Conservatism True and False in America: Evaluating Leo Strauss from the Right

In today’s America, there are two conventional ways of understanding Leo Strauss’s ideas.  These two perspectives, predictably, reflect the opposite poles of the established political spectrum.  On the Left, critics have portrayed Strauss, a German-Jewish émigré who escaped the rising tide of Nazism in Germany, as an enemy of liberal democracy who built a vast intellectual movement in the United States in order to foster a right-wing agenda that is devoted to sexism, class hierarchy, and fascist wars of conquest.   Shadia Drury’s The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988) was only the first volley that leftist opponents have leveled against Strauss.  Leftists like Stephen Holmes, Nicholas Xenos, and William Altman have continued to portray Strauss as an evil elitist bent on creating a Platonic regime that would feed “noble lies” to the ignorant masses in order to cajole them into embracing perpetual war against the forces of social progress.

On the Right, Strauss’s numerous disciples and neoconservative fellow travelers insist that their master was a sincere defender of the democratic regime and the liberal ideals of freedom and equality.  These supporters, who are usually either his students or students of his students, contend that Strauss was a supporter of a classical liberal tradition that is now facing deadly threats from the Left.  This kinder, gentler version of Strauss can be easily found in the writings of Thomas Pangle, Michael and Catherine Zuckert, Harry Jaffa, and Peter Minowitz, all of whom insist that this quiet, reserved teacher of the “Great Works” of political philosophy sincerely admired Anglo-American democracy, celebrated Lincoln and Churchill as stalwart defenders of liberty, and viscerally opposed Nazism and Communism as grave threats to western civilization.  In their view, the best evidence for Strauss’s democratic credentials comes from his lifelong opposition to noxious ideas like “historicism” and “relativism” that fail to distinguish the virtues of democracy from the vices of tyranny.  Although not all of these defenders have been keen on associating Strauss with the controversial ideology of neoconservatism, they generally admit that he shared the most basic goal of this movement:  the protection of liberal democracy from its ideological enemies at home and abroad.

A newcomer to this debate may understandably conclude that both sides have said all that can be said about Strauss’s legacy in contemporary America.  Yet the paleoconservative historian Paul Gottfried begs to differ.  Gottfried is determined to argue that one worthy perspective on Strauss and his movement has been effectively marginalized ever since the Strausskampf began:  that is the voice of an older conservative tradition that repudiates Straussianism without embracing the leftist demolition job that associates him with Nazism.  Gottfried’s new book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal (2012), is as much a study of Leo Strauss’s influence in America as it is an historical narrative about the gradual marginalization of what used to be understood as “conservatism” in America.  Indeed, as he brilliantly shows, these two developments are inseparable.  If Gottfried is correct, the last thing that Strauss and his students want is any association with the Old Right that once meaningfully influenced American politics.  The lasting result for our age is that Strauss and his movement have done irreparable harm to the cause of true conservatism in America.

What is this “Old Right”?  In his earlier studies of conservatism, Gottfried has already answered this question.  In After Liberalism (1999), Gottfried linked this older conservative tradition, in both its European and American manifestations, to nineteenth-century liberalism.  The defenders of this tradition upheld bourgeois Christianity, private property, and the rule of law while they desperately resisted the march towards mass democratic rule, public administration, and the welfare state.  More recently, in Conservatism in America (2007), he associated American conservatism with a similar bourgeois liberal tradition that was deeply shaped by Calvinist theology as well as a strong preference for small, constitutionally limited government.  This conservatism, which had begun to disappear with the onset of the New Deal in the 1930s, also resisted an expansionist foreign policy that, since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, sought the spread of American democratic ideals around the world.  In Gottfried’s view, neoconservatism, whose representatives have supported both a Wilsonian foreign policy and the New Deal, have also succeeded in finishing off this older conservatism as a political force in America.  As he persuasively contends in his new book, the philosophy of Leo Strauss provides the intellectual patina to the neoconservative movement that despises the older version of conservatism.

At first glance, this argument may be a shock to readers who have bought into Strauss’s famous defense of “Athens” and “Jerusalem,” the two founding traditions of the West, as reliably conservative.  What could be more traditionalist than a thinker who seeks the recovery of classical political philosophy and biblical revelation as bulwarks against progressivism, relativism, and totalitarianism?  The problem here, as Gottfried meticulously shows, is that the numerous writings of Strauss and his followers on “Athens” usually portray Plato and Aristotle as “liberals” who, despite their greater toleration for hierarchy, slavery, and sexism, are “forerunners” to the American regime.  (pp. 10, 57, 84)  The Straussian portrait of these Greek thinkers is remarkably modern for contending that they actually preferred democracy over all other regimes and believed in the basic equality of all human beings.  This right-wing version of progressivism leads to the bizarre conclusion that Plato and Aristotle didn’t really mean it when they supported slavery and opposed the democratic “rule of the many.”  Strauss can justify this hermeneutic of suspicion by arguing that philosophers in the past hid their most radical thoughts in order to avoid persecution (and the fate of Socrates).  Being liberals in an illiberal time, they secretly questioned slavery and other hideous practices in coded language that only a few readers (e.g., Straussians) can understand.  Somehow only they can identify the “original intention” of these authors, even though it is secretly expressed and may in fact conflict with their historical context.  Not only, then, do Strauss and his followers exhibit little desire to return to antiquity; they have little sympathy for “abusive reactionaries” on the Old Right (e.g., Mel Bradford, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet) who dare to take Plato literally in his defense of slavery!  These “historicists” give far too much weight to the power of historical context over Plato’s thought, and ignore the “timeless” (that is, postwar American) message of equality and democracy that this brilliant Hellenic philosopher presumably advanced.

As a result, Gottfried heartily agrees with Strauss’s defenders like Steven Smith, who portray him as a Cold War liberal (p. 31).  Strauss, at least in the 1950s, voted Democrat because he believed that the Eisenhower Republicans were too right-wing.  Additionally, most of his students voted Democrat well into the early 1970s.  This political preference is significant, as Gottfried shows, because it not only demonstrates that Strauss was hardly the enemy of postwar liberalism that Drury and other leftists make him out to be.  It also reveals that Strauss displayed little sympathy for traditional conservatism, despite the enthusiastic efforts of students like Harry Jaffa to represent him as a true conservative in the American sense of the word.

Although Gottfried ironically agrees with defenders of Strauss who insist that their teacher was no far rightist, he cleverly uses this point of convergence to his own advantage in order to show that Strauss never manifested any evidence of deep conservative sympathies, even in his Weimar periodStrauss, who may have voted for the centre left in Weimar Germany (pp. 14, 121), only veered rightward when he lent his support to the cause of political Zionism (including right-wing Zionists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky) or when there was no viable political alternative in the offing.  Although leftist critics have also made much of correspondence between Strauss and his friend Karl Löwith in the early 1930s, in which he expresses the hope that a movement of the Right will stop Hitler’s rise in Germany, this evidence is pretty thin gruel for the suspicion that Strauss was a supporter of the Far Right.  Strauss was not alone among European intellectuals or politicians in hoping that a right-wing movement without any predisposition to anti-semitism, like Mussolini’s fascists, would put the brake on Hitler’s Nazis.  The fact that Strauss in his Weimar period admired Nietzsche and Heidegger should not obscure his fundamental portrayal of “historicist” German philosophers in Natural Right and History (1953) as dangerous enemies of liberal democracy.  As Gottfried puts it, “Strauss would spend the second half of his life exhorting others to abandon what had been his youthful obsession” (p. 14:  author’s italics) In short, the foundations for his eventual embrace of Cold War liberalism in America were partly established even before he immigrated to her shores.

As for “Jerusalem,” the other great tradition that Strauss celebrates, Strauss was remarkably silent on the contribution that Christians, Catholic or Protestant, made to this civilization.  Whenever he refers to “Jerusalem,” it is always the Old Testament.  Moreover, Strauss never shows any deep sympathy for the natural law tradition in medieval scholasticism, given his belief that philosophers cannot truly be believers (although they can pay lip service to belief for political purposes).  Still, that fact has not deterred scores of Catholic students from embracing his ideas as Thomistic, perhaps because Strauss’s disinterest in Protestantism resonates with their own biases.  In my own study, Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (2009), I argue that the followers of Strauss either downplay (like Michael Zuckert) the importance of the Protestant influence on American political ideas or (like Harry Jaffa) twist Protestant teachings on charity and human equality into a rationale for global democracy-building that fits Cold War liberalism.  The historical studies of Barry Shain, which Gottfried discusses in detail, similarly calls into question Straussian attempts (like those of Thomas Pangle) to write Protestantism out of the American political tradition.

Given the Straussian predisposition towards secular liberalism, then, the only reason that the Left generally despises Strauss, according to Gottfried, must be that he and his students “are not far enough on the left to please them.” (p. 71).  It is worth noting the irony here that Straussians feel the same way towards the “reactionary” Old Right as the Left feels towards their movement.  While Strauss’s support for Cold War liberalism is now passé among the post-1960s Left, who are more likely to take their inspiration from Theodor Adorno rather than from Walter Lippmann, it is not at all passé among the students of Strauss.  In the style of Cold War liberals who identified America’s traditions with “universal” democratic credos that all human beings hold dear,  Strauss took aim, in Natural Right and History, at paragons of modern conservatism like Edmund Burke for privileging “ancestral tradition” over metaphysical abstractions that celebrate the “rights of man,” while denying that there is a universally good regime (e.g., democracy) for all human beings.   Anyone who dares to doubt democratic universalism is smeared as a relativist or historicist.  Gottfried squarely blames the Straussians for marginalizing “paleoconservatives” (from the Old Right) like himself for preferring these traditions over universal “natural rights.”

Gottfried’s evidence for this rather “cultic” marginalization of true conservative voices is partly personal.  Despite his long record of scholarship on conservatism, his books are rarely reviewed by Straussians.  He also documents how Strauss’s students generally prefer to answer critics from the Left, rather than those from the Old Right, because the leftist portrayal of Strauss as a crypto-fascist is easily disposed of.  (Gottfried kindly includes me as an example of a serious conservative critic of Strauss who has also been ignored.)  This comment needs some qualification.  It is not that Strauss and his neocon disciples have ignored conservatives altogether: it’s just that they don’t take much time to treat conservative critiques with any seriousness.  Instead, they indulge in unsupported generalizations about the Right in general.  A good example of this tendency is Allan Bloom’s bestselling The Closing of the American Mind (1987).  Bloom, who studied with Strauss at the University of Chicago, ominously warns of the “German Connection,” or the insidious influence of German historicism on the protest movements of the 1960s.  Yet Bloom provides utterly no evidence that Nietzsche and Heidegger had greater influence on the counterculture radicals than leftist radicals like Marcuse or Adorno.

Consistent with his historicist methodology, Gottfried shows that it is impossible to understand the remarkable rise of Strauss to intellectual prominence in America without taking into account the context of the Cold War.  In particular, the decline of Old Right isolationism in foreign policy, the anticommunism of voting blocs that have historically voted leftward (e.g., Catholics, labor unions), and the weakness of traditional small-town Protestant Republicanism all contributed to the celebration of Strauss as a major intellectual force in America.

I would add here, only for the sake of emphasis, that America’s postwar rise to superpower status probably guaranteed Strauss’s success as much as it doomed the Old Right.  It also explains why he enjoyed the level of success that he found in nationalistic constituencies that pushed for a more expansionist foreign policy.  Although Strauss opposed the Thomistic synthesis of the Bible and Aristotelian philosophy, that did not stop generations of Catholic students from embracing both Strauss’s defense of natural rights and opposition to relativism as useful positions in their own principled fight against the godless Soviet Union (pp. 32, 42)  Strauss’s celebration of Winston Churchill as the greatest statesman of his time also appealed to the most Anglophile elements of the postwar American elite who long dreamed of a permanent Anglo-American alliance against the Reds.   Predictably, Strauss has scored far less success among libertarians, despite a shared commitment to natural rights, because of his implicit support for a big interventionist state (by voting Democrat in the 1950s) as well as his disdain for Locke as a hedonist.  It is also no surprise that the most Burkean conservatives, like Russell Kirk, could never lend their support to a philosopher that repudiated historicism and, in particular, the historic influence of Christianity on political philosophy in the West.  Needless to say, Gottfried does not confidently predict that either the Burkean or the libertarian factions of the Old Right will one day dislodge the neocons from their perch (p. 171).

It is not that Gottfried denies that Strauss and his movement have made any positive scholarly contribution on their own merits.  Strauss’s command of several languages as well as his authorship of several works on major philosophical texts “indicate far more than conventional scholarly skills” and prove “beyond doubt that he was worthy of multiple doctoral degrees.” (p. 35)   Gottfried also admires the scholarship of Straussians like Stanley Rosen, who have shown no interest in the global democratizing project of the wider movement.

Gottfried additionally takes pains to dissociate Strauss from some of the prejudices that his students have often shown towards all things German.  At times the master “displayed a surprising appreciation for German counterrevolutionaries” (p. 65) and refrained from taking neocon positions on the exclusive culpability of Germany for World War One.  I assume that Gottfried offers these comments partly out of fairness to his subject and partly due to his historicist view that the ideas of a thinker can be altered and reinterpreted over time.  If this historicist reading is sound, then it may be possible and even necessary one day to defend Strauss against his admirers.  Although Gottfried likely would not support such a project, given his view that the ties between the master and his epigones are still very binding, there are some questions that Strauss raises which may have an enduring (if not “timeless”) status.  I must admit, for example, that Strauss’s essays on the radical differences between the Bible and Greek paganism helped me understand the uniqueness of Lincoln’s biblical argument against slavery.  While many of his students downplay those differences, Strauss did not.  Given the massive influence that biblical religions play in shaping the political conflicts of our time, there may come a day when the most important insights of Strauss can be distinguished from the adulterations of the movement that he created.  Until that day dawns, conservatives are well-advised to take seriously the persuasive heterodoxy of Paul Gottfried.