Strauss, Nationalism, and Fascism

C. Bradley Thompson makes a number of points in his rejoinder to my critique, and many of them worthy of their own reply.

First, Strauss. Thompson and I agree that Strauss’s views were far more complicated than I portrayed them in my two paragraphs on Aristotle. For a much fuller, though still inadequate, treatment of Strauss’s thought and its influence, I suggest my 2006 essay from The New Republic. For now, though, I’ll say that I agree with pretty much everything Thompson says about Strauss’s ultimate allegiance to Plato over Aristotle. The problem, though, is that Strauss’s Aristotelianism captures just about everything a reader needs to know about his political views. Strauss’s (Nietzschean) Platonism has to do primarily with what lies beyond politics, “beyond good and evil” as they come to sight in the shadowy light of “the cave” of the Republic, Book VII. The philosopher who liberates himself from this cave does live a life of radical, open-ended skeptical (zetetic) inquiry, as Thompson notes. But then, what on earth does Strauss’s thought have to do with neoconservatism? The Kristols, Irving and William, were not/are not zetetic philosophers. Seen from the heights of philosophic detachment, political engagement of the kind that preoccupies neocon policy intellectuals is babysitting writ large. So do the neocons hold the views they do because of Strauss’s influence? Or despite that influence?

On the question of how much Irving Kristol should be blamed for national greatness conservatism, I stand by what I originally wrote. I understand why this issue matters to Thompson: His book was written, in part, to demonstrate that neoconservatism is a comprehensive, consistent ideological program. I, on the other hand, think Thompson overstates its comprehensiveness and consistency. Quoting Irving Kristol on nationalism doesn’t make the case, in my view, because not all nationalisms are the same. Ronald Reagan’s effort to rehabilitate American national pride in the wake of the humiliations of Vietnam and Watergate, which is what Irving had in mind in 1983, simply isn’t the same as what William Kristol and Robert Kagan advocated in their critically important Foreign Affairs essay from 1996, in which they propose a bellicose foreign policy as a means to remoralizing American society. Yes, father and son both fear creeping nihilism in America, but their proposed means of combating it are very different. For Irving, the means were, essentially, the policies and rhetoric of the Reagan administration. Yes, in the late 80s and 90s, he began to talk positively about the religious right and the importance of populism. I see that as a decline in the cogency of his thought as he turned himself into a Republican Party ideologist. But it’s not the same thing as we get from his son, which is warmaking as a means to fight nihilism. That’s something new—and its newness shows that neoconservatism isn’t as comprehensive or consistent as Thompson portrays it to be.

On capitalism, here I think Thompson (along with Douglas Rasmussen) and I just begin from very different assumptions. They tend to believe that any moral or even utilitarian critique of autonomous capitalism implies a hatred of capitalism, whereas I think autonomous capitalism is neither possible nor desirable. What we have in the real world, however difficult it is to make sense of in pure theoretical categories, is a spectrum of more-or-less mixed economies with markets more-or-less regulated by the state. The welfare states of Western Europe regulate somewhat more than America’s does, but it’s a matter of differences in degree, not kind. To praise capitalism, as Irving Kristol did with such influence in the 1970s, while also defending the welfare state, places him very much in the middle, if slightly to the right, of the American political spectrum. To claim that this middle position is radical, that it makes Kristol an enemy of economic freedom, is a sign of Thompson’s (and Rasmussen’s) radicalism on this issue, not Kristol’s. Indeed, by this logic, the entire Democratic Party and all but the most extreme Tea Party wing of the Republican Party would be equally or far more anti-capitalist, equally or far more hostile to freedom. Maybe Thompson and Rasmussen think this is so. I don’t. So I’m not sure how much more there is to discuss on the issue. We simply begin with different assumptions and interpretations of the world we live in.

Finally, on fascism. I agree that the strong second-generation neocon emphasis on nationalism and warmaking as a means to overcoming domestic nihilism does lean in the direction of fascist political ideas. But I would still counsel against using the term because the similarities are mainly formal. Political analysis must go beyond noting formal likeness to examine the content of ideas. A political program that advocates war as a means of spreading democracy and overthrowing dictators (like the homicidal maniac who’s run Libya for the past 40-something years) is very different from a political program that advocates war as a means of territorial aggrandizement and/or racial and ethnic oppression, domination, and genocide. That means that however much William Kristol’s foreign policy views resemble fascism on one level, they diverge from fascism pretty fundamentally on another. That complication, combined with the polemical overuse of the term in our political discourse, makes its invocation exceedingly ill-advised, in my view.

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.