Review: Malcolm Bull,
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.
Opposed to everyone, Nietzsche has met with remarkably little opposition.
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?
Like most ‘Marxists,’ Wolfe’s problem is that he’s really a Nietzschean. He sees everything in terms of war and winning.
— Tim Morton, author of Ecology
Without Nature, “On Ross Wolfe”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche once authored a virulent polemic against the Christian religion titled The Antichrist. Two years ago, Malcolm Bull offered a long overdue rebuttal in the form of his book Anti-Nietzsche. If Nietzsche = Antichrist and Bull = Anti-Nietzsche, though, it stands to reason that Bull = Anti-Antichrist. Applying the principle of double negation to this last equation, the following conclusion proves irresistible: Bull = Christ. Hence, “Malcolm Christ.”
Of the theorists and historians who have contributed to this growing body of anti-Nietzschean literature over the last couple decades, Bull is perhaps the most unique. Surveying the criticisms of Nietzsche’s work that have appeared to date, the British art scholar finds them all lacking in at least one crucial respect. He claims that in their attempt to expose Nietzsche’s “rhetorical strategy,” his critics unwittingly reuse it.6 Their eagerness to discredit Nietzsche’s character (his ethos) or indict his philosophy as leading straightaway, by its own internal logic (its logos), to political reaction, falls prey to the Nietzschean conceit that “one must be superior.”7 Bull proposes a completely different method of critique. Rather than attack Nietzsche himself or overmaster his arguments, what must instead be changed is the way one reads these arguments (their pathos).
Bull contends that the truly radical move is to take Nietzsche as a man of his word and accept the validity of his claims. The difference here would consist in the act of reading his texts from an opposite angle to the one its author intended. Since Nietzsche urges his readers to identify with the strong, the creative, the victorious, Bull offers an alternative: “reading like a loser.”8 “Reading like a loser is interpreting the world to one’s own disadvantage,” Bull explains, in one of the book’s pithier formulations, “so that the interpretation results in loss to the interpreter.”9 Here the “loser” he has in mind is not the archetypical representative of late ’90s slacker culture, however, but the forgotten, the misbegotten — in a word, the downtrodden — of history. To put it differently, we are to identify with the philistine, the subhuman, the herd-animal.10 “Rather than being an exhilarating vision of the limitless possibilities of human emancipation,” writes Bull, “Nietzsche’s texts will continually remind us of our own weakness and mediocrity.”11
Bull returns to the subject of music and sirens later on, laying bare the Nietzschean foundations of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on “community.” The account Nancy provides of the link between “commonality”/“communion” and myth has already “been told before — by Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy.” Bull proceeds: “In Dionysian song and dance, man expresses himself as ‘a member of a higher community.’” From Nietzsche’s tragic insight, Bull thus draws the startling conclusion that “communism is music.”36 That such revolutionary politics would be inscribed into an aesthetic medium for Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy should surprise no one, however. This work had, of course, been greatly inspired by Wagner’s essays written in the immediate aftermath of the failed 1848 revolutions. “Art and Revolution” (1849) and “The Future Work of Art” (1851) can be even seen as attempts by Wagner to realize the political goals of 1848 by aesthetic means, as certain scholars have noted.37 “Only the great revolution of mankind,” indicated Wagner, “whose beginnings erstwhile shattered Grecian tragedy, can win us [the] artwork [of the future]. For only this revolution can bring forth from its hidden depths, in the new beauty of a nobler universalism, that which it once tore from the conservative spirit.”38
The revolutionary implications of Bull’s counter-reading of Nietzsche aren’t fully worked out until the final chapter. Here the issue of egalitarianism is addressed head on. “Equality has had no fiercer critic than Nietzsche,” he asserts. “His rejection of equality is unequivocal.”39 But as Bull is quick to point out, Nietzsche was hardly the only intellectual to criticize socialist slogans of equality during this period. Marx likewise rejected the egalitarian platforms advanced by his peers.40 Marx’s most well-known passages on the subject of equality appear in his Critique of the Gotha Program, in polemicizing against Ferdinand Lassalle’s doctrine of individuals’ “equal right” to the proceeds of society’s labor. While acknowledging the undeniable merit of this principle as a universal measure of equivalence or exchange within bourgeois society, Marx nevertheless emphasized that it “is still constantly encumbered by a bourgeois limitation… [E]qual right is an unequal right for unequal labor…It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right.”41 It cannot, therefore, function as the bedrock for an emancipated society.
Strangely, Bull does not concern himself in Anti-Nietzsche with Marx’s critique of Lassallean notions of equality. Instead, his narrative focuses on the Marxist objection to the Babeuvian “conspiracy of equals,” and what he takes to be a fatal flaw in its underestimation of the Lumpenproletariat‘s radical potential. Adopting Bakunin’s standard line against Marx, Bull advocates a “widening” of the revolution’s base to include the “losers” of society — what many leftists today commonly refer to as the precariat.42 In order to correct Marx’s “oversight” while remaining firmly within a Marxian frame of reference, Bull thus invokes Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution as making up for the deficiency underscored by Bakunin: “The proletariat, in order to consolidate its power, cannot but widen the base of the revolution.”43 Shifting gears to a discussion of the Gramscian notion of passive (as opposed to active) revolutions, by way of the late eighteenth-century Neapolitan writer Vincenzo Cuoco’s populist inclusion of a broader base of society’s “losers” — “the ‘lazy lazzaroni,’ Marx’s Lumpenproletariat”44 — in the revolutionary swell, Bull closes his book by summarizing:
The argument pivots from leveling down to leveling out… Cuoco picks up the idea of an inarticulate people absorbing the elite, and turns it into the idea of passive revolution in which the revolutionary elite absorb the people, taking on their opinions in process. In Gramsci’s hands, extending the class base of revolution is implicitly identified with permanent revolution, [which] ends by dissolving the state and with it the possibility of revolution itself.45
This is the way world-history ends — with a whimper and not a bang. Leaving aside the anticlimactic finale, however, the one other detail that leaps out from Bull’s text is the way it maintains a rather bland, unimaginative egalitarianism, which is immediately equated with revolutionary socialism. Still, Bull is not at all acting in bad faith here. Ironically, it is his very ingenuousness that leads him into error. By taking Nietzsche’s own (quite limited) understanding of socialism at face value, Bull naïvely treats socialism as synonymous with the political struggle for equality, since this was how “Nietzsche himself identified…the egalitarian projects of democracy and socialism.”46
Igor Stramignoni’s “Book Review: Anti-Nietzsche“ (London School of Economics)
C. Derick Varn’s “Review: Anti-Nietzsche“ (The Loyal Opposition to Modernity)
Costica Bradatan’s “Anti-Nietzsche“ (Times Higher Education)
Decca Muldowney’s “‘Reading like a loser’ — Costica Bradatan reviews Anti-Nietzsche” (Verso Books)
David Winter’s “Reading Like a Loser” (The New Inquiry)
Keith Ansell-Pearson’s “The Future is Subhuman” (Radical Philosophy)
1 “Reading for victory is the way Nietzsche himself thought people ought to read.” Bull, Malcolm. Anti-Nietzsche. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2011).
2 As Domenico Losurdo blurbs on the back of his book, “Altman…adopts Nietzsche’s own aphoristic genre in order to use it against him.” Altman himself explains: “[T]he whole point of writing in Nietzsche’s own style was to demonstrate how much power over his readers he gains by plunging him into the midst of what may be a pathless ocean, confusing them as to their destination.” Altman, William. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich. (Lexington Books. New York, NY: 2012). Pg. xi. Later Altman admits, however, that “[t]his kind of writing presumes, of course, good readers.” Ibid., pg. 181.
3 Dombrowsky, Don. Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics. (Palgrave MacMillan. New York, NY: 2004). Pg. 134.
4 Conway, Daniel. Nietzsche and the Political. (Routledge. New York, NY: 1997). Pg. 119.
5 Appel, Fredrick. Nietzsche Contra Democracy. (Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY: 1999). Pg. 120.
6 “[I]n uncovering Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy [they] reuse it.” Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 32.
7 Ibid., pg. 33.
8 Ibid., passim, pgs. 35-38, 42, 47-48, 51, 74-76, 98, 100, 135, 139, 143.
…Indeed, Bull’s call to “read like a loser” grants to the essays in Anti-Nietzsche their hermeneutic integrity. This formulation has since gone on to become one of the book’s most celebrated phrases, as well, charming reviewers from New Inquiry’s David Winters to Costica Bardigan of the Times Higher Education. Winters, David. “Reading Like a Loser.” New Inquiry. (February 14, 2012). Bardigan, Costica. “Review of Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche.” Times Higher Education. (January 29, 2012). Even longtime admirers of Nietzsche like T.J. Clark admit its interpretive power: “[N]o other critique of Nietzsche, and there have been many, conjures up the actual reader of Daybreak and The Case of Wagner so unnervingly.” Clark, T.J. “My Unknown Friends: A Response to Malcolm Bull.” Nietzsche’s Negative Ecologies. (University of California Press. Berkeley, CA: 2009). Pg. 79.
9 Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pgs. 135-136.
10 The philistine: ibid., pgs. 1-26, 38-40, 43, 46-48, 53, 151; the subhuman: ibid., pgs. 40-43, 46-48, 91, 101-102, 123-124; the herd: ibid., pg. 41-42, 67, 72, 74-76, 138, 146, 160-162.
11 Ibid., pg. 37.
12 These together comprise what Bull calls “the history of negation.” Ibid., pgs. 7-13.
13 Ibid., pgs. 39-40.
14 Ibid., pg. 39.
15 Ibid., pgs. 13-16, 18-19.
16 “Measures like those taken on Odysseus’s ship in face of the Sirens are a prescient allegory of the dialectic of enlightenment.” Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2002). Pg. 27.
…This runs counter to the prevailing interpretation of this work, as scholars tend to place Nietzsche’s influence chiefly in its second excursus, on “Juliette, or Enlightenment and morality.” Ibid., pgs. 63-93.
17 Ibid., pg. 19, and further, pgs. 20-22.
18 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pgs. 25-27.
19 “If it is weakness of will that allows the philistine to resist the beautiful, might it lead us to reconsider our understanding of Odysseus and the Sirens? In Adorno and Horkheimer’s reworking of the myth, Odysseus hears the music and would have responded to its call to primordial unity had he not been constrained from doing so. He is an example of disinterest triumphing over the passions, in which the disinterested contemplation of the song is actually a form of self-interest. It is because he knows he lacks the strength of will to resist the beauty of the Sirens’ song that he has himself tied to the mast. This is weakness as incontinence, but it is self-interest, not incontinence, that turns Odysseus into a philistine. The weakness of Socrates takes another form, closer to that which Aristotle calls softness. Knowing he ought to appreciate the music of the Sirens, he is nevertheless unable to do so. He does not hear the beauty of the song; he may not even hear the song as a song.” Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 152.
20 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pgs. 26-27.
21 Ibid., pg. 27.
22 Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Translated and revised by Herbert Marcuse and Erica Sherover. (Beacon Press. Boston, MA: 1978). Pgs. 56-57.
23 “Nietzsche never uses the word, but the form of this revaluation of valuing is perhaps most accurately described as ecological, not because Nietzsche exhibited any particular concern for the natural environment, but on account of the unprecedented conjunction of two ideas: the recognition of the interdependence of values, and the evaluation of value in biological terms.” Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 44.
24 Ibid., pg. 47.
25 Ibid., pgs. 87-88.
26 Ibid., pg. 102.
27 Ibid., pg. 123.
28 Ibid., pgs. 90-92, 94-100.
29 Nietzsche here addresses “the problem of…good as thought up by the man of ressentiment, demands its solution. — There is nothing strange about the fact that lambs bear a grudge towards large birds of prey: but that is no reason to blame the large birds of prey for carrying off the little lambs. And if the lambs say to each other, ‘These birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey and most like its opposite, a lamb, — is good, isn’t he?’, then there is no reason to raise objections to this setting-up of an ideal beyond the fact that the birds of prey will view it somewhat derisively, and will perhaps say: ‘We don’t bear any grudge at all towards these good lambs, in fact we love them, nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’ — It is just as absurd to ask strength not to express itself as strength, not to be a desire to overthrow, crush, become master, to be a thirst for enemies, resistance and triumphs, as it is to ask weakness to express itself as strength.” Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Carol Diethe. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2006). Pgs. 25-26.
30 Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 42.
31 Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Translated by Benjamin Fowkes. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1982). Pg. 143.
32 Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 46.
33 Ibid., pg. 43.
34 Ibid., pg. 47.
35 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Translated by Judith Norman. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2002). Pg. 91, §203.
36 Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pgs. 117-120.
37 “Wagner wrote the essay shortly after the failure of the 1848 revolution; it represents an attempt to achieve the political aims of the 1848 uprising through aesthetic means.” Groys, Boris. “A Genealogy of Participatory Art.” Translated by David Fernbach. Introduction to Antiphilosophy. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2012). Pg. 201.
38 Wagner, Richard. “Art and Revolution.” Translated by William Ashton Ellis. Prose Works, Volume 1. (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd. London, England: 1895). Pg. 53.
39 Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 153.
40 Ibid., pg. 162.
41 Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Program. Translated by Peter and Betty Ross. Collected Works, Volume 24: Marx and Engels, 1874-1883. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1989). Pg. 86.
42 “As Bakunin noted, Marx conspicuously excluded from the agents of revolution the Lumpenproletariat…In contrast, Bakunin advocated ‘the emancipation and widest possible expansion of social life.’” Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 158.
43 Trotsky, Leon. The Permanent Revolution. Translated by John G. Wright and Brian Pearce. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1978). Pg. 70.
…“Trotsky’s reformulation of the idea of permanent revolution picks up both of Bakunin’s objections.” Bull, Anti-Nietzsche. Pg. 158.
44 Ibid., pg. 171.
45 Ibid., pg. 175.
46 “The skilled Danish critic [Georg Brandes (a Jew and liberal critic, discoverer of the German philosopher’s ‘aristocratic radicalism’)] did not take Nietzsche’s barbarism seriously, not at face value, [but] understood it cum grano salis, in which he was very right.” Mann, Thomas. “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in Light of Recent Events.” Addresses Delivered at the Library of Congress, 1942-1949. (Wildside Press LLC. Washington, DC: 2008). Pg. 99.