Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch 1906)

Twilight of the idoloclast?

On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn



[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 Thomas, “Overman and
the Commune”

Opposed to everyone, Nietzsche has met with remarkably little opposition.

— Malcolm Bull, “Where is the

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. Continue reading

Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche

Re­view: Mal­colm Bull,
Anti-Ni­et­z­sche (2011)

Im­age: Pho­to­graph of
Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche (1882)

On the Left’s re­cent anti-Ni­et­z­schean turn


[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 Thomas, “Over­man and
the Com­mune” (2005)

Op­posed to every­one, Ni­et­z­sche has met with re­mark­ably little op­pos­i­tion.

— Mal­colm Bull, “Where is the
Anti-Ni­et­z­sche?” (2001)

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”);1 Alt­man seems to be­lieve, in­versely, that in or­der to un­der­mine his per­vas­ive in­flu­ence, it is ne­ces­sary to write like him.2 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.”3 Us­ing a more eth­ic­al frame­work, writers like Con­way rather look “to il­lu­min­ate the…mor­al con­tent of his polit­ic­al teach­ings.”4 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.”5

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 reading