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Why Friedrich Nietzsche Is the Darling of the Far Left and the Far Right

In our new political landscape, radicals on all sides find something to like in the German philosopher

Guy Elgat
May 08, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Nietzsche is back. Not that he was ever really gone, but with the rise of Trumpism and the reinvigorated resurgence of white supremacy under the banner of the alt-right, whose leader takes intellectual inspiration from Nietzsche, the need to engage with his ideas has become urgent again. Ever since his gradual rise to fame in the final years of his life, years that he spent in an almost complete vegetative state under the care of his mother and sister following his mental collapse in 1889, Nietzsche’s domineering influence has been felt at almost every level of Western culture in the 20th century. Thus, he has inspired art and artists, from Thomas Mann and Robert Musil to Rilke and Hermann Hesse, from Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Mahler’s Third Symphony to contemporary Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse; he has influenced philosophy, from Martin Heidegger and the early thinkers of the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Horkheimer) and existentialism, to the radical French postmodern philosophers of the second half of the 20th century (Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida); and, though to a considerably lesser degree, after being rehabilitated by Princeton University’s Walter Kaufmann in the 1950s, Nietzsche has also gained some repute in American philosophical academia.

But besides his extensive and deep impact on higher culture, Nietzsche also served as a source of powerful inspiration for a variety of political movements, and it is with respect to this influence that the mentioning of his name tends to send mental alarm bells nervously jingling. Thus, not only did Nietzsche influence Italian fascism through the transformative effect he had on Mussolini, he also, to a large extent through the nefarious machinations of his sister, who was determined to ingratiate herself with Hitler and distort and thus harness her brother’s philosophy to the party’s cause, became a favorite amongst the Nazis and consequently a common name amongst white supremacists. Nietzsche thus acquired, unsurprisingly, notoriety and a highly problematic and ambiguous presence in political discourse and theory.

It is precisely this stain on Nietzsche’s legacy that philosopher and scholar Walter Kaufmann sought to remove, by arguing, in his now-classic Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ from 1950, that Nietzsche’s philosophy was antithetical to everything commonly associated with fascist or Nazi ideology. He thus carefully combed Nietzsche’s published writings and notes and, on the one hand, amassed textual evidence that shows Nietzsche’s objections to and even revulsion at nationalism and anti-Semitism of any kind, and, on the other hand, placed quotations that from a later point of view smack of racist ideology back in their original context, thus showing their true meaning and exorcising their repugnant nature.

To a great extent, Kaufmann’s defense of Nietzsche was a success: He managed, as pointed out, to clean Nietzsche’s reputation so as to make the study of his ideas philosophically respectable again and, not less important and related, provided a plethora of textual counterweight to the notion that Nietzsche could have been an ideological friend of National Socialism. Thus, as against potential allegations of German nationalism and racism, Kaufmann quotes Nietzsche claiming that he is not “ ‘German’ enough, in the sense in which the word ‘German’ is constantly being used nowadays, to advocate nationalism and race hatred.” For that, Nietzsche adds in that same section, he is “too open-minded” and “too well-informed.”

While undoubtedly a laudable effort, Kaufmann’s Nietzsche struck many as a defanged version of the original, and, crucially, appeared to come at the price of that very intellectual honesty Nietzsche himself so highly valued in that it strove to explain away, sometimes by defying plausibility, the most palpably obnoxious statements in Nietzsche’s corpus, of which there is no scarcity. To take just one example: After comparing in his Twilight of the Idols (1888) two methods for “improving” mankind—the Christian method that employs morality to tame the animal in man, and the model found in the Book of Manu, which attempts to breed a particular race or type by “anything but harmless means”—Nietzsche moves to identify the latter with “Aryan humanity” and unfavorably contrasts it with Christian morality, which is the “anti-Aryan religion par excellence.” And while it is true, as Kaufmann points out, that Nietzsche was not unequivocally in favor of “the Aryan” or the priestly nature of the Book of Manu, and while in Nietzsche’s times the Aryan was not specifically identified with the people of Germany but also with Indo-Iranian peoples (which explains the association in Nietzsche’s mind between Manu, the Hindu lawgiver, and the Aryan), Nietzsche nevertheless sides with the more violent method of breeding, as when he expresses in Ecce Homo his “tremendous hope” that there will arise “a new faction in favour of life that takes on the greatest task of all, that of breeding humanity to higher levels (which includes the ruthless extermination of everything degenerate and parasitical).” It is perhaps not accidental that in his translation of this work, the German word for higher breeding, Höherzüchtung, is absent and instead, Kaufmann gives us the phrase “to raise humanity higher.” Similarly, the German word for extermination or annihilation, Vernichtung, is replaced with the more palatable “destruction.”

Perhaps more important still, the anodyne version of Nietzsche that Kaufmann produced exhibited a failure to take sufficiently seriously the incontrovertible fact that Nietzsche was found extremely appealing to totalitarian, fascist and racist sentiments. But besides his ambiguous references to “the Aryan,” his claims about “race,” and his sometimes-derogatory claims about the Jews, to which I return below, I want to suggest that there is also a different, deeper element of Nietzsche’s philosophy that is most appealing to people of a racist or a fascist bent of thinking—an idea, an intimation of which could be felt, I believe, in the quotation just given; the idea, namely, that human beings are not morally equal.


Nietzsche’s attack on the idea of equality and its political manifestations in democratic ideology was relentless. Throughout his corpus, Nietzsche can be found attacking, again and again, the notion of “human dignity,” the idea that all human beings enjoy equal rights (“a symptom of a disease”), and the basic idea and value of the moral equality of all. He took the latter to be a vestige of the Christian idea of “the equality of all souls before God” and held that every fight for equality is symptomatic of weakness, degeneracy, and a hateful thirst for revenge upon the ruling elites, motivated by what he called ressentiment. To quote one striking instance in Twilight of the Idols: apropos the political achievements of the French Revolution, Nietzsche exclaims:

What I hate [in the Revolution] is … the so-called ‘truths’ that give the Revolution its lasting effectiveness, attracting everything flat and mediocre. The doctrine of equality! … But no poison is more poisonous than this: because it seems as if justice itself is preaching here, while in fact it is the end of justice.

The close connection between the rejection of human equality and the ideals of democracy on the one hand and racist and fascist ideologies on the other should be apparent. In this context, we can recall Mussolini’s 1932 words in La Dottrina del Fascismo that “Fascism denies that numbers, as such, can direct human society. It denies that numbers can govern by means of periodical consultations: It asserts the unavoidable fruitful and beneficent inequality of men who cannot be leveled by any such mechanical and extrinsic device as universal suffrage.”

But from the fact that Nietzsche rejected the moral equality of persons, it does not follow that he embraced some natural and determined hierarchy of races—an idea that is obviously dear to the heart of any racist. To appreciate better Nietzsche’s views here, one needs to address Nietzsche’s understanding of the concept of race—a defunct scientific concept that Nietzsche, being a child of the 19th century, used quite frequently. Nietzsche, however, never presented in his writings a clearly defined account of the concept of race. What can be ascertained with some measure of certainty is, first, that for Nietzsche the concept never meant a narrowly construed biological category; for Nietzsche, it is not merely one’s genes or one’s skin color that define one’s race, but also, and crucially, the historical and cultural experiences of the people one belongs to—experiences that shape one’s psychology and are transmitted in a Lamarckian fashion from one generation to the next. In this sense, as the Nietzsche scholar Yirmiyahu Yovel points out, race for Nietzsche means something closer to “people,” as when he talks about the Englishmen (in Beyond Good and Evil) as “not a philosophical race.” Second, and related, because “race” encompasses certain historically and culturally determined properties, no race is fixed once and for all; rather, every race is open to the influence of the vicissitudes of history—influences that shape its character and transform its qualities. In other words, there is no German essence or Jewish essence—there is no racial essence.

An illustration of this view can be found in Nietzsche’s treatment of the Jewish people. As Yovel shows in his important study, Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews, Nietzsche distinguishes among three historical phases and thus three characterizations of the Jewish race. In the first stage, the time of the kings depicted in the Old Testament, the people of Israel, Nietzsche says, “had a correct, which is to say natural, relation to all things. Its Yahweh expressed a consciousness of power, Israel’s joy in itself and hope for itself … [its] self-affirmation.” Here Nietzsche’s description matches his characterization, given elsewhere, of the noble or aristocratic spirit: the spirit that overflows with power, gratitude, and self-assurance. In the priestly period of the Second Temple, however, things change dramatically: It is in this context that one can find Nietzsche’s most inflammatory and derogatory language. In this time period, Nietzsche holds, when the Jews were “faced with the question of being or nonbeing, they showed an absolutely uncanny awareness and chose being at any price: This price was the radical falsification of all nature. … This is precisely why the Jews are the most disastrous people in world history: They have left such a falsified humanity in their wake that even today Christians can think of themselves as anti-Jewish without understanding that they are the ultimate conclusion of Judaism. … For the type of person who wields power inside Judaism and Christianity, a priestly type … has a life-interest in making humanity sick.” But notice that even here, at his most virulent, Nietzsche’s criticism is not of the Jewish race as such, but of the priestly nature: a psychological type realized not only by the Jews but one that can also be found among Christians. Indeed, it is Nietzsche’s greatest accusation of the Jews of the Second Temple that they gave rise to Christianity, which Nietzsche condemns as “the greatest corruption conceivable … the one great curse … one immortal blot on humanity.” Finally, in Nietzsche’s description of the diaspora Jews of 19th-century Europe, the picture radically changes again. Here, in contrast to the “anti-Semite screamers” who “it might be useful and fair to expel … from the country,” Nietzsche expresses admiration for the Jews as “the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe,” which is why Nietzsche holds that the Jews’ wish “to be absorbed and assimilated by Europe … should be noted well and accommodated.

A further instance of Nietzsche’s culturally determined view of race could be gleaned from his sparse remarks about Africans. Thus, in his On the Genealogy of Morals, in the context of a discussion about the role of pain and cruelty in civilization, Nietzsche makes the claim that perhaps in the distant past “pain did not hurt as much as it did now,” and immediately adds that “at least that is the conclusion that a doctor may arrive at who has treated Negroes (taken as representatives of prehistoric man).” While almost certainly false, this extremely distasteful claim should nevertheless not be read as a claim about some inherent trait that people belonging to the black “race” share. Rather, here again, Nietzsche is making a case for the effects of culture and civilization on our mental lives; on our sense, sensibility, and sensitivity. He thus continues to add in parenthesis that “the curve of human capacity for pain seems, in fact, to take an extraordinary and almost sudden drop as soon as one has passed the upper 10 thousand or 10 million of the top stratum of culture.” Furthermore, it is important to notice that the lack of capacity to endure pain, ascribed to the upper echelons of European society, is taken as a sign of weakness and infirmity, not as a mark of superiority with respect to the primitive “Negro.” It is precisely because of this inability to endure suffering, Nietzsche holds, that modern, cultured Europeans find appealing philosophical doctrines such as Schopenhauer’s that adduce suffering as “the principal argument against existence” and thus say no to life—pessimistic views that Nietzsche consistently objected to throughout his career.

A closely related point to this culturally- and historically-determined view of race is that Nietzsche did not advocate racial segregation. Rather, he tended to think that the mixing of races/cultures could potentially—though definitely not invariably—give rise to great individuals of the likes of Alcibiades, Caesar, and Leonardo da Vinci, provided that one is sufficiently endowed with self-control so as to tame and productively fuse the various “irreconcilable drives” that one inherits from such mixing. In fact, Nietzsche considered himself to be “mixed racially,” which is precisely why, he explains, he does not feel “tempted to participate in the mendacious racial self-admiration and racial indecency that parades in Germany today.”

With respect to the pernicious idea of racial purity, Nietzsche has this to say in his Daybreak: “There are probably no pure races but only races that have become pure, even these being extremely rare.” Admittedly, this still manifests adherence to the value of racial purity and is, to that extent, not as transgressive as it might sound, as Robert Bernasconi has pointed out in a recent article on the topic. Nevertheless, careful attention to Nietzsche’s conceptualization is called for here, for purity in his sense is to be understood not in a biological or even a cultural sense and is certainly not attained as a result of racial segregation or exclusion. Rather, the concept of a pure race refers to a people that has managed to form itself out of its interactions with other peoples and cultures so as to bring a form of organic unity to the whole that it has inherited. Here the Greeks exemplify for Nietzsche this idea of purity attained as the result of a process of “adaptations, absorptions, and secretions” of foreign—namely, “Semitic, Babylonian, Lydian, and Egyptian”—influences. In other words, a pure race, in Nietzsche’s terminology, is a Caesar writ-large, and is not a natural kind but the result of the incorporation of what has come to be called “the other.”

And it is precisely Nietzsche’s view that our identities are contingent on this and other ways upon the historical conditions in which we find ourselves that has been especially appealing to thinkers on the left. Here the emphasis is put on what can be regarded as Nietzsche’s anti-essentialism; on the view, namely, that although our past greatly defines who we are, our values, our psychological abilities and even our feelings and emotions are not set in stone and fixed forever by our nature or our nurture, but are an accidental result of the interplay of various forces or powers, and are, as such, in principle contestable, reversible, open to revaluation and reinterpretation. If one is powerful enough, Nietzsche suggests, one can, like the lion depicted in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, overthrow, at least to some extent, one’s tradition and its various thou shalts, create one’s own values, and thus become an autonomous free spirit, liberated from the shackles that have hitherto controlled one’s fate.

It is not hard to see how such views could serve as inspiration for the existentialists of the beginning of the 20th century, who held, as Sartre famously put it, that “our existence precedes our essence“ and that we should, therefore, fashion our own identities by becoming the artists of our own life. It is equally easy to see how both Foucault and Derrida, the so-called French postmodernists from the second half of that century, found in Nietzsche a kindred spirit. Thus Foucault was greatly taken by Nietzsche’s emphasis on the historical nature of human existence and on how central notions of how we think about and relate to ourselves and others—notions such as sanity and madness, sexuality, normality and abnormality—are constructed by various social institutions at different times and under different conditions. He was also arguably influenced by Nietzsche’s emphasis on power as a central explanatory concept by means of which we can conceptualize the working of the various institutional elements that in any given historical context produce the practices and theories that shape our self-understandings (though Nietzsche was more focused on the psychology, rather than the sociology, of power). Derrida, on the other hand, found in Nietzsche philosophical arsenal that enabled him, for example, to destabilize long-standing and seemingly fixed hierarchical oppositions that informed Western thought, such as presence/absence, speech/writing, interiority/exteriority, and pure/impure, and thus influenced later theoreticians in their attempts to deconstruct race and gender identities and expose their fluidity and nonbinary nature. From this perspective, we can appreciate how Nietzsche’s ideas, through the filters of a number of intellectuals and philosophers, have significantly contributed to and inspired the thinking on the left and fed into some of the values and beliefs of radical leftist politics.

The secret of Nietzsche’s appeal to people from opposite ends of the political spectrum is thus revealed: To the radical right, it is his rejection of equality and the democratic ideas that are based on it that is scintillating and rings true (besides his often and—as I have argued—misunderstood flirtations with the concept of race); to the left, it is his anti-essentialism with its emphasis on the plastic nature of identity that promises liberation from societal oppression. But, as it is typical in politics, the catch is that each side, to maintain its political ideology, has to reject the other’s Nietzscheanism: The radical right cannot easily accept the idea that identity, including racial identity, is dynamic and malleable, and the left, in order to promote its progressive agenda in the democratic public forum, cannot easily give up on the idea of the moral equality of all.

The Nietzschean challenge, however, lies in the incorporation and combination of both extremes within one mind or one system of ideas, and it is perhaps this that explains why a Nietzschean political philosophy remains, to this day, an unstable and unrealizable notion: For a political ideal to be realized in actuality and motivate people, some unifying clarion call has to be possible to gather large groups of people behind it. But if there are neither equals nor fixed and unchanging hierarchies, if everything is fluid and in the process of becoming, no such call can be made: there will be no one to make it and no one to hear and respond to it.


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Guy Elgat teaches philosophy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His forthcoming book isNietzsche’s Psychology of Ressentiment.