In February, Rob Howse invited me to speak at NYU law school in a class on the Strauss-Kojeve debate in On Tyranny. Rob begins this by welcoming me and Stephen Holmes, who has written strikingly on Strauss in The Anatomy of Anti-Liberalism (1996). I give a link to the video which has the complete conversation. You need to paste this link into your web browser; the video on Real Player will come up (hit the plus sign to expand it to the whole screen): here. NYU set up a camera, without a person, to record the talk, and the visuals are weak – the conversation is clear and illuminating, however.
Rob himself is a great scholar of Alexander Kojeve (he translated Kojeve’s Origins of a Phenomenology of Right; few Americans have read Kojeve’s masterpiece mainly on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit - Introduction to the Reading of Hegel -- let along heard of this). Rob has written on and translated Kojeve’s conception of a “Latin Empire.” As he mentions in our conversation, Kojeve had moved, as an Hegelian, but enthusiast for Strauss’s idea of hidden or esoteric writing – two very different, fundamentally clashing visions in which Kojeve shifts from a belief in a final, “universal and homogeneous state” to be ruled by Stalin or Mao to a vision of retained particularity. The Latin cultures, in particular France, could move in the direction of a particular Latin empire. Perhaps the leading and certainly the most influential Hegel scholar of modern times, particularly in his vision of the master and slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Queneau, Raymond Aron and Jacques Lacan among others, were his students), Kojeve had lost his grip on what is equal freedom-oriented and attractive in Hegel. He had forgotten that the spirit which unfolds in history for Hegel is the idea of human freedom, of individual freedom, of that mutual recognition upheld up the laws which enables each individual to pursue her own good, and change her vision, so long as she does not (violently) harm others. As an elitist who sought out only Strauss and Schmitt (in a fit of divine or curmudgeonly madness, he told a hall full of radical German students that Schmitt was the only person worth talking to in Germany, including them), he had acquired through Strauss a distaste for Nietzsche’s “last men,” for the masses; Hegel’s idea of equal freedom of each of us as well as the (non-Hegelian) decency of international peace slipped away. Unlike Strauss, he retains an antipathy for grinding poverty, a compassion for the Chinese peasants registered in sympathy for the revolution. Like Strauss, he thought that there were only three people or so who could understand him or his idea of the truth (I cite Strauss’s letter to Kojeve making this point in the handout here and talk). But Kojeve’s Latin Empire is a modification of Hegel’s notion that the idea of freedom realizes itself in particular circumstances or (in Kojeve, clusters of) states: thus an idealized Germany for Hegel in the 19th century (one characterized in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right by a revolt of the serfs and an end to serfdom, a quite revolutionary Germany, which it is not clear that Kojeve, who avoided this later, great work of Hegel quite grasped) and the Latin empire for Kojeve in the mid-20th century. This view differs from, though it also coincides with, Kojeve’s attempts to further European economic union.
As a Russian émigré in France, Kojeve rose high in the De Gaulle administration. He was able to lead Gaullist economic policy in Europe. Far from an “abstraction” (or as the Struassian cliché is about Strauss, someone interested only in philosophers, not in politics), Kojeve was, in his life, an “action” (see Plato’s giddy hope in the Seventh Letter to become an action by counseling the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse). Kojeve did advise the statesman De Gaulle. Plato’s Politikos, translated The Statesman, gives us the term in English. Strauss reveled in using it for Churchill, and as I indicated from research in the Regenstein Library at Chicago in Strauss’s papers, attempted to recreate the counseling of the Cretan legislator by the Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws, by acting on Senator Charles Percy, who attempted to secure the Republican Presidential nomination in 1964. See my handout for this talk Leo Strauss’s Vision of a Great Anti-modern Tyrant, (now: part 1) linked above and Scott Horton’s commentary on it here. Churchill was a ruler of the English empire and a war leader. Unlike Herbert Storing and Straussian notions of “executive” or authoritarian power, Churchill retained an affection for Parliament and sought, across war powers, to revive the rule of law. (See Clinton Rossiter’s excellent 1948 Constitutional Dictatorship, one of the most useful books in American political science. I am grateful to Sandy Levinson for recommending it to me). Strauss did not admire Churchill as a democrat or even as a democratic leader, See my introduction in Constellations, 2009, to Strauss’s 1933 letter to his friend Karl Loewith here.
Kojeve did not, so far as I know, counsel De Gaulle about Algeria, one of the great crimes of the French empire in which it practiced aggression, subjugation, and torture (Indochina was another). Still, he was part of that administration. And De Gaulle left Algeria in 1962, perhaps the greatest act of his administration (Yet the French retained an enormous economic and bureaucratic presence in Algeria, and nearly half the French auto-workers have been Algerian immigrants since the mid-‘70s. They were far more influential in and influenced by Algeria, than Britain was in and by the United States following the American Revolution). Kojeve was critical of May 1968 (in a perhaps apochryphal exchange with another of his students Raymond Aron, he may have said that since there was no violence – actually there was quite a lot by the police – it wasn’t a “real revolt”; Aron spoke of it as “psychodrama”). But this revolt of 14 million French workers and students was an explosive example of continuing class war which the French Communist Party tried to stop (they warned that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a student from Germany and a kind of leader of the movement – it was a spontaneous or anarchic movement, after all – was “a German anarchist” whereas the French right, named him “a Jewish anarchist.” As the surge of May subsided, in a quasi-fascist march for De Gaulle of 100,000, one of the chants was “Cohn-Bendit a Dachau.” Through De Gaulle’s alliance with the tyrannical right, he suppressed the revolt. In this, he is a precursor, somewhat less brutal, of the current Iranian dictatorship, but the latter has moved simply to the right, though with the trappings of a stolen election; De Gaulle, in contrast, still acted from the center. Whether Kojeve had any more direct involvement with these events (he was still in the government until June 1968 when he died suddenly), I do not know. If Rob or anyone else who reads this does know, I would like very much to find out.
Kojeve deeply admired Strauss. He also wrote a 1000 page book on other ancient philosophers whom he thought practiced esoteric or hidden writing (he specializes in the Emperor Julian). In his conversation with Strauss, he came upon the main feature of esoteric writing, one which Strauss never directly names. This is, as I say in the talk, to say on the surface of a commentary the real or hidden meaning which a philosopher has buried in their original writing. His response to Strauss does this – its title “The Political Action of Philosophers,” later changed in English to “Tyranny and Wisdom” - almost exaggeratedly.
Al-Farabi, the medieval Arab Platonist, is for Strauss the master of this technique. Writing for an Islamic audience, 1500 years after Plato, Al-Farabi comments briefly on Platonic texts. A reader is counseled to have the texts in hand, yet Al-Farabi tells us something different from what the texts apparently say. For instance, he says that Plato clothed himself in patriotism for Athens – the way in which his Seventh Letter is written as an apology to the Athenians for advising Dionysius the tyrant in Syracuse for three years – and yet sought to change Athenian democracy, to convert it to the rule of the philosopher-tyrant. See “Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?” Constellations, 2009, here, especially note lxxvi. When I gave this talk, I suggested that Farabi (and, by implication, Strauss) were wrong about this: that Plato counseled tyrants elsewhere but did not seek to create a philosopher-tyrant in Athens. I have since thought about the opening of Plato’s cosmological dialogue Timaeus. See Plato's Atlantis and the subversion of Athens here and what Plato distorts about the real Crete and what is now Santorini here. In the Timeaus, Critias recounts for Socrates a tale told by an old Egyptian – old which means knows the secret stores or hiiden meanings as opposed to the naïve Athenians and Syracusans (Socrates, Hermocrates), who practice democracy. Atlantis had been a great empire and the Athenians must now take it on. The great Athenians who did, the Egyptian tells Critias’ grandfather who tells Critias (the story is a dream, a legend), were ruled in the way “Socrates” had suggested on the previous day, that is, by a philosopher-king or tyrant and the guardians. Those Athenians saved the Hellenes and Egypt. One night, they were swallowed up by the earth, as Atlantis was swallowed by the sea. As with many Platonic dialogues, the most striking political message is hidden in a seeming aside (consider what the Meno tells us about the harm of slavery). But this is Plato’s central message, as Farabi’s brief comment relates. He sought historically to undermine the Athenian democracy. This is also an answer, as I will trace below, to Steve Holmes’ striking question about Strauss’s advice to Percy. Modelling himself on Plato (Strauss shadowed others like Heidegger and Schmitt; with the dark and thundering voice of prophet, he gave forth only the ideas of others), what Strauss hoped to achieve was to move the American regime to the reactionary Right, to change the “checks and balances” and the affection for natural rights – what he called in his letter to Loewith “the miserable and childish imprescriptible rights of man” – into iron authoritarian or tyrannical rule. The political sect he set in motion – one that rarely gets the deeper or hidden meanings in Strauss, just as even his academic followers often miss what he is hinting at – do get the reactionary message which is buried in his and Plato’s works.
Steve Holmes focused on the striking political memorandum of Strauss to Percy. We must give up the Western (liberal and Marxian) affection for technology and hope to overcome poverty. There will be no such overcoming. The hope leads, Strauss says in On Tyranny to Nietzsche’s “last men.” Instead, we should seek to negotiate our way, one might say, with Kojeve– to preserve the particularity of the American regime against the tyrannical Soviet Union, the potential final empire. But Strauss does not value the American regime. He seeks gradually to change it into the rule of the philosopher-tyrant…
He then recommends to Percy extraordinary brutality, the invasion of Cuba – to slaughter and subject the Cubans as the Soviet Union did Hungary. Had his advice been heeded during the Cuban missile crisis (it echoes General Curtis LeMay’s), nuclear war and probably human extinction would have occurred. In the handout, I cite the end of On Tyranny in which Strauss himself affirms that such a war would return humans to a primitive state. He sings about this, with what one can only call madness: do we not yearn for each new spring even though we know that the year will inevitably turn to winter? Nuclear “spring,” I am afraid, is just the death of humankind (and many other species). No humans, but perhaps cockroaches (looking ahead at this spectacle, one might yearn for Kafka’s Gregor Samsa). Straussians sing the praises of this book – the only and great alternatives in political philosophy so they maintain. One of Rob Howse’s wonderful points is that even Kojeve moved away from this Straussian and Schmittian vision of the alternatives, saw particularity and a Latin empire as more hopeful than Strauss. Actually, they should include Schmitt within this little orbit. During World War II, Schmitt foresaw multinational empires, for example, the Reichsprotectorate of Bohemia and Moravia created by Hitler, as the real units of politics (perhaps through correspondance or meetings, Kojeve moved in the same way). Post World War II, like Strauss and Kojeve, Schmitt conjured the “last men” (actually, in his Catholic terms, the rule of Satan) and became a fan of “primitive rebels” (Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase), non- or anti-modern resistance to the seemingly implacable movement of globalization or the final tyranny (an American and Soviet one). Strauss was no longer speaking with Schmitt. But the three “wise” men had a common, eccentric vision. Global politics leads to liberalism and Marxism, to the degeneracy or “last men” (Nietzsche) or the triumph of Satan (Schmitt) and a desolate “end of history.” This vision is breathlessly anti-democratic, contemptuous of ordinary people (with his vision of Chinese peasants and the onetime proletariat, Kojeve has a slightly modified version). This movement is accompanied by or leads to the “universal and homogeneous state” (Kojeve, Schmitt) or the final tyrant (Strauss). It needs to be fought by a) partisan revolt - Schmitt, b) the Latin empire (and perhaps an evolving Russia) – Kojeve, and c) an enlightened tyrant engaged in possibly unending wars - Strauss. Three mechanical pseudo-Marxian or economic determinist visions of the problem; three peculiar solutions. Of them, Kojeve’s and even Schmitt’s (when he was not furthering the neo-Nazi right in Germany with roughly the same politics as Strauss’s – see Jan-Werner Mueller’s A Dangerous Mind) are comparatively attractive. But the simplemindedness or narrowness of the vision is also breathtaking –Walt Whitman Rostow’s convergence between the US and the Soviet Union has the same reductionist economic dynamic, and no one holds Rostow out as a “great mind.”
In contrast to Kojeve, Hegel recommended the equal freedom of each citizen and individuality. There are many more wonderful particularities in regimes and people – among the free - than Strauss has any inkling of. Strauss has a likeable, even amusing side, and I have gotten many interesting hints from him about what Plato was saying. He was saved from the worst consequences of his fascism by being a Jew; he could not follow his heroes, Schmitt and Heidegger, and become a Nazi. As a Zionist, he could not quite bring himself to acknowledge what he knew – the humanity of the Palestinians and other Arabs. He had in philosophy but as an anti-modern, not in politics, a vision that still could save Israel and heal over time the Israeli-Arab conflict.
One of the Straussian clichés is moderation (sophrosune). Less moderate, more extreme, more grandiosely destructive and menacing than Leo Strauss at the end of his “Restatement” in On Tyranny one does not find.