A Review of Neoconservative: An Obituary for an Idea by C. Bradley Thompson with Yaron Brook
By Jeremy Rozansky
I first heard of Leo Strauss my freshman year of high school, when a liberal friend mentioned a documentary she watched that revealed that this professor, Leo Strauss, was the original font of neoconservatism, and hence the secret mastermind of Bush Administration policy. As a neoconservative sympathizer, I shrugged off the claim—if I had never heard of him then he couldn't be too influential. A year and a half later, during the summer before my junior year, I was reeled into a discussion about the then ongoing Israeli invasion of Lebanon. A Berkeley undergraduate connected Israel's response to American neoconservative foreign policy and proceeded to tell a story of neoconservatism beginning with a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago, Leo Strauss, and his belief that political leaders should tell Noble Lies to obtain power.
These two incidences were not accidents. To the left, it was clearly impossible that the decision to go to war in Iraq was based on elected leaders' perception of national interests. Such an interpretation was altogether too mundane. It must be Crusaderism, or filial vengeance, or Leo Strauss.
That Leo Strauss inspired a small, secretive group of second tier Bush Administration officials to puppeteer the militarization of America made its way from the web postings of Lyndon LaRouche and Lew Rockwell to articles in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Le Monde among others. Tim Robbins even scripted a play, Embedded, in which the war masterminds follow an autoerotic episode with an "All hail Leo Strauss!" salute.
As will become clear, this is all nonsense, but that does not mean that Leo Strauss does not have a role within the rise of what has been called "neoconservatism," a strain of conservative politics most identified with the impetus behind the Iraq War. After all, neoconservatism's "godfather," Irving Kristol, identified Strauss as one of his two chief influences. Clemson professor C. Bradley Thompson, with the aid of Ayn Rand Institute president Yaron Brook, meticulously inquires into the question of just what neoconservatism is and what Strauss has to do with it, in their recent book Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea. From the title, it is obvious their book is hostile to neoconservatism like the other nonsense works of the past decade. For those who do not notice the tombstone for neoconservatism on the cover, the first few pages make it clear that neoconservatism is not yet dead, but that Thompson and Brook wish to kill it. What is most unique about their book is that, as far as I know, theirs is the first major examination of Strauss and the neoconservatives that comes from the right—albeit from an American conservatism in the uncompromising mode of Ayn Rand. The aforementioned articles and books like Shadia Drury's Leo Strauss and the American Right come from the left, or, in the case of the LaRouchians, Mars.
Thompson believes these previous attempts are mostly inane. He seeks to analyze neoconservatism as "a comprehensive and integrated political philosophy with its own system of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics" and he locates its roots in a detailed, which is not to say careful or correct, reading of Strauss. An Obituary for an Idea begins with a description of the neoconservatives as ad-hoc power-seekers and fascistic virtucrats, continues to identify Irving Kristol as a secret Straussian, and reads Strauss' political philosophy as that of ad-hoc power-seeking and the fascistic imposition of virtue, a synthesis of Machiavelli and Plato. The discussion of Strauss, in turn, helps us realize the "hidden core" of neoconservatism and the full extent of "the threat posed to this country by neoconservatism," especially to America's founding principles. He is wrong on all accounts.
What is Neoconservatism?
Thompson correctly admits the basic methodological problem of the study of the neoconservatives and what they believe: it is not so clear just who is a neoconservative and who is not. For one, the neoconservatives are not self- defined—the title was coined as a perjorative by the socialist writer, Michael Harrington. Many of the neoconservatives who Thompson refers to would dispute the label. In addition, many neoconservatives wrote in the mid-nineties that neoconservatism was dead—it had been absorbed by the larger conservative element in American politics and they were now indistinguishable. Thompson, to an extent, agrees, but views this as a mutation of American conservatism into something new, something that originated with the neoconservatives.
The neoconservatives were a group of intellectuals who broke with the left over the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement (policies like busing and affirmative action), the failure of the campus left to make moral distinctions in the Cold War, and the continued growth of a dependency- creating welfare state. Some, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer, remained moderate, idiosyncratic liberals, while others, like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, became conservatives who were influential in the Republican Party. Kristol remarks that he finds attempts to understand a neoconservative ideology to be puzzling because whenever he meets a fellow neoconservative, they always spend more time arguing than agreeing.
Thompson is not content with understanding neoconservatism as the few common political dispositions of this motley collection of sociologists and literary critics. They must have an ideology, a unifying dogma. He thus selects Irving Kristol, admittedly the most central neoconservative thinker, as his focus and intersperses quotes of other neoconservatives (some whose neoconservatism is dubious) to paint the picture he wishes to paint of neoconservative thought. Thus James Q. Wilson, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Richard John Neuhaus are barely mentioned, while Aaron Wildavsky, Michael Novak, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan never appear.
By minimizing the role of the neoconservative social scientists, Thompson neglects two essential aspects of neoconservatism: its embrace of empirical methods and its emphasis within these methods upon the "Law of Unintended Consequences." By neglecting their modest empiricism, Thompson can make the neoconservatives both more Straussian (Strauss was no friend of positivism and social science) and more confident in the powers of government.
For Thompson, the neoconservatives are the opposite of the principled opponent of modern, expansive government that a conservative should be. They are statists and relativists, indistinguishable from liberals only by degree and the depth to which they conceal their true agenda.
In 1976, Irving Kristol penned an article entitled "What Is a Neoconservative?" that articulated the few ideas that distinguished the neoconservatives. The first political tendency is that "Neoconservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of a welfare state… it approves of those social reforms that, while providing needed security and comfort to the individual in our dynamic, urbanized society, do so with a minimum of bureaucratic intrusion in the individual's affairs." They thus opposed the Great Society but accepted the New Deal, seeing the Great Society as inducing the "paternalistic state." The state may buffer the pangs of the market, but it should not be so arrogant as to try and solve social problems once and for all. The result of such arrogance would be a coddling, inefficient, and unaffordable state.
Thompson over-interprets Kristol's many statements like this. When Kristol rejects the thesis of F. A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom—that the inevitable consequence of central planning is the demise of fundamental political freedom—Thompson accuses him of being a meliorist and unskeptically endorsing state expansion. Kristol writes that
In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need government action of some kind if they are to cope with many of their problems: old age, illness, unemployment, etc. They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?
Thompson hones in on the word "need" here to indicate that Kristol believes the people have an inalienable right to a certain level of government services, that, to quote Thompson, "Welfare recipients have a legitimate moral claim—an enforceable ownership claim—to their entitlement."
Thompson is trying to deduce Kristol's complete understanding of why the welfare state can and should exist. This is especially strange given that he spends a good portion of the book discussing how the neoconservatives do not have axiomatic political beliefs. Indeed, a search through Kristol's corpus will review no such proof. The welfare state, according Kristol, is with us for better and for worse. Policy suggestions must view the world as it is, including political factors like the popularity of, say, Social Security. Conservatives, Kristol believes, have no political future if their aim is to disassemble the welfare state. Yet Kristol's support for some sort of welfare state is not merely tactical, there are virtues to it. It is an example of generosity and mercy. Its major vice is not its lack of strict constitutional legitimacy but that it creates dependency. So Kristol envisions a welfare state that lessens its vices and strengthens its virtues. The conservative welfare state does not create dependency, but rather promotes responsibility.
Just as neoconservatives don't regard the welfare state as wholly evil, they don't regard capitalism as wholly good. Kristol gave two, not the full three cheers for capitalism. Thompson demands all three; two is as good as none. In the tradition of Adam Smith, Kristol saw capitalism chiefly as a moral system. It provides moral goods like training in responsibility and thrift, political freedom, and, yes, the moral good of previously unimagined prosperity. Kristol's criticism was not based on the usual targets of inequality of results or the possibility of exploitation. Instead Kristol found the profit motive morally lacking and given to subjective, personal understandings of the good. He saw rampant nihilism as a symptom of the inadequacies of a system based on the profit-motive.
Capitalism needs to be buttressed by institutions that foster other valuable virtues like courage, discipline, and generosity. Capitalism thus needs religion.
Thompson isn't particularly off base in his rehearsal of Kristol's critique of capitalism. He does miss Kristol and other neoconservatives' discussion of the virtues inspired by capitalism (responsibility, for instance). He does not need to distort Kristol to utter a conclusion he finds egregious. Thompson believes capitalism is founded on egoism, or the so-called virtue of selfishness and any defense of capitalism that does not defend egoism will ultimately undermine capitalism. Of course, Kristol does not defend selfishness and knows the consequences—he intends to undermine pure capitalism, or at least Thompson's Randian, egoist capitalism. Thompson only mentions Ayn Rand in a footnote toward the end, but it's a crucial one that frames the entire book. Thompson and Brook, who is the director of the Ayn Rand Institute, note:
We believe it is both necessary and possible to establish an absolute, permanent, certain, and secular moral code that grounds individualism and economic laissez-faire and that is derived from and consonant with man's nature as a rational and volitional being. Interested readers will find this demonstrative science of ethics presented in the novels and nonfiction writings of Ayn Rand. [original emphasis]
Although this footnote comes in the conclusion, Rand's penumbra is present throughout. Every admonishment for the neoconservatives is based in the fact that they are not sufficiently Randian. He thus argues past the neoconservatives again and again.
One such example concerns the role of the state in the perpetuation of moral behavior and good character. Thompson articulates the conservative ethos in statecraft as "if done properly, human nature and traditional values can be 'incentivized' with the proper inducements and guidance, and that social reform is therefore possible." The neoconservatives agree with George Will that "statecraft is soul-craft," that the webs around us can make us better, and that men of great judgment will help weave those webs. But Thompson neglects how the neoconservatives temper this ambitious project of soul- craft with a powerful awareness of the law of unintended consequences and the limits of human contrivance. He never mentions the neoconservative emphasis on the soul-craft possibilities of "mediating" institutions like church, community, and family. Thompson's accusation that the "neocons have faith that properly trained social planners can figure out how to make various social welfare programs work without causing negative externalities and moral hazards" is plainly untrue.
This and other summaries of neoconservatism—the party that says "stop worrying and love the state," for example—are often based on select quotations from David Brooks. Thompson sees Brooks as the proper heir to Irving Kristol. He never says why. The fact is that Brooks, although an intriguing columnist, does not inhabit the same role as Irving Kristol or anything close to it. Brooks is a journalist, Kristol an essayist and public intellectual. Brooks is not the institutional hub Kristol ever was. Brooks is chosen because he is on the Hamiltonian wing of the imaginary neoconservative caucus and because his writing is frequent and, due to the constraints of the format, often truncated. His ideas are more manipulable and more in favor of activist government than Irving Kristol's, so it's useful for Kristol's adversaries to quote David Brooks when Kristol quotes are insufficient for their accusation.
Thompson does his most critical refashioning of neoconservatism when he starts to address neoconservatism as a political philosophy. The very insistence on a neoconservative philosophy is a refashioning. The neoconservatives never once refer to it as a philosophy, but rather a persuasion, mood, or disposition. It has its tendencies, but no doctrine, no systematic origins. Thompson's first gloss on the neoconservative philosophy—he revisits the issue after discussing Leo Strauss' thought and influence—is that they are prudentialists, a category no different from relativists.
Neoconservatives talk often of prudence, this is true. Prudence is akin to Aristotle's phronesis or practical judgment, the discernment of the right ends and means in a particular circumstance. Prudence is doing the right thing—finding what Norman Podhoretz calls the "precise point" of what is in the public interest. But the right is not divinable by theory alone. Circumstances frustrate theory, and experience, not theory, is the great tutor of such judgment given circumstance.
Thus the neoconservative embrace of prudence originates in a belief in the insufficiency of a priori decision-making. The neoconservatives rightfully remind us just how complicated the world is and therefore how complicated morality is.
It is true that the neoconservatives do not like "ideological straightjackets," although he overstates it, saying they believe "systems of ideological thought… lead invariably to social engineering, show trials, concentration camps, gulags, manmade famines, the Terror, and eventually to the killing fields." Not being ideological is not the same as having no principles. Thompson equates ideology with principle, neglecting the difference in rigidity. One can hold two principles that come into conflict in certain circumstances; most do, especially in politics. Experience is needed to negotiate between competing goods or competing evils—this is prudential practice. Anything else forgets circumstance, which is to say that it forgets the world as it is.
Politics is inherently applied. One must work within the world as it is. This means, of course, that one must be in the political position that allows him to apply the policy. What achieves political power is an element of prudential political decision-making. The neoconservatives admit this, but Thompson reads any concern about power as an overriding concern about power. He reads the neoconservatives as secret Thrasymachians, believing that might makes right. In one example Thompson quotes William Kristol's assessment that "a minority party becomes a majority party by absorbing elements of the other party." Thus, according to Thompson, the neoconservatives abandon conservative principles and become liberals in order to get votes. Kristol, however, isn't describing the appropriation of progressive platforms, but the subtle shifts in messaging, platform, and circumstance that can cause a phenomenon like the Reagan Democrats.
The neoconservatives, it is true, take calculations of political power into account. In a democratic republic this means winning elections. What is popular matters, and not just because Irving Kristol thought the people (in contrast to the intellectuals) are more often right. Thompson's claim—that the neoconservatives care about power, thus all they want is power—does not follow logically. Because it is not enough to hold a position, one must enact it, compromise, even of principle, is necessary for statesmanship. The neoconservatives are not shape-shifters, but rather they are prudentialists.
This may all seem basic, but Thompson interprets neoconservatism as believing principle "just gets in the way." If he wants a systematic defense of prudential politics, he won't get it from Irving Kristol or David Brooks. He will, however, get it from Aristotle.
Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss
In a famous passage concerning what it means to be a neoconservative—that is a conservative who once was not—Irving Kristol describes his changing tastes. He now believes Jane Austen a superior author to Proust and Joyce, that Raphael is greater than Picasso, and that Aristotle is more worthy of study than Marx.
Aristotle is not a random choice. Libertarian conservatives would find the rest of the roster of great political philosophers superior to Marx, but they would not choose Aristotle, rather Hobbes or Locke, possibly Mill. To Kristol, these great classical liberal thinkers are not the best alternative to Marx. Rather, it is the ancients one must search for if one is looking for exemplar political philosophy. This suggests that Kristol is a partisan of the need to return to the study of the ancients over the moderns—that the moderns, indeed, share a crucial error that permeates their political thought.
This distinction, indeed this call to go back, is the distinctive call of Leo Strauss, a superb and pioneering student of the history of political philosophy in his years at this university and others. But is Irving Kristol a Straussian? Thompson thinks yes and thinks that Kristol's neoconservatism is a derivative of Strauss' thought.
There are a couple things we must do before answering this question. The first would be to provide a sketch of Strauss' thought that is sufficient for our purposes. Second, we should address how well the ideas of neoconservatism conform to this sketch, being careful of the differences between Thompson's caricature and the true character of the neoconservatives. After presenting the evidence, we should call up the witnesses. Thompson calls a 1953 review of Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing that Irving Kristol wrote for Commentary a "Rosetta's Stone" that decodes the hidden link. Kristol's review is certainly fair game, but Kristol wrote non-cryptically about Strauss' influence in other places and at other times.
Leo Strauss was one of many remarkable emigrant students of political philosophy who were trained in Germany during the Weimar years and fled west before the Nazi atrocities. A reader of Nietzsche, a student of Ernst Cassirer and Edmund Husserl, and a younger colleague of Martin Heidegger, Strauss was tutored in an impressive philosophic era. But Strauss was neither a Nietzschean nor a Heideggerian. Indeed, the germ of his philosophic project is a rejection of the thought so distinct to Germany between the wars. German thought was dominated by a lack of faith in the possibility of moral truths; its most common strain was radical historicism —the idea that all philosophy is a product of historical conditions and that no truths are eternal. Radical historicism and its cousins, positivism and the fact-value distinction, tended toward nihilism. This was not inevitable; rather it was the product of a choice made in Western thought, a choice without a proper basis.
Whence came Western nihilism? Strauss identified three vistas of descent, what he called the Three Waves of Modernity. The First Wave was begun by Machiavelli and built upon by Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke. They lowered the sights of political thought, making moral problems technical problems of stability and social contracts. They did not believe nature had high and low elements as the ancients did. Rather, nature needed humans to cover it with an artifact to contain its messiness. The Second Wave was begun by Rousseau and was built upon by Kant, Hegel, and Marx. For them, historical process moved humanity from the low to the high, to a rational end state. The Third Wave was begun by Nietzsche who rejected the idea of inevitable historical process and declared the need for value-creation. Humans have a responsibility to seize power and will values. These three waves, it is no mistake, each culminated in the three great regimes of Strauss' lifetime: liberal democracy, communism, and fascism, respectively.
Their error was in basing morality in technology, history, or power. Instead, Strauss suggested a return to the ancients, for whom nature was teleological. That is to say, morality was to be found in nature—that there are actions and ideas which are naturally right. This recovery of the ancients took Strauss from work on Spinoza and Hobbes to Spinoza's interlocutor, Maimonides and from Maimonides to the Islamic Platonist, Al- Farabi and thus to Plato. In both Maimonides' suggestions of how to read his Guide of the Perplexed and Farabi's unique reading of Plato, Strauss discovered what he called exoteric and esoteric writing. Philosophers know that the common opinions are not always truthful and so when they dissent from the common opinions, they must be wary of persecution so as not to share the fate of Socrates. Thus many philosophers will conceal their true meaning so that only other philosophers understand their true conclusions. A common man, not attuned to the hidden layers, will find writing that is not so disagreeable. Thus certain statements should be read as salutary, while others should be read as windows into the philosopher's true thoughts. Strauss' readings of the great philosophers are remarkably careful, attuned to ironies and contradictions, even aware of numerical clues. Strauss' project is to recover the philosophical insights of the ancients, not just from the modern assault on their conclusions but from the modern misreadings.
In an essay, "Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement" professor of political science James Ceaser identifies "natural right" as the "foundational concept" of the neoconservatives. The emphasis on virtue and the desire for a society that perpetuates virtues is characteristic of the neoconservatives. Moreover, they seem to adopt an Aristotelian notion of prudence. Virtue is imprecise and unscientific. It requires judgment.
In this way the neoconservatives revive the political thought of the ancients. But they are also firmly in the First Wave of Modernity. The emphasis on social science is not exactly Straussian. Strauss writes that social science "abstracts from the essential elements of social reality." The house organ of the neoconservatives, The Public Interest presents a picture of their emphases. It was by and large a social scientific journal, with the exception of maybe an article in each issue that dealt with philosophic issues related to public policy. Kristol, while aware of the moral limits of social science, often found it useful to prove a point and made a major criticism of the New Left—and therefore an important criticism in his breaking with the left—its inability to think economically.
But this comparison of Strauss and the neoconservatives rightly understood has so far neglected a key element of Strauss' writing: exotericism. This is paramount for Thompson. He cites Kristol's review of Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing—where Strauss makes his most significant argument for exoteric reading—as evidence that Kristol shares the conclusion. Thompson says very little about the actual article, other than that it exists and that he is the first to mention it. Kristol was in the New York Intellectuals' scene when Strauss was one of the recent German émigrés teaching at the New School for Social Research. One would think New York's young Jewish intellectuals would pay attention if some of the greatest Jewish students of philosophy landed in their neighborhood, just as they did. It is clear that Kristol had heard of Strauss and read Strauss by the time of the review. While Strauss intrigued Kristol, the review does not make clear whether Strauss yet persuaded Kristol. Kristol writes that Strauss would accomplish a "revolution in intellectual history" if these conclusions take hold. That is no doubt true. If Strauss is deemed to be right then everyone would have to go and reread Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and more and would need to accept often reverse conclusions.
That Kristol found the possibility of exoteric reading potentially revolutionary, does not mean that Kristol wrote exoterically or that he read exoterically—not that Kristol published many studies of political philosophers. Thompson interprets this review as Kristol's admission that he will follow in Strauss' footsteps and write exoterically. It is first worthwhile to mention that there is a debate over whether or not Strauss wrote exoterically. There is a serious case that he did not. For one, he practically declares the idea of exoteric writing from the rooftops. Moreover, he writes that exoteric writing died with Kant. Ideas of pluralism in liberal democracies could more or less secure philosophers from persecution. The desire for popular enlightenment also made philosophers more willing to face persecution.
Subtlety should not be confused for exotericism. The fact that Kristol writes sometimes in the space between two ideas does not mean that he is concealing anything. Moreover, Strauss' caginess should not be seen as a function of the philosopher's need to hide truths. Catherine and Michael Zuckert argue in their book, The Truth About Leo Strauss that the difficulties a reader finds with Strauss are products of a pedagogical method. Philosophic inquiry involves an erotic uncovering of the mystery. To write dryly, to enumerate each idea is to fail to nourish the eros so critical to philosophy.
Kristol indeed writes about what Strauss taught him, and it was not the esotericism of Persecution and the Art of Writing. He writes that Lionel Trilling and Leo Strauss were his two major influences in Neoconservatism: An Autobiography of an Idea's "Autobiographical Memoir." Trilling was a skeptical liberal and Strauss a skeptical conservative, as he tells it. First encountering this skeptical conservative proved an "intellectual shock" because he reversed one's vantage point on intellectual history. It was the ancients, not the moderns, who most merited consideration. He describes Strauss' exotericism as the source of his revilement in academia, but not his influence on Kristol. To practical politics, Kristol writes, Strauss was not conducive. He gave no "ready-made political opinions."
Strauss and Fascism
In addition to mistaking Kristol for a Straussian, Thompson interprets Straussianism as fascistic. It will be enough to provide a sparse outline of the Strauss-the-Fascist argument and then hone in on Thompson's key piece of evidence.
Thompson's argument works something like the following: Strauss begins by rejecting liberalism and individualism. An individual is no good—that is, he cannot be lifted to natural right—without the community. Communal natural right, of course, implies an ideal society. That society for Strauss is Plato's ideal in The Republic. This state requires an empowered elite who know the public interest better than the public. Thus the philosophically trained elite will obligate all citizens to a variety of virtues, including martial virtues like self-sacrifice and love of fatherland.
Thompson clearly pored over Strauss' oeuvre to find the quotations that fit this scheme. I have chosen not to review each one for Thompson's misinterpretations or to spend a similar length of time with Strauss' many books and essays. Rather, a general understanding of Strauss is sufficient. Strauss certainly did not believe liberal democracy was the ideal regime; it was, after all, a product of the First Wave of Modernity. Some Strauss scholars like Yale's Steven Smith argue that Strauss was a friend of democracy, in the sense that friends can provide constructive criticism. Strauss writes that liberal democracy "in contradistinction to communism and fascism, derives powerful support from a way of thinking which cannot be called modern at all: the pre-modern thought of [the] western tradition." This way of thinking is Aristotelian constitutionalism: that the best regime is the mixed regime. Liberal democracy can be seen as mixed, combining the pure democratic (elections) with the aristocratic (representative assemblies) with the monarchic (a strong executive). Regardless of how true this picture is, Strauss inarguably endorsed liberal democracy above its modern alternatives.
In a letter to Karl Lowith in 1946, Strauss admits that he agrees the "perfect political order" is the one sketched by Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle, of course, do not speak of the same perfect political order. Thompson, strangely, focuses only on Plato. Strauss read The Republic not as an illumination of the best regime so much as an esoteric discourse on the conflict between philosophy and politics. In this reading, Socrates' proposals are absurd and are meant to demonstrate the limits of theory. The Republic is not the original utopia, but rather the great anti-utopian dialogue. The philosopher, it is the lesson of this reading, should not give up searching for the best regime, but he should know it is not his place to actualize this scheme. Statesmanship requires practical wisdom and philosophy is not the same as practical wisdom. Thompson sees Strauss' indications that the best regime is possible as indications that the philosophers should, in fact, seek out the actualization of the best regime. This is false.
Strauss distinguishes between just regimes and the best regime. The best regime is only possible under the most favorable of circumstance. Statesmen, we remember, use prudence to negotiate the just solution in differing circumstances. Judgment, not philosophic declaration, is therefore necessary even in the very rare instance in which the best regime is possible. Strauss, or any follower of natural right in this sense, would not call for the immediate actualization of the best regime. Moreover, Strauss, in the very passage of Natural Right and History that Thompson quotes at length, makes clear that the best regime as understood by the ancients has two forms: the more Platonic rule of wise gentlemen and the more Aristotelian mixed regime.
Thompson looks only to the more Platonic best regime, and seems to see it as proto-fascist, similar to Karl Popper's vision. He argues that Strauss masked an understanding of the Platonic best regime very similar to Popper's. Thompson's argument amounts to: Strauss esoterically writes that his esoteric reading of Plato is not the true esoteric reading of Plato. The section is short, unconvincing, and repeatedly absolutizes Strauss' statements that are not absolute.
But if all this does not convince one that Strauss is a fascist, Thompson plays the trump card: Strauss was a fascist (back in his early thirties). Thompson makes note of a letter Leo Strauss sent to Karl Lowith in May of 1933. Strauss has escaped the rise of the Third Reich (as a Jew) and is doing research in Britain, he tells Lowith:
[T]he fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian, and imperial principles, is it possible with decency, that is, without the laughable and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l'homme [rights of man] to protest against the shabby abomination. I am reading Caesar's Commentaries with deep understanding, and I think of Virgil's Tu regere imperio… parcere subjectis et debellare superbos. [You are to rule… to spare the vanquished and crush the arrogant.] There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I'll take the ghetto. [emphasis original]
This is an admittedly strange excerpt. We must remember first that this is Strauss as a young man, before his discovery of esotericism, so even if Strauss sympathized with Mussolini as some have alleged, it does not need to define his later thinking. He is, however, clearly hostile to the weak liberalism he knows and to the First Wave of Modernity. This letter appears to be, above all, an appeal for a Caesar of the German Right (although not the "shabby abomination" of Hitler) to crush the modern equivalent of the weak Roman Senate: Weimar liberalism.
Strauss' critique of liberalism appears to be located in liberalism's identification of morality with self-interest. Later, in a 1941 lecture in the United States, where he has settled, he will say that in "opposing the identification of the morally good with the object of enlightened self- interest however enlightened, the German philosophers insisted on the difference between the morally good and self-interest… they insisted on self-sacrifice and self-denial; they insisted on it so much, that they were apt to forget the natural aim of man which is happiness." The endorsement of Caesarism was an overreaction—liberalism is certainly flawed, but that's because the natural right of the ancients is the superior regime, not the martial, fascist state.
Indeed, this transformation seems to have taken place quickly. Just nine months after the infamous letter to Lowith, Strauss wrote favorably of the British Parliament, comparing it to—what else?—the Roman Senate. He writes especially of his admiration for a Conservative backbencher named Winston Churchill. Strauss seems to have found in Anglo-American liberalism a regime more resistant to the critique that vanquished the Weimar Republic. Perhaps this is because he sees its classical elements, especially in its proximity to Aristotle's mixed regime or because it possesses strong statesmen of the classical, prudential but magnanimous mode like Churchill.
Fascism, American Style?
Thompson writes an obituary for neoconservatism, not because it is dead, but because he wishes to kill it. It is therefore important to know what Thompson wishes the dominant strain of American conservatism to be. In a 2006 essay in the Randian journal, The Objectivist Standard, "The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism", Thompson summarized the reason for the fall and how conservatives may rise again:
Because they refuse to defend capitalism morally, on the basis of egoism, conservatives have compromised and sold-out the rights of the American people. They have ceded the principled high ground to the Left by accepting the moral rationale for the welfare state—altruism and its attendant notion that "need" is a legitimate moral claim.
Egoism—that self-interest is an ultimate principle of morality—must replace altruism. Under this scheme of axiomatic libertarianism, the welfare state is to be buried, not reformed. It would be enough for Thompson to argue that the neoconservatives have repeatedly suggested the wrong policy, that Randianism is a superior alternative. These sorts of intraparty debates are frequent and interesting, if unproductive. But Thompson uses the f-word. He makes two separate accusations (although, for him, they seem to be a tandem). First, the neoconservatives are not "in the American grain"—that is they are contra the founding. Second, the neoconservatives are fascists, although their fascism is a kinder, gentler, American style fascism.
The neoconservatives' writings are certainly patriotic—the question for Thompson is whether that patriotism is genuine. The neoconservatives could be outwardly patriotic in order to successfully advance an agenda that is contra the founding. The question is whether they believe the assumptions of the founders are correct or whether Enlightenment liberalism sowed the seeds for the moral decay of the 1960s.
The problem with Thompson's answer is that he reduces the founding and over Straussianizes the neoconservatives. Thompson's version of the American founding seems to have self-interest as inalienable and axiomatic and acquisitiveness as a virtue. It is as if the only founder was Thomas Paine (or, more bizarrely, Ayn Rand). If American conservatism conserves the liberal founding, then the neoconservatives are the conservators of the more Hamiltonian streak. This may be contra-Rand, but it is not contra-founding or against the American grain.
Moreover, the neoconservatives do not fully accept Strauss' Three Waves formulation. As mentioned earlier, the embrace of social science means that they share somewhat in the First Wave, while also able to recall classical natural right. Catherine and Michael Zuckert define a sort of paradox of Strauss' beliefs that his influential students tried to reconcile: 1) America is modern 2) Modernity is bad 3) America is good. Some Strauss students, in their telling, do not accept that America is modern; others are more persuaded that America is not good. The student of Strauss who Irving Kristol was personally and professionally closest was Martin Diamond who belonged, according to the Zuckerts, to the camp that held First Wave modernity to be not so bad, good in fact. Diamond even wrote that the acquisitive, selfish bourgeois virtues Thompson so adores are an incomplete set but are virtues nonetheless.
The charge of fascism is even graver. This is several steps beyond calling the neoconservatives covert liberals or unprincipled. Thompson sees five major elements that the neoconservatives share with the fascists: they are metaphysical collectivists; they prefer a highly regulatory state; they glamorize great statesmen; they are against Enlightenment liberalism and its doctrines of individual rights and ethic of self-interest; and they endorse martial virtues as the true virtues.
The first three notions have already been addressed. The neoconservatives might be considered metaphysical collectivists insofar as they have a consistent metaphysics. They probably believe that the public interest (what is good for the people) is both a different and better ideal than the aggregated self-interest of the same people. This might be a faraway precondition of fascism, but the neoconservatives are modest about their knowledge of the true public interest and do not seek to actualize any comprehensive vision. The neoconservatives do not prefer a highly regulatory state, even though Hudson Institute fellows might advocate more regulation than Cato Institute fellows. Rather, and this is completely missing from Thompson's book, neoconservatives prefer mediating institutions like families, churches, and community groups as virtue incubators to government bureaucracy. The neoconservatives do glamorize great statesmen like Churchill and Lincoln, and why not? Their courage is impressive and proper prudential judgments today require the instruction of history, including the examples of great statesmen.
The fourth topic has been partially addressed. Neoconservatives accept much of the English and Scottish Enlightenment; they just think classical natural right can provide a valuable correction. Kristol writes that "liberty was not enough," that rights needed counterbalancing duties which are only possible in a political community. Statecraft as soul-craft thus required supplements to liberalism: religion, mediating institutions, education, etc.
What seems to really irk Thompson is that the neoconservatives consider self-interested acquisitiveness' opposite, altruism, a virtue. In Yaron Brook's only chapter (which is on foreign policy), he argues that the neoconservatives did not carpetbomb Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th like they should have because their delusions about the virtue of altruism led them to want to construct a democratic regime. This, of course, leads to the final topic: just what are the virtues the neoconservatives want to result from statecraft as soul-craft?
The answer to this question for Thompson is sacrifice. The neoconservatives laud war because it is sacrificial and they involve us in more wars because they like the prospect of sacrifice. To almost all readers, Thompson's understanding of virtue will seem off base. Altruism, doing good unto others, strikes them as an especially laudable virtue. Thrift, industry, and self-reliance, the bourgeois virtues Thompson favors, will strike most as good but insufficient. Kristol thought the same way. Hence his two cheers for capitalism, which promotes these bourgeois virtues. But discipline, altruism, and magnanimity are not residuals of capitalism; it thus is not to be given a perfect score. The neoconservatives do not put forward the martial virtues—they put forward the wide array of virtues, virtues most would assent to even if only their sentiments are speaking.
I know of no proof of Kristol's for the array of virtues he suggests. Again, I recommend Thompson take up Aristotle if he's looking to mine Kristol for a philosophical treatise that isn't there.
Perhaps it is due to the fact that Kristol argued for a set of virtues which most Americans would by and large assent to that neoconservatism, and not Randian libertarianism, is the dominant strain in the American right today. To kill neoconservatism would be to level most major conservative institutions and gut the rest. The fact that neoconservatism is ascendant is admittedly not the strongest evidence for its basic truth, but this polemic makes nary a dent in its armor, preferring to interpret neoconservatism and Leo Strauss out of whack. Someday a serious book will be written that seeks to understand the role Leo Strauss plays in neoconservatism—this is not that book.
Instead, Thompson and Brook have written a rambling, nasty, strangely exuberant, and terribly distorting book that concludes with the charge that neoconservatism will bring a softer fascism to America. The charge is absurd and prefaced on the complete rejection of altruism and political community as well as total faith in a priori determinations of justice in every circumstance. His is an ideology that says "the greatness of America is captured in a computer chip smaller than your baby-finger nail, in Amazon's Kindle reader, or in an iPod" and not habits of free-inquiry, the self-made man, the proposition that all men are created equal, or the sacrifice of an American serviceman for these ideals.
Fascism, American-style may yet be a possibility. But rest assured, it will never be the neoconservatives commanding "To a gas chamber—go!"