Thirty years after his death on April 29, 1994, Russell Kirk haunts America’s conservatives—because conservatism itself is a ghost. It appears amid ruins, glimpsed at twilight or felt at midnight even by those who in daylight think of nothing but presidential elections and the uses to which power can be put. No thinker on the “New Right,” no Christian nationalist or national conservative or postliberal or neoreactionary, is as profound as Kirk, not because his ideas are more radical than theirs but because he represents something more radical than ideas.

Kirk is more invoked than read in 2024. Those who know his name at all know that he wrote a book called The Conservative Mind in 1953, which helped to popularize the term “conservative” as the self-designation of choice for Americans on the political right. The label had many rivals in the decade after World War II, including “individualist,” and some “classical liberals” have never forgiven Kirk for his success in making the American right “conservative.”

Beyond that, however, Kirk’s influence may seem limited. The conservatives of today want an alternative to the designs of the twenty-first-century left. Kirk never offered a political program even for his own lifetime, and he didn’t try to design an ageless philosophical utopia, either. He wrote books and essays about historical subjects and figures such as T. S. Eliot and Edmund Burke; he wrote fiction, too, including a few novels and some highly regarded gothic and ghostly tales. Whatever their merits, such works are simply not the stuff of conservative politics, or indeed conservative thought, at present.

There are bolder thinkers who take power as their subject, in its theory and application alike, and who appeal more to today’s right. And if Eliot and Burke are still remembered, other figures of interest to Kirk, such as Irving Babbitt and the Southern Agrarians, are now little known except to specialists. Kirk and his ghosts are not realities in the America of today; they are merely quaint superstitions, even in conservatives’ eyes.

And yet these ghosts are not so easily exorcized. Unseen and unread, they still shape our lives. Kirk succeeded in promoting not only the name of conservatism but a deep sense of it as well. This is attested by Kirk’s critics rather more than by his friends, who all too often present the Sage of Mecosta as a charmingly harmless figure. Kirk, say those who fear and hate his shade, introduced a European conservatism into America. He promulgated a heresy utterly corrosive to good Lockean American principles—and even dared to praise dangerous Southern thinkers such as John C. Calhoun and the Fugitive-Agrarians. Kirk’s entire sensibility is a bane to liberals and progressives of every stripe, not only those on the left but also classical liberals, neoconservatives, libertarians, and anti-historicist Straussians.

Against rationalists of every kind, Kirk opposes the gothic. This facet of life had a place in America long before Kirk, of course; much of our greatest national and regional literature derives from it. But Kirk reconnected it to politics in the largest sense—to the political imagination and the wider moral imagination. America, in the name of freedom and progress, habitually suppresses a sense of tragedy and loss; everything is simply a problem to be solved by appropriate can-do cleverness. America is reformist to the core—but it harbors a dark doubt. Kirk speaks for that doubt, the feeling that what is lost and defeated may be beautiful and even true. Chivalry, for example, is very much lost and defeated yet true and beautiful.

America is reformist to the core—but it harbors a dark doubt. Kirk speaks for that doubt, the feeling that what is lost and defeated may be beautiful and even true.

Reason, reform, niceness, pharmaceutically managed moods—the ghost is a threat to all of this. All the systems that would save human beings by turning them into virtuous automata are jeopardized by the persistence of something that the social engineers cannot believe exists. America is a liberal country, damnit—yet here is conservatism. Here is a side of the human psyche that won’t be reformed away, even if it loses political battle after battle. Kirk originally called The Conservative Mind, when it was his dissertation at St. Andrews University, The Conservatives’ Rout. The title was not defeatist, though it was certainly uncommercial: conservatives could survive a rout because a rout is what makes ghosts. Every defeat is an occasion for remembrance, in defiance of the very ideal of progress.

Kirk was neither morbid nor unworldly. He wanted his preferred presidential candidate to win, though at different times that candidate might be the antiwar socialist Norman Thomas or the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, principled men whose prospects at the ballot box were exiguous. Kirk’s conservatism embraced tragedy as a part of human life, but only a part, and one meant to remind us to cherish what is good in this world all the more dearly for certain knowledge that it will sooner or later pass away—though something will remain. For the conservative, the dead are a source of strength to living. The continuity of the living and the dead is the essence of conservatism.

Kirk died three decades ago, and what goes by the name of conservatism today is very different from the tradition Kirk labored to recover. But that tradition, whether by its proper name or not, endures in the heart and in those depths of the mind that are more than merely rational. Continuity with Kirk is a thing to be felt and not simply known. There are earthly monuments to Russell Kirk in the institutions he founded, including Modern Age. Yet there’s also a spiritual and moral monument in the change he brought about in America and conservatism, giving both a greater sense of communion with what has been lost in our gothic past but isn’t really lost at all.