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Leo Strauss and the 1960s

Leo Strauss And The 1960s

Almost inevitably the effort to claim Leo Strauss for the left has to deal with the problem of the 1960’s “Revolution” and its transformation of the politics and culture of the “non-ideological” 1950’s during which time Strauss produced some of his major work.[1]

Robert L. Howse is confident in asserting that when all is said and done Strauss did not see elements of darkness and decay let alone signs of the “dangerous or diabolical” in the ‘60’s Cultural Revolution.[2]  To be sure Strauss did say that “fringe dwellers” in the bourgeois society in essence represented nothing but a spirit of condemnation or rejection.  What Strauss was driving at here was that the condemnation of American society by the “fringe” was not based on any notion of law. Thus he is convinced that however “artistic” the new radicals might have sought to be, by definition they belonged to contemporary society as completely as the “organization man.” They did not represent any serious alternative to the ways of American society at that moment but rather reflected the essence of that society in some degree.

But on this point Strauss adds something not stressed by Howse.  The “fringe-dwellers” in fact differed from the “organization man” in that they were “miserable and obsessed.”[3] To be sure “miserable and obsessed” is not the same as “dangerous and diabolical” but it does suggest something of an unhealthy soul, and therewith a need for serious reappraisal of attitude towards the liberal society adopted by it.

Rather than refer to Strauss’s observation that the sixties dissidents were “miserable or obsessed,” Howse claims that unlike Allan Bloom, Strauss never attacked the kind of radicalism which distinguished the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. In support of his contention that if properly interpreted Strauss cannot be placed on the right Howse points out that Strauss took no time to insist that the campus revolutionaries were “turning America into another Weimar.” Howse concludes then that in the matter of the “youth counter-culture” Strauss’s attitude was similar to that of his Marxist friend Alexandre Kojeve which is to say “he saw it as already producing a new conformism rather than a genuine revolution of values, in any case nothing dangerous or diabolical.”[4]

Howse’s insistence that Strauss took 1960’s radicalism in stride as just an outburst of a kind of democratic high-spiritedness is highly questionable to say the least. Such a claim immediately strikes one as odd given how much “virtue” is a watchword in Strauss’s philosophizing and how antithetical to any such talk was the radicalism of the 1960’s.

The 1960’s dissidents were very likely to use “freedom” as their key term of distinction or possibly “self-expression” as a more precise specification of that freedom. But the term “self-expression” connotes the world of art and artistic endeavor and nothing is more likely to be considered “right wing” in our day than an attack on those who believe in “art” or artistic “self-expression.” So Howse and the Zuckerts stand opposed on the question of Strauss and the sixties.[5]

On this matter the evidence suggests that the Zuckerts are much closer to the mark than Howse.  Strauss did in fact speak (albeit somewhat indirectly) to that current of thought of the 1950’s and 1960’s which flowed into the “youth counter culture” to which Howse is referring. In 1963 Strauss connects the “contemporary American novel” with the attempt to “escape into the self and into art.” This attempt has been made, Strauss explains, because those involved “have come to despair of the possibility of a decent secularist society.” Their having arrived at this point has however not caused them “to question secularism as such.” In other words, these “desperados” have not drawn the conclusion that their alienation has to do with the declining role of religion in a culture of ongoing secularization in social and political life. If they had sensed such a connection then they might have put far less faith in art and “self-expression” and more faith in religious tradition and the virtues associated with it.   Hence Strauss feels obliged to describe them as “haunted men.”[6]

“Sincerity” was another byword of the 1960’s and Strauss is not about to allow this attribute as a possible indicator of good things.[7] Strauss notes that those who have rejected the post-war liberal society in fact pride themselves on just this alleged virtue. They do so even though they lack “thought and discipline.” Strauss even describes those we may call the “sinceritarians” as “screamers” whose “screams remind one of the utterances of the damned in hell.” Indeed, “they themselves belong to hell” but their hell is not society as such but “life in the United States in 1963.”[8] But what could be the root cause of the escapist and screaming “sinceritarians’” antagonistic stance towards a society which they think is somehow indecent?

Strauss attributes the despair of these persons “to their having believed in the first place that life in the United States in 1963 is heaven or could be heaven.” In other words they started out as far too “idealistic” or as adhering to standards that were not practical or reasonable. Thus they feel the need to condemn contemporary American society for its manifest failings.  But what this comes to mean is that their “sincere” selves are constituted by this very condemnation.

Now Strauss’s remarks here were written before the height of the 1960’s which is usually taken to be 1968. But it seems fair to suggest in the light of his use of the term “contemporary American novel” that they were made in response to the rise of the “beat” culture and the perspective on the world represented by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsburg.[9] These new sensitivities were a manifestation of the importation of “existentialism” from France after World War II. This was a “culture” which naturally extended itself into and was absorbed by the subsequent youth counter-culture. But if Strauss’s attack on the “miserable and the obsessed” dissidents or “existentialists” is not an indictment of the mentality behind 1960’s radicalism it is hard to imagine how it might be described. There are no grounds then for Howse to suggest that Strauss was somehow indifferent or unconcerned about the rise of “The Sixties” insofar as he observed them. More likely it is that he saw this rise as the culmination of various pernicious currents flowing in the democratic bloodstream since the nineteenth century. These combined with the dangers of importing German ideas to which he makes reference in the early part of Natural Right and History even if these ideas came via Paris were sufficient to seriously damage libneral democratic culture.[10] There are palpable signs in Strauss of a “right-wing” reaction to the circus (or asylum) of the 1960’s.[11]

Vulgar Modernism

One scholar who addresses himself to the sixties phenomenon in the context of analyzing the meaning of conservatism is Robert Devigne. He allows that for the most part Strauss’s students “remained on the margins of American political and intellectual life” even though   a small group of Strauss’s students and followers concerned themselves with such issues as McCarthyism, school prayer, state’s rights, and desegregation. Harry V. Jaffa for example took part in the Barry Goldwater movement. But more generally Devigne wishes us to understand that the student movement of the 1960’s “provided the impetus to many politicians, research institutes, and publications to avail themselves of the Straussian interpretation of politics.” Straussians viewed the student movement of the 1960’s as reflecting “the culmination of the deterioration of liberalism.” More specifically the opposition to the Vietnam War signified “a loss of commitment to defend democracy and liberty.”

Also, the demands by minority students for empowerment rather than rights “expressed a waning commitment to the American ideals of political and civil liberty.” And further the nihilism of the students’ new cultural orientation, involving experimentation with drugs, sex and “vulgar” music and the general sense that licentiousness seen as acceptable at some level. And finally the student resistance to canons of political thought and traditional academic standards “marked the end of political philosophy in American higher education.”[12]  In a word, Devigne says America’s highly educated had “entered the third wave of modern liberal thinking (where) there was neither wisdom nor consent; neither ought nor is – only action.  The spirit of Nietzsche and Heidegger had come to dominate the American university.”[13]

For their part, the neoconservatives who are sometimes tagged as by-products of Strauss’s philosophizing standing several steps down the ladder to politics, argued “that structural changes identified with post-industrialism enabled vulgar modernism to become the mass culture of America.” With the explosive postwar expansion of higher education millions were “exposed to modernist tastes and attitudes,” while also educating them in the spirit of irrationalism. The effect was to emphasize the new while “creating a bias against such customs and traditions as monogamy, frugality, and religion.” Suddenly, such authors as Paul S. Goodman, “an Upper West Side beat,” and Allen Ginsburg, “a Greenwich Village bohemian,” became celebrities.[14]

According to Devigne there was a “post-industrialist” historical process at work whereby national telecommunications and electronic mechanisms operated as the “key transmitters of culture.” As a result, the modernism which prevailed in the cultural centers of New York and Los Angeles “began to instill an urban modernist culture in the nation.” As history would have it this new cultural orientation had a particularly receptive audience in the disproportionately large cohort of college-educated persons born after 1945. “This cohort was destined to take its place in the new economy where they would hold a large number of positions requiring “symbolic and technical skills.” For the neoconservatives this meant that what appeared in the 1960’s as a countercultural movement against prosaic virtues of frugality, sobriety, and piety quickly became “the dominant culture of America.”  They claimed that a “public modernism” that glorified shock, sensual pleasure, and violence while attacking success, patriotism and conformity had come to “dominate the national vehicles of mass culture, movies, music, novels, and television.”[15]  So if Devigne is to be believed the disciples of Irving Kristol who himself was disciple of Leo Strauss were completely persuaded that the “sixties” were a turning point whereby “America the Good” was replaced by “America the Decadent.”


In due course “America the Decadent” emerged from its chrysalis located in the bosom of  “Lockean” liberalism as the “Iron Butterfly” of postmodern radicalism, anarchism and nihilism – “Revolution for the Hell of It!” shouted Abbie Hoffmann.[16]

Mr. Hoffmann’s “key words” came in the form of the title of his flagship book – Do It!  “Do what?” people were entitled to ask. We’ll make Revolution for the Hell of It! was the suggestion of another of Mr. Hoffmann’s books. But how does one go about this endeavor? Well if the title of another of Mr. Hoffmann’s works is any guide shoplifting might be part of it. Steal This Book appeared in 1971.[17] It seems that many of Mr. Hoffman’s followers took him at his word and walked out of the bookstores without paying leading many to  refuse to carry the item.[18] The ingestion of hallucinogenic substances which was frequently associated with Yippie actions might have played a role in this lapse of lawfulness.[19]

The root of the problem here at least, in the neoconservatives telling, was that the modernist utopianism that rose to such an influence in the 1960’s implied that the philosopher and artist had to be liberated from the constraints of paradigms and forms.  The creative genius had to be “guided by inner necessities of the expansion of the self – to embrace new experiences” and so he “need not regard the laws of society and its authorities.” But the absence of restraint implied in this double standard created a polity “incapable of distinguishing right and wrong.”  That society, Devigne quotes Daniel Bell as observing, was one the empty beliefs and desiccated religions. Eventually this would mean the norm would become a cultural mass that wants to be “emancipated” or “liberated,” yet at the same time lacks any sure moral or cultural guides as to what worthwhile experience may be.[20]

The watchwords of the “Sixties” Counter-Culture were then terms like “Emancipation” and Liberation.” The watchwords of “Straussianism” by contrast have generally speaking been to do with “intellectual seriousness” and “moral virtue”[21] The conclusion that emerges when we take the time to juxtapose the Straussian and Sixties visions is that they mix “like oil and water.”



[1] See Chaim Waxman ed., The End of Ideology Debate (New York: Funk & Wagnalls,1968).

[2] Howse, Leo Strauss: Man of Peace (Cambridge University Press,2014), 175. Speaking of Strauss’s intellectual descendants, Michael A. Peters and Tim McDonough observe that: “(T)hey picture themselves …(as) most immediately descending from…a tradition that seeks above all a stable and ordered moral foundation based on American values against the forces of cultural anarchy and libertinism.” They continue by observing that the reactions to the 1960s counterculture and the politics of the New Left by the first generation of neoconservative intellectuals, including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Peter Berger, Nathan Glazer, Edward Shils and Seymour Martin Lipset, provided the historical grounds for the rejection of many features of modern liberal society and politics.” Michael A. Peters and Tim McDonough, “Leo Strauss and the neoconservative critique of the liberal university: postmodernism, relativism and the culture wars, Critical Studies in Education, 49:1(2008)12-13

[3] Liberalism: Ancient and Modern (New York and London: Basci Books, 1968),261-62.

[4] Howse, Leo Strauss etc,175.

[5]  Catherine and Michael Zuckert state that the “partisan implications” of Strauss’s political doctrines in fact came to the surface with “the circus we have come to know as the ‘sixties.’” “The hopes and theories of the sixties, unlike earlier political disagreement, aroused almost uniform opposition among Straussians on the basis of Straussian principles.” They did so, the Zuckerts explain, because Strauss taught that “the preeminent political virtue was moderation and . . . the sixties certainly had no room for moderation as the chief political virtue.” Catherine and Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago  Press, 2006),229-30. But when the Zuckerts say that “Strauss’s political doctrines had not appeared to have clear partisan implications” they are overlooking Strauss’s closeness to the Buckelyite program of the 1950’s with which he was in very large agreement. His “moderation” in the climate of the time was political conservatism not some kind of fence-sitting between liberals and conservatives.

[6] Strauss, Liberalism: Ancient and Modern , 262.

[7] See Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Harvard University Press,1972)

[8] Strauss, Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, 262

[9] Strauss does not indicate exactly to what he was referring by the phrase the “contemporary American novel” but we can note here that Saull Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March , Dangling Man and Herzog appeared in 1953, 1961 and 1964 respectively.  Jack Kerouac’s On the Road appeared in 1957, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962. In its spring issue of 1958 the Chicago Review published excerpts from William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch which was published in book form in 1959. This work was banned in Boston in 1962 for its content to do with child murder and pedophilia. This ban was reversed by the Massachusetts Judicial Court in 1966. Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsburg testified at the trial. Ginsberg’s “Howl” was published in 1956 and sounds very much like the mentality upon which Strauss was reflecting in his talk.  It reads in part: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs! ..They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us! Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!” John Cassavettes’ film Shadows came out in 1959 and stands as a cinematic monument to the arrival of French “meaningless” in America. We might here also that Bob Dylan’s first album appeared in 1962.

[10] Howse also makes no mention of Strauss joining the University Centers for Rational Alternatives founded by Sidney Hook and Miro Todorovich in 1968 precisely to combat the campus radicalism of the 1960’s. Noam Chomsky the “guru of the left” took time to attack the UCRA as an effort to dampen down dissent.

[11] Timothy L. Simpson and Jon M. Fennell, “Do No Harm: Leo Strauss and the Limits of Remedial Politics,” in Leo Strauss, Education, and Political Thought (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).

[12] Robert Devigne, Recasting Conservatism: Oakeshott, Strauss a, and the Response to Postmodernism  (New Haven and London, Yale University Press,1994), 55.

[13] Devigne, Recasting Conservatism, 55.

[14] Devigne, Recasting Conservatism, 61. See Norman Podhoretz, Ex Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer (Encounter Books, 2000); Irving Kristol, The Neoconservative Persuasion (New York: Hilton Kramer, Twilight of the Intellectuals (Chicago: Iva R. Dee,2000), xiii; Ayn Rand, The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (New York: Penguin,1999),5-50,99-118; Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New Yrok: Simon and Shuster,1987),47-132.

[15] Robert Devigne, Recasting Conservatism, 61.

[16] Revolution for the Hell of It: The Book That Earned Abbie Hoffman a 5 Year Prison Term at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (Da Capo Press; Thunder’s Mouth edition, 2005).

[17]  (Da Capo Press,2002). Hoffmann hoped to have this book made into a film and went to Hollywood for the purpose.  See Roger L. Simon, “The Baby Moguls, Abbie Hoffmann and Me” Commentary (February, 2009). See also The Best of Abbie Hoffman: Selections from Revolution for the Hell of It, Woodstock Nation, Steal this Book and New Writings (Da Capo Press, 1993).

[18] Some remarks of John Updike are relevant here: “One source of my sense of grievance against the peace movement when it came was that I hadn’t voted for any of its figures—not for Abbie Hoffman or Father Daniel Berrigan or Reverend William Sloane Coffin or Jonathan Schell or Lillian Hellman or Joan Baez or Jane Fonda or Jerry Rubin or Doctor Spock or Eugene McCarthy. I had voted for Lyndon Johnson, and thus had earned my American right not to make a political decision for another four years. If he and his advisers (transferred intact, most of them, from Kennedy’s Camelot) had somehow got us into this mess, they would somehow get us out, and it was a citizen’s plain duty to hold his breath and hope for the best, not parade around full of pious unction and crocodile tears and power hunger and supercilious rage….  The protest movement, which had begun in the solemn 50’s-ish pronouncements of the Port Huron Statement and the orderly civil-rights strategies, by the time of the ’67 Washington march and the ’68 convention had become a Yippieish carnival of mischievous voodoo and street theater and, finally, a nightmare of anarchy, of window-smashing and cop-bopping and drug-tripping and shouting down. The shouting-down part of it, the totalitarian intolerance and savagery epitomized by the Weathermen,1 but to some extent adopted by student radicals everywhere, especially alarmed me.   John Updike  “On Not Being a Dove.”

[19] A word on the “Free Love” or “Make Love Not War” aspect of the ‘60’s experience is perhaps called for here. Nothing could be more anachronistic by way of a claim of historical relevance in Heidegger’s estimation: “There will be Christian faith here and there.  But the love holding away in that world is not the effectively working and operating principle of what is happening now.  The super-sensory ground consisting of the super-sensory world, thought as the operative, working reality of everything real has become unreal.  That is the metaphysical meaning of the word ‘God is dead,’ thought metaphysically.” “The Word of  Nietzsche etc.,” pp.98-99. Karl Lowith comments: “Heidegger is in agreement with Nietzsche that all prior human goals and measures, above all Christian love have outlived their lives…The super-sensible ground of  the supersensible world has become unreal.  In the face of this knowledge of what is now occurring, knowledge which has been secured world – and onto-historically, the question arises whether a supersensible principle . . . was ever the ‘infallibly influential power of action’ in that which happened, always in an epoch-making way, in the history of the world.” Karl Lowith, “The Unsaid in ‘Nietzsche’s Word God is Dead,” in Martin Heidegger and European Nihiliism Trans. Gary Steiner (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995),pp 125-126. Heidegger also says:“It is not one whit less futile when out of dissatisfaction with the world situation, or out of half avowed despair or moral indignation, or a believer’s self-righteousness superiority (taking a position with respect to nihilism) assumes a certain defensive vehemence.” Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche etc.,” p.66.

[20] Robert Devigne, Recasting Conservatism, p.63. See Lionel Trilling, “The Sense of the Past” in The Liberal Imagination (Nw York: NYRB Classic), 2008.

[21] One of the early major “Straussian” books with an American focus was Walter F. Berns’ Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957); see James W. Ceaser, “Freedom, Virtue and Walter Berns,” The Weekly Standard, January 26, 2015.


Colin D. PearceColin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce

Colin D. Pearce is a Professor of Political Science at Clemson University. He has published in a number of journals including the Canadian Journal of Political Science, The Journal of the History of Ideas, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, Studies in Literary Imagination, The Kipling Journal, The Simms Review, South Carolina Review, Perspectives on Politics, Interpretation, Humanitas, Clio, Appraisal, and The Explicator, Quadrant.

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