A book of mine, Leo Strauss and Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal, is about to come out with Cambridge University Press; and it has a special connection to the Mises Institute. Much of the critical thrust comes from attending conferences sponsored by the Mises Institute and from getting to know my fellow- participants and their writings. Although I harbored strong doubts about my latest subjects even before these encounters, my conversations with David Gordon, Murray Rothbard, Robert Higgs and Thomas DiLorenzo and later, discovering Mises’s comments about Strass gave additional substance to my suspicions. My project became a way of calling attention to a significant body of criticism that the liberal-neoconservative press and most scholarly organizations wouldn’t deign to present. I was upset in particular by the inability of David Gordon (and Lew Rockwell) to find a suitable publisher for a long, incisive work that David had produced about Harry Jaffa’s reading of American history. It was one of the most cerebral “value critiques” by a living thinker that I had seen.
Why, asks David, should Jaffa, a cult figure who is wined and dined by GOP benefactors, be immune from the type of assessment that other authors of scholarly works should have to accept? Why do Straussians like Jaffa, Allan Bloom, Thomas Pangle, and Charles Kesler achieve canonical status as “conservative” thinkers without having their ideas rigorously examined in widely accessible forums? It seems that the only appraisals such figures have to deal with are puff pieces in neoconservative publications and the scribbling of inflamed leftists attacking them as rightwing extremists.
Note that my book does not come out of any political engagement. It is in no way a statement of my political creed. Although hardly friendly to the Wilsonian Weltpolitik of the Straussians, I devote more space to defending my subjects from unjust critics than I do to dissecting their views. Nor was my book produced, as one nasty commentator writing to the executive editor of an Ivy League press explained, because I’m “a very angry person” trying to settle scores. Apparently my madness would “permanently discredit” any press that was foolish enough to publish me. My book at any rate is not an expression of pique, and I bend backward to make sense of arguments that I have trouble accepting at face value. I also treat main subject, Leo Strauss, with respect and empathy, even while disagreeing with his hermeneutic and liberal internationalism. I stress that for all his questionable judgments, Strauss was a person of vast humanistic learning, and more thoughtful and less pompous than some of his famous students. I fully sympathize with the plight that he and others of his background suffered who because of their Jewish ancestry were driven out of their homeland and forced to live in exile. My own family suffered the same fate.
What seemed intolerable, however, was the unwillingness of Straussians and their adulators to engage serious critics, some of whom have been associated with the Mises Institute. These expressions of moral self-importance may go back to Strauss himself. Murray Rothbard observed that at a Volker Fund conference, his teacher Mises had argued vainly with Strauss about the need to separate facts from values in doing research. Strauss had retorted that there are moral judgments inseparably attached to our use of facts. This supposedly indicates that one could not or, perhaps more importantly, should not draw the fact/value distinction that Mises, and before him, in a different form, Max Weber had tried to make. In response to these statements, Mises argued that facts remain such, no matter how people dress them up. “A prostitute would be plying the same trade no matter what designation we choose to confer on such a person.” As the debate wore on and Strauss began to moralize, Mises lost his equanimity. He indicated to Rothbard that he was being asked to debate not a true scholar but a “gymnasium instructor.”
In my book I quote David, who has taken over and elaborated on the criticism offered by his teacher and Murray’s teacher Mises, namely, that the Straussians reach for moral platitudes against those who are better- armed with “facts.” One reason David is mentioned so often in my monograph, and particularly in the chapter “The Method Deconstructed,” is that he did much of the deconstructing for me. While helping with the proofreading, which is another service he performed, David commented about how much he enjoyed my text; then, in typically David-fashion, he listed as his favorite parts of my book those pages on which he’s mentioned. Actually he missed more than half of the references to him, including two of them in the acknowledgements.
Like other thoughtful critics of Straussian methodology, specifically Grant Havers, Barry Shain, and Kenneth McIntyre, David was essential to my work. But in his case listening to him reel off what was wrong with how the Straussians read (or misread) selected texts, inspired my project. Without the fact that David cornered me about ten years ago at a conference in Auburn and explained to me in between Borscht Belt jokes the fallacies of Strauss and his disciple, I doubt that I would have done my book. His conversation and written comments, stored in the bowels of the Lew Rockwell Archives, made my task considerably less burdensome. One remark from David’s conversation in Auburn that I still remember was his hypothetical rejoinder to Harry Jaffa in a debate that never took place. Jaffa insisted on the pages of National Review, and in fact wherever else he wrote, that we should believe in equality because Lincoln did (never mind that Di Lorenzo, among others, has challenged this view of Lincoln with counter-evidence). David asked that “even if we assume that Jaffa was expressing Lincoln’s real opinion, why should we have to hold the same view”? And why are we supposed to impose Lincoln’s opinion on unwilling subjects by force of arms? No one else to my knowledge has asked these indelicate questions.
Even then David and I were sick of the smarminess with which certain Straussians would respond to logical and factual objections. Calling one’s opponent a “relativist” or scolding him for not embracing universal democratic values is not an answer at all. It is an arrogant evasion of a discussion. David also observed that in their attempt to find “secret writing” in texts, Straussians would almost compulsively read their own values into the past. Presumably all smart people who wrote “political philosophy,” no matter when they lived, were religious skeptics, yearning for something like “liberal democracy.” This speculation could be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed and contributed zip to scholarly discussion. Like me, David also wondered why none of the great minds whom the Straussians wrote about was ever shown to be a Christian heretic or something other than a forerunner of those who are now revealing their concealed meanings. One might have thought that if concealment was their intention, these fellows on at least some occasions would have been hiding non-modern thoughts from the public or their monarchs. Why do all “secret writings” seem to have originated with a Jewish agnostic residing in an American metropolitan area?
An observation in my book contrasting Straussian enterprises to the Mises Institute also warrants some attention here. The Miseans and the Straussians both claim intellectual descent from Central European Jewish scholars who fled from the Nazis. Moreover, both groups have processed these biographical experiences and incorporated them into their worldviews, but in totally different ways. Whereas the Miseans view their founder as the victim of a particularly noxious form of state socialism, the Straussians emphasize the evils of the “German connection,” as explained by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. While the Miseans focus on the link between state planning and tyranny, the Straussians finger the uniquely wicked heritage of the Germans in telling us why “liberal democracy” is always under siege. Strauss himself established this perspective, when in Natural Right and History he stressed the continuing danger of German ideas, even though the German military threat had been defeated six years earlier.
While the disciples of Mises favor an isolationist foreign policy designed to dismantle socialism at home, the Straussians are perpetually reliving Munich 1938, when the “democracies” backed down to a German dictatorship, just as they had failed to confront the supposed iniquities of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914. One might push the contrast even further: while the Mises Institute celebrates the Vienna in which the Austrian School of Economics took form, including the generally supportive liberal monarchy of Kaiser Franz Josef, the Straussians have continued their efforts to counter a threat that they see originating in Central Europe. During the student revolts of the 1960s, Allan Bloom and his soul-brothers blamed these outbursts on German critics of modern democracy. Strauss’s star students managed to find the German threat wherever they looked. In one of my earliest encounters with Straussian professors, at Michigan State in 1967 and 1968, it was explained to me that German historicists had fueled the antiwar student protest with their antidemocratic notions. This connection seemed to me so surreal that it caused me to reflect on the life’s experiences of those who could believe such things.
Significantly, these Straussian attacks on the tainted German heritage play well in our society of letters. A Jewish liberal-neoconservative presence (perhaps predominance) in the media and in the academy renders some Straussian fixations profitable. Well-placed intellectuals are still agonizing over the “German catastrophe” in a way that they don’t about other bloodbaths, particularly those unleashed by Communist tyrants. There is also a culture of defeat and self-rejection among the Germans which fits perfectly with the Straussian war on German ideas and German illiberalism. Although the Left may attack the Straussians rhetorically as “fascists,” it shares many of their sentiments, particularly their revulsion for German culture and for German politics before the First World War.
Another factor has helped the Straussians professionally: Their impassioned Zionism has enhanced their moral acceptability in Jewish and neoconservative circles. If their interpretive gymnastics may sometimes drive their political fans up the wall, Strauss’s disciples win points where it counts. They are recognized as part of the journalistic establishment. Whereas the Miseans (and a fortiori this author) would have trouble getting into the New York Times, Washington Post or neoconservative publications, Straussians (and their allies) appear in all these venues as both authors and respected subjects. Nothing is more baffling than the complaint that the “liberal media” ignore or persecute Straussians. This gripe is almost as baseless as another related one, that Straussians are excluded from elite universities. Would that I had been excluded from academic posts during my career the way the Straussians have been.
I do not mean to suggest that there is something wrong with how the Mises Institute has dealt with its founder’s experiences in Central Europe. Its approach to this aspect of twentieth-century history has been rational and even commendable. But it has certainly not won the Mises Institute the moral acceptability that the Straussians have achieved by taking the opposite position. Curiously, leftist opponents have laced into the Straussians for not being sufficiently Teutonophobic. Despite the scornful references to German ideas in their polemics, these Straussians are alleged to be perpetuating the hated German connection while pretending to denounce it. In short, one can never hate German thought sufficiently (except of course for Marx and a few other selected German leftists) to please our current cultural industry. But Straussians can at least be credited with having made a start here.
One final point may belong here: The professional and journalistic successes of Strauss’s students have had little to do with their efforts to revive a “classical heritage” or to make us appreciate Plato and Thucydides. The argument I try to make in my book is exactly the opposite: the Straussians have done so well at least partly because they have bet on the right horse in our current liberal internationalist politics. They provide window-dressing and cultic terminology for a widely propagated American creed pushed by government and the media, featuring calls for armed “human rights” campaigns, references to the Holocaust and the Anglosphere, and tributes to liberal or social democratic “values.” The Straussians have made names for themselves by putting old and even stale wine into new bottles.
Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, and Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers. His latest book, Leo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement: A Critical Appraisal, was just published by Cambridge University Press.