Nietzsche’s Great Politics
by Hugo Drochon
Princeton University Press, 2016, 224 pp.
For white nationalist Richard Spencer, reading Friedrich Nietzsche as an undergraduate was his first “red-pilling” experience—a Matrix reference beloved by the “alt-right” to connote the revelation of reality beyond lived illusions. Nietzsche would have likely hated the crappy Cartesianism of the Matrix and despised the nostalgic nationalism and cosplay masculinism of the “alt right.” But this is hardly the first time that Nietzsche has needed salvaging. As cultural theorist Sylvère Lotringer has noted, “reappropriating Nietzsche, the philosopher with a thousand eyes, has never been a very difficult thing to do.”
No efforts were more damaging that those of Nietzsche’s own sister, Elisabeth. In a story now well known, Elisabeth took charge of her brother’s estate following his illness and death. She systematically edited, falsified, and forged texts and letters to mold her brother’s legacy into an intellectual ballast for fascism and the National Socialism she would later support. It was an extensive undertaking, to fashion a basis for Nazism from the work of a man who had denounced the “petty politics” of German nationalism and claimed that Jews should form part of a transnational elite of “Good Europeans.” His aphoristic form and variable rhetoric have long lent themselves to brutal de-contextualizing, misreading, and treacherous cherry-picking.
In Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Cambridge historian Hugo Drochon picks up a scholarly debate around saving Nietzsche from Nazism. By the 1950s, philosophers were restoring texts in order to prevent Nazi appropriation of Nietzsche. This was achieved by arguing that Nietzsche himself didn’t have a politics; it is against this reading that Drochon pitches his book. Influential scholars like Walter Kaufmann and, more recently, Brian Leiter framed the thinker as uninterested in politics, dedicated instead to a philosophy of culture. This is not to say they stripped Nietzschean thought of political implication, or that they believed aesthetic questions to be free of political concern or social critique. But these readings denied formal political thought any primacy in Nietzsche’s oeuvre. Meanwhile, thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Georges Bataille (rather overlooked by Drochon) saw in Nietzsche a fierce negative politics—a rejection of German nationalism, realpolitik, liberal democracy, and Wagner’s socialism—but scorned attempts to draw a positive political agenda from what Bataille called Nietzsche’s “field of infinite contradictions.”
Drochon is not the first to urge reading Nietzsche as a political thinker, but his dogged exegetical offering goes further than highlighting political critique and observation in the philosopher’s work. Drochon attributes to Nietzsche a robust, positive political philosophy and program, which he argues is consistent from the earliest unpublished texts until the philosopher’s syphilitic decline. This is what the Cambridge historian of political thought means by Nietzsche’s “great politics” (Grosse Politik). Drochon’s is not the sort of book to play on double entendre: “Nietzsche? Yeah, that guy had great politics,” said no one ever, and certainly not Drochon here.
Drochon’s book largely succeeds on its own terms. It is dense in proof of his thesis, but, in its quest for a coherence in his political program, drains Nietzsche of his dizzying rhetorical magic. Whether Drochon is correct in his reading of Nietzsche as a political philosopher is no doubt a matter for scholarly debate. But to what ends it is useful to read Nietzsche in this way is a more interesting question for a wider audience. Just because we can excavate certain throughlines in the philosopher’s political proclamations, it doesn’t mean we should.
Drochon sets out to show that Nietzsche meets the desiderata to be considered to “have a politics.” For this, he uses the criteria suggested by Bernard Williams, Drochon’s foil, who in fact concluded the opposite—that Nietzsche lacked a “coherent politics.” The desiderata are: “ethical and psychological insights”; an “intelligible account of modern society”; “the ability to relate these insights to this account of society”; and “a coherent set of opinions about the ways in which power should be exercised in modern societies, with what limitations and to what ends.” As such, Drochon’s analysis focuses on “politics” at the level of the modern state—its origin, its raison d’etat, and what could come next.
Drochon counterposes Nietzsche to liberal social contract theorists. He shows how the philosopher’s critique of the “romantic illusion” of liberal contractualism aligns with his broader genealogy of morality in society. Nietzsche believed the modern democratic state was, like Christianity, simply a myth through which we live as though it were legitimized by an essential authority. A lie. Nietzsche presents a cruel story of state origins, in which “a conqueror with the iron hand . . . suddenly, violently, and bloodily” imposes order on a previously inchoate population.
Parsing Nietzsche’s scathing critiques of society, his predictions, and his prescriptions is tricky. He slips so smoothly between voices, from observer to ironist to didact. But Drochon is sure that Nietzsche offered a coherent normative vision of politics. Relying heavily on his early unpublished essay “The Greek State,” Drochon argues that Nietzsche supported something akin to Plato’s political project, in which slavery is a necessary “cruel tool” to forge a state worthy of existence: namely, a state in the service of the creation of genius and culture. Such a state is denied by what Nietzsche calls the “leveling” of democracy. Drochon sees Nietzsche arguing for a state organized into two spheres, in which the work of slaves means that a privileged class of “Olympian men” can be removed from daily struggle in order to produce great works of culture. This elite would be formed by a pan-racial, pan-national set of “Good Europeans,” from an odd (somehow enforced?) breeding of Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers.
In the shadow of today’s global populist revolt and emboldened “petty” nationalisms, much of Nietzsche’s account feels prescient, but Drochon insists that Nietzsche’s politics should be situated in his own time. One supposes that he did not have Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in mind when envisioning his hybrid elite. Nor, might I add, should his backing of a great united Europe be turned into a defense of the troika-led European Union, which Nietzsche would no doubt have denounced as much as the nationalism of Brexit.
By the end of his book, Drochon has successfully shown that Nietzsche met the first three desiderata of what it takes to “have a politics”—insights, an intelligible account of society, and the application of the insights to this account. But it remains a stretch to attribute to Nietzsche “coherent . . . opinions about the ways in which power should be exercised in modern societies.” It’s not clear how Nietzsche’s vision of some “war of spirits” between democracy’s Christian slave morality and an ancient Greek spirit would emerge as a coherent political reality. Nietzsche might have wanted a spiritual war to force a revaluation of society’s organization, but that’s not exactly a program.
Beyond furthering a specific academic debate, I’m not sure what use there is in showing Nietzsche to have a coherent political program. That’s not a criticism of Drochon, a professional academic aiming his work at Nietzsche scholars. He demonstrates that Nietzsche had political considerations that stretched with some consistency across his career, which should be sufficient to call Nietzsche a political philosopher, and, indeed the sort of political philosopher ill-suited to Nazi appropriation. But it is Nietzsche’s analysis, rather than his putative grand vision, that makes his politics relevant today.
Nietzsche’s Great Politics was published before Trump’s victory, but Drochon has more recently commented that “for Nietzsche, the celebration of a man like Trump was the inevitable result of a democratic culture built on the virtues of ignorance and self-fulfillment.” Trump is no Übermensch (overman) shattering the illusions of the herd. He is more like the “last man” of which Zarathustra speaks, the demagogue of anti-progress, seeking only comfort and personal security. Nietzsche’s critique of modern democracy sits well with a narrative that understands Trump’s ascent as paved by neoliberal stupor.
At a few points throughout the book, Drochon notes that Nietzsche’s critique that democracy and liberalism are linked to so-called Christian morality can be of use to contemporary political thought. He doesn’t go into depth as to how, and it might seem dangerous to take up a Nietzschean stance on democracy, given his belief in inherent hierarchy and the necessity of slavery. But Nietzsche’s politics, like his entire philosophy, are a shock of cold water we need to rouse from illusion, or at least, to recognize the illusions we choose.
Time and again in recent months I have seen political writers apoplectic over alleged rips in the social contract, as wrought by Trump, anti-immigrant policy, or austerity, or any number of political plagues. The liberal response has been outrage and disbelief that the state can fall so far from its alleged foundation as a contract forged by the will of equal pledgers. It’s a “romantic illusion” indeed. Nietzsche’s rejection of social contract theory is not so much red-pilling, as “alt-right” nonsense-mongers might suggest, but an urge away from delusion. No state was ever birthed through peaceful agreement and democratic harmony. The genesis was violence. Calling upon some mythic social contract to deliver us from evil is not just futile, it’s downright religious, as Nietzsche would see it. Liberal outrage peddles Christian morality in a world where God is dead, and we have killed him. Even if we reject Nietzsche’s hierarchies—and we should—we still need a better understanding of equality than one grounded in a dogmatic belief in social contracts.
While a universe of “alternative facts” and crystallized conspiracy gains legitimacy under Trump, the mainstream liberal response has been a flailing appeal to Truth. In a full-page ad, the New York Times laid out a list of exaltations to Truth: “The truth is hard. The truth is hidden . . . the truth is necessary. The truth can’t be glossed over.” The text was a panegyric to liberal ideology in which Truth, capital “T,” is some immutable metaphysical fact, to be discovered and spoken to power. “The truth has no agenda. The truth can’t be manufactured,” the Times continued, lying. Nietzsche knew that “truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” Power determines which narratives about reality get to count as truth. Recognizing this is a political necessity for those who would challenge the Trumpian Weltanschauung. Proclaiming “but . . . but . . . The Truth!” is a failing political tactic, and one that Nietzsche already rejected over a century ago.
Drochon pays only fleeting attention to the political implications of Nietzsche’s (anti)metaphysics. Searching for a coherent politics in Nietzsche’s work allows him to draw astute connections between Nietzsche’s disdain for Christian herd morality and the false narratives of liberal democracy. But focusing on Nietzsche’s “great politics”—that he has a political view—ignores the philosopher’s best political contribution: his call for the revaluation of values.
We don’t need to de-politicize Nietzsche to save the philosopher from fascist appropriation. If there are fascistic leanings in Nietzsche’s Grosse Politik—and there may be—they defy application within his body of philosophy, which above all demands the disrobing of ideology. Attempts to lump Nietzsche in with the philosophical horsemen of the far right will therefore always fail—not because Nietzsche put forth an anti-fascist, egalitarian political vision (quite the opposite) but because of his eviscerating critiques of blind political ideology and morality, be it from the left or right. And it’s truly great that not even Nietzsche’s politics could survive a Nietzschean dressing down.
Natasha Lennard writes about radical politics and philosophies of violence for publications including Esquire, the Nation, the New Inquiry, and the New York Times opinion section.