DISCUSSIONS ON BOOKS
Nietzsche in His Time: The Struggle Against Socratism and Socialism
George Washington University
The recent English translation of Domenico Losurdo’s The Aristocratic Rebel: Intellectual Biography and Critical Balance-Sheet1 represents a watershed moment for philosophical studies of Nietzsche across the wider Anglo-American scholarly community. Originally published in Italian in 2002, this in-depth biographical portrait offers up an entirely new way of reading the legacy of Nietzsche’s impact on social and political thought. Losurdo presents an argument often neglected, if not outright ignored by philosophers, literary theorists and general readers of Nietzsche; namely that he is best read as a deeply political and reactionary thinker who, over the course of four key stages of his career, develops a reactionary political agenda that is inseparable from the development of his moral and metaphysical thought.
With the historical and biographical tools Losurdo brings to bear, central Nietzschean concepts such as the will to power, perspectivism, eternal return, and his critique of morality are given a crucial biographical and historical point of origin and evolution. As a result, the genius of Nietzsche is given a missing historical context and the otherwise timeless metaphysical concepts he developed are urgently called into question and offered up for re-appraisal. But perhaps more importantly, the method by which philosophers and writers apply Nietzsche’s ideas to social and political problems is also thrown into question, especially left-Nietzscheans, given the aristocratic agenda so deeply woven into his thought. The text is an impressive tour de force of over 1,000 pages, pulling together several decades of research and seminars the author offered on Nietzsche. It tracks the social, political, cultural and interpersonal forces of Nietzsche’s life in a chronological fashion, delving deeply into the political and cultural arguments and polemics that shaped Nietzsche throughout his life. The result of this wide-context approach is a highly convincing portrait of the thinker who is without doubt one of the most important and misunderstood theorists of modernity.
The author Domenico Losurdo was a renowned Marxist historian and philosopher (1941 – 2018) who pioneered a distinctive method of historiography and intellectual history. A committed political militant throughout his life and active member of communist parties in Italy, Losurdo made his scholarly mark in philosophical works as well as historical studies of important thinkers from John Locke and Hannah Arendt, to biographical and historical studies of Joseph Stalin.2 His scholarship on Hegel and modernity is considered an exemplary contribution to Hegel scholarship and he has published widely on topics such as conceptions of class struggle throughout history and the evolution of nonviolence in modern political life. Widely known for his critique of nineteenth century liberalism as an ideological system implicitly in support of elements of slavery and imperialism,3 Losurdo’s work on liberalism has provided an important corrective to contemporary debates about the legacy of liberalism, helping readers to better distinguish socialist thought from liberal thought. In addition to its critical analysis of Nietzsche’s philosophy, The Aristocratic Rebel presents readers with a distinctive window into nineteenth century liberal thought, showing how Nietzsche held deep sympathies with liberal thinkers of his time and indeed forged much of his thought in line with many liberal ideals. Situating Nietzsche in the political context of his time helps readers to locate and bring Nietzsche to life in our present day when the debates between liberal and socialist conceptions of justice, equality and emancipation remain ever pertinent questions.
One must read Losurdo’s Aristocratic Rebel by staying true to his own method, that is, the political context of Losurdo’s debates and polemics on the Italian left shape much of his critiques of Nietzschean thought in the contemporary world, especially left-Nietzscheanism. Nietzschean thought and its influence on the left is a major problem in Losurdo’s view because it hollows out rationalist-oriented socialist thought and praxis and it often leads to an abandoning of universalism in favor of “spiritual” interpretations of political struggle. Losurdo’s critique of left-Nietzscheanism emanates from the application of Nietzsche by Italian leftists such as Gianni Vattimo and Giorgio Colli,4 although he considers left-Nietzscheanism far beyond just the Italian setting. While Losurdo’s comments on contemporary left-Nietzscheanism are brief, the convincing portrait of Nietzsche the book details generate ample material by which a new generation of Marxist philosophers and historians can begin to re-visit Nietzsche and the tradition of left-Nietzscheanism in particular.
This review consists of six sections, beginning with a description of Losurdo’s distinctive “wide-context” method as an intellectual historian and Marxist reader of Nietzsche. It is then followed by two sections that present an overview of the key stages of Nietzsche’s thought including an analysis of how key metaphysical concepts: perspectivism, eternal return, and the critique of morality are fundamentally shaped by an aristocratic political orientation. The objective of these sections is to assist readers in situating Losurdo’s arguments by explicating the chronology of Nietzsche’s life and the generation of his thought in relation to the political events of his time. In these sections, I aim to offer a concise overview of the book for readers intimidated by the length of the book and to offer a primer to readers before delving in. I then discuss how Nietzsche’s political praxis played a seminal role in the development of 20th century fascism and I examine how the perpetuation of the popular, or “timeless” image of Nietzsche persists in American philosophy and popular culture. I conclude with some brief suggestions for how left-Nietzscheans can begin to grapple with Losurdo’s work and what his new reading of Nietzsche portends for future work that aims to combine Marx with Nietzsche.
The Importance of Losurdo’s Wide-Context Method
Losurdo’s biographical and historiographic method provides what I call a wide-context approach to Nietzsche’s intellectual development, incorporating analysis of his primary writings, letters and correspondence with family and friends, diaries, notes, and related documents, i.e. all the necessary biographical material any competent biographer would bring to bear. But Losurdo goes further than this biographical portrait by providing a deeper context to the political situation of Nietzsche’s time, placing the thinker in relation to the intellectual trends he swam in, many of which he did not ever mention in his writings explicitly. Losurdo frequently reveals how Nietzsche’s ideas on issues such as imperialism, slavery or nationalism overlap in surprising ways with the liberal currents of thought in his time. This insight is only afforded by the wide-context approach, and this approach paints a picture of Nietzsche’s intellectual influences that give the reader a feeling for the wider intellectual milieu he operated in, the prominent debates that captured his time and attention and formed his thinking.
Losurdo’s method is biographical without psychologizing Nietzsche. He does not provide any psychological or psychoanalytic assessments of Nietzsche; however, he does suggest influences and motivations for the development of key ideas, more of which I discuss below. The wide-context method is useful in the case of an elusive thinker such as Nietzsche because so much of the meaning of his thought has come into question following his death and the censoring of his work in translations, most notably his sister. Against the common understanding of Nietzsche’s sister’s role in politicizing his work in the name of German nationalism, Losurdo shows that her translations omitted explicitly political content, most notably Nietzsche’s support for eugenics.5 What Losurdo’s method additionally suggests is that to truly grasp the breadth and depth of any thinker’s contributions and wider intellectual project, one must consider that thinkers silent partners and influences: figures of thought who may occupy seemingly marginal, or even unsaid points of influence, who never receive a citation or who are never discussed outright. It is said, for example, that Heidegger hugely influenced Foucault although anyone who has read Foucault will know immediately how little, if at all, Heidegger is mentioned. The task of a biographer or intellectual historian, as Losurdo’s method indicates, is to parse out the intricate intellectual context in which a thinker was working, to present a fuller context of the ways that thinker negotiated the complex web of orthodoxies in their time.
Nietzsche in His Time:
The Struggle Against Socratism and Socialism
We can summarize Losurdo’s invitation to Nietzsche scholars in the following way: one can only fully appreciate the metaphysical and philosophical import of Nietzsche’s genius by reading him as a philosopher of counter-revolution, that is, as a philosopher for whom the post-French Revolutionary situation in Europe had to be dealt with by way of the invention of a comprehensive philosophy committed to aristocratic reaction. Losurdo identifies four stages of Nietzsche’s thought: stage one or the “metaphysical” stage was sparked by the Paris Commune and was marked by a radical anti-revolutionary agenda, stage two, the “solitary rebel” stage was influenced by Edmund Burke and German romanticism in which Schopenhauer’s tragic worldview was the model. The third stage Losurdo names the “anti-moralist” stage in which Nietzsche attacked the passions and morals of the Enlightenment siding with Voltaire as the key figure of the Enlightenment. The fourth and most mature of Nietzsche’s stages, “aristocratic radicalism” was set on affirming the innocence of becoming, wherein his more refined ideas such as the eternal return are developed. In this stage, the solitary rebel is now transformed into an explicitly anti-masses figure incapable of calling on a popular community.6 Importantly, each intellectual stage is tied to a consistent commitment to an anti-socialist, anti-egalitarian, and pro-slavery aristocratic agenda. Losurdo shows how the very origin of Nietzsche’s genealogical method as a young philologist, through to his more mature thought, consisted of a continuous commitment to addressing the roots of a perceived crisis of Europe opened by the French Revolution. At the heart of the crisis of Europe Nietzsche diagnosed the egalitarian ideals of “Socratism” embodied by the lingering influence of Rousseau’s egalitarian political philosophy and socialist movements from the Paris Commune to the Utopian Socialism of Henri de Saint-Simon.
That Nietzsche must be read as intensely committed to the political questions of his time will come across as an easily dismissible claim for many contemporary scholars of Nietzsche given that he seldom discussed socialism or the politics of his own time. In Beyond Good and Evil, for example, only a handful of aphorisms about Bismarck’s Germany and the political movements of Social Democracy are mentioned. But this lack of reference to the politics of his time does not mean that Nietzsche’s thought was not forged in reaction to a much wider crisis in European culture—keep in mind Nietzsche is writing in a Europe after the worker revolts of 1848, which were centered in Germany, and as he is writing his most important early work The Problem of Socrates, the Paris Commune of 1871 erupts. The political force of Social Democracy in the Second Reich in the Germany of his time along with a diverse array of socialist movements across Germany were a significant influence on German liberalism, and Nietzsche always remained a close interlocutor with liberal thought. Throughout the text Losurdo reveals the influence liberal thought had on Nietzsche; instead of an anti-liberal thinker many of us have come to know, Losurdo shows the surprising similarities Nietzsche’s thought had with mainstream liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. What made Nietzsche’s reactionary political views sympathetic to liberalism were their mutual disdain for socialist leveling and equality. This similarity led Nietzsche to endorse many of the same pro-imperial and anti-egalitarian sentiments that liberals of his time adopted. We must read Nietzsche’s political thought in the wake of the Napoleonic conquests of Germany for which the German liberal establishment agreed that the influence of the French ideals of egalitarianism and equality were foreign impositions on German culture, stripping it of its vitality.
As a young man Nietzsche willingly signed up to fight in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. This was not a neutral or obligatory form of state duty, but rather the brilliant professor of classical philology momentarily abandoned a coveted university post to fight in the war, a decision driven by an explicit political ideology, namely the restoration of a lost German national pride following several generations of the Napoleonic incursion into Germany. One must keep in mind the political orientation of the young Nietzsche was German National Liberalism which saw in the Napoleonic conquests of Germany a form of cultural colonialism, imprinting French egalitarian influences across Germany. The lingering influence of the French “Rousseauist” influence on Germany had created a wider “Optimistic Worldview” which was spreading throughout Europe, finding its most egregious presence in the socialist and budding communist movements. Writing in the wake of the seismic worker revolts of 1848 that led Marx and Engels to pen the Communist Manifesto, Nietzsche saw in the socialist movements of his time, “the pretension of terrestrial happiness for everyone, which more and more characterized the modern world, was thus revealed as madness.”7
In order to cure Europe of the madness of egalitarianism, Nietzsche turned to Greek culture where a similar crisis of egalitarianism was brought about by the figure of Socrates. The young philologist wrote, “we need to see in Socrates the vortex and turning-point of so-called world history.” Losurdo shows how Nietzsche’s early work on morals, The Problem of Socrates was projecting onto the Greece of the sixth to fifth century BC an event that primarily took place in Europe between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus, ‘Socratic culture’, with its optimism, its belief in the originary goodness of the human being (virtue can be taught to anybody and everyone can learn it), and its faithful expectation of a happy world was reemerging in Nietzsche’s time.8
But Socratism was not isolated to the post—French Revolutionary scene of Nietzsche’s time; the same leveling and originary goodness doctrines were promoted in Judaism, Christianity and more recently in the thought of Rousseau. Socratism presented a genealogical line of continuity: each system of thought promoted the idea that “virtue can be taught to anybody and everyone can learn it, with its faithful expectation of a happy world.9” One year after eagerly joining the Franco-Prussian war rumors broke out that the Paris Communards had burned down of the Louvre museum in Paris in a riotous orgy, an event that Nietzsche commented in a letter to a friend:
I was for some days completely destroyed and drenched in tears and doubts: all scholarly and aesthetic experience seemed to me an absurdity. Never a deeper pain.
The Paris Commune of 1871 sparked a profound melancholy in the young Nietzsche, heightening the need to develop a political alternative to the rise of socialist and radical egalitarian movements. The socialists and other revolutionaries presented a real philosophical problem for Nietzsche, a problem that Socrates had brought to life in ancient Greece, namely they proposed that existence was capable of being modified by thought. The socialist movements, like their Socratic and Rousseauist forefathers, were a philosophical problem because they proposed the birth of an entirely new species of humans: the “theoretical human being,” a form of individual in which thought and reason are primary and which access to the truth is universal and accessible to each. Readers of Nietzsche’s writings on Socrates will remember that he is cited as the figure who birthed nihilism and a morals based in pity and resentment, but what Losurdo additionally reveals is that Socratism was construed as a quasi-racial composite of humans, one that attracted only the plebeians and people unhappy about their lot in life. The theoretical human being sought the establishment of plebian equality, which in Nietzsche’s time was actively being advocated in the socialist demand for workers equality, a project that also involved the introduction of new instincts and pleasures for the plebian working class. The problem with democratizing pleasures for the plebian classes was that doing so risked destabilizing the social order and disturbing “the feelings of modesty about their little existences.”10 The socialists and revolutionary philosophers were, as Losurdo writes, “inflicted by madness or an even worse sickness mainly because, in fleeing in horror from reality and their dreams of social regeneration, they invented non-existent guilts and responsibilities.”11
Nietzsche’s early aristocratic radicalism was thus stoked by the crisis of Socratism in the Europe of his time, a crisis that only the development of a “Tragic Worldview” could counteract. In order to forge a contrast and political alternative to the theoretical human being Nietzsche began to consciously write for a new audience: the Übermensch and the “Free Spirits.” This new audience was meant to identify a ‘metaphysics of genius’ capable of becoming the center of a political program in radical opposition to modernity and the subversive tendencies of massification associated with it. Similar to the famous Übermensch, the “Free Spirits”, a hypothetical readership Nietzsche frequently addresses, was a phrase lifted from a common socialist slogan of the time. Nietzsche desired to cultivate a readership, especially of young men who might transform the socialist version of “Free Spirits” which argued that misery is caused from social ills towards a new “tragic worldview” in which natural differences and capacities determine rank ordering. Not only would the tragic worldview reject the optimistic worldview, it would reveal new value judgments that have hitherto guided the history of thought but have been hidden by leveling. The concealment of these value judgments exceeded reason and the truths they exceeded were to be found physiologically, which is why Nietzsche will turn much of his philosophical attention to psychology and to the physical constitution of man. It is this anti-Socratic political urge which accounts for much of Nietzsche’s emphasis on the senses, especially the sense of smell in his work. In order to purge the optimistic worldview from mankind, it was “[n]ecessary to go back by a long and devastating path and to ensure that the natural and unbridgeable differences that existed among human beings were once again fully acknowledged by the division of society into ‘castes’.”12 It wasn’t only the socialist movements and their promotion of leveling through equality that was problematic; it was that leveling would lead to “massification” and the effort to create a world in which the instincts of selfishness are removed. In Human All Too Human, Nietzsche says that after removing selfishness all of the virtues disappear, a proposal initiated by Plato.13
While the socialist movements were the most dangerous expression of Socratism in Nietzsche’s time, elements of liberalism had also become infected with the same “optimistic worldview” and the Rousseauist tendency was evident in the bourgeois American Revolution, specifically in its call for universal happiness. Although Nietzsche celebrated the persistence of slavery in America after European societies had abolished it, the call for “the pursuit of happiness” at the heart of the American Revolution reeked of Socratism and would only lead to vulgarity in the wider culture. Happiness for all was both a moral problem for Nietzsche—it led to a society in which resentment and pity were elevated to noble virtues—but more significantly, the optimistic worldview of the revolutionaries disrupted the rank ordering of society, specifically slave hierarchies that Nietzsche saw as necessary features of any social order. A society of rank ordering was necessary because only in such a society would otium – or leisure time for the wealthy – be properly distributed such that “those whose lives turned out well” could come into the full innocence of nature.
Socratism, manifested in the socialist movements of Nietzsche’s time, threatened not only a disruption of the moral fabric of European society, they risked upsetting the “rank ordering” necessary for individual greatness to emerge. Societies of rank ordering were slowly escaping Europe and America as it was concluding a bloody Civil War over the abolishment of slavery. It was this crisis of the collapse of non-egalitarian social structures that led to several of Nietzsche’s most important philosophical insights namely perspectivism, the eternal return and ressentiment. Nietzsche wrote, “in general the tendency of socialism, like that of nationalism, is a reaction against becoming individual. One has difficulties with the ego, the immature, crazy ego: they want to put it back under the bell.”14The closest thinker within Europe who understood the tragic worldview was Schopenhauer, the only European who could “see Europe from Oriental eyes.”15 Although Schopenhauer did not share the same aristocratic political agenda as Nietzsche, his fascination with the Indian caste society was of particular importance for Nietzsche as the Indian society represented a form of rank ordering Europe and America were losing. A society of rank ordering committed to otium for those whose lives turned out well avoided massification and left room for the brilliant individual to emerge. Nietzsche’s important idea of “perspectivism” emerged at this nexus of political concern.
Perspectivism is thus best read along with Nietzsche’s explicit political agenda to “go back by a long and devastating path and to ensure that the natural and unbridgeable differences that existed among human beings were once again fully acknowledged by the division of society into castes.”16 Perspectivism is a concept formed in polemic with the socialists of Nietzsche’s time who were promoting a “realism of universal concepts” such as equality vs. the nominalism of liberals such as Alexis de Tocqueville. Nietzsche’s theoretical discovery of perspectivism was thus a break with the nominalist and realist debate in which he set the idea of equality against the extreme nominalism of liberalism and framed the debate in terms that the aristocratic/plebian dichotomy was made on par with the dogmatism/perspectivism dichotomy. What the nominalist/realist debate enabled Nietzsche to propose was an entirely new linkage between consciousness, universality and the human being as such. This discovery of radical perspectivism brings us to one of the most significant intellectual hallmarks of Nietzschean thought: to understand the individual one must understand themselves at the level of “herd instinct” and thus all our actions are uniquely singular except when we translate them into consciousness because consciousness is always linked to the herd.17 Perspectivism was a method meant to retain the exceptional and brilliant individual but not within the egalitarian realism of the Socratic (and socialist) form of the individual that sought to found the individual on the basis of their wider social relations, i.e. in consciousness.18 Cartesian rationalism, like the contemporary Socratic socialists, suppressed an essential truth according to Nietzsche, namely that we are not masters of the thoughts that arise in us; our thoughts do not stem from our intelligence, they rather constitute modes of reacting in which are transmitted old physiological dispositions. Losurdo shows how even at the most abstract philosophical point of Nietzsche’s discovery of perspectivism and his critique of the Cartesian subject, the political objective was always at the center of this project, namely, to envision a subject in which heredity can again reemerge to determine the individual’s instincts.
It was not only the socialists and the residue of Rousseau which were so emblematic of Socratism, the movement of Hegelianism was of equal concern to Nietzsche. Nietzsche was dismayed by thinkers such as Alexander Herzen, the father of Russian socialism, who argued that Hegel’s dialectic was based on an “algebra of revolution,” in which the absolute was accessible to all. It was the universality and accessibility to all classes of society implicit in Hegel’s idea of the absolute that made Kant’s unknowability of the thing in-itself a more compelling political alternative to Hegelian universality for Nietzsche, although he would break with Kant at a later point in his career.19 Hegel was part of a wider political project similar to that of Socratism, both of which manifested in the socialist movements of Nietzsche’s time.
Closely related to the concept of perspectivism is the eternal return, Nietzsche’s well-known metaphysical discovery of time. This complex theory of time is, like ressentiment and perspectivism, best read within the distinctive political agenda of the thinker. The idea of the eternal return was first sketched in the Gay Science when Nietzsche writes, “[t]he uniqueness of the individual and of the exceptional individual found its confirmation in the uniqueness of every moment and therefore in the irreversibility of time. To become aware of this could provide a foundation for the struggle against modern levelling and massification.”20 The eternal return was thus a response to socialist leveling, and like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche agreed that the socialists had been exploiting the transience of time and earthly life to win the masses to their program and push them into political action.
It was Louise Auguste Blanqui, sometimes known as the “Socrates of the Paris Commune” who first proposed a theory of eternal return ten years before Nietzsche. Blanqui’s metaphysical doctrine negated the unilinear concept of time and was meant to further an idea of human liberation from the burden of morality in the idea of eternal return. Nietzsche sought a similar aim apropos morality, but for Nietzsche, the eternal return was also meant to reject both socialist leveling of society and the “transience of time” the socialists were preaching, i.e. adopting the eternal return meant a break from anthropocentric megalomania entirely. It meant recognizing oneself as part of the whole. It is the asubjective idea of time that many philosophers have found so rewarding in Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return and as a precursor to postmodernism.21 While perspectivism and the eternal return make the ‘timeless’ Nietzsche possible, these concepts were forged in a deep polemic with the philosophical ideas kicked up by Rousseauism and socialism. The Germany of Nietzsche’s time was the hotbed of revolutionary sentiment and this created for Nietzsche, “a profound alienation, a profoundly cold and sober attitude toward everything timely, time-bound.”22 But Nietzsche never broke from the culture of his time even as he moved from Schopenhauer to the Enlightenment into his mature aristocratic radical stage of thought.
The Mature Nietzsche:
Aristocratic Radicalism in the Name of Otium et Bellum
One of the seminal political issues of Nietzsche’s time centered around the crisis of how to deal with the uneducated masses and the deplorable conditions of the working poor across Europe’s burgeoning industrial capitalist centers, a crisis that magnified for Nietzsche given that Germany was the hotbed of worker radicalism following the uprising of 1848. The anti-moralist stage of Nietzsche’s thought attacked the passions and morals of the Enlightenment and its imprint of Socratism whereas the more mature stages of his thought refined an aristocratic radicalism in which the figure of Zarathustra, the Will to Power and an aristocratic praxis emerged. But Nietzsche never broke from the culture of his time even as he moved from Schopenhauer to the Enlightenment into his mature aristocratic radical stage of thought.
Losurdo shows that the overlapping principle that united Nietzsche’s political praxis was the concept of otium et bellum, or struggle in the name of leisure time for an aristocratic elite. This was not a political praxis meant to reinforce a traditional aristocracy but similar Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Nietzsche’s praxis was revolutionary, seeking the creation of an entirely new arrangement of the social order. By no means should we read Nietzsche as a traditional conservative for whom the existing political order and its hierarchies are sought to be retained. On the contrary, Nietzsche, aping the socialist movements of his time, envisioned a more radical overhaul of the elite. This is evident, for example, in Nietzsche’s views on anti-Semitism, a topic we explore below. In general, Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism sought to restore a political situation in which the Napoleonic unification under the umbrella of egalitarianism would be reversed to give way to a new Europe based on aristocratic overmen.23 Nietzsche’s vision of politics is squarely in line with the rise of Nazism and Losurdo shows how two generations of intellectuals following Nietzsche molded his thought as primary inspiration and influence for the ideology of the Third Reich. Nietzsche’s influence on the Third Reich is not something to be casually discarded as ludicrous but is specifically evident in the ideas of restoring an absent missing human greatness, war and imperialism and the reintroduction of a new caste system based on eugenic exclusion.
This aristocratic praxis began to crystallize in Human All Too Human where the thinker envisioned a future utopia based on suffering. Spiritual suffering “could be achieved if society was split into two classes: the caste of forced labour and the caste of idlers, or those capable of true leisure and capable at the same time as suffering deeply.”24The question of the laboring underclass or surplus populations of Europe’s industrial capitalist core were a central problem in Nietzsche’s thought, and indeed became a political as much as an aesthetic and ethical terrain of struggle. As we mentioned above, the spread of democracy and the Rousseauist and socialist movements threatened the continuance of otium (leisure time) for the existing aristocratic class. In a paradoxical manner, Nietzsche argued that the overman is a great deal more sensitive than the masses whose coarseness was naturalized. It was this natural “Chain of Pain” and suffering that socialists were disrupting, and as Nietzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morality, “there could be no greater or more disastrous misunderstanding than for the happy, the successful, those powerful in body and soul to begin to doubt their right to happiness in this way.”25There were two primary avatars of this praxis in Nietzsche’s writings, the concept of “The Party of Life”—an early political idea he formed in response to the success of the party-form in the Paris Commune—a counter party to the socialist political parties in which the aristocratic agenda would find an outlet. The Brahmin of this party was none other than the infamous Zarathustra, a figure designed to push against modern massification and leveling. Unlike the popular portrayals of Zarathustra as a critic of monotheism, Losurdo shows how Zarathustra was meant to imprint a style onto modernity, he was an advocate for otium and a world of leisure for the overmen. In the present world of massification, the philosopher is reduced to a journalist and Zarathustra was also meant to restore a new breed of thinker.26 Losurdo portrays Zarathustra as a figure meant to safeguard the aristocratic order of philosophers and free thinkers and opposed to the new “journalist-intellectuals” that portrayed the miseries of life as caused from “society.”
As we discussed in the last section, the pleasures and virtues of goodness furthered by the socialist movements aimed to remove selfishness, and these proposals threatened to disturb the poor’s capacity to be happy in their toil. It is around this question of what is to be done with the laboring classes that Losurdo reveals the surprising confluence of Nietzsche with Marx. As we developed in the last section, the moral problem posed by socialism and Rousseauism was dealt with by way of perspectivism and the eternal return, however, by the time of Nietzsche’s mature period, a more explicit aristocratic praxis was developed. It is this praxis that aligns Nietzsche with Marx especially as both thinkers developed critiques of ideology. As Malcom Bull points out in Anti-Nietzsche, Marx embraces egalitarianism but argues that within a capitalist society it is not adequate as an end and that a communist society must make resources to all in proportion to need—“to each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”27Nietzsche, unlike Marx, identifies egalitarianism as a problematic basis of society claiming such a prospect levels down greatness and produces nihilism.28 The fact that Marx was interested in forging a society beyond capitalism through revolution, namely a communist society, that would go beyond socialist egalitarianism makes Marx an important interlocutor to Nietzsche.
Both Marx and Nietzsche develop radical praxes distinct from that of the socialists of their time. For Nietzsche, ideology critique took the form of the Gay Science and for Marx ideology is first introduced in On the Jewish Question. The difference between Marx’s critique of ideology, which revolved around commodity fetishism and political economy compared to Nietzsche’s view was the role of the Free Spirits and the cultivation of a counter-aristocratic reactionary class. For Marx, the emancipation from false consciousness necessitated a pathos of universal reason, whereas for Nietzsche, ever a skeptic of reason, any emancipation or revolution does not deliver a “cathartic moment”; revolutions only compound resentments. A revolution ushers in a lower class of people who regress the culture for Nietzsche. The Gay Science was meant to specifically move away from political economy, a field which only produced nihilism and Nietzsche’s praxis, similar to Marx, was based on an escape from the world of exploitation for the overmen, and the entrenchment of exploitation for the plebian masses.29
In Nietzsche’s time, the conditions of the European laboring class were so dire that Nietzsche looked at the plight of black slaves in America as better than the condition of industrial laborers in Europe. As the American Civil War set in motion the abolishment of slavery in the wider western world, the consequence portended a future eugenic-based conflagration. Losurdo argues that Nietzsche’s support for eugenics has to be read as starting from his hatred of Socratism first and foremost, as the race of the ‘theoretical human being’ Socrates theoretical human being was a distinctive physiology and diet, a propensity for alcoholism and cross-class breeding.30 The crisis of Europe caused by the suffrage movement, the abolishment of slavery, the spread of democracy and the growth of the socialist movement all meant that a great war would emerge in which the stakes would revolve around the reintroduction of slavery, a necessary part of social and cultural life in Nietzsche’s view.
Similar to Mill, de Tocqueville and mainstream liberals of his time, Nietzsche believed the European working class could confront these profound changes and a more natural selection of hierarchy might return to Europe by participating in imperialist wars in the colonial south. Losurdo shows at some length how Nietzsche advocated war as a means for the furtherance of otium – otium et bellum, or the struggle to preserve a society where otium is reserved for exceptional individuals. Surprisingly, this was a proposal for imperial conquest not that different than Mill’s support for imperialism. If a society of explicit racial slavery was beginning to disappear, Nietzsche directed his attention to the task of maintaining strict rank ordering and developed a notion of racism Losurdo names “transversal racism” – a proposal that suggests racial hierarchies must map onto well-formed/ill-formed dichotomies.
As European colonial wars reached a stage of maturity and saturation—less than two decades following Nietzsche’s death, the imperial and national wars of European empire resulted in the outbreak of World War I—war and imperialism were important forces in modern life as they create the conditions for a reshuffling of the elite order in Europe. It is this praxis of a new pan-European elite that links Nietzsche’s thought to the Nazis. War accelerates the possibility of a transvaluation of values and importantly, Nietzsche thought the overman separate from more vulgar skin color racism. The elite would consist of a hodgepodge of Aryan, European, white, and Jewish overmen.31This ambiguity in the invention of the aristocratic elite is also present in Nietzsche’s position on anti-Semitism.
Nietzsche’s Political Praxis and its Influence on 20th Century Fascism
Losurdo dedicates several sections of the book to Nietzsche’s divergence from Wagner on the anti-Semitism topic. Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner created a legacy internal to Nazi intellectual debate, i.e. a split between two views on anti-Semitism emerged within German philosophical circles of the time: a plebian anti-Semitism vs. an aristocratic anti-Semitism. Wagner was still too Rousseauist and thus foreign in spirit because his anti-Semitism was largely leveled at Jewish capitalists and the elite, however, such a version of anti-Semitism reeked of socialist influence; assigning misery to society and class. Nietzsche rather wanted to elevate the Jews of finance and industry to a new alignment of the aristocracy, and he divided Jewish capitalists along the “Aryan and Chandala” spectrum, the Chandala or untouchables were to be made eligible for eugenic removal. What mattered most was that the form of racist exclusion follows the logic of “well-formed/ill-formed”, not a form of vulgar racism based on skin color or religion per se. It is this “transversal racism” as Losurdo calls it, that resembles more contemporary neoliberal meritocratic forms of exclusion based on aptitude and intelligence and other such metrics of social division based on education. Nietzsche knew that a future European society would have to confront the necessity to purge the ill formed underclass, a prospect that might necessitate eugenic interventions.
Losurdo spends a considerable amount of time in parts five to seven of the book providing an analysis of how Nietzsche directly influenced 20th century fascist movements from Mussolini to Hitler and he parses out the ways academic specialists from historians to philosophers treated the thinker in the two immediate generations following his death which led to the emergence of fascism across Europe, up to the present day. Losurdo demonstrates, in stark and convincing ways, that Nietzsche was a direct line of influence on the ideology of the Third Reich and denials of such a line of influence emerge from a scholarly industry that has projected a timeless innocence on the thinker. There is no doubt that the emphasis on artistic greatness, the return to the “Greek heyday” 32 and the necessity to purge the underclass were all prominent features of the Third Reich military and ideological effort. As the Nazi ideologue and intellectual Alfred Baeumler said, Nietzsche’s struggle against Wagnerism, Christianity and bourgeois morality were so important to the Third Reich that when a German would utter the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting it was an implied homage to Nietzsche.33
Although Losurdo does not spend a great deal of time discussing the creation of the “innocent Nietzsche”, he surprisingly shows how professional historians of the 19th century such Ernst Nolte, unlike academic philosophers, had no problem establishing a direct linkage from Nietzsche to the Nazis. Marxist historians Arno Mayer and Eric Hobsbawm also interpreted Nietzsche as the most brilliant of the philosophers that produced a movement that led to the Nazis.34 In terms of philosophers, Losurdo notes that the 20th century Marxist humanist philosopher György Lukács stands alone amongst philosophers in clearly recognizing Nietzsche as an explicitly reactionary philosopher as does the Bolshevik political revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who also warned against Nietzsche in his first published essay.
Although Losurdo does not discuss The Birth of Fascist Ideology (1989) by Zev Sternhell, the book presents a compelling proof of Losurdo’s wider argument around the connection between Nietzsche and fascist thought. Sternhell provides a genealogy of the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy by locating the thought of the reactionary syndicalist socialist Georges Sorel as the primary intellectual founder of fascist ideology. Sorel was deeply inspired by Nietzsche’s critique of nihilism and Sternhell shows how Nietzsche’s thought led Sorel to develop a vitalist, anti-rationalist and mythical theory of proletarian revolution focused not on overthrowing the key features of capitalism, namely private property, technology and production but on overthrowing decadent elites and bureaucrats.35Since capitalism contained unalterable features in Sorel’s judgment, the site of revolution was to be liberalism and a revolutionary praxis was developed meant to overthrow the elite itself. This is a project which Mussolini and later the Nazi’s adopted from Sorel’s framework. The Nietzschean line of influence is clear in that one of the major objectives of Nietzschean politics is the creation of a new overman and this results in a political praxis in which cultural and mythical symbols are privileged sites of praxis over that of reason. As Sternhell writes:
Since it appeared the masses could not be activated by reason, since socialism persisted, one had to adapt a theory of socialism that would be adequate for the times and this theory would be based in the irrationalism of social myths.36
Understanding the Timeless Nietzsche
How does one comprehend the popular image of Nietzsche given these aristocratic agendas that are so implicit in his thought? Today, Nietzsche’s writing is considered incisive in both social and ethical analysis and indeed, the thinker hooks people, typically at a young age, due to the rugged self-help dimension of what is offered in the poetic aphorisms. His brilliant and enigmatic aphoristic prose has touched millions of people, and in late capitalism his writings have a reputation for identifying with coming of age self-expression and youthful rebellion. Nietzsche is considered a thinker who helps ease the ailments endemic to consumer capitalism by advocating a separation from herd mentality and the realization of one’s singular individualism, an individualism somehow more austere and truer than ordinary capitalist individualism. There is no doubt that Nietzsche offers a manifesto for how to lead a life of conviction and courage, of finding one’s truth and learning how to live it – a life of amor fati.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in You Must Change Your Life (2013), for example, credits Nietzsche with first offering the diagnosis of a general life practice, a general “ascetology.”37 As Nietzsche’s intellectual collaborator Lou Salome wrote, Nietzsche “does not write to convince, he writes to convert.”38 At face value, it is hard to accuse the widely-read and popular image of Nietzsche with instilling fascistic and reactionary agendas into his readers, such a claim would border on conspiracy or present a theory of fascism far too broad to be of any use. But as Losurdo’s text indicates time and again, the thinker’s actual intellectual agenda has become decontextualized mainly by professional philosophers who have neglected the reactionary political agenda of the thinker and explicitly read the thinker in a timeless and decontextualized manner. In the recent Evangelical Christian blockbuster trilogy God is Not Dead (2014), Nietzsche is invoked as the symbol of a grand purveyor of nihilistic depravity and anti-religious sentiment in contemporary American society and similar clichés of Nietzsche abound in Hollywood. It is most certainly a bit ironic that a thinker who spoke of the importance of the “mask” and of being untimely to one’s own time has achieved such a radical decontextualization, indeed Nietzsche has achieved the chameleon status he so desperately aimed to achieve.
That Nietzsche is understood as a thinker of individualism is at best an irony and at worst a disgrace. As a thinker of aristocratic reaction, Nietzsche believed that “equality for the person is socialism”39 and thus to speak of individualism in a Nietzschean register requires that one invoke the necessity of otium or leisure time for the dominant classes as the bearers of higher individualism. To think individualism in a Nietzschean vein one must also think the individual in a historical genealogy, one that is “linked to the formulation of rigid exclusion clauses.”40Nietzsche insisted that true individualism can only emerge in nonegalitarian societies, a view he ultimately derived—as Losurdo shows throughout the book—by his polemics with mainstream liberal thought of the time. For example, John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian liberal, also believed non-European peoples and cultures are not capable of producing individuality, and like Nietzsche, Mill supported imperialism of non-European societies precisely to foster individualism in those societies. It is these unthought political dimensions that Losurdo brings to the center of any consideration of the thinker.41 As I have sought to show in this review, it was the question of reserving otium for the dominant classes that emerges as the most central political objective that linked Nietzsche’s views on class, imperialism, slavery and his interest in creating a new aristocratic class amidst a changing European social and political context.
As the book immerses the reader into the world in which Nietzsche lived, one finds that this is a world not that unlike our present world given that many of the major political issues he grappled with resemble our own. Nietzsche faced the long shadow of a post-Revolutionary era in Europe, one in which new forms of socialism and popular struggle were transforming the face of Europe similar to the way that socialist movements have rebirthed following the economic collapse of 2008. Race and class were major debates of Nietzsche’s time and the American Civil War pitted this debate around whether the white European proletarian laboring class underwent a worse form of deprivation under the grueling conditions of factory labor than the plantation slaves in the American south. Such an argument appears almost ludicrous today—how could one compare slavery to wage labor—but the debate was nonetheless very central to the discourse Nietzsche was engaged.
Today’s popular image of Nietzsche also emphasizes that he was a critic of Christianity in general, typified by his enigmatic but novel idea “God is dead.” However Losurdo shows that one does not profit from a wider understanding of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity by reading him as a critic of Christianity tout court; we must rather analyze the specific problem of Christianity that drove much of his critique of the religion, that is, the influence of egalitarian ideals within Christianity that Nietzsche found objectionable. Unlike many of the 20th century interpretations of Nietzsche as a critic of the “herd mentality” of mainstream or liberal Christianity, Nietzsche in fact favored the role of Christianity’s influence on bourgeois revolutions in China, which is to say Nietzsche favored aspects of non-egalitarian Christianity.42Only by understanding Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity as tied up with a much wider genealogical critique of Socratism up to Rousseau can we fully appreciate his critique of Christianity.
Conclusion: An Invitation to Marxist Historians and Philosophers
In the two appendix sections “How One Constructs Nietzsche’s Innocence” and “Nietzsche’s Spectacles and Umbrella: An Answer to My Critics” Losurdo discusses the role that translators, family members and especially subsequent philosophers from Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Theodor Adorno have in separating the political commitments of Nietzsche’s thought from his philosophical contributions, rather than reading the two as interwoven.43 The most substantive intervention Losurdo makes with more contemporary philosophers is around Foucault’s understanding of the Will to Power in The Order of Things (1966) where he argues the constituted subject and “classifying thought” were responsible for the tragedies of the twentieth century, an argument in part derived from a Nietzschean understanding of the Will to Power.44 Losurdo argues that such an understanding of the Will to Power leads to a fundamental deadlock, a “political-metaphysical-anarchism.”45 The introduction to the book, written by the American Marxist philosopher Harrison Fluss is an incredibly useful intervention in setting out the key stakes of the text. Fluss expands on the construction of innocence within philosophy by looking, for example, at how American pragmatism adopted an apolitical Nietzsche into its canon.
Losurdo’s contribution to Nietzschean studies will not only make any effort in separating the political agenda from Nietzsche’s thought impossible, his work shows that a more useful approach to placing Nietzsche into one’s own time and with problems outside of his context, is best done by understanding the interwoven political and metaphysical project of the thinker. Losurdo thus performs a reversal on Nietzschean philosophical scholarship that claims Nietzsche’s reactionary political views can be treated as a mere appendage to his thought and not the determining factor. But the fact we cannot rely on an “innocent Nietzsche” does not mean that we must discard Nietzsche or cancel Nietzsche outright, it rather means that we must consider the thinker from completely different lens. It may be the case, as I have shown in the linkage of Marx and Nietzsche, that Marxist attempts to incorporate a “Left-Nietzschean” perspective are forever doomed to self-delusion. What is clear from the perspective Losurdo opens between Marx and Nietzsche is that the legacy of left-Nietzscheanism has tendencies to consider revolutionary praxis as primarily located within the category of overthrowing the governing elite and thus naturalizing capitalist exploitation. On the other hand, it is clear that left-Nietzschean projects assault rationality and rationalist orientations to political subjectivity, and thus result in fundamental political impasses such as Foucault’s political-metaphysical-anarchism. But these general critiques of Nietzsche’s influence on leftwing philosophers and even Marxist philosophers necessitates a great deal more research and Losurdo merely opens some new general problems of this philosophical pairing.
More generally, Losurdo’s method enables readers of Nietzsche to gain a fuller appreciation of the genius of Nietzsche as a reactionary thinker, not as a timeless or apolitical philosopher i.e. one must read Nietzsche as a philosopher of aristocratic counter-revolution. His reactionary political agenda is not of minor importance, rather, we can only understand the entirety of Nietzsche’s thought by understanding him in a distinctly political register. Only by centering Nietzsche-the-aristocratic-radical as the key perspective on his thought, indeed as the missing link to understanding him, can we come to truly appreciate the profundity of his thought and what it offers to us.
Given this new method of understanding Nietzsche, how are we to understand “left-Nietzscheanism”? The pairing of Nietzsche with a broader left-oriented project of analysis has been done by a wide array of Marxist philosophers from the Frankfurt School to the thought of Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche is deeply ingrained in left-oriented theory, particularly the Frankfurt School and French Marxism. While it is widely accepted that Nietzsche’s thought has proven useful to examine certain problems Marx does not discuss such as the function of the resentment of class-based societies, the overman and the aesthetics, the perspective opened by the Aristocratic Rebel should force us to question all of these problems. One particularly useful avenue of future research might entail examining how arguments for centering the role of leisure time and free time in more recent socialist work such as Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom with Nietzsche’s insistence in centering leisure time for the overman. That the preservation of leisure time for the overman necessitates conditions of inegalitarian social conditions, including even forms of slavery, makes Nietzsche a clear opponent to contemporary socialist projects that aim to develop egalitarian proposals for expanded leisure time for greater numbers of workers.
Given the vast corpus that Nietzsche has left to modern intellectual life, Losurdo’s text must be taken up by future Marxist authors, historians and philosophers; that is, in order for its conclusions to be fully confronted and worked through, Losurdo’s book is not enough. At the same time, Nietzschean scholars, especially philosophers, must grapple with this book because it provides angles of inquiry into Nietzsche’s formation as an intellectual that most scholars of Nietzsche have never considered. In many ways, this book is meant for philosophers more than it is meant for historians given the prevalence of the decontextualized and popular Nietzsche we are all presented with. It is the Nietzschean philosophers—on the liberal and Marxist fronts—that have a duty to take this book and its arguments very seriously before they incorporate the Nietzschean project.
- 1.Losurdo, Domenico Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel. With an Introduction by Harrison Fluss, Translated by Gregor Benton, 2019. ISBN: 978-90-04-27094-7. Series and Volume number: Historical Materialism Book Series, Volume 200. List price EUR: 373 / List price US$: 448
- 2.For a summary of the reception of Losurdo’s work on Stalin and for a more in-depth analysis of his militant political commitments and how those commitments linked to his scholarship, see Guido Liguori’s tribute to Losurdo, “Domenico Losurdo, A Marxist Philosopher Against the Current” Verso Blog, 01 July 2018 (https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3903-domenico-losurdo-a-marxist-philosopher-against-the-current).
- 3.Losurdo, Domenico Liberalism: A Counter History, translated by Gregory Elliott. Verso Books, New York, NY, 2014
- 4.See Aristocratic Rebel, Pgs. 991 – 992
- 5.See pages 730 – 732 of Aristocratic Rebel
- 6.For a description and summary of the four key stages of Nietzsche’s thought see pages 348 – 349
- 7.Pg. 30
- 8.Pg. 31
- 9.Pg. 31
- 10.Pg. 446
- 11.Pg. 636
- 12.Pg. 106
- 13.“When Plato assumes that selfishness will be abolished with the abolition of property, after deducting selfishness all of the virtues are gone.” Nietzsche, Human All Too Human.
- 14.See Nietzsche IX, Pg. 515
- 15.Pg. 948
- 16.Pg. 106
- 17.Pgs. 656 – 666
- 18.“The categories of species and being could be used to describe the mass but not the outstanding or even brilliant individual” (Pg. 650).
- 19.See pages 33 – 34 for a discussion of Kant and Hegel for the young Nietzsche.
- 20.Pg. 473
- 21.Perhaps the most influential text on Nietzsche’s eternal return is Pierre Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle (translated by Daniel W. Smith) University of Chicago Press, 1997.
- 22.Pg. 616
- 23.Hitler posed as a new Napoleon after the triumph of his campaign in France. See page 776.
- 24.Nietzsche, Frederick Human All Too Human, 237
- 25.See page 91
- 26.Pg. 853
- 27.Bull, Malcom Anti-Nietzsche New York, NY, Verso Books, 2014. Pg. 162.
- 28.Ibid, 174 – 175.
- 29.Pg. 642
- 30.See pages 583 – 584
- 31.Pg. 747
- 32.Pg. 737
- 33.Pg. 294
- 34.Pg. 733
- 35.Sternehll, Zev The Birth of Fascist Ideology, Princeton University Press, 1994, 52.
- 36.Ibid, 53
- 37.Sloterdijk, Peter You Must Change Your Life, Malden, MA: Polity Press. 2013. Pg. 6.
- 38.Pg. 449
- 39.See Nietzsche, XIII, Pg. 70
- 40.Pg. 971
- 41.See pages 970 – 973
- 42.Pg. 339
- 43.See for example the argument of Derrida in Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles or the argument of a wide range of American Nietzsche scholars. Losurdo discusses Derrida’s treatment of Nietzsche in the appendix of the book.
- 44.See pg. 986
- 45.Pg. 984