Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

Domenico Losurdo interviewed about Friedrich Nietzsche (2009)

31 minutes | Deutsch English | Interviews

Domenico Losurdo’s critical intellectual biography of Nietzsche is a masterful and rewarding read, but, due to its length (about 1100 pages) and its dizzying source-set of citations, it can also be daunting and disorienting. This interview with Telepolis’s Richard Jellen is therefore incredibly useful, insofar as it serves as a superb introductory summary.

Jellen: Was and is Nietzsche understood at all as he wanted to be? And, if not, why not?

Losurdo: In my book I argue that Nietzsche must be defended from his uncritical apologists. Is this not a paradox?

We are dealing with a philosopher who, throughout his development, tirelessly repeats that slavery is the indispensable foundation of culture. How is this motif to be interpreted? The beginnings of Nietzsche’s literary activity fall in the middle of the American Civil War, at a time when the abolition of slavery in the United States corresponds to the abolition of serfdom in Russia. In the years that followed, while forms of servitude or semi-servitude persisted in the two countries, the debate on these issues developed more sharply than ever at the international level. England, which had abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833, imposed in the 1870s and 1880s a naval blockade on the East African coasts to prevent the slave trade, which was still ongoing, especially to Brazil, where slavery and the corresponding slave trade were not abolished until 1888, the year in which the philosopher’s waking existence was coming to an end.

The debate over slavery also strongly interlinks with Antiquity (Nietzsche’s formational academic discipline): in the U.S., anti-abolitionist polemics repeatedly extol the glorious flourishing of ancient Greece, which would be unthinkable without the presence of the beneficent institution of slavery, so abhorrent to ill-fated ideologues with no sense of reality. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, the curriculum of schools and universities in the Southern states centered on the study of Latin and Greek classics — especially Aristotle, celebrated as the theorist of the natural opposition between freemen and slaves.

The theme of slavery, omnipresent in Nietzsche and in the cultural and political debate of the second half of the 19th century, disappears — or is transformed into an innocent metaphor — through today’s hermeneutics of innocence (in Bataille, Deleuze, Vattimo, Colli, Montinari, etc.). The philosopher is “saved,” but the salvation is dearly bought: the philosopher is portrayed as irresponsibly and repeatedly recurring to the “metaphor” of slavery, apparently in full ignorance of the sharp polemics and fierce contemporaneous struggles that were being waged over just this subject.

Jellen: How can one discern the unity of Nietzsche’s thought from the jumble of his writings, when they sometimes contradict each other apparently at whim? What is this unity, in your opinion?

Losurdo: Young Nietzsche is enthusiastic about the military triumphs of Bismarckian Germany; mature Nietzsche is enraged by them. At first glance, the transformation that has occurred seems radical, but it would be superficial to speak of inconsistency. The young Nietzsche is excited by the rise of Germany and its victory over France, the country of the Revolution and the Paris Commune; later he notices that the Second Reich is also infected by parliamentarism and democracy — by the Revolution. It is at the forefront of compulsory schooling and the spread of education; it is the country where trade union organization and the feminist movement are strongest, and where the presence of the Workers’ Party is more rooted and socially enmeshed; it is the country where Bismarck introduced universal (male) suffrage for the Reichstag elections — still unknown to England — and where he preempts a “revolution from below” with a “revolution from above,” introducing the first (mild) measures of social security. This is how Nietzsche’s passionate glorification of Germany increasingly becomes a relentless denunciation.

Young Nietzsche expresses admiration for Kant and Beethoven; mature Nietzsche denounces them, detecting the guiding ideas and ideals of the French Revolution in them. Nietzsche begins as a disciple of Wagner and praises him as the renewer of Greek tragedy and of great Greek culture as a whole — a culture where slave labor as such was a beneficial and obvious reality; a mature Nietzsche condemns Wagner principally for his enduring attachment to Christianity — a religion that announces the beginning of the fatal slave revolt because it preaches the equality of all souls before God.

Only by not repressing this element that deeply permeates his thought, only by keeping well in mind the criticism and militant condemnation of revolution and modernity, can one grasp the unity of Nietzsche’s thought and its inner consequence. Throughout a course of development marked by various different stages — by different strategies — Nietzsche never wavered from criticizing and condemning revolution and modernity.

And this is not all. The judgments that the philosopher makes in the most diverse fields are always formulated from a clearly counter-revolutionary perspective. Why does The Birth of Tragedy condemn opera? Not for aesthetic reasons. Nietzsche writes that opera must be fought and even “destroyed” because, by spreading “optimism,” it incites slaves to rebel, imagining they can achieve happiness. And why does the late Nietzsche express so much contempt for “sociology”? The new discipline (the term had been recently invented) is renewed proof of how modernity and revolution brings with it uniformity and massification: Gone are hierarchy and insurmountable qualitative differences; the society studied by “sociology” consists of ideally equal individuals, all equally subject to comparison and classification. [1]

There is no discipline, however remote it may at first appear to be from political conflict, that Nietzsche does not interpret from a counter-revolutionary political perspective. Physics, far from being neutral, is also afflicted by the ruinous egalitarianism that spreads at the socio-political level: so-called “‘Nature’s conformity to law’” goes hand in hand with “‘Everywhere equality before the law.’” In truth, it is “a fine instance of secret motive, in which the vulgar antagonism to everything privileged and autocratic […] is once more disguised.” To shout in the manner of the physicists, “‘Cheers for natural law!’” is only another way to shout in the manner of the anarchists, “‘No gods, no masters!’” [2]

There is no doubt about it: the guiding thread of Nietzsche’s thought is the condemnation of revolution at the political, philosophical, and epistemological level.

Jellen: According to you, Nietzsche’s “unfashionable observations” [3] are not nearly as “unfashionable” as their author would suggest. What sources and discourses does Nietzsche draw from in his work?

Losurdo: On the one hand, in Nietzsche’s work, “unfashionable” refers to his own aristocratic ethos: it is necessary to create a divide between the elite and the masses; he’s distinguishing himself from those intellectuals who fail to respond vigorously to democratic and socialist tendencies, who allow themselves to be swept along by historical trends. On the other hand, Nietzsche describes his era itself as “unfashionable.” The necessity of a “relentless annihilation of all things degenerate and parasitic” [4] is argued for in reference to a sorrowful pining for Ancient Greece, where “religion did not preach morality, so on the whole customs were left free” and allowed without hesitation “the killing of the embryo, the elimination of the fruits of unfortunate coitus.” [5]

Despite this affectation, Nietzsche repeatedly refers, explicitly and implicitly, to Francis Galton, the inventor of eugenics, a new “science” that was decidedly “current” and “fashionable” in the second half of the 19th century. Although he harkens back to antiquity for proof that slavery is the inescapable foundation of culture, he expresses great contempt for Harriet Beecher-Stowe, author of the famous abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; when he does so, he behaves exactly like the U.S. anti-abolitionists.

In Nietzsche, slavery makes it possible for elites to live lives of leisure (otium). The excellence of this social order is proved by reference to antiquity, but the otium of “the best” is also connected to colonial expansion, which places the natives under forced labor. Once again, Nietzsche refers to practices common to his era:

By what means should one treat raw peoples — and one can touch in praxi, with one’s hands, the fact that the “barbarity” of means is nothing arbitrary and random — when, with all one’s European pampering, one finds it necessary to remain, in the Congo or wherever, master over the barbarians? [6]

Nietzsche’s choice of Congo as an example is interesting. Only a year after Nietzsche’s death, Joseph Conrad travels to Africa and the Congo, and gathers the information and inspiration that would later become his novel Heart of Darkness. In it he describes the horrors of colonial expansion and slavery, but less abstractly than Nietzsche: “those heads (of rebels) drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s windows.” [7]

Jellen: I’d like to phrase the following question in this way because I imagine Nietzsche would have been upset by it: What is “good” and what is “evil” about the philosopher who is “beyond good and evil”? And can the two be separated at all?

Losurdo: Indeed, the two sides cannot be separated. Against the hermeneutics of innocence it must be emphasized that Nietzsche’s demystifying potential can only be grasped if one understands the extremely reactionary character of his thought. To repress his glorification of slavery or to interpret it metaphorically is, as we have seen, to do great injustice to the philosopher one claims to revere.

Let us try, however, to take into account the historical context. In the end, the glorification of slavery has an unexpected critical positive. It coincides with the period in which European colonialism glorifies its expansion as a decisive contribution to the struggle against the barbarity of slavery (i.e.: against America, Russia, Islam, etc. — R. D.). Thus, a crusade — sometimes understood in the literal and Christian sense of the word — is proclaimed; but its advance goes hand in hand with the subjugation of native populations to a more or less explicit forced labor, and even with an increase in slave labor (to say nothing of the decomposition and destruction of native culture). Nietzsche’s glorification of slavery then paradoxically demystifies the real colonial practices of enslavement and ethnocide:

The abolition of slavery, supposedly a tribute to “human dignity,” is actually a destruction of a fundamentally different species, undermining its values and happiness. [8]

In the last decades of the 19th century, Bismarck, Germany’s Chancellor, also adopts slogans about the abolition of slavery in the colonies, the expansion of culture, and humanitarian principles. With these words he turns to his collaborators: “Could we come up with some gruesome details about human torture somewhere?” The ensuing tide of moral indignation makes it easier for him to call for a crusade against “slaveholding Islam,” seeking to consolidate Germany’s great power positioning. One could argue, with Beyond Good and Evil: “No one is as much a liar as the indignant man.” [9]

No critique of “Humanitarian War” or the “Imperialism of Human Rights” can disregard the lesson of Nietzsche.

Jellen: How important is in Nietzsche the difference between “transversal” (elites vs. masses) and “horizontal” (European, African, Asian, etc.) racialization?

Losurdo: In the glorious, imperial Germany evoked by Mein Kampf, “It shall be a greater honour to be a citizen of this Reich, even as a street-sweeper, than to be the King of a foreign State.” [10] In Hitler’s view, the Germanic nation — the master race — is called upon to enslave lesser nations — servant races — dwelling in Eastern Europe. The concept of nation which originated from the French Revolution (all citizens are equal members of the nation) is used and distorted by imperialism to oppose higher nation-races to lower nation-races. This is the “horizontal” racialization.

Along the lines of Boulainvillers and Gobineau (Racist aristocrats opposed to the French Revolution — R. D.), Nietzsche rejects with horror the very idea of nation, which for him is tainted by despicable egalitarianism: it places both masters and slaves, both the “race” of rulers and the “race” of servants, on the same level. It equates them, as “citizens.” The opposite position to this is “transversal” racialization. It breaks down nations by arguing that upper class and lower class — masters and slaves — belong to different races. It unites upper classes and lower class across national borders, requiring the lower to serve the upper on a global scale.

The 20th century witnessed a transition from “transversal” to “horizontal” racialization: neither Wilhelmine nor Hitler’s Germany could have convinced the masses to sacrifice themselves had they labeled them, in advance, a mishmash of chandala [11] and slaves by nature, as Nietzsche does.

Jellen: Nietzsche virtually identifies Christianity with the socialists. Given how the left behaves these days, there is probably some truth to this position. [12] Do Nietzsche’s remarks in this respect have a rational kernel? In his opinion, what do socialists and Christians have in common, and what separates them?

Losurdo: Nietzsche readily notes the strong potential for social protest expressed in Christianity. However, this is not where his originality lies. Rather, it lies in having read in evangelical preaching the ideological origins of the long revolutionary cycle that is devastating the West: “it is Christianity, let us not doubt, and Christian valuations, which convert every revolution into a carnival of blood and crime!” [13] One must not be deceived by the spiritual and edifying appearance of Jesus’s discourse: “In the New Testament, especially in the Gospels,” one hears “an indirect form of the most abysmal fury of denigration and destructive anger.” [14] Those who, in order to explain the Jacobin or Bolshevik terror, put the Enlightenment and Rousseau or Marx and Engels under indictment would do well to reflect on these explanations!

That said, however, it should be immediately made clear that Nietzsche completely missed the basic difference that exists between Christianity on the one hand and the socialist movement of Marxist orientation on the other. From the Gospels (and before that already from the Jewish prophets) the social protest of the poor and exploited has expressed itself with a “philosophy of poverty,” i.e. with the appreciation of a life marked by asceticism, of righteous poverty (“Blessed are the poor!”), of the denunciation of “luxury” and “decadence.” This tendency has manifested itself over a long period of time, and quite apart from Christianity in, for example, authors such as Rousseau and Fichte.

The orientation of Marx and Engels is quite different. With them, the condemnation of poverty — of the miserable existence to which the masses are condemned — takes place in the name of a “philosophy of wealth,” a conception that celebrates the development of the productive forces. In their eyes, the capitalist system is to be considered historically overcome not only because it is founded on an unjust distribution of socially produced wealth, but because with its regularly recurring crises of overproduction it fetters the further development of social wealth, and makes the full development of the human personality impossible. [15] The criticism Nietzsche makes of the social protest movements — that they are characterized by a narrow and provincial view of life, by a strict and narrow-minded morality — do not apply in this sense when it comes to the Marxist-oriented socialist movement.

The Marxist movement has certainly been historically influenced by the “philosophy of poverty” of the most of dispossesed when put in practice by immense masses in underdeveloped countries, but this is not its most distinguishing aspect.

Jellen: In general, what role does antisemitism play in Nietzsche’s writings?

Losurdo: In my book I distinguish between antisemitism in the sense of race, and Judeophobia in the sense of historical-cultural argumentation.

In early Nietzsche, in Nietzsche before the “enlightened” period, hostility to the Jews plays a central role: the condemnation of “Socratism” is in fact the condemnation of Judaism. To be clear about this, it is enough to read the original version of the lecture given in Basel on 1 February 1870 (“Socrates and Tragedy”), which concludes thus: “This Socratism is the Jewish press: I say nothing more.” [16] Even the first Unfashionable Observation cannot be understood without hostility to the Jews: Nietzsche suspects celebrated writer David Friedrich Strauss of being a Jew because of his name, and scoffs at what he deems his dreadful German, seeing him as incapable of correctly using a language that is not truly his. [17] [18]

As far as the late Nietzsche is concerned, he distinguishes between three figures of Jewishness. The philosopher looks with favor on the figure of the Jewish capitalist or financier. He even wishes for a conjugal and eugenic fusion with the Prussian officer corps, in order to supply the ruling class with new blood and thus strengthen it; to put it in a position to unitedly and energetically oppose democratic and socialist subversion: “Christian stallions, Jewish mares.” [19] On the other hand, Nietzsche speaks contemptuously of the figure of the Jewish immigrant (as he does of the immigrant in general): “One would as little choose ‘early Christians’ for companions as Polish Jews: not that one need seek out an objection to them.... Neither has a pleasant smell.” [20] Above all, Nietzsche gives free rein to his contempt and hatred for the figure of the Jewish intellectual: the subversive intellectual par excellence is, in one way or another, present in all revolutions. For the philosopher, the long revolutionary cycle that is devastating the West can be described as a two thousand year cycle that goes from the Jewish prophets to the socialist movement, and in which the Jewish presence continues to be of concern.

Jellen: Do you see differences and similarities between Nietzsche’s and Hegel’s critique of Kant’s moral teaching?

Losurdo: In the Nietzsche of the “enlightened” period we can read: “the men of love and self-sacrifice have an interest in the survival of unloving and selfish egoists.” [21] In order to celebrate its own self-righteousness, the moral posture that insists on altruism presupposes the evil that it tirelessly condemns. It is interesting to note that a similar criticism is already made by Hegel of the Christian commandment to love one’s neighbor and to help the poor: the one who obeys this commandment can boast of his moral excellence only when there are poor to help. In other words, the narcissistic self-regard of the moral subject is the other side of the coin of the moralistic worldview.

Having traveled some distance together, Hegel and Nietzsche then strike out in two radically opposite directions. In Hegel, the critique of the moral worldview amounts to the assertion of the necessity of a concrete moral order that would be able to incorporate the moral needs of the subject — needs that, precisely when they assume the dimension of objectivity, prove their authenticity, and cease to be an instrument of narcissistic self-satisfaction: whoever takes seriously the duty to help the poor must work for the realization of a moral order in which there is no longer any place for poverty, so that even the commandment demanding charity is overcome. For Nietzsche, meanwhile, it is a matter of understanding and accepting that an elevated culture requires the sacrifice of a considerable mass of people — perhaps the greater part of humanity: “If one thinks of the richest human being, the most noble and fruitful, without evil — one is thinking of a contradiction. […] A genius would have to suffer terribly, for all his fecundity wishes to feed selfishly off others, to dominate them, to suck them out, and so on.” [22] [23]

Jellen: Nietzsche, who campaigned with great fervor against social decay, which he interpreted as disease, was himself ill throughout his life; as is well known, he lost his mind after writing Ecce Homo. He himself wrote, “all prejudices come from the bowels.” Can one understand Nietzsche, mature Nietzsche in particular, without having insight into his medical records or psychiatric sessions?

Losurdo: Edmund Husserl has taught us a basic truth: we can examine the psychological or sociological origin of any proposition. We can say that it is, on the psychological level, the expression of a certain state of mind and even of a certain psychopathological tendency; or that it is, on the sociological level, the expression of material interests, and even of egoistic and perverse material interests. Inevitably, however, the philosopher has the task of analyzing the truth of said proposition. We must not proceed differently with regard to the late Nietzsche and, in fact, we are forced to proceed in this way, because Ecce Homo is one of his most fascinating works and because, in any case, it does not contradict his previous production.

It is true that Nietzsche, especially in the last phase of his development, insists on accusing his opponents of psychopathology. This is, however, a grave sign of weakness. When we recur to the category of “degeneracy” to explain struggles and history, the possibility of self-reflection is lost. In other words, an author cannot apply to his own discourse and to himself the criteria of interpretation and criticism that he formulates for the discourses of others. Nietzsche tirelessly insists that his antagonists, and only his antagonists, are sick:

All questions of politics, of social order, of education, have been falsified, root and branch, owing to the fact that the most noxious men have been taken for great men, […]. I wish to be the opposite of these people: it is my privilege to have the very sharpest discernment for every sign of healthy instincts. There is no such thing as a morbid trait in me. [24]

But then it is Nietzsche who, in a letter to his sister, complains about the lack of reviews and critical discussions of his books; instead, “now they muddle by with the words ‘eccentric’, ‘pathological’, ‘psychiatric’.” This exchange of accusations and insults makes one think. It is confirmation that there is no longer room for self-reflection. If self-reflection is an indispensable characteristic of any truly critical, non-dogmatic theory, it must be then said that the late Nietzsche is decidedly dogmatic.

Jellen: Nietzsche saw himself as a social biologist. He asserted slavery was the basic precondition for any cultural development. He recommended eugenics (i.e. biological manipulation), as a solution to the social problems of his time: German landed aristocrats and Jewish bourgeois women (“Christian stallions, Jewish mares”) were to alleviate the tensions within the German upper class, by marrying and fusing their traits. As for the poor, he recommended a highly restrictive family policy, going as far as “castration” and the “removal of the labia minora.” These themes (topoi) do not occur only occasionally in Nietzsche. Can your framing (“hermeneutics of innocence”) explain how his apologists manage to dismiss all of this as irrelevant?

Losurdo: The hermeneutics of innocence can perhaps be explained by the horror that dialectics elicits in postmodernists.

In Nietzsche we can find both the legitimation of slavery and the appreciation of the emancipation of the individual; both the demand for a critical knowledge that takes totality into account and the condemnation of education for those destined to be slaves or working machines. Is this a contradiction? An important American author, John C. Calhoun, who also served as Vice President of the United States at around the same time (1825-1832), theorized that the absolute inviolability of the sphere of individual liberty went hand in hand with the intransigent defense of the “positive good” of slavery. Calhoun invoked Locke, and with the English liberal, too, the firm condemnation of absolute monarchy is only one side of the coin: the flip side is the unquestioning approval of the absolute power exercised by slaveholders in the colonies over their slaves. The basic tendency of the history of the West finds its conscious expression in Nietzsche, and comes to its completion: a glorification of the emancipated individual based on the enslavement of those excluded from the sacred space of “culture.”

To interpret the liberal tradition and to interpret Nietzsche’s thought only in terms of emancipation is to suppress the terrifying exclusion clauses that characterize both the one and the other. Much like today’s liberals, “innocence hermeneutics” postmodernists fail to understand the contradictory nexus of inclusion/exclusion and emancipation/de-emancipation that characterizes the sociopolitical and philosophical history of the West.

[1] Twilight of the Idols (1888), 37: “My objection to the whole of English and French sociology still continues to be [that] perfectly childlike innocence takes the instincts of decline as the norm, the standard, of sociological valuations. Descending life, the decay of all organising power — that is to say, of all that power which separates, cleaves gulfs, and establishes rank above and below, formulated itself in modern sociology as the ideal.” [web] 

[2] Beyond Good and Evil (1886), 22. [web] 

[3] Nietzsche titled an 1873-1876 collection of four works Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen. This has been variously translated to English as Untimely Meditations, Unfashionable Observations, or Thoughts Out of Season. The wry title, emblematic of how Nietzsche liked to present himself as a thinker, would perhaps today be best translated as Edgy Takes. — R. D. 

[4] The Birth of Tragedy (1872). [web] 

[5] Saemtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, IX, 476. 

[6] Saemtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, XII, 471. 

[7] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899). [web] 

[8] Saemtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, 12, 437. 

[9] Beyond Good and Evil (1886), 26. [web] 

[10] Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf (1926). [web] 

[11] Sanskrit word for someone who deals with disposal of corpses, and is a Hindu lower caste. — R. D. 

[12] See Jones Manoel, “Western Marxism, the Fetish for Defeat, and Christian Culture” (2020). — R. D. [web] 

[13] The Antichrist (1888) [1895], 43. [web] 

[14] Saemtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, XII, 381. 

[15] See also: Roderic Day, “Communist Self-Confidence” (2023). [web] — R. D. 

[16] Saemtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, XIV, 101. 

[17] Unfashionable Observations I, XI: “Let any one try to translate Strauss’s style into Latin: in the case of Kant, be it remembered, this is possible, while with Schopenhauer it even becomes an agreeable exercise. The reason why this test fails with Strauss’s German is not owing to the fact that it is more Teutonic than theirs, but because his is distorted and illogical, whereas theirs is lofty and simple.” [web] — R. D. 

[18] One of Nietzsche’s drafts of this same document is even more explicit: “Somebody once said to me: You, Sir, are a Jew, and as such you don’t have a complete mastery of German.” (Saemtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, VII, 589 [159]) — R. D. 

[19] XIV, 370. [web] 

[20] The Antichrist (1888) [1895], 46. [web] 

[21] Human, All-To-Human (1878), 133. [web] 

[22] Saemtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, IX, 457. 

[23] See also: The Greek State (1871): “Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence. This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture. The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men. Here is to be found the source of that secret wrath nourished by Communists and Socialists of all times, and also by their feebler descendants, the white race of the ‘Liberals,’ not only against the arts, but also against classical antiquity.” [web] — R. D. 

[24] Ecce Homo (1888) [1908], Why I am so clever, 10. [web]