This is the third in a series of posts on postmodernism.
Nietzsche provides many of the ideas that are now identified with postmodernism. “I am simply a Nitzschean,” Foucault said. Derrida “not only fosters Nietzsche’s work but evolves it within the sphere of language”. Deleuze evangelised about him to Paris intellectuals in the early 1960s, via his book Nietzsche and Philosophy, while Irigaray “undertakes to interrogate Nietzsche, the grandfather of poststructuralist philosophy, from the point of view of water”.
Nietzsche’s key works cover wide areas of culture and philosophy. His lasting influence derives partly from his scholarship and exciting style; partly from his ability to discern from afar the period of wars and revolutions to come, and the issues they have continued to pose for modern society; and partly from the very general, symbolic way in which he himself posed those issues: this vagueness allows his writings to be applied fairly readily to new situations. While Nietzsche was deeply affected by the events of his times, he responded to them indirectly, through subtle word-play, irony and paradox, and above all by using pseudo-mythic imagery.
Georg Lukács provides the best overview of Nietzsche’s politics and philosophy that I know of, and it forms the basis of this post.*
The historical context
Nietzsche wrote during a time of transition for world capitalism. On the one hand, the system was still expanding, through colonialism and the growing concentration and centralisation of large corporations. Reflecting this, the dominant ideology was one of progress, reason, and science, brought by the superior white races to the primitive Africans, sly Asiatics, and idle, hot-headed Arabs. The world was a good place and steadily getting better. On the other hand there were shadows. One was the gradual intensification of imperialist rivalries. Another was the menace of the working class. In 1871 Germany defeated France in war, but during that war the workers and National Guard of Paris rose in revolution, briefly setting up the worker’s city-state of the Paris Commune. A minority of intellectuals and artists sensed and expressed these shadows, and darker times to come. Among them were philosophers who justified the status quo not as a glorious place, but on the grounds that its evils were permanent features of the human condition.
Nietzsche was part of this latter current. What distinguished him within it was his extreme political agenda. He called for an assault of unbridled savagery against everything progressive and forward-looking, most particularly socialism and the workers’ movement.
When the Paris Commune was put down, with the slaughter of 20,000 working people, Nietzsche wrote:
Hope is possible again! Our German mission isn’t over yet! I’m in better spirit than ever, for not yet everything has capitulated to Franco-Jewish levelling… Over and above the war between nations, that international hydra which suddenly raised its fearsome heads has alarmed us by heralding quite different battles to come. (quoted in Lukács, Destruction of Reason p327)
For Nietzsche, society divides naturally into masters and slaves. Societies that attempt to conceal or deny this fundamental truth have been infected and corrupted by the slave class, and are sickly as a result.
Such phantoms as the dignity of man, the dignity of labour are the shabby products of a slave mentality hiding from its own nature… Wretched the seducers who have deprived the slave of his innocence by means of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge! (quoted in Lukács Destruction of Reason p325)
With its admonitions against rank, acquisitiveness and militarism, Christianity
is no more than the typical teaching of socialists… Behind all this there is the outburst, the explosion of a concentrated loathing of the “masters” – the instinct which discerns the happiness of freedom after such long oppression… (Mostly a symptom of the fact that the inferior classes have been treated too humanely.) (The Will to Power epigram 209 – **see footnote)
Nietzsche fantasised about a Europe ruled by a true-blooded nobility of refined sensibilities and manners, generators and patrons of fine art and literature. Indeed, he thought, if the capitalists had been able to “share the hereditary nobility’s distinction in glance and gesture, then perhaps there would be no socialism of the masses”:
A higher civilization can only come about when there are two distinct social castes: that of the working people and that of the leisured, those capable of true leisure; or, to put it more strongly, the caste of forced labour and the caste of free labour. (quoted in Lukács)
The ideal aristocratic leaders were
the kind of exuberant monsters that might quit a horrible scene of murder, arson, rape and torture with the high humour and equanimity appropriate to a student prank. They would do so in the conviction that the poets would have plenty to celebrate again. Behind all these noble breeds there is no mistaking the beast of prey, the magnificent blond beast in greedy search of spoils and conquest … It is the noble races that have left the word ‘barbarian’ in their tracks wherever they prowled; even their highest culture betrays this awareness and their pride in the fact. (quoted in Lukács)
One quality of this elite, he thought, was to be removed from the understanding of their social inferiors, since “comprendre c’est egaler” – to comprehend is to equalise (Will to Power 943). This might have contributed to his deliberately opaque and misleading language. He also appropriated the concepts, traditions and names of ideological opponents. For example he seeks to transform the meaning of The Enlightenment: in its old form it represented “the spirit of the democratic herd: a universal levelling. The new Enlightenment aims at showing dominant natures the way; inasmuch as to these (as to the State), everything is permitted that is barred to the herd mentality.” (quoted in Lukács)
For a few years, when Germany’s rulers began experimenting with limited parliamentary democracy in the hope of containing worker unrest in the English fashion, Nietzsche steered toward more moderate formulations, without ever losing his underlying commitment to the master/slave dichotomy. As working class struggle intensified in the second half of the 1870s he returned to more openly brutal formulations.
Nietzsche became an inspiration to the Nazis. But he himself was not particularly interested in ethnicity or Aryanism; in this sense he may have been no more racist than the average bourgeois of his day. What singles him out, and provided grounds for fascists to build on, is the vicious notion, emphasised again and again, that humanity is naturally and permanently divided into masters, to whom all is permitted, and a subhuman caste, to whom anything might legitimately be done.
Nietzsche on women
Given all this, it is no surprise to read that
One-half of mankind is weak, typically sick, changeable, inconstant – woman needs strength in order to cleave to it… she makes the strong weak – she rules when she succeeds in overcoming the strong… (The Will to Power 864)
We take pleasure in women as in a perhaps daintier, more delicate and more ethereal kind of creature. What a treat it is to encounter creatures who have only dancing, nonsense and finery in their minds! They have always been the delight of every tense and profound male soul… (The Will to Power 943)
For more of the same see the relevant Wikipedia entry.
Jacques Derrida defends Nietzsche’s position on this score. Derrida’s case is summed up by his admirer Christopher Norris:
If woman is indeed the antithesis of truth, the very principle of unreason, then she can only be counted as an ally in Nietzsche’s crusade against the great system-building male philosophers, from Plato to Kant to Hegel… Thus Derrida can claim – “perversely” one might think, but as the upshot of a close exegesis – that Nietzsche is not only ambivalent in his attitude to woman but can even be read as a crypto-feminist resisting all attempts to bypass or sublimate the question of sexual difference. (Christopher Norris, Derrida, Fontana London 1987, p202, 203)
Nietzsche and postmodernism
Nietzsche’s politics are not, of course, shared by the postmodernists, who have tended toward liberal stances when dabbling in concrete issues. Foucault, for example, supported prison reform, while Derrida opposed apartheid in South Africa. They seek to explain away Nietzsche’s bestial political agenda, using pitiful rationales of the kind supplied by Norris. In doing so they are helped by the fact, already mentioned, that Nietzsche’s political program comes down to us softened and partially disguised by word-play, paradox and ambiguity, like a fist seen through mottled glass.
What the postmodernists really take from Nietzsche is not his political program but his philosophy, which offers a point-by-point attack on the underpinning ideas of Marxism. This is why they are willing to draw so heavily on someone who was also a forerunner of the Nazis. Nietzsche’s philosophy will be the topic of the next post in this series.
*Lukács published The Destruction of Reason in 1952. The book traces the history of the major irrationalist currents of thought over the preceding two centuries,up to the rise of Nazism. In the early 1920s Lukacs made important contributions to Marxist theory through books such as History and Class Consciousness. Afterwards he bent the knee to Stalin. The Destruction of Reason is nonetheless one of the most useful I have come across for understanding the background to postmodernism. Fortunately the chapter on Nietzsche is available free online.
**The Will to Power is a long list of numbered epigrams. Since these stay the same between different editions of the book, they are handier to use than page numbers. The exact wording changes, of course, between different translations. The epigrams quoted above were taken from an old edition, TN Foulis London 1910. The Will to Power was published posthumously by Nietzsche’s sister, leading to allegations that she meddled with the text to advance her more explicit racism and more focused commitment to German imperialism. The text of The Will to Power is however completely consistent with the rest of Nietzsche’s works on the issues of class and the nature of women.