Leo Strauss: Friend of Liberal Democracy?

J Edgar Hoover: a man Leo Strauss approved of.

Leo Strauss liked to describe himself as a “friend” of liberal democracy. It’s a mantra that his students and defenders often repeat. For example, in his book Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (University of Chicago Press), Steven B. Smith, a Yale political scientist, argues that Strauss was a “friend of liberal democracy – one of the best friends democracy has ever had.” Smith also says that he does not “not regard Strauss as a conservative (neo- or otherwise) but rather as a friend of liberal democracy.”

Like all Straussian notions, the catch-phrase “friend of liberal democracy” deserves close and skeptical scrutiny. Notice that Strauss is not claiming that he’s a liberal democrat. Given his elitism and penchant of exalting the wisdom of ancient philosophers like Plato (who were of course not liberal democrats in any meaningful sense) Strauss knew that any such claim would be self-evidently absurd. As Smith admits “To describe Strauss or Plato as any kind of liberal is, of course, deeply counterintuitive. One cannot find in any of their writings an unequivocal defense of such cherished liberal principles as individual rights or human equality.” No rational person would mistake Strauss for a John Dewey or a John Rawls.  But to say that Strauss was a friend of liberal democracy, that was an ambiguous claim that could have some plausibility, at least to the gullible and inattentive.

I suggest that we put Strauss’s claim to empirical testing, as vulgar as that might sound, and look at his actual political commitments.

1. National Review.  A letter to Willmoore Kendall that Strauss wrote on November 19th, 1956 begins like this: “For some time I have been receiving The National Review. You will not be surprised to hear that I agree with many articles appearing in the journal, especially your own.” Strauss went on to make one substantial and lengthy criticism of National Review: he didn’t like the magazine’s anti-Zionism (an issue I discuss here here). When Strauss wrote his letter National Review was only in its first year of publication but the tenor of the magazine had been well established: it was a right-wing journal that that supported white supremacy in the south, a policy requiring the continuing disenfranchisement of the substantial African-American minority; it frequently praised right-wing dictators like Francesco Franco; and it supported Joseph McCarthy’s assault on civil liberties.

Kendall in particular was a virulent advocate of all these positions: he was America’s leading intellectual defender of McCarthyism and believed that “the Negro” suffers from a blighted “biological inheritance.” Kendall once asked this question: “Could it be we shall never do justice to the Negroes in our midst, or the Negroes to themselves, save as we all recognize that as a group they may have a lesser capacity than the rest of us for civilizational achievement?” Like many other writers for National Review, Kendall also wanted the United States to launch a preventive war against the Soviet Union, a policy that would have led to a nuclear holocaust.  Strauss never once criticized National Review and Willmoore Kendall for any of these policies.

2. J. Edgar Hoover. In a syndicated newspaper column of May 1963, the conservative writer Russell Kirk recorded the following conversation with Strauss: “Among the indices to soundness or error in modern practical politics, Mr. Strauss remarked to me, are these issues: does one prefer income taxes, or excise taxes? Does one approve of, or detest Mr. J. Edgar Hoover? Does one stand for private medical practice, or state medicine? Professor Strauss is on the side of excises, Hoover, free (that is, private) medicine – and the angels.” (Kirk’s column ran in many papers; the version I saw can be found in the Post-Tribune of Jefferson City, Missouri on May 8, 1963).

Let’s leave aside taxes and health care and look at Hoover. Why did liberals detest the famed head of the FBI? Because they thought he didn’t respect civil liberties. Conservatives on the other hand idolized Hoover as a protector of law and order. Since Hoover’s death, it’s abundantly clear that even his liberal critics underestimated just how lawless Hoover had been. Here was the head of a federal police agency who kept files on the sex lives of politicians in order to blackmail them and keep his job. Hoover also spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders, and used the evidence he gathered on them to try and destroy their political movement.

3. Richard Nixon. In 1972, Strauss signed a statement supporting Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. In this of course he was acting no differently than the majority of voters who gave Nixon a second term. Still, it’s worth remembering that despite the fact that Nixon had a few liberal policies and initiatives, he was a deeply illiberal president. Contemptuous of the rule of law, Nixon created a constitutional crisis that resulted in his disgrace and resignation. Strauss is often praised by his followers for his political wisdom, yet for some reason he didn’t see the ample signs available to any observer in 1972 that Nixon’s politics were fundamentally Caesarist (to echo James Burnham’s apt phrase).

National Review, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon.  To borrow Strauss’s own term these are indices: surely these give us some idea of what Strauss’s real politics were. It’s amazing that a scholar who teaches at Yale University and publishes with the University of Chicago Press can get away with arguing that Strauss should be thought of not as “a conservative (neo- or otherwise) but rather as a friend of liberal democracy.”

With friends like Leo Strauss, liberal democracy needs no enemies.

10 thoughts on “Leo Strauss: Friend of Liberal Democracy?

  1. This strikes me as all quite unempirical. Your evidence is mostly second-hand and anecdotal (Russell Kirk reports, but then Kirk was never close to or an authority on Strauss), and also ambiguous (you don’t really know that Strauss’ reasons for supporting Nixon were “Caesarist” – or was that the only reason anyone ever supported Nixon?). You might claim that you’ve amassed a preponderance of evidence. But I am aware of second-hand, anecdotal and ambiguous “evidence” that would leave a somewhat (albeit not entirely) different impression of Strauss (e.g., what does his having voted for Adali Stevenson twice tell you?). Regardless, none of it would count as empirical evidence anymore than what you’ve come up with, so I think it’s kind of a futile exercise.

    But even if you could demonstrate that Strauss did have a foolish position on excise taxes, I would respond that his much greater wisdom was in not wasting his scholarly talent by writing about such subjects. To blame Strauss for having been wrong concerning subjects which he took no positions about in the work he devoted his life to is a kind of back-handed tribute to him: it suggests that surest way to criticize him is to highlight subjects of little or no interest to him in the first place.

    You try to give your critique some relevance when you suggest that, “Strauss is often praised by his followers for his political wisdom”. I have heard some self-styled “followers” make such statements, but their praise usually has the same problem as your critique: anecdotal, second-hand, ambiguous evidence that has nothing to do with Strauss’ actual body of work.

    I’m impressed that you tracked down the Post-Tribune of Jefferson City May 8, 1963; I just doubt that it contributes anything to illuminating Strauss’ work. Maybe you really just wanted to write a critique of Steven Smith? But even then, you would have to deal with his substantive arguments in more detail. Maybe they deserve some criticism. But the fact that you have to resort to overheated hyperbole in reference to Smith makes me doubt that you’re on the right track with him either. (Ivy League professors published by academic presses can and do routinely get away with all sorts of plainly crazy, inaccurate and malevolent statements; I very much doubt that Smith has raised the bar in that area to an “amazing” degree.)

  2. Boy, of all the bad luck: Clyde Tolson writes into this blog and instead of offering us dirt about his relationship with J. Edgar Hoover (a subject of much gossip and biographical speculation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clyde_Tolson) he wants to comment on Leo Strauss. Please, Clyde, if you want to share more personal and less philosophical information, we’re all ears.

    About my comments on Strauss: I do agree that the important thing about the man was not who he voted for and how he stood on issues of everyday politics, but rather the books he wrote. I’ve written about Strauss ideas quite a bit, albeit in journalistic venues and on this blog. But in this particular posting I simply wanted to point out that the account of Strauss’s supposed liberalism that has been offered by Smith and other writers is contradicted by certain facts I’ve encountered in my research.

    I don’t, by the way, think support for liberal democracy is the ultimate litmus test of a thinker’s merit. One could very easily be against liberal democracy (as almost all major thinkers before the 19th century were, along with many more recent thinkers) and still have valuable ideas. So even if Strauss were not a friend of liberal democracy, his ideas would still have to be addressed on their merits.

    The question is: should Strauss be treated as a historical figure, with an evolving set of ideas which changed in reaction to the times and his interaction with other thinkers? It’s striking to me that despite the vast volume of scholarship on Strauss, there are huge areas of his life that remain shrouded in mystery, particularly with regard to his practical politics. What we really need is a full-dress biography of Strauss on the model of Ray Munk’s life of Wittgenstein. (I’m sure this is an idea that would have horrified Strauss and would displease his followers).

    As for my being emperical or not, I stand by the evidence I presented: the point about National Review and Willmoore Kendall is taken from a letter Strauss wrote; Russell Kirk had all sorts of defects as a thinker but he wasn’t in the habit of making things up in journalistic articles, so I have no reason to distrust what he wrote about Strauss; and Strauss’s support for Nixon is beyond dispute, although the meaning of that support can be questioned.

    If I had really wanted to rely on anecdotal and second-hand evidence I could have reported many comments made by student’s of Strauss that paint him out to be very right wing indeed and of course there is the whole question of Strauss’s politics before he came to America. But, no, I showed restraint and just focused on published sources that could be checked and tested.

    As for Strauss’s support of Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, I’d say a few things 1) Stevenson was a stylish figure but he was one of the most conservative Democrat of the last century, especially on racial issues (a substantial number of African-Americans returned to the Republican party to vote for Eisenhower, and they were justified to do so) and 2) the Democrats were more pro-Israel in the 1950s and this was an issue that Strauss cared about deeply (see the letter to Kendall) and 3) in the context of American politics, it’s perfectly possible to be a conservative Democrat, especially before 1964. (Or even later: Willmoore Kendall died a registered Democrat — would you care to argue that Kendall was a good liberal?)

  3. Everything you’ve heard about Edgar is true.

    That being said, I will have to stand by some of my own statements as well. Concerning Smith and Strauss’ democratic commitments: I actually agree that Smith overstates the case for Strauss on this point. But his account is mixed: at some points Smith goes totally overboard in “defense” of Strauss, and at other times he is more realistic. And Smith certainly admits that the ancient thinkers Strauss admired were not democratic. So while his case is questionable, it is still much more nuanced than you’ve allowed for. However, Smith is almost beside the point, because you hardly say anything about his substantive argument in the post. As for “other writers” – I stand by what I said about them before. I would only add that Strauss himself sometimes stated his (moderate) skepticism about democracy in very clear terms, and a number of his “followers” have admitted, and even emphasized this fact, making the case that it is one of the virtues of Strauss’ writings, rather than a failing. A proper critique of Strauss would have to address those arguments.

    As far as a Strauss biography goes: I’m not sure, but a lot of his correspondence has now been published. However, because most of it is in German, it hasn’t been thoroughly analyzed by Americans interested in Strauss. But what has been published of Strauss’ correspondence sheds light on your use of his letters to National Review and Kendall. The fact is, Strauss wrote many letters to many people of many different persuasions. In most of these, he adopts a somewhat ingratiating style, and refrains from questioning his correspondent’s commitments (in his letters, Strauss is most critical with people he respects most). Many of these correspondents’s held opposing and incompatible views; as far as I can see, Strauss did not attempt to change that one way or the other. So on the basis of his correspondence, I think it is more plausible to accuse Strauss of being duplicitous (giving different impressions to different people) or ‘conservative’ in the most literal sense (being too cynical about the possibilities for progress to attempt to change people’s minds about most subjects, whether or not he was sympathetic to their beliefs). When you say that parts of his life were shrouded in mystery, I’m not sure what parts you’re referring to, but he was a fairly obscure academic. That’s how their lives tend to be anyway. For instance, W.V.O. Quine was arguably a more influential professor of philosophy than Strauss, who also signed the Nixon letter you’ve referred to (and was very right-wing on a range of issues). But I’ve heard no suggestion that Quine’s private political views need further investigation. Quine’s situation and Strauss’ aren’t identical, but I think that some of the same principles should apply.

    I’m not sure why you think Strauss was especially associated with right-wing racial politics. Of all the subjects you raised in your original post, American racial politics was the only one which I think he ever commented on in his published writings. The reference can be found in “Liberalism Ancient and Modern”, where he refers to “a prejudice which is both constitutional and unconstitutional against Negroes and Jews” in America. Related to that, in a 1943 lecture by Strauss just recently published in the Review of Politics titled “The Re-education of Axis Countries Concerning the Jews”, he questions the ability of Anglo-American countries to reform Germany single-handedly after the war, through an occupation. One reason he gives is that:

    “The Germans are going to question the competence of the Anglo-Saxons. They are amazingly well informed about all the deficiencies of liberal democracy in the countries concerned: Jim Crow, India, etc. They will emphasize the difference between the Anglo-Saxon doctrine (the Atlantic Charter) and the Anglo-Saxon practice. They are not familiar with the practice, and the spirit, of compromise: they do not know that a just law which is merely on the statute book and not observed in practice, acts nevertheless as a humanizing influence; hence they will speak, as they did speak and as they do speak, of hypocrisy.”

  4. First, I want to clear up a false impression I seem to have created with my initial post and subsequent comment. It was not my intent to say that Strauss was a conservative on racial issues. The only reason I brought up racial issues was to characterize National Review and Willmoore Kendall (to suggest that these were no lovers of liberal democracy) and also to characterize Adlai Stevenson (who is sometimes remembered as a liberal but was in fact fairly conservative, especially on racial issues. Indeed, an argument can be made that Eisenhower was more liberal on race than Stevenson was). I wanted to suggest that Strauss’s kind words about national Review, and Willmoore Kendall, and his support for Stevenson were perfectly congruent with Strauss’s general small-c conservative disposition, not that he agreed with the magazine or Kendall or Stevenson on race.

    To be perfectly clear: I don’t think Strauss was a racial conservative. At worst, as the passage you quote from 1943 indicates, he was a bit too comfortable with the Anglo-American tradition of hypocrisy on this issue, of having laws that proclaim equality while maintaining de facto inequality.

    I have to say, you’re defense of Strauss actually makes him sound worse than I portrayed him: by your account he was willing to create a false impression with his correspondents either in a spirit of deception or a cynical unwillingness to challenge ideas he didn’t like. Wouldn’t it just be easier and kinder to say that Strauss was a conservative?

    To me, this highlights the whole absurdity of this discussion: is it really so terrible to say that Strauss was a conservative and not part of the liberal democratic tradition? After all, haven’t there been many great thinkers who are conservative and not liberal democrats? What is to be gained by fudging over the nature of Strauss’s political commitments?

    Look: during his lifetime was there anyone who thought of Strauss as a liberal or leftist? In the 1940s and 1950s when he made his name in the United States, wasn’t he usually grouped in with “the New Conservatives”, a diverse group of thinkers who were united in their rejection of mainstream American liberalism? Why did George Nash include a lengthy discussion of Strauss in his excellent and authoritative book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945? Haven’t almost all of Strauss’s followers been either conservative Democrats or right-wing Republicans? I can think of one Straussian who is a quirky leftist (George Anastaplo), but surely he’s a lonely figure.

    As for W.V.O. Quine: Yes, he was very right wing. The great Seth Benardete once told a story about how in 1957 when Sputnik went up Quine confidently said it was a fraud, there was no way those dumb peasants in Russia could possible make a great scientific breakthrough before the Americans. It was the sort of comment you would expect from a boozy Ohio businessman, not a distinguished Harvard philosopher. (And nicely illustrates how great intelligence is compatable with a lack of common sense). Still, Quine’s politics were entirely separate from his contribution to philosophy. Let’s put it this way: how many students of Quine have worked for Republican presidents or Republican candidates? Not many, I’d guess, and if they did what they learned in class wouldn’t have affected their political behaviour. Is the same true of Strauss’s students and the Straussian school?

    Really, this whole discussion seems slightly unhinged to me: why pretend that Strauss was not a conservative (in the vernacular sense of the word, if not on a theoretical level)? What is to be gained by being so disingenuous?

    It should be said that the original Clyde Tolson had one thing in common with Leo Strauss: both seemed to be very fond of J. Edgar Hoover. So perhaps it’s fitting that Tolson’s namesake is writing in defense of Strauss.

    1. Hi Jeet,

      I’m looking for references that discuss Quine’s right-wing leanings. Do you have a detailed ref for Seth Bernadette’s story? Do you know of additional refs?

      Thank you,

  5. I wasn’t trying to make Strauss sound either better or worse. One shouldn’t seek either defenses or criticisms of Strauss that are “easy”, but rather that go to the heart of the matter, even if that makes Strauss sound worse by comparison (I was aware that my description of his letters could leave that impression). Would it be “kinder” to just call him a conservative? Yes and no. It might be kinder if your main interests are political. But that approach is not actually kinder, because whatever his political commitments were (and however right or wrong they were), Strauss devoted his life to producing scholarship that was purposefully distant from contemporary politics. I think you’re right that, when pressed far enough, Strauss basically looks like a conservative, and even ultra-conservative and skeptical about democracy. I’ve admitted that point in each of my posts. But my larger point was that for Strauss political commitments were not all that important, and he sought to diminish the political interests of his readers as well. So in the end, I just don’t see what difference it makes if he was conservative, except for one difficulty: namely that Strauss did sometimes use political questions as an inlet to philosophy (i.e., are the principles of the American founding really “self-evident truths” or not). As a result, some people (both fans and critics) get hung up on answering the political questions. But if you’re worried about the phenomena of politicized Straussians, the thing to do is point out how superficial their understanding of Strauss is. That isn’t a means of defending Strauss: that’s just a way to point out that conservative political types seeking academic ammunition are so intellectually bankrupt that they have to rely on theories which, on closer inspection, actually undermine their political commitments. It seems to me you’re confusing issues: the best way to go about critiquing, say, Bill Kristol, the best way to critique Steven Smith, and the best way to critique Leo Strauss. Anyway, I’m sure independent observers have seen enough from both of us now to make their own judgments on these questions.

    Incidentally, when Strauss was in Britain in the late 1930s, he accepted the patronage of the socialists R.H. Tawney and Harold Laski (the former of whom apparently did identify with Strauss’ works, although its not clear how well he understood them). Does that make Strauss better or worse? I report, you decide.

  6. Clyde: Your comments are fair enough and I should mention that our positions are not that far apart. I agree that there is a gulf between the Strauss promoted by his students (an edifying defender of virtue and “friend of liberal democracy”) and the real Strauss (who was much more skeptical, not to say cynical, than his popular repution would allow). Still I would emphasize that the edifying Strauss didn’t just emerge as a creation of his students; Strauss himself created an impression that made him seem edifying.

    The gulf between Strauss and his students is a huge topic, one that would require a book rather than a blog post. For now, I just wanted to put on the table a few facts that call into question the claim that Leo Strauss was a “friend of liberal democracy – one of the best friends democracy has ever had.”

  7. Smith is a neocon apparatchik himself, a follower of Strauss who holds close affinities with the notorious Harvey “Manliness” Mansfield. Regardless of his arguments, his agenda is right-wing. “We must destroy liberal democracy in order to save it.”

  8. Professor of Classical Greek Eric Havelock delivered his warning against following Leo Strauss’ teachings in “Plato’s Politics and the American Costitution”. The linked address, given at Harvard on March 16th of 1988, is available at
    He was then 84 years of age, in failing health and died three weeks later. The Harvard Review of Classical Philology in which it is published noted that he delivered his speech with “sudden energy and brilliance”.
    It reads much like a script for the Bush years. We can’t say that we weren’t warned.

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