Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement

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by Paul Gottfried: The
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A book of
mine, Leo
Strauss and Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal
,
is about to come out with Cambridge University Press; and it has
a special connection to the Mises Institute. Much of the critical
thrust comes from attending conferences sponsored by the Mises
Institute and from getting to know my fellow- participants and
their writings. Although I harbored strong doubts about my latest
subjects even before these encounters, my conversations with David
Gordon, Murray Rothbard, Robert Higgs and Thomas DiLorenzo and
later, discovering Mises's comments about Strass gave additional
substance to my suspicions. My project became a way of calling
attention to a significant body of criticism that the liberal-neoconservative
press and most scholarly organizations wouldn't deign to present.
I was upset in particular by the inability of David Gordon (and
Lew Rockwell) to find a suitable publisher for a long, incisive
work that David had produced about Harry Jaffa's reading of American
history. It was one of the most cerebral "value critiques"
by a living thinker that I had seen.

Why, asks
David, should Jaffa, a cult figure who is wined and dined by GOP
benefactors, be immune from the type of assessment that other
authors of scholarly works should have to accept? Why do Straussians
like Jaffa, Allan Bloom, Thomas Pangle, and Charles Kesler achieve
canonical status as "conservative" thinkers without
having their ideas rigorously examined in widely accessible forums?
It seems that the only appraisals such figures have to deal with
are puff pieces in neoconservative publications and the scribbling
of inflamed leftists attacking them as rightwing extremists.

Note that
my book does not come out of any political engagement. It is in
no way a statement of my political creed. Although hardly friendly
to the Wilsonian Weltpolitik of the Straussians, I devote more
space to defending my subjects from unjust critics than I do to
dissecting their views. Nor was my book produced, as one nasty
commentator writing to the executive editor of an Ivy League press
explained, because I'm "a very angry person" trying
to settle scores. Apparently my madness would "permanently
discredit" any press that was foolish enough to publish me.
My book at any rate is not an expression of pique, and I bend
backward to make sense of arguments that I have trouble accepting
at face value. I also treat main subject, Leo Strauss, with respect
and empathy, even while disagreeing with his hermeneutic and liberal
internationalism. I stress that for all his questionable judgments,
Strauss was a person of vast humanistic learning, and more thoughtful
and less pompous than some of his famous students. I fully sympathize
with the plight that he and others of his background suffered
who because of their Jewish ancestry were driven out of their
homeland and forced to live in exile. My own family suffered the
same fate.

What seemed
intolerable, however, was the unwillingness of Straussians and
their adulators to engage serious critics, some of whom have been
associated with the Mises Institute. These expressions of moral
self-importance may go back to Strauss himself. Murray Rothbard
observed that at a Volker Fund conference, his teacher Mises had
argued vainly with Strauss about the need to separate facts from
values in doing research. Strauss had retorted that there are
moral judgments inseparably attached to our use of facts. This
supposedly indicates that one could not or, perhaps more importantly,
should not draw the fact/value distinction that Mises, and before
him, in a different form, Max Weber had tried to make. In response
to these statements, Mises argued that facts remain such, no matter
how people dress them up. "A prostitute would be plying the
same trade no matter what designation we choose to confer on such
a person." As the debate wore on and Strauss began to moralize,
Mises lost his equanimity. He indicated to Rothbard that he was
being asked to debate not a true scholar but a "gymnasium
instructor."

In my book
I quote David, who has taken over and elaborated on the criticism
offered by his teacher and Murray's teacher Mises, namely, that
the Straussians reach for moral platitudes against those who are
better- armed with "facts." One reason David is mentioned
so often in my monograph, and particularly in the chapter "The
Method Deconstructed," is that he did much of the deconstructing
for me. While helping with the proofreading, which is another
service he performed, David commented about how much he enjoyed
my text; then, in typically David-fashion, he listed as his favorite
parts of my book those pages on which he's mentioned. Actually
he missed more than half of the references to him, including two
of them in the acknowledgements.

Like other
thoughtful critics of Straussian methodology, specifically Grant
Havers, Barry Shain, and Kenneth McIntyre, David was essential
to my work. But in his case listening to him reel off what was
wrong with how the Straussians read (or misread) selected texts,
inspired my project. Without the fact that David cornered me about
ten years ago at a conference in Auburn and explained to me in
between Borscht Belt jokes the fallacies of Strauss and his disciple,
I doubt that I would have done my book. His conversation and written
comments, stored in the bowels of the Lew Rockwell Archives, made
my task considerably less burdensome. One remark from David's
conversation in Auburn that I still remember was his hypothetical
rejoinder to Harry Jaffa in a debate that never took place. Jaffa
insisted on the pages of National Review, and in fact wherever
else he wrote, that we should believe in equality because Lincoln
did (never mind that Di Lorenzo, among others, has challenged
this view of Lincoln with counter-evidence). David asked that
"even if we assume that Jaffa was expressing Lincoln's real
opinion, why should we have to hold the same view"? And why
are we supposed to impose Lincoln's opinion on unwilling subjects
by force of arms? No one else to my knowledge has asked these
indelicate questions.

Even then
David and I were sick of the smarminess with which certain Straussians
would respond to logical and factual objections. Calling one's
opponent a "relativist" or scolding him for not embracing
universal democratic values is not an answer at all. It is an
arrogant evasion of a discussion. David also observed that in
their attempt to find "secret writing" in texts, Straussians
would almost compulsively read their own values into the past.
Presumably all smart people who wrote "political philosophy,"
no matter when they lived, were religious skeptics, yearning for
something like "liberal democracy." This speculation
could be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed and contributed zip
to scholarly discussion. Like me, David also wondered why none
of the great minds whom the Straussians wrote about was ever shown
to be a Christian heretic or something other than a forerunner
of those who are now revealing their concealed meanings. One might
have thought that if concealment was their intention, these fellows
on at least some occasions would have been hiding non-modern thoughts
from the public or their monarchs. Why do all "secret writings"
seem to have originated with a Jewish agnostic residing in an
American metropolitan area?

An observation
in my book contrasting Straussian enterprises to the Mises Institute
also warrants some attention here. The Miseans and the Straussians
both claim intellectual descent from Central European Jewish scholars
who fled from the Nazis. Moreover, both groups have processed
these biographical experiences and incorporated them into their
worldviews, but in totally different ways. Whereas the Miseans
view their founder as the victim of a particularly noxious form
of state socialism, the Straussians emphasize the evils of the
"German connection," as explained by Allan Bloom in
The
Closing of the American Mind
. While the Miseans focus
on the link between state planning and tyranny, the Straussians
finger the uniquely wicked heritage of the Germans in telling
us why "liberal democracy" is always under siege. Strauss
himself established this perspective, when in Natural
Right and History
he stressed the continuing danger of
German ideas, even though the German military threat had been
defeated six years earlier.

While the
disciples of Mises favor an isolationist foreign policy designed
to dismantle socialism at home, the Straussians are perpetually
reliving Munich 1938, when the "democracies" backed
down to a German dictatorship, just as they had failed to confront
the supposed iniquities of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914. One might push
the contrast even further: while the Mises Institute celebrates
the Vienna in which the Austrian School of Economics took form,
including the generally supportive liberal monarchy of Kaiser
Franz Josef, the Straussians have continued their efforts to counter
a threat that they see originating in Central Europe. During the
student revolts of the 1960s, Allan Bloom and his soul-brothers
blamed these outbursts on German critics of modern democracy.
Strauss's star students managed to find the German threat wherever
they looked. In one of my earliest encounters with Straussian
professors, at Michigan State in 1967 and 1968, it was explained
to me that German historicists had fueled the antiwar student
protest with their antidemocratic notions. This connection seemed
to me so surreal that it caused me to reflect on the life's experiences
of those who could believe such things.

Significantly,
these Straussian attacks on the tainted German heritage play well
in our society of letters. A Jewish liberal-neoconservative presence
(perhaps predominance) in the media and in the academy renders
some Straussian fixations profitable. Well-placed intellectuals
are still agonizing over the "German catastrophe" in
a way that they don't about other bloodbaths, particularly those
unleashed by Communist tyrants. There is also a culture of defeat
and self-rejection among the Germans which fits perfectly with
the Straussian war on German ideas and German illiberalism. Although
the Left may attack the Straussians rhetorically as "fascists,"
it shares many of their sentiments, particularly their revulsion
for German culture and for German politics before the First World
War.

Another factor
has helped the Straussians professionally: Their impassioned Zionism
has enhanced their moral acceptability in Jewish and neoconservative
circles. If their interpretive gymnastics may sometimes drive
their political fans up the wall, Strauss's disciples win points
where it counts. They are recognized as part of the journalistic
establishment. Whereas the Miseans (and a fortiori this author)
would have trouble getting into the New York Times, Washington
Post or neoconservative publications, Straussians (and their
allies) appear in all these venues as both authors and respected
subjects. Nothing is more baffling than the complaint that the
"liberal media" ignore or persecute Straussians. This
gripe is almost as baseless as another related one, that Straussians
are excluded from elite universities. Would that I had been excluded
from academic posts during my career the way the Straussians have
been.

I do not
mean to suggest that there is something wrong with how the Mises
Institute has dealt with its founder's experiences in Central
Europe. Its approach to this aspect of twentieth-century history
has been rational and even commendable. But it has certainly not
won the Mises Institute the moral acceptability that the Straussians
have achieved by taking the opposite position. Curiously, leftist
opponents have laced into the Straussians for not being sufficiently
Teutonophobic. Despite the scornful references to German ideas
in their polemics, these Straussians are alleged to be perpetuating
the hated German connection while pretending to denounce it. In
short, one can never hate German thought sufficiently (except
of course for Marx and a few other selected German leftists) to
please our current cultural industry. But Straussians can at least
be credited with having made a start here.

One final
point may belong here: The professional and journalistic successes
of Strauss's students have had little to do with their efforts
to revive a "classical heritage" or to make us appreciate
Plato and Thucydides. The argument I try to make in my book is
exactly the opposite: the Straussians have done so well at least
partly because they have bet on the right horse in our current
liberal internationalist politics. They provide window-dressing
and cultic terminology for a widely propagated American creed
pushed by government and the media, featuring calls for armed
"human rights" campaigns, references to the Holocaust
and the Anglosphere, and tributes to liberal or social democratic
"values." The Straussians have made names for themselves
by putting old and even stale wine into new bottles.

December
7, 2010

Paul
Gottfried [send him mail]
is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown
College and author of Multiculturalism
and the Politics of Guilt
, The
Strange Death of Marxism
,
Conservatism
in America: Making Sense of the American Right
, and Encounters:
My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers
.
His latest book, Leo
Strauss and the American Conservative Movement: A Critical Appraisal
,
was just published by Cambridge University Press.

The
Best of Paul Gottfried

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