In the comments of Social Matter and on several other similar sites, a peculiar type of creature can be seen popping up. This creature is passingly familiar with classical literature and can pass for someone on the right side of the political spectrum. They avoid issues of controversy and insert themselves into theoretical discussions. Most whom I’ve seen do not demonstrate the capacity to understand the conversation, but their purpose is not to contribute but to insert and name-drop, to shift the conversation toward a book or theory of a man named Leo Strauss.
Paul Gottfried wrote a book entitled, Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, which I believe is a must-read for anyone concerned with political entryism, especially in illiberal movements. This book review will also serve as a warning; when you see the Straussian coming, the solution is a quick ban. The Straussian is the entryist par excellence, as Gottfried illustrates in this seminal work, and is never productive toward any attempt at intellectual or ideological development.
Gottfried writes his book because he has seen a pattern in academia where the Straussians have taken for themselves the mantle of the Right and used it to exclude non-Straussian rightists from the academic conversation, largely serving as the right-end guard of the Left. The goal of Straussians in their rightward attacks is to limit all political discourse to debates about institutions and foundations, and thereby place the topics of culture, religion, and ethnicity out of bounds.
This is precisely the reason that the Left tolerates the Straussians in high positions in academia and politics; from the Left’s perspective, they’re the prison wardens of the Right, nasty individuals themselves but preferred to the nastier inmates. Straussians are urban, Jewish and Catholic intellectuals, so they swim in the same waters as the Left but identify Right and perform this policing function which anchors the frame of acceptable discourse firmly to the Left. Gottfried is writing to vindicate the Old Right, which was supplanted by the academic Straussians in the late 20th Century and in politics by their neoconservative students, by critiquing both Strauss and the Straussians from the Right.
Gottfried traces the origins of Strauss’s thought from his education among German Jewish intellectuals of the Weimar period. He points to teachers like Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig which formed the foundation of Strauss’s own mixed feelings toward his Jewish heritage. Cohen’s neo-averroeism served as the source of Strauss’s own proclamation that faith and reason, religion and philosophy, were fundamentally irreconcilable and the necessity of grounding philosophy in a kind of rationalistic discourse which excluded any form of metaphysics or religious content.
Strauss’s famous treatment of Thomas Aquinas shows this tendency in full, wherein Aquinas is assimilated into a Natural Rights framework by stripping metaphysical meaning from Aquinas’s use of Reason, turning it into a purely mechanistic notion based on logic. Strauss’s experience of Weimer Germany and its collapse formed the character of this thinker, described by Gottfried as, “…stuck in 1938, reliving the battle where democracy failed to stand against anti-semitism.”
For the Straussians, all politics revolves around reliving and winning the same fight forever, and the recourse they choose is that, “Thus, democracy must be taught as a cult to be spread overseas,” so that the rise of the Nazis might never happen again. This appeal to rationalism and the exclusion of metaphysics from politics is a core element of this Straussian cult of democracy.
According to Gottfried, the reason this approach is so appealing to Strauss and his followers is that it permits the assimilation of Christian scholarship to the modern democratic tradition by denuding it of its Christian character, thus both making it palpable for Jewish and atheist scholars and stripping Christians of any distinct intellectual culture of their own from which anti-semitism might arise. Strauss himself took a nuanced approach to rightist Christian thinkers like Carl Schmidt, generally criticizing them in academic terms for failing to support liberal democracy against Nazism despite respecting of the quality of their work, but his followers, being more partisans than scholars, would reject this approach for a more confrontational rhetoric centered on universalist liberal democracy. This feature is central to the vast majority of Straussian works as epitomized by the example of Michael Zuckert’s Natural Rights Republic, in which Zuckert denies any Christian influence whatsoever on the foundation of the United States, declaring the American foundation to be a product of Lockean liberalism and 18th Century religious skepticism.
The most famous element of Strauss’s hermeneutic is his theory of esotericism in political philosophy. According to Strauss, the incompatibility between philosophy and religion forces all philosophers to write in a format where the surface reading of a text conforms to the state religion while the hidden meaning expresses the truth of philosophy, which is anti-religious and rationalistic. For those interested, the method is elaborated in Persecution and the Art of Writing. Gottfried argues that this “hidden” meaning tends to be whatever the Straussian believes to be the “rational” opinion, such that “a properly read Straussian hermeneutic demonstrates than any author is secretly a Jewish intellectual from New York or Chicago.” Thus, Strauss claims to show that every philosophical text can be seen as part of a giant, secret conversation by philosophers throughout the ages which is hidden to the eyes of the uninitiated but revealed to the Straussian method.
As mentioned, for Straussians, the overriding priority of political philosophy is the protection of universalist liberal democracy against all challengers, which is seen as the only barrier against anti-semitism. Strauss was well known for his personal conflict with the leaders of the APSA for their refusal to become partisans of the United States against the Soviet Union, which he primarily criticized in terms of their treatment of Jewish refuseniks. Straussian politics are rationalistic and practical because they revolve around this central goal. Straussians are primarily concerned with cementing an international political order whose universalism will provide a fool-proof barrier to anti-semitism, which has two major consequences.
First, the Straussians and their Neoconservative students from University of Chicago and Yale have no real disagreements with the Left on domestic issues, and only disagree on international relations. Irving Kristol, in The Neoconservative Persuasion says as much, explicitly separating neoconservatives from the Old Right by saying that the neoconservatives do not reject and in fact embrace the Great Society reforms of the 60s. Straussians began to leave the Left when the Left abandoned Kennedy/Johnson-style hawkishness and anti-communism, turning into the early neoconservatives. Straussians see the American military as a tool to enforce the cult of democracy around the world, thus to embed protections against anti-semitism in all nations.
This is why major Straussian thinkers like Harry Jaffa idolize Abraham Lincoln as the ideal American president; the combination of democratic rhetoric backed by militarism is the model Straussians wish to imitate around the world, and the conquest of Dixie is seen as the beginning of a world-wide mission to impose the democratic cult by force. Straussians reject classical liberalism or libertarianism because legal equality fails to provide sufficient protection against anti-semitism; only a full egalitarian program through liberal democratization eliminates the risk of another Nazi regime.
Secondly, this leads to the peculiar characteristic of the Straussian scholar as professing political neutrality and embracing the label of educator rather than partisan. Straussians see themselves in a life-or-death Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil, in which reason, philosophy, and skepticism battle revelation, religion, and anti-semitism for control of world politics. Strauss taught that the division between philosophy and religion required the philosopher to act from the shadows. To step out would be to risk the wrath of the Christian establishment and to follow in the footsteps of Socrates. The Straussian philosopher, therefore, is a teacher to the children of the elites, never taking power for himself but indoctrinating the youth in the secret, esoteric teachings of the great writers. While the parent would think that their children are learning Plato and, not understanding the hidden meaning, think they were being educated, the Straussian would pass on the hidden, anti-religious, rationalistic, democratic meaning to the student. Thus, the student of the Straussian would eventually take power and implement the project of Straussian philosophy. The Straussian scholar, therefore, abjures from politics himself, claiming neutrality. This is not a front, however, because they are interested in controlling both parties, not just the Right, and they argue that universalist liberal democracy is the whole of acceptable politics, with all positions outside being anti-semitic crime, not politics.
Thus, Gottfried gives us a summary of the influence of Straussian thinkers on the American Right and the problems posed by these thinkers infiltrating and largely commandeering the Republican Party. All politics are subordinated to the goal of universalist liberal democracy because this is the only ideology the Straussians believe will dissolve the majorities within the various nation-states of the world, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Irving Kristol reinforces this theme in several essays in the collection, The Neoconservative Persuasion, arguing that the goal of the NeoCons is to drag the Right into a position compatible with liberal democracy and that the Jewish project in America is to transform the entire country into New York. Straussianism and its counterpart Neoconservativism are, in Gottfried’s words, “a counterrevolutionary imitation of the Left, affecting a right-wing pose without a right-wing worldview.” It is rightist only in the sense of resisting the leftward drift beyond universalism into radical identity politics which the Straussians see as reopening the domain of politics for a resurgent anti-semitism in the model of Al Sharpton.
To Gottfried’s work, let me add the following. Gottfried focuses on the Jewish origins of Straussians but gives little attention to the Claremont Catholic wing, which was attracted to Straussianism during the Catholic intellectual renaissance in the United States during the 50s. What was attractive to the Jewish Straussians was also attractive to the Catholics of the 50s, namely dissolving the Protestant and Anglo-Saxon character of American culture in favor of a universalistic proposition nation, in which the Catholic minority could operate without standing out from the majority.
In order to create a space free of anti-Catholic sentiment, Catholic Straussians embraced this movement and form many of the foot soldiers of the academic and political wings. These Straussians, I argue, are the most dangerous for two reasons. First, they are more likely to be convincing in projecting a right-wing or reactionary pose. Their social conservativism seems to place them outside the mainstream of the Left, thus disguising the fact that in all but faith, neoconservative Catholics are no different than liberals. They are well-placed to infiltrate Catholic traditionalism and practice typical Straussian entryism from that angle. Second, Catholic Straussians are converts and true believers. They tend to be more radical than their Jewish counterparts who are largely pragmatic, following in Strauss’s footsteps by focusing on the safety of the Jewish community over abstract political discourse and theory.
Catholic Straussians make up the bulk of the clean-cut, well-dressed conservative foot soldiers at academic conferences and conservative movement functions, and combine the fanaticism of faith with their new religion, a blend of soft-serve Christianity with Straussian liberal democracy.
When the Straussian commenter shows up in the comments section, do not treat this person like someone seeking discourse. The Straussian is an infiltrator, even more dangerous when he comes professing Catholicism and claiming to be a man of the Right. Gottfried’s book goes into far more detail about the character of Straussian political theory than I could possible describe in this short book review. Take the time to pick up this short work for yourself. At 170 pages, it is manageable and indispensable to understand an enemy who pretends to be on our side.