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.