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Killing Democracy The Straussian Way
Shadia B. Drury's Leo Strauss and the American Right


by Michael Doliner


Book Review



Drury, Shadia B.: Leo Strauss and the American Right, Palgrave Macmillan, February 1999, ISBN 0-31221-783-8, 256 pages, $29.95 (hardcover)


(Swans - October 10, 2005)   Will the backlash from Katrina's destruction and the Bush Administration's woeful response to it finally do in the neocons? If you think so you don't know whom you are dealing with. Many have connected the name of Leo Strauss with the Neoconservatives, but almost nowhere do I find the actual content of this connection. Strauss was a professor. What did he profess? It is not sufficient merely to use Strauss's name with a sneer, for his actual thought is likely far more daring than you can imagine. The neocons are more than just the usual hacks serving the imperial masters. They share Strauss's dark vision.

Shadia Drury, a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina has written an excellent book about Strauss, Leo Strauss and the American Right. According to Drury, Strauss's attitude towards liberal democracy was at the root of this thought. "Strauss abhorred liberal democracy because he associated it with the Weimar Republic whose constitution was drafted at the end of World War I." Many Jewish European expatriates, who, like Strauss, survived World War II, identified American liberal democracy with the Weimar Republic, and the weakness and decadence of Weimar with the rise of Nazism. Strauss persuaded students such as Allan Bloom, Henry Jaffa, Irving Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and many others of this connection. He convinced them that liberalism was the root of Nazism and therefore abhorrent.

Liberalism, as Drury makes clear later on, boils down to the belief not that everyone is equal, but that everyone should be given an equal opportunity to make what he can of himself. It extols individual development at the expense of community; its principle is meritocracy. Liberalism, dedicated to individual development, has no absolutes, and tolerates such things as abortion, one step from Hitler's gas chambers. Because it has no absolutes, individuals dedicated to their own advancement only with difficulty unite into communities with common beliefs. Consequently liberal democracies are weak and a demagogue can easily overwhelm them. The weakness and nihilism of Weimar led to, or even became, Nazi Germany. For Strauss, American liberal democracy, Weimar revived, is an evil threatening all truly human existence.

But Drury claims that Strauss disliked liberalism not only because he thought it might lead to nihilism and therefore Nazism. "It was the ideals of liberalism itself -- secular politics, human rights, equal dignity, and human freedom -- that he did not relish." These too he would abolish, for they were the very opposite of what he considered to be the good society. His vision was of a hierarchical society based on natural inequalities and welded together with the fanatical devotion state religion engenders.

Strauss's political program is designed to counter the ills of liberalism. He believed in, and proposed, a state religion as a way of reviving absolutes, countering free thought, and enforcing a cohesive unity. Strauss argued against a society containing a multiplicity of coexisting religions and goals, which would break the society apart. He thought that ordinary people should not be exposed to reason. To rely on reason is to look into the abyss, for reason provided no comforting absolutes to shield one against the blank sky. Strauss opposed not reason itself, but reason stripped of its secrecy. Reason is for the few, not the many. The Enlightenment, the exposing of reason, was the beginning of the disaster. A reliance on reason, as opposed to religion, produced "modernity" which is nothing more than nihilism made political.

The visible leaders of this state are the "gentlemen." Drawn from the best families, trained to appear like leaders, imbued with the language of honor and piety, they are the Straussian State's figureheads. Although Strauss advocated a single state religion for the hoi polloi, at the top guiding the gentlemen, was a secret cabal of atheistic "philosophers." Strauss knew, and believed that all great philosophers knew, that religion is hokum. It was necessary for the masses, but not for the philosophers who, Strauss thought, would secretly rule the state. These atheistic philosophers would supply Machiavellian wisdom to the gentlemen. Drury notes that in attributing wisdom to the philosophers Strauss is not a conservative, for conservatives believe that the traditions of the society, as they have developed over time, and not these philosophers, are the repository of wisdom. The society Strauss envisions is really only "good" for these philosophers. Everyone else is forced to live in delusion. Of course, Strauss believed average people couldn't bear the truth and needed the comfort of religion, so he argued that his hierarchical state was good for them too.

Because they reason in secret, the Straussian philosophers must form a secret society in which they reveal the truth to their students, "the puppies." Their works will contain their real "esoteric" meaning hidden in a diversionary "exoteric" meaning. And since these philosophers will be political they will form a cabal in order to rule. Their job, at first, is to wean America away from its "love affair" with liberalism. To do this they will drive a wedge between liberalism and democracy. Strauss distinguishes between the two. "Liberalism is concerned with securing the greatest possible freedom for individuals. And this may very well be accomplished with a constitutional monarchy. Democracy is the rule of the people, or rule according to the will of the people or the majority." It can easily be used to suppress liberalism. By demagogic manipulation democracy, through a populist appeal, can be turned against liberalism. Since the cabal tells the truth only to its own elite members, and dissembles to everyone else for the purpose of welding together this rigid hierarchical structure, lying to the public is a virtue. Indeed all the gentlemen's speech to the public, supplied by the philosophers, is for the purpose of manipulation.

The essential first task for the philosophers is to produce ideology that the gentlemen will use to attack liberalism and gain power. Strauss's hatred of liberalism is so virulent that he sees the struggle against it as a war, and in war all is fair. For this reason Straussians will use every dirty trick they can think of in the democratic arena in order to defeat liberalism. While doing so they will corrupt democracy itself. But since democracy is only a tool with which to defeat liberalism in order to institute the true Straussian hierarchical society, this is of little import. In the end they will jettison democracy if to do so is expedient.

After it defeats liberalism, the cabal will still have work to do to institute the Straussian good society. Even with religion and the lies of the philosophers, the society will not be stable. "Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat, and following Machiavelli, he maintains that if no external threat exists, then one has to be manufactured." The fundamental political categories are "us" and "them." A sense of perpetual crisis and war cements the society together with absolute loyalty to the gentlemen. But the categories "us" and "them" do not stop at external enemies. The sense of crisis makes the struggle against internal enemies an even more desperate war of "us" against "them."

Since domestic politics is also conceived in terms of war, the rules of democracy must not be allowed to prevent victory. Opponents of the ruling cabal, whatever their stripe, are "them." Indeed, since the cabal of philosophers is deceiving everyone else, even those who have joined the cause out of religious zeal are, in a real sense, "them." A small circle of initiates who repel the advances of everyone else is a feature of the Straussian State. These initiates are philosophers who rely on reason, and nihilistic reason tells them there are no rules, none, in this domestic battle.

One thing the philosophers will not have to do is philosophize. Strauss believed that all the great (ancient) philosophers agreed on all fundamental points. There is really not much philosophizing left to do, for the truth is obvious to anyone who has discovered or been let in on the secret. The real truth is that justice is the rule of the stronger, who act to help "us" and hurt "them." Thus the idea of an objective good and evil that Strauss thinks necessary for social cohesion is a lie foisted upon the hoi polloi. It is just part of the religion. The philosophers are philosophers because they are in the know. They bask in the realization that Strauss thought them worthy of receiving the revelation. The good news is that philosophy is erotic. It is the pursuit of Metis, Zeus's sexy first wife.

Eventually the philosophers can become political actors themselves by becoming philosopher-prophets, philosophers with a religious message promulgated for political purposes. At this point they can dispense with the gentlemen, who had been their tools, and lead openly. Strauss identifies these philosopher-prophets with Nietzsche's Overman, his vision of the highest human type. This figure's religion is a creation, a work of art, not a vision of truth.

Such, in outline, is Drury's description of the Straussian political map. Drury is a careful thinker and willingly admits that some of Strauss's insights are accurate. She grants him liberalism's weakness and democracy's vulnerability to demagogues. But she rejects the necessary devolution of liberalism into Nazism, and finds the aspects of liberalism Strauss finds distasteful good.

After viewing the outline of Strauss's good society I wondered what he had against Hitler. Strauss was a Jewish nationalist without being a Zionist. He thought it was essential for Jews to be without a country and advocated that Jews embrace their suffering as eternal foreigners as an essential part of Judaism. If suffering is good for Jews, war is essential, and everything is permitted in war, what did Hitler do wrong?

There is much more to this book, and Drury does an excellent job of exposing the caricatures of liberalism and democracy and the fantasies of the overman that go into the Straussian picture. But what I think most important is an understanding of just what these people are up to. They are not, as some think, merely agents of Israel. Nor was the war fought merely for oil. They did not ally themselves with the religious right merely for expedience. They do not seek primarily to further the fortunes of Halliburton and Bechtel. All these are real motives, but they are peripheral motives. Their goal is to turn America into the Straussian State and rule it perpetually. Consequently, the debacle in Iraq does not seriously affect their plans. Even the Katrina aftermath might not shake them. A Straussian society needs an endless war to supply a "them" against which "we" will do endless battle. The endless war, such a horrible prospect for the rest of us, provided the political glue to transform the United States of American from a liberal democracy to a Straussian totalitarian state.

Straussians would rip up American traditions starting from the Declaration of Independence, an Enlightenment document if there ever was one. Nothing could be more repellent to them than the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is a description of decadent liberalism. They prefer death, bondage, and the fear of God (for others.) Straussians are orders of magnitude more subversive than any communist ever was. Paradoxically, Straussians do think that Cindy Sheehan's son Casey died for a noble cause, the transformation of the United States of America into the Straussian State. But of course they can never say so for their goal must remain a secret one. It must remain secret because the Straussian state is the good society only for the philosophers. Everyone else remains deluded and oppressed. While the "philosophers play with their puppies" the rest of us slave away or go off to die.

Because Straussians think they are fighting for human life itself they will not give up. Loss of popularity will not affect them. Gaining and holding political power is a life and death matter for them. They know perfectly well that Americans are "in love with liberalism," so any public objection to their program from this source is to be expected. Liberal criticisms will not sway Strauss's followers. The failure of the Iraq war and the growing American isolation in the world do not worry them. They want an endless war and the more embattled Americans feel the more inclined they will be to accept a strong ruler and the rest of the Straussian program. Nor do they mind natural disasters like Katrina's aftermath if they can use it to tighten the control of the gentlemen. Those who suffer are, after all, "them."

Strauss is certainly anything but stupid. His ideas when laid out may be a bookworm's fantasy of power, a fantasy that is now in danger of being realized, but this only proves that intellectuals can have enormous influence. Drury, a professor of philosophy herself, offers sharp but fair criticism. When Strauss accuses liberalism of trivializing life and turning it into a pursuit of cheap pleasures he has a point. And when he says that the average man cannot face nihilism and needs religion to endure existence, he may be right. But Drury denies that religion can do what Strauss thinks it can. Institutionalized religion ossifies and loses its spiritual power. When it is reduced to a political tool it is corrupted. And Drury also reminds us of the good things about liberalism.

But Drury does more than that. Although Drury disapproves of Strauss, she is willing to recognize the validity of many of his perceptions. It is not sufficient for liberals to merely find reasons why Strauss is wrong, it is also important to ask about why the United States of America has fallen so very far short of its ideals. Liberal democracy, with all its good points, has become monstrous. Why?

To explain how Heidegger, whom he admired, could have embraced Hitler, Strauss argued that Heidegger perceived the problem but had no cure. Perhaps we can look at Strauss in the same way. The Straussian vision is an awful one, but is it awful because we are "in love with" liberal democracy? Strauss knew that secrecy about his ideas was essential to his success. Even if we could defeat him through exposure, that would still leave an enormous real problem to solve. Why has liberal democracy in America proved so murderous? My own feeling is that class warfare has destroyed the United States far more than liberalism has, but I must admit that even if America shared its wealth fairly, it has produced something tawdry and mean. This is not to say there isn't much that is wonderful, but most of it, in my opinion, was created in opposition to the dominant culture. It may just be that Strauss is right that liberalism will result in a subhuman society. Would America have been different if the rich had not engaged in relentless class warfare? I would say so, but nothing can now demonstrate it. The cheap tawdry pleasures Americans who have succeeded waste their wealth on only demonstrate Strauss's point. That no clear alternative to Strauss's vision is easily available to us shows that this crisis of culture is ours as well as his.


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Drury, Shadia B.: Leo Strauss and the American Right, Palgrave Macmillan, February 1999, ISBN 0-31221-783-8, 256 pages, $29.95 (hardcover)

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Internal Resources

On Leo Strauss and the "Straussians" see also four articles by Milo Clark:

Leo Strauss (July 2004)
In Perspective, Parallel Lines Converge (February 2004)
Lies: The Grease Of Politics (January 2004)
Arianna's Huff (January 2004)

Book Reviews on Swans

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect on Swans


About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published October 10, 2005