Nietzsche’s fascism

More bashing of my dear friend. I’m in the last stages of the book ms, and trying to come to grips with his legacy. This following excerpt concerns the seeds he planted for fascism.

It is clear that Elisabeth distorted Nietzsche’s philosophy in serious ways. Nietzsche was of course no German nationalist; he prided himself on being “a good European,” and practically disowned his German nationality (in his autobiography, he claimed bizarrely to be descended from Polish nobility). He was no anti-Semite, and loathed the anti-Semites of his time, including his brother-in-law, Bernhard Förster. (It would be fairer, though, to call him an “anti-anti-Semite,” rather than any devoted defender of Judaism.) He wrote glowingly of wars, and the strength one gains through battle, but he surely would not have approved of the nationalistic swagger that resulted in two world wars.

Nevertheless, there is certainly enough in Nietzsche’s writings to see how fascists might take him as their own philosopher. Perhaps the most startling is found in the first treatise of On the Genealogy of Morality (1887). Nietzsche first describes how the strong and noble men eventually succumbed to the slave morality promoted by the weak and insidious, as if birds of prey were coaxed by lambs into believing that it is a sin to be a predator, and a great virtue to be a prey. These predators internalize the values preached by the lambs, and their behavior is kept in check by customs, social mores, and “mutual surveillance.” But, Nietzsche continues, once those predators are placed in foreign territory, where the rule by lambs is no longer effective, there is a radical change in their behavior:

There they enjoy freedom from all social constraint; in the wilderness they recover the losses incurred through the tension that comes from a long enclosure and fencing-in within the peace of the community; they step back into the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, as jubilant monsters, who perhaps walk away from a hideous succession of murder, rape, arson, torture with such high spirits and equanimity that it seems as if they have only played a student prank, convinced that for years to come the poets will again have something to sing and to praise. (GM 1, 11)

He goes on to mention the Romans, Arabs, Germans, Japanese, ancient Greeks, and Vikings as having shown themselves historically to be such jubilant monsters. And, indeed, it is impossible to deny the monstrosity of what is done on battlefields by young men raised to be as civilized, as “moral,” and as restrained and gentle as any lamb. One wonders if some of Nietzsche’s own military experience is surfacing in this passage.

Fair enough: in war, humans reveal themselves to be jubilant monsters. But to what extend is Nietzsche condoning or even extolling the beast-of-prey conscience? Towards the end of this section, he excuses anyone who cannot escape the fear of “the blond beast” — the human propensity to cruelty in war is something worth fearing. But, he continues, who would not prefer both fearing and somehow admiring our beasts of prey to being “unable to escape the disgusting sight of the deformed, reduced, atrophied, poisoned”? In other words: who wouldn’t prefer to see the “student pranks” of the bloody battlefield to the grotesque spectacle of predators pretending to be lambs? Hmm. Two sections later, he counsels his predators to “look on this a little mockingly and perhaps say to themselves, ‘we do not feel any anger towards them, these good lambs, as a matter of fact, we love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb’” (GM 1, 13). This is because it is profoundly unnatural for strength to be disguised as anything other than what it is:

To demand of strength that it not express itself as strength, that it not be a desire to overwhelm, a desire to cast down, a desire to become lord, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as nonsensical as to demand of weakness that it expresses itself as strength. (GM 1, 13)

A quantum of power, he goes on to explain, just is its expression; it is a philosophical or grammatical illusion to believe in some hidden “doer” behind the action, issuing behaviors according to its conscious control. To be powerful is to do things expressing that power. Thus it is impossible to expect a beast of prey to ever truly be a lamb. Power will out. It is hard to read these passages as anything other than a ringing endorsement of letting the beast-of-prey conscience range freely.

It is but a short step from this endorsement to full-blown fascism. The elements are all in place. A core theme of Nietzsche’s thought is inegalitarianism, or elitism: clearly, some people are better than others (healthier, freer, stronger). He frequently expressed a fundamental distrust of democracy, or majority rule. He did not believe weaker or disenfranchised people should receive the protection of law, since such protection would only preserve or reinforce their weakness. He criticized the principles of liberalism, believing that an individual’s rights are somehow a function of their breed, race, or class; In short, only the superior ones have rights, and their rights are commensurate with their power. What then should the superior ones do, and what is their responsibility to the inferior ones? The Nietzschean answer is, fundamentally, that the superiors have responsibility to one another only to the extent that others can help them to build their own power. To the inferior ones, the superior have no responsibility at all, except to present them with adversity, in the hope of building their strength and fashioning them into worthy opponents.
At the same time, it is true that Nietzsche would not expect the “superior/inferior” division to fall along nationalistic or racial lines. He does, of course, write of races and breeds, and he launches broadsides against types of people (the Germans, the English, women, etc.). But it is hard to see this “racism” or chauvinism as committing him to anything more (or less) than a distinction among people based on their mental, emotional, or spiritual temperament.  This is perhaps enough to distinguish him from any historical fascism. Against the liberals of his day, he resisted any doctrine of “equality” among individuals. Against the nationalists and anti-Semites of his day, he resisted any shallow, ready-made typology of human beings. He insisted upon his own typology, one grounded in the richness of one’s psychology, subtlety of one’s aesthetics, and command of one’s strength. As fascisms go, this has to rank as one of the most interesting ones.

The standard criticism against any political structure in which a few have all or most of the power, and most are relatively powerless, is that there is no effective guarantee that those with the power will yield it benevolently. In Nietzsche’s brand of fascism, there is very nearly a guarantee that the power will not be wielded benevolently, at least upon any intuitive notion of “benevolence.” It would be interesting to try to work out the specific mechanics of a Nietzschean state, in the manner of Plato’s Republic, where it is explained how individuals would enter the ruling class and what sorts of order would be imposed upon the masses. Would it resemble the Spartan state, with warriors who not only fought valiantly but also created nuanced works of art? Would it be a less rigid free-for-all, like a lawless gangland, where the bosses respected not only firepower but also depth of soul? Whatever the details, one thing is clear: no one would wish themselves to be counted among the dispossessed.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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23 Responses to Nietzsche’s fascism

  1. jonas says:

    I find it a little odd to interpret Nietzsche’s thoughts as a political philosophy. Very interesting, surely, but a little odd as well, because Nietzsche never supported any state of any form. I’m sure you could interpret some of his text’s as in favor of either anarchism or fascism, but I don’t think either is very consistent with his overall opinion.


  2. Rob says:

    Though I broadly agree with you, Charlie, I’ll try to be useful in the only way I know how by offering some resistance.

    [It would be fairer, though, to call him an “anti-anti-Semite,” rather than any devoted defender of Judaism.]

    He might not have been a defender of Judaism, and there are definitely passages which don’t appear to rise beyond ‘anti-anti-Semitism,’ but there also seems to me to be pretty strong textual support (especially in D, BGE, and book five of GS) for the contention that he was a devoted defender of the European Jewry of his day. He promotes their inclusion in a future pan-European culture because of the unique contribution he thinks they can make. (One of my favorite ‘anti-anti-Semite’ moments is in GM 2.11 when Nietzsche points out that the best contemporary instantiation of the ressentiment depicted in 1.14 is to be found among anti-Semites.)

    [These predators internalize the values preached by the lambs, and their behavior is kept in check by customs, social mores, and “mutual surveillance.” But, Nietzsche continues, once those predators are placed in foreign territory, where the rule by lambs is no longer effective, there is a radical change in their behavior…]

    I read this portion of 1.11 differently. I take it that those “customs, social mores, and ‘mutual surveillance’” pre-exist the “rule by lambs,” and that Nietzsche is describing their operation in independence of such rule. In other words, your reading suggests that those “customs, social mores, and ‘mutual surveillance’” follow from the slave revolt in morality, whereas I think they are in place well before it (perhaps somewhat of a more developed form of “morality of custom”). What I then assume is supposed to be disturbing is not so much the unfettered aggression he describes, but rather the fact that such things can be perpetrated without compunction by people capable of fully functional, and even nuanced, coexistence. (Maybe another way of getting at this is by considering how low we liberals tend to score on Haidt’s ingroup/loyalty moral foundation?)

    [Power will out. It is hard to read these passages as anything other than a ringing endorsement of letting the beast-of-prey conscience range freely.]

    The epigram to GM 3 strikes me as a glimpse of the contemporary version of the beast-of-prey conscience Nietzsche endorses, rather than the uncomplicated sort depicted in GM 1.11; and his admiration for it in GM 1.11 seems to me essentially negative in character (it is what the beast of prey *lacks* that is the source of admiration for him; similar, perhaps, to the admiration for Homeric Greeks in GM 2.23).

    [What then should the superior ones do, and what is their responsibility to the inferior ones? The Nietzschean answer is, fundamentally, that the superiors have responsibility to one another only to the extent that others can help them to build their own power. To the inferior ones, the superior have no responsibility at all, except to present them with adversity, in the hope of building their strength and fashioning them into worthy opponents.]

    In AC 57, Nietzsche says that the exceptional person has a duty to treat the mediocre more delicately than he treats himself and his equals; and in GM 2.10 there is the idea that mercy is a function of power.

    Finally, I’m wary of the idea that there are any mechanics of a Nietzschean state to be worked out because, perhaps like Jona, I’m skeptical that there is such a state to be elaborated from his thought. Maybe I’m unduly prey to a domesticated Nietzsche, but I increasingly wonder if a liberal democracy isn’t the ideal kind of state for the constellation of values – deeply at odds with those of a liberal democracy – he urges us to instantiate.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the detailed criticisms, Rob. You are always spoiling my pleasant oversimplifications!

    First, I need to make clearer why I am attributing a political philosophy to Nietzsche. Rob and Jonas are right that Nietzsche was willfully apolitical. His greater concerns were personal or spiritual. NEVERTHELESS: he makes many claims about what a healthy human life is, and about types of people, and about who is superior to whom — and he occasionally throws out comments about rulership, alongside criticisms of liberalism and socialism. So my thought is this: suppose someone with political ambitions read Nietzsche very closely and carefully, and so became a committed Nzean — how would this shape his political agenda? I DON”T think anything in Nz would necessarily compel an individual to become apolitical (if I’m wrong, please show me). Of course, historically, several men read Nz, not so carefully, and built political regimes consonant with what they thought they read. They were fascists. I think careful political readers would still be fascists, of a different sort.

    About anti-anti-Semitism — you’re right, Rob, about the ways Nz advocates bringing the Jews to the table, as it were. I wonder whether it’s genuine, or just a way to poke the anti-Semites in the eyes. I’ll re-read the texts you mention with that in mind.

    OK, GM 1.11. You’re mostly right, I’m mostly wrong. You’re right that Nz is describing the “master morality” societies. In those societies, the people we would regard as “evil” are the “good” people, and the “bad” people in that society are those he’s describing as kept in check only by custom, mores, and mutual surveillance. When those bad ones are set loose on foreign turf, they do all the raping and pillaging, etc. What Nz goes on to lament is that, nowadays, under slave morality, we don’t even have the inner potential of becoming the “blond beast,” as it has been siphoned out of us. So what is the moral of the story? Acc to Nz, it’s better to have the blond beast within than to be weaklings. But that falls short of endorsing the cruelty of the blond beast.

    I also need to re-read carefully Nz’s discussions of “mercy” toward the lower castes. It seems to me that it is mercy born of the recognition that the lower castes are needed to grow the corn and shine the shoes for the superior few. But maybe there is more to it — nobility or something.

    Again, thanks a lot for pushing me on these issues!


  4. Corpus says:

    This sounds like a pretty accurate description of the Klingon mindset (Star Trek). Very interesting.


  5. Rob says:

    […suppose someone with political ambitions read Nietzsche very closely and carefully, and so became a committed Nzean — how would this shape his political agenda? I DON”T think anything in Nz would necessarily compel an individual to become apolitical (if I’m wrong, please show me).]

    Here’s a very schematic attempt at an anti-fascist response to this question, based primarily on BGE (the only Nietzsche I have at hand right now).

    1) Given the way of the world at this juncture in Western civilization, human excellence consists in “unity in multiplicity,” “the ability to be just as multiple as whole, just as wide as full” (BGE 213).

    2) The realization of such excellence requires, among other things, motivation by the “pathos of distance”, which itself requires the succor of an “aristocratic society” that “believes in a long ladder of rank order and value distinctions between men, and in some sense needs slavery” (BGE 257). (A kind of “slavery” which should include among its victims, according to Nietzsche, much of academia!)

    3) The “breadth” and “multiplicity” integral to “human greatness” (in the form in which it is possible at this historical juncture) is fostered most abundantly in liberal democratic socio-political circumstances (BGE 208, 223, 224, 242).

    The agenda of the committed Nietzschean with political ambitions should be to promote the flourishing of aristocratic subcultures within liberal democracies; such mini-societies would draw upon, and be at constant risk of infection by, the wider culture for the breadth and multiplicity, but be disciplined by the pathos of distance, inculcated within the subculture, to perpetually strive for disinfecting unification.

    Very sketchy, alas… Perhaps I’m merely registering how hopelessly bourgeoisified I’ve become with age. And given how difficult it is to envision a translation into policy, I’m happy to stick with another reader of Nietzsche, our next president.


  6. Rob says:

    Oh, in case you share my insatiable appetite for new translations, I was informed by one of the co-editors of this volume that some of the material consists of new translations and revisions of existing translations:

    And there’s this, from Cambridge:

    And Hackett will be publishing (within the next few years) a new translation of BGE:

    I can’t wait for the resuscitated Stanford project.


  7. ganselmi says:

    You may already be aware of this, but Malcolm Bull is about to publish (Feb 09) a book called Anti-Nietzsche. Synopsis here:

    I like that the title suggests something like “Contra Wagner!”

    Also on the Nietzsche/fascism question, I remember checking out a book from the USU Library YEARS ago. I can’t seem to find anything about it online (may be out of print). The title may have been Democratic Nietzsche. The author argued that – regardless of what Nietzsche himself may have said – the mode of government best suited to fostering the development of the human spirit (as Nietzsche envisioned it) is liberal democracy after all.

    Finally, my own thoughts on this issue: Nietzsche is incredibly difficult to decode as a systematic political philosopher. It’s certainly sounds like a cliche as I type this, but again, there are just as many aphorisms that reek of proto-fascism as there are those that suggest Nietzsche was a cosmopolitan decades ahead of his time. That said, the easiest interpretation of the political Nietzsche to REJECT is the fashionable one (Deleuze & Guattari) that paints him as a postmodern revolutionary.


  8. ganselmi says:

    i.e. Nietzsche qua closet post-Marxist! Silly, silly idea.


  9. Rob says:

    In light of how important truth and knowledge are for Nietzsche, and of how deeply interconnected he considers the development of modern “science” and “democratic prejudices” to be, fascism and postmodernism might both be clearly less deserving of a claim on the agenda of a committed Nietzschean with political ambitions than liberal democracy.

    I tend to regard (mature) Nietzsche’s anti-democratic hyperbole and bursts of proto-fascistic rhetoric to be indicative of just how inexorable he considered the spread of liberal democracy to be. Which ties in with my proposal that the agenda of a committed Nietzschean with political ambition would be devoted to fostering a subculture (or subcultures) of “free spirits” within a wider liberal democratic order.


  10. ganselmi says:

    “fostering a subculture (or subcultures) of “free spirits” within a wider liberal democratic order.”

    Isn’t this precisely a description of the postmodern political order?


  11. Rob says:

    I assume, perhaps wrongly, that the subcultures within “the postmodern political order” would still be in alliance with the egalitarian aspirations of liberalism; Nietzschean subcultures, by contrast, would not foster any such direct appreciation of egalitarianism, but regard it instrumentally and as a constant threat to the pathos of distance.


  12. Rob says:

    From a recent TNR review of “Hitler’s Private Library”:

    >> At the core of Hitler’s understanding of himself and his mission, the historian finds “less a distillation of the philosophies of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche than a dime-store theory cobbled together from cheap, tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers.” <<


  13. Rob says:

    This, I think, captures one of the central obstacles to the idea that there’s much of a politics, even of a fascist bent, to be derived from Nietzsche’s mature, published works:

    “[Scientific] endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.”

    I think he fully recognized (cf. GS 358) that liberal democracy is the sociocultural counterpart to the kind of values scientific endeavor thrives upon and radiates, and though he often tempts one to believe that he’s committed to some unspecified fascistic alternative, and perhaps genuinely hankers for one, his commitment to naturalism (whatever its precise scope) is an important check on his own temptation to complement his sociocultural critique of the liberal democratic ethos in such a direction.


  14. Rob says:

    Not sure why the smiley-face appears above, but, although I think there’s a good deal of scattered indirect textual support, it’s GS 358 and BGE 204 I would perhaps most readily invoke in support the view that Nietzsche recognizes the interconnection between democracy and science, and therefore recognizes that his philosophical naturalization agenda inhibits any serious or sustained envisioning of alternative, non-democratic political arrangements.

    I would also note the point in BGE 201 where Nietzsche observes that “with the aid a of a religion that indulged and flattered the loftiest herd desires, things have reached the point where this morality is increasingly apparent in even political and social institutions: the democratic movement is the heir to Christianity.” This seems to imply that the morality that is his target is not identical to the political and social institutions (however well, indeed, they may be suited to entrenching the morality and establishing an intractable virtual identity).


  15. Huenemann says:

    (The smiley face results from the close proximity of an 8 and a ). Sort of a secondary property, I guess.)

    Rob, maybe I’m being thick, but I’m not understanding you. It seems like in GM Nietzsche is arguing that Christianity gives way to science which gives way to nihilism. So the values the NYT describes, if they are encouraged by science, are ones to avoid, since they lead to stagnation and decay. (Especially tolerance.)


  16. Rob says:

    You’re not being thick, of course: it’s the haphazard and unwieldy way I have of expressing myself.

    I think I take Nietzsche have a more ambivalent view about the values associated with science — many of its values he thinks reflect the democratic cultural of mediocrity and complacency he decries, but yet he regards its deliverances — knowledge — and the guiding commitment to truth under which they are obtained as indispensable to the coterie of ‘free spirits’ who advance beyond contemporary nihilism. I think this marks a really unsettled area in Nietzsche’s mature thought.

    AC and EH, for instance, express a much less ambiguous attitude towards science than, say, GM. In AC, in fact, he seems to telling a slightly different story whereby the foundations of a scientifically-sophisticated culture (Roman Empire) were in place before, but destroyed by, Christianity, whereas in GM the emphasis is on the giving way of Christianity to science. Maybe this is just a function of different polemical purposes that are consistent among themselves

    As for the virtue of tolerate, in the form of the ‘historical sense’ (BGE 224), as curiosity about the past, he seems to think this is a distinctively condition of whatever sort of unprecedented human excellence remains possible.

    The more I read Nietzsche, the easier I find it to distinguish commitments he valorizes, the harder I find it to integrate them into a synoptic whole, and the more I wonder if this isn’t how it should be for a ‘prophet of modernity’.


  17. Rob says:

    Maybe I’m overlooking the division of cultural labor Nietzsche seems to be laying out in BGE, where the philosophical and scientific ‘laborers’ and ‘high form of slave’ has its sphere and values, and the ‘legislatures and value-creators have their own. Of course, this seems to cry out for a corresponding vision of a political structure one wouldn’t expect to look like a liberal democracy, I suppose…


  18. Rob says:

    BGE 242:

    “…finally, considering the fact that Europe’s democratization amounts to the creation of a type prepared for slavery in the most subtle sense: taking all this into account, the strong person will need, in particular and exceptional cases, to get stronger and richer than he has perhaps ever been so far, — thanks to a lack of prejudice in his schooling, thanks to an enormous diversity in practice, art, and masks. What I’m trying to say is: the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary exercise in the breeding of tyrants — understanding that word in every sense, including the most spiritual.”


  19. Mike says:

    He dreamed of tyrants who were artists. But tyranny comes more naturally than art to mediocre men.

    Albert Camus

    Do you have a take on The Rebel, Rob?


  20. Huenemann says:

    It’s almost as if Nz has different valuations of certain qualities, depending on whether they are in an individual or in a culture. Single-minded pursuit of truth is good in an individual, bad for a society; same goes for patience/toleration; same goes for power. Maybe the only real virtues of a society are the “involuntary” ones — they manage to produce great men despite themselves.


  21. Rob says:

    Mike, I have even less of interest to say about Camus. Only that, as a very poorly read but randy 19 year-old, the encounter I had with Mersault’s mind-blowing equanimity and self-sufficiency in the face of ignominy and death on the afternoon I skipped school so I could impress a girl by having read L’Étranger was more recognizably edifying to me than any other educational experienced prior to college. About his more didactic nonfiction work, I recall finding it a bit over-inflated (though the inspirational value of such gems as “there is no fate which cannot be surmounted by scorn” shouldn’t be underestimated). Nagel’s response (in “The Absurd”) to Camus is worth checking out: “…romantic and slightly self-pitying. Our absurdity warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance.”


  22. Rob says:

    When Nietzsche urges “the breeding of a new caste to rule Europe” (BGE 252), without in any way specifying how this would manifest itself politically, perhaps he’s not at such great variance with democracy when you consider that, were it not for Obama, the leaders of the world’s (currently) most powerful nation for a 20 year long stretch might have emerged from only two families.


  23. Rob says:

    By the way, in case you haven’t seen it — Nietzsche and the Nazis, available at Netflix, provides what seems to me a fairly decent, undergrad-appropriate overview of German intellectual and political history leading up to National Socialism. And while I don’t think Hicks offers anything more than the careful reader can gather for herself, and I think he has an exaggerated sense of the fascistic accents in Nietzsche’s writing, it’s an adequately reasonable approach. But it’s the first half, devoted to the intellectual and political history stuff, that I personally found illuminating.

    Here’s an opening clip:

    Distributor’s page:


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