Marx, Engels, and Nietzsche
on equality and morality
Return to the introduction to “Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”
Return to “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche”
In his defense, Bull is hardly the first to have made this mistake. Many of Nietzsche’s latter-day critics, self-styled “progressives,” actually share his vulgar misconception of socialism. The major difference is that where Nietzsche vituperated against the leveling discourse of equality, believing it to be socialist, his opponents just as gullibly affirm it — again as socialism. Noting that Nietzsche’s antipathy toward the major currents of socialism he encountered in his day was an extension of his scorn for Christianity and its “slave morality,” which he saw apotheosized in the modern demand for equality, some critics go so far as to uphold not only the equation of socialism with equality, but also to defend its putative precursors in traditional religious practices and moral codes. This is of a piece with broader attempts by some Marxists to accommodate reactionary anti-capitalist movements that take their inspiration from religion, whether this takes the form of apologia for “fanaticism” (Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism), “fundamentalism” (Domenico Losurdo’s “What is Fundamentalism?”), or “theology” (Roland Boer’s trilogy On Marxism and Theology). These efforts to twist Marxism into a worldview that is somehow compatible with religious politics ought to be read as a symptom of the death of historical Marxism and the apparent absence of any alternative.
According to the testimony of Peter D. Thomas, “[Losurdo] argues that Nietzsche’s…critiques of Christianity…were a response to the role [it] played in the formation of the early socialist movement. The famous call for an amoralism, ‘beyond good and evil,’ is analyzed as emerging in opposition to socialist appeals to notions of justice and moral conduct.” Corey Robin touches on a similar point in his otherwise uninspired psychology of “the” reactionary mind, a transhistorical mentalité across the centuries (from Burke to Sarah Palin, as the book’s subtitle would have it): “The modern residue of that slave revolt, Nietzsche makes clear, is found not in Christianity, or even in religion, but in the nineteenth-century movements for democracy and socialism.” Finally, Ishay Landa differentiates between Marxist and Nietzschean strains of atheism in his 2005 piece “Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion,” in which he all but confirms the latter’s suspicion that socialism is nothing more than a sense of moral outrage against empirical conditions of inequality.
To make better sense of this confusion, it is useful to glance at the various texts and authors that Nietzsche took to be representative of socialism. Once this has been accomplished, the validity of his claim that nineteenth-century socialism was simply the latest ideological incarnation of crypto-Christian morality, repackaged in secular form, can be ascertained. Notwithstanding the incredulity of Losurdo, even the German Social-Democrat and later biographer of Marx, Franz Mehring, who had little patience for Nietzsche (despite his indisputable poetic abilities), confessed: “Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism.” (Mehring added, incidentally, much to Lukács’ chagrin, that “[t]he Nietzsche cult is…useful to socialism…No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people…growing up within the bourgeois classes…, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. But for such people, Nietzsche is only a transitional stage on the way to socialism.” Other than the writings of such early socialists as Weitling and Lamennais, however, Nietzsche’s primary contact with socialism came by way of Wagner, who had been a follower of Proudhon in 1848 with a streak of Bakuninism thrown in here and there. Besides these sources, there is some evidence that he was acquainted with August Bebel’s seminal work on Woman and Socialism. More than any other, however, the writer who Nietzsche most associated with socialist thought was Eugen Dühring, a prominent anti-Marxist and anti-Semite. Dühring was undoubtedly the subject of Nietzche’s most scathing criticisms of the maudlin morality and reactive sentiment in mainstream socialist literature.
This is a point worth dwelling on for a moment. It is generally accepted, even among those who oppose Nietzsche most vociferously, that the philosopher never read Marx or Engels. Nevertheless, a few years ago the scholar Thomas H. Brobjer meticulously examined Nietzsche’s personal library and speculated that he would have in all likelihood recognized Marx’s name from several books in his collection — though this conclusion rests on a number of less-than-certain probabilities riddled with dubious qualifiers like “probably,” “likely,” “may,” “perhaps,” “might,” etc. Though Brobjer at times exhibits a worrying level of ignorance with respect to Marx and Engels’ writings, his argument is on the whole fairly convincing. Whether or not this is the case, however, Nietzsche never wrote about either of them, so it is impossible to know exactly what he thought of their theories, at least as reported by their contemporaries (allies and adversaries). It is fruitless to attempt to guess what his opinion would have been had he read them, of course. History does not deal in counterfactuals.
Brobjer’s minor addenda notwithstanding, however, Mazzino Montanari’s remarks in his essay “Nietzsche between Bäumler and Lukács” remain valid. Montanari, an Italian anti-Stalinist Marxist and an editor of the critical edition of Nietzsche’s collected works, wrote that “[o]f Marx, Nietzsche could have known at most only the name, if he had in fact read the entire thick tome by…Karl Eugen Dühring…Through Dühring’s other writings and the personal proximity of his own brother-in-law, [socialist] Bernhard Förster, Nietzsche knew what was for him — understandably — an especially unappetizing variation of socialism: the anti-Semitic one.” Furthermore, as Brobjer himself notes in his article, assuming Nietzsche actually read Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, he would have seen the name of his former mentor and later nemesis Wagner listed among the “socialists.” Recalling not only the anti-Semitic sentiments of Wagner, but also those of his revolutionary masters Proudhon and Bakunin, adding in the figure of Dühring, it becomes clearer why socialism would have seemed so repellant to him. If Bebel later quipped that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” for Nietzsche the equation was far simpler: in his experience, socialism was anti-Semitism, and foolish.
Socialism beyond “good” and “evil”
Nietzsche was not alone in criticizing Dühring, however. Besides Marx’s own diatribes against egalitarianism, his lifelong colleague Engels also found occasion to lay waste to the empty-headed rhetoric of equality slung by the representatives of socialism in his day. In his blistering tract, Anti-Dühring, Engels took aim at the overbearing pomposity of Dühring’s oeuvre. Examining his treatise on the “true” nature of the dialectic, Engels mocked the former lawyer’s habitual pontifications and constant appeals to timeless standards of justice and morality. He wrote:
[Herr Dühring], the prophet who has now arisen, has in his bag, all ready-made, final, and ultimate truth, eternal morality and eternal justice. This has all happened so many hundreds and thousands of times that we can only feel astonished that there should still be people credulous enough to believe this, not of others, oh no! but of themselves. Nevertheless, we have here before us at least one more such prophet, who also, quite in the accustomed way, flies into highly moral indignation when other people deny that he is in a position to deliver the final and ultimate truth. Such a denial, or indeed mere doubt of it, is weakness, hopeless confusion, nothingness, mordant skepticism, worse than pure nihilism, utter chaos and other such pleasantries. As with all prophets, instead of scientific and critical examination and judgment one encounters moral condemnation out of hand. 
Engels covered Dühring’s positive theory of equality as a subsection of “Morality and Law.” Already with his first moral and legal axiom, “[t]hat two people or two human wills are as such entirely equal to each other,” Engels deemed it a ridiculous exaggeration. “[F]rom a material standpoint there is great inequality,” he straightforwardly remarked. “A has determination and energy; B is irresolute, lazy, and flabby. A is quick-witted, B stupid.” As a result, it can only be a matter of time before one of the two will come to rule and dominate the other: “How long will it be before A regularly imposes his will on B, first by persuasion, subsequently by dint of habit, but always in form voluntarily? Servitude remains servitude, whether the voluntary form is retained or is trampled underfoot. Voluntary entry into servitude was known throughout the Middle Ages.” The dialectic of master and slave, lord and bondsman is played out here in miniature, and along with it the origin of inequality among men.
To be sure, Nietzsche’s relentless invective against Dühring had a somewhat different trajectory compared with that of Engels, but the two critiques crossed paths on more than one occasion. Like Marx’s comrade-in-arms, whose work he never read, Nietzsche found Dühring’s moralizing prattle insufferable. “The hoarse, indignant baying of sick hounds, the vicious mendacity and rage of such ‘noble’ Pharisees, can be heard right into the hallowed halls of learning,” Nietzsche lamented in his On the Genealogy of Morality. “I again remind readers…of that apostle of revenge from Berlin, Eugen Dühring, who makes the most indecent and disgusting use of moral clap-trap of anyone today, even amongst his kind, the anti-Semites.” This was the prevailing image of socialism for Nietzsche — that of cheap, mawkish sentimentality. Dühring’s sentimentalism, cobbled together (in bowdlerized form) from old eighteenth-century editions of the British theory of moral sentiments, actually served as the basis for Nietzsche’s derogation of morality as simply so much vengeful ressentiment. “[A] derogatory mention of recent attempts to seek the origin of justice in ressentiment: this plant thrives best amongst anarchists and anti-Semites today,” he wrote. As if there were any doubt who he had in mind, Nietzsche continued: “[C]oncerning Dühring’s specific proposition that the seat of justice is found in the territory of reactive sentiment, for the sake of accuracy we must unceremoniously replace this with another proposition: the last territory to be conquered by the spirit of justice is that of reactive sentiment!”
In fact, the language of ressentiment in Nietzsche stemmed entirely from his encounter with Dühring. Not by accident does the term appear as a contraction of its romantic equivalents, reactive sentiment [reaktiven Gefühls], which the philologist knew only too well. Moral categories like “good” and “evil” were nothing more than the translation of what had been merely “good” or “bad” in master morality into slave morality. Far from being absolutes, they were instead relative to one’s station in life. Engels was equally unimpressed by Dühring’s deduction of “good” and “evil,” though his line of reasoning was slightly different. “The conceptions of good and evil have varied so much from nation to nation and from age to age that they have often been in direct contradiction to each other,” Engels observed. “‘But all the same,’ someone may object, ‘…if good is confused with evil there is an end to all morality, and everyone can do as he pleases.’ This is, stripped of all oracular phrases, also Herr Dühring’s opinion.” Of course, Engels considered morality to be an ideological outgrowth of social and economic conditions, and thus historically variable. Distinct forms of morality would therefore correspond to different socioeconomic configurations, to capitalist and pre-capitalist societies.
“Which then is the true one?” mused Engels. “Not one of them,” he answered promptly, “in the sense of absolute finality; but certainly that morality contains the maximum elements promising permanence which, in the present, represents the overthrow of the present, represents the future — and that is proletarian morality.” Engels was not the only one searching for the outlines of a new morality in the inchoate transience of the present. Nietzsche, too, dreamed of a morality “beyond good and evil,” possessed by “the men of the future, who in the present tie the knots and gather the force that compels the will of millennia into new channels.” Often mischaracterized as a defender of “master morality” against the mawkishness of “slave morality,” Nietzsche in reality fought for an as-yet-unseen form of life that would arise out of the latter. He saw the sense of guilt that weighed upon humanity’s conscience as pointing beyond itself, which could herald and potentially give birth to the new. “Bad conscience is a sickness, there is no point in denying it, but a sickness rather like pregnancy,” the philosopher wrote. That is to say, the sickness is only passing — symptomatic of a broader historical process with which it is bound up. Echoes of Marx’s immortal lines from his Civil War in France can almost be heard: “The proletariat has no ideals of its own to realize, but to set free elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”