Paul Edward Gottfried
Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012
Paul Gottfried’s admirable book on Leo Strauss is an unusual and welcome critique from the Right.
Leo Strauss (1899–1973) was a German-born Jewish political theorist who moved to the United States in 1937. Strauss taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City before moving to the University of Chicago, where he was Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor until his retirement in 1969. In the familiar pattern of Jewish intellectual movements as diverse of Psychoanalysis, Marxism, and Objectivism, Strauss was a charismatic teacher who founded a cultish school of thought, the Straussians, which continues to this day to spread his ideas and influence throughout academia, think tanks, the media, and the government.
The Straussians have not, however, gone unopposed. There are three basic kinds of critiques: (1) critiques from the Left, which range from paranoid, middlebrow, journalistic smears from such writers as Alan Wolfe, Nicholas Xenos, and John P. McCormick, to more scholarly critiques by such writers as Shadia Drury and Anne Norton, (2) scholarly critiques of the Straussian method and Straussian interpretations from philosophers and intellectual historians such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Quentin Skinner, and (3) scholarly critiques from the Right.
As Gottfried points out, the Straussians tend only to engage their critics on the Left. This makes sense, since their Leftist critics raise the cultural visibility of the Straussian school. The critics are also easily defeated, which raises Straussian credibility as well. Like all debates within the parameters of Jewish hegemony, the partisans in the Strauss wars share a whole raft of assumptions which are never called into question. Thus these controversies look somewhat farcical and managed to those who reject liberalism and Jewish hegemony root and branch.
Gottfried offers a far more penetrating critique of Straussianism because he is a genuine critic of liberalism. He is also surprisingly frank about Strauss’s Jewish identity and motives, although these matters come into crisper focus in Kevin MacDonald’s treatment of Strauss. Gottfried’s volume is slender, clearly written, and closely argued—although his arguments tend to be overly involved. Gottfried presupposes a basic knowledge of Strauss. He also talks as much about Straussians as about Strauss himself. Thus this book cannot be used as an introduction to Strauss’s ideas—unlike Shadia Drury’s The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (New York: Saint Martins Press, 1988), for instance.
Gottfried strives to be scrupulously fair. He acknowledges the genuine intellectual virtues of Strauss and some of his followers. He distinguishes between good and bad writings by Strauss, good and bad Straussians, good and bad writings by bad Straussians, etc. But for all these careful qualifications, the net impression left by this book is that Straussians are an obnoxious academic cult engaged in a massive ethnically motivated intellectual fraud, to the detriment of higher education, the conservative movement, and American politics in general.
1. Straussians are Not Conservatives
Straussians like to posture as beleaguered intellectual and political outsiders. But Strauss and his school are very much an establishment phenomenon, with professorships at elite institutions, including Harvard and Yale, regular access to major university and academic presses (Yale, Chicago, and Cornell for the first stringers, SUNY, Saint Augustine’s Press, and Rowman and Littlefield for the rest), and a cozy relationship with the flagships of the “liberal” media the New York Times and the Washington Post.
This favored position is due largely to the strongly Jewish character of Straussian thought and of most Straussians. The Straussians are one of the major vectors by which Jewish hegemony was established over American conservatism. They are promoted by the Jewish establishment as a “safe” alternative to the Left. But they are a false alternative, since there is nothing conservative about the Straussians. Most Straussians are promoters of the welfare state, racial integration, non-White immigration, and an abstract “creedal” conception of American identity—the same basic agenda as the Jewish Left.
Where the Straussians depart from the Left is their bellicose “Schmittian” political realism. They recognize that enmity is a permanent feature of political life, and they fight to win. Although Straussians cloak their aims in universal terms like “liberal democracy,” the common thread running through their politics from Cold War liberalism to present-day neoconservatism is an entirely parochial form of ethnic nationalism, namely using the United States and Europe to fight on behalf of Israel and the Jewish diaspora world-wide.
As Jews in exile, Straussians prefer that the United States be a liberal democracy, a universal, propositional society that does not exclude them from power and influence. But since the world is a dangerous place, Straussians prefer the United States to be a militant, crusading liberal democracy, as long as its blood and treasure are spent advancing Jewish interests in Israel and around the globe.
Since the American Right contains strong militarist tendencies, Strauss and his followers regarded it as a natural ally. It was child’s play, really, for the Straussians to take over the post-World War II American Right, in which a glib, shallow poseur like William F. Buckley could pass as an intellectual leader. All the Straussians needed to do was assume “a certain right-wing style without expressing a right-wing worldview” (p. 115).
Once inside the Right-wing camp, the Straussians worked to marginalize any nativist, isolationist, identitarian, racialist, and genuinely conservative tendencies—any tendencies that might lead Americans to see Jews as outsiders and Israel as a questionable ally. Gottfried sums up Strauss’s project nicely:
As a refugee from a German movement once identified with the far Right and as someone who never quite lost his sense of Jewish marginality, Strauss was anxious about the “festering dissatisfaction” on the American Right. A patriotic, anticommunist conservatism, one that was open to the concerns of Strauss and his followers, could lessen this anxiety about Right-wing extremism. Such a contrived Right would not locate itself on the nativist or traditional nationalist Right, nor would it be closed to progressive winds in the direction of the civil rights revolution that was then taking off. But it would be anti-Soviet and emphatically pro-Zionist. In a nutshell, it would be Cold War liberalism, with patriotic fanfare. (p. 120)
Of course the Straussians did not gain the power to remake the American Right along Jewish lines merely through merit. Like other Jewish intellectual movements, the Straussians’ preferred method of advancement is not rational debate but the indoctrination of the impressionable, the slow infiltration of institutions, and then, when their numbers are sufficient to cement control, the purge of dissidents within and the exclusion of dissidents without. Gottfried has been observing the Straussian takeover of the American Right for decades. He has seen his own ambitions, and the ambitions of other conservatives, checked by Straussian operatives.
Straussians make a cult of great “statesmen” like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. But, as Gottfried points out, “From the standpoint of . . . older [American] republicanism, Lincoln, and other Straussian heroes were dangerous centralizers and levelers, certainly not paradigms of great statesmanship” (p. 111). There is nothing distinctly conservative about the warmongering of Straussian neoconservatives:
Fighting wars for universal, egalitarian propositions was never a priority for authoritarian conservatives like Antonio Salazar or Francisco Franco. Nor is this type of crusade an activity that one might associate with American conservative isolationists like Robert Taft. It is an expression of progressive militarism, a form of principled belligerence that French Jacobinism, Wilsonianism, and wars of communist liberation have all exemplified at different times. (p. 116)
Some Straussian apologists argue that Strauss and the neoconservatives are two very different things. Of course not all Straussians are neoconservatives, and not all neoconservatives are Straussians. But nobody argues for such simplistic claims. Gottfried devotes an entire chapter to the neoconservative connection, arguing that “the nexus between neoconservatism and Straussians is so tight that it may be impossible to dissociate the two groups in any significant way” (p. 9).
Of course, the Straussians and neoconservatives need to be understood in the larger context of Jewish hegemony, and the more specific context of Jewish subversion of the American Right. The problem is not just the Straussians. Thus it could not be solved simply by purging Straussians from American life. The problem is the larger Jewish community and its will to dominate.
If Leo Strauss had never set foot on these shores, essentially the same process of Jewish subversion would have taken place, only the external details would be different. There were other sources of neoconservatism besides the Straussians: Zionist Trotskyites, for example. And long before the birth of neoconservatism, Jews were already at work redefining the American Right. For instance, George H. Nash documents extensive Jewish involvement in the founding of National Review. (See George H. Nash, “Forgotten Godfathers: Premature Jewish Conservatives and the Rise of National Review,” American Jewish History, 87, nos. 2 & 3 [June–September 1999], pp. 123–57.)