It took Michel Foucault to reinsert Nietzsche into leftist analyses of power. Although the German philosopher’s influence has been felt among Marxist, anarchist, and anti-market thinkers, his influence is rarely accorded its due. Like pornography, Nietzsche is often hustled in through the backdoor, and with a vague sense of shame. I’d like to sketch out what a “Left-Nietzschean” tradition might look like, and address the related problem of defining “power” itself.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s contributions to power theory are complicated, and not easily disentangled from the questionable uses to which his ideas have often been misappropriated. The image of Hitler standing next to a bust of Nietzsche comes to mind. But just as surely as the Nazis cherry-picked and deformed Nietzsche’s body of work, other aspects of Nietzsche’s critical insight have proven invaluable to the left. While Nietzsche had fans among National Socialists, he also had fans among radical feminists like Emma Goldman, Marxists in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and among the primary theorists of French postmodernism.
A few years ago, inspired by readings of later-era Michel Foucault — and especially Foucault’s late 1970s and early ‘80s interviews in which he opined on the Nietzschean tradition in social philosophy — I started a group on the internet called “Left Nietzscheans.” (This group is now sadly defunct.) I wanted to tease out Nietzsche’s unique contributions to both anti-authoritarianism broadly, and to the anticapitalist and Marxist traditions more narrowly.
First and foremost: Nietzsche, like Foucault, was never consistent. There is an evolution of ideas over time with both thinkers. Just as Louis Althusser posited an “epistemological break” between the young, “humanist” Marx, and an older, scientific Marx, so there could be said to be various Nietzsches and Foucaults over time, too. In fact, Foucault embraced ideological transformation: “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.” Put another way: Ideas should change as information and inputs change. There is no shame at arriving at a vastly different conclusion from one’s starting thesis.
Emerson’s adage also seems relevant: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A selective reading of Nietzsche has produced a tradition of thought amenable to traditional right-wing concerns for justifying power and privilege. Look at Leo Strauss, among others, for example. This reading of Nietzsche, however, is inconsistent. So, too, however, is any reading of Nietzsche that yields a consistent strand of anti-authoritarianism. And still: Nietzsche’s insights into authority, and the criticism of it, are so profound — that, like an imperfect film by German director G.W. Pabst — they still impart enough moments of scintillating wisdom that they must be taken seriously, regardless.
How does Nietzsche’s thought converge with, diverge from, complicate, and/or give a new perspective to traditional leftist goals?
Here are the characteristics of Nietzsche’s thought that are not only amenable to traditional leftist critical concerns, but have either directly or indirectly (virally) influenced it:
1.) Extreme, generalized iconoclasm.
2.) Extreme anti-religious views; a view of Christianity as a slave morality, for example; it is a “herd morality,” and its influence is a misfortune for society: it stymies full, individual self-realization
3.) A type of anti-statism: “The state is the coldest of all old monsters. Coldly, it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’” [Thus Spoke Zarathustra] Compare this statement of Nietzsche to the fascist conception of the state, which is 100% opposite to this.
4.) Dislike of anti-Semitism and German nationalism. (“The damnable German anti-Semitism” – from Ecce Homo)
5.) A view that social forces conspire to deny individuals’ individuality and the realization of their latent powers.
6.) A view of power relations and a genealogy of morals showing how ideology (“morals”) could manufacture consent for unjust power relations between people, or the status quo.
7.) The idea that a New World – a new, greater form of society – was possible and necessary for humans to achieve greatness.
8.) The idea of “will to power” bringing forth a new kind of man, a “Superman,” contrasted with Marxist idea of man’s alienation from labor, and how reconciling that alienation would also produce full-realized individuals – “supermen” in the fully-realized, socialist sense of non-alienated people.
But let’s also be fair. These are Nietzsche’s ideas that are not amenable, and are even hostile, to traditional leftist thought:
1.) Hatred of democracy (“a mania for counting noses.”)
2.) Dislike of socialism as a herd or slave morality similar to Christianity.
4.) Seemed to believe in a “natural” system of elites and aristocrats under whom lessers would simply have to endure.
5.) Nietzsche’s extreme individualism is often counterposed to actions of social solidarity; sometimes a type of contrarian solipsism seems to be endorsed by Nietzsche.
6.) Inconsistent views on racial or ethnic characteristics, sometimes essentializing nationalities and other ethnicities.
7.) Dislike of anarchism and most anti-authoritarian type thought as being the product of envious, jealous individuals resentful of their own impotence.
8.) General inconsistency in his views. Nietzsche’s views can contradict one another from book to book, even from paragraph to paragraph. You cannot tease out one consistent set of principles/ethics from Nietzsche’s complete works. In fact, Nietzsche admitted he hated consistency, and also called philosophical systems “shining mirages.”
I think this is a fair list, much fairer than selective take-downs of the philosopher’s thought, such as the one on offer from the World Socialist Website’s multi-part demolition of Nietzsche. Furthermore, no less a profound thinker than liberal humanist Bertrand Russell also found Nietzsche personally repugnant. Russell classified Nietzsche as a “philosopher of power” – that is, a thinker more interested in justifying and legitimating power, rather than criticizing it. It is hard to disagree with someone whose credentials are as unimpeachable as Bertrand Russell’s.
Michel Foucault, however, in the now-free to download Remarks on Marx, explained how Nietzsche enabled him to continue on his own trajectory towards a broader criticism of power. The exchange between him and his interviewer is worth quoting at length:
Michel Foucalt: [My] discovery of Nietzsche occurred outside the university. Because of the use to which the Nazis had put him, one didn’t talk about Nietzsche, or give courses on him; on the contrary, a ‘continuist’ reading of philosophical thought predominated, an attitude toward the philosophy of history that in some ways was held in common by Hegelianism and existentialism. And to tell the truth, this was a tendency equally shared in Marxist culture.
Q: Only now do you refer to Marxism, and Marxist culture: As if it were the great Absence. But it doesn’t seem to me that one can say this.
Foucault: I’d like to speak of Marxist culture later. For the moment I’m interested in pointing out something that seems rather curious to me. For many of us as young intellectuals, an interest in Nietzsche or Bataille didn’t represent a way of distancing oneself from Marxism or communism. Rather, it was almost the only path leading to what we, of course, thought could be expected of communism. This need for the total rejection of the world in which we found ourselves was certainly not satisfied by Hegelian philosophy. On the other hand, one was searching for intellectual paths to get to where something totally different seemed to be taking shape or already existed, that is, communism.
Thus it was without knowing Marx very well, refusing Hegelianism, and feeling dissatisfied with the limitations of existentialism, I decided to join the French Communist Party. That was in 1950. A Nietzschean Communist! Something really on the edge of ‘liveability.’ And, if you like (I too knew it) something a bit ridiculous, perhaps.
Indeed, because of Foucault’s power analyses, we can actually retroactively sketch out a canon of Left-Nietzschean theorists, a canon that seems to bridge several ideological traditions: Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille, (syndicalist-era) Georges Sorel, Giorgio Agamben, Pierre Klossowski, A.V. Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky, Emma Goldman.
For all this talk of “power,” however, and what power constitutes – what, exactly, is it? A whole tradition in the social sciences has been devoted to addressing this question. Contemporary exponents of theories of power include Pierre Bourdieu, Steven Lukes, Noam Chomsky, and G. William Domhoff.
In the Giddens/Held anthology Classes, Power, and Conflict, Swedish sociologist Goran Therborn defines “power” as: “Control of that which is desired by men.” This, ultimately, does seem convincing. Guardians at the gateposts of power would thus include those who have the ability to grant or deny access to “that which is desired by men.” Thus, landlords, and paymasters in general would figure prominently in this type of analysis. Subservience and supplication would be necessary in a society in which power relations were distributed unjustly. Making oneself useful to the powerful would be a characteristic of such a society. And so it is with ours.
Nietzsche, Foucault, and the left-Nietzschean tradition analyzed exactly this aspect of capitalist society.