Ishay Landa
Original publication:

Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion (2005)

89 minutes | English

Published in Nature, Society, and Thought Vol. 18, No. 4.

See also the back-and-forth in Nature, Society, and Thought Vol. 20, No. 1, where David S. Pena from CPUSA responds to Landa with a Marxist defense of religion, [1] and Ishay Landa responds by explaining why that argument misses the point of the argument below. [2]



The struggle against religion is … indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.
 — Karl Marx

God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.
 — Friedrich Nietzsche

The names of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, despite all that separates them in other respects, are often mentioned together in relation to a joint atheism, antimetaphysical materialism, and caustic denunciation of religion. Here, it is argued, the ideas of the two mighty nineteenth-century thinkers had much in common. Both, as Foucault classically put it, are the great “masters of suspicion,” along with Freud; [3] [4] both fearlessly deconstruct religion and naturalize the world, purging it of the despotic phantoms of traditional idealist morality, which is replaced by an unflinching materialism, a sober, almost cynical, view of things, weaned of bourgeois sentimentalism. Having a common enemy in religion, Marx and Nietzsche thus fight shoulder to shoulder to bring about secular modernity. [5] This juxtaposition, however, obscures more than it clarifies. It legitimately highlights certain epistemological similarities, but at the cost of obscuring a crucial ideological discrepancy. My point is not simply that Marx and Nietzsche cannot be said to have embraced a similar political cause; this would be a fairly trivial claim, in spite of the numerous attempts, over the last decades, to bring them ideologically together. Nor do I argue merely that, given that Marx and Nietzsche criticized different facets of religion, their respective critiques are different, or even incompatible. Rather, I claim that Nietzschean atheism is radically antithetical to the Marxist one. Far from accompanying or completing Marx in any way, Nietzsche’s atheism needs to be understood as a thorough alternative to Marxism, devised specifically to destroy it and take its place.

Nietzsche and Marx were at war (not a personal one, needless to say; there is no indication that Nietzsche ever read Marx, and Marx and Engels, for their part, wrote the Communist Manifesto when Nietzsche was four years old). I hope to show how the religious “shadow” that Nietzsche sought to chase away was, at bottom, the Marxist variant of atheism; conversely, the Nietzschean brand of atheism should be seen as just one of many odors associated with that religious “aroma” that Marx and Engels found offensive. Indeed, one might go as far as to argue that for both atheistic camps, the fundamental adversary was not so much religion per se but the profane worldly way in which it was being put to use.

To understand this ideological conflict it is necessary to bring the abstraction of “atheism” into its concrete historical context. I suggest, to start with, distinguishing between two distinctive forms of atheism. Nietzsche became immensely (in)famous following the resonant announcement of the death of God he put in the mouth of the madman in aphorism 125 of The Gay Science (1882). This proclamation has gone down in the history of philosophy as the slogan of Nietzsche’s ruthless crusade against religion. When “God is dead” is placed back in historical perspective, however, at least some of the iconoclastic significance usually attached to it must be retracted. Western culture at the time The Gay Science was published, twenty-three years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, was already imbued with atheism, and a growing secularization was a trend dominating all aspects of contemporary life and thought. Nietzsche’s atheism as such could therefore hardly have produced such a shock. And if the public then and generations of subsequent readers since were indeed shocked, one must look for reasons other than the mere refutation of God’s existence. Not the fact of God’s “death” caused such scandal, but what the madman made of the “historical event” of God’s murder, the Nietzschean interpretation of its significance. Such interpretation — the whole complex of conceptions, insights, judgments, and imagery that makes up Nietzsche’s particular brand of atheism — was ultimately conceived of in response to, not to say retaliation against, an atheistic tradition that preceded it. To understand Nietzsche’s atheism, therefore, we must first of all have at least a general notion of the ideological pith of the atheism it rose up against, namely socialist atheism.

Humanization vs. dehumanization of the universe

To simplify matters, I would posit Marx and Engels’s atheism as representative of the basic tenets of socialist and revolutionary understanding of religion in general (just as Nietzsche’s version of atheism could be seen as representative of other “theological” positions of a comparable nature). The ideas are fairly well known, but it would be helpful to summarize them briefly. The founders of Marxism wholeheartedly and unreservedly embraced secularization; it was for them a vital step in deposing religion as a prime means of class domination, the most important Ideological State Apparatus (Althusser’s terminology) of the nineteenth century: “The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.” [6] Within bourgeois hierarchy, God’s role was that of the ultimate overseer, keeping a watchful eye on the workers to guarantee their obedience. This was true metaphorically and sometimes even literally, as illustrated by the following catechism of an English Sunday school for working-class children (early nineteenth century):

Questions. Is it honest for workmen to waste and destroy the materials and implements which they make use of? (Ans. No.) Who do these things belong to? (Ans. Their master.) Whose eyes see you when your master is not by? (Ans. God’s.) … Who sees people when they are pilfering tea and sugar and such things? (Ans. God.) Does God approve of such actions? (Ans. No.) What would God do to thieves of all kind? (Ans. Punish them.) [7]

Thus, Marx and Engels understandably rejoiced over Darwin’s theories, as they welcomed any blow aimed at the religious exegesis of the universe and of society. Taking on Feuerbach, they believed that to be rid of God would mean to enthrone humanity. This atheism was put in a nutshell by Engels: “The question has previously always been: what is God? and German philosophy has answered the question in this sense: God is man.” [8] If, as Nietzsche would proclaim, God is indeed dead, then the Marxist corresponding claim was from the start, “Long live man!” A fiction told by humans, God has come to dominate its creator; alienated from humanity and raised above it, God became humanity’s oppressor, backed up by a corrupt clerical hierarchy. Now at long last, humanity has attained the conceptual and emotional maturity needed to break free of its self-imposed chains and overcome estrangement. It no longer needs the mediation of a divinity to address itself. At last realizing that it was God who was created in the human image and not the other way around, humanity can finally become the measure of its own world, its sole meaning and purpose: “All emancipation is a reduction of the human world and relationships to man himself”. [9] Secularization hence means an ideological and epistemological (as opposed to ontological) humanization of the world. The political implications of this process of humanization are also clear: “the criticism of heaven turns into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” [10] The masses, once awakened from the opiate dream of a blissful afterlife, would rise to claim a paradise on earth, brushing aside those who use religion to shield the status quo. Atheism was on that account deemed a vital vehicle of political transformation, the sine qua non of revolution. These two tenets at the heart of the Marxist critique of religion — the revolutionary appeal to the masses and the humanizing emphasis — are condensed in the following famous passage:

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp things by the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself. The evident proof of the radicalism of German theory, and hence of its practical energy, is that it proceeds from a resolute positive abolition of religion. The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man, hence with the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being. [11]

This is the gist of the Marxist endeavor to equip the masses with a radical, secular theory, with the aid of which a new, revolutionary and humanistic society can be created.

On the opposite pole of the political spectrum stood those who were bound by conviction and interest to the present state of things and did not wish to see it altered, let alone radically turned upside down. For them, to keep the masses piously slumbering was a high priority. Historical developments, however, proved by and large unfavorable to their cause. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on rational enquiry and scientific progress, requisite for bolstering the bourgeois social revolution as well as for expediting industrial technological progress, severely limited the sway of religion as a social myth. As Engels could affirm with gratification as early as 1844 (the year of Nietzsche’s birth):

[Thomas Carlyle] knows very well that rituals, dogmas, litanies and Sinai thunder cannot help, that all the thunder of Sinai does not make the truth any truer, nor does it frighten any sensible person, that we are far beyond the religion of fear. [12]

The influential Victorian conservative, John Henry Cardinal Newman, son of a banker, likewise recognized the social effects of liberal atheism, but from a clerical, anxious point of view. Listing a series of logical inferences, he usefully registered the inexorable progress of rational atheism, from the initial refutation of the Church’s authority up to the pernicious outcome of mass democracy, as the following selection illustrates:

4. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof. Therefore, e.g., the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.
5. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature. Therefore, e.g., a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.
6. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions. Therefore, e.g., Political Economy may reverse our Lord’s declarations about poverty and riches.
16. It is lawful to rise in arms against legitimate princes. Therefore, e.g., the Puritans in the seventeenth century, and the French in the eighteenth, were justified in their Rebellion and Revolution respectively.
17. The people are the legitimate source of power. Therefore, e.g., Universal Suffrage is among the natural rights of man. [13]

As against this objective development, two basic theological responses took shape. The first was conservative, clinging tenaciously to the sacrosanct tenets of religious belief and reaffirming them in the face of danger. The second was more realistic and more ingenious; it took in the unfortunate balance of things and realized the need for developing an adequate, innovative response to the atheistic tide. To the former group belonged those, like the Victorian Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and his followers, who became infuriated over Darwin’s publications and struggled to minimize the damages of the earthquake that ensued; Nietzsche, on the other hand, became one of the principal spokesmen of the latter camp.

Nietzsche’s atheism, it is important to understand, was a belated one, atheism after the fact. It was also very much a reluctant atheism, very different from the unconditional endorsement and celebration of secularity of the socialists (or of those proponents of scientific and technological progress who were continuing the rationalistic impetus of the Enlightenment, although less and less in their social views). Nietzsche’s reaction to the death of God was by no means one of sheer jubilation. Rather, it included an acute awareness that much that was valuable went under along with the deceased deity, not least of which was religion’s priceless capacity to sustain hierarchy. Nietzsche therefore sought in the aftermath of God’s elimination to harness and divert the advance of atheism, so as to impede its progress towards an egalitarian revolution. If the supernatural can no longer validate the existing social order, the natural may just as well fulfill this role, under the mediation of a social Darwinism combined with Schopenhauerian pessimism. Nietzsche expressed his consternation over this general secularizing process on numerous occasions, making it clear that the secularization of the masses was especially regrettable on account of its political, revolutionary consequences:

The philosopher as we understand him, we free spirits … will make use of the religions for his work of education and breeding, just as he will make use of existing political and economic conditions. … To ordinary men … the great majority, who exist for service and general utility and who may exist only for that purpose, religion gives an invaluable contentment with their nature and station, manifold peace of heart, an ennobling of obedience. … Perhaps nothing in Christianity and Buddhism is so venerable as their art of teaching even the lowliest to set themselves through piety in an apparently higher order of things and thus to preserve their contentment with the real order, within which they live hard enough lives and necessarily have to! [14]

In view of such ideas, we can already begin to appreciate how Nietzsche’s assessment of religion constitutes the very ethical mirror image of that expounded by Marx and Engels. We say “ethical,” because in terms of a realistic evaluation of the sociopolitical function of religion, their views are remarkably similar. For Nietzsche, just as for the Marxists, religion is one more department of the superstructure, alongside other “existing political and economic conditions,” the specific function and “art” of which is to instill servility in the masses and reconcile them to their wretched conditions of life. Whereas the Marxist assault on religion was aimed at its role in upholding the class system, Nietzsche was nostalgic for the good old times when it was still able to “venerably” benumb the masses. Conversely, when Nietzsche turned to criticize Christianity, his reproaches were directed precisely at its other, and far less creditable side — its alleged undermining of hierarchy and its ignition of revolution. As in the following quotation, the likes of which could be multiplied many times over:

With that I have done and pronounce my judgement. I condemn Christianity, I bring against the Christian Church the most terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered. To me it is the extremest thinkable form of corruption. … — “Equality of souls before God,” this falsehood, this pretext for the rancune of all the base-minded, this explosive concept which finally became revolution, modern idea and the principle of the decline of the entire social order — is Christian dynamite. [15]

Nietzsche wanted to exploit the demise of Christianity as a historic opportunity to transvalue egalitarian values. Once God is removed, it becomes vital to ensure that it is the ideal of social equality, and not that of hierarchy, that passes away with him. As Zarathustra declares, it is not the leveling mob that shall profit from atheism but the Übermensch (overman or Superman):

“You higher men” — thus the mob blink — “there are no higher men, we are all equal, man is man; before God we are all equal!”
Before God! But now this god has died. And before the mob we do not want to be equal. …
Before God! … You higher men, this god was your greatest danger. It is only since he lies in his tomb that you have been resurrected. Only now the great noon comes; only now the higher man becomes — lord.
… God died: now we desire the overman to live. [16]

Nietzsche’s atheism was above all a repudiation of what he perceived as the egalitarian legacy of Christianity, and it was only consistent that he had a far better opinion of other, allegedly less egalitarian, religions, such as early Judaism or Hinduism. Nietzsche was thus at bottom not really antireligious, and not altogether anti-Christian either. His critique of Christianity addressed exclusively its perceived function as a slave religion while applauding its historical role of keeping slaves under control.

The main task Nietzsche had to accomplish in his attempt to transform the nature of revolutionary atheism was to do away with its deep-seated humanistic optimism, and install in its place a pessimistic, tragic, and conservative mode of secularization. The event of God’s death was hence described, at least in part, as inaugurating a dismal epoch of existential human solitude. This pessimistic, tragic approach to God’s death is most eloquently expressed in the renowned passage in which the madman runs into the marketplace and seeks God with his lantern. Here we find poetically encapsulated the clash between the two forms of atheism, the optimistic and humanizing vs. the pessimistic and dehumanizing. On the one side stands in heroic isolation the pessimistic madman who is a despairing, anxious atheist. At the beginning of the scene, as a matter of fact, the madman is not an atheist at all, but still an apprehensive believer, seeking to recover God. He confronts the optimistic, shallow multitude in the marketplace: they, already atheists, belittle the significance of God’s absence and jest at the madman’s seemingly ridiculous quest.

At this point the madman suddenly acknowledges the death of God: “‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers.’” [17] But of all decides, the madman alone experiences pangs of conscience. He alone is intensely aware of the tragic implications of this momentous deed. He discloses a distressing truth that has to do precisely with the place of humans in the world in the postreligious era. After the twilight of God, a new dawn breaks, but one utterly different from the cheerful sunrise foreseen by Feuerbach and the Marxists, who believed that humankind is poised to become at long last master of its destiny. The human hopes of freedom and mastery are categorically refuted. The universe will not gain in humanness after God’s dismissal, as the optimists guarantee, but rather be utterly deprived of it. Since God was a human invention, his presence had humanized the universe; his love and protection, however figments of the imagination, have endowed the world with a comforting semblance of humanness. Now that the spell was recklessly broken by optimistic and shallow atheists, human beings must face the horrifying emptiness of the bare universe. The madman proclaims the absurdity of existence:

Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up and down? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? [18]

Instead of the joyful, proud independence promised by the optimistic atheists, the pessimistic madman decrees humanity’s existential orphanhood. The universe is an infinite and empty space, its emptiness asphyxiating, cold, and thoroughly nonhuman. Atheism is profoundly transformed; it is not the human being that succeeds divinity. If God is dead, then long live nature! Humankind cannot impose itself on the universe, but must rather yield to the chaotic, amoral, indifferent nature of the cosmos in which humankind is a trifle. The ultimate consequence of such submission would be effectively to dehumanize the universe: “When will we complete our de-deification of nature? When may we begin to ‘naturalize’ humanity in terms of a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature?” [19] But what does such “naturalization” of humanity mean? It is very easy to mistake this suggestion, especially when presented in isolation, for a typical secular exhortation for humanity to “become natural,” as it were, to get rid of religious inhibitions and prudish self-denial, and to glory in that which is “naturally” human, happy, and healthy. But the truth of the matter is quite different. It was only right that Nietzsche should place the word naturalization in quotation marks, for what he proposed thereby was the very opposite of what is conventionally meant by the term. For him, to naturalize humanity meant to deny human nature, since nature and humanity have nothing in common. Nature and humans stand as complete opposites; nature is a silent rock upon which all human concepts, ideas, and hopes crash and dissipate like so many feeble waves:

The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos — in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms. … [H]ow could we reproach or praise the universe? Let us beware of attributing to it heartlessness and unreason or their opposites: it is neither perfect nor beautiful, nor noble, nor does it wish to become any of those things; it does not by any means strive to imitate man. [20]

What is important from an ideological point of view in these conceptions of nature is not the denial of the (very romantic) idea that nature possesses human attributes or the assertion that humans tend to project their own needs and emotions onto their natural surroundings, i.e., to anthropomorphize them. It is rather the contention that we must somehow start to “naturalize humanity.” For one thing, what could such naturalization actually mean given the concomitant assertion that humanity and nature are inexorably cut apart? The very idea of such naturalization would seem senseless, unless by another act of anthropomorphism. Indeed it could be argued that the entire passage quoted above, in which nature is described as an eternal chaos, is itself but another, though very subtle, “aesthetic anthropomorphism,” another romantic elegy for nature. The only other apparent option is for humankind to forfeit entirely its unnatural humanity and immerse itself definitely in nature by the act of dying (and, as we shall shortly see, this is not entirely alien to Nietzsche’s argument). But even assuming that such naturalization is somehow possible while humans are still alive, why is it at all a recommendable, indeed urgent, mission that we should set out to complete without delay? What could be the enticement, for a human being, of uniting himself or herself with an entity that is said to be devoid of “order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms”? Thus, when Nietzsche speaks about a “newly discovered, newly redeemed nature” and the need for humanity to conduct itself according to its rules, he actually demands that human nature should be subordinated to nature as such, which is profoundly nonhuman. In a remarkable theoretical move, Nietzsche contends that to become natural we must deny and transcend our humanity. We can see that Nietzsche’s interpretation of the place of human beings in the world following God’s demise is never just a description; it is equally a prescription. It is not enough for Nietzsche to claim that the universe and nature are indifferent and meaningless, that the universe “does not by any means strive to imitate man”; he rather insists, in effect, that humans should imitate the universe, bow before the indifference and absurdity of existence and rearrange their lives accordingly. And this second proposition by no means follows logically or necessarily from the first. There is, furthermore, an element of duplicity behind the ostensible despair at God’s murder. For Nietzsche, in fact, also celebrates the nothingness of the universe. The “infinite empty space” gaping at humanity may be cold and depressing, but it is also the supreme object of admiration:

In the horizon of the infinite. — We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us — indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean. … [H]ours will come before you realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. [21]

Thus, it does not suffice to affirm that the world is nonhuman; somehow we must also exult in this nonhumanity, come to applaud the magnificence of the void; we may even wish to consider a glorious plunge into its “chaotic” depths. And here the political coordinator operating underneath Nietzsche’s narrative can be glimpsed. The objective ideological purpose and function become clear. Whereas for the Marxists, secular humanization of the universe meant preparing the ground for revolution, Nietzsche’s secular dehumanization is meant to impede it. Socialist atheism was bound with the conviction of human sovereignty and dignity, whereas Nietzsche’s theory of nature is directed purposely against such illusions. This is demonstrated in a passage where Nietzsche enumerates several typical human misconceptions that must be redressed. One of these errors is the failure to admit the proper — that is, negligible — place of humans in the natural scheme:

Third, [man] placed himself in a false order of rank in relation to animals and nature. … If we removed the effects of these four errors, we should also remove humanity, humanness and “human dignity.” [22]

It is as if Nietzsche’s theory was written in specific rebuttal of Marx’s contention that “the criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest being for man.” [23] For Nietzsche, the criticism of religion rather ends by the realization, “One has no right to existence or to work, to say nothing of a right to ‘happiness’: the individual human being is in precisely the same case as the lowest worm.” [24] While Marx has animated his readers “to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being” [25], Nietzsche strives to create precisely such a new condition, for which the existential insignificance of humanity will serve as a presupposition. Nietzsche’s solution to the political problem of humanizing atheism is to an attempt to develop a dehumanizing atheism. By introducing a form of atheism-cum-pantheism that places nature above humanity, one can deny the political demands of humanistic socialism. François Bédarida, in an informative essay, has characterized National Socialism as an Ersatzreligion that was meant to take the place of Christianity. It was, moreover, a “naturalistic religion,” substituting immanency and this-worldliness for transcendentalism and the afterlife. At the heart of this “secular religion” lay a project — we may add, a Nietzschean project, one that is compatible with Nietzsche’s teaching — of a “naturalized humanity”:

Such a world stands completely under the sign of naturalism. Man is only a part of nature. “The earth will continue to spin,” claims Hitler, “whether man kills the tiger or the other way around; the world does not change. Its laws are eternal.” The only thing that counts is to adapt to these laws. [26]

Philippe Burrin likewise stresses the naturalistic character of Nazi ideology as a means of “re-enchanting” a world that has dangerously gone secular, combined with an effort to dehumanize the world:

The human species is a part of nature and subject to its “eternal laws.” The important thing is the struggle for survival and the selection of the strongest. The role of this desacralized and nature-fixated mode of thought cannot be overestimated when considering the crimes of the regime. … Auschwitz is the culminating point of a specific anti-humanistic reenchantment attempt, as the mythical-symbolic inspiration of Nazism clearly shows. [27] [28]

National Socialism as Ersatzreligion was but one historical instance of this naturalistic fetishism, though surely the most farreaching and extravagant one. But the general principle of applying the reputed inhumanity of nature to legitimize the inhumanity of society was an ideological stratagem ubiquitous throughout the West in the form of social Darwinism and its diverse sociological, anthropological, and cultural manifestations. The “divine scheme” of the past was everywhere replaced, or at any rate complemented, by the “natural plan,” according to which the strong “naturally” prevail and the weak “naturally” perish, and any intervention in that process amounts to heresy against the pagan yet monotheistic deity of Nature. A degree of “naturalism” was (and remains) an integral part of most hegemonic ideologies under capitalism, and Nietzsche’s bid to naturalize humanity, though compatible with the Nazi version of naturalism, is similarly harmonious with other, less extreme, historical realizations. Hence we can establish the part played by Nietzsche’s philosophy in the creation of a new, pantheistic, quasi-religion.

Such a view of nature as the silent, omnipotent opposite of the human being has indeed established itself as the predominant modern conception, enjoying almost uncontested supremacy, at least in secular circles. It has become so much the accepted outlook that one would hardly think of linking it, even potentially, with an ideological position of any kind. It is postulated as a mere fact, a transhistorical given, bared before us with the advances of science. Even a Marxist and Hegelian like Frederic Jameson embraced this view, in reference to the stance of Marxism vis-à-vis existentialism: “that life is meaningless is not a proposition that need be inconsistent with Marxism, whose affirmation is the quite different one that History is meaningful, however absurd organic life may happen to be. The real issue is not the propositions of existentialism, but rather their charge of affect.” [29] For Jameson, what separates a Marxist from an existentialist (Nietzsche, for our purposes) on this point is not an ontological disagreement but an epistemological, more specifically an ideological, one. The question is: once the obiective place of human beings in the universe has been asserted, what should be their response, how should they live their lives and configure their society in the aftermath of metaphysics?

Original Marxism, however, was more ambitious. It should be remembered that for the young Marx it was quite pertinent to attempt to transcend the rigid dichotomy of humans and nature and bring about a Hegelian reconciliation between them. Far from being an eternal fact of life exposed by modernity, the separation of human beings and nature was for Marx a symptom of modernity, a social problem of the first degree that his vision of communism was to overcome. [30] It is illuminating to recall Marx’s remarks on the matter from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which throw into vivid relief the ways in that his version of naturalism differs from the modern take on nature:

This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man — the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. [31]

For the youthful Marx, therefore, more was at stake than a simple “charge of affect.” Communism, for him, offered the concrete possibility of a grand utopian resolution of human estrangement from nature. To modern ears this may sound like a beautiful epiphany that ugly history has grimly discarded. But we ought, perhaps, to remind ourselves that Marx’s idea of communism in these passages was a political order that would eventually supersede “crude communism,” whether “despotic or democratic,” attaining a true abolition of private property and going beyond capital materially, spiritually, and psychologically. It remains difficult, however, to grasp how eliminating private property might possibly impinge on, let alone heal, the rift between humans and nature, which we now understand as two strictly separate sets of problems, the one political and social, the other existential or spiritual. But for Marx, the issue of the human being’s position versus nature is not at all a “natural matter,” so to speak, decided a priori by some given natural laws, but rather a thoroughly sociopolitical question that humanity itself must resolve by way of conscious revolutionary action. For Marx, the notion that nature was something “out there,” an alien, nonhuman, or even antihuman essence, was but another aspect of the modern situation in which, for the isolated individual monad, society is felt as inhuman, alien, and oppressive:

Activity and enjoyment, both in their content and in their mode of existence, are social: social activity and social enjoyment. The human aspect of nature exists only for social man; for only then does nature exist for him as a bond with man — as his existence for the other and the other’s existence for him — and as the life-element of human reality. Only then does nature exist as the foundation of his own human existence. Only here has what is to him his natural existence become his human existence, and nature become man for him. Thus society is the complete unity of man with nature the true resurrection of nature — the accomplished naturalism of man and the accomplished humanism of nature. [32]

Just like Nietzsche, Marx calls for a “naturalism of man,” but for him it is the same as calling for a “humanism of nature.” The antithesis (the conceptual resemblances notwithstanding) could not be more complete. Since humans are not properly social under present conditions, but enclosed within the egotistic shells created by private-property institutions, therefore the “human aspect of nature” does not exist for them. For Marx, to humanize nature makes perfect sense for the simple reason that human beings themselves are nature, and, while transforming and humanizing themselves, they are consequently, and by necessity, transforming and humanizing nature as well. To claim, like Nietzsche, that humans must adapt themselves to nature, which is inhuman — chaotic, senseless, indifferent, etc. — would be from Marx’s viewpoint not only an impossible or undesirable proposition, but first and foremost an unnatural one. Humans would become thereby unnatural, not natural, for they will be banished from their natural habitat of history and society and thrown into some reified vacuum where no development is possible. The whole drift of Marx’s argument is to supersede dialectically the distinction between nature and humanity and perceive their actual unity. It is in this sense that we should understand his famous claim that even the senses, allegedly bequeathed to humans by alienated nature as they are once and for all, to remain unchanged, are in fact subjected to historical transformation and undergo inexorable humanization; this is not some offense against nature but the most natural thing, for humans:

The abolition of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities; but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object — an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man. … Need or enjoyment has consequently lost its egotistical nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becoming human use. [33]

And, similarly:

Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility … either cultivated or brought into being. For not only the five senses but also the so-called mental senses, the practical senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human sense, the human nature of the senses, comes to be by virtue of its object, by virtue of humanised nature. [34]

Finally, and most expressively: “All history is the history of preparing and developing ‘man’ to become the object of sensuous consciousness, and turning the requirements of ‘man as man’ into his needs. History itself is a real part of natural history — of nature’s developing into man.” [35] We need not, at this point at least, necessarily decide between Marx’s naturalism and Nietzsche’s. All we have to do is distinguish between them as fully as possible and register their radical difference at all points, epistemological as well as political. For Marx, naturalism meant the dialectical unity of humans and nature, resulting in the call for the humanization of nature and the naturalization of humans; for Nietzsche, nature and humans are divorced and the latter must submit to the former. The sociopolitical significance is likewise diametrically opposed. For Marx: recognition of the social nature of humans and the building of a human society by the abolition of private property relations. For Nietzsche: a denial of the social nature of humans (denounced as herd-mentality/morality), defense of the status quo, and vindication of property relations:

But there will always be too many who have possessions for socialism to signify more than an attack of sickness — and those who have possessions are of one mind on one article of faith: “one must possess something in order to be something.” But this is the oldest and healthiest of all instincts: I should add, “one must want to have more than one has in order to become more.” For this is the doctrine preached by life itself to all that has life: the morality of development. To have and to want to have more growth, in one word that is life itself. [36]

The tarantulas of equality

There can be no doubt that Nietzsche was deeply aware of the significance and role of his atheism as a counter-atheism. Perhaps nowhere in his writings is the difference between the uprightness of his unique brand of materialistic atheism and the perversity of the socialist one as energetically and militantly broadcast as in the passage dealing with what Zarathustra bitterly refers to as “the tarantulas.” Nietzsche’s prophet takes great care to distinguish his position from theirs: “My friends, I do not want to be confused with others or taken for what I am not.” [37] He makes his distinction between two doctrines of life, a genuine and a counterfeit one: “There are those who preach my doctrine of life: yet are at the same time preachers of equality, and tarantulas.” Like most founders of new religions, Zarathustra makes a claim for originality and primacy; he declares that the tarantulas, as false prophets are wont to do, preach and pervert his doctrine of life. For the sake of historical justice, however, it should be stated that it was rather Zarathustra (Nietzsche) who has reacted to the life-doctrine, spurious or not, of the tarantulas (the socialists). But who are the tarantulas and what does Nietzsche find so reprehensible about them? For one thing, as we have heard, they promulgate the creed of equality, the very anathema of Zarathustra’s doctrine.

I do not wish to be mixed up and confused with these preachers of equality. For, to me, justice speaks thus: ‘Men are not equal.’ Nor shall they become equal! What would my love of the overman be if I spoke otherwise? [38]

The upholders of equality, namely the revolutionaries and socialists, can pretend to speak on behalf of life only because they rise up against the current establishment, founded on Christian morality:

Although they are sitting in their holes, these poisonous spiders, with their backs turned on life, they speak in favor of life, but only because they wish to hurt. They wish to hurt those who now have power, for among these the preaching of death is still most at home. [39]

Zarathustra acknowledges that the tarantulas possess some power of persuasion. Their life-rhetoric is effective because it is directed against Christianity, which is a life-denying religion. It is only in comparison to the lifeless Christians that the socialists can gain the appearance of liveliness although, in truth, they themselves “sit in their caves with their backs turned on life.” With the demise of religion, socialism, with its promise of earthly happiness, becomes an enticing option. And it is here that Zarathustra intervenes to offer an alternative to the alternative. Against socialism he musters two main arguments, which happen to be contradictory, but their joint effect, in spite of the inconsistency, is quite powerful. The first argument is negative, dismissing what the socialists have to offer. Zarathustra claims that the socialists are frauds and hypocrites; they speak of justice and are ready to punish the strong and overturn the social order while they themselves are motivated by revengefulness and lust for power: “when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had power.” [40] Thus the revolutionaries can be condemned from the point of view of conventional pre-Zarathustrian morality, from within the bounds of good and evil: they are evil, firstly, and their evil, furthermore, expresses itself in their obsession with power; they promise justice and happiness but will fail to deliver, proving themselves to be tyrannical. This argument remains quite consistent with the habitual, conservative critique of revolutionaries since the French Revolution, directed at their cruelty and inhumanity, as they exact and mete out punishment against their betters:

I counsel you my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. [41]

But Zarathustra is not merely an advocator of old times; such timid admonitions, purely negative, cannot serve as a good defense against the optimistic tide of the socialists. It is difficult to defend present iniquity simply by the prediction of a future one. If Zarathustra is to justify his claims for a radical New Testament, and exceed the worn-out cautions of a Burke, a Bonald, or a de Maistre, he has to offer the masses a merchandise at least as exciting as what the socialists publicize, something bold and affirmative as opposed to passive and preventive. And at this point Zarathustra becomes the prophet of life. It is principally for this reason, no doubt, that the metaphor of the tarantulas was applied in the first place: the revolutionaries must be denuded of their glamorous, if ruthless, halo. They must be exposed as true enemies of life; venomous, weak, and disgusting creatures; necessarily hiding their true, pathetic selves. A lantern in hand, Zarathustra escorts the reader to the dark hiding-place of the socialist enemy of life and invites him to establish the latter’s true nature: “Behold, this is the hole of the tarantula. Do you want to see the tarantula itself? Here hangs its web: touch it, that it tremble.” [42]

The socialist is thereby deprived of power and stature; he is not only wicked but also weak and despicable. The tarantulas are the hateful forgers of materialism, who have done away with God but not to enable the development of natural, ascending life; instead, they launch a neomoralistic, neo-Christian crusade against life, in the name of the feeble and the sick. Zarathustra is the one who truly celebrates life. This is Zarathustra’s assertive proposal, which happens to contradict his former, negative caveat. Earlier, he has claimed that the socialists will only replace power as it now exists with a new tyranny; their pledge for the abolition of injustice and suffering was therefore dismissed as unrealistic and illusory. But presently, Zarathustra tacitly acknowledges that such elimination of strife might actually materialize. Socialism is now deemed feasible but — undesirable. This is a point to reckon with, particularly in the context of Nietzsche’s enthusiastic reception by numerous interpreters, who have praised his prophetic utterances against the horrors of twentieth-century communism, the totalitarian abuses of state power. [43] Leaving aside the relative value of such forewarnings on the part of a philosopher who encouraged the elite to subjugate the majority scrupulously and who made it perfectly clear that such subjugation will entail not only the exploitation but also “the annihilation of millions of failures” [44], it is important to take heed of the fact that this critique of totalitarianism was only Nietzsche’s first line of defense; that beyond the possibility of socialist failure, Nietzsche apprehended the prospect of a socialist success; and that he found the likelihood of a socialist abuse of power no more intimidating than the scenario of a socialist elimination of power. Put in Marx’s terms, Nietzsche was targeting not only the dystopia of “despotic communism” that we have come to know during the twentieth century, but also “true communism,” the socialist utopia as such. [45] For if, according to Zarathustra, the revolutionaries succeed and truly and abidingly eliminate conflict, exploitation, and war, this will prove humanity’s catastrophe, since peace and equality, once attained, will cripple life, not enhance it:

They shall throng to the future, and ever more war and inequality shall divide them: thus does my great love make me speak. In their hostilities they shall become inventors of images and ghosts, and with their images and ghosts they shall yet fight the highest fight against one another. Good and evil, and rich and poor, and high and low, and all the names of values — arms shall they be and clattering signs that life must overcome itself again and again.

Life wants to build itself up into the heights with pillars and steps; it wants to look into vast distances and out toward stirring beauties: therefore it requires height. And because it requires height, it requires steps and contradiction among the steps and the climbers. Life wants to climb and to overcome itself climbing. [46]

The tarantulas turn their backs on life, for they refuse to admit the necessity of strife and suffering; they become ascetic enemies of life who, by suspending conflict and imposing equality, check the rise of ascending life:

And behold, my friends: here where the tarantula has its hole, the ruins of an ancient temple rise; behold it with enlightened eyes! Verily, the man who once piled his thoughts to the sky in these stones — he, like the wisest, knew the secret of all life. That struggle and inequality are present even in beauty. … [L]et us be enemies too, my friends! Let us strive against one another like gods! [47]

This is Zarathustra’s innovation and the crux of Nietzsche’s Lebensphilosophie. To minimize conflict and danger is to downgrade life; war produces the sublime Übermensch, whereas peace leads to the pathetic last man. But the paradoxes underpinning such Lebensphilosophie also come into view. To start with, it becomes clear that, in social terms, Nietzsche’s Jasagen zum Leben means accepting, rather than combating, life’s cruelty, injustice and, ultimately, life’s termination — death. Thus, a yes-saying to death, indeed a cult of death, is never too far away from the philosophy-of-life. Consider, for example, section 109 of The Gay Science, where Nietzsche warns us against “thinking that the world is a living thing.” [48] He then argues that the world has no “instinct for self-preservation,” and proceeds to question the traditional dichotomy between life and death: “Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life. The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type.” These are not merely philosophical ruminations; rather, they are also a prescription as to the way humanity must take in accordance with nature. The section ends with the above discussed call to finally “naturalize’ humanity in terms of a pure, newly discovered, newly redeemed nature.” And if humans are to be naturalized, it follows logically that they must renounce self-preservation as a supreme value. Once “demonstrated” to be lacking in nature as a guiding principle, self-preservation must be correspondingly abolished as a social principle. As Zarathustra will exclaim, against the mob rule of democracy and socialism:

What is womanish, what derives from the servile and especially the mob hodgepodge: that now would now become master of all human destiny. O nausea! Nausea! Nausea! That asks and asks and never grows weary: “How is man to be preserved best, longest, most agreeably?” With that — they are the masters of today.
Overcome these masters of today, O my brothers — these small people: they are the overman’s greatest danger!
You higher men, overcome the small virtues, the small prudences … the “happiness of the greatest number”! [49]

Here we find an indispensable clue to decipher the otherwise totally obscure death cult of fascism, quintessentially expressed by the Francoist battle-cry of ¡Viva la muerte! To counter socialist and liberal humanist doctrines, the sanctity of human life had to be devalued. Self-preservation at all costs was consequently denigrated as a kind of superstition, a human, all-too-human weakness. Real, authentic life does not shun death as its opposite; only decadent, cowardly life does. Humans have to live grandiosely, courageously, healthily, and “naturally” — that is, in imitation of the universe: above pain, above “petty” emotions, and, finally, above life. It is in the context of such programmatic dehumanization that even death, the ultimate negation of human existence, is vindicated as at least as “natural” as life. In some senses, it is even more natural; life is an exception, a passing illusion, a mere phenomenon; death is the rule, the abiding reality, the thing in itself.

A further paradoxical feature of Lebensphilosophie is its fetishizing of life. With Nietzsche, life turns into something independent of the many concrete cases of living organisms, into a metaphysical, disembodied essence. Though formerly warning us against anthropomorphisms, Nietzsche now avows that life “wants,” “needs,” and “raises itself.” It is as if each individual organism contains a piece of life and for that reason falls into the illusion of identifying itself, the means, with the goal, with life as a general, abstract force. Consequently the organism strives to preserve the life in its possession at all costs. But the cause of life is greater than the cause of all the little lives. From the lofty perspective of life, individuals having a share of it are merely tenants, expedient instruments, “steps and pillars” that it uses in order to ascend and overcome itself. In order to serve life in the abstract, therefore, it is sensible to sacrifice innumerable lives in the concrete, to have them perish in conflicts and wars. This is also the logic behind the idea of the Übermensch: since he is the utmost expression of life, its finest masterpiece, it makes sense for lesser people to sacrifice themselves for his sake: “I love those,” says Zarathustra,

… who sacrifice themselves for the earth, that the earth may some day become the overman’s.
I love him who lives to know, and who wants to know so that the overman may live some day. And thus he wants to go under. [50]

And it is from the same vantage point that the weak and sickly are amiably entreated to forsake their pitiful, insignificant lives, so that life be advanced.

To create a new responsibility, that of the physician, in all cases in which the highest interest of life, of ascending life, demands the most ruthless suppression and sequestration of degenerating life — for example in determining the right to reproduce, the right to be born, the right to live. … When one does away with oneself one does the most estimable thing possible: one thereby almost deserves to live. … Society — what am I saying! life itself derives more advantage from that than from any sort of “life” spent in renunciation, green-sickness and other virtues — one has freed others from having to endure one’s sight, one has removed an objection from life. [51]

Nietzsche thus discards self-preservation, the instinct of clinging on to life, as an antilife instinct. Ironically, the party of antilife socialists and egalitarians is the one that seeks to preserve life, whereas the philosopher of life, promoting a Partei des Lebens [party of the life], sanctions the sacrifice of countless lives: “The degree of ‘progress’ can actually be measured according to the mass of that which had to be sacrificed to it. Mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man — that would be a progress.” [52] Life becomes a new absolute monarch, in fact a new God, to whose eternal glory every individual must dedicate his or her (little) life, which he or she must be ready to sacrifice if need arises. This is another subtle way by which the atheistic humanization of the world can be circumvented by use of dehumanizing atheism. The scheme can even boast of an odd egalitarianism: everyone, “good and evil, rich and poor, noble and mean,” remains equally the humble servant of a greater cause, the perfection of life. Hence Zarathustra’s kindly, amiable gestures, his talk of his “great love,” and the frequent appeal to his readers/listeners with the cordial “my friends.” We learn that, deceptive appearances aside, there is nothing self-serving in the social hierarchy, with its corresponding unequal division of pleasures and privileges, as well as toils and hardships. One is paid, rather, in accordance with the service rendered to life:

The natural value of egoism depends on the physiological value of him who possesses it: it can be very valuable, it can be worthless and contemptible. Every individual may be regarded as representing the ascending or descending line of life. … If he represents the ascending line his value is in fact extraordinary — and for the sake of the life-collective, which with him takes a step forward, the care expended on his preservation, on the creation of optimum conditions for him, may even be extreme. … If he represents the descending development, decay, chronic degeneration, sickening …, then he can be accorded little value, and elementary fairness demands that he takes away as little as possible from the well-constituted. He is not better than a parasite on them. [53]

The vast usefulness of such a Weltanschauung for justifying capitalism is obvious. Exploitation is metaphysically vindicated. What to the unaided eye seems simple “egoism” reveals itself, under the scrutiny of life’s superior lens, as “elementary fairness.”

Marx and Engels’s refutation of the Übermensch

So far, I have argued that Nietzsche’s critique of religion was an attempt to corner the market of Western atheism with a new, dehumanizing product, devised specifically to bankrupt the socialist competitors. However ingenious such a move was, I contend that it did not catch its adversaries completely by surprise. As a matter of fact, both Marx and Engels, the latter perhaps more patently, foresaw the outlines of such a development and even provided essential arguments with which to counteract it.

In their first collaborative book, written in 1844, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (1975), Marx and Engels dedicated a chapter to a detailed analysis of one of the most popular novels of the time — Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1844). This chapter, written by Marx, contains material that is highly valuable for our purposes, as it can help substantiate our understanding of the similarities as well as the crucial discrepancies between the Marxist and the Nietzschean critiques of religion.

Marx confronts religion as the main ideological accessory of the ruling classes in the nineteenth century. Although a power in decline, it is still able to exercise a strong influence on the popular imagination. Christian moralizing is a predominant ingredient in Sue’s novel, which Marx regards as deeply conservative. The novel recounts the adventures of the worthy Prince Rudolph in the Parisian underworld, and his dealings with a host of lowlifes. Some of these criminals — like Fleur de Marie, the prostitute, or Chourineur, the bully — he is able to reform and recruit to the ranks of righteousness. Others, like the demonic and irredeemable “Maître d’école,” he brutally punishes. And both reward and chastisement are doled out in the name of Christian morality and in accord with bourgeois ideology, educating the lower classes about the benefits of virtue. The bulk of Marx’s atheistic critique is directed at the sanctimony of the novel’s “pious” message. In doing so, he speaks in a language that occasionally bears striking resemblance to the future Nietzschean demolition of Christianity, for instance when pitying the wretched Marie, who is “enslaved by the consciousness of sin” [54], or when denouncing the priestly debasement of nature and its smothering of life’s exuberance:

The priest has already succeeded in changing Marie’s immediate naive pleasure in the beauties of nature into a religious admiration. For her, nature has already become devout, Christianised nature, debased to creation. The transparent sea of space is desecrated and turned into the dark symbol of stagnant eternity. She has already learnt that all human manifestations of her being were “profane,” devoid of religion, of real consecration, that they were impious and godless. The priest must soil her in her own eyes, he must trample underfoot her natural, spiritual resources and means of grace, in order to make her receptive to the supernatural means of grace he promises her, baptism[55]

This rings akin to Nietzsche’s condemnation of Christianity as an antilife religion, subjecting existence to the yoke of metaphysical morality and banishing all natural drives. But, in crucial distinction to Nietzsche, Marx at all times sees religion as a dehumanizing force in the service of hierarchy. Nietzsche, as we saw, highly praised the aptitude of religion to sedate the masses and teach them “to preserve their contentment with the real order.” This “holy lie” was needed to keep the multitude dutifully serving the elite, so that the latter would be free to elevate life. But Marx sees nothing life-enhancing about the Church’s administration of tranquilizers to the poor. He disdainfully cites the priest’s sermon to the former prostitute as the expression of the hollow Christian promise of the hereafter:

The grey-headed slave of religion answers: “You must renounce hope of effacing this desolate page from your life, but you must trust in the infinite mercy of God. Here below, my poor child, you will have tears, remorse and penance, but one day up above, forgiveness and eternal bliss!” [56]

Far from finding such a ploy honorable, as Nietzsche did, Marx dismisses it as “hypocritical sophistry.” Importantly, in The Holy Family we can also find Marx proposing to go beyond the conventional Christian dichotomy of good and evil, again in apparent consonance with Nietzsche. But for Marx, the moralizing discourse of good and evil is not a stratagem devised by the weak slaves to resist the power of the strong. On the contrary, it is one more means of domination wielded by the ruling classes, who loftily preach to the poor the commandment to do good, while simultaneously imposing upon them the material necessity to commit crime:

[The priest] proves, as the commonest of bourgeois would, that she could have remained good: “There are many virtuous people in Paris today.” The hypocritical priest knows quite well that at any hour of the day, in the busiest streets, those virtuous people of Paris pass indifferently by little girls of seven or eight years who sell allumettes and the like until about midnight as Marie herself used to do and who, almost without exception, will have the same fate as Marie. [57]

In opposition to this notion of good and evil, Marx advances what may be counted as their own version of beyond good and evil:

Good and evil, as Marie conceives them, are not the moral abstractions of good and evil. She is good because she has never caused suffering to anyone, she has always been human towards her inhuman surroundings. She is good because the sun and the flowers reveal to her her own sunny and blossoming nature. She is good because she is still young, full of hope and vitality. Her situation is not good, because it puts an unnatural constraint on her, because it is not the expression of her human impulses, not the fulfillment of her human desires; because it is full of torment and without joy. She measures her situation in life by her own individuality, her essential nature, not by the ideal of what is good. … [Marie] is neither good nor bad, but human[58]

To move in a Marxist way beyond good and evil is to access the human, all too human. Superseding dehumanizing Christian morality equals quitting the realm of metaphysical and supernatural injunctions, and asserting the natural and the human. Nature is not posited as the cold, senseless antithesis of humanity, as in Nietzsche, but rather as a mirror in which humanity can legitimately recognize its own reflection. Anthropomorphism is therefore sanctioned, not in an ontological sense but as a legitimate human need. Marie is fully entitled to measure “her situation in life by her own individuality, her essential nature.” The human perspective is consciously given priority. It never occurs to Marx to suggest that men, or women, should naturalize themselves, in Nietzsche’s sense of denying their own human nature, of becoming the Übermensch. On the contrary, Marx at all times espouses the effort to humanize nature, a process for which he used the term “objectification” (Vergegenständlichung): “man’s natural means of projecting himself through his productive activity into nature. … [It] affords a free man the possibility of contemplating himself in a world of his own making.” [59]

This is an example of how Nietzscheanism was not a clean break with nineteenth-century mores and norms, but also a continuation, in many regards a tactical adjustment more than a strategic transformation. If, in the nineteenth century, the priest was above humanity, urging it to go beyond its nature, in the twentieth century, this role was entrusted to the Übermensch. Nietzsche substituted atheistic dehumanization for a religious one. In this way he sought to repel the danger that atheism would proceed to revolutionize society, and to divert its potentially radical thrust into favorable channels.

Although Marx’s proposals in The Holy Family are seen to contradict Nietzscheanism, they are nonetheless still posited visà-vis the old morality, the traditional defense of hierarchy. Only indirectly and in retrospect can we read into them an alternative to Nietzsche’s new morality, preempting the beyond-good-and-evil gospel. Remarkably, however, Engels has provided us with what can be counted a well-nigh explicit rejection of Nietzscheanism and the ideal of the Übermensch. One of Engels’s early pamphlets is a discussion of an embryonic form of Nietzscheanism, the ideas of Thomas Carlyle. In his social sympathies, Carlyle, like Nietzsche, was essentially an aristocratic antagonist to capitalism, coming from the ranks of the Tories. As Engels establishes, it is only his position as an outsider to the bourgeois world that enables him to criticize it. The Tory, “whose power and unchallenged dominance have been broken by industry … hates it and sees in it at best a necessary evil.” [60] The Whigs, in comparison, being as they are wholly committed to English industry, the firm bedrock of their socioeconomic prevalence, cannot rise above their vested interests and critically confront the social order. This is the class standpoint that permits Carlyle to unfold his ruthless critique of English society, the profane cult of Mammon, the material as well as moral degeneration brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Engels accepts, even applauds, the diagnosis as such:

This is the condition of England according to Carlyle. a total disappearance of all general human interests, a universal despair of truth and humanity and in consequence a universal isolation of men in their own “brute individuality,” … a war of all against all, … a disproportionately strong working class, in intolerable oppression and wretchedness, in furious discontent and rebellion against the old social order, and hence, a threatening, irresistibly advancing democracy — everywhere chaos, disorder, anarchy, dissolution of the old ties of society. … Thus far, if we discount a few expressions that have derived from Carlyle’s particular standpoint, we must allow the truth of all he says. He, alone of the “respectable” class, has kept his eyes open at least towards the facts, he has at least correctly apprehended the immediate present, and that is indeed a very great deal for an “educated” Englishman. [61]

Engels is even willing to assume that the shortcomings in Carlyle’s diagnosis are not a result of an inherent reactionary standpoint, but merely of a romantic failure to come to terms with Hegelianism as a genuine, rational, and historical overcoming of religion. It is against the background of such a favorable overall evaluation that Engels’s firm rejection of Carlyle’s positive project stands out with particular clarity. Carlyle, like Nietzsche after him, confronts the bourgeois reality with deep aversion. And, like his German counterpart, he finds repulsive above all else the moral and cultural conditions dominating under bourgeois rule. These for him form the basic problem, rather than any material suffering, however acute, endured by the proletariat. [62] Carlyle conceives of modern “atheism” as a symptom of a general process that is very similar to what Nietzsche would later refer to as “nihilism” — namely, an erosion of values and loss of meaning, a gradual sinking into an axiological and epistemological morass. [63] In the words of Engels:

But we have seen what Carlyle calls atheism: it is not so much disbelief in a personal God, as disbelief in the inner essence, in the infinity of the universe, disbelief in reason, despair of the intellect and the truth; his struggle is not against the disbelief in the revelation of the Bible, but against the most frightful disbelief, the disbelief in the “Bible of Universal History.” [64]

The solution Carlyle envisions is not material but some moral regeneration, to be worked out within the existing framework of capitalism. For all his contempt at the rule of money, he does not contemplate the overthrow of bourgeois rule and the abolition of its material premise, private property, but rather emotionally clamors for the arrival of the noble capitalists, the heroic “captains of industry.” He intends to remedy the moral affliction of the age by founding a new religion, a new popular cult, the cult of heroes, under which “work” — made a fetish by Carlyle, having recourse to Goethe’s “religion of work” — will recover its meaning and dignity. Capitalism as a cultural phenomenon is somehow to be eliminated without ousting capitalism as a mode of production:

In order to effect this organisation [of work], in order to put true guidance and true government in the place of false guidance, Carlyle longs for a “true aristocracy,” a “hero-worship, ” and puts forward the second great problem to discover the άριςτοι, the best, whose task it is to combine “with inevitable Democracy indispensable Sovereignty.” [65]

For this sort of project, Engels can feel no sympathy and he must part ways with Carlyle. The effort to exceed humanity by way of the hero he regards a neoreligious, pantheistic move, still positing a suprahuman entity above humans instead of accepting once and for all the human as such: “a new religion, a pantheistic hero-worship, a cult of work, ought to be set up or is to be expected; but this is impossible; all the possibilities of religion are exhausted.” [66] As the antidote to Carlyle’s mysticism, Engels advocates the principled acknowledgment of humanity’s intrinsic value, in noteworthy sentences that might have been written with Nietzsche’s Übermensch in mind:

We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to man the substance he has lost through religion; not as a divine but as a human substance. … We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and superhuman [übermenschlich] and thereby to get rid of untruthfulness, for the root of all untruth and lying is the pretension of the human and the natural to be superhuman and supernatural. [67]

It may be argued that Engels’s notion of what is übermenschlich and Nietzsche’s use of the term bear only a superficial resemblance, since Nietzsche meant his Übermensch to be nonreligious, indeed antireligious, as well as perfectly natural. Yet Engels’s discussion of the residues of the supernatural in Carlyle unmistakably includes the “secular” notion of the man above man, the hero. For Engels, this allegedly “natural” hero is just as metaphysical as any entity claiming supernatural origins:

Carlyle has still enough religion to remain in a state of unfreedom; pantheism still recognises something higher than man himself. Hence his longing for a “true aristocracy,” for “heroes”; as if these heroes could at best be more than men[68]

Significantly, Engels does not conceive of “man himself” in terms of a necessary compromise, a down-to-earth acquiescence with austere reality at the expense of the grandeur of heroic fantasy. Rather, the human being is celebrated as being unsurpassable in magnificence: “Man’s own substance is far more splendid and sublime than the imaginary substance of any conceivable ‘God,’ who is after all only the more or less indistinct and distorted image of man himself.” [69] It seems quite safe to assume that Nietzsche’s Übermensch would have been regarded by Engels as one more exhibit in this stock of possible gods. What is more, as Engels proceeds to ponder the political and social implications of Carlyle’s hero, he emphatically impugns the concrete, proto-Nietzschean justification of hierarchy attendant on such a hero:

If he [Carlyle] had understood man as man in all his infinite complexity, he would not have conceived the idea of once more dividing mankind into two lots, sheep and goats, rulers and ruled, aristocrats and the rabble, lords and dolts, he would have seen the proper social function of talent not in ruling by force, but acting as a stimulant and taking the lead. [70]

Though a firm critic of bourgeois parliamentarism, Engels defends the objectives of democracy against Carlyle’s attacks:

Mankind is surely not passing through democracy to arrive back eventually at the point of departure. … Democracy, true enough, is only a transitional stage, though not towards a new, improved aristocracy, but towards real human freedom; just as the irreligiousness of the age will eventually lead to complete emancipation from everything that is religious, superhuman and supernatural, and not to its restoration. [71]

Finally, Engels puts his finger on the decisive difference between his own critique of capitalism and Carlyle’s, a difference that is not confined to the realm of philosophical theory, but comes down to their respective approaches to the social question of property relations. Carlyle’s ultimate failure to go beyond the superhuman and affirm the human is ascribed to his inability to envisage a move beyond capital. “Carlyle recognises the inadequacy of ‘competition, demand’ and ‘supply, Mammonism,’ etc. … So why has he not drawn the straightforward conclusion from all these assumptions and rejected the whole concept of property? How does he think he will destroy ‘competition,’ ‘supply and demand,’ Mammonism, etc., as long as the root of all these things, private property, exists?” [72] This decisive allegiance to capital, then, is what conditions, according to Engels, the hero-workship that Carlyle — and, at a second remove, Nietzsche — advocates.

And so, if Nietzsche regarded the socialist tarantulas as still lurking in the shadow of God, the socialists themselves could just as surely sniff God’s aroma emanating from the concept of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Strangely, this is a theological debate that is not really about religion, but about its profane uses here on earth. But this, perhaps, is the true nature of all theology. The general perseverance of the superhuman that Marx argued against was also that of the Nietzschean superhuman and the elitism-cum-capitalism attendant on it, while the God that Nietzsche sought to expel was very much the persistence of Christianity through socialism. This is not to say that we are permitted to reduce Nietzsche’s (proto)existential composite of yearnings and anxieties, like those of his generation and of subsequent ones, to a clever ruse to parry the offensive of socialism. The anxieties were real enough, grounded in the reality of a disenchanted, desacralized world, just as the yearnings for wholeness and meaning were natural and genuine responses to this very same modern “void.” [73]

Not so much were the questions as such ideological, but the answers; not the realization that modernity is indeed an ambivalent “progress” is here analyzed as an ideological means of class struggle, but the proposed “solutions” of principled irrationalism, pantheism, vitalism, etc. Having said that, it should be clear that not even the questions raised by incipient existentialism were simply, as often construed, the universal expression of the concerns of “modern man.” The death of God, even to the extent that it can be seen as a universal catastrophe, as opposed to an event of a limited, local scale, must be evaluated in its social, rather than metaphysical, context. Not all classes of society responded equally, as abstract “human beings,” to the sight of God’s corpse. For it must be borne in mind that with God, the ruling classes had lost not only a spiritual helmsman and guarantor of meaning but also a material provider and social patron. To be sure, for the subordinate classes too, the weakening of religion as a mass doctrine was not bereft of painful consequences. But for them the political implications, at least to start with, seemed very different: a great oppressive force was removed from their path, revealing before them the promising horizon of a better future. God was too much part of the ancien régime to be truly grieved for.

At a later historical stage, as God was being replaced ever more effectively in hegemonic doctrines with a social Darwinist Nature, relentlessly weeding the “misfits” and rewarding “the entrepreneurial spirit,” the ruling classes were conspicuously relieved of some of the early existential desolation to reembrace liberal secularism, whereas the masses, “stubbornly” and “ignorantly,” often retained belief in a merciful God, pledged to the underdog. Hence the perplexing phenomenon, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, of God freely shifting alliances and crossing over to the side of the working class and of colonized “Third World” nations, against Western, secular, market-pantheism, as shown by his support for such diverse movements as those inspired by liberation theology in Africa and Latin America, or by the (indeed quite disparate) theologies of what is generally known as “Islamic fundamentalism.” God nowadays — as borne out perhaps most tellingly by the events of September 11, 2001 — fights on both sides of the “clash-of-civilizations” divide. It is a schizophrenic God, rising to “save America” from the terrorist attacks he himself had launched, surviving some 150 years of atheistic onslaught. This is, indeed, a God — both aroma and shadow.

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[1] “The point was not to preach atheism, but to get down to the business of class struggle.” — David S. Pena, Marx and Engels on Religion: A Reply to Ishay Landa. [web] 

[2] “If Pena overestimates the importance I ascribe to for M&E’s atheism, he underestimates M&E’s stake in atheism. He makes much of the fact that both were optimistic that religion would disappear of itself and that they therefore turned to deal with other, more pressing matters. He forgets, however, that they did so only because the premise of a weakened religious hegemony was already to a great extent in place when they entered the debate, that the great, indeed epoch-making atheistic spadework was already accomplished before them, …” — Ishay Landa, On Marxism, Religion, Straws, and Beams: A Response to David S. Pena’s Reply. [web] 

[3] 1998, 269-78. 

[4] A comparable position was expressed by Gilles Deleuze (1985, 142-49). 

[5] For a book-length exposition of such an approach from a Christian perspective, see Merold Westphal’s accessible, well-written and often compellingly argued study (1998). Here Marx and Nietzsche are frequently linked together as advancing different but nonetheless complementary critiques of Christianity (22-24, 228, 232, 236, 243, 245). For a somewhat similar, if shorter, argument, see Hull (1997). 

[6] Marx 1975a, 175. 

[7] Quoted in Bendix (1974, 67). It is necessary to clarify that this account of the function of religion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe addresses the hegemonic, institutional role of religion, and does not dispute either the existence or importance of counterhegemonic religious undercurrents, embodied in the case of England in such dissenting sects as the Quakers, the Camisards, or the Moravians. For a nuanced discussion of the uses and abuses of religion, as a major instrument for instilling quietism and work discipline in the working class, on the one hand, and as preserving a popular ethos of dissent, on the other, see chaps. 2 and 11 of E. P. Thompson’s classic study, The Making of the English Working Class (1991). 

[8] 1975, 464. 

[9] Marx 1975c, 168. 

[10] Marx 1975a, 176. 

[11] Marx 1975a, 182. 

[12] 1975, 457. 

[13] 1986, 1030-32. 

[14] 1990a, 86-87. 

[15] 1990b, 198. 

[16] 1995, 286-87. 

[17] 1974, 181. 

[18] 1974, 181. 

[19] 1974, 169. 

[20] 1974, 168. 

[21] 1974, 180. 

[22] 1974, 174. 

[23] 1975a, 182. 

[24] 1968, 398-99. 

[25] 1975a, 182. 

[26] Bédarida 1997, 161. 

[27] 1997, 181-82. 

[28] Consider also the following commentary:

For the Nazis, especially, the concept of “humanity” is biological nonsense, for man, “species-man,” is part of nature. … [I]n place of God and any ideas of divine humanity, Nazism puts life itself. This in effect downgrades man: “Man is nothing special, nothing more than a piece of earth,” Himmler tells us. (Neocleous 1997, 76)
Elsewhere in this excellent introduction to fascist ideology, the author briefly refers to Nietzsche’s important contribution to the making of the fascist worldview (3-13). 

[29] 1981, 261. 

[30] Two fairly recent studies arguing the case for Marx as a pioneer of ecological thought are Burkett (1999) and Foster (2000). 

[31] 1975b, 296-97. 

[32] 1975b, 298. 

[33] 1975b, 300. 

[34] 301-2. 

[35] 304. 

[36] 1968, 77. 

[37] 1969, 124. 

[38] 1995, 101. 

[39] 1995, 101. 

[40] 100. 

[41] 100. 

[42] 99. 

[43] See, for example, Roderick Stackelberg’s commendation of Nietzsche as “a clairvoyant critic of impending totalitarianism” (2002, 311). 

[44] Nietzsche 1968, 506. 

[45] This is also the main weakness in Merold Westphal’s account of Nietzsche’s critique of religion as targeting the self-righteous vengefulness of the weak. [74] 

[46] 101. 

[47] 101-2. 

[48] 1974, 167. 

[49] 1995, 287-88. 

[50] 1995, 15. 

[51] 1990b, 99-100. 

[52] 1988, 315. 

[53] 1990b, 97. 

[54] Marx and Engels 1975, 174. 

[55] 172. 

[56] 174. 

[57] 172. 

[58] 169-70. 

[59] Lucio Colletti’s exposition of the term (1974, 431). 

[60] 1975, 447. 

[61] 1975, 456. 

[62] To be sure, Carlyle’s critique of capitalism far surpassed anything that Nietzsche ever put forward, if not in regard to substance, then at least as far as apparent sincerity of emotion and intention are concerned. [75] 

[63] See Nietzsche’s distinction between the passive nihilism of the weak, characteristic of mass society, and the active nihilism of the strong, which he saw far more positively (1968, 17, 316-18). For a discussion of the concept of nihilism in Nietzsche see, for example, White (1987). 

[64] 457. 

[65] 460. 

[66] 462. 

[67] 463. 

[68] 466. 

[69] 465. 

[70] 466. 

[71] 466. 

[72] 466. 

[73] Cf. Fredric Jameson’s thoughtful remarks on Nietzschean existentialism as a response to capitalist instrumentalization and the perceived erosion of values during the nineteenth century (1981, 251-52). 

[74] This leads him to conclude that Marx and Nietzsche are complementary: “Taken together, Marx and Nietzsche remind us of this truth. Masters may be wicked sinners, but that does not make their slaves into saints” (1998, 230). In an idealist manner, the author believes that the gist of Nietzsche’s opposition to religious ressentiment was just such an aversion to the self-deception of the slaves, and he credits Nietzsche with all sorts of stringent moral and intellectual virtues. “Nietzsche,” we are at one place assured, “treats honesty and intellectual integrity like some kind of Kantian categorical imperative” (1998, 237). He completely overlooks Nietzsche’s social commitment to the cause of the “masters” and his interest in guaranteeing their rule; Nietzsche’s partial affirmation of Christianity as a means for ruling is nowhere noted. Westphal fails to grasp that Nietzsche did not level his critique at some excess of Christian-cum-revolutionary zeal, but rather at the revolutionary project as such. His ultimate aim, in other words, was not to civilize revolution, but to discredit altogether the very movement toward an egalitarian society. It is important to add that, extracted from the counterrevolutionary ideology in which they are firmly embedded, Nietzsche’s insights into the potential mendaciousness of radical leaders or preachers, religious or otherwise, and his questioning of the purity of their motives are by no means to be dismissed. 

[75] Although a number of Nietzsche’s utterances sympathizing with the working class are virtually plagiarized from Carlyle, they never quite generate the same sort of moral indignation, but give the impression of being merely tongue-in-cheek attempts at winning over the workers’ trust. For Carlyle’s influence on Nietzsche in that respect, compare, for instance, the closing section of Carlyle’s Chartism (1839), titled “Impossible,” in which he analyzes the working-class problem in Europe and proposes the solution of mass emigration, with Nietzsche’s section from Daybreak (1881), titled “The Impossible Class,” in which he analyzes the working-class problem in Europe and proposes the solution of mass emigration. And this “parallel” is by no means a single case.