets. Euro-communists are not mentioned at all. And though it may be a stretch it’s worth pointing out that Social and Christian Democrats, who have a much lees boosterish relationship to capitalism, are not mentioned and yet provide an example that one need not be merely an ideological capitalist or a dirty communist. This type of polarization, recently used by extreme right wing groups in discourse over Obama’s implementation of the ACA, a document largely inspired by the Heritage Foundation, is illustrative of the intellectual dangers of such over-simplifications. And these vulgar generaliztions exist not only in the content of Kirk’s history, but also in his presentation of Marxist thought, which he dismisses as not being worth the time of interrogating as it is, quoting Kirk’s use of Alexander Gray, “in the last resort, sheet waste of time; for when we consort with Marx we are no longer in the world of reason or logic” (95). This is, of course interesting as according to Indiana University’s scholarship database project findings in November of 2013, Marx was named as the most personage in academic literature. This surely bolsters the very minimal claim that even if he “was wrong” about some things, than he was clearly right about enough to still be considered worth studying and writing about.

Considering Kirk’s celebration of capitalism and the recognition that it under attack from outside and within by “weak loyalties”, it’s worth checking if his general claims about the American conditions is true. On page 5, for instance he states that: “Struggle among classes rarely has been fierce in the United States; Americans have been content with their domestic pattern of life and politics.” If this is true, this begs the question as to why it is that the American Cause needs assistance. That it needs such intellectual bolstering suggests that it might not be so conflict free as Kirk might wish it to be. In fact, Kirk’s instance that the American labor experience was some sort of quasi-paradise is highly contested by Philip Taft and Philip Ross in their work The History of Violence in America: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence where they state based upon their years of research that:

“The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. Labor violence was not confined to certain industries, geographic areas, or specific groups in the labor force, although it has been more frequent in some industries than in others. There have been few sections and scarcely any industries in which violence has not erupted at some time, and even more serious confrontations have on occasion followed.”

Kirk’s history at this point, repeating so many of the same tendencies, if not to be categorized as bald fabrications can at best be described as ideological. The charge of ideology against Kirk is a significant not only unto itself, but as throughout his work he asserts that ideology is a problem that only “they” have. They being communists, or they being those that take a critical stance to the extension of American power and influence. And yet, as I have pointed out, the majority of Kirk’s examples are precisely that ideology which he rails against. A similar transition away from Kirk’s idealist history of global “communism” into a materialist history of domestic, American “communism” shows additional issues.

In describing the reason for their being a small number of professed socialists in the United States, Kirk hints that the reason for this was the existence of economic freedom and upward mobility. While agreeing fully with him that their numbers were small, some of the material conditions that contributed to this are important to mention and lacking them Kirk again presents an ideological history. Failing to factor in the wide scale political censorship, government and corporate collusion in targeting and neutralizing radicals, numerous frontiers, a linguistically fragmented industrial proletariat struggling with racial and ethnic divisions as well as a white aristocracy of labor that reinforced capitalists prerogatives, as just some of the reasons which explain this numerically small number of professed activists gives a false presentation of what America is and what it’s cause is as well. While it’s understandable to place limits when writing on a topic such consistent oversights harm the American Cause by its misrepresentation and misinformation.