Why Nietzsche Hated Socialism

Daniel Tutt

Throughout his life, Friedrich Nietzsche maintained a profound contempt for socialism. According to him, its advocates — and all other defenders of egalitarianism — had a single aim: leveling differences and suppressing individual genius.

A 1934 portrait of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. (The Print Collector / Getty Images)

Interview by
Nick French

Friedrich Nietzsche was born four years prior to the 1848 revolutions — events that ushered into existence an era the German philosopher held in contempt. In his writing, he sought explicitly to create a philosophy that could overturn the slow march of progress by developing an aristocratic ideology hostile to equality.

Despite this, Nietzsche’s writing has long had its admirers on the Left, including French philosophers Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. What drew these thinkers to the iconoclastic  writer’s work was a hostility to the sclerotic world that “actually existing socialism” and its Stalinist satellite parties around the world had produced. However, left-wing attempts to embrace Nietzsche have often relied on a naivety about or dismissal of his reactionary politics.

This, the philosopher Daniel Tutt argues in his book How to Read Like a Parasite: Why the Left Got High on Nietzsche, is a grave mistake. The Left must learn from the German thinker’s profound critique of modernity without embracing the authoritarian aspects of it. Jacobin’s Nick French interviewed Tutt about the anti-egalitarian elements of Nietzsche’s thought and how the thinker has influenced the Left since his time, for better and worse.

Nick French

Can you say a little bit about Nietzsche the man, and the social and political situation he was trying to address in his writing?

Daniel Tutt

To situate Nietzsche politically, it is essential that we grasp the historical context in which he lived as one of rapid political change in the direction of universal male suffrage, the introduction of universal education, and the advancement of working-class rights and welfare. Nietzsche enters the intellectual scene of Germany in the early 1870s, right as the Second Reich forms and unites Germany out of thirty-five ministates.

Although the 1848 revolutions, which Nietzsche’s birth preceded by four years, had resulted in the rise of reaction within Germany and the exodus of socialist intellectuals, there were undeniable egalitarian social changes occurring at the same time. For example, slavery was abolished in the colonies, and many figures within the German intelligentsia embraced more radical ideas inspired by the Jacobins and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, including socialism. Nietzsche’s political thought is a reaction and concerted response to this growing egalitarian and revolutionary milieu.

His first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, just one year after the Paris Commune, in which communists and anarchists briefly established a radically egalitarian form of government. The Birth of Tragedy and his essay on the politics of ancient Greece in The Greek State, written around this same time, offer a window into Nietzsche’s political thought.

In these works, Nietzsche diagnoses what he names the “optimistic worldview” as a condition of the modern age, and he locates it in a historical tendency stretching back two thousand years to the teachings of Socrates. He went as far as to describe the uprising of anarchists and communists during the Paris Commune as a “saturnalia of barbarism” led by workers who were little more 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.”

Unlike many of his conservative contemporaries, Niezsche did not aim for the restoration of a lost tradition, nor did he profess nostalgia for a bygone aristocratic order. He rather aimed to cultivate a following — as his romantic interest Lou Salomé put it, “Nietzsche writes not to convince, but to convert.” At the heart of his political outlook is an aristocratic calling to his readers to participate in overcoming and subduing the democratic and socialist impulses spreading across European civilization.

A central concern of Nietzsche’s political thought from these early works up to his more mature work in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) is the crisis of the individual genius. Nietzsche is obsessed with pacifying the movements which he views as being in favor of leveling and equality. These, he feared, would erase the possibility of individual genius in culture.

I argue that we can understand his politics as relying on a tacit strategy of building a community of “free spirits,” who would be capable of rising above the socialist demands for mass equality and the mediocrity it supposedly produces. While not everything Nietzsche wrote is political, I argue there is a consistent political radicalism in his thought, driven primarily by opposition to socialism.

At the time, debates about how to understand the condition of the working class were discussed under the heading of the “social question.” Nietzsche read widely in political economy, the history of the French Revolution, socialist movements, and the current events of his time to come up with his own response to this question.

Italian Marxist historian Domenico Losurdo has convincingly shown how Nietzsche’s politics became ever more militantly aristocratic and critical of Otto von Bismarck’s regime in Germany due to the advancement of the workers’ movement. In the 1880s, the Second Reich introduced reforms that established social insurance and new protections for workers.

This seems to have troubled Nietzsche, and around the time of the publication of The Gay Science in 1882, he embarks on what is known as his “anti-moralist” phase. His political objectives remained the pacification of the masses and the suppression of revolutionary impulses, but he begins making a more explicit call for a community of aristocratic militants who will oppose establishment politics.

In this phase, Nietzsche starts to lean more heavily on physiological ideas. His work in the late 1880s, The Antichrist (1895) and Twilight of the Idols (1889), marks what he calls his “declaration of war” on the weak and the degenerate. Nietzsche was familiar with the eugenics movement, and it is these writings that make him its spiritual godfather.

While Nietzsche’s reactionary agenda is evident throughout his career, scholars of his politics like Frederick Appel and György Lukács have shown that in his later-period works, like The Will to Power (1901), he breaks to the right of Bismarck on the topics of imperialism, war, and the workers’ question. The late Nietzsche is meant to inspire his readers to rise above the compassion and weakness of the masses by making themselves capable of brutality toward those he regards as the weak, the degenerate, and the failed.

Nick French

You acknowledge that Nietzsche was a kind of “romantic anti-capitalist” — yet you argue at the same time that his political project was essentially to divert revolutionary challenges to the capitalist status quo. How do you reconcile those claims?

Daniel Tutt

Romantic anti-capitalism is a concept that Lukács develops in The Destruction of Reason to refer not only to Nietzsche’s politics, but to a particular sort of reactionary project that emerged after the 1848 revolutions. Romantic anti-capitalism opposes culture to civilization. It thus presents a critique of capitalism that often involves resurrecting the standpoint of great bygone cultures.

We see romantic anti-capitalism in a wide range of reactionary writers and thinkers of this time period, from Honoré de Balzac to Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle, for instance, saw the workers’ uprising of 1848 as unleashing an anarchy into society that required the restoration of authority and order.

Nietzsche’s concept of slave morality contains an implicit critique of the capitalist division of labor, which he argues creates “incomplete individuals.” Yet he aimed to pacify subversion and revolt from below in order to further what is arguably his primary objective in politics — the preservation of a social order uncorrupted by lowly or plebeian leadership.

Nick French

Quoting Lukács again, you say that the center of Nietzsche’s political thought was “a continuous polemic against Marxism and socialism.” This is a striking claim, since Nietzsche never directly engaged with Karl Marx’s writing.

In what sense do you think Nietzsche’s work is “a continuous polemic against Marxism” and against socialism more broadly? And why, if this is so, didn’t Nietzsche criticize Marx directly?

Daniel Tutt

We know, for example, that in 1866 Nietzsche attended a mass rally of the socialist party Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein, the General German Workers’ Association, which was founded by Ferdinand Lassalle, and would later merge with the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany to become the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). We also know that Nietzsche read August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism, John Stuart Mill’s Socialism, and Albert Schäffle’s The Quintessence of Socialism, and he embarked on a deep study of Eugen Dühring, the antisemitic socialist whom Friedrich Engels famously polemicized against in his work Anti-Dühring.

It is important to emphasize that Nietzsche was fascinated by political economy, and he returned multiple times throughout his career to the writings of the Philadelphia-based political economist Henry Charles Carey. It was the American thinker’s concept of economic competition that Nietzsche championed as useful for maintaining the harmony of the social order. We know, also, that he knew of Marx, but there is no proof that he ever seriously read him — though the name Marx is underlined in one of the books in Nietzsche’s library.

Most important, the reason that we can read Nietzsche’s politics as an assault on socialism and especially Marxism is because he aimed to bring about what he called “a higher civilization.” He claimed that such a civilization can only come about when there are two distinct social castes: working people and the leisured, or those capable of true leisure.

This perspective helps us to make sense of the right-wing historian Ernst Nolte’s remark that Nietzsche’s The Antichrist is a response to the Communist Manifesto. Were Nietzsche familiar with Marx’s writing, he would have rejected it in its entirety.

Across his oeuvre, Nietzsche’s most consistent political aim was the eradication of the socialist menace. What he rejected in Christianity, in contrast, was its egalitarian elements. To the extent Christianity could enforce rank order and discipline, it received his admiration.

Nick French

The main focus of How to Read Like a Parasite is critiquing attempts to read Nietzsche as a left-wing thinker or appropriate his thought for left-wing purposes. To that end, you explore the history of leftist receptions of Nietzsche’s ideas. How was Nietzsche received by the early workers’ movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in particular by the Bolsheviks?

Daniel Tutt

The sociologist Adolf Levenstein wrote an important analysis of how Nietzsche was read and interpreted by German workers around the turn of the century, entitled Friedrich Nietzsche in the Judgment of the Working Class. What Levenstein discovered is that Nietzsche’s seductive style was very popular with workers, and that his more overt reactionary politics and anti-majoritarian message did not necessarily dupe his readers.

He found that Nietzsche spoke to a sense of “tragic isolation” among his working-class readers. He gave voice to their desire to cultivate a rich “inner life.” Many workers read Nietzsche with an awareness that his “superman” mythology and the call for higher men could in fact be transposed to their own situation.

Part of what my book aims to track is the various ways that Nietzsche appears in moments of revolutionary upsurge, including the Bolsheviks in Russia, the postwar context of the American civil rights movement, the later Black Power movement, and the May 1968 uprising in France. One reason that Nietzsche has remained such a central philosopher for times of revolution and social change is due to the careful and comprehensive political concerns that he himself applied to his ideas and concepts.

Nietzsche’s philosophy becomes inescapable in times of political agitation because the themes with which he engages — the will of the individual, strength, vitalism, and power — are important for any political movement to grapple with. But because Nietzsche has seized the imagination of the Right and the Left alike, his thought produces a strange effect. The Right relies on the philosopher for a defense of rank order and hierarchy, and many on the Left attempt to reclaim him for their own purposes.

For the Bolsheviks, Nietzsche became a central philosopher for two main reasons. The first was political, namely that they were eager to forge a collective will in the face of great catastrophe — a world war the likes of which humanity had never experienced. Antonio Gramsci is correct to point out that the Bolsheviks defied the theory of history in Marx’s Capital by harnessing the willpower of the proletariat in a country that was still dominated by the aristocracy. In such a context, where revolution seemed to be brought about in a voluntaristic fashion by the will and organization of the Bolshevik Party, it should come as no surprise that Nietzsche’s thought, as well as Nietzscheanism, would be a decisive influence.

The second area where Nietzsche proved important for the Bolsheviks was in the domain of myth and culture building. Perhaps ironically, the Bolsheviks embraced the thinking of both Rousseau and Nietzsche in their attempts to invent a “new man” by marking the birth of socialism with festivals and celebrations.

But Nietzsche also posed a risk to the intellectual life of the Bolshevik movement, as Leon Trotsky argued. In fact, Trotsky’s first published article, from 1900, was entitled “On the Philosophy of the Superman.” Here Trotsky points out that Nietzsche’s philosophy of radical individualism appealed to the bourgeoisie, that he “became the ideologue of a group living like a bird of prey at the expense of society, but under conditions more fortunate than those of the miserable lumpenproletariat: they are a parasitenproletariat of a higher caliber.”

The Bolshevik movement was divided on Nietzsche. Some, such as Trotsky, criticized his philosophy, whereas others, such as the science fiction writer and philosopher Alexander Bogdanov, were more open to incorporating aspects of the German’s thought, specifically what Niezsche called the transvaluation of values — the rejection of the traditional moral categories good and evil and the creation of a radically new evaluative framework. But generally, most Bolsheviks did not find an affinity between Nietzsche’s thought and their socialist worldview. Rather, they recognized him as an enemy whose cultural hegemony had to be worked through but whose concepts might prove useful in some cases.

Nick French

Perhaps the most significant recent left-wing readers of Nietzsche were French postmodernist thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Briefly, how did they read Nietzsche? What influence do you think that reading has had on the contemporary left?

Daniel Tutt

Both Deleuze and Foucault elevated Nietzsche to the center of their philosophy, and Nietzschean agendas deeply inform their political thought. Let’s start with a brief understanding of the interpretive methods they brought to reading Nietzsche. Jan Rehmann’s work Deconstructing Postmodernist Nietzscheanism: Deleuze and Foucault does an excellent job detailing what he calls their “repressive interpretations.” Deleuze and Foucault are repressive readers of Nietzsche because they continuously sideline the aristocratic and elitist agenda of his thought, and this avoidance of the political core has the tendency to repeat certain Nietzschean agendas, albeit in a left-wing form.

But before we discuss these issues, let’s briefly examine their interpretive methods by considering how they treat the Nietzschean concept of the “pathos of distance.” Both thinkers take the concept and apply it toward theories of difference and differentiation, a cornerstone of postmodern philosophy. But the pathos of distance is invoked by Nietzsche is a social, explicitly aristocratic concept. It refers to the distance that must be enacted to produce rank and distinction between the noble and the slave or plebeian castes. Nietzsche wants his followers to enact a pathos of distance, and I argue it is at the core of Nietzsche’s community-building intentions to erase the class struggle and reinforce a society based on rank order and class segregation.

But while the pathos of distance is an implicitly anti-majoritarian concept meant to enforce caste and class segregation, Deleuze and Foucault detether it from the social, political, and historical context in which Nietzsche applied it. Deleuze interprets the pathos of distance in a purely philosophical register, as a break from the transcendental foundation of values. This is just one example of countless other interpretations of Nietzschean concepts that systematically dehistoricize his ideas, from the will to power to ressentiment to the eternal return.

From the early 1960s, Deleuze begins a project of elevating Nietzschean thought over Marx and Freud. My book does not analyze Deleuze’s method of interpreting Nietzsche but focuses more on the consequences of putting Nietzsche’s thought at the heart of a left-wing politics. What exactly are these effects? Both Foucault and Deleuze, despite their differences, share a profound skepticism toward state socialism and organized socialist parties. They are also both highly skeptical of Marxism and abandon core Marxist modes of critical analysis, most importantly class theory.

These elements of their thought are motivated by a Nietzschean leftism. In a 1977 interview, for instance, Foucault says that “the proletariat and bourgeoisie no longer face each other, but we fight ‘all against all’ — and there is always something in us that fights against something else in us.” It’s important to understand that Nietzsche’s philosophy was appealing for both thinkers due to the distinct historical situation they faced, namely writing in the context of a sclerotic and bureaucratic French Stalinism.

But considering our present historical conjuncture post-2008, it is clear we now face a fundamentally different political task. Today our task is to build the organizational resolve of a twenty-first-century socialism, not to tear it all down.

Nick French

You argue that attempts by the Left to appropriate Nietzschean concepts for its own ends have “distorted and perverted Marxist, socialist, and left-wing agendas.” Why is that? And what, if anything, in Nietzsche’s thought do you think is of positive value for the Left?

Daniel Tutt

The incorporation of Nietzschean thought on the Left can be problematic when it relies on a reading method that discards his deeply reactionary political core. This is what I call “elective affinity.” This is a method that aims for a synthesis of Marx and Nietzsche, or that aims to place Nietzsche at the center of left thinking while sidelining Marx, as Deleuze and Foucault do.

Among the American socialist left before World War II, Nietzsche was treated as an outright enemy to the working class and socialist politics. Jack London emerges during this time as someone who sought a parasitical reading of Nietzsche, an approach that does not forge an elective affinity with Nietzsche but rather aims to reverse his insights for the class struggle. The same is true of a figure like Kurt Eisner, who led the Bavarian socialist revolution in 1918 and who wrote an important work on Nietzsche that argued the proletariat must incorporate aspects of Nietzsche’s concepts but work through and overcome his aristocratic philosophy.

The reading method of elective affinity and the wider project of left-Nietzscheanism have some common tendencies. They aim at the politicization of culture at the expense of a critique of political economy. This often takes the form of a ludic and rebellious countercultural leftism in which the centrality of class conflict as bound up with productive and labor-based social forces is completely discarded. Nietzschean leftism redefines revolutionary politics, as we see in Deleuze and Félix Guattari for example, around the desire of independent revolutionary groups detethered from collective goals of class emancipation. The Marxist project has always involved building the collective interests of the working class, but Nietzschean leftism often casts profound suspicion on large-scale political education of this kind.

My argument is not that the Left must avoid Nietzsche tout court but that we should avoid putting Nietzsche in the driver’s seat. Nietzsche does open up problems that Marxists and socialists should think about. But these problems, and Nietzsche’s solutions to them, are most productively read when we understand the political outlook out of which they emerge. Without recognizing this, we risk advancing his political agendas under the guise of a left-wing program.