Straussians vs. Paleoconservatives

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Having received a note from an inquiring graduate student, Mitch, who is "banging out a Master’s thesis," and cannot comprehend why I have insisted that Straussians and paleos are irreconcilably divided, I wish to offer the following friendly clarification. At the very least my explanation may be help to relieve the "cognitive dissonance" that Mitch has complained about, and which has been produced by my apparent inability to distinguish the disciples of Leo Strauss and neoconservatives.

A German-Jewish classicist who fled to the US in 1938, Strauss (1899-1973) drew around himself enterprising graduate students, who went on to successful academic careers, first at the New School for Social Research and then, between 1949 and 1969, at the University of Chicago. His studies on Hobbes, Machiavelli, Plato, and Xenophon show his particular approach to the history of political theory, a perspective set forth most starkly in Natural Right and History (1953). To all appearances, Strauss was vindicating ancient political philosophy against the claims of historicists and natural rights theorists, who were more concerned with individual pleasure than with a vision of the good life. But the archaicism was deceptive: since rationalism, skepticism, and a pervasive presentism were discernible in Strauss’s tracts even on the ancients. But I should say in Strauss’s defense that at least two of his works are worth reading, his critique of Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political and his study of Hobbes. Both were written originally in German and came early in his career; neither shows the manipulative albeit ponderous style that is characteristic of his later books and a fortiori of those of his less well-educated and politically crazed students.

Mitch has apparently moved, by some thoroughly natural progression, from being a fervent Straussian to the gates of paleoconservative wisdom. For me, however, this is truly mind-boggling. Unlike Mitch, I cannot imagine anyone, who has not undergone second thoughts, embracing paleoconservative positions after sojourning among the Straussians. Having said that, I should note that the “cultural Marxism” that came out of the Frankfurt School reinforced my conservatism. But by the time I began imbibing this German radical tendency, an exposure that David Gordon picked up on in reviewing my books, I was already decidedly on the right. Thereafter I drew selectively from Adorno, Horkheimer, and my teacher Herbert Marcuse, to construct a critique of the practice and ideology of the managerial state.

It is arguably possible for a paleo to be influenced by Frankfurt School critical theory in a way that would not be the case with exposure to Straussianism. The reason for insisting on this distinction is simple and it is one that Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who has also incorporated some aspects of critical theory into his work, would give as well: whereas so-called Cultural Marxists provide a key to grasping the substance and fictions of managerial tyranny, Straussians have created a defense of such tyranny, disguised as global democracy or as standing up for "values." In short, while critical theory can help one to look more deeply into leftist mechanisms of control and global democratic agitprop, the Straussians have worked to justify and misrepresent such control. In the language of Antonio Gramsci, whose thinking overlapped that of the Frankfurt School, Straussians predictably defend the "hegemonic ideology" associated with the ruling class. They are also heavily, indeed obscenely, rewarded defenders of that ruling class, holding high places in leftist academic institutions, in the government bureaucracy, and in bogus conservative "thinktanks."

What is also problematic for me about a Straussian road leading to the right (see my book, Search for Historical Meaning) is that Straussians uphold a version of the American regime that is quintessentially leftist. Their version of "democracy," which receives its final apotheosis in Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, abhors historical and cultural particularities. Its advocates are always beating the drums for an American imperial mission to make every country over into a "universal nation" nurtured by the concept of "human rights" and open borders.

Israel is the one famous exception to this enforced universalism; and all Straussians are both obsessed and experts at wielding the anti-Semitic branding iron against anyone who does not accept their “Middle Eastern policy.” Mitch identifies Straussians with an ethic of “prudence,” but I see no evidence of this virtue in their political statements. For the most part, like all neocons, Strauss’s epigones are busy pushing our country into war on behalf of their pet causes. And outside of admitting more Palestinians to Israel, I am not aware of Straussians screaming “non mas” to immigration, on the basis of “prudence” or anything else.

It was Straussians who saddled us with the odious slogan that "the U.S. is a propositional nation," the proposition in this case being whatever strikes the fancy or political interests of neoconservatives. By the way, Mitch, can you cite a single case in which Straussians have broken from their neocon look-alikes to stand with the paleos? I know of no such situation. And if the Straussians and I are so much alike, why did they invest time and funding to have a graduate professorship denied to me after being offered at Catholic University fourteen years ago? Perhaps that was only fraternal admonition that I mistook for an unfriendly act.

As for taking Straussian thinkers seriously, the problem is they rarely transcend their social democratic agendas, their casting of those they dislike, particularly Southerners and Germans, as perpetual villains, and their zealously maintained historical distortions. Note while Straussians do not believe in "historicism," they do confabulate on historical topics for the good of "the regime." And they are not merely inaccurate historians. Their crusade to vilify Tom DiLorenzo for telling the truth about the reserved right to secession among states entering the federal union, and about Lincoln’s conventional Victorian views about blacks, seems entirely fueled by nineteen-sixties left-liberal fanaticism. The Jaffaite response to Professor DiLorenzo has been an exercise in Stalinism, featuring name-calling instead of documented refutation.

Finally I am unimpressed by most of Strauss’s characteristic interpretations of “political philosophers” who are turned into precursors of his own school of hypocritical skeptics. Strauss’s Averroist reading of Plato resurrects questionable medieval interpretive methods, supposedly to show that Plato did not really believe in eternal ideals as the basis of knowing. Strauss’s appeal to an Arab skeptic’s skeptical reading of Plato’s dialogues is ultimately non-demonstrable — and therefore arbitrary. Moreover, I still recall my shock when I encountered Strauss’s students offering trendy interpretations of Aristotle’s Politics, e.g., discovering that the ancient father of political analysis was providing in Book One an "esoteric" critique of slavery and sexism. When I asked a published proponent of this view whether she had read Aristotle’s biological observations, I was told they were irrelevant, by which was meant not reflecting fashionable opinions on social questions that were being fathered on dead white males.

Having recently read Strauss on Thucydides, about whom I know a great deal, I was struck by the forced application of the usual Straussian grid. Never would I have guessed from my own examination of the text that Thucydides was writing his histories to demonstrate the superiority of Athenian imperial democracy over the Spartan military aristocracy. Not only was I befuddled, but so obviously were almost all of the classicists I had read on Thucydides, who had not probed deeply enough to discover what a fan their subject was of whatever Straussians are supposed to like. I guess one learns new things every day, though in this case, that new thing is always more of the same, an extended Wall Street Journal editorial or a gloss on a speech by Martin Luther King or Ariel Sharon.

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.

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