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Leo Strauss and The National Review

Leo Strauss And The National Review

“The crisis of liberalism is a crisis due to the fact that it has abandoned its absolutist basis and is trying to become entirely relativistic.”

– Leo Strauss


“Strauss taught his disciples a belief in absolutes, contempt for relativism, and joy in abstract propositions.”

– Arthur M. Schlesinger


Lionel Trilling’s case that many great effects may be generated by an obscure but “chippy” magazines helps to justify attention to the relationship between Leo Strauss and the National Review. The significance of Strauss’s expression of support for the National Review in the 1950’s is enhanced when we recall that at this time intellectual conservatism was very much on the political and academic margins. It was Lionel Trilling who very famously said in his The Liberal Imagination (1950)  that: “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Such conditions did not augur well for the National Review. But William F.Buckley evinced an optimism for the magazine’s future nonetheless.

On December 2, 1956 Strauss’s concern for Israel and its relation to American conservatism prompted him to write a letter on this matter to Willmoore Kendall who was on the National Review editorial board at the time.  On December 5 Kendall wrote back to ask if he could place the letter in the National Review and Strauss consented provided the “personal” element of the original letter was removed. His permitting Kendall to publish the his letter concerning Israel and the conservative tradition meant that his name would forever be associated with that of William F. Buckley and his pioneering journalistic venture.  Strauss instinctively felt that the National Review should be his “opinion home” insofar as the American political spectrum and debate were concerned.

Strauss’s letter makes clear that he was not simply an occasional reader of what at the time was a young, struggling magazine. For some time he had been receiving this publication which under the circumstances had to mean he had been a subscriber from the very first issue which appeared three months earlier. Moreover, Strauss was not hesitant to indicate that he “agree(s) with many articles appearing in the journal”  which is to say he was in general concord with the views of Buckley, Kendall, James Burnham and Russell Kirk who were the individuals producing most of the National Review’s copy in the early going.

But what was it about the “philosophy” of the National Review that attracted Strauss to it as a more or less admiring reader in the first place? Fortunately for the student of Strauss and of American political thought it is possible to come to a reasonably specific conclusion on this question. This is because at the very founding moment of the National Review Buckley took the time to draw up a clear statement of the “organizing principles” that would be guiding his magazine as it made its foray into the American public debate.

Buckley’s “Mission Statement” was published in the National Review on November 19, 1955 only about a month before Strauss’s letter on Israel conservatism. If one allows that it is a legitimate exercise to extend Buckley’s “Credenda” to Strauss on the grounds that Strauss stated clearly in his letter that he is in more or less full agreement with most of the journal’s arguments then we can arrive at a reasonable approximation of Strauss’s politics (circa the late 1950’s at least). At the least it is reasonable to consider how any particular credendum of Buckley’s might comport with what we know of Strauss’s perceptible political tendencies.

Athwart History!

The most famous quote from Buckley’s statement of the National Review’s “organizing principles” was that it will be the magazine’s intention to “stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!”at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”  Buckley readily admits that the National Review is “out of place” in a United States in which “literate America (has) rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.” Indeed, the American Republic is now being  “tormented by its tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor.” The nation is definitely not in a state of “calm self-assurance” at the time of his writing.

Students of Strauss have long noted the émigré philosopher’s coolness towards the political philosophy of John Locke and its “joyless quest for joy” which phrase might be Strauss’s summation of capitalist values. Nevertheless the National Review’s endorsement of this philosophy “without reservations” was not enough to hold Strauss back from support for the magazine and its purposes.

In showing sympathy for the National Review’s purposes, Strauss was indirectly affiliating himself with the John Locke-Adam Smith-Friedrich Hayek-Milton Friedman legacy of Anglo-American liberalism.  He finds himself in general agreement with a  magazine which Buckley explained is “without reservations, on the libertarian side.” But this stance appears as less baffling when we recall that Buckley makes a clear statement to the effect that “the market place depends for a license to operate freely on the men who issue licenses — on the politicians. (E)fficient getting and spending is itself impossible except in an atmosphere that encourages efficient getting and spending.” That is to say that “back of all political institutions there are moral and philosophical concepts, implicit or defined.” Thus “(o)ur political economy (is) run on large ideas or general principles — not by day-to-day guess work, expedients and improvisations.” For both Strauss and Buckley then the “regime” takes primacy over economics.


In founding the National Review a central concern of Buckley’s is a creeping “relativism” abroad in the nation. This relativism may have the effect of  certain “gentlemanly doubts” among those who should be “absolute” in their commitment to the “Good, the True and the Beautiful.” It involves an attitude which forbids us to say anything about the “the superiority of capitalism to socialism, of republicanism to centralism, of champagne to ditchwater — of anything to anything.” Buckley wants us to see that the pursuit of a civilization based on the principle of relativism is an exceedingly “utopian” enterprise while dedication to Truth” (with a capital “T”), moral “organicism” or “absolutism” is the truly hard-nosed, commonsensical and practically defensible standpoint.

In line with Buckley’s concern here Strauss had said in his review of Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty (1961) that “the sacredness of the private sphere needs a basis an absolute basis”(emphasis added). The key problem with Berlin’s liberalism, Strauss explains, that it “has abandoned its absolutist basis and is trying to become entirely relativistic” (emphasis added). Strauss saw that if there is to be any access to a transcendent, eternal truth on the basis of which men can judge the goodness or badness of competing moral and political claims it would be necessary to meet and overturn the threat posed by nihilist historicist arguments. Buckley’s theme of the risks of relativism so thoroughly echoes elements in the work of Strauss that Buckley’s words might almost have been written by Strauss himself. Both men are confident that liberalism will never be shown to be viable without some kind of anchorage in the “Absolute.” For Buckley those who recognize this fact almost by definition belong “on the conservative side.”

Buckley states that for the National Review believes the truth is “neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results.” The results of elections might well be binding for other purposes but have no salience in the matter of the quest for truth.  The conflict of the day whose seeking “to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias” and those “who defend the organic moral order” who are what he calls the “disciples of Truth.” These are not those who seek to reconstruct the human race in line with seemingly rational blueprints but those who engage the “study of human experience” which when all is said and done is “the genuine source of truth.”

No Sympathy for the Devil

One indubitable common ground occupied by both Strauss and the National Review is a vigorous Anti-Communism. The National Review is confident that “The century’s most blatant force of satanic utopianism is communism.” It needs no pointing out that Strauss would not use exactly this term in his anti-communist observations. Nonetheless Strauss was not at all averse to using the word “evil” in connection with the U.S.S.R. long before President Reagan did so.

According to Strauss the Western Movement was so obsessed with “reactionism” that it missed the much greater evil represented by its progressivist twin sister– Marxism-Leninism. Hence it was “impossible for the Western movement to understand Communism as merely a new version of that eternal reactionism against which it had fighting for centuries.” The “Western Movement” or modern liberalism had been on a centuries long crusade to build the “New Jerusalem” could harbor any doubts about this crusade were not welcome. They could only originate in selfishness and malice. But for Strauss such doubts could be just as much rooted in a concern for freedom and justice as the hope for progress is so often presented as being. For the West reactionism constituted evil and progress was identified with the good. Surely Strauss’ point is clear – the West can be endangered from the political Left. In other words, western intellectuals should be open to the prospect of identifying   themselves with the political Right against the evils of the totalitarian Left.

While the editors of the  National Review’s found themselves “irrevocably at war with communism and opposed to any substitute for victory,” Strauss was sure that the West had a blind spot limiting its vision to “reactionary” evil only. It just could not see  evil if it appears in the new progressive guise. Strauss explains that in the last analysis “the western project which had provided in its way against all the earlier forms of evil could not provide against the new form in speech or deed.” According to Buckley, it is “the jubilant single-mindedness of the practicing Communist, with his inside track to History” who dominates the broader trends of the times. Buckley sounds here very much like Strauss talking about the ruthless few who usually succeed in making revolution. Tracking the thought of Leon Trotsky Strauss once observed that the Communists triumphed in Russia because the leader of the revolution was “the man with the strongest will or single-mindedness, the greatest ruthlessness, daring, and power over his following, and the best judgment about the various forces in the immediately relevant political field.”

National Review had argued in its “Mission Statement” that “coexistence” with communism was “neither desirable nor possible, nor honorable.”  In 1963 Strauss observed that “the fraternal greetings” of the West were responded to by communism “only with contempt or at most with manifestly dissembled signs of friendship.” Even when it was in mortal danger and was eager to receive western help communism was determined to give “not even sincere word of thanks in return.”  A year later Strauss had concluded that “so far from ruling the globe, the West’s very survival is endangered by the East as it has not been since its beginning.” In other words in by the 1960’s the West was facing another Thermopylae or Lepanto and triumph for the Soviet Union would be “the victory of the most extreme form of Eastern despotism.

Strauss then was prepared to join the editors of the National Review in their determination to face the prospect of a triumphant communism with “flags flying and guns blazing”: “Better dead than red.” No surprise then that Strauss is reported to have recommended to Senator Charles Percy to push for the invasion of Castro’s Cuba.   Strauss’s Cold War anti-communism dovetailed very nicely with the more “populist” anti-communism of the National Review. To say the least there appears to be very little daylight between Strauss and the National Review on the question of the Communist menace shall we say.

The National Review editors sensed what Strauss once called “the nobility of last ditch resistance.” They realized that one can never know if a cause is lost forever. The wisest course then is to stand on a “Remember the Alamo!” principle” for the sake of keeping the flame alive until such time as better prospects can be seen on the historical horizon. Strauss then was prepared to join the editors of the National Review in their determination to face the prospect of a triumphant communism with “flags flying and guns blazing.” “Better dead than red.” They showed themselves to have something lacking even in so great a conservative as Edmund Burke Strauss was critical of even so great a conservative as Edmund Burke who in the face of the irresistible upheaval of the French Revolution opted for a fatalistic approach on the grounds that once History with a capital “H” has chosen its path it is pointless to resist it. But at a time when no one (was) inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it” William Buckley’s recommendation was to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop!”

We leave aside here the thorny question of Burke’s to American conservatism., but we can say that Messrs. Buckley and Strauss parted company with him on the question of historical fatality or the providential nature of history as compared to the natural order itself.

Against All Odds

Is there some way to referee the conflict between the fatalism of Burke and the “die-hardism” of Strauss/Buckley? William James attempted to referee the debate between Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer on this question. “The causes of production of great men,” he says, “lie in a sphere wholly inaccessible to the social philosopher.” At the end of the day, the student of man and society must simply “accept geniuses as data.”  James does not doubt for a minute that the Great Man modifies the social environment in an “entirely original and peculiar way” and that as a “ferment” he brings about a “rearrangement of the pre-existing social relations.” Thus James concludes that the “mutations of societies, then, from generation to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment.”

Spencer had said that if we ask the question “whence comes the great man?’ we are left with only two possibilities: his origin is either supernatural or it is natural. If it is the former then he is a “deputy-god, and we have Theocracy once removed or, rather, not removed at all.” If on the other hand the great man is natural being then he must be “classed with all other phenomena in the society that gave him birth, as a product of its antecedents.” He has to be seen then, “along with its institutions, language, knowledge, manners, and its multitudinous arts and appliances,” as the product of an “enormous aggregate of forces that have been co-operating for ages as is the whole generation of which he forms a minute part.” Spencer’s stress is not so much on the potential of the Great Man to “modify his nation in its structure and actions” as it is on “those antecedent modifications constituting national progress before he could be evolved.” Before the Great Man can re-make his society, “his society must make him.” Thus the Great Man is only the “proximate initiator” of changes which in fact have their chief causes in the generations from which he descended. Thus a “real explanation” of these changes must be sought in that “aggregate of conditions out of which both he and they have arisen.” At the end of the day the evidence will show that the Great Man “is powerless in the absence of the material and mental accumulations which his society inherits from the past, and that he is powerless in the absence of the co-existing population, character, intelligence, and social arrangements.”

James’s response is that the “indeterminism” introduced to history by the “data” of the Great Man is not “absolute.” Not every “man” fits every “hour” and a given genius may come either too early or too late. As a result, he concludes that:

“social evolution is a resultant of the interaction of two wholly distinct factors, – the individual, deriving his peculiar gifts from the play of physiological and infra-social forces, but bearing all the power of initiative and origination in his hands; and, second, the social environment, with its power of adopting or rejecting both him and his gifts. Both factors are essential to change. The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”

Alexis de Tocqueville provides us with a useful grace note to these reflections of James. He expresses a belief that at all times “one great portion of the events of this world are attributable to very general facts and another to special influences.”  The historians who seek to describe what occurs in democratic societies have a tendency to assign a great deal of emphasis to general causes and in “devoting their chief attention to discover them.” But Tocqueville adds that to the extent that because they cannot easily trace or follow “the special influence of individuals” they deny its existence they are in serious error.

The moral of James’s balanced account is clearly stated by Tocqueville. He says that we in modern times feel ourselves “confined on every side by (our) own weakness.” This tends to make us lose sight of what he calls popular “strength and independence.” This is a most regrettable trend he thinks precisely because the great object in our time should be to “raise the faculties of men, not to complete their prostration.” We could do nothing more in line with Tocqueville’s (and James’s) purpose in their discussions than to insist that no particular paradigm of History can be final and that to go down “flags flying, guns blazing” may not be the “End of History” but rather the harbinger of a new beginning.

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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