The Philosopher with a Thousand Eyes

The Philosopher with a Thousand Eyes

Nietzsche in his mid-twenties, circa 1869

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 ...

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