By Stephen Sniegoski
For some time there has been a spirited debate on the connection between neoconservatism and political scientist Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and his disciples. Leading neoconservatives have studied under Straussians: Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense in George W. Bush’s first administration and “architect of the Iraq War”; Abram Shulsky, the Director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which was notorious for its war propaganda on Iraq; Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, the major neocon weekly; Laurie Mylroie, chief propagandist of the idea that Saddam Hussein was masterminding terrorism against the US; Gary Schmitt, former executive director of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC); and John Podhoretz, the son of neocon godfather Norman Podhoretz and current editor of Commentary, the noted neoconservative monthly.
Some commentators have gone so far as to claim that significant tenets of neoconservative thinking were actually derived from Straussian teachings, sometimes referring to the neocons as “Strausscons” or “Leocons”; but others, often Straussian academics themselves, deny the two movements are related. Noted paleoconservative scholar, Paul Gottfried, in his new book (“Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America,” Cambridge University Press, 2012) provides a detailed account of the relationship between the two groups and gives considerable attention to the taboo subjects of Jewish ethnic identity and loyalty to Israel.
Gottfried shows that there is a distinct overlap between the two groups in terms of ethnicity, political views, and social and professional relationships. While all neocons are not Straussians, nor all Straussians neocons, Gottfried notes that “the nexus between neoconservatives and Straussians is so tight that it may be impossible to dissociate the two groups in any significant way.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” pp. 8-9) He maintains that there is a “continuing symbiotic relation” between the two groups. “Neo-conservatives draw their rhetoric and heroic models from Straussian discourse. They also have never hidden their debt to Strauss and the Straussians, even when neoconservative journalists have garbled or vulgarized the message. The Straussians have benefited from the neoconservative ascendancy by gaining access to neoconservative-controlled government resources and foundation money and by obtaining positions as government advisors. It is also hard to think of any critical political issue that has divided the two groups.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 9)
While the German-born Strauss, who came to the United States in 1937, focused on scholarly endeavors, he did aspire to have an impact in the political realm, and the attention devoted to politics has grown exponentially among his followers. Gottfried contends that “the vital center of the Straussian movement has shifted toward direct political involvement and that those who count in that movement are increasingly political players." (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 171) In moving into the political arena, they have joined the neoconservatives.
It might be helpful to touch on a few other aspects of the Straussian approach that loom large in other commentators’ views of the movement. For example, Strauss and his acolytes are strong foes of modern positivism, relativism, and historicism, and claim to adhere to the idea of the objectivity of values, as taught by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and other luminaries of classical civilization. Some critics interpret the Straussian view as indicating support for anti-democratic authoritarian rule, reflecting the type of polity ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle favored. Some of their critics on the Left charge the Straussians with harboring fascist sentiments. Although hardly a Straussian, Gottfried does not hesitate to defend them from these extreme charges. (Gottfried, “Strauss,” pp. 122-123)
In Gottfried’s interpretation, and he is not alone here, Strauss and his supporters realize the need for objective values in order to provide a normative basis for the modern liberal democratic state. Moreover, Gottfried points out that Straussians ahistorically present classical thinkers as friendly to the Straussian concept of American liberal democracy. It should be noted, however, that Gottfried sees modern liberal democracy as essentially a managerial state—a state run by a managerial elite promoting the modern shibboleths of freedom and equality, but not necessarily allowing for either majority rule, traditional individual rights, or the rule of law when these would conflict with neoconservative interests and concerns.
Another often noted aspect of the Straussian school is their distinction between esoteric and exoteric writings. They claim that what noted political thinkers wrote for the public, that is, their exoteric writing, did not always reflect their actual (esoteric) beliefs. They took this approach to avoid punishment by the authorities while trying to convey the esoteric beliefs to the enlightened few. Straussians believe they are able to divine these esoteric beliefs. Gottfried dismisses this idea, contending that Strauss and “his disciples typically find the esoteric meaning of texts to entail beliefs they themselves consider rational and even beneficent.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 99)
Gottfried does not delve far into whether the Strauss and the Straussians themselves write with something like exoteric-esoteric meaning. Do they personally believe what they profess—e.g., the existence of objective truths—or do their professed ideas simply represent what, in their minds, the citizenry should believe for the good of the polity, as a modern equivalent of the “noble lies” of Plato’s “Republic”? With this in mind, it would seem that the Straussian approach could have been used to justify the reliance on spurious propaganda to generate support for the neocon war agenda in the Middle East—as alleged by the Straussians’ harsher critics. It does not appear, however, that Straussian views are actually necessary for the use of spurious war propaganda.
Gottfried stresses that Strauss and most of his followers have been liberals, not conservatives, but grants that they have been on the Right on two significant issues. They have supported the Cold War and Israel. Gottfried opines that “in discussions of Israel or Jewish nationalism, Straussians often sound like members of the Israeli Right or far Right, and this has been taken as evidence that they lean right on everything else. However, the Straussian defense of Israel is pursued within the context of defending Anglo-American liberal democracy. Israel is presented as an outpost of democratic enlightenment, and its defenses by Straussians are no different from those that emanate from such Jewish liberal Democrats as Alan Dershowitz, Abe Foxman, and Rahm Emanuel.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” pp. 69-70)
The Jewish identity that characterizes neoconservatism seems to have appeared earlier in the Straussians. Whereas members of the first generation of neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz do not seem to have championed specifically Jewish ethnic issues, especially Israel, until the late 1960s, Gottfried notes that “A profound preoccupation with his Jewishness runs through Strauss’s life” and that “Strauss’s concerns were more Jewish-centered than were the politics of other German Jewish thinkers.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 19)
As a young man Strauss associated with the Zionist Right, and “revered” Zeev Jabotinsky, who as Gottfried points out was the leader of “a wing of the Zionist movement [“Revisionist Zionism”] that wished to occupy both sides of the Jordan, even at the cost of subjugating or expelling the Arabs.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 20)
Although Gottfried does not dwell at length on Jabotinsky’s position, it should be noted that Jabotinsky emphasized the primacy of military force in foreign policy. Jabotinsky’s most remembered phrase was the “iron wall,” from the title of an essay he wrote in 1923. Jabotinsky’s essay holds that the Arabs would never voluntarily accept a Jewish state and would naturally oppose it. To survive, the Jewish state would have to establish an “iron wall” of military force that would crush all opposition and force its Arab enemies into total surrender. From this position of unassailable strength, the Jewish state could make, or dictate, peace. It was the “iron wall” strategy that would characterize the thinking of the Israeli Right, and its reliance on military force is reflected in the neocons’ Middle East war agenda.
Gottfried writes that Strauss continued to exhibit “Zionist loyalties” after immigrating to the United States and establishing himself as an “academic celebrity” at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Gottfried points out that “Many of Strauss's most intimate students, such as Allan Bloom, Harry V. Jaffa, Ralph Lerner, Stanley Rosen, Harry Clor, William Galston, Abram Shulsky, Werner Dannhauser, Seth Benardete, Steven Salkever, Hadley Arkes, and his frequent collaborator, Joseph Cropsey, have been Jewish—and strong supporters of Israel and usually of the Israeli Right.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 22)
While Gottfried contends that Straussians defend Israel as a paragon of enlightened liberal democratic values, he shows that Strauss himself identified with aspects of Israel that were clearly illiberal, at least by modern standards. For example, in a letter to the conservative “National Review” (Jan. 5, 1956), responding to previously published criticism of Israel for showing “racist hostility” to the Palestinians, Strauss praised Zionism and Israel for helping “to stem the tide of progressive leveling of ancestral differences.” Gottfried notes here that “Strauss was arguing not so much for Israel’s Western character as insisting that it be considered ‘conservative’ because it is authentically Jewish.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 23)
The Straussian position on Jewishness and Israel serves to provide greater documentation for the Jewish and Zionist nature of neoconservatism. And it seems that this feature accounts for the strongest similarities between the two groups.
Although Strauss had been popular with some American conservatives in the 1950s for his defense of Western values and his hawkish position toward the Soviet Union, he and most of his followers remained within the orbit of American political liberalism, essentially being Cold War liberals and loyal supporters of the Democratic Party. Like those individuals who became the neoconservatives (See: “The Transparent Cabal,” pp. 25-43), the Straussians began their move to the American Right in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they did so for similar reasons. “When the Straussians broke from the leftward-drifting Democrats,” Gottfried contends, “they were still politically different from what could be described as the traditionalist American Right. They were not looking to return to an older America. They in fact generally liked the way things were going, until the New Left came on the scene. And while like Strauss, they called for resisting Soviet pressures in international affairs, they had no serious complaints about the direction taken by the welfare or the nonviolent civil rights movement.” (Gottfried, “Strauss,” p. 169) Gottfried’s description here is quite like the description of those who formed the incipient neoconservative movement and who identified with the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and with much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
It is worthy of note that in discussions of the Straussians, their Jewish and pro-Israel orientation is readily mentioned in books produced by mainstream publishers. While Gottfried certainly relies on primary sources, he also references other works that also make this case. This information on the Straussian motivation should serve to reinforce the idea that these factors have been the motivation behind neoconservatism. It is thus highly ironic that this information becomes taboo when one connects the dots as I did in “The Transparent Cabal” to show that people with an ethnic loyalty to Israel have played a significant role in determining America’s war-oriented Middle East policy, which led to the US attack on Iraq and threatens to bring about a major conflagration with Iran.