Monday, May 11, 2009

Leo Strauss and the Principles of the Right:an Introduction to Strauss’ Letter

    In Constellations, March 2009, I published an introduction to Leo Strauss's 1933 letter to Karl Loewith which defends a reactionary politics against the Nazis.  The ideas in this letter I suggest in this and the following post are enormously influential among the neoconservatives, particularly Straussians.  They are the origin of the idea of "commander in chief power"; they are the root of the formulations by former Vice-President Cheney in his reactionary interviews this past weekend.  They are relevant for understanding how the Bush administration could throw aside the Constitution and embrace torture.  This essay provides context; the next shows the connections between meanings Plato taught his students, the surface of his writings, and Strauss's interpretations.

Leo Strauss and the Principles of the Right: 

an Introduction to Strauss’ Letter 

1. The Context of the Letter 


In “Why We Remain Jews,” Leo Strauss recounts that when he was six years old, his family 

in rural Kirchhain in Germany hosted Jewish escapees from a Russian pogrom who were 

journeying to Australia.1 Mirroring his parents, Strauss imagined that no such horror could 

occur in Prussia. Morally driven – seeking to check persecution of “his own” – Strauss 

revered Prussian authoritarian order. 

Following Prussian defeat in World War I and the November Revolution, the Weimar 

republic emerged. It was unstable, threatened by the Russian Revolution and the emergence 

of communism; by the suppression of a workers’ uprising and the murder of Rosa Luxemburg 

and Karl Liebknecht; by the growth of the right; by the political force of the reactionary lie 

that the Revolution had “stabbed” the German war effort “in the back”; by inflation and the 

Great Depression. Strauss admired only the Weimar response to the assassination of Walter 

Rathenau, the Jewish Foreign Minister, in 1922. With the election of General von Hindenburg 

as President in 1925, however, Strauss averred, everyone “with eyes to see” knew that the 

democracy would fail.2 

In Kirchhain, Strauss had dreamed of reading Plato and Nietzsche and becoming a rural 

postman. As a student in the 1920s, his work was advised by Carl Schmitt, a German 

authoritarian lawyer who became a Nazi in 1933. Martin Heidegger, “the great philosopher 

of our time,” mesmerized him. Inspired by his friend Jacob Klein, he found his way back to 

reading the Greeks through Heidegger’s analysis of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Heidegger, too, 

became a Nazi. Strauss later attributed Heidegger’s fascism to his notion of “resoluteness” in 

his masterwork, Being and Time.3 But the reactionary implications of that book are central 

to the theme of authentic “Being toward Death” realized by sacrificing oneself, in response 

to the call of one’s generation, as a soldier for the Fatherland (“resoluteness” is part of 

this). Many leftist theorists inspired by Heidegger – Marcuse, Arendt, Tillich, and Sartre, for 

example – disregarded these implications, already visible in Heidegger’s reactionary activity, 

for instance, in his participation in rallies for the soldier Schlagater murdered by the French 

occupiers of the Ruhr, in the 1920s. 

As a Jew, Strauss was forbidden from following Schmitt and Heidegger. But he was a man 

of the Right. Like some other Zionists, those who admired Mussolini for instance, Strauss’ 

principles, as the 1933 letter relates, were “fascist, authoritarian, imperial.” His letter is also a 

desperate, politically foolish wish to conjure some force among the powers-that-be and other 

fascist groups which could counter anti-Jewish murderousness. Nietzsche despised ordinary 

people. His scorn for “the last men” who are not warriors – a theme song of European 

fascism – is echoed in Strauss’s contempt for the “imprescriptible rights of man.” With the 

racism of some Prussian Jews, his friend Karl L ¨ 

owith would, nonetheless respond more 

sensibly: “It speaks very strongly against the ‘principles’ of the Right that it will, in fact, not 

tolerate the spirit of science and German Jews.”4 

Constellations Volume 16, No 1, 2009. 


The Author. Journal compilation C 

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OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

Strauss and the Principles of the Right: Alan Gilbert 79 

As the letter emphasizes, Strauss was an exile, and thought of himself as a medieval man 

of philosophy and science: “May my soul die the death of philosophers.” Those philosophers 

were Platonists. “Philosophy” was tied to reaction. He would distinguish in these writers 

“exoteric” as distinct from “esoteric” meanings: a message on the surface to gull superficial 

readers and another message for “careful ones.” 

In the United States, Strauss affirmed “the universal Anglo-Saxon empire” led by the 

statesman Winston Churchill, against the “resentful German empire.” He admired Churchill’s 

dictatorship in crisis, omitting the latter’s aim to restore the House of Commons and the rule 

of law. Strauss had once idolized Max Weber and still believed, with Weber, in the centrality 

of great power politics. He also favored English colonialism. In this context, he briefly 

affirms liberal democracy. Does this make him a democrat? 

2. Today’s Debate 

Strauss was always on the right in American politics. With his students Robert Goldwin and 

Walter Berns, he organized public policy conferences that affirmed state’s rights against the 

Brown v. Board of Education decision. Despite a moving argument against value-freedom 

in the abstract, Strauss’s most pointed example of “ss” (social science) was Kenneth and 

Mamie Phipps Clark’s work against discrimination cited in that decision.5 Ironically for 

Strauss, their studies of black children choosing to play with white dolls – explained as 

a sign of a lack of self-respect – were admirably anti-racist and rightly did not claim to 

be “value-free.” With Berns and Allan Bloom, Strauss supported an American “patriotism” 

which included McCarthyism. Strauss also allied with Willmoore Kendall, a political scientist 

with strong interests in theory, but an outspoken admirer of Franco and McCarthy. An 

opponent of persecution for some, Strauss was no opponent of persecution. Writing to 

Strauss, Berns describes Yale faculty members who identify Kendall and Strauss as “agents 

of black reaction.”6 Advising Presidential candidate Senator Charles Percy of Illinois – a 

mirror of the Athenian stranger counseling Klinias in Plato’s Laws – Strauss recommended 

that the US be as brutal as its Soviet enemy. Even after the Cuban missile crisis, he urged 

that the US should conquer Cuba as the Russians had Hungary.7 

Recent controversies unknowingly revive earlier ones. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shadia 

Drury, Ann Norton and Stephen Holmes would condemn the anti-liberal political impact 

of Leo Strauss’s students in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Given the 2003 

American aggression against Iraq, a fierce, often uninformed wave of popular condemnation 

of Strauss unfolded as the inspiration of neo-conservatives in and around the George W. Bush 

administration. In 2006, four defenses of Strauss appeared: Michael and Catherine Zuckert’s 

The Truth about Leo Strauss, Steven Smith’s Reading Leo Strauss, Thomas Pangle’s Leo 

Strauss, and Daniel Tanguay’s, Leo Strauss: an Intellectual Biography. These defenses aver 

that Strauss was (almost) a constitutional democrat, an admirer of American democracy (“the 

best friend liberal democracy has ever had,” in Smith’s words) and, for Pangle, of classical 

republicanism and Socrates (Strauss never uses the term classical republicanism and speaks 

of himself as Platonist). 

In that same year, however, Scott Horton published a translation of Strauss’ May 19, 1933 

letter to L ¨ 

owith on the Balkinization website which produced a controversy involving some 

600 comments. Though Strauss had died 28 years before, the letter had only appeared in 

2001 in the third volume of Strauss’s Gesammelte Schriften in German. In talks on the young 

Leo Strauss published as Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile (2006), the historian Eugene 

Sheppard invoked it; Nicholas Xenos, “Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of the War on Terror” 


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80 Constellations Volume 16, Number 1, 2009 

commented critically on it (in Sheppard’s translation) in an online publication, Logos, in 

2003. Strauss’ letter – which openly affirms “principles of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, 

imperial” – is not the product of a conservative in any meaningful sense. Against Strauss’s 

principles, conservatives value the rule of law based on the principle of habeas corpus: that 

the doors of a court must be open to an accused person and that a prisoner must not be 

tortured to gain a “confession.” They criticize imperial crusades. 

3. Executive Power and Constitutional Crisis 

Two further issues provide context for this letter and essay. First, why was the letter published 

only in German some 27 years after Strauss death? In the 1980s, Stephen Holmes taught at 

Chicago; critical of Strauss, he asked Joseph Cropsey, Strauss’ literary executor, if he could 

look in the archive of Strauss’s papers at Regenstein Library. Cropsey responded, “No. Some 

of the letters might be misunderstood.” As the May 1933 letter shows, however, the issue 

was rather that they might be understood. Such practices have fortunately been reversed as 

Nathan Tarcov replaces Cropsey as Strauss’ literary executor. 

Still, some letters and essays are in Cropsey’s private collection. Such censorship is 

unusual in academia. Its parallel is a bequest of papers to Catholic University in Washington 

by the ostensibly anti-racist United Steelworkers, which had destroyed the 1949–50 minutes 

of the Birmingham local. That local had cooperated with the Ku Klux Klan in attacking 

majority-black locals of the Mine, Mill and Smelterworkers Union.8 

Unfortunately the suppression of access to Strauss’ archives has already done much to 

shape the scholarly reception of Strauss’ work and politics. 

Second, Michael and Catharine Zuckert have recently suggested that few followers of 

Strauss serve in and around the Bush administration. Instead of emphasizing supporters of 

aggression and torture such as William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz or Abram Shulsky, however, 

I have explored the idea of “commander in chief power.” This idea emerges initially in 

Carl Schmitt’s “state of the exception” in which an authoritarian sovereign – a tyrant – 

decides in a state of emergency.9 In Natural Right and History, Strauss criticized Locke 

whose views amounted, he says, to “a joyless quest for joy.” This quasi-leftist position did 

not translate Schmitt’s and Strauss’s idiom into American English. But Robert Goldwin, 

Strauss’s student and conservative politician, found a better approach. In an essay on John 

Locke for Strauss and Cropsey’s textbook on The History of Political Philosophy, Goldwin 

exaggerates Locke’s notion of “prerogative” – that a “king” may set aside the law for “a 

publick good” – as if Locke had been an advocate not of revolution against tyranny, but was, 

somehow, a precursor of Vice-President Cheney. In the 1970s, Goldwin described himself 

as a “confidante” of Donald Rumsfeld, and became an advisor to President Gerald Ford and 

Chief of Staff Cheney: in 1975 and 1976, Goldwin organized political theory and public 

policy luncheons at the White House for Ford and Cheney with other leading Straussians.10 

The Ford administration notoriously tried to refurbish “executive power.” 

In 1989, Michael Malbin, a student of Walter Berns and Strauss, wrote the House Minority 

Report on Iran-Contra for then minority leader Cheney. Malbin invokes the ideas of Gary 

Schmitt on unbridled “executive power” in crises who learned them from Herbert Storing, 

his teacher and one of Strauss’s first students. Using cases in constitutional law arising from 

Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War and Roosevelt’s confining of 

Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, Storing translated Strauss 

and Schmitt into the idiom of “executive power.”11 Wolfowitz’s student at Yale, I. Lewis 

Libby was special assistant to Vice-President Cheney and a prime culprit in lying about 


2009 The Author. Journal compilation C 

2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Strauss and the Principles of the Right: Alan Gilbert 81 

Iraq before his recent conviction. Cheney has thus sought out Straussian counsel for the 

past 35 years. The energy in tyrannical policies is Cheney’s, but the ideas of “prerogative” 

and “executive power” are Straussian. Schmitt and Strauss are no longer writing, but to 

paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, the words of dead theorists are on the lips of today’s neo- 

conservative – more aptly, tyrannical – politicians and at the center of today’s constitutional 



1. Kenneth Green ed., Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity (New York: State Univeristy 

of New York, 1997), 312–13. 

2. Leo Strauss, Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken, 1965), 1. 

3. Leo Strauss, “A Giving of Accounts” in Green, Jewish Philosophy, 461. 

4. L ¨ 

owith to Strauss, 28 May, 1933, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. (Heinrich and Wiebke Meier, Stuttgart: 

Metzler, 2001), 626. 

5. Strauss to Robert Goldwin, 24 Dec., 1960, 13 Feb., 1961, Box 5, Folder 10, Regenstein Library, 

special collections, University of Chicago. 

6. Walter Berns to Strauss, New Haven, CN, 25 Feb., 1957, Box 1, Folder 6, ibid. Strauss did support 

George Anastaplo, his student, who refused to take a “Loyalty Oath” for the Illinois Bar. 

7. Strauss to Percy, 12 Feb., 1963, Box 5, Folder 11, ibid. 

8. I am endebted to Michael Goldfield for this comparison. 

9. See Alan Gilbert, “Enmity and Tyranny,” in American Conservatism, Nomos, Sanford Levinson 

and Melissa Williams, eds. (New York: New York University Press, forthcoming 2009). 

10. Goldwin, description of his papers, Gerald Ford Archive, Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

11. Storing, “The Presidency and the Constitution,” in Toward a More Perfect Union, ed. Herbert 

Storing and Joseph Bessette, (American Enterprise Institute Press, 1995). 

Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor of International Studies at the University of Denver. He 

is the author of Democratic Individuality (1990), Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? 

(1999) and Emancipation and Independence (2009 forthcoming). 


2009 The Author. Journal compilation C 

2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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