For a Dionysian proletariat

Robert Rives La Monte is today a largely forgotten figure in the history of Marxian socialism. He’s probably best remembered for his epistolary exchange with the fiery journalist H.L. Mencken, published in book form as Men versus the Man in 1909. Like Mencken, La Monte was a Nietzsche aficionado and committed advocate of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unlike his individualist adversary, however, he did not feel a system of collective ownership was incompatible with modern freedom, stressing the Marxist remark that this future society would be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Outside this public back-and-forth, La Monte also translated some works by Karl Marx, as well as by Gabriel Deville (one of Marx’s early French supporters) and the Italian Marxist criminologist Enrico Ferri. To be sure, he was quite critical of Deville’s more conservative turn in the 1890s, to say nothing of his horror at Ferri’s sudden admiration for Mussolini late in life. Along with Jack London, the young Walter Lippmann, and a few others, La Monte was an unabashed Nietzschean Marxist. In a magnificent line, he quipped that “today the world’s workers need not Jesus, but Dionysus.” As he went on to explain in his article “Nietzsche, Iconoclast and Prophet” (1908):

In every sense, the red-blooded socialist proletariat seems to me Dionysian, and I’d find it difficult to define class-consciousness in terms that would not to a Nietzschean suggest the Dionysian spirit. You and I would like to see the Proletariat aware of its own tremendous strength, glorying in it, and resolved to use it to emancipate themselves and humanity; we would like to see them living in the actual world of reality instead of dreaming in the fictitious world of Apollonian or bourgeois art; and our highest and ultimate hope is to see them reveling in the joy of the earthly paradise, undeterred by any preacher or moralist. Only a Dionysian working class can accomplish the social revolution. The rank and file of the Socialist Party today are undoubtedly Dionysians.

It was Nietzsche’s misfortune to preach the Gospel of Dionysus to a bourgeoisie close upon senile decay and moral degeneracy and live his life in utter ignorance of the only class which in our day is capable of breeding Dionysians — the proletariat.

La Monte was quite adamant on this point: “We socialists must recognize [Nietzsche] as a brother revolutionary… His chief theme seized upon the violent contradiction between the ruthless self-seeking of capitalism in an age when the cash nexus had become the only tie between man and man. No mercy was shown and no quarter given upon the fields of industrial and commercial warfare, despite the [Christian] religion of love, sympathy, and self-sacrifice professed in all capitalist countries.” For Trotsky, writing around the same time in 1908, Nietzsche’s brazen amorality was a weapon against “moralizing populism.” Davidovich rushed to defend Nietzsche against Narodnik platitudes.

Indeed, many Marxist revolutionaries in Russia — Anatoly Lunacharsky, Stanislav Volski, Aleksandr Bogdanov, and Vitaly Bazarov, to name only those listed by George Kline — also took inspiration from Nietzsche. Maksim Gorky, the great realist author, likewise drank deeply from the well of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Clara Zetkin and Erich Mühsam, prominent Marxists in Germany, along with literary champions of socialism like Karl Henckell and Alfred Klineberg, all cited Nietzsche as a formative influence. Even Franz Mehring eventually came around. Upon first encountering the philosopher’s writings in the 1890s, he’d described Nietzsche as “the philosopher of financial capitalism,” writing:

Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism. That was a big mistake for a philosopher at the end of the nineteenth century, because a philosopher who doesn’t know how to confront the most powerful movement of his time is anything but a philosopher. But the real problem was that this gap left open the possibility to whitewash Nietzsche’s philosophy of monopoly capitalism and to aestheticize away the fact that he combated proletarian class struggle from the same elevated circles of thought as did the next best stockbroker or the next best reptile.

By the early 1900s, Mehring had changed his tune. “The Nietzsche cult is useful to socialism,” he wrote. “No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people growing up within the bourgeois classes, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. For such people, however, Nietzsche is often a gateway to socialism.” Victor Serge adopted an opposite approach in a 1917 article, but arrived at the same conclusion about Nietzsche: “He was our enemy. So be it. But he himself said to us: Desire perfect enemies. One can fraternize with ‘perfect’ enemies; our struggle with them makes us more beautiful, more fertile.”

Remarks such as these have not ceased to scandalize Stalinists like Georg Lukács. Or at least the one who wrote The Destruction of Reason in 1952, which Adorno hilariously dubbed “the destruction of Lukács’ own reason.” He read National Socialism back into Nietzsche’s philosophy in such a way that it became simply a straightforward anticipation of the views later promulgated by Alfred Rosenberg. Mazzino Montinari, the Italian Marxist critic who co-edited the critical German edition of Nietzsche’s complete works, observed that “there are cases in which Lukács’ Nietzsche is more of a strict national socialist than [Nazi state philosopher] Alfred Bäumler’s Nietzsche.”

“[Untimely Meditations] attacked the liberal ‘cultural philistine’ [David Strauss] with such energy and brilliance that it succeeded in deceiving even such a Marxist as Mehring about its true nature,” lamented Lukács, “for Mehring thought that ‘indisputably ‘ Nietzsche had here defended ‘the most glorious traditions of German civilization’.” Epigones such as the intellectual historian Domenico Losurdo, have shared in this frustration. Losurdo’s thousand-page screed against Nietzsche still has yet to be published, despite having been slated for release as early as 2014. I flatter myself to think that my complaints about his continued apologia for Stalin, “the black legend,” are part of the reason for this holdup. (Just kidding. Anxious for the free PDF. Love you guys).

Harrison Fluss and Ishay Landa have lately held high the banner of anti-Nietzscheanism, though the latter has managed to come off as much more temperate in his criticisms. Fluss’ persistent hate-boner for Nietzsche makes him a little hard to take seriously. Malcolm Bull, author of Anti-Nietzsche (2013), has alone proved capable of mounting a novel challenge to the seductive quality of Nietzsche’s thought. Corey Robin’s suggestion of a possible link between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the rise of marginal economics is intriguing, but in my view his thesis is implausible. Or at least as implausible as Mencken’s suggest that Nietzsche was influenced by Marx, a notion La Monte rightly derides. (Nietzsche went nuts before Marxian socialism began to displace its Proudhonian and Dühringian competitors. Even the first edition of Friedrich Lange’s History of Materialism and Critique of its Present Importance, which Nietzsche owned and considered an important work, made no mention of Marx. Lange of course knew Marx and Engels by this point, but their work only made it into later editions).

Jan Rehmann’s reasons for pursuing a Marxian critique of Nietzsche are perhaps nobler, aiming to render problematic the postmodern, poststructuralist discourses that draw upon the supposedly Nietzschean idea of genealogy. But Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals [Zur Genealogie der Moral] isn’t trying to trace a genealogy of morals. He’s engaging in a polemic against the various self-styled “genealogists of morality,” mainly Englishmen: i.e., the authors of the “back-to-front and perverse genealogical hypotheses, actually of the English kind.” This might be a pointless intervention, as Foucault stated numerous times in interviews that he didn’t care if he was being faithful to Nietzsche, but whatever.

Nietzsche can hardly be blamed for such gross misprisions, however. Against the facile psychological arguments of the British genealogists, Nietzsche offered a much darker descent of values such as right and wrong, or good and evil, etc. Still, not a genealogy as such. Loren Goldner has pointed out that “the postmodernists turned [Nietzsche] back into a mere philosopher. They fashioned ‘their’ Nietzsche by stripping him of different ‘masks’… making it possible for Nietzsche to become all things to all people, in the end snugly absorbed into exactly the world of scholars ‘knitting socks for the Spirit’ (to use his phrase) he abhorred. Ultimately, Nietzsche was about world renewal.”

Probably my own perspective on Nietzsche comes closest to that of Sunit Singh, who wrote about “Nietzsche’s Untimeliness” several years ago. Singh highlights the important fact that Nietzsche’s venomous diatribes against socialism were directed largely against figures who were also the object Marx’s ire. Eugen Dühring, for instance, but also Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Richard Wagner had been an ardent Proudhonist, after all, and like his French forebear (as well as blind old Dühring) was a raving antisemite. I’ve written about this in a piece on “Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ,” but I’ll let Singh do the talking here:

Developments of the last one hundred years make the relationship between Nietzsche and Marx inevitably more opaque than it was for the revolutionary Marxists of the early twentieth century. Both were harsh critics of the socialists of their day, but whereas Marx (and Engels) saw in the struggle for socialism signs of that struggle “pointing beyond itself,” toward the establishment of the classless society, Nietzsche saw only widespread resentment as the final destination of the socialist movements. This major difference, so crucial when the international socialist movement was expanding and a new era of revolutionary history was on the horizon, has receded behind the history of the twentieth century. Any attempt to reckon with our present impasse inevitably comes to ask: “What is there to recover?” It is in light of this task that Marx and Nietzsche are not flatly counterposed, but are different critics of an object that disintegrated before it fulfilled its most vital aspirations.

Adorno summed up Singh’s view of the self-styled Antichrist rather nicely at a 1942 seminar that included luminaries like Günther Anders, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. “What binds us to Nietzsche,” Adorno stated, is that “Nietzsche stands in relationship to August Bebel in the sense that he uses Bebel to specify things that in reality are ideology. He perceived that not only democracy, but also socialism has become an ideology… In certain critical respects, Nietzsche had progressed further than Marx, in that Nietzsche realized that the idea of socialism is tied to a concept of praxis that is not merely a reflection of society.”

Massimo Cacciari shared this appraisal of Nietzsche even when he was still a Marxist, though he was likely being perverse when he declared (as a PCI parliamentarian, no less) that “what the working class needs is not Marx’s theory of value but Nietzsche’s will to power.” Trotsky had used Nietzsche’s image of the superman in the closing paragraph of his 1923 treatise on Literature and Revolution, asserting that “man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher sociobiological type. Or, if you please, a superman.”

The reference to Nietzsche should be obvious. Zarathustra thus spake that “mankind is a rope fastened between animal and superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and standing still. What is great about human beings is that they are a bridge and not a purpose: what is lovable about human beings is that they are a transition and a destruction.” Returning to La Monte, discussed above, we may note that he was less impressed by the philosophy of the superman. Although he said “I do not see how any Marxist can help feeling that Nietzsche, magnificently assured prophet of the superman, is our comrade,” La Monte declared:

The superman is the crowning glory of Nietzsche the prophet. But the superman is likewise the fatal weakness of Nietzscheanism as a philosophy. Religion never recovered from the blow that Feuerbach dealt it when he showed that all the gods of all men, including Jehovah and the Christian God, were simply reflections and creations of the human mind. Nietzsche had digested this wisdom of Feuerbach’s, for he puts into Zarathustra’s mouth these words: “Alas brethren, that god whom I created was man’s work and man’s madness, like all gods!” Yet Nietzsche’s superman was just as much a subjective abstraction as the triune god of Christian theology. Insanity overtook him before he had begun this, which he meant to be the crown and apex of his philosophy. Still, no Nietzschean need regret that this work was never done, as the criterion he proposed to use in revaluing all values was their relation to that last of all gods, that ever-varying phantasm and chimera, the superman. Madness came in time to save him from this reductio ad absurdum.

Socialism: Positive and Negative (1908) is perhaps the most original work of Second International Marxism written in the English language. Besides Louis Boudin’s outstanding text On the Theoretical System of Karl Marx in Light of Recent Criticism (1907), which even earned high marks from Lenin, and Karl Dannenberg’s Bolshevistic lectures on Marx and His Work (1918), it’s the best Marxist work produced in America during this period. Tomorrow or the next day I’ll post his excellent essay on “the nihilism of socialism,” in which he outlines Marx’s predictions of “the atrophy of religion, the dissolution of the family, and the suicide of the state.”

4 thoughts on “For a Dionysian proletariat

  1. Pingback: For a Dionysian proletariat — The Charnel-House | Manolis

  2. Great insight on this time period’s art and writing. I find ancient art pieces fascinating, since a 2D image can tell so much about what was happening in society at the time.


  3. Pingback: The nihilism of socialism | The Charnel-House

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