On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn
Image: Edvard Munch,
“[W]hat makes Nietzsche’s influence so un/canny is that there has never been adequate resistance from a real Left.”
— Geoff Waite, Nietzsche’s Corps/e (1996)
“Few thinkers have enjoyed such widespread appeal over the last forty years as Nietzsche.”
— Peter D. Thomas, “Overman and the Commune” (2005)
“Opposed to everyone, Nietzsche has met with remarkably little opposition.”
— Malcolm Bull, “Where is the Anti-Nietzsche?” (2001) and Anti-Nietzsche (2011)
If Nietzsche’s arguments could be said to have gone unchallenged during the second half of the twentieth century, as the above-cited authors suggest, the same cannot be said today. Beginning in the early 1990s, but then with increasing rapidity over the course of the last decade, a distinctly anti-Nietzschean consensus has formed — particularly on the Left. Recent years have witnessed a fresh spate of texts condemning both Nietzsche and his thought as irredeemably reactionary, and hence incompatible with any sort of emancipatory politics. Numerous authors have contributed to this shift in scholarly opinion. To wit: William Altman, Fredrick Appel, Malcolm Bull, Daniel Conway, Bruce Detwiler, Don Dombowsky, Ishay Landa, Domenico Losurdo, Corey Robin, and Geoff Waite. The list goes on.
Even a cursory glance at these writings, however, suffices to reveal some of the deep fissures that run between them. A great methodological heterogeneity informs their respective approaches. Bull, for example, insists that to overcome the seductive quality of Nietzsche’s ideas it is vital not to read like him (“reading for victory”); Altman seems to believe, inversely, that in order to undermine his pervasive influence, it is necessary to write like him. The content of their criticisms is far from univocal, either. One common thread that unites them is Nietzsche’s notorious hostility to modern democratic ideals, but even then the points of emphasis are extremely divergent. While some critics of Nietzsche prefer to remain within the realm of politics proper, others register his opposition to democracy at the level of ethics or aesthetics. Dombowsky falls into the former of these camps, seeking to trace out — through a series of elaborate and impressionistic inferences regarding the author’s reading habits, a kind of bibliographical “connect the dots” — the secret of “Nietzsche’s Machiavellian discipleship.” Using a more ethical framework, writers like Conway rather look “to illuminate the…moral content of his political teachings.” Conversely, in his book Nietzsche Contra Democracy, Appel locates Nietzsche’s anti-democratic impulse as emerging out of his concern with artistic practices, in the construal of “politics as aesthetic activity.”
But whatever differences may exist in their interpretation of the man and his thought, one thing is certain: the tide has turned decisively against Nietzsche on the Left of late. Not that this is an entirely unwelcome development. The vogue of French Nietzscheanism, from Bataille and Deleuze down through Derrida and Foucault, has been every bit as tiresome as its vulgar anti-Nietzschean counterpart. In light of the recent revaluation of Nietzsche’s philosophy, however, we find ourselves compelled to ask whether the anti-Nietzschean turn of the last few years truly signals an end to the sway his ideas have held over the Left. Are we to be finally disabused of his “pernicious” influence? Is this perhaps the twilight of the idoloclast?
Continue to the next section, on “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche“