Paul Gottfried and Claes Ryn on Leo Strauss

Kevin MacDonald

The academic life is probably like many careers in that ultimately you have to find an audience. Professors spend months or years on a major project, then try to get it published in the best possible venue. Then they hope for positive reviews and, ultimately, acclaim and influence. I suspect that if one did a study based on exit interviews of academics as they retired from the profession, not a few of them would express the feeling that the game was somehow stacked against them—that their work did not get the attention it deserved, that it should have been discussed in all the elite intellectual venues—the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and ultimately, perhaps, become assigned reading in college courses everywhere. They should have been somebody.

Lots of academics probably feel this way, but no one has so explicitly expressed it quite like Paul Gottfried has. In his recent piece, “Claes Ryn, Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss, and Me,” Gottfried is clearly frustrated. He managed to get his book, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, published by an elite academic publisher, Cambridge University Press—no mean feat. But intellectual fame and fortune haven’t happened, and Gottfried is not pleased:

I shall lay my cards on the table. I am outraged at how the usual suspects kept my book from being discussed. Despite my well-known views on certain delicate subjects, I tried to produce a fair study of a difficult topic and bent backward in showing sympathy for the movement’s founder and at least some of his disciples. The successful attempt to white out my work has annoyed me no end.

In order to explain this lack of attention, Gottfried refers to Claes Ryn’s  “Allan Bloom and Straussian Alienation“:

The arguments marshaled by [Claes] Ryn indicate, as does my book, why Straussians reign in the NYT’s Sunday Book Review Section as well as in Conservatism, Inc. Although Ryn does not make this last point explicitly, perhaps for fear of reprisal, a fuller explanation is at least implicit in what he does tell us. His comments may also explain why my book, initially marketed by Cambridge with high hopes and considerable promo, received absolutely no attention in the national Main Stream Media.

For fear of the Straussians.

So how have the Straussians been able to dominate all the high ground of American culture? And in particular, how they have managed to completely co-opt what passes for conservatism? These questions are not really answered by either Gottfried and Ryn, but there are hints. Both emphasize that Straussian ideology has functioned to pave the way for a new elite with no ethnic or cultural ties to the old elite by conceptualizing America as a proposition nation without specific ethnic or religious roots. Given the very large role of Jewish intellectuals among the new elite, the motivation is obvious: If one doesn’t share the ethnic, religious, and historical roots of a society but wants to be accepted as the new intellectual elite, then define the society as having no ethnic, religious, or historical roots. Ryn notes that

the desire to have America be something different from its historical past and to make it perhaps also more palatable to an aspiring new elite is probably most evident and explicit in Bloom’s fellow Straussian Harry Jaffa. Jaffa has made a career of asserting that America must not, repeat, not, be understood as owing anything of importance to an old historical heritage. It must be seen as born out of a radical break with the past and as based on abstract principles of an essentially Lockean cast—Lockeanism understood concomitantly as a departure from earlier thought.

The subterfuge of the Straussians was to attempt to locate this proposition culture in the deep wellsprings of Western culture in order to make it more palatable to conservatives, a position that required them to completely disregard normal standards of scholarship. Thus Plato is presented as an ardent democrat. Ryn:

Allan Bloom contends that Plato, whose iconic status and authority he would like to invoke on behalf of his own beliefs, is markedly different from how a long tradition of classicist scholarship has understood him. Contrary to all appearances, Plato is not scornful of democracy and democratic man. He is a democrat in disguise.

Indeed, in the hands of the Straussians, all of Western philosophy comes down to alienation from society and from tradition—an odd proposal to say the least, and here Ryn also mentions the Frankfurt School as completely on board with the Straussians. The tension arises from the fact that rejection of society and tradition are usually considered to be of the left. As Ryn notes,  “in their disparagement of tradition [they] resemble the open, unqualified left.” In place of tradition and ethnic or cultural particularity, these philosophers opt for universalist abstractions in which the White race or Christianity are excluded as significant categories.


The strategy of painting Western culture in universalist terms with no ethnic content would obviously appeal to Jewish intellectuals intent on establishing their legitimacy as heirs to that culture. (The Culture of Critique focuses on the  work of Horace Kallen as seminal in developing the “proposition nation” ideology.) Ryn suggests that Strauss was hypocritical in rejecting historicism and particularity while maintaining a Jewish identity:

The criticism of “historicism” is one of Strauss’s most well-known and celebrated philosophical themes. He goes to great lengths to discredit respect for tradition and historical particularity. Though this is not the place to explore the topic, one might ask if Strauss was able to reconcile these philosophical efforts with his strong identification with Jewish culture and Zionism. Philosophical consistency would require that his “anti-historicism” be directed also against the tradition with which he identifies and would mean that he is undermining his own heritage. If his anti-historicism is addressed only to general audiences and directed only against competing traditions, it would not be a philosophical stance but a merely rhetorical one, part of a political strategy. A posture of that sort might have seemed appropriate when in the Germany of his youth Strauss was a member of a Zionist alternative to the Hitler youth.

Similarly, Gottfried points out that the alienation so central to Strauss and Bloom stem from their Jewish identities:

Straussianism is unthinkable without the rise of American Jewry to journalistic and academic importance. The “alienation” from the gentile historic and cultural heritage that Ryn is analyzing applies with particular relevance to Jews; and the construction of a Straussian ideology, like Cultural Marxism, may be unthinkable without the critical Jewish contribution. Moreover, the puff pieces about the Straussians’ deep intellectuality that have periodically appeared in the NYT, Washington PostNational Review, Wall Street Journal and Weekly Standard fully reflect the rise to prominence achieved by the group that typically produce the panegyrics to Straussian wisdom as well as Straussian doctrines.

Gottfried and Ryn point to two quite Jewish different approaches to the deconstruction of the West as an ethnic, historical culture, one based on Marx, the other on Strauss. Gottfried:

Ryn notes the common ground between the author of The Closing of the American Mind and, according to Ryn’s description, a radical leftist Harvard professor of literature Stephen Greenblatt, who apparently specializes in deconstructing great literature by emphasizing its socioeconomic context. Both seemed equally intent on divesting America of its ethnic and religious roots. But there is a difference between the two—the Jewishness of whom should be taken as a critical given.

Whereas Greenblatt tries to reduce the achievements of Western culture to accidental products of historical developments, Bloom and his kindred spirits have been more ingenious. They have created their own narrative about the American and Western traditions, which is a glaringly truncated, hypermodern version of both, and they have sold these interpretations to the cognitively disadvantaged or hopelessly gullible as some kind of “conservatism.”

Greenblatt would seem to be a good example of the intellectuals so ably attacked by Ricardo Duchesne in his The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (see also Domitius Corbulo, here, here, and here). Duchesne reviews the huge academic industry of “world history” which aims at showing that the achievements of Western Civilization result either from luck, from rapacity, or because the West benefited from ideas originating in Africa and Asia. Practitioners of this pseudo-science are richly rewarded with lots of grant money, and, like Greenblatt, they are given positions at elite universities.

This points to two different ways utilized by strongly identified Jewish intellectuals to achieve the same end—the delegitimization of any sense of biological peoplehood and unique historical tradition as central to the West. Intellectuals like Greenblatt are paradigmatic of the Jewish hostile elite—gleefully tearing down any sense that Western culture has any moral legitimacy, biological uniqueness, or culture worth preserving. As Ryn notes, Greenblatt “feels no need to conceal his animus against what remains of the old Western world, specifically Christianity. … He openly celebrates the destruction of traditional beliefs and structures.”

This hatred toward the traditional people and culture of the West is a theme of all the Jewish intellectual and political movements of the left discussed in The Culture of Critique. Greenblatt is no different from Freud, Boas, the Frankfurt School, the New York Intellectuals and the Jewish Marxist left in their very explicit attitudes of hatred toward the people and culture of the West and their desire for its destruction.

The difference with the Straussians is that the hatred of the Straussians is masked by their strategy of appealing, in Ryn’s words,  “to some of the conservative elements of the abdicating, essentially Christian order.” Rather than a full-on Marxist assault, the strategy is to convince conservatives that there is no ethnic or religious basis to Western culture by reinterpreting the past to suit a Jewish ethnic agenda of the present.  In this reinterpretation, the West is and always has been nothing more than a “proposition culture” rather than the product of a particular people.

Strauss’s hypocrisy deserves far greater attention. Strauss’s identity and loyalty was to a particular historical people, not to abstract universalisms. Strauss’s Jewish identity is central to my essay “Neoconservatism as a Jewish Movement” [2004] p. 32ff).

[Strasuss] had a very strong Jewish identity and viewed his philosophy as a means of ensuring Jewish survival in the Diaspora.135 As Strauss himself noted, “I believe I can say, without any exaggeration, that since a very, very early time the main theme of my reflections has been what is called the ‘Jewish Question.’ ”136

Much of Strauss’s early writing was on Jewish issues, and a constant theme in his writing was the idea that Western civilization was the product of the “energizing tension” between Athens and Jerusalem—Greek rationalism and the Jewish emphasis on faith, revelation, and religious intensity.137 …

Some great love and loyalty to the Jewish people are in evidence in the life and works of Strauss…. Strauss was a good Jew. He knew the dignity and worth of love of one’s own. Love of the good, which is the same as love of the truth, is higher than love of one’s own, but there is only one road to the truth, and it leads through love of one’s own. Strauss showed his loyalty to things Jewish in a way he was uniquely qualified to do, by showing generations of students how to treat Jewish texts with the utmost care and devotion. In this way he turned a number of his Jewish students in the direction of becoming better Jews.138

Strauss believed that liberal, individualistic modern Western societies were best for Judaism because the illiberal alternatives of both the left (communism) and right (Nazism) were anti-Jewish. (By the 1950s, anti-Semitism had become an important force in the Soviet Union.) However, Strauss believed that liberal societies were not ideal because they tended to break down group loyalties and group distinctiveness—both qualities essential to the survival of Judaism. And he thought that there is a danger that, like the Weimar Republic, liberal societies could give way to fascism, especially if traditional religious and cultural forms were overturned; hence the neoconservative attitude that traditional religious forms among non-Jews are good for Jews.139

This last point also goes some way to explain why Strauss has been so popular among religious intellectuals; Gottfried and Ryn emphasize that Catholic intellectuals have been  drawn to Strauss, and mention several other reasons as well, such as alienation from Protestant America and plain old ambition once the Straussians were in a position to dispense status and other resources.

Strauss’s philosophy was clearly “a mission unto the gentiles” aimed at leaving them with no sense of racial identity or sense of historical particularism but where Jews could retain theirs. Essentially these Straussian intellectuals masquerade as universalists with a deep affection for the Western tradition. Underneath they are highly ethnocentric Jews rationalizing the death knell of that tradition by making it defenseless against the forces of immigration and multiculturalism.

My article concludes by agreeing with the interpretation of Stephen Holmes that, for Strauss,  “The good society… consists of the sedated masses, the gentlemen rulers, the promising puppies, and the philosophers who pursue knowledge, manipulate the gentlemen, anesthetize the people, and housebreak the most talented young”146—a comment that sounds to me like an alarmingly accurate description of the present situation in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world.  The masses are indeed sedated by everything from bloodless Christianity, to Fox News, to wall-to-wall football — clueless about the racial/ethnic disaster that is unfolding in a society whose official ideology is allegiance to a set of ideas and without any historical or racial/ethnic content. And there are droves of talented young Whites who are being housebroken in the educational system and by the continual anti-White, pro-multicultural drumbeat emanating from the mainstream media. Among them are the “promising puppies” who wear their lack of concern about their people and their historical culture on their sleeves.

These puppies are therefore candidates for moving into positions of power in the U.S. and throughout the West. People like UN Ambassador Samantha Power come to mind—”a typical careerist who, despite her earlier spasm of moral consistency, realized that the way to fame and fortune was to make Jewish connections and completely ignore what in 2002 she labeled Israel’s ‘major human rights abuses.’” Tony Blair has more than a touch of the same sickness, and he has been richly rewarded for it. They are legion.

Ryn is clear that Straussianism in the end is a way of dislodging the old WASP elite and justifying the new elite:

[Allan Bloom] had produced another barely veiled attack on traditional America while at the same time providing a defense of the new American establishment that is replacing the disoriented, decadent WASPs. Like Bloom, parts of the new establishment did not want to yield to even more radical forces, such as members of the New Left and the counterculture. Now that we are on the inside, they seemed to say, it is only necessary to make sure that extremists do not undermine our gains or that the WASPs will not stage a comeback.

Although he doesn’t explicitly say it, Ryn pretty clearly understands that Strauss’s philosophy was designed as an ideology that would rationalize a new Jewish-dominated elite in a society whose past has been shorn of any racial overtones and where Christianity, although tolerated if it pledges allegiance to liberalism, is pushed to the background as having no role to play in understanding the deep wellsprings of Western culture.

Gottfried concludes with a quandary:

I’m agonizing over a quandary—the same one I’ve been considering for the last forty years. I have no idea (in fact I never did) how anyone could view Straussians as “conservative” theorists, or, even more problematically, as standing in opposition to the political elite. For decades they have been an integral part of that elite and have profited enormously from their connection to it.

Good question, but a lot of the answer has to do with how Jewish intellectual movements are structured. A theme of The Culture of Critique is that there are several features of Jewish intellectual and political movements that collectively make it unsurprising that Gottfried’s book has not gotten the attention it deserves:

  • All the movements discussed in The Culture of Critique were centered around gurus—charismatic, out-sized figures like Boas, Freud, Horkheimer, Trotsky, and Luxemburg who commanded the absolute loyalty and fealty of their mainly Jewish followers — a pattern that reflects traditional Jewish social structure (reviewed in Chapter 6 of The Culture of Critique). Strauss was no exception:

Strauss has become a cult figure—the quintessential rabbinical guru, with devoted disciples such as Allan Bloom.142 Strauss relished his role as a guru to worshiping disciples, once writing of “the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn.”143 In turn, Strauss was a disciple of Hermann Cohen, a philosopher at the University of Marburg, who ended his career teaching in a rabbinical school; Cohen was a central figure in a school of neo-Kantian intellectuals whose main concern was to rationalize Jewish nonassimilation into German society. (Neoconservatism as a Jewish Movement,” Ibid.)

  • Each of the movements was typified by high levels of ethnic networking (they were “highly cohesive groups whose influence derives to great extent from the solidarity and cohesiveness of the group”), as seen in as mutual citation patterns and lavish praise for the work of fellow movement members.
  • Each of these movements was able to establish itself in elite universities and had access to elite media. As Gottfried noted in a previous publication, “disciples of Leo Strauss have developed their own publishing and reviewing network, including neoconservative publications, Basic Books, and the university presses at Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Chicago (Gottfried, The Conservative Movement, 1993, 73).
  • Once they obtained power, all of these Jewish movements from the far left to the neoconservative right excluded dissenters, ignored their work or viciously attacked them as morally and intellectually defective.  (Tim Haydon has a nice summary of “The Cultural Marxist Terror in Academia” that illustrates what happens to dissenters.) Historically, psychoanalysis was probably the worst offender, complete with show trials where offenders were analyzed in terms of botched transferences and Oedipal complexes gone awry. But being ignored is perhaps the greater punishment—a slow death in the wilderness. Gottfried’s charge that Ryn may not have been explicit about some things “for fear of reprisal” is quite reasonable. Of course, in real science (i.e., where people are trying to understand reality), reprisals, show trials, and character assassinations are quite out of place, and a “fair study of a difficult topic” published by Cambridge University Press  would be impartially reviewed in high places even if it presented some painful depictions of the powers that be.
  • Obtaining power in the elite institutions of the society means that “aspiring intellectuals [the promising puppies], whether Jewish or not, are subjected to a high level of indoctrination at the undergraduate and graduate levels; there is tremendous psychological pressure to adopt the fundamental intellectual assumptions that lie at the center of the power hierarchy of the discipline” (Chapter 6, Ibid.).
  • All of the movements received high levels of support from the wider Jewish community, including Jewish-owned media.

One of the things that amazes Gottfried and Ryn is that the Straussians were able to come up with interpretations of historical figures like Plato that are wildly incongruent with reality but that they managed nevertheless to get these views promulgated from prestigious academic presses and from elite popular outlets like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. The same can be said for psychoanalysis, Boasian anthropology, the Frankfurt School, Stephen Greenblatt, and the world history movement mentioned above.

But if you see this phenomenon in terms of ingroup/outgroup psychology and ethnic networking, the mystery disappears. Fundamentally, all of these movements trade on the fact that there is no demonstrable difference between truth and consensus in the humanities and much of the social sciences. Writing a “fair study of a difficult topic,” as Gottfried quite reasonably thinks he has done, means nothing in this calculus because Gottfried’s ideas put an unflattering spotlight on Strauss and his disciples and because Gottfried himself has a long history of fraternizing with the enemy (e.g., writing articles for VDARE).

When like-minded people coalesce around a particular set of ideas, defend them in prestigious academic and popular media, support each other to the hilt, and aggressively police group boundaries by restricting professional opportunities, anything is possible. Truth and fairness go out the window. Science related to human behavior becomes meaningless because truth is fungible and can be manufactured to meet current ethnic agendas.

We see it all the time. “Diversity is our greatest strength.” “There are no biologically based racial differences.” “Opposition to displacement level non-White immigration is ‘racist’ and hence evil.” “Multiculturalism will lead to a harmonious future of ethnic cooperation, with no costs to Whites.” “Eugenics leads to the Holocaust.” Dissent from any of these and you are likely to lose your job and find yourself ostracized from polite company. You will certainly consign yourself to a life outside the present power structure and give up any hope of being taken seriously by the Straussians or any other identifiable component of the hostile elite. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Frustration happens only if one doesn’t understand how the contemporary world works. Once I finished The Culture of Critique, I was no longer naive enough to think that it would be discussed in the elite academic and popular media. And understanding why that is necessarily the case gives one a certain grim satisfaction—grim because the consequences of the rise of the new elite and their hatred toward the traditional people and culture of the West  go far beyond any personal ambitions. The ideology that Western culture has no links to a particular people and their historical particularism is nothing less than a catastrophe for Western Civilization.

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