McDonald – Russell Kirk and the Problem of Immigration: E Pluribus Unum
Kirk and the Problem of Immigration: E Pluribus Unum
National Meeting of The Philadelphia Society
What Is An American?
April 30, 2005
When Peter Brimelow asked me last
fall to write an essay for his vdare.com
web site about Russell Kirk’s views on immigration, I knew it would be a
daunting task. Although I had
served as Kirk’s research assistant intermittently during the seventies and
eighties and my intellectual biography of Kirk, Russell
Kirk and the Age of Ideology, had just recently been published, I
didn’t know whether my mentor had any settled views on immigration.
My subsequent investigations, however, revealed some interesting
developments in Kirk’s thought late in his life and evidence of how
contentious the issue continues to be even among Kirk’s most loyal followers.
Let me begin by reviewing what Kirk wrote about immigration before moving on to
how his disciples have interpreted his position—or positions.
Lastly, we might speculate on how his principles could be applied to the
Although Kirk always championed
“The Permanent Things” during his long and varied career as one of chief
architects of the American conservative intellectual revival, he did
occasionally change his mind on particular subjects.
As Forrest McDonald observed in his contribution to Kirk’s
Festschrift, “one of the truly impressive aspects of Kirk’s career
that…has gone virtually unremarked: is his capacity to grow, despite his age
One issue on which McDonald’s
subject did change his mind was immigration.
He was silent on this question up until 1989 when he published his Economics:
Work and Prosperity, as a high school economics textbook.
In the last chapter, he posed what he called “some cheerful responses
to gloomy questions.” One of the
questions reads as follows:
“Will millions—or hundreds of
millions—or people from the less prosperous countries shift into the
industrialized advanced countries, taking away jobs from citizens and lowering
everybody’s standard of living—besides undermining a nation’s old culture
The “peaceful coming of people from abroad is not usually a cause of
economic decay. Rather such
migrations mean that the host country is acquiring more human resources.
Most such immigrants, especially in the history of the United States,
have been hard-working ambitious people who helped to improve their economic
condition. Often immigrants are
willing to accept the least in the beginning, hard, dangerous, or unpleasant
work for which it is difficult to find sufficient labor within a country’s
established work force.
“In the long run, most immigrants become strong upholders of the
culture, the political system, and the economy to which they come.
(Also, aspects of their culture enrich our own.)
America’s present economic success is built, in no small degree, upon
the hard, intelligent work of millions of immigrants, coming in wave upon wave,
decade after decade. New waves of immigrants during recent years already are
being absorbed into American social and economic patterns.
Some are people who migrate from their native lands in search of
employment;many of the highly educated and able.
It should not be unreasonable to cry, ëThe more, the merrier.'”[ii]
Immigration is good for the culture, which it enriches if properly
practiced. We should welcome our
immigrants was the gist of his message to his young readers in 1989.
Barely three years later, however, Kirk would express very different
sentiments. When Patrick J.
Buchanan launched his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in
1992, Kirk became his Michigan State campaign chairman.
Buchanan had made opposition to mass immigration a primary theme in his
campaign. Kirk explained in a press release that he was supporting Buchanan
because he “would discourage indiscriminate immigration into the United
States, for our country cannot play host to all the world and still maintain its
established culture, its successful economy, and its social cohesion.”
Shortly afterwards, Kirk and his wife, Annette, in speaking to a Michigan
newspaper reporter, added that they were drawn to Buchanan because of his
“opposition to affirmative-action programs and more liberal immigration
Even after his death, Kirk’s
disciples staked out opposing positions on immigration while simultaneously
paying homage to his legacy. Gleaves
Whitney, for example, a long time family friend of the Kirks and a speechwriter
for the former Republican governor of Michigan, John Engler, writes in the
“Afterword” of the recently reissued The American Cause, originally
published in 1957, that Kirk wrote his primer on American civilization to make
the case for America as an “exceptional nation.”
Among the achievements that made this nation “different from other
countries and civilizations is the success with which America has attracted and
absorbed huge numbers of immigrants. For
more than two centuries, we have been the world’s number one destination for
people in search of a better life.
More than 60 million people have voluntarily come to our
shores. No other nation in world
history has even come close to that. America
represents the greatest voluntary migration of people in human history.”
Moreover, immigration led to America’s moral transformation: Since this
nation was built by immigrants “we do not behave the way lone superpowers have
behaved in the past.” While they
acting out of “ruthless self-interest” crushed their adversaries, America
strives to build a world community based on “mutual cooperation and moral
I wonder what Kirk might have made of this construction of his words.
The teacher I knew was far too convinced of man’s fallen nature to have
thought that America can always be counted on to exercise its power benignly.
He expressed strong reservations about President Bush the Elder’s
Persian Gulf War; and might be even more troubled by Bush Junior’s opting for
military force in Iraq.[v]
As a life-long Robert Taft Republican, Kirk consistently cautioned
against the use of military force to influence the internal affairs of foreign
nations. The growing perception of
America as a “cowboy” nation that has fed anti-American sentiments would not
have surprised him, even though he might have qualified this opinion by pointing
out it was too extreme and that those who held it had their own baggage to hide.
The late John Attarian was a Michigan freelance writer who had written
extensively about Kirk. Although he
grounds his thinking as much as Whitney in Kirk’s thought, Attarian saw little
cultural or economic benefit that might come from further immigration. He grimly
warned that unlimited immigration will “destroy the white Anglo-Saxon
Protestant character of America’s mores, culture, government, and
institutions, risk calamitous racial friction, and inflict environmental ruin
from overpopulation.” Immigration,
he declared, is “causing wages to stagnate and displacing American workers at
all skill levels” “creating the worst economic insecurity since the Great
main problem with conservatives today is that they have forgotten (if they ever
knew) the Burkean side of Anglo-American heritage.
They have instead become like the economists, metaphysicians,
and calculators against whom Edmund Burke famously railed in his Reflections
on the Revolution in France. Rather
than beings existing within a cultural context, Americans have been reduced to
shortsighted, acquisitive creatures. “Thus,
mainstream conservatism’s enthusiasm for immigration plays up the purported
economic contribution of immigrants and deems their religion, race, mores, and
customs, and their social, political, demographical, cultural, and
civilizational impacts on America,
irrelevant, even unimportant—if it acknowledges them at all.”[vi]
Once mixed in with the multicultural ethos of Euro-American political,
educational, and journalistic elites, this immigration imperative, according to
Attarian, took on an especially sinister aspect.
Following the posting of my
article on Kirk and immigration on the vdare.com website, two of Kirk’s former
research assistants weighted in with similar opposing views on immigration:
If it’s the choice is between
Whitney and Attarian, one proclaimed, “I’m in Whitney’s camp.
Even as a White, European Protestant, I find it appalling to conceive of
the incredibly rich heritage conveyed in [Kirk’s Roots of American Order}”
as limited to just the “ëwhite, Anglo-Saxon Protestant character of American
Another reader, though, praised my
article for having pinpointed that uncontrolled immigration “was NOT at all
what [Kirk] was talking about earlier. His ideas, clearly outlined in various
works, not just in Roots of American Order, are fairly clear: that the
United States grew over time with sustainable levels of immigration and with the
integration of those immigrants into our European and Christian cultural
environment. When this began to change, with the tremendous influx of those who
did not and do not share this cultural community (and in very many cases, worked
against it), [Kirk] spoke out in opposition.”
Kirk had changed his mind on immigration because the nature of the
problem was not what it had been earlier.
Kirk’s earlier enthusiasm for immigration can be attributed to two
major influences on his thought:
First, he believed that cultural diversity enriches society.
Kirk was curious about other cultures and traveled through
Europe, absorbing its art, literature and other civilizational achievements.
He also delved into the culture and history of North Africa from which he
drew material for his fabulous romantic adventure novel, A Creature of
Twilight. Later, he traveled to
South Africa and wrote admiringly of Zulu culture.
He placed a high value on cultural diversity before that concept was
deformed into “multiculturalism”—which, as we know, has become an
ideological weapon aimed at the destruction of Western culture.
Second, his own limited experience with immigration would have encouraged
his pro-immigration views. Kirk’s
home, “Piety Hill,” situated in the tiny village of Mecosta, Michigan, was a
gathering place for refugees from communist totalitarianism and natural
disasters. Poles, Czechs,
Bolivians, Brazilians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Croats, and Abyssinians were
among the many peoples one could find at the Kirks.
There, they would remain until they could look after themselves.
What Kirk witnessed were troubled, dislocated people who needed to be
given a chance to get back on their feet. He
offered them that chance, and many left to pursue successful lives elsewhere.
Masses of ill-educated peoples who would be taking advantage
of American social programs are, of course, another matter.
Note also that until after the
Immigration Act of 1965 the vast majority of immigrants coming to the U.S. were
European as well as Christian. The Asians, who came in smaller numbers, posed
few social problems and were rarely found on welfare rolls or among violent
criminals. There also was no multicultural ideology taught in schools and
enforced through the state here and in Europe that downplayed or vilified
traditional Western societies. For all of these reasons, immigration did not
represent a significant problem to postwar conservatives, and Kirk may have
carried that attitude until forced to confront a different set of circumstances
toward the end of his life.
In one of his last books, America’s
British Culture, Kirk defended the transplanted culture of Britain as “one
of humankind’s more successful achievements.”
The principle features of our culture, Kirk insisted,
are British in origin. Among these
inheritances bequeathed by our British ancestors are language and literature,
American common and positive law, the American form of representative government
and finally the body of moral habits, beliefs, conventions, customs that
constitute our moral heritage. This
is our legacy, without which the ties which bind Americans together as nation
could not long endure. He warned that this common British culture, upon which
our moral and political order depends, is now endangered by the rise of what he
denounced as ëthe fraud of multiculturalism.”
“[A]nimated by envy and hatred,” the ideologues of multiculturalism,
detest “the achievements of Anglo-American culture, they propose to substitute
for real history and real literature—and even for real natural science—an
invented myth that all good came out of Africa and Asia (chiefly Africa).”
If they should succeed, Kirk gloomily predicted, American culture would
“end in heartache—and in anarchy.” [vii]
These multiculturalists, wrote
John O’Sullivan in his 1994 review of Kirk’s book, seek to balkanize the
nation further into tiny warring cultural enclaves “via high levels of
immigration. Above all, they seek
to make ordinary Americans feel guilty;about the ëprivileged’ position
that American culture enjoys in America.”[viii]
Pat Buchanan had evidently
convinced Kirk by 1992 that the nature of immigration had radically changed.
New immigrants were not expected to assimilate into the inherited America
culture. Instead, they threatened
by their shear overwhelming numbers the very existence of that civilization–
and of its achievements that Kirk had fought his entire life to preserve.
Unquestionably, Kirk would not now be voicing the sanguine views on
immigration he did nearly two decades ago.
Instead, he would be joining forces with those are battling the enemies
of America’s cultural identity and the right to secure borders.
[i] Forrest McDonald,
“Russell Kirk: The American
Cicero,” in The Unbought Grace of Life, by James E. Person, Jr.,
(Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden
& Company, 1994), p. 15.
[ii] Russell Kirk, Economics:
Work and Prosperity (Pensacola, FL:
A Beka Book, 1989), pp. 352-353.
[iii] Chris Murphy,
“Conservative Writer Russell Kirk Will Lead State Buchanan Effort,” The
Grand Rapids Press (March 4, 1992), p. A4.
[iv] Russell Kirk, The
American Cause, Edited with a New Introduction by Gleaves Whitney
(Wilmington, DE: ISI Books,
Whitney told me immediately following this talk that he does not support
[v] See Russell Kirk, “Toward
a Prudent Foreign Policy,” in The Politics of Prudence ( Bryn Mawr,
PA: ISI Books, 1993), p. 216.
[vi] John Attarian, “Requiem
for the Right,” The Occidental Journal IV:1 (Spring 2004), pp. 11,
[vii] Russell Kirk, Redeeming
the Time (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996), pp. 27-28.
[viii] John O’Sullivan,
“Mistaken Identities,” The University Bookman 34:1 (1994), p. 7.