Ishay Landa
Original publication:

Nietzsche, the Chinese Worker’s Friend (1999)



In his 1947 essay ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events’, Thomas Mann evaluates in the following way Friedrich Nietzsche’s attitude to the worker:

It does not testify of enmity against the workers, it testifies to the contrary when he [Nietzsche] says: ‘The workers should learn to feel like soldiers: a fee, a salary but no payment. They should one day live like the bourgeoisie at present; but above them, distinguishing itself by its lack of needs, the higher caste, poorer and simpler, but in possession of the power.’ [1]

Mann initially claims that ‘the socialist touch in his vision of the post-bourgeois life is as strong as the one that can be termed fascist’ [2] and that ‘his idea of culture has here and there a strongly socialist, in any case no longer a bourgeois, colouring.’ [3] Further on, however, he stresses the unbridgeable distance that ultimately separates Nietzsche from socialism:

His philosophy is just as meticulously organized a system as Schopenhauer’s philosophy, developed out of a single, all-embracing basic idea. But this underlying idea is certainly radical, aesthetic art, through which alone his outlook and thought must stand in irreconcilable opposition to all socialism. There are, finally, only two dispositions and inner postures: the aesthetic and the moralistic, and socialism is a strictly moralistic world-view. Nietzsche, in comparison, is the most complete and incurable aesthete the intellectual world knows… [4]

Thus, Mann perceives Nietzsche as opposing not the working class as such, but ‘merely’ its commonly accepted political manifestation — socialism. According to Mann’s analysis, Nietzsche promotes a social and ethical vision genuinely committed to the goals of the working class and in affinity with its tastes and sensitivities, [5] while disagreeing with the official, conventional politics. This divergence has to do with the motives operating in each case: socialism is engaged with the working class because of moral considerations, whereas Nietzsche’s home-grown socialism is founded upon aesthetic impulses. Before examining the validity of such a conception, it is necessary to put the discussion into its context.

Illustrious Nietzscheans

Mann’s reading is by no means an isolated case within Nietzsche criticism. It rather represents a recurring hermeneutic conclusion, even if the explicitness of the German novelist’s claim is somewhat less typical. The general protective — if not approbatory — assessment of Nietzsche’s socio-political vision is certainly not an exception among thinkers broadly associated with the Left. There is not, and never was, any shortage of critics to denounce firmly the ‘appropriation’ and ‘abuse’ of the individualistic, rebellious and relativistic German philosopher by fascism. In fact, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, this critical approach enjoys a privileged position. To grasp its ‘qualitative’ distinction, one only need supply a partial listing of those highly influential names who have assured the German philosopher’s predominant place in modern philosophical discourse: Freud, Weber, Bloch, Bataille, Deleuze, Sartre, Camus, Adorno, Horkheimer, Foucault, Derrida. The very core of twentieth-century intellectual life is decidedly Nietzschean. The opposite camp is considered to be both smaller in number and less intellectually commanding; one can think of Lukács, the much vilified ‘die-hard Marxist’, whose treatment of Nietzsche became largely discredited as an example of a rigid ideological dogmatism, [6] and, in more recent times, Habermas, who, in any case, could only contrast the passionate rhetoric of Nietzsche enthusiasts with a thin, if precise, critical tone.

The ‘illustrious Nietzscheans’ mentioned above exploited and assimilated significant Nietzschean insights in their own projects, thus founding psychoanalysis, critical theory, existentialism or deconstruction. Some of them ignored, to a greater or lesser extent, the specific elements in Nietzsche’s teachings that dealt with socialism and the working class; Derrida, for example, was content with disassociating Nietzsche from Heideggerian authoritative, ‘metaphysical’ thinking, [7] and with ingeniously transforming the German thinker, infamously renowned as a vicious misogynist, almost into an out-and-out feminist. [8] Often enough, however, opinions were voiced that were generally in tune with Mann’s rendition of Nietzsche as ‘friend of the worker’. Horkheimer, for instance, maintained that Nietzsche, though essentially the philosopher of the dominant class, could still contribute, if read creatively, to ‘proletarian praxis’. [9] At any rate, a vast number of ‘mainstream’ critics in the last three decades or so adhere, frequently with considerable vigour, to the rehabilitation campaign of Nietzsche’s reputation, after its temporary entanglement with fascism.

The most common arguments denying Nietzsche’s essential commitment to any reactionary and exploitative politics, as well as his hostility to socialism and/or to the working class, are the relativist and the anti-political ones, which normally complement each other. The anti-political claim is based on the view that Nietzsche was primarily interested in exalted questions of high-culture, personal ethics, the future of humankind and so forth. Hence, his contemplative eye simply had to gloss over this lowly arena of politics, where only immediate, earthly, vulgar matters are negotiated. The banner here applied is Nietzsche’s often quoted phrase, in which he declared himself ‘the last anti-political German’. [10] The relativist interpretation, in turn, is in harmony with another well-known Nietzsche exclamation: ‘I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.’ [11] In this case, Nietzsche is perceived as a thinker who avoids uniformity on any subject, offering an anticipated postmodernist carnival of ever-changing outfits and outlooks.

The Relativist Defence

The relativist line of argumentation proposes either ambiguity or total negation; according to the first contention, Nietzsche’s utterances concerning all political doctrines — in our context, socialism — are simply too inconsistent to make a political sense of, and should consequently be valued only epistemologically, psychologically or aesthetically; the second alternative accepts that Nietzsche was an unrelenting critic of socialism, but goes on to assert Nietzsche’s thorough critique of every kind of politics. The verdict, once more, is that no final political conclusions should be drawn from Nietzsche’s texts. To demonstrate this line of argument, here follow three telling cases of this anti-political relativism. The methodological shift to a postmodernist approach to Nietzsche is aptly sketched by one of its upholders, Alan White:

Until the 1960s, Nietzsche was generally read as… an advocate of power politics, devoted to producing supermen who would rule the world. Since the early 1970s, this reading — which I now christen with the two names ‘Germanic’ and ‘metaphysical’ (it might also be called ‘modern,’ ‘positivistic,’ ‘objectivistic,’ ‘realistic,’ or ‘angelic’) — has been countered, initially in France, by an impressive array of thinkers who have seen Nietzsche’s works as undermining the very possibility of the communication, indeed even of the possession, of unambiguously determinable teachings. The Nietzsche that emerges from these readings — to which I henceforth refer as ‘postmetaphysical’ and ‘French’ (options would include ‘postmodern,’ ‘relativistic,’ ‘idealistic,’ and ‘diabolical’) — is an advocate not of totalitarian cosmos but rather, in extreme cases, of anarchic chaos. [12]

Leslie Paul Thiele’s words offer a characteristic and effective combination of the anti-political and the relativist:

Nietzsche was by admission anti-political. His political convictions, when voiced, were voiced negatively… Nietzsche refused to provide unequivocal answers to the most fundamental political questions. To say anything about Nietzsche’s politics is to risk contradiction by text. [13]

Finally, Derrida, as ever protesting against logocentric absolutism and defending the cause of textual plurality, furnishes the definitive formulation of the postmodernist, ‘French Nietzsche’:

But who ever has said that a person bears a single name? Certainly not Nietzsche. And likewise, who has said or decided that there is something like a Western metaphysics, something which would be capable of being gathered up under this name and this name only? What is it — the oneness of a name, the assembled unity of Western metaphysics? Is it anything more or less than the desire… for a proper name, for a single, unique name and a thinkable genealogy? Next to Kierkegaard, was not Nietzsche one of the few great thinkers who multiplied his names and played with signatures, identities, and masks? And what if that would be the heart of the matter, the causa, the Streitfall (point of dispute) of his thinking? [14]

In this light, investigating the alleged progressive side of Nietzsche is more than a whimsical extraction of a single brick out of the huge and intricate Nietzschean philosophical edifice; to understand Nietzsche’s social position is, at the same time, to illuminate fundamental aspects of his ethics, aesthetics and epistemology; it is, consequently, to gain a vital insight into the entire range of philosophies, which, without necessarily constructing Nietzsche as a socialist, nevertheless applied as central components of their respective projects some of those ethical, aesthetic or epistemological principles. This holds especially true for deconstruction, which received such a significant impetus from Nietzsche’s supposed relativism and attitude of total negation. Likewise, Mann’s idealist account of Nietzsche’s philosophy is no peculiar feature of his reading; by focusing on its limitations, I will therefore also point to the very tight hold idealism still maintains on contemporary philosophical discourse.

Taking Nietzsche at His Word

I wish to start by a brief discussion of the general nature of Nietzsche’s relativism, which will serve as an introduction to his concrete treatment of socialism and the worker. For this purpose, no hermeneutics will do which is satisfied with placing Nietzsche’s writings in the background, employing them as vague inspiration; the actual text must be subjected to close scrutiny, which is why I have chosen to include lengthy Nietzsche citations from what I consider to be pivotal passages. My intention is to induce Nietzsche to speak, for I believe he does so considerably more clearly than his numerous interpreters, who, especially when it comes to his political and social positions, all too often choose to generalize, paraphrase, and apologetically qualify. As a result, the original utterances, usually characterized precisely by their uninhibited blatancy, disappear under a huge amount of ‘explanatory’, misty verbosity. The substantial citation of those passages will also provide a more reliable perspective in assessing the original intentions; it will avert the all too frequent procedure of plucking several convenient phrases from the broader context, which often ends up by affirming quite the opposite of what Nietzsche actually proclaims.

The premise of most critics when evaluating Nietzsche’s politics is profoundly idealist: the ideas are regarded as the solid ground upon which a fitting political construction erects itself; the fundamental motifs are aesthetic and epistemological, and a socio-political direction is taken only in response to the philosophical meditation. Nietzsche is, for instance, the great spokesman of the life-instinct, the defender of the joy of conquest and self-assertion, to which all other considerations, notably the social and the moral, should succumb. It is this underlying idea, this fundamental conviction, which drives Nietzsche along his path:

[L]ife itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation… On no point, however, is the common European consciousness more reluctant to learn than it is here; everywhere one enthuses, even under scientific disguises, about coming states of society in which there will be ‘no more exploitation’ — that sounds to my ears like promising a life in which there will be no organic functions. ‘Exploitation’ does not pertain to a corrupt or imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will to life. [15]

One may debate the ethical implications of such a vision, but it is hard to deny its coherence and transparency, which other, more subtle systems, can only envy. But Nietzsche, as mentioned earlier, ‘mistrusts all systems and avoids them’. And, if the system itself is lacking, no primordial element, whether it is called the life-instinct, Dionysian energy or the will to power, may be viewed as its ontological premise. Nietzsche, in fact, clearly does not establish ‘appropriation, injury, overpowering, suppression, severity, imposition, incorporation or exploitation’ — in other words, power — as the driving force of his philosophy. He by no means sanctions just any manifestation of potency: throughout his philosophical corpus, there emerges a series of strict qualifications, a firm conditioning of the use of power, the outcome of which is a taming of Dionysus, whose initial roar of joy at being unleashed of all restrictions is turned into a disheartened grumble, as he is escorted back to his cage. The new ‘code of power’ consists of various dictates; to start with, power should not be subversive. Any surge of power from below, any social mutiny is vehemently reprehended. For example:

There is nothing more terrible than a class of barbaric slaves who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice, and now prepare to avenge, not only themselves, but all generations. [16]

Ressentiment and Nobility

This recoiling in the face of what certainly promises to be a feast of ‘injury, overpowering, imposition’, and so on, is explained as an aesthetic posture: subversive violence is an expression of ressentiment, in contrast to the noble, unadulterated use of power. Nietzsche draws the thickest of demarcation lines between the wretched, crippled, revengeful violence of the slave, and the affirmative, nonchalant, majestic operations of the master:

The opposite is the case with the noble method of valuation: this acts and grows spontaneously, seeking out its opposite only so that it can say ‘yes’ to itself even more thankfully and exultantly… When the noble method of valuation makes a mistake and sins against reality,… in some circumstances, it misjudges the sphere it despises, that of the common man, the rabble; on the other hand, we should bear in mind that the distortion which results from the feeling of contempt, disdain and superciliousness, always assuming that the image of the despised person is distorted, remains far behind the distortion with which the entrenched hatred and revenge of the powerless man attacks his opponent — in effigy of course. Indeed, contempt has too much negligence, nonchalance, complacency and impatience, even too much personal cheerfulness mixed into it, for it to be in a position to transform its object into a real caricature and monster. [17]

Even at this stage, as Nietzsche introduces the famous dichotomy between master morality and slave morality, the inconsistency of the categorization and its social bias are betrayed, and rather clumsily:

The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges ‘what harms me is harmful in itself’, he knows himself to be that which in general first accords honour to things, he creates values[18]

That is, the self-glorification of the master is actually nothing but ressentiment par excellence. ‘What harms me is harmful in itself’ is the bedrock of slave morality, its ‘genetic code’, as it is genealogically identified by the philosopher: a form of self-defence, retaliation against threatening forces, reaction instead of action. Self-glorification and ressentiment are shown to be one and the same thing, given different titles exclusively on social grounds. When the master exhibits ressentiment, it is hallowed as self-glorification; when the slave self-glorifies, it is despised as mere ressentiment. Nietzsche’s social preferences only subsequently produce an ethical doctrine to suit the foundational bias.

As a further obstacle that any legitimate use of power must surmount, Nietzsche emphasizes that there is very little anarchism or individualism in the volcanic eruptions of the will to power. Its burning lava, the overflowing essence of life, only threatens to flood the world but in reality pours itself with consummate ease into the conventional moulds of class society:

To refrain from mutual injury, mutual violence, mutual exploitation, to equate one’s own will with that of another: this may in a certain rough sense become good manners between individuals if the conditions for it are present (namely if their strength and value standards are in fact similar and they both belong to one body). As soon as there is a desire to take this principle further, however, and if possible even as the fundamental principle of society, it at once reveals itself for what it is: as the will to the denial of life, as the principle of dissolution and decay… Even that body within which, as was previously assumed, individuals treat one another as equals — this happens in every healthy aristocracy — must, if it is a living and not a decaying body, itself do all that to other bodies which the individuals within it refrain from doing to one another: it will have to be the will to power incarnate, it will want to grow, expand, draw to itself, gain ascendancy — not out of any morality or immorality, but because it lives, and because life is will to power. [19]

Nietzsche’s elucidation of what he refers to as a ‘body’ is a remarkable parallel to the orthodox Marxist definition of class: he speaks of ‘strength,’ which corresponds to the ‘body’s‘ actual socio-economic power — its relative control over the means of production; of ‘similar value standards’, which corresponds to class consciousness; and, finally, he sees fit to underline its being ‘one body’, a coherent unit, sharing both interests and ideology. While it is perfectly easy to understand, following the logic of the metaphysics of power, why exploitation should be ‘taken further’ and prevent social decadence, it is altogether unclear why, within the boundaries of a class, this exploitative drive should unexpectedly turn into ‘good manners’. Likewise, the necessity of social ‘bodies’ not ‘refraining from harming one another’, is quite comprehensible; but why, then, is this ‘expanding, drawing to itself, gaining ascendancy’ be disqualified as ‘barbaric’ when the ‘body’ that is involved with the merely ‘organic action’ of combating fellow ‘bodies’ is composed of slaves? This must remain wholly unanswerable if one insists in believing Nietzsche’s self-description as ‘the last anti-political German’, and in detaching his cultural vision from its socio-political roots.

Dionysus at the Service of Privilege

Nietzsche’s ‘code of power’, however, is still more complicated; it decrees that, even when the social group in question enjoys the privilege of expressing its will to power — that is, it is an aristocratic ‘body’ — it should not use its power unreservedly:

What we now refer to as justice, is from this point of view a highly refined usefulness, which does not take in consideration only the present moment and exploits the opportunity, but rather reflects with responsibility on the lasting consequences, therefore taking care of the well-being of the worker as well, of his physical and spiritual satisfaction, in order that he and his descendants will continue to work for our descendants, and will be available for a longer period of time than a single individual’s life. The exploitation of the worker was, as one now understands, a stupidity, a ruthless enterprise at the cost of the future, which endangered society. Now we have before us almost a war, and the price for achieving peace, for sealing contracts and winning trust, will at any rate be very high, since the foolishness of the exploiters was great and long-lasting. [20]

Future interests are preferred over immediate gratification; self-preservation ranks higher than sheer use of power in Nietzsche’s order of priorities. Summing up the socio-political meaning of power in Nietzsche’s thought, one finds that it should ultimately serve and protect ‘the strong’, the noble, the aristocratic, but should not be exploited when it may damage their position and turn against them; in no case should it benefit ‘the weak’, the lower classes, the rabble, the slaves. So it turns out that, in Nietzsche’s chaotic, Dionysian cosmos, of permanent danger, perilous seas, wars and struggles, pain and competition, the socially privileged are hermetically shielded from even the most insignificant challenge.

At this point, I wish to ask again, what stands behind such a prescriptive use of force: is it merely a repercussion of a purely aesthetic impulse, the unbiased implementation of some isolated and detachedly conceived philosophical reasoning, which, by mere coincidence, translates itself into a partisan attachment to a very definite socio-political cause? Or is it justified to suspect that the aesthetic and philosophical ideas may have been from the very moment of conception closely associated with a clear social partiality, ever-present and influential, at least unconsciously?

Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true. [21]

More than a hundred and fifty years after Marx and Engels’s reproof to the idealists of their time, most critics, even those who do not fail to recognize the ‘dangerous’ and ‘oppressive’ potential of Nietzsche’s power-theory, act as inexperienced shopkeepers and trustfully accept the customer’s self-description. In an idealist manner, they grasp any political aspect as an epiphenomenon of the unperturbed philosophical discourse. Thomas Mann, for instance, ascribes the distortions of Nietzsche’s philosophy to two great errors, two ethical and intellectual misconceptions:

As far as I can see, two errors fatally detriment Nietzsche’s thought. The first is, admittedly, very thorough: a deliberate misjudgement of the power relation between instinct and intellect on earth, as if the latter is dangerously in command and it is of the highest necessity to rescue instinct from this domination… The second of Nietzsche’s errors is the completely false way in which he assesses the relation between morality and life, treating them as if they were opposites. [22]

Mann never clarifies the exact meaning of the argument that the first ‘misjudgement was deliberate’, and he certainly does not develop this into any sort of a thesis implying a ‘political Nietzsche’. On the contrary, his extremely common critical move is to declare that Nietzsche was ‘deeply anti-political’, [23] while at the same time affirming Dionysian aesthetics as the catalyst of the philosophic enterprise. Mann regards the adoption of a perverted aesthetics as the source of the vices, as well as of the virtues, of Nietzsche’s teachings. This emphasis enables him to associate Nietzsche — to a certain extent justifiably — with decadence, with art for art’s sake, ‘flourishing’ in the last decades of the nineteenth century. He stresses a resemblance between the German philosopher and Oscar Wilde, with the aim of setting the moral extremity of the former in context, and demonstrating that it was not altogether an exceptional phenomenon. But the specific match is unfortunate and the comparison misleading, especially when Mann explains the difference between the two as a national-temperamental one, Wilde being a British dandy, Nietzsche a German ‘saint of immorality’. [24] There is no mention of the fact that an essential side to Wilde, accompanying his extravagant cynicism, was a deep sense of compassion and identification with the socially vulnerable, which found expression not only in his children’s stories, but also in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Aesthetics Against Politics

Jürgen Habermas similarly identifies the menace of Nietzsche’s thought in its reduction of any value-judgement and validity-claim to their merely aesthetic dimension:

This perspective was inaugurated with aesthetic modernity… Nietzsche… is the first to conceptualize the attitude of aesthetic modernity before avant-garde consciousness assumed objective shape in the literature, painting, and music of the twentieth century… The subversive force of aesthetic resistance that would later feed the reflections of Benjamin and even of Peter Weiss, already arises from the experience in Nietzsche of rebellion against everything normative. It is this same force which neutralizes both the morally good and the practically useful… Nietzsche trusts only in art…and in the terror of the beautiful, not to let themselves be imprisoned by the fictive world of science and morality. [25]

All the twists and turns of Nietzsche’s aesthetic epistemology are followed and described, but there is no suggestion of a pre-existing or simultaneously operating political drive. Characteristic of this line of interpretation are the assumptions that Nietzsche ‘rebels against everything normative’, and that he ‘trusts only in art’. Nietzsche, however, did not reject norms as such, but usually only those ‘prejudices’ which he esteemed socially destructive; nor did he yield to artistic drives in automatic preference to other considerations. We have seen how he opposed potentially dazzling eruptions of violence in favour of a much more calculated and responsible use of power, when he warned against over-abusing the worker. It is on that account that Habermas’s treatment of Nietzsche, harshly critical as it certainly is, stops short of providing a wholly satisfying analysis. Both Mann and Habermas conduct an idealist confrontation with Nietzsche, refuting and proposing modifications to the philosopher’s notions of ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘true’, or ‘false’, while quite overlooking the fact that the real point of dispute is a political one. This explains, among other things, how Mann can indignantly reproach Nietzsche with ignoring Novalis’s wise admonition against the artistic glorification of power, as if Nietzsche were a wayward child, only in need of a better example. [26]

An invaluable clue for deciphering the nature and functions of Nietzsche’s agnostic epistemology is included in one of his earliest writings, in section 18 of The Birth of Tragedy. It is instructive to hear the thinker himself, at a crucial stage of his philosophical development, as he delineates the framework for his future thought.

Now we must not hide from ourselves what is concealed in the womb of this Socratic culture: optimism, with its delusion of limitless power. We must not be alarmed if… society, leavened to the very lowest strata by this kind of culture, gradually begins to tremble with wanton agitations and desires, if the belief in the earthly happiness of all, if the belief in the possibility of such a general intellectual culture changes into the threatening demand for such an Alexandrian earthly happiness… Let us mark this well: the Alexandrian culture, to be able to exist permanently, requires a slave class, but with its optimistic view of life it denies the necessity of such a class, and consequently, when its beautifully seductive and tranquillizing utterances about the ‘dignity of man’ and the ‘dignity of labour’ are no longer effective, it gradually drifts toward a dreadful destruction. There is nothing more terrible than a class of barbaric slaves who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice, and now prepare to avenge, not only themselves, but all generations. In the face of such threatening storms, who dares to appeal with any confidence to our pale and exhausted religions, the very foundations of which have degenerated into scholarly religions? Myth, the necessary prerequisite of every religion, is already paralyzed everywhere, and even in this domain the optimistic spirit, which we have just designated as the germ of destruction in our society, has attained the mastery. [27]

The Disease of Optimism

Nietzsche, the great cultural physician, detects the sickness of modernity in the spreading of the optimistic illusion that popularizes humanistic ideals. The great corrupter is, in other words, the Enlightenment, with its scientific shattering of myth and religion and its belief in progress and human emancipation. Inspired, presumably, by this cultural agenda, are the slaves, the labourers, the barbaric rebels of, say, the Paris Commune of 1871, one year before the publication of The Birth of Tragedy. And the core of the problem, as the early Nietzsche already understands it, has to do with the prosaic, material basis of society, with labour arrangements, with the need for slaves, which the philosopher spells out as a mandatory requirement for the existence of his desired culture. To discover that the celebrated atheist who announced the death of God indulged in nostalgia for that lost age when religion still constituted an undisputed authority, may come as a surprise, but it contributes an important insight into Nietzsche’s treatment of religion in general: Nietzsche condemned religion precisely because it could no longer function as opium for the masses; because it ceased to stupefy and console those who were meant to serve; because it could not continue to neutralize the will to revolution. Hence, it has lost its raison d’être[28] Furthermore, as a remnant of an anachronistic moral discourse revolving around compassion, altruism, charity, and so forth, the Judeo-Christian tradition only stands in the way of the revaluation of all values, famously advocated by Nietzsche. For that reason, the mature philosopher would conclude that religion is not only obsolete but also damaging, and call for its abolition. Here, as elsewhere, the political motivation impinges upon the philosophical content, frames and directs it. Returning to the text, one learns that the social disease just depicted is acute, but not terminal. Directly continuing, Nietzsche prescribes the remedy:

While the disaster slumbering in the womb of theoretical culture gradually begins to frighten modern man, and he anxiously ransacks the stores of his experience for means to avert the danger, though he has no great faith in these means; while he, therefore, begins to divine the consequences of his situation — great men, universally gifted, have contrived, with an incredible amount of thought, to make use of the paraphernalia of science itself, to point out the limits and the relativity of knowledge generally, and thus to deny decisively the claim of science to universal validity and universal aims. And their demonstration diagnosed for the first time the illusory notion which pretends to be able to fathom the innermost essence of things with the aid of causality. The extraordinary courage and wisdom of Kant and Schopenhauer have succeeded in gaining the most difficult victory, the victory over the optimism concealed in the essence of logic — an optimism that is the basis of our culture. [29]

Nietzsche, even at this early, ‘classical’ period, well before scepticism, relativism and paradox have become the dominant features of his thought, already senses that the way out of the universal embrace of the Enlightenment must pass through a negation of its claim to knowledge. He proposes agnostic vagueness and epistemological uncertainty as a social weapon in a social struggle. He wills causality no more; he wills no more truths that are universal, because those tend to translate themselves into universal claims, such as the claim to the ‘dignity of man and labour’. If Nietzsche is the spiritual father of postmodernism, its most significant forerunner, then we have before us a telling piece of evidence regarding the reactionary impulse that initially triggered postmodernism, the very driving force that set it in motion.

Mockery and Anxiety

Hitherto, we have seen that aesthetic standards were the effect and not the cause, in Nietzsche’s philosophy; how they, as well as the epistemological criteria, constantly had to adjust to socio-political demands, to bend and give way — if not directly to escort and accommodate — in relation to the conservative aims. To argue that, since Nietzsche was a relativist, he could not be political, is, therefore, a total misconstruction: Nietzsche was a relativist, because he was political. At the present stage, however, after Nietzsche’s general social, ethical, and epistemological views have been sketched, I wish to deal directly with his attitude to socialism and the working class; Nietzsche’s fervid hostility towards socialism expressed itself on numerable occasions, and I do not intend to provide a comprehensive survey of them. What I wish to do, nonetheless, is briefly to illuminate the elemental strategy which Nietzsche applied when refuting socialism, as well as to demonstrate its consistency with his general method of philosophizing. This strategy might be appropriately described as incoherent coherency. By this I mean that an attempt to define the various criticisms of socialism on a purely aesthetic or epistemological ground will prove utterly frustrating, exposing contradiction as the only apparent common denominator. This may again lead to Nietzsche being viewed as a relativist, as a master of perspectives. But, if the primal motivation is looked for outside the realm of ‘uncontaminated thought’, the coherence of the critique becomes palpable. Nietzsche’s unrelenting political opposition to socialism was, as it were, the ontological starting point, which then unfolded into the most diverse, even paradoxical, explanations and arguments. Consequently, socialism in Nietzsche’s texts embodied everything negative. Nietzsche repeated the two most frequent denunciations voiced against socialism, disregarding the fact that these stood in mutual contradiction. On the one hand, he subscribed to the common view that socialism is utopian, a hopeless striving against reality, against nature; it is pathetic because it is bound to fail. This is the mocking refutation:

It is an ignominy of all socialist systematizers, that they believe in the possible existence of certain circumstances, certain social combinations, under which vice, sickness, crime, prostitution, all want and trouble will no longer prosper. This means the condemnation of life. A society is not free to remain young. And even at its best years it must create filth and waste. The more energetic and bold it develops, the richer it is of downcast and displeased people, and the closer it gets to its decline. One does not cancel old age through institutions. Nor sickness. Nor vice. [30]

And elsewhere:

The order of castes, the supreme, the dominating law, is only the sanctioning of a natural order, a natural law of the first rank over which no arbitrary caprice, no ‘modern idea’ has any power. In every healthy society, there can be distinguished three types of man of divergent physiological tendency which mutually condition one another and each of which possesses its own hygiene, its own realm of work, its own sort of mastery and feeling of perfection. Nature, not Man, separates from one another the predominantly spiritual type, the predominantly muscular and temperamental type, and the third type distinguished neither in the one nor the other, the mediocre type — the last as the great majority, the first as the élite… In all this, to say it again, there is nothing capricious, nothing ‘artificial’; whatever is different from this is artificial — nature is then confounded… The order of castes, order of rank, only formulates the supreme law of life itself. [31]

On the other hand, socialism was presented as profoundly dangerous because it can achieve its goals. It turns out that the will to power and nature itself are in urgent need of a helping hand, and Nietzsche offered his support. He prosecuted, in behalf of a largely academic ‘law of life’, the previous utopians who now become ruthless perpetrators. This is the argument of anxious alarm. Here, for example, Nietzsche launched a fierce assault on Christianity and its alleged result — revolution:

The poison of the doctrine ‘equal rights for all’ — this has been more thoroughly sowed by Christianity than by anything else… And let us not underestimate the fatality that has crept out of Christianity even into politics! No one any longer possesses today the courage to claim special privileges or the right to rule,… the courage for a pathos of distance… Our politics is morbid from this lack of courage! — The aristocratic outlook has been undermined most deeply by the lie of equality of souls; and if the belief in the ‘prerogative of the majority’ makes revolutions and will continue to make them — it is Christianity, let there be no doubt about it, Christian value judgement which translates every revolution into mere blood and crime! [32]

The Impossible Class

The strategy’s lack of coherence is more than compensated for by its sweeping rhetorical thrust. Socialism is made to play most villainous and contemptuous roles under Nietzsche’s staging: it is the buffoon, [33] the despot, [34] the fool, [35] the barbarian, [36] the decadent, [37] the primitive, [38] the moralist, [39] the nihilist. [40] The frame of the present discussion naturally does not permit an exhaustive examination of each of Nietzsche’s references to socialism and the worker. Therefore, it is best to avoid the easy option of relying exclusively on several of the incontestably derogatory assertions concerning socialism, the slave, the common-man, the herd-animal and so forth, which are, to be sure, abundantly present throughout Nietzsche’s texts. By contrast, I would like to tackle here precisely one of the very scarce instances in which Nietzsche seems to side with the worker. The passage [41] is brought here practically in its entirety, but divided in order to permit accompanying commentary.

The impossible class. — Poor, happy and independent! — these things can go together; poor, happy and a slave! — these things can also go together and I can think of no better news I could give to our factory slaves: provided, that is, they do not feel it to be in general a disgrace to be thus used, and used up, as a part of a machine and as it were a stopgap to fill a hole in human inventiveness! To the devil with the belief that higher payment could lift from them the essence of their miserable condition — I mean their impersonal enslavement! To the devil with the idea of being persuaded that an enhancement of this impersonality within the mechanical operation of a new society could transform the disgrace of slavery into a virtue! To the devil with setting a price on oneself in exchange for which one ceases to be a person and becomes a part of a machine!

Here it is almost as if Marx’s spirit has taken possession of Nietzsche’s body. One is tempted to believe that, albeit for a fleeting moment, Nietzsche has converted into a true champion of socialism, and a radical one indeed, rejecting the mode of production as such and revolting against the inhuman alienation of its ‘essence’. At any rate, it apparently suggests that the mask of the labourer also figured among the props of the ‘great pretender’, who manages yet again to astonish the reader with his playful, kaleidoscopic, eternally evolving and contradicting, pre-postmodernist philosophizing. For is it not the voice of Marx coming out of Nietzsche’s lips when he attacks the subjugation of human creativity to the machine? Are we not facing the same principled negation of wage-labour? Well, not exactly. Marx, of course, never claimed that to be ‘poor, happy and a slave is a possible condition’, much less that this would actually constitute ‘the best news for the factory slaves’. From the beginning, Nietzsche turns the entire issue at hand into a cultural and psychological one. [42] It is the mind of the workers that constitutes the problem: it is not slavery which presents an insurmountable obstacle in the road to happiness and internal satisfaction, but rather the worker’s psychological refusal to be a slave. [43] Ideally, the worker would be a happy, contented slave, and this would mean ‘great news’ — one might ask, for whom? Hence, it is none other than Nietzsche himself who attempts to ‘transform the disgrace of slavery into a virtue’. Unfortunately, the worker is ungratified, and Nietzsche, notwithstanding, can comprehend this discontent and perceive some of its motives, such as the ‘impersonal enslavement’ or the ‘forming part of a machine’. But let us continue.

Are you accomplices in the current folly of the nations — the folly of wanting above all to produce as much as possible and to become as rich as possible? What you ought to do, rather, is to hold up to them the counter-reckoning: how great a sum of inner value is thrown away in pursuit of this external goal! But where is your inner value if you no longer know what it is to breathe freely? If you no longer possess the slightest power over yourselves?… If you pay heed to the newspapers and look askance at your wealthy neighbour, made covetous by the rapid rise and fall of power, money and opinions? If you no longer believe in philosophy that wears rags, in the free-heartedness of him without needs? If voluntary poverty and freedom from profession and marriage, such as would very well suit the more spiritual among you, have become to you things to laugh at?

A Spiritual Revolution

Cultural criticism turns ever stronger, as the problem is located ever deeper within the workers’ psyche: their suffering is a result of their participation in the capitalist folly of wanting to produce and accumulate riches. Capitalism is idealistically explained as the result of this ‘folly’, as the realization of the merely spiritual flaw of greed. Accordingly, the solution offered is by no means a change in material conditions, a political struggle to abolish the worker’s ‘enslavement’, but a wholly moral correction. What is required in order to break out of the vicious circle of capitalism as spirituality, is an equally spiritual transformation. Modesty, a ‘belief in philosophy that wears rags’, should replace destructive avarice. If one’s neighbour is wealthy, Nietzsche, quite as the pastor he was initially meant to be, advises not to ‘look at him askance’. Admittedly, one can generously argue that Nietzsche is here being naïve, but not decidedly reactionary; it seems possible to account for his position as pertaining not to a reactionary political thinker but rather to a progressive philosopher, sincerely dismayed by the realities of modern capitalism but only able to offer vaguely moral solutions, such as moderation or internal satisfaction. But an intimation of this kind is sharply contrasted by the continuation of the passage:

If, on the other hand, you have always in your ears the flutings of the Socialist pied-pipers whose design is to enflame you with wild hopes? Which bid you to be prepared and nothing further, prepared day upon day, so that you wait and wait for something to happen from outside and in all other respects go on living as you have always lived — until this waiting turns to hunger and thirst and fever and madness, and at last the day of the bestia triumphans dawns in all its glory?

In quick succession, Nietzsche has emphatically discarded both of the worker’s political options: social democracy as well as revolution. As was seen, he indignantly rejected the workers’ endeavour, through participation in the political process, to improve in living standards and attain an increase in wages — denigrating that as collaboration with inhuman practices. But the other perceivable course of action, a revolution that will radically transmute the capitalist system altogether, is equally besmirched. What then remains to be done, if to move ‘within the rules’ is indecency incarnate and to operate outside them is to act like murderous beasts? Is the labourer supposed to follow the steps of Nietzsche’s past master, Schopenhauer, into passive pessimism? This is actually recommended by Nietzsche, but he simultaneously proposes another, more active alternative — emigration.

In contrast to all this, everyone ought to say to himself: ‘better to go abroad, to seek to become master in new and savage regions of the world and above all master over myself; to keep moving from place to place for just as long as any sign of slavery seems to threaten me; to shun neither adventure nor war and, if the worst should come to the worst, to be prepared for death: all this rather than further to endure this indecent servitude, rather than to go on becoming soured and malicious and conspiratorial!’ This would be the right attitude of mind: the workers of Europe ought henceforth to declare themselves as a class a human impossibility and not, as usually happens, only a somewhat harsh and inappropriate social arrangement; they ought… through this act of free emigration in the grand manner to protest against the machine, against capital, and against the choice now threatening them of being compelled to become either the slave of the state or the slave of a party of disruption. Let Europe be relieved of a fourth part of its inhabitants!

Enter the Chinese

Taken in isolation, this quotation can furnish inestimable aid to any interpreter wishing to establish a link between Nietzsche and the workers and to demonstrate the philosopher’s critique of capitalism. Using textual weeding of this kind, Mazzino Montinari, for example, tried to position Nietzsche on a par with the founders of historical materialism. [44] Nietzsche apparently joins the worker’s protest against the machine and against capital. He exposes an unnoticed path of escape, through which the proletariat can shake off its two great parasites, the state and the revolutionary party. Truly, as we encounter this Nietzsche who is an enemy of socialism and of capitalism, but sympathizes with the proletariat, it is difficult not to recall Thomas Mann’s Nietzsche. But one should not forget the opening assertion that slavery and happiness are likely companions, that slavery would actually be the ideal solution. Having that in mind, the philosopher’s sudden refutation of slavery suggests that his devotion to freedom is considerably weaker than his fear of social uprising. The conclusion of the passage completes the circle, leaving little doubt that this is indeed the case: having liberated Europe from a vast number of potential revolutionaries, Nietzsche now confronts a continent lacking a labour force. He feels himself obliged to answer this need, although one might have expected that such material problems should prove simply too crude to merit his attention. His solution, moreover, is remarkably straightforward:

Outside of Europe the virtues of Europe will go on their wanderings with these workers; and that which was at home beginning to degenerate into dangerous ill-humour and inclination for crime will, once abroad, acquire a wild beautiful naturalness and be called heroism. — Thus a cleaner air would at last waft over old, over-populated and self-absorbed Europe! No matter if its ‘workforce’ should be a little depleted! Perhaps it may then be recalled that we grew accustomed to needing many things only when these needs became so easy to satisfy — we shall again relinquish some of them! Perhaps we shall also bring in numerous Chinese: and they will bring with them the modes of life and thought suitable to industrious ants. Indeed, they might as a whole contribute to the blood of restless and fretful Europe something of Asiatic calm and contemplativeness and — what is probably needed most — Asiatic perseverance.

The previous attack on the dictatorship of machines and of capital, the adherence to human freedom and independence, are swiftly transformed into a meditation on the best way of supplying the very same capital, the very same machines, with new labour force, with fresh slaves. But the designated future ‘parts of the machine’, the Chinese workers, are presumed to be culturally and psychologically suited for their task, unlike the old and restless European ones, who turned ‘dangerously ill-humorous’. The reading of the complete passage clarifies how far Nietzsche is removed — even at his most sympathizing moments — from any real interest in the fate of the working class; or rather, Nietzsche is deeply interested, but from the unmistakable point of view of the upper classes. In case this reading appears ungenerous, and doubts are still entertained as to whether the philosopher’s intentions are truly that unequivocal, Nietzsche provides us, seven years later, with another section — substantially, a thematic sequel to the impossible class. This passage also testifies to the great consistency in Nietzsche’s ‘relativist’ thinking regarding the worker, and shows how little this concrete stance has altered through time. Here, though, one hardly needs to remove any rhetorical layers in order to expose the ‘hidden meaning’. What was once somewhat understated is now unabashedly accentuated:

The labour question. — The stupidity, fundamentally the instinct degeneration which is the cause of every stupidity today, lies in the existence of a labour question at all. About certain things one does not ask questions: first imperative of instinct. — I simply cannot see what one wishes to do with the European worker now one has made a question of him. He finds himself far too well placed not to go on asking for more, or to ask more and more impudently. After all, he has the great majority on his side. There is absolutely no hope left that a modest and self-sufficient kind of human being, a type of Chinaman, should here form itself into a class: and this would have been sensible, this was actually a necessity. What has one done? — Everything designed to nip in the bud even the prerequisites for it — through the most irresponsible thoughtlessness one has totally destroyed the instincts by virtue of which the worker becomes possible as a class, possible for himself. The worker has been made liable for military service, he has been allowed to form unions and to vote: no wonder the worker already feels his existence to be a state of distress (expressed in moral terms as a state of injustice). But what does one want? — to ask it again. If one wills an end, one must also will the means to it: if one wants slaves, one is a fool if one educates them to be masters. [45]

The skeletal frame of Nietzsche’s social outlook is at the open for all to observe. The oratorical identification with the worker’s destiny has evaporated completely, indicating that it served a substantially decorative function. If, formerly, Nietzsche opposed only the proletariat’s struggle for better payment, due to its entanglement with a degrading system, now he repudiates the entire set of social achievements the workers’ struggle has obtained under Bismarck. And, this time, there are no pretexts: the right to vote, to military service and to the formation of unions are dismissed purely and simply because they undermine the possibility of slavery. Nietzsche shrugs off any semblance of empathy with the labourers and all that remains is regret and perplexity over their unwillingness to be as submissive as Chinese.

Nietzsche’s Vindication

In conclusion, a couple of ‘timely meditations’ afforded by the passing of a century. In historical perspective, the fate of Nietzsche’s prophecies and guidance was not uniform. On the one hand, it took only half a century after Nietzsche’s death, for the ‘contemplative,’ ‘modest’ Chinaman to show his reluctance to play the role that the German philosopher, in his masterful generosity, had assigned him. In this respect, history — embodied by the Chinese Revolution — took a vicious revenge on Nietzsche. On balance, however, there is no escape from admitting that our modern reality is compatible, in essence, with the prospect that Nietzsche, alongside his class companions, had in mind. The emigration of the European worker did not prove to be an escape from capital. It was, rather, to the capital of world capital, that he made his way, leaving the old continent to find refuge on American shores. Likewise, if we are permitted to substitute the third-world worker in general for Nietzsche’s ‘Chinaman’, then the philosopher’s advice to the capitalists was not completely ignored — although this should not be taken to mean that imperialism, old and new, actually depends on philosophy in order to decide its real course of action. The millions of immigrants to the leading Western countries as well as the emigration of whole industries to the third world in search of cheap labour, all corroborate ‘Nietzschean economics’. In Europe and the us, those immigrants who replace the local worker do exhibit, as a rule, the submissiveness attributed to them, even if not because of psychological, cultural or biological motives. More prosaic factors are here at play, that have little to do with the ‘Asiatic nature’ and a lot to do with the nature of the capitalist mode of production.

Thomas Mann, even after the Second World War, still believed in the possibility of being a friend of the worker and an anti-socialist at the same time. He forgot that there was hardly a fascist — or, for that matter, an industrialist — not attempting the very same combination. Having traced the contours of the textual Nietzsche, it seems evident to me that the political project lurking behind and finding justification in such philosophies as Nietzsche’s, is dominating the world of our day. From this perspective, it is only for the dreamy-eyed scholar that Nietzsche’s great importance, the ‘Streitfall’ of his thought, lies in his contributions to postmodernism. As Derrida, among others, should be reminded: perhaps there is no single ‘Nietzsche-name’ when it comes to truth, love, Germany, Judeo-Christianity, religion or science. But as far as the worker is concerned, Nietzsche’s ‘signature’, as it is stamped upon his daily activity, is overwhelmingly uniform. For many readers, it may very well be a trademark of joyful playfulness, promising new surprises behind every corner; but, in the sphere of production, if this signature sanctions the unchecked global market economy, then the figure of the German philosopher towers dark and gloomy, unmoveable to the point of exasperation. The text of life, for one, cannot be so easily deconstructed, because socio-economic reality stubbornly refuses to disintegrate under the slightest pressure from the tip of the pen.

  1. Thomas Mann, ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophie im Lichte Unserer Erfahrung’ in Gesammelte Werke in Dreizehn Bänden, vol. IX, Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 704, my translation. 

  2. Ibid., p. 703. 

  3. Ibid., p. 704. 

  4. Ibid., p. 706. 

  5. Ibid., p. 704. 

  6. See, for example, Henning Ottmann, ‘Anti-Lukács. Eine Kritik der Nietzsche-Kritik von Georg Lukács’, Nietzsche-Studien, 1984, pp. 570–586. 

  7. Jacques Derrida, ‘Interpreting Signatures (Nietzsche/Heidegger): Two Questions’, in Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, edited by Peter R. Sedgwick, Oxford 1995, pp. 53–98. 

  8. Jacques Derrida, Spurs. Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. B. Harlow, Chicago 1978. 

  9. Max Horkheimer, Notizen 1950 bis 1969 and Dämmerung, Frankfurt 1974, p. 248. 

  10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke in Drei Bänden, Munich 1956, vol. 2, p. 1073. 

  11. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth 1990, p. 35. 

  12. Alan White, Within Nietzsche’s Labyrinth, London 1990, p. 11. 

  13. Leslie Paul Thiele, ‘Nietzsche’s Politics’, Interpretation, 1989–90, p. 275. 

  14. ‘Interpreting Signatures (Nietzsche/Heidegger): Two Questions’, pp. 246-62. 

  15. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, 1990, p. 194. 

  16. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York 1990, p. 111. 

  17. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe, Cambridge 1994, p. 22. 

  18. Beyond Good and Evil, p. 195. 

  19. Ibid., p. 194. 

  20. Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Einzelbänden, edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Berlin 1988, pp. 681–682. My translation. 

  21. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, trans. S. Ryazanskaya, Moscow 1964, p. 64. 

  22. ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophie im Lichte Unserer Erfahrung’, pp. 695–696. 

  23. Ibid., p. 709. 

  24. Ibid., p, 692. 

  25. Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge 1987, pp. 122–123. 

  26. ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophie im Lichte Unserer Erfahrung’, p. 700. 

  27. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, p. 111. 

  28. This is definitely not a temporary attitude, belonging to an early and tentative phase in Nietzsche’s thought; it rather continued to characterize his ardent attack on religion well into the mature and fully ‘atheistic’ works. Compare, for instance, section 62 of Beyond Good and Evil

  29. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, p. 112. 

  30. Werke in Drei Bänden, vol. 3, p. 779. 

  31. Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, pp. 189–190. 

  32. Ibid., pp. 168–9. 

  33. Werke in Drei Bänden, vol. 3, p. 437. 

  34. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 683. 

  35. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 845. 

  36. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 1134. 

  37. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 1014. 

  38. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 776. 

  39. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 882. 

  40. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 1025. 

  41. Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge 1997, pp. 125–127. 

  42. Compare, Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, trans. P. Palmer, London 1962, p. 337. 

  43. How little Nietzsche himself believes his own advice is manifest in the following passage: ‘Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself, is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar.’ (Human, All Too Human, trans. M. Faber and S. Lehmann, Harmondsworth 1994, p. 171.) Therefore, it is clearly an objective criterion, empirically determinable — the part of the day at one’s disposal — which, according to Nietzsche, makes one a slave, and not just a state of mind, a psychological interpretation. 

  44. See, Mazzino Montinari, ‘Nietzsche zwischen Alfred Baeumler und Georg Lukács’, in Nietzsche Lesen, Berlin 1982, especially pp. 195–200. Montinari, admittedly, cautions that the parallels he draws between Nietzsche and Engels should not conceal the discrepancies, but it is left exclusively to the reader to find what those are. Actually to present the differences, even very roughly, would have proven devastating to his thesis. 

  45. Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, p. 106.