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Reading Strauss in Beijing

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A few years ago, when I was still teaching at the University of Chicago, I had my first Chinese graduate students, a couple of earnest Beijingers who had come to the Committee on Social Thought hoping to bump into the ghost of Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish political philosopher who established his career at the university. Given the mute deference they were accustomed to giving their professors, it was hard to make out just what these young men were looking for, in Chicago or Strauss. They attended courses and worked diligently, but otherwise kept to themselves. They were in but not of Hyde Park.

At the end of their first year, I called one of them into my office to offer a little advice. He was obviously thoughtful and serious, and was already well known in Beijing intellectual circles for his writings and his translations of Western books in sociology and philosophy into Chinese. But his inability to express himself in written or spoken English had frustrated us both in a course of mine he had just taken. I began asking about his summer plans, eventually steering the conversation to the subject of English immersion programs, which I suggested he look into. “Why?” he asked. A little flummoxed, I said the obvious thing: that mastering English would allow him to engage with foreign scholars and advance his career at home. He smiled in a slightly patronizing way and said, “I am not so sure.” Now fully flummoxed, I asked what he would be doing instead. “Oh, I will do language, but Latin, not English.” It was my turn to ask why. “I think it very important we study Romans, not just Greeks. Romans built an empire over many centuries. We must learn from them.” When he left, it was clear that I was being dismissed, not him.

This conversation came to mind recently after I returned from a month of lectures and interviews in China. I had heard that Strauss was popular there, as was, to my surprise, Carl Schmitt, the Weimar anti-liberal (and anti-Semitic) legal theorist. The New Yorker had even run a piece that spoke of “the new generation’s neocon nationalists,” mentioning the interest in Strauss as some sort of disturbing development. What I discovered, especially among the many young people I spoke with, was something much more interesting and important. Strauss and Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate, but they are being read by everyone, whatever their partisan leanings; as a liberal journalist in Shanghai told me as we took a stroll one day, “no one will take you seriously if you have nothing to say about these two men and their ideas.” And the interest has little to do with nationalism in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. It is a response to crisisa widely shared belief that the millennia-long continuity of Chinese history has been broken and that everything, politically and intellectually, is now up for grabs.

My conversations in China reminded me of political discussions I used to have in Communist Poland in the mid-’80s, after the coup and while Solidarity’s power was at its nadir. To my surprise, the people I met thenacademics, journalists, artists, writerswere more anxious to talk about Plato and Hegel than about contemporary affairs, and not as a means of escape. For them, the classics were just what dark times demanded. I was particularly impressed with the publisher of a small samizdat magazine printed on terrible, waxy paper, who referred everything back to the Platonic dialogues. When post-Communist Poland failed to meet his high expectations, he became a minister in the right-wing Kaczyński government, somehow confusing Kraków with Athens, and Warsaw with Syracuse.

I don’t remember if my Polish friends were reading Schmitt at that time, but they did rely on Strauss as a guide to the political-philosophical tradition they were rediscovering outside the confines of the Communist university system. In a sense, they were retracing Strauss’s own steps. Faced with the “crisis of the West” he saw in the weak response to Nazism before World War II, and to Communism after it, Strauss set out to recover and reformulate the original questions at the heart of the Western political tradition, which he did by leading his students and readers on a methodical march back in time, from Nietzsche to Hobbes, then to medieval Jewish and Islamic political philosophy (he avoided Christianity), and finally to Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Thucydides. Faced with the poverty, incompetence, and weak tyranny that real, existing socialism had delivered, many Poles I knew had begun a similar intellectual journey. And today, it’s the turn of some young Chinese, who are witnessing not the collapse of Communism but its metamorphoses into a form of despotic state capitalism. Their response has been to learn Greek, Latin, and German.

What distinguishes these young men and women from my Polish friends is that none would describe themselves as “liberal.” The era of intellectual liberalism that began in the ’80s and spread in the ’90s, not just in Eastern Europe but in pockets around the world, is overdone in by political Islamism and Western responses to it, and by the forces of globalization that have given us a “neoliberalism” that people everywhere associate with unregulated markets, labor exploitation, environmental degradation, and official corruption. Chinese intellectuals who came of age in the decade and a half after Mao’s death were involved in intense debates over competing paths of modernization and took human rights seriously, and the period culminated in the Tiananmen movements of 1989. But, a few years later, once the party’s slogan became “to get rich is glorious,” and the Chinese began to pursue this glory, intellectuals turned against the liberal political tradition.

Liberal thought, the young ones now feel, just doesn’t help them understand the dynamics of Chinese life today or offer a model for the future. For example, everyone I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agrees that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker onea state that follows the rule of law, is less capricious, can control local corruption, and can perform and carry out long-term planning. Their disagreements all seem to be about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and how its newfound power should be exercised in international affairs. Similarly, there was complete consensus about China’s right to defend its national interests, just differences over what those interests are. When my turn to talk about American politics came, and I tried to explain the Tea Party movement’s goal of “getting government off our backs,” I was met with blank stares and ironic smiles.

Enter Carl Schmitt. For four decades now, the short, elusive books by this once Nazi collaborator have attracted Western radicals too soft-minded for Marxian empiricism and charmed by the notion that tout commence en mystique et tout finit en politique. (Not that they’ve read Charles Péguy.) In China, though, the interest in Schmitt’s ideas seems more serious and even understandable.

Schmitt was by far the most intellectually challenging anti-liberal statist of the twentieth century. His deepest objections to liberalism were anthropological. Classical liberalism assumes the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals and treats conflict as a function of faulty social and institutional arrangements; rearrange those arrangements, and peace, prosperity, learning, and refinement will follow. Schmitt assumed the priority of conflict: Man is a political creature, in the sense that his most defining characteristic is the ability to distinguish friend and adversary. Classical liberalism sees society as having multiple, semi-autonomous spheres; Schmitt asserted the priority of the social whole (his ideal was the medieval Catholic Church) and considered the autonomy of the economy, say, or culture or religion, as a dangerous fiction. (“The political is the total, and as a result we know that any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision.”) Classical liberalism treats sovereignty as a kind of coin that individuals are given by nature and which they cash in as they build legitimate political institutions for themselves; Schmitt saw sovereignty as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act by a leader, a party, a class, or a nation that simply declares “thus it shall be.” Classical liberalism had little to say about war and international affairs, leaving the impression that, if only human rights were respected and markets kept free, a morally universal and pacified world order would result. For Schmitt, this was liberalism’s greatest and most revealing intellectual abdication: If you have nothing to say about war, you have nothing to say about politics. There is, he wrote, “absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.”

Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the pace and character of China’s economic modernization, and the perception that it is neoliberalism at work, these ideas of Schmitt seem beyond wise; they seem prophetic. For the left, he explains, without appeal to Marxism, why the distinction between economy and politics is false and pernicious, and how liberalism functions as an ideology, ignoring or explaining away phenomena central to political life. His idea of sovereignty, that it is established by fiat and is supported by a hidden ideology, also helps the left make sense of the strange hold free-market ideas have on people today and gives them hope that somethinga disaster? a coup? a revolution?might reestablish the Chinese state on foundations that are neither Confucian, Maoist, nor capitalist. (This is where the mystique comes in.)

Students of a more conservative bent actually agree with much of the left’s critique of the new state capitalism and the social dislocations it has caused, though they are mainly concerned with maintaining “harmony” and have no fantasies (only nightmares) about China going through yet another revolutionary transformation. Their reading of history convinces them that China’s enduring challenges have always been to maintain territorial unity, keep social peace, and defend national interests against other stateschallenges heightened today by global market forces and a liberal ideology that idealizes individual rights, social pluralism, and international law. Like Schmitt, they can’t make up their minds whether liberal ideas are hopelessly naïve and don’t make sense of the world we live in, or whether they are changing the world in ways that are detrimental to society and international order. These students are particularly interested in Schmitt’s prescient postwar writings about how globalization would intensify rather than diminish international conflict (this was in 1950) and how terrorism would spread as an effective response to globalization (this was in 1963). Schmitt’s conclusionthat, given the naturally adversarial nature of politics, we would all be better off with a system of geographical spheres of influence dominated by a few great powerssits particularly well with many of the young Chinese I met.

Schmitt’s political doctrine is brutal modern statism, which poses some problems in China. Though he was a jurist with a lot to say about constitutions and the rule of law, nothing in his thinking recognizes natural limits to state authority or even explains the aims of the state beyond keeping itself together and besting its adversaries. The Chinese tradition of political thought that begins with Confucius, though in a way statist, is altogether different: Its aim is to build a just social hierarchy where every person has a station and is bound to others by clear obligations, including the ruler, who is there to serve. Central to the functioning of such a state are the “gentlemen” (or “gentry” in some Confucius translations), men of character and conscience trained to serve the ruler by making him a better onemore rational and concerned with the people’s good. Though the Chinese students I met clearly wanted to épater their teachers and me by constantly referring to Schmitt, the truth is that they want a good society, not just a strong one.

Enter Leo Strauss, again. The most controversial aspect of Strauss’s thought in the United States over the past decade, given the role some of his devotees played in concocting the latest Iraq war, is what he had to say about the “gentleman.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’twhich is why the education of gentlemen is difficult in democratic societies and may need to take place in secret. Much was made of this gentlemanly idea in Straussian circles after his death, and as young Straussians became part of the Republican foreign policy apparat, beginning in the Reagan administration, many began seeing themselves as members of an enlightened class guiding America through the “crisis of the West.” (This episode still awaits its satirist.) In this sense there was indeed a connection between Straussianism and the Iraq war.

But for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. None of them seemed particularly eager to join the Party, which they said co-opted even the most independent thinkers. For the moment, they seem content to study ancient languages, get their Ph.D.s, and take teaching jobs where they evidently hope to produce philosophers and gentlemen. They are not in a hurry. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Mark Lilla is a professor of the humanities at Columbia University. This article ran in the December 30, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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