Straussians Talk Amongst Themselves—in the NYT
I had hoped that the recent commentary on the “Legacy of Leo Strauss” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review at least referred to my study Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America. I also believed that the reviewer, Steven B. Smith, would have remembered that in 1986 I had written for TLS a favorable assessment of his work on Hegel as a legal and political thinker. What is more, my monograph includes generous references to Smith’s Hegel study. Perhaps he would return these acts of random kindness by giving yours truly a mention.
Unfortunately, Straussians rarely respond to their critics, and their preferred situation for making responses at all is when some far-left dunderhead attacks them as fascists. In fact, they are not fascists but embattled liberal democrats. They also represent, as I suggest in book (perhaps while understating the problem), a uniquely leftist form of militarism, which is akin to the militant commitment to universal rights that one finds in Bolsheviks and Jacobins.
One of the elements binding together Strauss’s followers is the acceptance of certain hermeneutic principles for reading selected political texts. Despite the impression Smith gives that Strauss’s texts are enjoying dizzying popularity throughout the world, in reality they are seen as weird by most scholars outside their own parochial school. About a third of my book is an attempt to make sense to what may appear to be coded interpretations intended for the initiated. My most widely read reviewer (indeed one of my very few reviewers), Kenneth McIntyre, used his comments about my book to lace into the anti-historical and what seems to McIntyre utterly arbitrary interpretations that Straussians impose on Plato, Locke, and other political thinkers. The English politics scholar Quentin Skinner has famously done the same. And scores of American historians—soon to be followed by the Canadian scholar Grant Havers, who has written a book on the subject—have observed the tendency of Straussians to ignore the Protestant and culturally specific aspects of the American Founding. If these sectarians ever get around to responding to their scholarly critics, there is one hell of a lot for them to do; and as Andrew Sullivan observed in a blog noting McIntyre’s complaints, it may be high time for a group that he studied with at Harvard to defend themselves as scholars, not merely as a cult.
To their credit, the group continues to flourish because of its journalistic and political allies among liberals and, even more significantly, neoconservatives. The sometimes warring factions are able to come together—despite splits that are more apparent than real between East Coast and West Coast Straussians—particularly when confronted by anti-Straussian critics. East and West Coast Straussians have an equally strong presence in the Murdoch media empire and at NR and the Weekly Standard, and it is likely that any future conventional Republican administration will be honeycombed with foreign-policy advisors with demonstrable Straussian as well as neocon connections. Those close to the Straussians may even feature in a future Hillary Clinton administration since there are already Hillary camp followers like William Galston active in their midst.
Although Straussians and their neoconservative allies no longer have to deal with serious Old Right opposition, they may run into problems from libertarians, particularly if Rand Paul’s supporters become a powerful force in the Republican Party. The libertarians represent what the Straussians fear and detest, a very restrained foreign policy and a more limited government, in which their adherents will find fewer and fewer opportunities for their well-paid services. If anyone thinks the followers of Leo Strauss will go back to being what they were circa 1960, namely an academic circle, then dream on. They’ve already tasted power and love it.
Allow me to set straight the impression that some bloggers, and particularly the venerable Oakeshott scholar Timothy Fuller, have had of my book. If what I undertook was not a hit job (it most definitely was not), did I work on it to vindicate a true conservative tradition, rooted in historical consciousness? Was I going after Strauss for his misguided attacks on Burke and other European conservatives as radical historicists and opponents of human-rights ideas? Professor Fuller is correct: that entered my consciousness as I broke into stride. But by the time I finished, I was looking at other questions. I was interested in examining the internal logic of the Straussian hermeneutic and trying to decide whether anyone could possibly believe this interpretive approach independently of a political engagement. I asked myself (perhaps being more indulgent in this regard than my own interpreter, Professor McIntyre) whether the Straussian interpretive method is plausible for someone who, like me, doesn’t buy the full package of political concerns. I was also fascinated by the singular public-relations success achieved by a movement that featured a bizarre way of reading texts while ignoring or inventing historical frameworks. The question that kept returning to my mind is whether anyone could find the method of reading text so persuasive as to accept the politics of the group that taught it. My answer in the end was “absolutely not.”
Although Straussians clearly detest me, I do not return the feeling. I am full of admiration for their political drive. I am also floored by the arrogance with which they ignore outside criticism and get to put into the Times, a newspaper that their propagandists insist hates them, thoroughly insular puff pieces about their theoretical importance. I shall gladly concede to them (what choice do I have in this matter?) control of those politics departments they already have under their belts. It would be nice, however, if they just stayed where they are, in neoconservative foundations and in the groves of academe.