In the shadow of tyranny. How did a Jewish teacher of Muslim philosophy come to influence the most Christian and anti-intellectual US administration in modern memory? Behind the ascendancy of the Straussians, writes Corey Robin, lies a very American marri

Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire

Anne Norton <em>Yale University Press, 256pp, £16<

In 1949, a German-Jewish emigre by the name of Leo Strauss arrived at the University of Chicago, where for the next two decades he taught students how to read philosophy: not just Plato and Aristotle, but also Maimonides, who was Jewish, and al-Farabi, who was Muslim. While other undergraduates ambled down the primrose path of Athens and Rome, Strauss spirited his charges through the back alleys of Baghdad and Jerusalem. Home from their dusty tours, Strauss's students - most famously Allan Bloom - became illustrious teachers in their own right, grooming the men who now lead the United States, or who advise the men who do. Today, the influence of Strauss extends from Washington (Paul Wolfowitz is a Straussian) through Guantanamo (Stephen Cambone, under-secretary of defence for intelligence, is a Straussian) to Kabul (Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, is a Straussian, too).

At first glance, there seems something vaguely un-American about the advent of the Straussians. Though men of ideas have long pulled the levers of power in Europe, the United States has seldom warmed to the intellectual man of action. When one takes into account the details of their ascendancy, the Straussians' rise to power becomes even more improbable. A Jewish intellectual from Europe teaches intellectuals in America how to read Muslim intellectuals from the Middle East - and the result is a legion of intellectuals, many of them Jewish, working for the most Christian and anti-intellectual president in modern memory, fighting a war against Muslims everywhere. How did we come to such a pass?

Anne Norton has written a short but splendid book in an-swer to this very big question. An American political scientist with a PhD from the University of Chicago, Norton is the student of students of Strauss. She does not share their politics, but knows their world well. A montage of history, philosophy and memoir, hers is a family album of arresting snapshots, in the style of Richard Avedon, that apprehend the beauty and ugliness of former teachers and colleagues, and capture, as no other work I know, the ideas and personalities now governing a good part of the world.

According to Norton, the Straussians combine a raw sense of persecution with a robust feel for power. A refugee from Hitler, Strauss knew oppression at first hand, which contributed to one of his most original insights into how to read political theory. Great philosophers, Strauss claimed, often write in the shadow of tyranny. Fearful of persecution, they hide their heterodox beliefs behind professions of benign faith. Good reading should work like an X-ray, revealing the "esoteric" message beneath the philosopher's "exoteric" statement. Strauss's follow-ers see themselves in a similarly beleaguered light: as conservative exiles in their own country, banished from liberal academia, perpetually on the wrong side of America's culture wars. At the same time, they advise presidents, wield armies, write bestsellers and teach at leading universities.

Though Norton does not make this point, there is something deeply American about this marriage of persecution and power, which perhaps explains the Straussians' unexpected triumph. Britain's Puritans fled religious oppression in the Old World only to turn their errand into the wilderness into a Messianic project to subdue detractors from the one true faith: first Native Americans, then Catholics, now Muslims. Southern slaveholders and their racist successors saw themselves as a besieged minority, yet managed to keep blacks (and America) in thrall until 1965. And while America today possesses the most extensive empire in the world ever, its citizens still think of themselves as fugitives on the lam, besieged by oppressors and tyrants everywhere.

Yet the Straussian sense of embattlement also reflects a more immediate anxiety about the revolutions of race, class and gender that have roiled the American academy since the 1960s. As Norton points out, many of Strauss's students were middle-class or working-class Jews, academic arrivistes at a time when the blood of the professoriate was as blue as an Ivy League blazer. For a man such as Bloom, for example, tenure at Cornell and then Chicago was a Cinderella story, in which a sad stray was elevated to social status by a handsome prince (or senior professor).

That thrill of election - of being chosen by one's betters - deeply influenced the Straussian world-view. Where liberals have sought to eliminate social hierarchies, the Straussians remain permanently, almost erotically, attached to them. In one of the book's more provocative passages, Norton examines Bloom's infatuation with the romantic novel, a genre that appealed to him precisely because it is "not simply a story of love but a story of social advancement". The romantic novel does not envision the abolition of social status. It revels in "the fantasy of the exception", where "the pleasure of the heroine's triumph depends on the institutions that excluded her remaining intact".

That fantasy also arouses anxiety, however. The Cinderella Straussian fears that he does not truly belong, that he will be exposed as an impostor and sent tumbling down the social ladder. Even as he enjoys the "stolen pleasure" of membership of a club that does not want him as a member, he suffers from the "secret shame" of possibly being outed. Norton offers here a genuine insight into contemporary American conservatism, where ethnic outsiders such as Dinesh D'Souza - and homosexuals such as Bloom - are drawn to a ruling class that not so long ago scorned their ilk, but at the same time heap contempt upon those who wish to join them, particularly women and black people. Now that the Straussians have entered the castle, they want to pull up the drawbridge and keep the Cinderella story for themselves.

Like Henry Adams offering mordant witness to the decadence of patrician New England and Malcolm X musing on rich white men slumming it in Harlem in search of black sex, Norton writes with great acuity about the inner life of America's ruling classes. However, the anxiety of the Straussians, she shows, is more than psychological. It is explicitly political, combining a counter-revolutionary sense of loss - one Straussian claims, "We had too good a world; it couldn't last" - with a furious desire for revenge. It is this rage and frustration that now drive the Straussians and other conservatives to hurl at their enemies the same epithets once used against the Jews: they stick together (blacks), they're pushy (women), they're wily and treasonous (Arabs and Muslims).

Though this Molotov cocktail of discontent is domestic in origin, the Straussians have tossed it abroad in the hope that a purgative fire will clear the ground for a new world order. For Norton, it is this apocalyptic utopianism that makes the Straussians so dangerous - and separates them from the mainstream of American conservatism. "This is not the Repub-licanism of [Abraham] Lincoln, nor is it the conservatism of [Alexander] Hamilton or [Barry] Goldwater," she writes. It also separates the Straussians from Strauss, who, Norton argues, held far more nuanced views on the Muslim world and always counselled prudence and restraint rather than a far-flung radicalism.

On this last point - the conflict between the Straussians on the one hand, and Strauss and American conservatism on the other - I am sceptical. After all, Hamilton (a bit of a Cinderella story himself) spoke lovingly and longingly of an American empire; Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Southern confederacy during the civil war, believed that his slave republic was founded not on tradition or prudence but on the radical principles of modern science; and Goldwater's anti-communism could hardly be characterised as restrained. As for Strauss, Norton notes that he travelled in the orbit of Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, the twin philosophers of the Third Reich, and that their suspicions - about liberal democracy, the Enlightenment and rootless cosmopolitanism - run throughout his work. Thus it is hard to see the Straussians as anything less than emblematic figures of the American right, which shares far more affinities with the spirit of the European counter-revolution than we might think.

Norton belongs to an exemplary tradition of students taking their teachers to task for their folly or abandonment of a set of shared ideals. Like Mary Wollstonecraft mocking Edmund Burke's hostility to the French revolution or Randolph Bourne chastising John Dewey for his support of the First World War, Norton knows her targets better than they know themselves precisely because it was they who once quickened her intellect. So while her dismay over her former professors and colleagues may be somewhat misplaced, the very fact that it evokes such historical comparisons reminds us of the venerable company she keeps.

Corey Robin, author of Fear: the history of a political idea (Oxford University Press), teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the graduate centre of City University of New York

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?