Jack Ross has raised an interesting point regarding my attempt to exonerate Leo Strauss from the charge of being a Nazi sympathizer. According to Jack, Strauss’s demonstrated affinity for right-wing Zionism, and his stated admiration for that movement’s godfather, Zeev Jabotinsky, would suggest an attraction to the interwar European Right. Therefore the charge that Strauss was at least sympathetic to some of the ideas set forth by the Nazis, and certainly by other, less murderous fascist movements is essentially correct. Nor should we allow Strauss’s later glorification of Churchill and Anglo-American democracy to divert us from recognizing his earlier and perhaps more persistent right-wing mindset. Presumably the same mindset is still at work when Strauss’s disciples praise Israeli military ventures and try to push the U.S. into armed confrontations in the Middle East.
The book that I’m now finishing is partly a response to these contentions; and in it I explain why I do not consider Strauss or his disciples to be figures of the European or American Right. Although this does not exclude seeing them as part of the American conservative establishment, at least in its present neoconservative phase, one should not generalize from the present situation in which the Right is associated with clearly leftist ideas about human rights and equality. If the Right or fascism is something associated with the defense of hierarchy in particular Western countries, then tribal movements that emphasize a non-European identity stand outside this tradition. Significantly Strauss himself showed no predilection for the European country in which he and his ancestors had lived. He expressed a desire to leave Germany, well before the Nazis took power, and he hoped to resettle in the Middle East, that is, in his own Jewish country, with other European Jews.
It is hard to see how these attitudes reflect a European national or rightist tradition or would indicate sympathy for the European Right. An example may make this point clear. Black nationalist Jeremiah Wright occasionally sounds like an extreme European nationalist, who has taken his ethnocentric worldview and transferred it to a non-Western collective identity. But that transfer is all-important for understanding the loyalties in question. Wright emphatically places himself and his group outside the Western world, which he singles out as the source of his group’s suffering. Moreover, President Obama’s longtime spiritual advisor has put himself on the far Left, not on the far Right, in regard to Euro-American politics.
Although this comparison may seem invidious, I bring it up to underscore that not all national or tribal loyalties should be viewed as belonging to the Western or European world. One may note conceptual parallels between Western and non-Western communal patterns or transcultural reactions against certain forms of modernization. But this does not translate into interchangeable loyalties or warrant the assumption that someone who favors traditionalism or ethnic solidarity in his own society would favor it in other cultures.
Even within the Western orbit, advocates of a foreign national identity may be hostile to the traditional identity of the country in which he lives. There is no indication that Irish nationalists in America eighty years ago sided with the traditional WASP establishment. As recently as the late twentieth century, liberal Democrats Ted Kennedy and Pat Moynihan had no problem combining leftist politics in the U.S. with expressions of sympathy for Irish Catholic irredentists in Ulster.
In any case Strauss’s intense Zionism was not a right-wing choice in the European context. Nor did it not incline him toward the Nazis, although there were many Zionists who believed that Nazi persecution would hasten the departure of Jews from Europe and would therefore promote their long-term interests. There is nothing to suggest that Strauss embraced this foolhardy hope even as a Zionist.
It is equally difficult for me to understand how Strauss or the Straussians appear to be conservative when they talk about universal rights and about how it is the duty of the U.S. to preserve and spread these abstractions. Even if I conceded that Strauss didn’t believe in such a mission but talked it up to foster a particular public good, I’m not sure that such advocacy has anything to do with the historic Right. Being jingoistic and interventionist is not an exclusively right-wing characteristic. Not all military adventures have issued from the Right, and not all flag-waving is indicative of right-wing loyalties. The American Communist Party supported the American military and waved flags hysterically throughout America’s involvement in World War II. It is the purest fantasy that the Left has been historically against war, while the Right has been persistently for it.
Not even Strauss’s opposition to the Soviets in the 1950s and 1960s proves beyond doubt that he was on the right. Strauss was an identifiable Cold War liberal, although in 1964 he was swayed to vote for Goldwater as a protest against Kennedy’s arms negotiations with the Soviets. But with the exception of Harry Jaffa, his disciples supported LBJ—and probably Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Later the Straussians became Scoop Jackson Democrats, because of Senator Jackson’s sympathy for the Russian refuseniks and because of his outspoken Zionist sentiments. The later association of some Straussians with the American conservative movement was mostly a meeting of groups coming from different directions. As conservative journalists moved leftward in search of mainstream respectability, they began hunting for appropriate rhetoric. The Straussians provided them with what they needed to reinvent themselves. The fact that Strauss and his devotees were often at prestigious universities made them even more desirable for those who were staffing GOP and neoconservative enterprises.
In my book I stress that Strauss has been falsely represented as a defender of Catholic natural law teachings and as someone who preferred the ancient world to modern America. Such readings are patently false. In fact they are so inconsistent with the printed evidence that one has to wonder how anyone came up with them. I also noticed that Strauss had less original political views than his enemies or admirers imagine. It is the cult surrounding him more than its central figure that caught my attention. Strauss’s politics were indistinguishable from that of many others from similar backgrounds who were forced to flee the Nazis.