Strauss, Beyond Left and Right

by Jack Ross


Paul Gottfried has paid me the high compliment of writing an extended response to a message board comment I made of his essay on the critics of Leo Strauss.  Though I’m amused that Gottfried seems to be taken in by the argument of some Straussians, of which I was vaguely aware, that Strauss was really a Cold War liberal, I think in the end it misses the point to debate whether Strauss was a man of the right.

Gottfried is correct that Strauss’ Zionism was not a right-wing predilection in the European context.  The analogy to black nationalism is instructive with its very great likeness to Zionism.  Before World War II, to be a Zionist was a right-wing choice in the Jewish context, not only with socialism still a force to be reckoned with but with German Zionism still very much influenced by classical liberals like Hannah Arendt.  Indeed, Jabotinsky was probably responding to the likes of Arendt and Magnes far more than to Labor Zionism.

As for whether Straussianism belongs on the right today, I go back to the template that I actually picked up from a very bad leftist professor, that the right, as opposed to conservatism, is simply the enemy of the left which hates the left more than it believes in any positive program – which goes far, of course, in explaining how so much of the right through history, from fascism to neoconservatism, came out of the left.  (This professor, by the way, who was in great measure responsible for the failure of my graduate school career and I was told on good authority was only even there as a condition for hiring his wife, was furious when I invoked his template in embracing Edmund Burke).

There may well be a strong argument that in the 20th century context Strauss and his immediate disciples were closer to Cold War liberalism than even the new right, but in placing Straussianism on the right today one need only examine the fundamental Straussian influence behind Glenn Beck and the Tea Party doctrines generally.  I remember well back during the 2008 Republican primary, when I asked my friend Joe Stromberg, a Mormon apostate, what he thought of Mitt Romney’s speech on religion in America.  Blessedly cut off from the media circus, Joe wasn’t even aware of it, so we ended up having a very general conversation about Mormonism.  In explaining his quite compelling thesis that Mormonism is the ultimate religion of American predestination, at one point I was led to ask in shock “are there Mormon Straussians?”, to which Joe bemusedly replied “one or two, yes.”

Mormon Straussianism, in short, is the secret of the Glenn Beck phenomenon.  Its core doctrines about the divinely inspired Constitution (something the two groups separately believe anyway) were expounded Beck’s acknowledged forebear Cleon Skousen.  The above link by Michael Lind explains how it was the Claremontistas who first began pushing the notion that Woodrow Wilson was our worst President – not because his crusade to make the world safe for democracy directly led to all the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century by allowing the Allies a decisive victory, not because he set up the worst police state in American history (yes, Southern partisans, worse than Lincoln, we can have that out another day), but because he introduced theories of government that contradicted the Straussian belief in natural law.

It was in watching Glenn Beck’s coming out party as the white Farrakhan last August that I was finally determined to figure out how the American right came to believe such bizarre things about Martin Luther King.  I soon enough realized that it was but a classic Straussian exercise, to banish any historical and cultural context and divine the secret meaning of a great man’s words in the abstract.  In his bizarre “Rally to Restore Honor” religious revival speech that was one part Elmer Gantry and two parts Edward Bellamy, Beck made brief allusions to Mormon theology about the predestination of early America at creation.

He deftly went over this in an instant, but that he got away with it at all before his evangelical audience is shocking.  What it proves is that the American right is far more steadfast to the neocon “fourth great western religion” of Americanism than to Christianity.  What this owes to Leo Strauss hardly need be repeated here.

So if – and I realize many, not least Gottfried, will want to debate this point – the Tea Party represents the right in America today as opposed to principled conservatism, than the progeny of Strauss most assuredly belongs there.  But I should think that categories of left and right are superfluous in diagnosing the militant world-redemptive idolatry of Americanism.  And to be clear, I am the last person who would deny its debt to liberalism.

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