Response to Damon Linker

Damon Linker, while appreciating some aspects of my critique of Strauss and the neocons, disagrees with others, and he does so in a thoroughly serious and gentlemanly manner. He is to be commended for writing a model review that is both critical and constructive. Linker identifies what he considers to be three problem areas.

The first concerns my portrayal of Leo Strauss. Linker wants to make Strauss into an Aristotelian. I must say, though, that I find his point here somewhat elusive. He doesn’t identify what he finds disagreeable in my presentation of Strauss’s political thought, particularly with regard to the two chapters in my book on Strauss’s interpretation of ancient political philosophy. The thrust of my interpretation follows Strauss back to classical political philosophy, which means to the thought of Plato and Aristotle. The mature Strauss clearly preferred Plato and Aristotle to all other philosophers. In fact, the chapter in my book on “Classical Natural Right” presents Strauss in a way that was almost as much Aristotelian as it was Platonist. In fact, I agree with virtually everything that Linker says of Strauss’s Aristotelianism and say so in my book. Mr. Linker knows very well, however, that Strauss was a deep and multi-layered thinker who wrote different things for different audiences. Depending on time and place, Strauss could very much appear the Aristotelian. In the end, however, I do think that Strauss thought the differences between Plato and Aristotle were real (though he attempted to smooth them over), and in the end he preferred Plato to the student. This point is well known among Strauss’s best students. In fact, let me rather boldly suggest that Aristotle actually flunked Strauss’s ultimate test as to whether one was a philosopher or not. Recall that for Strauss any philosopher who claimed to actually know the truth (i.e., what Strauss called “subjective certainties”) was a partisan and not a philosopher. Philosophy is a way of life: it is the quest for truth expressed by the zetetic way of life. Simply put, the difference between a philosopher who wrote dialogues and one who wrote treatises made all the difference for Strauss.

One last point of clarification on Aristotle. I don’t at all find his thought “sinister” or “threatening” as Linker suggests. In fact, I regard Aristotle to be one of the three greatest philosophers of all time. His political thought is not as good as his ethics and his ethics not as good as his epistemology and metaphysic, but even his political thought has much to recommend it. Unfortunately, I do think the Straussianized neocons accept the worst elements of Aristotle’s political thought, wrench it out of its context, and then apply it in troubling ways that are potentially “sinister” and “threatening.” I much prefer the Aristotle of Fred D. Miller (author of Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics) to that of Carnes Lord or Harry Jaffa.

Second, Linker finds that certain elements of my account of neoconservatism are “ahistorical in several respects.” First, while agreeing with me that “national greatness conservatism” is “pernicious,” he argues that it was a development of contemporary neocons such as William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and David Brooks and has no place in the thought of first generation neocons such as Irving Kristol. Linker might be right about this, but only in the most literal sense. By the time that Bill Kristol and Brooks were publishing their essays on national greatness conservatism, Irving Kristol was in virtual intellectual retirement and wrote little, particularly as it related to the ideas of his son. In the end, we don’t know what he actually thought about national greatness conservatism, but I must confess that I think it beside the point. The fact of the matter is that Kristol père laid the philosophic groundwork for the national greatness movement. It was Irving Kristol who identified and imported nationalism into neoconservatism as one of its central pillars. By 1983, Irving Kristol was prepared to argue publicly, following Strauss’s lead, that neoconservatism was “not merely patriotic but also nationalist” in orientation.[1] It was Irving Kristol who popularized Strauss’s narrative that nihilism and not communism was the greatest threat to America and the West and that nihilism was born in Lockean liberalism. The primary purpose of national greatness conservatism is to combat the cultural and moral nihilism first diagnosed by Strauss and Kristol père. It was Irving Kristol who called for a remoralization of America. And it was Irving Kristol who first launched the neoconservative attack on small-government conservatives.

Third, Linker wants to know if I really meant to say that Irving Kristol despised capitalism. Yes, I do mean to say that because I think it’s true. Part of the problem here is that it’s almost certainly the case that Linker and I have different definitions of what capitalism is, and we presumably judge it in different ways. When I speak of capitalism I mean laissez-faire capitalism and the complete separation of economy and state. Kristol did not, would not, and could not support this view. He supported a mixed economy that sought to combine what he thought was the best of socialism and the best of capitalism. In my view, Kristol’s advocacy of regulated capitalism is a contradiction in terms and not capitalism at all. Kristol’s “two cheers for capitalism” were purely utilitarian in character. He held his nose and supported a form of regulated capitalism because it generates the wealth necessary to sustain the welfare state that he supported as more important and fundamental than the free market. Kristol made it clear that he regarded the “socialist ideal” not only as “admirable,” but also as a “necessary ideal, offering elements that were wanting in capitalist society—elements indispensable for the preservation, not to say perfection, of our humanity.”[2] I do not regard anyone who holds the following view, as Kristol did, to be an advocate for capitalism:

The basic principle behind a conservative welfare state ought to be a simple one: wherever possible, people should be allowed to keep their own money—rather than having it transferred (via taxes) to the state—on condition that they put it to certain defined uses. Policies such as these have the obvious advantage of reconciling the purposes of the welfare state with the maximum degree of individual independence and the least bureaucratic coercion. They would also have the advantage of being quite popular.[3]

Linker is also incredulous that I would claim that the neocons “praise the nobility of the ‘barbarian’ virtues such as discipline, courage, daring, endurance, loyalty, renunciation, obedience, and sacrifice.” He asks out loud if I “really mean to describe them as ‘barbarian” virtues?” Again, yes, I do mean to describe them as barbarian virtues because that’s precisely the term that Max Boot used to describe them, and because in the context that they’re being used by the neocons, that’s what they are. In an article published three years ago in World Affairs, Boot praised Theodore Roosevelt for thinking that “only warfare could restore the ‘barbarian’ virtues,” which he clearly thinks is a good idea. With faint echoes of the young Leo Strauss’s antiliberalism and prowar views (see Strauss’s speech on “German Nihilism”), Boot praised Roosevelt for restoring the “great manly virtues, the power to strive and fight and conquer” and for believing that it is only “through strife, or the readiness for strife, that a nation must win greatness.’”[4] As to the virtues themselves, I consider sacrifice to be less than a barbarian virtue. As for the rest of the virtues listed, most of them (e.g., discipline, courage, endurance, and loyalty) can be genuine virtues in the proper moral context. As used by the neocons’ warfare state, however, they are precisely what Boot says they are.

Finally, we turn to the “F” bomb. Linker wonders why I invoke the bogeyman of “fascism” for the neocons if I don’t think they are in fact fascists—which I don’t. Why then the “name-calling and ominous insinuations”? This is a reasonable question? As I hope Linker recalls from reading my book, raising the specter of fascism was not a conclusion that I came to lightly or with any pleasure. Unlike many leftists in recent years, I didn’t indiscriminately and maliciously hurl the epithet at the neocons. Nor did I set out to write a book that would turn the neocons into fascists. In fact, the fascist connection was only something I came to at the very end of my research and writing. But we need to be very precise here, which I try to do in the book. The charge that I have leveled against neoconservatism is that many of its core ideas, when put together in a systematic way, bear an eerie resemblance to the principles of Mussolini’s fascism. (See Mussolini’s essay on “The Doctrine of Fascism.”) I spend chapter after chapter collecting and presenting the evidence, which, when taken as a whole, certainly implicates the neocons in promoting ideas that might one day lead this country down the road to fascism. Analogously, Bismarck and Nietzsche were not fascists, but surely they bear some responsibility for the rise of Nazism in Germany. Leo Strauss certainly thought that was true of Nietzsche. The deeper issue that I’m trying to address is this: How does a nation find itself going down the path to fascism? Neoconservatism, as an ideology, is one way to do it.


[1] Irving Kristol, Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (New York: Basic Books, 1983), xiii.

[2] Irving Kristol, Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 116.

[3] Irving Kristol, “The Republican Future,” chap. in Two Cheers for Capitalism, 119 (emphasis added).

[4] Max Boot, “True Believer: TR, McCain, and Conservatism,” World Affairs 171, no. 2 (Fall 2008).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.