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 crisis—a 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 then—academics, journalists, artists, writers—were 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 over—done 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.
But, of course, the crux, and the shame, of the matter, as Lilla shows, is why his Chinese conversationalists lean toward Schmitt in their crisis: They all agree than China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one. In other words there are no liberals in China. They are more interested in war than in peace. The days of Tinanmen, of the potential of 1989, are over and done with. Yet, it must be pointed out that Lilla reveals some optimism by saying that some in China want a “good society, not just a strong one.” It will be up to these Chinese gentlemen to think this one through. I have no doubt Strauss will help.