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Leo Strauss's Left-Wing Nationalism
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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.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Fascism, Leo Strauss 
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  1. Fred Morgan says: • Website

    Thanks for this article Mr Gottfried,
    It seems to me that Strauss wasn’t a political conservative, even if he shared some of conservative opinions on communism or the decline of the west (that was for him the post-nietszchean decline of reason). In one of his books on liberalism (ancient and modern), he suggests that American conservatism is being loyal to US original spirit of the constitution, which was for him inspired by John Locke’s natural rights theory (via the Declaration of independence). The moral ground of natural rights theories is not history, but reason. It means that the particular identity of United States is to have a universal ground (this point has been emphatized by Martin Diamond, Jaffa or Walter Berns) rather specific social or moral practices. From a classical conservative point of view, US constitutional loyalism is no conservatism because US constitution is a modern liberal project (which requires abstract adhesion), and being critical of the Founding fathers is not a crime (for the straussians, it is). Thinkers like Thomas Molnar or Lauren Brent Bozell did it well, I think.

  2. I don’t know Fred( or at least I don’t think I do) but I fully agree with his statements on the nature of conservatism. Unlike him, however, I would be willing to view small-government Republicans of another era like Robert Taft as “conservative” in the purely American context. But in no way could I bestow this term on human-rights peddling Wilsonians, which is what many Straussians of my acquaintance have become. As for Strauss himself, Fred is correct about how he interpreted the moral and political foundations of the American Republic. Strauss’s students like Michael Zuckert and Thomas Pangle have simply elaborated on their teacher’s understanding of the roots of the American polity.

  3. l. zambo says: • Website

    Gottfried says that Strauss was an ordinary cold war liberal. Yet according to his student Stanley Rosen, Strauss at a very early age developed extreme political views, views he held for the rest of his life. Consider this passage from the Heidegger lecture: “All rational liberal positions have lost their significance and power. One may deplore this, but I for one cannot bring myself to clinging to philosophic positions which have been shown to be inadequate.” Or consider the discussion of the “modern ideal” on p. 236 of What is Political Philosophy?, which sides with Kurt Riezler, the German foreign secretary during World War I, against the “modern ideal” and its humanitarianism, universalism, and materialism. It’s true that Strauss’s students have tried to turn him into a benign cold war liberal who was a “friend but not a flatterer of liberal democracy,” but Strauss was not a Straussian, nor was he a liberal.

    Second, Gottfried has no evidence that Strauss ever had a good word to say about the United States. He cannot provide one citation because none exists. It’s true that NRH begins with a passage from the Declaration of Independence, but that is not an endorsement. It’s true that some of his students, such as Diamond and Storing, revived study of the American political, but there is no trace of their influence in Strauss’s own writings. Gottfried cannot know what Strauss said in class, other than going by the unreliable reports of Strauss’s students.

  4. I wonder if anyone has looked at the way the Straussians would tend to oppose any system – like libertarianism and/or traditional (paleocon) conservatism due to the fact that it protects, and even seels to enlarge, the “private sphere”:

    “To realize that the Jewish problem is insoluble means never to forget the truth proclaimed by Zionism regarding the limitations of liberalism. Liberalism stands and falls by the distinction between state and society or by the recognition of a private sphere, protected by the law but impervious to the law, with the understanding that, above all, religion as particular religion belongs to the private sphere. As certainly as the liberal state will not ‘discriminate’ against its Jewish citizens, as certainly is it constitutionally unable and even unwilling to prevent ‘discrimination’ against Jews on the part of individuals or groups. To recognize a private sphere in the sense indicated means to permit private ‘discrimination,’ to protect it, and thus in fact to foster it. The liberal state cannot provide a solution to the Jewish problem, for such a solution would require the legal prohibition against every kind of ‘discrimination,’ i.e., the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between state and society, the destruction of the liberal state.”

    – Leo Strauss

    If the neocons really believe this, then we can see the reason for their almost irrational hatred for Ron Paul and his supporters. By seeking to preserve, or even restore, the “private sphere” he and his followers are protecting and even “fostering” antisemitism.

  5. In my book I deal with Strauss’s essay on Heidegger and treat it as a sui generis part of the Strauss’s oeuvre. It is hard to square with any number of Strauss’s statements praising liberalism and American liberal democracy, including the preface to the English edition of Strauss’s work on Spinoza and entire paragraphs found in Natural Right and History. I bet I can produce multiple assertions from Strauss proving the opposite of what Zambo cites by way of Stanley Rosen. I have read Rosen on the Nietzschean Strauss and find the evidence far less than persuasive. Although Rosen and I were close friends, I am closer to Zuckert and Minowitz, at least in their interpretations of Strauss. I have not encountered Strauss’s conversation with Riezler, who was briefly his colleague at the New School. But I know that Riezler was an Anglophile, who was profoundly disturbed by the state of war between Germany and England in 1914. He was also known to be a liberal constitutionalist in his politics.

  6. Although it is true that Strauss sometimes takes positions to the Right of his numerous American epigones (a fact that Paul Gottfried has never denied) as he reveals in his essay on Heidegger, leftist critics have made far too much of these sporadic remarks. Indeed, they have missed the forest for the trees here. The fact that Strauss probably had more doubts about the wisdom of spreading American democratic values than his students does not contradict Gottfried’s view that Strauss was at bottom a Cold War liberal. His critique of “historicism,” which is surely the most essential teaching of his post-WW2 writings, fits very well into the liberal tradition of postwar America. Strauss’s attack on any appeal to the historical relativity of ideas was in perfect synch with liberal nationalists of the time who were determined to portray the US as a “universal nation” whose ideals transcend history, culture, or faith. Strauss’s focus on “natural right,” a philosophy that is by nature self-evident to all human beings regardless of time and place, was a welcome ideological boost to liberal nationalists who sought to downplay the parochially religious origins (in their view) of the American founding. In short, Strauss’s anti-historicism paved the way for neoconservatism.

  7. The larger point I am getting from Mr. Gottfried’s essay, apart from anything about Strauss, is that the right/left view of looking at politics is something that arose in Europe in a certain time. Outside Europe and outside that particular era, it has limited usefullness, sometimes very little at all. Even in Europe, I think that it had little usefullness once WWI had completed the destruction of the ancient regime. After that, the “right” in Europe was represented by Naziism, a revolutionary, dynamic, tradition-destroying movement. In the US, I think the left/right view pretty much lost its usefullness once Lincoln had destroyed the local traditions of the south in the service of a centralizing revolutionary oligarchy. And outside of 1780-1920 Europe, the right/left spectrum provides at best just some interesting points of comparison.

  8. That´s true. The Latin American Left tends to be very nationalistic. In Brazil, with the exception of some old right wingers, almost all of the nationalists comes from the Left. 😉

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmericanConservative, jt. jt said: Leo Strauss's Left-Wing Nationalism: According to Jack, Strauss's demonstrated affinity for right-wing Zionism, … […]

  10. l. zambo says: • Website

    Is Gottfried familiar with Strauss’s writings? I’m beginning to wonder. I believe Strauss said something about Aristophanes that’s relevant here: “I don’t see why anyone ever wrote esoterically. Even when they write things that are perfectly plain, nobody ever understands.”

  11. I think this is rather sad. What did poor ole Leo ever do to you that you would go and call him a liberal. Leo just liked the old ways like his predecessor Nietzsche. Since America is a product of modern ideas and therefore the European Enlightenment, one can argue that Strauss is inherently antagonistic against America since he in essence opposed modern ideas. Since he, as well as Nietzsche, believed that liberalism, socialism, communism were all the consequence of Christian ideas, I can see how the American theocrats are unnerved by him and want to hurl the epithet, liberal, at him. But that don’t make it true. You degrade the word, “liberal”, and cheapen its meaning when you misuse it like that: “liberal” as anyone not like me or who has different views than me. You can disown Leo without lying about him simply by pointing out the radical and pariah that he was.

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