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Harry-JaffaThe death of Harry V. Jaffa at age ninety-six was met by exuberant detailed tributes in sources extending from the New York Times and Washington Post to the major organs of the Murdoch media. Jaffa was hailed as an influential conservative theorist, the founder and driving force behind the heavily endowed Claremont Institute, and the author of widely read works on Abraham Lincoln, the American Founding, and the concept of equality. Although I could not imagine a single issue on which the deceased and I could possibly have agreed (except that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were not particularly nice men), I fully agree with all the tributes stressing Jaffa’s contribution to what is now considered the American Conservative Movement. This present movement would have been far less substantive without Jaffa’s rhetorical and conceptual contribution.

Indeed, when such journalists as Rich Lowry casually observe that Jaffa may have been the key thinker for their movement, and when they rate his book on Lincoln as the single most significant book in molding their ideas, the compliments are fully justified. All other contemporary thinkers pale into insignificance beside Jaffa, thanks to his exposition of equality as the prime “conservative principle.” More than forty years ago I stood with Russell Kirk in front of his library as he showed me an anthology on conservative voices (put out by William F. Buckley, Jr.) which included Jaffa. “This man shouldn’t be here,” remarked Kirk with obvious irritation. In point of fact, neither Russell Kirk nor I would belong to the future of a movement that became closely identified with Jaffa’s thinking and which, by the 1970s, had come to reshape the thinking of the founder of the National Review.

In comparison to Jaffa’s emphasis on America as a permanently revolutionary society based on human rights and dedicated to spreading its founding principles and its example as a propositional nation, all other statements of conservatism since the 1950s have hardly counted. Such Jaffaite god terms as “democracy,” “equality,” and “universal rights” now dominate serious conservative discourse—that is any discourse on the official right that reaches beyond such phrases as “let’s fix Obamacare!” or “President Obama doesn’t really believe in American exceptionalism.” It would be no exaggeration to describe Jaffa’s formative role for the present conservative movement as being comparable to that of Karl Marx as an architect of communism.

Having sounded my hymn to Jaffa’s achievement, it may be necessary here to admit that I can find nothing even remotely conservative about anything he taught. In fact, as the late Sam Francis and Melvin E. Bradford both pointed out, there is nothing in Jaffa that is not quintessentially leftist. What Jaffa and his acolytes have done, is rearrange labels so that what was historically associated with the Left has now been renamed “conservatism.” At the same time figures who identified themselves as leftists, such as Martin Luther King, have been assigned conservative bona fides, and groups like antebellum Southern landowners have been attacked as either similar to the communists or as value relativists. What started out looking like a word game was turned by Jaffa and his disciples into something far more cataclysmic. It was a total remaking of the Right into a subgenus of the Left, combined with certain biographical peculiarities that may have been drawn from Jaffa’s New York Jewish background, for example a hyperbolic Zionism, revulsion for the Germans and Russians, and a commitment to America as a society bottomed on universalism and equality.

What linked this faux conservatism to an older post-World War II tradition was Jaffa’s attempt to make the Left identical with value relativism. Having written widely on this subject, I can find no evidence for the supposition that leftists are “value relativists” as opposed to moral fanatics. But since Jaffa picked up his value position from his teacher Leo Strauss and seems to have tenaciously held on to it, it was dragged into the mix that came to characterize his new, winning brand of “conservatism.” Presumably those who disagreed with Jaffa, including traditional European conservatives, were or are moral relativists—or (Heaven forfend!) “historicists,” that is, people who presume to look at historical situations in understanding political and cultural institutions, instead of trying to inflict the Jaffaite Bed of Procrustes on the entire human race. Although neither Jaffa nor I care much for Woodrow Wilson, our reasons for this dislike are utterly dissimilar. Unlike Jaffa, I lament President Wilson’s foreign policy and crusades for democracy; Jaffa and his followers, by contrast, deplore the one thing about Wilson I respect, namely, his attempt to understand rights as historic accretions rather than as attachments with which individuals everywhere enter the world, and which American journalists and politicians are presumably equipped to enumerate.

Moreover, since Jaffa also maintained intermittently that America’s uniquely revolutionary society had roots in ancient and medieval sources, particularly the Old and New Testaments, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, it was possible to present him as a selective perpetuator of the past, as well as an advocate of a global democratic revolution originating in the United States of America. Certain ambiguities and interests in his writing have been useful in widening the appeal of his doctrines. Those followers of Jaffa I have come across over the years have been mostly observant Roman Catholics; and when they oppose gay marriage and abortion, their stands may have more to do with their religious backgrounds than their Jaffaite credo. But taking these stands has certainly not hurt their membership in the club, providing they also embrace Jaffa’s American ideology and certain indispensable positions, like “being good on Israel.”

The success of this school of thought, quite broadly understood, may have more to do with its timeliness than its philosophical coherence or historical objectivity. It offers narratives and positions that fit the practical needs of the Grand Old Party operatives, who are eager to exhibit their sensitivity to minority issues, and who wish to identify their “conservatism” with onetime standard left-of-center views. Such people hope to present their stands—even while shilling for multinational corporations, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the defense industry—as being fully consistent with universal rights and the principle of equality. Republican journalists also want to coexist with a leftist media establishment, at least to the extent that they are not treated, like Marine Le Pen and Pat Buchanan, that is as moral lepers. What better way to do this than to affirm “conservative values,” which are really leftist ones in differently wrapped packages.

The last thing I wish to do is understate what Jaffa did to fill the needs I have described. I could not imagine myself doing anything even as remotely ingenious as what Jaffa has achieved as a purveyor of ideas. This thinker or myth-maker (he was both) has made good on a claim he once divulged to his boyhood friend from the Bronx, the late Francis Canavan, S.J. Jaffa told the then already eminent theologian and Edmund Burke-scholar in a moment of candor: “Frank, I’m inventing a myth and I’ll make people believe it.” I learned of this story while Father Canavan and I were attending an Edmund Burke conference about twenty years ago. The Jesuit scholar mentioned it not to disparage Jaffa, but to express admiration for someone who achieved what he said he would do when they were both much younger.

Finally it would be misleading to try to view Jaffa simply as the head of a particular group of Straussians, who were located in the Southwest part of the United States. Contrary to what the mainstream Straussians tell us, Jaffa and his disciples are not merely a cluster of sectarians who broke off from the main body of Strauss’ followers—that is, from those who branched out from the University of Chicago and who are identified with such celebrities as Allan Bloom, Walter Bern, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and Michael Zuckert. Whatever the hermeneutic differences between these schools, and as an outsider looking in they seem to me piddling, the groups often publish in the same places and praise each other’s work.

More to the point, the Jaffaites are more tightly organized than other Straussians and come together almost ritualistically to adulate their founder and leader. While in attendance at one of their gatherings, I noticed the absence of females, the predominance of military types, and the conspicuously robot-like behavior of most of the attendees. Those meetings of far left groups I attended as a graduate student were lively, spontaneous affairs in comparison to the “informal” collection of Jaffa’s followers I wandered into during an American Political Science Association gathering. Anyone who can elicit such submissiveness from his followers, once having organized them on the basis of leftist myths, has achieved a remarkable success as a cult-leader.

Moreover, no other disciple of Strauss has achieved such a hold over the conservative movement (no, not even the best-selling author Allan Bloom). Nor is the fact that Professor Jaffa contributed to the speech that Barry Goldwater delivered as Republican presidential candidate in 1964 in any way responsible for his mesmerizing effect over the Beltway Right. Jaffa rose to prominence in the conservative movement in the 1970s, when the time was ripe for his ideology. Presumably, he was not the only figure selling equality and human rights as “conservative principles.” The fact that his formulation worked so well for “conservatism’s” movers and shakers speaks volumes about his abilities and persistence. For all our differences, I admired his energy and charisma, and if anyone with his views was destined to redefine “movement conservatism” it might as well have been Harry Jaffa.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Unz Review and the author. 

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8 replies to this post
  1. ‘Those followers of Jaffa I have come across over the years have been mostly observant Roman Catholics;’

    Catholics and nationalist Lincoln supporters.

  2. Some have suggested, all Modern American Conservative values are in some way, Kantean-Humean-Lockean liberalism in disguise. It is certain that Modern American Conservatives are not practically related to Mastrie and Guizot.
    With greater import, one might ask, please define “Conservatism”, and distinguish it both from “conservatism”, and “right-wing-ism”. (I have my own definition, of course).
    Inquiring minds want to know.

    • “Some have suggested, all Modern American Conservative values are in some way, Kantean-Humean-Lockean liberalism in disguise.”

      That is, of course, in some sense true…because American Conservatism is inherently anti-metaphysical, fairly pragmatic, and in a sense inherently “liberal” in that liberalism, as a political philosophy, is ultimately little more than a critique. But American Conservatism, within this context, seeks to preserve the natural order of the historic liberties and duties that American have had, a general sense of optimism, fair play, work, community, family, piety. American Conservatism, then, is ultimately skeptical of total systems along European lines. Divided government, local culture, and the many small “d” democratic virtues are part of this tradition. Like conservatism in any context, it is not definable as a set of positive doctrines or specifics, as much as it is a general set of values and soft aspirations, a temperament; cautious, reverential, pragmatic; suspicious and anti-dogmatic, yet also, generous and optimistic.

      All in all, American Conservatism had a decent run.

      Can it be revitalized/resurrected in some fashion to give life and energy on a going forward basis and help create pockets of civilization in the vast American Empire, where marriage no longer exists, where total government is accepted as the norm? Hard to say. But the author makes a very good point in that IF that is to happen, it will require a Jaffa-like energy, creativity and charisma. And realistically, it probably needs an infusion of ideas and high culture from without, perhaps even from Europe…which sort of goes back to your original point, that American Conservatism, is ultimately (and for a long time, rightly), without deep metaphysical content……

  3. Just yesterday I was talking to someone about the counterfeit conservatism widely mistaken as conservatism today, and about how these counterfeit conservatives all accept certain fundamental assumptions of modern liberalism, such as universal suffrage and the place of women working outside the home.

    As for Catholic followers of Jaffa, these are the same “conservatives” who rationalize, under a desperate “hermeneutic of continuity,” the errors, ambiguities, and novelties of the Hippie Council Revolution, aka the Judas Council Revolution, aka the Second Vatican Council. They’re sham conservatives.

  4. Well, I have always held Mansfield in highest esteem while holding Jaffa in esteem.Mansfield is more mindful of the limits of equality. I do not think it is possible to go from Leo Strauss’s praise of the Polis and blame for the State to global democratic revolution, nor do I see the philosophical basis for global democratic revolution in Lincoln’s words or deeds. People who make these leaps, including self-described students of the above, often do so at the expence of what Strauss actually wrote.

    This demamds a longer essay on Strauss, which I have always wanted to write, but in short:

    The polis is not the state and what is proper for the polis is not necessarily proper for the state.

    That said, I still find Crisis of the House Divided an excellent book and have never found myself compelled to cheer the bombing of Serbia, gay marriag for Egypt or ERA for Russia because of it, but it has refined my understanding of American constitutionalism and statesmamship.

    As to the left, there is Kojeve and there is Zizek. I do not blame Strauss for enjoying the former, I can’t stand the latter.

    • “The polis is not the state and what is proper for the polis is not necessarly proper for the state.” Exactly so, and (to use one of Tocqueville’s terms) the “generative fact” of wisdom on many of these issues.

  5. This is as clear and concise as any statement on the subject. So ended what was once American conservatism. Thank you.

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