An excerpt from
The Truth about Leo Strauss
Political Philosophy and American Democracy
Catherine and Michael Zuckert
Mr. Strauss Goes to Washington?
A specter is haunting America, and that specter is, strange to say, Leo Strauss. Dead more than thirty years by now, Strauss was a self-described scholar of the history of political philosophy. He produced fifteen books and many essays on his subject. Although well known and very controversial within his discipline, he never achieved public fame. For example, during his lifetime he was not reviewed in places like the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books. He was not accorded the kind of public notice that other philosophic figures of our age, such as Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, or Richard Rorty, acquired. Although Strauss's books covered a broad range of topics in the history of philosophy—ancients like Plato and Xenophon; medievals like the Arab philosopher al Farabi, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, and the Christian philosopher Marsilius of Padua; and moderns like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Heidegger—he gained little acclaim because nearly his entire corpus consisted of studies of figures from the history of philosophy and because he himself therefore rarely spoke out in his own name on issues of political life. Moreover, the character of his studies had limited appeal; they were distant from the concrete issues of politics. He wrote detailed, almost Talmudic interpretative studies, dedicating more space to questions like how often Machiavelli cited the Roman historian Livy than to the substantive discussion of Machiavelli's principles of realpolitik. Such interpretative practices not only excluded Strauss from that broader public recognition attained by an Arendt—whose shared interest in the history of philosophy did not prevent her from pronouncing on issues like the Vietnam War—but it also cut into the acceptance of his work within the more specialized scholarly community to which it appeared to be primarily addressed. Many scholars found his books nearly unreadable, and many others considered them so drastically misguided in their substantive readings of the history of philosophy that he was often dismissed by fellow scholars as an eccentric or, worse, as a willful and distortive interpreter of the philosophic tradition.
Thus, James Atlas observes that "Strauss's work seems remote from the heat of contemporary politics. He was more at home in the world of Plato and Aristotle than in debates about the origins of totalitarianism." Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet point out that "Strauss never wrote about current politics or international relations. He was read and recognized for his immense erudition about Greek classical texts, and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sacred writings. He was honored for the power of his interpretive methods." "Strauss," two other commentators conclude, "did not write books in such a way as to be immediately relevant to the policy debates of his day or ours. Rather the reverse." Nearly a decade ago, Richard Bernstein wrote a piece about Strauss titled "A Very Unlikely Villain (or Hero)."
Despite these testimonials to Strauss's remoteness from practical politics, we see claims of the following sort: Time magazine in 1996 called Strauss "one of the most influential men in American politics." Before that, Strauss was identified as particularly influential on the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He is held to have really come into his own in the second Bush administration, however, and particularly in that administration's foreign policy, most especially in the Iraq War. In the discussion of the war, it has been nearly impossible to miss "Strauss-in-the-news." The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic Monthly, to mention only a few of the most mainstream media outlets, have all carried stories about Strauss and his purported influence on the George W. Bush administration. The coverage of Strauss is not limited to American media, either: the Economist, Le Monde, and Asia Times, to say nothing of newspapers and journals in Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands, have joined in with articles on the scholarly Strauss.
The claims put forward in this recent literature are quite remarkable. The Economist identifies Strauss as the latest in a long list of alleged "puppeteers" pulling the strings of President Bush. Jeet Heer in the Boston Globe informs us: "We live in a world increasingly shaped by Leo Strauss, who is 'the thinker of the moment' in Washington." In an article entitled "The Long Reach of Leo Strauss," William Pfaff assures us that "Strauss's followers are in charge of U.S. foreign policy." Even though he is among those who explicitly note Strauss's apparent remoteness from politics, James Atlas takes seriously the claim that the Iraq War "turns out to have been nothing less than a defense of Western Civilization—as interpreted by the late classicist and philosopher Leo Strauss." He cites certain "conspiracy theorists" who believe that "the Bush administration's foreign policy is entirely a Straussian creation." Although Atlas seems reluctant to endorse the view of these conspiracy theorists—which he nonetheless repeats without dissent—he does, in his own name, answer the question "who runs things?" as follows: "It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to answer: the intellectual heirs of Leo Strauss." As evidence in support of that answer, he points to the fact (or alleged fact) that "the Bush administration is rife with Straussians." The Le Monde writers identify Strauss as one of two "master thinkers," the "theoretical substratum" beneath the neoconservatives, who, they say, "have marginalized center or democratic center left intellectuals to occupy a predominant position where the ideas are forged that dominate the political landscape."
If one strays from mainline media and consults the Internet, the home of modern electronic democracy, one finds even more extreme claims. Not only does Strauss control the Bush administration, or the neoconservatives, or the Republicans, but he is the éminence grise behind the Democrats as well, or at least that wing of the party associated with Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Restricting ourselves for the moment, however, to the mainstream media, it is difficult to draw a consistent picture of what Strauss is said to stand for and thus of what his allegedly immense influence is wielded in support of. Two features of the popular media presentations stand out. The authors are concerned above all to grasp those aspects of Strauss's thought that seem to have some direct connection to the policy positions the authors are attempting to explain. But there is little evidence that the reporters and columnists have "done their homework," that is, that they have read much of Strauss at all, to say nothing of reading him with the kind of care that their own description of his work suggests is necessary for understanding his elusive and politically remote thinking. The consequences are predictable: there is a fair amount of disagreement among the different writers, and the agreement there is appears almost to be deduced from the writers' conceptions of what Strauss must have said in order to produce the policy results they are trying to explain. It is hard to avoid the thought that there is something circular about the literature: the exposition of Strauss's thought is motivated by the desire to find in it the themes that resonate with Bush foreign policy, and the writers' conceptions of the themes that drive that foreign policy are then attributed to Strauss with little independent effort to find them in his texts.
Two broad substantive themes do stand out, however. For convenience' sake, let us call these Straussian Wilsonianism (or Straussian idealism), and Straussian Machiavellianism (or Straussian realism). One, for the most part, is meant to explain the genesis and purposes of Bush foreign policy insofar as Strauss's thought has anything to do with it; the other, the justification for the means by which that policy has allegedly been pursued.
A composite picture of Strauss's Wilsonian idealism would run something like this: Strauss's chief motivation as a thinker derived from his desire to oppose the twin forces of positivism and historicism, which separately and in combination produce relativism in political thinking. Positivism is the theory that says only scientifically (empirically) supportable claims merit the label of truth; all claims of the sort we have come to call values (for example, judgments of what is morally and politically good, right, and just) are pronounced merely subjective preferences, which can never be rationally validated. Only facts and broader theoretical conceptions built upon facts can be rationally established and defended. Values are thus "subjective" and "relative" to their holders.
Historicism goes even further than positivism in a relativistic direction: even truths of the sort positivists are willing to accept as rationally defensible are rejected as being subjective, as being dependent on or expressive of values—indeed, identified as value judgments themselves. In contrast to positivism, historicism, and relativism, it is said, Strauss taught "the immutability of moral and social values." This commitment to what is often technically (though never in the popular media) called "value cognitivism" ran contrary to the "moral relativism" dominant in the 1960s and1970s.
Moral relativism was not, in the eyes of Strauss and his followers, a merely academic foible; it underlay, among other things, the dominant foreign policy approaches of the era. It accounts for the sense of "malaise" so evident, for example, in the Carter years and the policy of détente pursued in the Nixon (Kissinger) years, a policy based on a notion of convergence of, or even moral equivalence between, western liberal polities and their communist adversaries in the cold war. In place of value relativism and the drifting foreign policy established under it, Strauss and the Straussians affirmed the necessity for "moral clarity," a term one hears fairly frequently from the lips of President Bush and Strauss-influenced political thinkers like William Kristol. Moral clarity, based on value cognitivism, is thought to supply clearer guidance on foreign policy than do the tenets of relativism.
But the bare commitments to value cognitivism and moral clarity in policy say nothing in themselves of what exactly one is committed to. The media writers (mostly) find Strauss committed to liberal democracy. Perhaps the most unequivocal statement of that position came from Strauss's daughter in an op-ed piece in the Times. Strauss "believed in and defended liberal democracy; although he was not blind to its flaws, he felt it was the best form of government that could be realized." Frachon and Vernet emphasize Strauss's sober and restrained, yet solid, commitment to liberal democracy; like Winston Churchill, Strauss "thought that American democracy was the least bad political system. No better system has been found for the flourishing of the human being." According to Atlas, Strauss finds "the free society . . . the best man has devised." Writers who are sympathetic to Strauss are the most insistent in emphasizing his stance in favor of liberal democracy. Writing some years before the hubbub about Iraq, Dinesh D'Souza pointed to Strauss's and his students' employment of "the philosophy of natural right to defend liberal democracy and moral values against their adversaries."
Thinkers more hostile to Strauss make the same point. Charles Larmore says that "Strauss repeatedly declared his allegiance to modern liberal democracy. Some of the bitterest opposition to Strauss supposes that he rejected such values . . . but this is a misconception. . . . As a political form, liberal democracy seemed to him a good approximation to the ideal." Paul Gottfried, a self-described "paleo-conservative," finds the Straussian position to be a "defense [of] global democracy or a . . . standing up for 'values,'" a position of which he does not approve, for he thinks it amounts to "managerial tyranny" in practice.
Strauss, according to the consensus of mainstream writers, may have endorsed liberal democracy as best, or at least as good enough, but he also, the Economist says, "emphasized . . . the fragility of democracy." "Strauss's influence on foreign-policy decision-making . . . is usually discussed in terms of his tendency to view the world as a place where isolated liberal democracies live in constant danger from hostile elements abroad, and face threats that must be confronted vigorously and with strong leadership," says Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. Strauss's sense of the fragility and vulnerability of liberal democracy is often traced to his personal experience in the 1930s. "As a young man, he lived the dissolution of the Weimar Republic under the converging attacks of the communists and the Nazis. He concluded that democracy had no ability to impose itself if it stayed weak and refused to stand up to tyranny."
Moral clarity—the refusal of relativism—thus means defense of liberal democracy in the face of its vulnerability. The particular version of "defense" is related to one of Strauss's most characteristic themes: "the central notion of the regime." According to William Kristol, one of the most frequently identified neoconservative Straussians in Washington, Strauss has "restored" a political science "that places the regime in the forefront of analysis." The regime, the nature of the internal ordering of a political community, "is much more important that all the international institutional arrangements for the maintenance of peace in the world." The greatest threat comes from states that do not share American democratic values. Changing these regimes and causing the progress of democratic values constitutes "the best method of reinforcing security (of the United States) and peace." Thus, it is alleged, Straussians endorse a Wilsonian agenda of an active, even militant foreign policy aimed at "regime change" and, in principle, universal implantation of liberal democracies throughout the world. "Moral clarity" is taken to mean an unabashed recognition of the difference between liberal democracy and the various less free alternatives it faces and has faced in the world (e.g., Communist dictatorships or radical Islamic theocracies), together with a commitment to act to bring into being a world where the better regimes (those that are liberal democracies) predominate. That action is premised on both self-interest (American security is best achieved in a world of likeminded regimes) and benevolence (peoples everywhere are better off and actually prefer, if they are free to express their preferences, a free and democratic polity).
This Wilsonianism, or militant commitment to the worldwide spread of liberal democracy, is but one-half of the dominant view of the Straussian orientation, as portrayed in mainstream media sources. It is, strange to say, combined with a very hard-edged realism, which tends to be a feature distinguishing it from human rights idealism. Strauss, it is said, may be committed to liberal democracy and its spread, but his is a peculiar version of liberal democracy. William Pfaff, for example, identifies the Straussian theory as "a bleak and anti-utopian philosophy that goes against practically everything Americans want to believe. It contradicts the conventional wisdom of modern democratic society." In the first place, Straussian theory is unabashedly elitist: "There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must . . . exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order." According to Jeet Heer, "Strauss believed that classical thinkers had grasped a still-vital truth: inequality is an ineradicable aspect of the human condition." Peter Berkowitz identifies the elitism charge as one of the three chief elements in the current set of allegations about Strauss. Strauss "emphasized . . . the importance of intellectual elites," according to the Economist; a recent study of American conservatives found that "it is hard to be more elitist than the Straussians."
The novelty or uniqueness of the alleged elitism can, of course, be much overstated, for one strain of American political science, going all the way back to the Federalists, has always emphasized the significant role of elites within democratic politics, as have more current writers like Joseph Schumpeter and Robert Dahl. But in the media presentations, Strauss's elitism is different and appears more sinister than other versions of democratic elitism. His elitism is presented as more intellectual: the relevant division between the elite few and the many is the line between philosophers and nonphilosophers. What distinguishes Strauss's elite is not wealth, status, power, or military or economic power, but recognition of "the truth." This truth is hard to face: there is no God, and there is no divine or natural support for justice. "Virtue . . . is unattainable" by most people. "The . . . hidden truth is that expediency works." Or, alternatively: "Strauss asserted 'the natural right of the stronger' to prevail."
The truths discovered by the philosophic elite "are not fit for public consumption." Philosophy is dangerous and must conceal its chief findings. Philosophers must cultivate a mode of esoteric communication, that is, a mode of concealing the hard truth from the masses. "Only philosophers can handle the truth." The elite must, in a word, lie to the masses; the elite must manipulate them—arguably for their own good. The elite employ "noble lies," lies purporting to affirm God, justice, the good. "The Philosophers need to tell noble lies not only to the people at large, but also to powerful politicians." These lies are necessary "in order to keep the ignorant masses in line." Thus Strauss counseled a manipulative approach to political leadership. In sum, the media writers conclude, Strauss held that "Machiavelli was right." When read with "a skeptical mind, the way he himself read the great philosophers . . . Strauss . . . emerges a disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity."
The Machiavellian side of the Strauss served up in the mainstream media is also readily connected to the Iraq War and Bush foreign policy more generally. Just as the Wilsonian side is used to explain the ends of neoconservative policy, so the Machiavellian side is used to explain the means deployed in procuring consent to the war. The various claims raised by the administration to justify the war—the apparently nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the apparently nonexistent links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda—are connected to the Straussian themes of elite manipulation and noble (or not-so-noble) lying.
One of the very difficult questions thrown up by the composite view of Strauss we have just summarized concerns the relation between the Wilsonian idealist side and the Machiavellian realist side. There is, to say the least, a tension between the two. Some attempt to resolve the tension by emphasizing one side at the expense of the other. Thus, there are writers who suspect that the Wilsonianism is mere "exoteric," or public doctrine, and that the hard truth that "expediency is all," or that "natural right is the right of the stronger," dominates and sets the ends as well as the means of political action. But the alternate view holds as well. That is to say, the attribution of either of the two main theses to Strauss is in fact controversial, and the discussion in the media is of little help in understanding what Strauss actually stands for.
Peeling the Onion: Tracing an Urban Legend
Strauss's rise to prominence in the media is as part of a story of connected persons and events: (1) Strauss supposedly influenced a large body of students, who (2) either became or influenced the group called neoconservatives. These neoconservatives (3) entered government and influential media in large numbers and (4) either made policy themselves, or influenced those in the Bush administration who did. Among the policies they devised or promoted are (5) the Iraq War and the broader new strategic doctrine announced in the document "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America," issued in September 2002 over the signature of President Bush. Thus, by a chain of transitivity we arrive at the conclusion: Leo Strauss caused the Iraq War.
Strauss's prominence in the story of the Iraq War, or in the story of the neoconservative ascent to power, remains a puzzle, however. He did not, it will be recalled, write much about practical politics, and certainly not about international relations. Moreover, even if every link in the aforementioned chain were real—which we will argue is not the case—Strauss's rise to notoriety in the media would remain puzzling because, so far as we have seen, those who have been allegedly influenced by him have not paraded his name and doctrines and have not defended or explained their policy preferences by reference to Strauss or his views. Whence, then, comes the connection to Strauss?
The first to suggest a link between Strauss and makers of public policy was, so far as we can tell, the English professor of ancient philosophy Miles Burnyeat, in a well-known piece in the New York Review of Books from 1985 titled "The Sphinx Without a Secret." Although the article was directed more toward Strauss's scholarship and his academic following, Burnyeat did identify at least one policymaker in the then current Reagan administration as a Straussian. Burnyeat did not have a long list, as the more recent writers do, and he did not place the political influence of Strauss-influenced individuals at the center. His claims were thus far less cosmic than those made by later versions of the "Strauss is running the government" literature. Yet one senses that the political implications Burnyeat perceives in Strauss's work are quite central to what motivates him to his scholarly critique of Strauss. As one reviewer of the Burnyeat diatribe put it, "the dispute between Strauss and Burnyeat is, in the end, not a scholarly dispute. It is political." Burnyeat particularly objects to the way, as he sees it, "Strauss's 'ruthless anti-idealism' [leads] to a dangerously aggressive foreign policy." Political concerns drive Burnyeat's critique—he is especially eager to challenge Strauss's interpretation of Plato's Republic as the philosophic source of that "ruthless anti-idealism"—but he is operating more in the mode of warning or forewarning. The one Straussian in government whom he identifies is also a classical scholar, with whose work Burnyeat was most likely familiar before he made the Strauss connection to the Reagan administration. He did not begin from the political side and move back to Strauss in search of intellectual forebears of a dominant political clique. Thus, this first explicit linking of Strauss and Washington is limited in its claims and intelligible in its origins: Burnyeat, a scholar, knew the work of Strauss, another scholar, and perceived a political tendency in it, which he saw realized to some degree in the person of another scholar who was a member of the Reagan foreign policy team. Accordingly, although the Burnyeat critique made something of an impression in academic circles, it had no power to draw Strauss into the daily press.
Another commentary linking Strauss to practical politics was an essay by Gordon Wood in the New York Review of Books. Wood was reviewing a number of books related to the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987–88. He identified a cluster of scholars influenced by Strauss and devoted to scholarship on the founding period. Unlike Burnyeat, who treated Strauss scholarship dismissively, Wood spoke with respect, if not agreement, with the Straussian scholarship. He did note—and dissented from—a tendency he saw in that scholarship to support the doctrine of "originalism" in constitutional interpretation. He did not voice any worry, however, about Straussians running the government. Burnyeat and Wood represent what we might call the prehistory of the "Strauss and Straussians in politics" motif. They made limited claims, and the claims they made are not in any way puzzling, even if one may be inclined to dissent from some of them, as we are.
The number of public allegations of links between Strauss and Washington made a quantum leap with the publication of a 1994 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Brent Staples. Although he wrote it during the Democratic Clinton administration, Staples was concerned about conservative ideas that had become or were "poised to become . . . central . . . [to] this country's social policy." He was remarkably ill-informed about Strauss's views, but he asserted quite assuredly that Strauss's "ideas have crept into vogue in American politics." "Strauss," he intoned, "appealed to the conservative elite because he viewed the status quo as an expression of divine will." Staples named two individuals in or near practical politics who bear the mark of Leo. Strangely, the two he named, Thomas Sowell and Robert Bork, had nothing whatever to do with Strauss. He also named two writers of books more distant from politics, Allan Bloom and William Henry, author of In Defense of Elitism. Like Bork and Sowell, Henry had nothing to do with Strauss; his book never mentions Strauss or draws on Straussian ideas. Bloom was indeed a student of Strauss's, and his best-selling Closing of the American Mind did make use of Straussian thought. This appears to have been a lucky hit for Staples, however, for what he said about Bloom's book does not make one confident that he had read either it or any of Strauss's writings.
Staples's attempts to link Strauss to the politics of the day were also less puzzling than the current wave of such efforts. Staples, like Burnyeat, had a special reason to hit upon Strauss. As he recounts in his article, he arrived at the University of Chicago for graduate studies in 1973, the year of Strauss's death. He was thus aware of Strauss as a Chicago figure and connected him with Bloom, who was returning to Chicago in the years Staples spent there and whose Closing of the American Mind became a major item in the culture in the years between Staples's attendance at the University of Chicago and his writing of his op-ed piece.
Staples's screed revealed something of the power of the New York Times editorial page, for his assertions were bandied about in both liberal and conservative media outlets, producing the first wave of interest in Strauss in such places. This flurry of interest did not last long, nor was it so widespread as the recent wave of Strauss-in-the-news. Perhaps the coup de grce was administered to this mid-nineties round of interest in Strauss by a thoughtful, if sometimes inaccurate, article in the New York Times by Richard Bernstein. Unlike many of the writers in the wake of the Iraq War debate, Bernstein did read at least one essay by Strauss, and his reading led him to conclude that Strauss's ideas were "not . . . especially conservative," nor was his elitism, such as it was, incompatible with democracy.
The character, intensity, and quantity of interest in 2000 and after are thus very different from the earlier interest shown in Strauss's alleged influence on politics in America, as well as being much more puzzling. A clue to the puzzle appears in several of the recent mainstream media essays. In June 2003, after the Strauss craze had erupted in the mainstream media, Robert Bartley published a piece in the Wall Street Journal recounting the boast made by a member of the Lyndon LaRouche organization that the media were following LaRouche into what Bartley called the "the fever swamps" of anti-Strauss fulmination. Bartley himself was somewhat uncertain whether to credit the LaRouchite claim to have pioneered the Strauss "exposé," but there is evidence to support their claim. In the first place, LaRouche and his people were on the Strauss story well before the regular media got to it. The first irruption of Strauss into the reputable media in the United States (in this round of interest) was the James Atlas "Leo-Cons" article of May 4, 2003. However, Atlas was preceded by the April 19 article in Le Monde by Frachon and Vernet. They, in turn, were preempted by a salvo of publications, press releases, and other communications about Strauss, the neocons, and Bush foreign policy emanating from the LaRouche organization. LaRouche wrote an essay dated March 5, 2003, titled "The Essential Fraud of Leo Strauss," which was followed up by a number of essays and press releases by LaRouche himself or members of his group all through March and early April.
The LaRouche materials clearly did not go unnoticed, for Atlas in the "Leo-Cons" piece makes reference to "intellectual conspiracy theorists" who claim that "the Bush administration's foreign policy is entirely a Straussian creation." This is certainly a reference to the LaRouchites, for they are the only "conspiracy theorists" at that time positing a connection between Strauss and Bush foreign policy. The Economist in June, shortly after Bartley's Wall Street Journal editorial, also identified the LaRouche literature as the origin of the buzz about Strauss and Bush foreign policy.
It is likely, moreover, that the relatively early essay by Frachon and Vernet was influenced by the LaRouche literature, also. One aspect of the chain of writings particularly suggests a link between the LaRouche materials and the Frachon-Vernet essay: the latter identifies the two "master thinkers" of the neoconservatives as Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter. In one of the LaRouche essays predating Frachon and Vernet, the parallelism between Strauss and Wohlstetter is drawn via their twin presence in the background of Paul Wolfowitz. (Interestingly enough, both Jeffrey Steinberg, the LaRouchite, and Frachon and Vernet are more careful in their presentation of the Strauss-Wohlstetter connection to Bush foreign policy than Atlas is in the Times; for Atlas identifies Wohlstetter as a Straussian, which he most definitely was not, whereas the others keep him separate from Strauss, except in the influence both had on certain statesmen of the day, particularly Wolfowitz.) Beyond the Strauss-Wohlstetter point, another sign of a LaRouche influence on Frachon and Vernet is that all the people identified by the latter as Straussians were so identified in the LaRouche writings, with the exception of a few individuals in the media, who were not discussed by the LaRouchites. Finally, another very clear connection between the LaRouche materials and the mainstream media is the clear dependence on the LaRouchites of Seymour Hersh's essay in the New Yorker about the Pentagon intelligence operations allegedly run by a Straussian, Abram Shulsky. Jeffrey Steinberg, in the same essay that highlights Strauss-Wohlstetter as mentors of neoconservative leaders, also discloses the Shulsky intelligence operation, well before Hersh's article.
The conclusion to which the evidence is leading, we think, is that the "story" about Strauss began in the LaRouche camp and jumped from there to mainstream media—for the most part without attribution. This is not to say that the mainstream journalists took over the LaRouche line hook, sinker, and all, for the story changed a fair amount as it moved from the pamphlets and Internet postings of this fringe, if not quite lunatic, political group into the most august venues of international journalism. Nonetheless, it is a fact worth noting that that is the jump that occurred.
To trace the explosion of interest in Strauss back to the LaRouchites helps settle some of the puzzle surrounding this literature: the mainstream writers came upon the notion of Straussians under nearly every bed in Washington in the LaRouche literature. But that is merely to push the puzzle back one step: how did the LaRouchites come to formulate the theory of the Great Straussian Conspiracy? The simplest answer is that LaRouche and his followers are given to conspiracy theories and there need be no particular rhyme or reason to any given theory they develop.
Perusing the LaRouche literature suggests there is more to it than this, however. One of the earliest LaRouchite statements, by LaRouche himself, is less about the Straussian Washington connection than about Strauss's way of interpreting Plato. It must be nearly unique in American politics that a presidential candidate—for that is what LaRouche was (and most of the anti-Strauss material was posted on his campaign Web site www.larouchein2004.net)—makes the interpretation of Plato a major issue in his campaign. The fact is, LaRouche fancies himself a Platonist and takes great issue with Strauss's approach to Plato. Indeed, his objections to Strauss as a reader of Plato are remarkably similar to Burnyeat's, for he objects to the presentation of Plato's "anti-idealism." LaRouche is a self-proclaimed "Promethean," a believer in the (infinite?) possibilities of technological progress for the betterment of the human condition. Plato, he believes, underwrites this Promethean project; LaRouche maintains in his Web site that the Socratic dialogue "expresses a principle of knowable certainty of truthfulness, . . . a method which undergirds the progressive achievement of knowledge, true principles governing the universe, which can then be 'applied.'" The progressive adumbration of knowledge-based technology in turn allows the development of ever more egalitarian and wealthy societies. There are interests in society, however, some material, some intellectual, which put up roadblocks to this progress in knowledge and power.
Strauss's approach to Plato, denying the progressive character of Platonic thought, is one such roadblock. Strauss is thus "a depraved anti-Promethean creature." Strauss "tended to uproot and eliminate the idea of progress, on which all the true achievements of our U.S. republic had depended." Because Strauss stands against progress (and reads Plato as doing so as well), LaRouche wonders whether Strauss is "actually human," or instead a product of some kind of "reversed cultural evolution, into becoming something less than human."
Eccentric as he may be, LaRouche appears to have read some of Strauss's writings and to have had opinions about him prior to the debate over the Iraq War. He had Strauss in his sights before March of 2003 and thought about Strauss in a larger context than most of the mainstream writers did. Of course, when the mainstream media picked up the Strauss theme from LaRouche, they trimmed away most of the bizarre eccentricities and added some theories of their own. So, very little of the Prometheus–anti-Prometheus theme migrated over to the regular media. But two of the chief theses of the LaRouche literature did make the crossing: the strong claim that Strauss stands behind neoconservative thinking, especially on foreign policy and the war, and the notion that Strauss is a Machiavellian or a Nietzschean, a "child of Satan" or perhaps Satan himself, as the title of one LaRouche pamphlet suggests. It is the LaRouchites who produced the long lists of Washington Straussians that made it into places like the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Characteristically, the LaRouchite version of the carryover themes is stated in more extreme and immoderate language, but the main elements of what the mainstream press promoted as Straussian are present in nearly recognizable form in the LaRouchite statements. In contrast to LaRouche's own promodern, proprogressive, prodemocratic Prometheanism, Strauss is presented as regressive and fascist—even Nazi. According to one of the LaRouchite statements, significantly subtitled "Leo Strauss, Fascist Godfather of the Neo-Cons": "A review of Leo Strauss' career reveals why the label 'Straussian' carries some very filthy implications. Although nominally a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany . . . Strauss was an unabashed proponent of the three most notorious shapers of the Nazi philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt. . . . Strauss, in his long academic career, never abandoned his fealty to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Schmitt."
The LaRouche writings constantly affirm the Nietzsche-Heidegger-Schmitt-Nazi filiation of Strauss, and then they group him with a surprising set of thinkers (mostly fellow émigrés), who allegedly stand for the same "fascist" principles. Thus LaRouche himself associates Strauss with Karl Jaspers, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and Jean-Paul Sartre; and to this "gang" Steinberg adds Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Leo Lowenthal. The grouping of Strauss with these others—a diverse group indeed, including some of the best-known leftists of our day, such as members of the Frankfurt School and Marxist existentialists like Sartre—is itself surprising, for Strauss is usually thought of as a man of the right-of-center with little sympathy for the "bedfellows" LaRouche is identifying for him. But the grouping the LaRouchites come up with makes a certain sense from their perspective. All the thinkers they name have in the first instance been influenced by Nietzsche and especially Heidegger, and all have reservations about modernity. From LaRouche's "Promethean" perspective, the differences between these thinkers are less important than their antiprogressive orientation.
Thus Steinberg identifies "the hallmark of Strauss's approach to philosophy" as "his hatred of the modern world, his belief in a totalitarian system, run by 'philosophers,' who rejected all universal principles of natural law, but saw their mission as absolute rulers, who lied and deceived a foolish 'populist' mass, and used both religion and politics as a means of disseminating myths that kept the general population in clueless servitude." Tony Papert, another member of the LaRouche organization, expands on these themes: according to Strauss, "moral virtue had no application to the really intelligent man, the philosopher. Moral virtue only existed in popular opinion, where it served the purpose of controlling the unintelligent majority." Papert attributes to Strauss the nihilist views "that there is no god, that the universe cares nothing for men or mankind, and that all of human history is nothing more than an insignificant speck in the cosmos, which no source began, that it will vanish forever without a trace. There is no morality, no good and evil; of course any notion of an afterlife is an old wives' tale."
These "truths" are so harsh, says Papert, that "the philosopher/superman is that rare man who can face" them. In order "to shape society" in the interest of those "philosophers themselves . . . the superman/philosopher . . . provides the herd with the religious, moral, and other beliefs they require, but which the supermen themselves know to be lies . . . they do not do this out of benevolence, of course." Their public face is all "exoteric" doctrine; they attempt to rule indirectly through "gentlemen" whom they indoctrinate with their false but salutary myths. Although the character of the connection to foreign policy is somewhat vague, the LaRouchites are insistent that there are strong foreign policy implications to their Machiavellian-Nietzschean-nihilistic philosophic stance: "Their policy is to permanently transform the United States, from a constitutional republic, dedicated to the pursuit of the general welfare and a community of principle among perfectly sovereign nation states, into a brutish, post-modern imitation of the Roman Empire, engaged in modern imperial adventures abroad, and brutal police-state repression at home. . . . Raw political power was the ultimate goal."
Although the position is more immoderately and harshly put by the LaRouchites, we see in their writings the elements of the Machiavellian strain we have identified in the mainstream media literature on Strauss and Straussians. The regular media clip off the harsh edge and drop some of the more arcane references (e.g., to Heidegger and Schmitt), but they tell essentially the same story as LaRouche. However, they modify that story in one other way: there is no hint of what we have called the Wilsonian strain of Straussian or neoconservative policy as expressed in the mainstream media. The LaRouchites are more certain that anything that looks like this is pure "exoteric doctrine."
Going Yet Deeper into the Onion: Shadia Drury
Beneath or within the mainstream media treatments of the Straussian invasion of Washington lies the journalistic-political propaganda of the LaRouche movement. A strange bedfellow for the New York Times and Le Monde, to be sure. But a close look at the LaRouche literature reveals that we have not yet reached the heart of things. LaRouche may have had his own personal views on Strauss as a Plato scholar and an anti-Promethean, but the LaRouchite literature persistently cites and picks up theories from another source, which it adds to LaRouche's indigenous ideas. Papert's essay "The Secret Kingdom of Leo Strauss" relies on the work of Shadia Drury for its explication of the intellectual roots of Strauss's thought. In that context, he refers to her The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss as "by far the best book on Strauss." Steinberg in his "Profile" of Leo Strauss cites Drury's other book on Strauss, Leo Strauss and the American Right, as the source for his list of Strauss-influenced politically powerful neoconservatives.
Even when the LaRouchites do not cite Drury explicitly, it is clear to those who know her work that they are drawing from it. For example, LaRouche and his faction regularly accuse Strauss of following the triumvirate of "Nazi theorists," Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt. This is a position originally developed by Drury in her two books, and when she put it forward, it was quite unique to her. Another major thesis in the LaRouche literature is the claim that Strauss finds Thrasymachus to be the "hero" of Plato's Republic, and not, as millennia of readers have believed, Socrates. This too is a position Drury pioneered. In other words, the LaRouche treatment of Strauss depends heavily on Drury: behind the eccentric and frequently kooky conspiracy theorists stands Drury, a scholar. The trail thus leads from the mainstream media to LaRouche and thence to Drury.
Drury's influence on the discussion has not been entirely indirect via the LaRouchites. She has a direct presence in some of the literature, especially left-leaning journals and Web sites. In much of this material we find citations to Drury's writings, in particular her Leo Strauss and the American Right, the book that (along with Robert Devigne's Recasting Conservatism), in a nonjournalistic venue, pioneered the claim of the link between Strauss and neoconservative politics. Several such articles recount interviews with her about Strauss and his purported political influence, and in one case she posted a short essay on the topic on the Web site of an Australian foundation.
Drury stands somewhere behind the eruption of media coverage of Strauss and Straussians, but her own statements in the media are much closer to the LaRouche version than to what we find in the mainstream media. Perhaps her views are most concisely put in the conclusion to an essay she wrote in response to the Atlas and Hersh articles: "It is ironic that American neo-conservatives have decided to conquer the world in the name of liberty and democracy, when they have so little regard for either." Drury dismisses the dual emphases we have noted in the mainstream media—what we have called the Wilsonian and the Machiavellian strains of the Straussian position—by referring to the distinction between "the surface reading," appropriate for public dissemination, and "the 'nocturnal or covert teaching,'" suitable for the Straussians themselves alone, but the true core of their thought and policy prescriptions. In her rendition, the Wilsonianism is surface, the Machiavellianism the covert or true doctrine. She rejects the Wilsonianism attributed to the Straussians by Hersh and others in no uncertain terms: "Strauss was neither a liberal nor a democrat"; therefore his followers are most definitely not crusaders for the worldwide spread of liberal democracy.
Drury's account of Strauss is not necessarily more accurate than that found in the mainstream media or in the LaRouche material (we will argue that she is far from accurate), but it must be said that her account is at least informed by a serious reading of Strauss's works. She is recognized as a major scholarly voice on Strauss, having written two books on him and his followers and a third book in which he plays a prominent part. Her voice has therefore been taken to be particularly authoritative by media writers and has had an undeniable impact on public opinion.
Although her first book, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss, was critical of Strauss, it was also marked by respect for the man. Strauss was, she said there, "an important philosopher worthy of study." She admits to having learned from him, despite her ultimate dissent from his views. By the time she became a participant in the current more popular discussions, her tone had substantially changed. Although she is slightly more nuanced about it, she is the source of the ideas expressed so often in the LaRouche literature and sometimes suggested in the more mainstream literature that Straussian thinking is fascist or Nazi in character. She is the source of the notion, now frequently repeated, that Strauss was a student and follower of the triumvirate of Nazi thinkers: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt. Thus, in her public writings she has made such strong claims as these: "Hitler had a profound contempt for the masses—the same contempt that is readily observed in Strauss and his cohorts. But when force of circumstances made it necessary to appeal to the masses, Hitler advocated lies, myths and illusions as necessary pabulum to placate the people and make them comply with the will of the Fuhrer. Strauss' political philosophy advocates the same solutions to the problems of the recalcitrant masses."
Drury's interest in Strauss of course predated the current efforts to connect him to the Iraq War. She has been an important voice in this effort because she wrote an earlier book, well before the Bush presidency, tying Strauss to the "American right," complete with a list of important alleged Straussians—many of whom, by the way, had nothing to do with Strauss at all. Her book followed the lead of Brent Staples's earlier attempt to link Strauss and conservatives in politics, but her effort was infinitely better informed, far more concrete, and in general more powerful. Although her work was not inspired by the Iraq War, she did not hesitate to jump on the bandwagon that she had, in a certain sense, started up, or at least inspired. In her recent public statements, she has enthusiastically and in an ever-more-extremist manner connected Strauss to Bush policy. She informs us that "the Straussians are the most powerful, the most organized, and the best-funded scholars in Canada and the United States. They are the unequalled masters of right-wing think tanks, foundations, and corporate funding. And now they have the ear of the powerful in the White House." Strauss is "the inspiration behind the reigning neoconservative ideology of the Republican party." His students, "a cultish clique . . . have left the academy in quest of political power." Being "poorly trained" for the academic life, Strauss's students are "held in contempt" in the universities, even though they are "the most powerful" group of scholars in Canada or the United States. Therefore they left to seek power, or were hounded out as incompetents to run the Republican party think tanks, corporations, the government of the United States, and no doubt the United Nations. (Her charges remind one a bit of the old claims about the trilateral commission and the UN's black helicopters.) Strauss's students "aspire to action," not the scholarly life. They are moved by their own quest for power.
She has no difficulty connecting these omnipotent incompetents to Iraq. For one thing, they believe in the need for "perpetual war." "Perpetual war, not perpetual peace is what Straussians believe in." They therefore support "an oppressive, belligerent foreign policy." Strauss believes that political communities require "external threats" in order to be stable and unified. "If there is no external threat, one has to be invented." In her mind, this is what Iraq represented.
Since the war was fought for reasons of this sort, it had to be sold to the public on other terms, for no sane group of people would conduct a policy built on such views. This was not difficult for the Straussians to do, for "they are compulsive liars." They, following Strauss, are "very preoccupied with secrecy." Being "compulsive liars," they had no difficulty mounting a deceptive defense of their war. Although the Iraq War was really sought as part of their attachment to "perpetual war," "public support" for it "rested on lies about Iraq's imminent threat to the United States"—all that business about weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi links to al-Qaeda.
Although Drury's statements as part of the recent public attention to Strauss and the Straussians are on the whole more polemical and exaggerated than in her earlier books, the main line of her comments follows the argument of the books. Strauss, according to what she has said in both her scholarly and her popular statements, is no kind of Wilsonian, for he is no partisan of liberal democracy. He is in fact an enemy of liberal democracy. He and his followers seek "to turn the clock back on the liberal revolution and its achievement." He has a "hatred for liberal modernity." He had "a profound antipathy to both liberalism and democracy," but "his disciples have gone to great lengths to conceal the fact." (This, we suppose, is why they always speak as defenders and partisans of liberal democracy; only Drury can see through the pretense).
Strauss, as is well known, is a partisan of "ancients" (e.g., Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle) over "moderns" (e.g., Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau), but, according to Drury, Strauss has an idiosyncratic, not to say unique, reading of the ancients: he reads them as Machiavellians, or even Nietzscheans. Thus Drury strongly endorses (is actually the ultimate source of) the other half of the media image of Strauss, Strauss the Machiavellian. Drury's Strauss is a Machiavellian of a peculiar sort, however. Her Strauss favors the ancients, who agree with Machiavelli in all respects but one: they are atheistic and amoral, like Machiavelli and Nietzsche, but are critical of the moderns for openly admitting these things. The truth, according to Drury's Strauss, is that there is no God, no divine or natural support for justice, no human good other than pleasure. Her Strauss, in a word, is a nihilist. These truths are too hard and too harsh for the ordinary person. Only philosophers are capable of facing or living with them. Thus philosophers must conceal the truth from most human beings and communicate it secretly or esoterically to each other. In place of truth, they must tell the people lies; they must give the people sugarcoated myths that will console them and make them fit for social life. These myths include teachings about the gods, the afterlife, and natural justice or natural right. The philosophers manipulate the masses with lies and deception.
The philosophers tell themselves (or others) that this manipulation is for the good of the people, but, Drury insists, it is more than anything for the sake of the philosophers themselves. It caters to their desire for power. The Straussian philosophers see themselves as "the superior few who know the truth and are entitled to rule." They affirm no natural right but the "right of the superior," by which they mean themselves. However, she also has Strauss endorse the quite different claim raised by Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic that "justice is the right of the stronger," that is, the thesis that might makes right. The Straussian philosophers seek to rule indirectly, via their influence on the gentlemen, that is, ordinary leaders like George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, who can be manipulated to manipulate the masses.
Her Strauss therefore rejects all the elements of political morality we associate with liberal democracy as defended by modern philosophers like Locke or Kant. There is no "natural right to liberty"; the doctrine of natural quality is rejected; instead Strauss labors to establish the view that "the natural human condition is not one of freedom but of subordination." His chief book "is a celebration of nature—not the natural rights of man . . . but the natural order of domination and subordination." The people are "intended for subordination," and in the final analysis the lies the Straussian elite must tell are for the sake of concealing this unpleasant fact from the people. The people need to be fed religion, and thus the Straussians have "argued that separating church and state was the biggest mistake made by the founders of the U.S. republic."
In sum, Drury is an extremely important voice in the current conversation about Strauss, Straussians, and American liberal democracy. She is the source and presents the best-informed, most articulate version of the anti-Strauss case that is now circulating in the general media. As the author of three Strauss-related books, she has been an obvious quick source for deadline-pressed journalists to consult. And the picture of Strauss they get from her is surely not a pretty one.