Friday, December 2, 2022

Leo Strauss on the Fascist Generation

In 1941, Leo Strauss, living as a refugee in Manhattan, gave a lecture in which he explored the political and philosophical underpinnings of both Fascism and Liberalism. I was struck by this description of right-wing students in German universities of the 1920s. Some called them nihilists, but to Strauss this was mistake, and an important one:

For what is mislabeled “nihilism” is not a destructive doctrine at all. It is a protest on behalf of something of the highest human importance—something liberalism dismisses at its peril.

What kind of protest? In answering this question, Strauss reflected on the generation of students who had been intellec­tually formed and politically radicalized during the interwar period. As his later writings would make clear, these reflections drew on his own experiences as a student in the early 1920s. . . . These students, Strauss recalled, had been shattered by war, disoriented by the collapse of traditional authorities, and disturbed by a culture that seemed to celebrate transgression. For many of them, the Weimar-era experiment with parliamentary democracy had proven a failure. Only a rejection of the “cancer” of liberalism, as one author called it, could save them.

Strauss’s portrait of his classmates was unsparing, but not disdainful. Strauss described young men full of vehement certainty about what they rejected, but inarticulate and unreflective about what they affirmed. “The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled,” he observed, “was positively horrifying to [them].” Strauss lamented that their passions found no outlet other than the crudest propaganda. Unable to understand or express themselves in any other way—Strauss noted that they had largely rejected Christian belief—they gave voice to savage forms of group identity. The mark of barbarism, Strauss explained, was the belief that truth and justice should be defined in terms of ethnic or racial membership.

But Strauss acknowledged that these students, shaped by defeat, conflict, and social disintegration, were inspired by an ideal—an ideal whose dangers they did not understand but whose allure they keenly felt. . . .  Strauss cautioned that he sought not to pardon what deserved condemnation, but to make intelligible what required understanding. He therefore challenged his class to see in the youthful German protest what many had failed to perceive two decades ­earlier: its moral basis. This protest against liberalism was not fundamentally inspired by a love of war or a love of nation, Strauss insisted. Nor could it be explained by material or class interests. It was inspired, as he put it in a bracing passage, by “a love of morality, a sense of responsibility for endangered morality.”

Strauss named this outlook the morality of the “closed society.” No sensitive reader of the lecture can avoid being struck by the intensity of the passages in which Strauss describes the gravity of the challenge this “endangered morality” poses to the “open ­society.” What is the closed society? Strauss didn’t identify it with any one people, tradition, or form of government. By the “closed society” he didn’t mean non-Western cultures, pre-Enlightenment thought, or even ­undemocratic polities. The closed society represented a perennial moral possibility, whose roots are found in every human soul and whose demands must be confronted by every human community. In its most common expression, the closed society levels a familiar accusation: that the open society is immoral, or at least amoral, because it jeopardizes the very possibility of living a virtuous life.

A closed society in this sense is one that prescribes a certain way of living, denounces or punishes any questioning of that way, and holds up the few who meet the highest standards of morality or honor (saints, crusaders) as examples for the rest to follow.

The point is not that young Nazis, or anyone else, actually lived up to the strict moral standards of certain traditional societies or institutions. It is that Liberalism simply lacks the kind of heroic value system one sees in, for example, the aesthetic rigor of certain Irish saints, or the sense of personal honor that impelled men to fight deadly duels. 

I don't think that's entirely true. I would say that the nonviolent civil rights protesters in the US approached a sort of liberal heroic ideal. But I do agree that that liberal values just seem weak and uninspiring to many people. And not just those on the right; you can see much of the Woke movement as a protest against the inadequate moral rigor of liberalism.

To me that makes liberalism more honest, more livable, and a better basis for life in a multicultural world. I do see that many people suffer from the lack of clear guidance on what life is supposed to be. I just wish they would go off and form communes with people like themselves and leave me out of their schemes.


David said...

Perhaps it's worth pointing out that Leo Strauss was himself no fan of liberalism (in any except the ancient sense of "the virtue proper to a free man"). I imagine you're well aware of all this. What he wanted was above all a return to classical virtue and ancient philosophy, especially Plato. I don't really know much about Strauss, but my impression is that his political philosophy was something like Stoicism or Averroism: wise rationalist philosophers guide society and tell the masses what they need to hear to make them pursue virtue.

In this country, one sometimes got a whiff of Straussianism with the neocons. Trumpism in turn has powerful elements of reaction against that (Straussianism being, after all, just as elitist in its way as limousine liberalism).

In any case, there seems to be a real dilemma. Liberalism is supposed to be tolerant. What, then, does one do with, or about, the avowed enemies of liberalism? Do we just hope they go away--while retaining, whether we admit it or not, the option of overwhelming force? And what do we do if the "people," or a voting majority of them, become illiberal? That last, sadly, confronts us with the Stoic-Averroistic aspect that liberalism likes to avoid about itself.

John said...

My impression is that Strauss was not satisfied with any actual political system. WW II made him a Zionist and for a while he was enthusiastic about Israel and the willingness of Jews to fight and sacrifice for what they believed in. But once Israel was a going concern he was disappointed with Zionism, too. He certainly believed that political leadership involved a big element of misleading and manipulating the masses, and he is probably most known for his belief that great thinkers of the past concealed their most important ideas to avoid persecution, so you have to read between the lines to get the whole message. I linked to this essay because the author thinks that Strauss, a man who was also disaffected with liberalism and sometimes drawn to authoritian ideas, had a better understanding of future Nazis than someone who was simply horrified by them.

David said...

Well, it's at First Things, so I wonder if there is a (between the lines) more deeply Straussian agenda than that. After all, when it comes from someone like Strauss, an account like this isn't simply an otherwise disinterested explanation of Nazism. Would it be wrong to take him as suggesting that the existence of Nazis reveals a genuinely hollow core of liberalism, and that liberalism should be replaced by . . . something else? Maybe not something Nazi, but something more, say, Straussian, in any case?

Which does leave hanging the question: if one is not a Straussian, but believes in liberalism, hollow core or no, what does one do about liberalism's enemies? You yourself implicitly raise this is at the end, by wishing liberalism's enemies would leave you alone.

David said...

I'm part way through the poster's extremely long attached essay. The poster's agenda is complex. I am NOT saying I think the agenda is evil. But it's not simple, and Strauss's Straussianism is part of it.

John said...

One sentiment that you often get from a certain kind of conservative is that liberalism is a sham because the free world ultimately depends on soldiers to defend it, and liberal values make for lousy warriors. I think Strauss believed this, that to survive any nation had to incorporate a strong strain of illiberalism in the form of militarism. This sort of sentiment also comes up with regard to the police, that is, that an entirely nice and liberal police force would be useless, and effective policing requires at least an element of thuggishness.

I am not sure that those particular things are true, but I am open to the notion we have discussed before, that evolution different types of people because any society needs different kinds of people to thrive. In any event we certainly do have illiberal people in my world, and I am happy for them to join the Marines or take up mixed martial arts. A liberal world has plenty of space for illiberal people.

I am also not especially afraid that they will take over in any profound sense; America won't be turned into a "closed society" in Strauss's sense. But they can certainly make things very ugly.

G. Verloren said...

Fascism absolutely is founded on a desire for a "heroic value system", but only as a means to an end.

"Heroic value systems" have, historically, served the primary purpose of justifying greed and violence, long before Fascism ever came about. From the very start of civilization, the earliest monarchs all promoted their own "heroic value systems" which justified their own rule, the Divine Right of Kings, etc. The same was done by various religious organizations, justifying everything from tithes and taxes to crusades and conquest.

The Fascists (and others like them) crave a "heroic value system" because they want to have an excuse for their own selfishness and violence. It doesn't particularly matter to them WHICH value system, so long as they can point to something as an excuse for their brutality and greed.

In the modern day, there is no shortage of causes you could choose to champion - you could devote yourself to all sorts of noble goals, such as ending poverty, eradicating hunger, ushering in world peace, saving endangered species, solving the global climate crisis, exploring outer space, and on and on. And yet - curiously - these "heroic value systems" don't hold any appeal for the Fascists and their ilk. Why might that be?

Could it be that these values and ideals are unpopular because they require us to be selfless, make sacrifices for the good of humanity as a whole, etc? Because they cannot be used to justify maintaining the status quo, or 'returning to a previous time' (either real or mythical) when certain people enjoyed privileges and powers over others?

Strauss expressed it perfectly: “The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled,” he observed, “was positively horrifying to [them].”

Some people simply want the world to be unfair and awful, so that they can try to place themselves in a position of unfair advantage. Even if they themselves aren't empowered to rule, they at least want to believe that they live in a system where - if they only fight hard enough, behave ruthlessly enough, and step on the faces of enough other people as rungs in the "ladder to success" - they can one day BECOME the rulers, rather than the ruled.

This is the essence of Fascism - and also of our modern Capitalism. People root for and defend our current unjust system, because they believe in the "American Dream" and strive to become billionaires who are above the law, control the lives of countless others beneath them, and live as kings. As John Steinbeck put it, "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires".

It's literally that simple. Some people don't want a fair, just, peaceful world - they want a world of strife, suffering, and violence, because they imagine themselves one day becoming princes of the universe, beholden to nothing and no one, masters of their own fates and those of countless others.

"When education is not liberating, the dream of the oppressed is to become the oppressor." - Paulo Freire