Reviewed by Rory Jeffs
What is most remarkable about Nietzsche’s post-war ascendancy in the philosophico-cultural field is that it emerges out of a prior history of his philosophy’s use in legitimating the Nazi and fascist regimes of Europe in the 1930s. Unlike Heidegger, whose Nazism has certainly impacted his readership, Nietzsche’s reputation was able to attain an efficacious divorce from his Nazi appropriation. This was due in part to Walter Kaufman’s ‘rehabilitation’ of Nietzsche for Anglo-American readership after World War II, with his updated English translations and commentaries that cited Nietzsche’s correspondences that contained critical attitudes to anti-Semitism. It has now become nearly almost commonplace that Nietzsche is innocent not only of any association with Nazism, but that any view of him as conservative, reactionary or proto-fascist, because those interpretations were always based on a selectively biased or distorted reading of his work. This legacy is an effect of what Domenico Losurdo calls the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ – not simply propagated by theorists and commentators, but also editors and translators of the complete works and Nachlass. Losurdo’s epic historiography of Nietzsche’s philosophy extensively exposes the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ for failing to attend to the historical-social origins and wider context of Nietzsche’s thought. For this reason, Losurdo’s book is long overdue in the English scholarship where ‘innocent’ or trusting readings of Nietzsche have arguably prevailed and become ‘canonical’ (734), and where there is a need for a more ‘critical balance sheet’, especially amidst the rise of the far-right in recent decades that continue to feed on Nietzsche’s work.
What emerges from Losurdo’s reconstruction effort of ‘unifying’ Nietzsche’s thought in its various stages (e.g. ‘Young Nietzsche’, ‘Solitary Rebel’, ‘Enlightener’, ‘Mature Nietzsche’) is a core central argument that there exists from beginning to end in Nietzsche’s prolific output, a politics of ‘aristocratic radicalism’. That is, the seeds of a political ‘movement’ or ‘programme’ to counter ‘two millennia of history’ that has led to a crisis of civilisation in the West (862). The importance of this term ‘aristocratic radicalism’ – a term Nietzsche himself accepted as a legitimate description of his philosophy by friend Georg Brandes (355) – is that it helps Losurdo bridge Nietzsche’s wide-sweeping radical critique of metaphysics and modernity with a specific political project that animates or motivates it. Whereas the ‘aristocratic’ aspect of Nietzsche’s thinking has been noted before, it has often been so from an ‘apolitical’ or anarchistic context from Nietzsche’s assumed descriptive or amoralistic ‘genealogy’. In one sense, Losurdo recognises that Nietzsche is psychologically penetrating in his critique of bourgeois (liberal) society on the basis of a ‘tragic disposition’ and ‘crisis of culture’. And furthermore, that his critique of revolution – which Losurdo analyses in terms of Nietzsche ‘four stages’ – exposes a metaphysical faith in historical progress or objectivity. However, understood under the thread of aristocratic radicalism, Losurdo argues Nietzsche’s form of critique is a ‘metacritique’ that offers no progressive possibilities with modern civilisation. Whilst metacritique adopts and even mimics the ‘nonconformist flag’ of socialism, it does so for the sake of a ‘singular revolution’: the use of genealogical destruction of democratic-slave ideology underpinning modernity and revolution as a ‘precondition for aristocratic social engineering’ (355-56, 979). And it is on this point where Losurdo disturbs the assumed ‘postmodern’ narrative that Nietzsche’s genealogical method was the critique or deconstruction of power itself.
It is not until Part Three of the book that Losurdo elaborates in detail on how aristocratic radicalism equates to a praxis or political programme of ‘social engineering’. The first thing to note about Losurdo use of a ‘wide-context’ method for a reconstruction of Nietzsche’s thinking is that it subtly shows how Nietzsche formulated reactionary ideas without being under the influence of the German nationalism characterised by Bismarck’s term as Chancellor of the Second Reich (‘Germomania’, ‘national liberalism’) and its extension in anti-Semitism (Wagner-Förster-Dühring). For in comparison to these trends, Nietzsche self-consciously distances himself from historical influences, presenting himself as ‘European soul’ and ‘untimely’ or politically ineffectual figure watching events from above with the ‘pathos of distance’ (a la his protagonist Zarathustra). However, to glean from this distance that Nietzsche was a deeply ‘antipolitical’ philosopher because there was no timely political project fit for his vision, is for Losurdo simply perpetuating Nietzsche’s self-mythmaking. The nuances of Nietzsche’s political project for Losurdo can be identified by way of a closer study of how Nietzsche re-theorises a set of reactionary tropes in a radical modern mode rather than in terms of classic conservative counter-revolutionary mode of a ‘return’ to the past. The central tenets consistently crossing over Nietzsche’s stages that outline such a program concern the real meaning of the last stage of his planned but unfinished project of ‘the revaluation of all values’, which Losurdo reconfigures in terms of Nietzsche’s ‘alternative’ revolution (alluded to in The Gay Science) of aristocratic radicalism that becomes defined by the call for a ‘new slavery’, ‘new nobility’ and a ‘new party of life’ (352-57).
In terms of a new slavery, Losurdo compares Nietzsche’s thinking on the topic of slavery via the views of other groups, such as the Junker class in Germany, the American slave-owners and the Czarist monarchy in Russia. Core to all of them was their support of the institution of slavery and aristocratic values of otium et bellum (672-91) – which Losurdo underlines as a ‘watchword’ throughout Nietzsche’s writings. As Losurdo recounts, Nietzsche had formed in his early writings (e.g. ‘The Greek State ’), a view that ‘slavery was the essence of culture’ (678). This view becomes the basis for Nietzsche’s later use of otium et bellum, where war is represented as an aristocratic ‘virtue’ and leisure is characterised by activities exclusive to the aristocracy that also are the source of higher culture (art, music, literature). What the phrase consciously excludes, as Losurdo notes, is labour as the source of virtue or culture – yet paradoxically, Nietzsche acknowledges that otium et bellum will always depend upon the institution of exploited labour of slave-classes in freeing the higher classes from having to work themselves. Therefore, any recovery of aristocratic virtues in a new age of ‘free spirits’ would require a new slave-class rather than the further democratisation of societies. For Losurdo, these links help explain why the crisis of culture was intrinsically connected by Nietzsche to the expansion of otium to the workers that would reduce it to values of peace, pleasure and commodification (929-30).
The key for this project of recovery Losurdo claims is in finding a ‘new nobility’ or model of ‘rank-ordering’ for future societies. In his ‘mature’ period, Nietzsche himself reflected that the problem and aim of his philosophy had always been ‘rank-ordering’ (339, 966). Losurdo refers to Nietzsche’s sought-after model of social hierarchy as a form of ‘transversal racialisation’ (760-62, 780-85), where a social division is always marked between masters and servants and results from the expression of ‘noble’ (well-formed) and ‘base’ (malformed) natures or instincts that in turn determine the meaning of ‘race’. Losurdo distinguishes such a form of ‘rank-ordering’ from the fascist ‘horizontal racialisation’ of biological racism or white supremacy (783). This further explains the peculiarity of Nietzsche’s ‘anti-anti-Semitism’ that in effect even supports the idea of future society ruled by aristocrats and Jewish ‘Big Capital’ (543-45). However, how the noble natures or virtues are generated is an issue in the writings of the ‘mature’ Nietzsche as he refers to aristocratic societies (‘master moralities’) and caste orders of the past (‘Code of Manu’, cited at 793) – which all were ‘corrupted’ by Judaeo-Christianity. Here, Losurdo argues Nietzsche’s transversal racism adopts the caste distinction of ‘Aryans’ and ‘Chandalas’ because it can be applied within one nation or race and thus potentially undermine the modern egalitarian value-base of nation-states.
In seeking to establish a clearer outline of Nietzsche’s ‘political programme of aristocratic radicalism’ that would base it in the socio-political circumstances of his own times, Losurdo compares Nietzsche’s ideas within the horizon of eugenic discourse of the mid-to-late nineteenth century (582-600, 692-710). Here, the later or ‘mature Nietzsche’ (from the Gay Science  to 1889) is central to the comparative argument – given that his concepts of the will to power, eternal return and Ubermensch emerge in this period. Whilst there are some cited exceptions in the published texts of this period, ultimately, the posthumously published fragments of The Will to Power underline much of the source material used by Losurdo to discuss Nietzsche’s thoughts on a ‘new Party of Life’. This phrase affirmatively used by Nietzsche, as Losurdo cites, originates from the social Darwinist (and eugenicist) Frederic Galton (699). In Nietzsche’s hands, the ‘party’ will be of an intellectual vanguard of free Spirits and Übermenschen who will be unafraid to advocate (not necessarily employ) eugenic measures, for in Nietzsche’s own words, ‘the annihilation [vernichtung] of the millions of malformed’ (596-601). Despite the harshness of Nietzsche’s language in these kinds of passages, left-Nietzscheans such as Gianni Vattimo and Gilles Deleuze have attempted to allegorise or metaphorise these radical concepts on life and their relation to the will to power and the eternal return. Losurdo reveals the absurdity of such an approach that would discount any historical-social origins to the theory and ignore the brutality and danger with which Nietzsche seeks to shock his readers. Hence, the usual interpretation of Nietzsche as a ‘life-affirming’ philosopher is brought to bear on a darker political implication by Losurdo’s rendering here, knowing that where Nietzsche says life, he also states ‘the great majority of men have no right to existence’ (Nietzsche 1967: 464).
Bearing on these sections of the book that dare to go into the eugenic question, the issue of the Nazi ‘appropriation’ is also inevitably addressed by Losurdo. He argues that the rehabilitative work of Nietzsche’s postwar editors (namely, Kaufmann and Colli and Montinari) was successful largely due to their attribution to Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as the key instigator in rendering a Nazi-friendly Nietzsche in her assemblage and ‘forgery’ of the posthumous editions of The Will to Power (1901-06). However, Losurdo argues such defences of Nietzsche discount several important historical details. Firstly, he claims the official account of Elisabeth’s role in creating Nietzsche’s anti-Semitism is an ‘unsustainable conspiracy theory’ (711-15). Nietzsche’s defenders on this front never address Elisabeth’s own distancing of Nietzsche from anti-Semitism in her biography of him (Förster-Nietzsche 1895-1904). Furthermore, there is never any discussion of the fact that Nietzsche was attracting a right-wing audience of his published works before The Will to Power was released (566, 720-22). Whilst this does not necessarily resolve the issue of Nietzsche’s influence on Nazism, it does reveal something arbitrary about the ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ when it comes to the distinctions it makes over the ideological precursors to the Third Reich.
With 1000+ pages critically re-examining the Nietzsche legacy, can Losurdo claim posthumously himself (having sadly passed in 2018) to have settled the ‘critical balance sheet’ on Nietzsche? Nothing of course written on Nietzsche has ever been settled, and Losurdo himself avows as much, following Gadamer’s own assessment (1001). Whilst Losurdo, of course, was never going to wait on deconstruction or hermeneutics to work out the questions of interpretation by way of their ‘speculative connections’, he makes a point that a gap steadily widens vis-à-vis Nietzsche between the defence of interpretation or theoretical licence and the historical research or record (726-27, 730-33). One of the risks of any unifying method, especially as politically applied, is what it leaves for future readers of Nietzsche. Throughout his account of Nietzsche’s intellectual history, Losurdo continues to remind us that to extract or ignore these unpalatable aspects of Nietzsche’s writings or his influence on the political right, would not actually ‘save’ Nietzsche, nor would it provide a more consistent method for understanding him. For Losurdo, a ‘theoretical surplus’ can only be recognised in Nietzsche’s work from seeing the whole of his philosophy as ‘totus politicus’ (827-28, 949). But it is this premise of unifying a thinker’s philosophy, via an ‘aristocratic’-political project, that would itself be contested by the hermeneuts of innocence. And as Losurdo notes, his contribution here exposes how deep a ‘conflict of the faculties’ exists, between history and philosophy departments who begin, at least in the case of Nietzsche, from different pages.
21 June 2021
- 1895-1904 Das Leben Friedrich Nietzsche’s Leipzig: C.G. Naumann.
- 1967 The Will to Power Ed. and trans. W. Kaufmann and R. Hollingdale, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.