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The relevance and irrelevance of politics in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy (Kissendre)




The relevance and irrelevance of politics in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Philosophy

I will join previous discussions of the subject by judging the political implications of the young Nietzsche’s views to be relatively insignificant. In line with the basic approach of the present study to Nietzsche’s oeuvre, I will treat his Human, all too human as the first landmark also when turning to the political aspects of his work.


I have already mentioned the potential political connotations of previous works when analysing them one by one, for the present purposes it should suffice to recapitulate the two most important arguments. First of all, the young Nietzsche elaborates his mature philosophical stand in Human, all too human. When considering the whole of Nietzsche’s philosophy it seems therefore not at all unjustifiable to attribute only a preliminary significance to the earlier works, though there should be no doubt about their radical intellectual, cultural and aesthetic originality. This applies to the political significance of these works as well. A comparison with the young Marx illustrates this point most graphically: without questioning the philosophical originality and considerable importance of Marx’s Economic-philosophical papers, this work can be set aside from subsequent works of the mature thinker, since precisely from the heights of the mature philosophy can a preceding phase be deemed as introductory or transitory, even if this period has also produced original results. The argument that it is Nietzsche’s Human, all too human and his later works which pre-eminently deserve attention is also supported by the fact that Human, all too human marks the end of a period in Nietzsche’s thought still characterised by the intellectual introversion of the 1850s and 1860s as well as by the strange, paradoxical and even trivial absence of the political aspect. This point is in fact a concretised, ‘specific’ form of the first argument, since instead of reflecting on the general development of Nietzsche’s thought, it focuses on the changing political relevance of his ideas.

One comes across relatively few instances in Nietzsche’s oeuvre where the philosopher himself evaluates his complex philosophical stance in terms of its actual political and social relevance. Such assessment, however, seems not impossible and I will endeavour to carry it out in the present work. Needless to say, I will rely exclusively on Nietzsche’s intellectual periods that are still free of a pathological influence. A passage from the Gay Science will be taken as the starting point (Kritische Studienausgabe, vol 3. Berlin-New York 1980 (De Gruyter), p.630).

Considering the range of competing political movements prevalent in his time, Nietzsche can be said to have primarily defined his outlook with respect to three broad intellectual directions of political as well as universal significance. The first of these movements is that of conservative and romantic political philosophy and attitude. Regarding Nietzsche’s critical positivism in its entirety, one should distinguish between ‘conservative’ and ‘romantic’ attitudes. Nietzsche identifies the conservative stance with the conservation of ‘something’ (its negating form being: “we do not ‘preserve’ anything”). He presents a basically correct description of the characteristic attitude of political conservatism, in some sense even allowing for the value preserving function of conservatism, though he hardly ever elaborates the latter point. The critique of the romantic attitude has already constituted a crucial part of his earlier philosophy. The latter attitude is characterised by a basic definition occurring a number of times (roughly to be summed up as: “we do not want to go back to the past”). The rejection of both the conservative and romantic outlooks is based on a crucial and constitutive judgement of Nietzsche’s philosophy, namely the rejection of inadequate consciousness. Both approaches radically violate this fundamental principle of Nietzscheian philosophy. (The connection of the critique of these attitudes to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity will be discussed later.)

The second outlook rejected by Nietzsche is that professed by egalitarian-liberalism. Obviously, this outlook has also had a considerable influence on political life in his time. The deficiencies of Nietzsche’s political views (a correct and adequate exposition of which is one of the most challenging tasks to be faced in the present work) are clearly shown by the fact that he has failed to distinguish between these two great ideological and political movements, distinctly split along party lines and fighting an all-out war in Germany and Europe of the time, namely between a more or less classical form of liberalism and contemporary socialism. The events on both the European and the German political scene amply demonstrate that only from the distant perspective of a metapolitical approach can the kinship of these two political directions be detected. To assume that they are related on an everyday practical level, in the way they strive to influence the political developments of the day, is simply nonsense. The political ignorance and naiveté of Nietzsche’s critical positivism and ‘universal revaluation’ is particularly striking at this point. This remains the case, though I would by all means argue that this deficiency is not to be seen as a personal shortcoming, but is rather a generational, national and cultural characteristic. These impulses explain the mistake of treating the structural isomorphism of socialism and liberalism (due to their similar egalitarian character), otherwise perceptible only from an extremely abstract theoretical position (or in Nietzsche’s words, who recognised the problem himself: “from above”), as an identity of the two movements in everyday politics. Thus he gives the impression as if the proverbial sheep and wolf shared common political aims. Furthermore, these historically determined inclinations also account for the remarkable fact that Nietzsche has failed to give socialism any credit for its defence of universal human values (nor has he accredited contemporary liberalism which has not completely neglected these values either).

The maxims cited by Nietzsche in this context are always aimed to underline the features shared by liberalism and socialism (e.g. equal rights, free society, no masters and slaves). One can only interpret Nietzsche’s rejection of egalitarianism as a form of metapolitics given that it had so little to do with the so-called realities of politics. There can be no doubt that this stance is as inadequate with regard to liberalism as to socialism, since it ignores the basic economic and entrepreneurial character of contemporary liberalism just as much as it neglects the fundamental anti-capitalism of contemporary socialism (it is to be assumed that Nietzsche has relied on certain ideas of the Second International in his remarks on socialism, that is on the trivialised form in which these ideas reached public opinion). Moreover, he completely overlooks the fact that the ‘common’ stance he describes associates two movements the antagonism of which affected the entire historical period he lived in. This clearly shows that the political pattern described by Nietzsche will only make sense when it is understood that he has judged the egalitarianism of liberalism and socialism from the point of view of the genius, the great individual who is capable of shaping history. This being the case, it is safe to argue with respect to the entire oeuvre that the joint refutation of socialism and liberalism on the basis of their egalitarianism is anything but disciplinary politics, for the aspirations of the great individual can never be represented in the political sphere. The problem of the great individual has its own historical dimensions and as such it certainly deserves attention, but the sphere of politics is precisely the area where this problem cannot be articulated.

To summarise the first part of my analysis in brief: it has been argued above that Nietzsche’s stance is essentially of a metapolitical character and that it is impossible to provide the actual political coordinates of his theses in question.

Nietzsche’s joint refutation of socialism and liberalism on the basis of their egalitarianism is in a direct genealogical relationship with his critique of Christianity. It has already been mentioned in this study on a number of occasions that Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity is to a considerable extent directed against egalitarianism. Against egalitarianism as such, and in particular against an egalitarianism that challenges existential ambitions of great individuals who represent universal achievements of humankind and strive to influence its destiny. It is no coincidence that Nietzsche’s critique of liberalism, which he identifies with socialism as described above, is almost always followed by a general attack on Christian attitudes. Liberalism and socialism are important movements in an age that perceives itself to be the most “humane”, “gentle” and “fair”. The choice of these adjectives provides an important insight into Nietzsche’s thought.

Before turning to Nietzsche’s interpretation of ‘nationalism’, the third group of political ideologies and attitudes, also to be regarded as a pool of diverse ideas, it is important to note that the critique of Christianity appears not only in discussions of liberalism and socialism, but also in the critique of the other two important political directions. I will return to this point after summarising the critique of the third direction, since this view of Christianity influences his analysis in even more fundamental ways.

The third great, universal and quasi-theoretical movement with a specific political direction is the modern nationalism of Nietzsche’s time. He unequivocally distances himself, his philosophy as well as his own historical role in the evolution of humankind, which in Nietzsche’s case is no less important, from this political movement. He sometimes even resorts to emotional and impulsive means of expression. The assessments of his many-sided and often extremely condensed descriptions (in which lengthy expositions of positivist analytic are coupled with complex evaluating elements) are remarkable not only for their passionate radicalism, but also for the unusually early date of the diagnosis. This is equally true of Nietzsche’s critique of nationalism and his critique of German history in general. It is worth repeating that by being the first to describe certain aspects of modern nationalism, Nietzsche is with all certainty the first philosophical antifascist. He has diagnosed the intellectual deformities in the development of German society in the wake of 1871 at their very emergence and he was fully aware of impending threats and possible consequences. His struggle against these malformations has influenced crucial events of his biography as well as the ensuing fate of his works more significantly than hitherto acknowledged by research in this field. As previously noted, one must attribute special significance to the fact that Nietzsche was professor at a Swiss university and that he continued to receive financial means of livelihood from the University of Basel after his retirement due to his illness. Research on Nietzsche’s life and work is yet to appreciate the full importance of the fact that Nietzsche’s passionate critique of the triumphant mainstream of German development after 1871 would certainly have not passed without retortions in Germany. His residence in Switzerland has obscured to this day how decisive was the struggle against the main trends of the time, in particular against nationalism, in Nietzsche’s life. That this important biographical fact has remained in the background is all the more possible as the undisputed absence of political and social dimensions with a clear disciplinary direction has made his critique appear one-dimensional and ‘exclusively’ intellectual. As soon as one becomes aware, however, how far has this intellectualisation extended, how much this sphere of the sociology of knowledge has been capable of integrating and representing in Nietzsche’s philosophy, premature opinions will soon change. This is an argument against all right-wing expropriations of Nietzsche’s philosophy as well. If these had been justified to any extent, Nietzsche himself could not have become one of the most thorough and militant critics of right-wing developments.

An important and direct political consequence of new nationalism (distinguishable from previous definitions of nationhood by the absence of universal dimensions) is that it hinders the already advanced evolution of European thought and culture, “quarantining the people of Europe”. Nietzsche rejects this political attitude in a characteristic fashion. He refers to certain peculiarities of his own attitude, and through these value judgements, often even completely personal value judgements, he succeeds in identifying the distinctive traits of nationalism. He does not describe or analyse, but rather he rephrases certain ideas of positivist analytic into his personal assessments. Thus we catch a glimpse of the objective basis underlying his critique. He calls himself too “impartial”, too “malicious” (boshaft), too “spoilt” (verwöhnt), too “well-informed” (unterrichtet), too “experienced” (gereist). These are the character traits that make it impossible for Nietzsche to accept nationalism. Now let us turn them into their very opposite and they become actual constituent elements of the nationalistic attitude: “biased”, “well-meaning” (perhaps “naive”), “modest”, “not well-informed”, “knows little of the world”. Summarising these traits, one encounters a distinct psychological constellation displayed by anti-modernist representatives and even protagonists of modern nationalism. The above list of adjectives implies, therefore, the positivist analytic of a concrete social investigation in the field of the sociology of knowledge. This kind of argumentation is most characteristic of Nietzsche’s methodology and his outlook in general. It could be described as a specific, partly self-contradictory ambiguity: the absence of political and sociological aspects undoubtedly renders Nietzsche’s positivist analytic abstract and makes it difficult to apply this analytic to individual social groups. At the same time, his description and explication of various phenomena in the sphere of the sociology of knowledge lead him to insights the boldness and depth of which far exceeds that of the positive achievements of contemporary academic endeavours in sociology and the sociology of knowledge. Nietzsche has had little time for the separate discipline of politics, his discoveries in the sphere of metapolitics, however, refer back to the foundations of politics. The ambiguity inherent in these problems will be returned to at a later stage. Let us only note here that, on the one hand, for reasons already discussed, this ambiguity and disparity originates in the peculiarities of Nietzsche’s philosophy. On the other hand, however, this interpretation also reveals a certain simplicity dominating our notion of politics, for the metapolitical spheres discovered by Nietzsche also constitute parts of political practice, even if this connection is not always direct. I would like to avoid the semblance of trying to make a flaw in Nietzsche’s work appear an asset, but there is no doubt that Nietzsche’s metapolitical sociology of knowledge may enrich a broader notion of politics in a number of ways.

Nietzsche seldom puts the conclusions of his theoretical account of the political situation into the personal perspective of his own life. He does so, however, in a passage of the Gay Science entitled “We, homeless”. I will regard this passage as crucial to an understanding of Nietzsche’s real situation in his time and in German society: “…we much prefer to live in the mountains, withdrawn, anachronistically, in centuries past and to come, in order to spare ourselves the tacit anger we would have to suffer witnessing a political course that withers the German spirit…” (KSA, 312). The two most important elements in Nietzsche’s self-portrayal could not be clearer nor more extreme: he sees himself as “withdrawn to the mountains” in space, and living in “centuries past and to come” in time. Nietzsche should be interpreted in a number of alternative ways, but in a political context one can never neglect this peculiarity of his point of view. Obviously, this point of view also raises a number of new hermeneutical problems which have been (and will be) referred to a number of times elsewhere in this work. Not even the most complicated hermeneutical problems sanction, however, a ‘simplification’ of these difficulties of interpretation by way of an unwarranted tracing of political affiliations. The issue of Nietzsche’s political affiliations is an independent interpretative task still in a rudimentary stage.

To conclude the analysis of the political aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, I would briefly like to turn my attention to a point that integrates several ideas already discussed. The critique of all three of the great political movements of his time can be traced back to Nietzsche’s struggle against Christianity in the name and vital interests of a free and emancipated individual. In other words, the shared element in the rejection of conservatism/romanticism, liberalism/socialism and nationalism is the reference to the free and emancipated individual. From a philosophical point of as well as from that of the sociology of knowledge, the negative aspect is even more important here. The argumentation of all three critiques contain certain elements from the critique of Christianity. It is surprising that the critique of the romantic/conservative outlook also lacks direct political relevance (as was already the case with the critique of the liberal/socialist attitude). The issue is once again that of adequate consciousness: the critique of the romantic/conservative outlook also consists of arguments against what is perceived by Nietzsche as a representation of an obviously inadequate consciousness. The critique of the liberal/socialist attitude is even more unmistakably dominated by elements from the critique of Christianity: the theme of ‘equality’, becoming almost trivial in a Christian context, is once again in the centre without any political connotation.

There are two important reasons for the fact that the critique of liberalism and socialism has been most often interpreted in an actual, everyday political context. Firstly, these two movements have played a much more important role in the politics of the day than the romantic/conservative outlook. Secondly, Nietzsche’s attitude, standing aloof of time and space as far as politics was concerned, has become more and more unique and foreign to public opinion after 1871, therefore, more and more incomprehensible to later generations and those who were not specialists in philosophy. There has been no lack in deliberate misinterpretations, at the same time it is worth remembering that both the liberal and socialist movements have had their own important Nietzsche cultes. Influence of the critique of Christianity is also palpable in Nietzsche’s approach to nationalism which is defined as a new, quasi anti-religious movement (consider the vocabulary of the text that evokes images of religious intolerance: “Herzenskratze”, “Blutvergiftung”).

I have tried to offer fairly concrete evidence in one of my recent studies that corroborate the above theses (1. Nietzsche’s great critical struggles against these three comprehensive movements can all be traced back to their ‘Christian’ aspects; 2. One or another political event does not attract Nietzsche’s attention ‘on its own merit’, but because it may serve as an exemplary illustration to a certain value judgement of his philosophy.) Nietzsche’s analysis of the French Revolution demonstrates this most eloquently. A systematic arrangement of Nietzsche’s utterances on the French Revolution (this being one of the methods required to reconstruct a philosophy that relies on ‘perspectivism’ itself) well shows that Nietzsche saw the French Revolution not as a singular historical event, never to be repeated, but as the reappearance of a certain pattern of the sociology of knowledge in its ideal-typical generality (this approach contrasts of course ironically with the classification of sciences by the neo-Kantians). As such the French Revolution is not only related to phenomena such as Christianity, Rousseau’s philosophy or socialism, but is identical with them. In one passage the French Revolution is actually portrayed as the “continuation” of Christianity (KSA, 12, 272). Needless to say, those unable to decipher Nietzsche’s code, which is the result of a theoretical generalisation of the sociology of knowledge, will find this analogy to be utter nonsense.

Thus we have arrived at a crucial characteristic of the political hermeneutics of Nietzsche’s philosophy. This philosophy has been interpreted as a new enlightenment, as the process of throwing of a false and attaining an adequate consciousness by humankind. It can be concluded at this point that the central project of the new enlightenment shows through Nietzsche’s political value judgements as well. Nietzsche does not treat individual political or historical events as singular phenomena in the case of which the philosopher is supposed to take sides with one or the other party in the historical process. In Nietzsche’s view, political and historical events are merely instances of the struggle between an adequate and an inadequate consciousness, between enlightenment and metaphysics.

Two questions remain. The first concerns the problem of Friedrich Nietzsche’s political views and opinions, i.e. those of the ‘private individual’. There is no doubt that although Nietzsche has directed his critique against all of the important political movements of his time in the framework of his conception of enlightenment, as a ‘private individual’ he professed the liberalism of the educated, ‘propertied’ classes-to use a sociological classification.

The second question is related to another, decisive problem of the political hermeneutics of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Historical and political events of the present day do Nietzsche justice to a remarkable extent as far as the political aspects of the Nietzscheian enlightenment and Nietzsche’s philosophy are concerned. The belief in the possibility of there being one right political way have crumbled. Francis Fukuyama’s claim about the ‘end of history’ has brought new ideas in motion. Nietzsche has also felt that the situation in which he found himself was that of the ‘end of history’ where the various political alternatives, possible political realisations of the Nietzscheian enlightenment have without exception become the subject-matter of his critique.

The situation is hardly different today from that in which Nietzsche’s critiques were born. Fukuyama’s thesis about the triumph of liberalism is not inconsistent with this. The fact that liberalism has attained supremacy in the way described by Fukuyama does not imply that Nietzsche’s critique of liberalism ceased being applicable. It seems clear that despite all due criticism there is nothing better at hand than the liberal and democratic political system. This, however, does not invalidate Nietzsche’s arguments.


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