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What Leo Strauss set in motion.

By Alan Gilbert.


Robert Howse has written a new book on Leo Strauss: Man of Peace. Rob acknowledges some of Strauss’s authoritarianism and imperialism, i.e. in the fortunately now infamous 1933 letter to Karl Loewith where Strauss defends “the principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian imperial and not the pathetic and laughable imprescriptible rights of man.” Strauss has achieved a certain odium – the word is from the Strauss and Schmitt devotee, Heinrich Meier – because of the role of political Straussians such as William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Francis Fukuyama (who commendably, soon became a critic), Harvey Mansfield, Gary Schmitt, Walter Berns and others central among the neocons in and around the Bush administration in pressing for aggression in the Middle East. Rob’s reading is an independent and livelier version of standard theses in a barrage of Straussian books, attempting to restore Strauss as a scholarly figure above politics, at least one who rarely dabbled in politics and whose views, in this respect, must not be taken too seriously, let alone as having premeditated reactionary consequences (Catharine and Michael Zuckert, Thomas Pangle, to some extent, Peter Minowitz).

My essay “Segregation, Aggression and Executive Power: Leo Strauss and ‘the Boys,’” forthcoming this winter in Sanford Levinson and Melissa Williams, ed., American Conservativism, as a volume in Nomos – a book published annually by the American Society of Legal and Political Philosophy – is based on novel research in the Strauss archive in Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. After long guarding by Joseph Cropsey, I was the first non-Straussian admitted to that archive. The essay underlines some surprising facets of Leo’s own politics, for instance, his defense of segregation and calling for the US conquering Cuba. This evidence reveals that the drumbeat about a supposedly apolitical or at least not harmfully political Strauss is a fantasy.

There is another important strand of Strauss’s influence, via Gary Schmitt and Herbert Storing, on the Minority Report on Iran Contra which I do not discuss here. That report, written for Congressman Richard Cheney, especially stresses authoritarian “executive power,” based on interpretations by Strauss’s students – Schmitt among others – of the Federalists. It perfumes President Ronald Reagan’s illegal – in opposition to a Congressional ban on running guns to the Contras – and murderous activities in Nicaragua and even aiding “the enemy,” Iran, in exchange for Iranian provision of weapons to the Contras.

More importantly, the neocons, the center of whose intellectual life is provided by political Straussians such as Bill Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, are back in the news, both in the Ukraine and most notably this week, in John Boehner’s invitation to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel to urge Congress, against the President and against normal diplomatic protocol or constitutional foreign policy making, to bomb Iran. These two efforts – Strauss’s memos to Charles Percy, a Republican politician, Senator and would be Presidential candidate from Illinois, that the US must take out Cuba as the USSR had taken out Hungary, and the demand that the US should start yet another war in the Middle East , widening what already exists, that is, bombing accompanied by only a small number privatized troops or the CIA, against ISIL in Iraq and Syria – strangely mirror each other.

Strauss died 40 years ago; the details of contemporary Imperial Quixotisms should not be attributed to him (it is always possible for a great power realist, even an authoritarian one like Strauss, to oppose dogmatic, unworldly, disgraceful and foolish enterprises; I do not say murderous here because murderousness is not something Mr. Strauss opposed). Still, the parallel is striking.

I was, once again, the first nonStraussian admitted after 9 months of negotiation by Nathan Tarcov, Strauss’s second literary executor, to the Strauss archive in Regenstein. Nathan is not into hiding Strauss unlike Joseph Cropsey, his first executor, who allowed Strauss’s letters to be published in German by Heinrich Meier only 26 years after Strauss died. He told Steve Holmes, teaching at Chicago and writing the fine Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism who wanted to look at the letters for his chapter on Strauss, that “they might be misunderstood.” Unlike most American Straussians including Allan Bloom, Cropsey along with some others like Meier and Mansfield understood Strauss’s nearness to or enthusiasm for the Nazis in 1933. Cropsey feared that Strauss’s letters and writings might be understood.

Everything in my article is drawn from Strauss’s previously unknown letters and memos except an account of Lockean prerogative in Walter Berns and, with a nod to Machiavelli, Harvey Mansfield, in this case to justify torture. This idea is that the executive (commander in chief) must break the law – i.e. torture – in order supposedly to achieve a public good (“save America”).

Rob and I have been in touch for several years; he was kind enough to invite me to lecture on Strauss at NYU Law School. But one feature of these discoveries is that his claim that somehow Strauss was retreating from his 1933 affirmation of “the principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial” – needs to be sustained by noticing and answering them. It is unlikely that it can. Rob has, nevertheless, made a long and striking effort to differentiate Strauss from the monstrousness (Nazism, anti-semitism) of Carl Schmitt. Unlike many Straussians, particularly neo-cons, he was an Obama supporter and is no fan of imperial war. Rob reads Strauss with devotion, though with a startling lack of attention to hidden meanings – Strauss’s most insistent theme, one underlined in his Persecution and the Art of Writing. Since Socrates was put to death by Athens and starting with Plato, Strauss suggests, philosophers write for two audiences. They express themselves superficially i.e. write in ways acceptable to many inattentive readers, including many Straussians, but indicate for careful ones what they really think (Heinrich Meier has the acid remark that Strauss’s students remember what he said to them – “don’t read Heidegger,” as Catherine Zuckert told me – rather than reading carefully what Leo actually says.

Strauss’s title sounds, particularly given Socrates, Locke, Marx, and scientists like Tycho Brahe and Galileo as if he were making a point about government/Catholic persecution of truths embodied in, to a large extent, writing on the left: what might be characterized as truths about ordinary citizens, scientific truths. But Strauss has an ironic, double meaning here as in almost all the names he chooses. What Strauss thinks is being hidden is the urging of the rule of one best man, reactionary and in our times, authoritarian or fascist rule. Similarly when Strauss speaks of Natural Right and History in a lecture series in honor of the Declaration of Independence, a superficial reader will imagine him to be talking about natural rights – of individuals. But he actually affirms “the classical view: inequality (p. 118)” and means natural right as the “right” to dominate of the stronger …

On Rob’s account, Strauss was supposedly for “constitutionalism”; Strauss occasionally says he is a “constitutional democrat” and as Rob points out, lived in America. But this reading depends on ignoring what Strauss says further each time he mentions it, for instance the dark fulmination against the last men in “Restatement” in On Tyranny. Strauss does not defend the rule of law or law. Quite the contrary, overriding the law is what Strauss learned from the first sentence of Schmitt’s Political Theology – “he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception.” Strauss extended this through the 1933 letter to Loewith, embracing the “fascist, authoritarian, imperial” principles of the Right, his first book in America in 1947 On Tyranny on Xenophon’s Hiero in which a wise man, Simonides recommends to the tyrant Hiero that he serve a public good without laws, including the idea that he should award scientific or practical inventions or achievements in Syracuse and let his minions, under cover of darkness, disappear dissidents…, and his last book in 1972 on The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (the theme of this book Strauss said was to provide “an antidote to law”; Goldwin’s enthusiasm for Locke on “prerogative” merely gives modern garb to Strauss’s pretty monomaniacal view of the classics).


Schmitt and Strauss disliked the balance of powers in the American Constitution. As Schmitt put it:

“It is precisely the exception that makes relevant the subject of sovereignty, that is the whole question of sovereignty. The precise details of an emergency cannot be anticipated, nor can one spell out what must take place in such a case, especially when it is truly a matter of extreme emergency and of how it is to be eliminated….If such action is not subject to controls, if it is not hampered in some way by checks and balances as is the case in a liberal constitution, then it is clear who the sovereign is….Although he stands outside the normally valid legal system, he nevertheless belongs to it, for it is he who must decide whether the constitution is to be suspended in its entirety.”

As we will see below, Strauss worked through members of both parties to erode checks and balances in favor of executive or what was called under Bush commander in chief power and tyrannical or illegal acts, like aggression and torture, now sanctified as “legal.” Since Rob is a lawyer, it is a pretty startling mistake to call such an inversion of the constitution – written seemingly to protect against the tyranny of George III – “constitutional.”

It would also have been more apt for Rob to deal deeply with Strauss’s politics about Israel (he does cite Strauss’s fine letter against anti-semitism in the National Review). For Leo was generally supportive of a national socialism among Jews to oppress Palestinians, and his students/devotees are agitators for an expansionist Greater Israel – “transferring”/expelling the inhabitants from Occupied Palestine – and war. This is tragic because Strauss was an admirer of Arab Platonism in the Middle Ages (Al-Farabi, to a lesser extent Ibn Rusd), but failed – unlike Hannah Arendt, I.F. Stone, Judah Magness, Martin Buber and others – to speak for decency toward the Palestinians. Strauss’s elevation of a state of “one’s own,” a Jewish state which does not protect universal rights, flows from his reactionary politics and is something that he could have, but chose not to, grow beyond.

Neocons have long, led by Dick Cheney, sought aggression against Iran. They do so roughly because “protecting”/expanding Israel is the pivot of their politics along with grandiosity about what American arms may accomplish and bizarre dogmatism. Whether Strauss would have recommended this might be doubted. But Strauss actually had a much darker view of the modern era. He even affirmed the idea that the “last men” – Nietzche’s flea-bettles who huddle together and blink” – might be destroyed through nuclear war (see Strauss “Restatement in On Tyranny) and he imagined foolishly that this would not end humanity, but instead, it would cycle through again. Better, he says, a repeat of the human “spring” i.e. nuclear winter, than the supposed bleakness of the end of modernity, i.e human freedom… But annnihilation beats bombing Iran for horror and certainly for eccentricity.

In his 1933 and 1934 letters to Loewith, Strauss did entertain the idea that the Nazis could be a quasi-Nietzschean National Revolution against modernity – he thought their anti-semitism not the leading point. Loewith who had also thought this, now disagreed. So the claim that Strauss (at that time 34 years old) did not make rash, even bizarre reactionary and murderous political judgments is false.

Now President Obama was foolish enough to expand NATO right up to Russia and then surprised by Putin going to war. Obama and his advisors might have recalled the American reaction to Cuba – he just changed this policy after 50 years – when the Soviets treated that as a beachhead against the United States. For Obama now needs to work with Syria and Russia (Putin saved Obama from launching missiles into Syria in the face of justified popular opposition) to achieve successful negotiations with Iran, and even more so at least tacitly. with both Iran and Syria, to defeat ISIL. Obama thus challenges Netanyahu and the neocons (as John McCain sang in 2008 to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann“: “bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran…”).

NATO expansion into the Ukraine gave the neocons a chance to revive themselves by driving a wedge against Russia and furthering war against Iran. The State Department point person for expansion into the Ukraine was Victoria Nuland, a zealous neocon, who combines imperial purposes there (weakening Russia, expanding markets, expanding a pro-US oligarchy accompanied by some elections) with the idea of undercutting Russian cooperation with Obama on Iran (there has not been any evidence yet that Iran wants to make such a weapon…) and to defeat ISIL.

Iran as a target in Bush’s “axis of evil” is never out of mind for neocons, and just in case, Netanyahu reminds them. Nuland is married to Robert Kagan, the son of Donald Kagan, one of the three Principals, with Bill Kristol and Gary Schmitt, of the Project for a New American Century and long involved with Straussians though as a “gentleman” (what Strauss patronizingly called them), one not particularly interested in political philosophy. In fact, all the political Straussians like Bill Kristol and Wolfowitz are “gentlemen,” with a largely self-deceptive patina of philosophy, full of hubris that, privy to some learned and arcane interpretation of the classics, they can avow “commander in chief” power in a “crisis” (everything is a crisis…), throw away law, torture people, wage “lawfare” (waging war through “law”), and use any means “necessary.” They have waged foolish aggressions and instituted torture. They have diminished America.

Netanyahu thinks his actions will gain him success in an Israeli election this spring, just as he thinks he gained in Israel from coming uninvited to the unity rally in France last week and instead of fighting for the civil liberties of Jews and everyone else – what a decent human being would have done – urging French Jews to escape to the “security” of colonial Israel. But practically speaking. there is less security for individuals in Israel with its obscene oppression of Palestinians…

In the dynamic of American power funded by unlimited money, characterized by a trillion dollar a year war complex or militarism, neocons are, frighteningly, a stone’s throw away from being able to futher renewed war. But in defying Presidential power, the neocons (and Strussians) have made a desperate move. France, Germany and even the Israeli intelligence forces have intervened on behalf of completing the talks with Iran first; so even have, rather unbelievably, Chris Wallace on Fox News and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. And there is little doubt that bipartisan support for whatever Israel i.e. Netanyahu wants will be dramatically undercut by this partisan ploy on behalf of mindless beligerence.

May they be resoundingly defeated! For bombing Iran would cause a large and even longer Middle East war. deadly for still nuclear–armed Israel and perhaps, since a threatened Israel might well use such weapons and radiation travels, the rest of us over 10 or 15 years. Seeing the aetiology from Mr. Strauss aptly – may help begin to untangle the triumph of executive power and belligerence in both parties (“Humanitarian intervention” for the Democratic neo-neo cons), militarism and the destructive and self-destructive foreign policy that the US elite engages in.

Alan Gilbert is John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and author of Marx’s Politics:Communists and Citizens (Rutgers, 1980), Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990), Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy (1999) and Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago March, 2012). His blog Democratic Individuality is a rich mine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 31st, 2015.