True Radicalism

The Roots of American Order, by Russell Kirk (Open Court, 1974, 534 pp., $15), is reviewed by Thomas Howard, professor of English, Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

The key words in the title of Russell Kirk’s book, “roots” and “order,” are germane to any Bicentennial reflections on what America is and where it is going.

The political left has pre-empted the word “radical.” Indeed, a case can fairly easily be made that as the word is used in popular politics now, it means merely “drastic.” It pertains to a view of things that, while proposing sweeping changes in social and moral conditions, seldom has the patience and modesty to go to the radix, the root. In other words, “radical,” at least as we know it in the United States now, means its own opposite: superficial (viz., the student revolts of the late sixties, or the various brands of “new” politics that appear weekly).

The other word in Kirk’s title is equally germane. Order. Any society—feudal, Maoist, or Jeffersonian—has to have some understanding of the nature of its own ordering of things if it is going to preserve and defend that order. Order is what makes moral and social existence—in fact existence itself—possible. Chaos and anarchy stand, not just over against moral and social order, but over against existence. Mao knows this as well as Genghis Khan.

In this study Russell Kirk goes all the way back. His thesis is that order is necessary to any existence called human, and that this order is moral. He asserts that this thesis has been demonstrated in history.

Kirk begins historically with “The Law and the Prophets.” The Old Testament is not always included in discussions of American democracy. Indeed, popular imagination often sees, no doubt, an antinomy ...

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