Nietzsche, Class Racism and the Fantasies of Europe
- Karl Löwith, European Nihilism
The homogenizing of European man is the great process that cannot be obstructed: one should even hasten it. The necessity to create a gulf, distance, order of rank, is given eo ipso – not the necessity to retard this process.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, § 898
Europe United Against Itself
What would Nietzsche make of the preamble of the TCE, the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, signed in 2004? This evidently facetious question is meant to indicate just how alien Nietzsche’s diagnosis and prognosis of Europe, together with his conceptual persona of the ‘Good European’, is from the reformist homilies that preface the treaty, especially once it was controversially purged of its specific reference to Christianity. The treaty sets out by declaring that it draws its inspiration from ‘the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law’. Could there be a more exhaustive enumeration of all that Nietzsche perceives as the engine of European decadence, its succumbing to slave morality after ‘the last great slave rebellion which began with the French revolution’? (Beyond Good and Evil, § 46) Wouldn’t Nietzsche perceive this as the constitution of the untouchable ‘Chandala’, of the ‘non-bred human being, the hotchpotch human being’ (The Twilight of the Idols, ‘The Improvers of Mankind’, p. 68), when it states that it will continue on Europe’s path of progress and civilization for the sake of ‘the good of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and most deprived’? This is the ‘unmanly’ Europe castigated by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, the one which suffers from the ‘bad taste’ of indulging in pity and ‘a pathological sensitivity and receptivity to pain’ (Beyond Good and Evil, § 293).
There is no congruence between the consensual, gradualist image of a united Europe offered by today’s capitalist parliamentarianism and Nietzsche’s insistent attempts to think Europe as a site both of decadence and transvaluation, indeed, we could even say that in Nietzsche’s work we may locate an anticipatory diagnosis of the impasses of such a Europe. My argument however is that this Nietzschean critique, useful as it may prove in undermining the vapid self-confidence of a rudderless Europe, must in turn be taken apart, and radically criticized for its reliance on a whole host of arbitrary, reactionary and sterile themes and affirmations – chief among them the notions of rank and mastery, and the treatment of the agonies and birth-pangs of civilization as a psycho-cosmic drama detached from the vicissitudes of historical struggle and of what we may call the ‘uneven and combined development’ of nihilism. More succinctly, it will be argued, following Domenico Losurdo’s recent work on Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel, that though we can still cherish Nietzsche thought’s for its destructive-diagnostic insight, at the level of programme and prognosis it represents a dead end.
But what does European unification mean for Nietzsche? In Beyond Good and Evil, he identifies a Europe whose leaders and peoples are willfully ignoring the tendency towards, and need for, unification. We encounter here one of the relatively invariant themes in Nietzsche’s thought, his contempt for what he calls ‘the pathological estrangement which the insanity of nationality has induced, and still induces, among the people of Europe’ (Beyond Good and Evil, § 256), which, joined to the ‘demagogic character and an intention of influencing the masses’ (Human, All Too Human (I), § 438), accounts for the baleful state of late nineteenth-century Europe. It is against the myopia of populist politicians and their doomed ‘separatist’ policies that Nietzsche affirms that ‘Europe wants to become one’ (Beyond Good and Evil, § 256). What does this unification signify? First of all, it is important to keep in mind that it is in the works of a disparate republic of geniuses (‘Napoleon, Goethe, Beethoven, Stendhal, Heinrich Heine, Schopenhauer’ and even a rehabilitated Wagner) that the ‘new synthesis’ is prepared and the ‘European of the future’ is anticipated experimentally. Secondly, the suggestion that these towering figures are media for the tormented birth of Europe indicates that Nietzsche’s concept of Europe is not primarily political, or geopolitical, but ‘spiritual’. Speaking of his precursors of the European man, Nietzsche writes: ‘In all the heights and depths of their needs, they are related, fundamentally related: it is Europe, the one Europe, whose soul surges and longs to get further and higher through their manifold and impetuous art’ – this is a Europe, of course, whose destiny remains unwritten and uncertain. Third, for Nietzsche European unity is a question of rank: these great thinkers, as he put it, taught ‘their century … the century of the crowd! – the concept “higher man”.’
The synthesis of a spiritual Europe for the sake of the production, or enhancement, of a higher breed of men – this is what lies at the basis of Nietzsche’s passion for European unification. But, of course, Nietzsche does not shirk back from a political, or rather archipolitical, understanding of Europe – if we understand ‘archipolitical’, following Alain Badiou, as that which qualifies a declaration which can only manifest itself in a ‘subjective exposition’ (and ultimately in Nietzsche’s final political delirium) because, having no event as its condition, it presumes that politics can arise from the act of thought alone, and is thereby incapable of ‘distinguishing its efficacy from its announcement’ (‘Casser en deux l’histoire du monde’, p. 14. In ‘Who is Nietzsche?’ (p. 4), Badiou provides the following definition: ‘Nietzsche’s anti-philosophical act, of which he is at once the prophet, the actor, and the name, aims at nothing less than at breaking the history of the world in two. I would say that this act is archi-political, in that it intends to revolutionise the whole of humanity at a more radical level than that of the calculations of politics. Archi-political does not here designate the traditional philosophical task of finding a foundation for politics. The logic, once again, is a logic of rivalry, and not a logic of foundational eminence’.)
In his European Nihilism a text written in 1939 in his Japanese semi-exile and significantly subtitled ‘Considerations on the spiritual antecedents of the European war’, Karl Löwith identified Europe as the key concept in Nietzsche’s conception of a new ‘ordering’ that would overcome the impasses of nihilism. Thus, he writes:
‘The great goal for Nietzsche is the spiritual and political dominion of Europeans over the earth. To force Europe to this ‘great politics’, which is at the same time a ‘war between spirits’, it must be confronted with the question ‘whether its will to down-going “wills”’, that is what is at stake is whether Europe will overcome its own nihilism, once again willing itself as a whole and as something decisive. This active and ‘ecstatic’ nihilism is a powerful impetus and a hammer that obliges the degenerate nations and the Russians to surrender, and creates a new order of life.’
What is specifically archipolitical in Nietzsche’s stance, once again following Badiou’s definition, is the identification between Europe and himself. As Löwith puts it: ‘The fate of Europe coincides in Nietzsche’s thought and sentiment with himself’. But, beyond this coincidence, what are the modalities of political unification envisaged by Nietzsche? If we avoid the position of a ‘hermeneutics of innocence’ that would regard all of Nietzsche’s pronouncements as metaphorical – a choice that invariably emasculates him, turning him into a Rortyan liberal ironist or an eclectic anarchist – it is difficult to deny that Nietzsche’s vision of Europe is one based on the emergence of a radical hierarchy that could give a form to Europe’s political chaos, breaking asunder national populisms for the sake of a new continental ordering. As Löwith notes, in order to forge the single, decisive will necessary for such a great politics, now ‘that the time of the small politics of nationality is past’, Nietzsche envisages the necessity of ‘a dominant caste with long-term aims, capable of taming the masses to this end’.
Nietzsche, Democracy and ‘Class Racism’: Racialisation Without Race?
The political horizon of a united and fiercely hierarchical Europe of breeding and affirmation is dialectically linked to another connotation of Europe which for Nietzsche poses both the danger of a depleting passive nihilism and the opportunity for a kind of post-Christian regeneration. Democratisation is thus, in Derridean parlance, a kind of pharmakon, or at the very least an occasion to be seized in the battle against so-called ‘slave morality’. But how could the levelling occasioned by ‘democratisation’ presage anything affirmative? After all, one of Nietzsche’s invariant convictions seems to be the one regarding the need for social stratification (and more brutally, slavery) for the sake of cultural enhancement and the intensification of spiritual life. As he writes in Human, All Too Human: ‘A higher culture can arise only where there are two different castes in society: that of the workers and that of the idlers, those who are capable of true leisure; or more strongly expressed: the caste of those who are forced to work and the caste of those who are free to work’ (Human, All Too Human (I), § 439). This seemingly obvious lesson from ancient Greece and Indian caste-society, which Jacques Rancière has relentlessly deconstructed, is further specified by Nietzsche in the aphorism, also from Human, All Too Human, entitled ‘My Utopia’: we read there that a ‘better-ordered society’ would be one wherein ‘the hard labour and exigencies of life would be assigned to the one who suffers least from them’.
That is, there is a difference in kind, or difference of nature, registered at the level of sensitivity between the dominant and the dominated, the lords and the slaves. Nietzsche’s utopia is thus a naturalised translation of these pre-political sensitivities and competencies into a social order understood primarily, it should be noted, at the level of the division of labour (and of the division of labour into the manual and the intellectual). But how could the levelling process that appears to accompany the ‘evolving European’ permit such a political translation of differences of nature? And, most importantly, isn’t such an identification of essential political types in tension, if not stark contradiction, with Nietzsche unsparing assault on the metaphysics of a doer behind the deed, a subject behind the action in The Genealogy of Morals, something which could also be said for his treatment of Europe as spirit and subject?
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche, allegedly considering Europe’s ‘democratic movement’ sine ira et studio, diagnoses a process of blending and deterritorialisation: ‘The Europeans are becoming more similar to each other; they become more and more detached from the conditions under which races originate that are tied to some climate or class; they become increasingly independent of any determinate milieu’ (Beyond Good and Evil, § 242). But Nietzsche’s hopeful gaze, as ever, is not turned towards the collective effects of this ‘physiological’ transformation, but to the kinds of possibilities such a transformation affords for the breeding of a new type of creative and affirmative human. The future European man in the making is thus ‘an essentially supra-national and nomadic type of man … a type that possesses, physiologically speaking, a maximum of the art and power of adaptation as its typical distinction’. But Nietzsche is too disabused, too materialist an aristocratic thinker to consider that the emergence of his new type could do without the deep-seated and frequently brutal inequalities that accompany higher, ‘affirmative’ cultures.
Thus, for the process of European unification and democratisation really to present an escape from the mere dilution of cultural energies, to offer new values, which is to say new hierarchies, then it needs, unwittingly, to generate a new stratification. And this is exactly what Nietzsche posits: ‘The very same conditions that will on the average lead to the levelling and mediocratization of man – to a useful, industrious, handy, multi-purpose herd animal – are likely in the highest degree to give birth to exceptional human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality’. Thus the new adaptive and affirmative type will be accompanied in Europe by ‘the production of a type that is prepared for slavery’ in the shape of ‘manifold garrulous workers who will be poor in will, extremely employable, and as much in need of a master and commander as of their daily bread’. In linking democratisation with a new tyranny, Nietzsche thus repeats an argument encapsulated in § 956 from The Will to Power: ‘The same conditions that hasten the evolution of the herd animal also hasten the evolution of the leader animal’. In other words, the ‘pathos of distance’ might be reborn through the very physiology of levelling: this is Nietzsche’s hope for Europe, as a land where the order of rank could identify a transnational Herrenvolk, or master-race, supported by the ranks of an insensitive, enslaved sub-proletariat. Losurdo has argued that this vision of a class and/or race aristocracy whose members celebrate themselves as equals is ubiquitous in nineteenth-century thought, pitilessly cutting across the putative divide between 'liberals' and 'conservatives'.
It is a hope that was already present in Nietzsche’s presentation of the conceptual persona and archipolitical figure of the ‘Good European’ in Human, All Too Human. In § 475 of that book Nietzsche salutes the ‘destruction of nations’ and the emergence, on the basis of nomadism and ‘continual crossbreeding’ of a new, mixed race, the European. He engages in a strong analysis of the demagogic uses of nationalism by ‘princely dynasties’ and ‘certain commercial and social classes’ and presents such a European unification as the only cure against the sickness of anti-Semitism, which is a corollary of pathological fanaticism and manipulative policies surrounding the nation. Is this seemingly ‘progressive’ anti-nationalism at odds with the relentless insistence on rank-ordering and breeding? Does this paean to ‘crossbreeding’ remove Nietzsche’s associations with nineteenth-century racism and Social Darwinism?
Trying to move beyond Lukács’s schematic and frequently untenable treatment of Nietzsche’s anticipations of imperialist ideology and his ‘indirect apologetics’ for capitalism, the Italian Marxist historian of ideas Domenico Losurdo has recently proposed a manner of conceptualising the persistence of a thinking of race and hierarchy in Nietzsche without falling into the patently contradictory activity of presenting him as a German nationalist or an anti-Semite. In his Nietzsche: The Aristocratic Rebel, Losurdo makes an important conceptual distinction between what he calls ‘horizontal racialisation’ and ‘transversal racialisation’. The first of these relates to the essentialist identification of certain nations or groups as simply and invariably superior or inferior. But Nietzsche, as his diagnosis of European democratisation makes patent, can have no truck with a mere reiteration of populist, traditional ‘sectarian’ drives. On the contrary, as his futural and eugenic schemas imply, the generation of new evaluative hierarchies and the breeding of new types cut across – specifically, by way of ‘crossbreeding’ – received national and racial distinctions. But what does remain invariant in this process is precisely the idea of rank and the naturalisation of inequality that Nietzsche had already outlined in his ‘utopia’ from Human, All Too Human.
The core element of Nietzsche’s practice of differentiation within the process of European levelling and hierarchical separation is, according to Losurdo, the racialisation of class, a racialisation which is traneversal inasmuch as it cuts across customary distinctions between races and nations (German, French, Jewish, etc.): ‘The constant element in the Nietzsche’s complex evolution is the tendency to racialise subaltern classes’, which are treated alternatively as a barbarian caste of slaves, a fanatical rabble, a collection of instruments of labour for the dominant classes, a crowd of ‘semi-bestial’ beings, or a motley crew of failures and biological rejects. Nietzsche thus partakes of the tendency within Western liberal and anti-revolutionary thought which treats workers as speaking tools (instrumentum vocale, as in the works of Edmund Burke) or ‘biped tools’ (Sieyès). It is for this reason that a crossbreeding of ‘higher men’, of elites derived from the most varied ‘nations’ is perfectly compatible in Nietzsche with, as Losurdo puts it, ‘an international civil war, which transcends state borders, and witnesses “civil” European elites jointly battling the threat posed by “barbarians”, whether internal or external to the West’. We can thus see why Christianity and socialism represent for Nietzsche a conjoined nemesis, especially inasmuch as Christianity crystallises ‘the collective rebellion of everything downtrodden, wretched, ill-constituted, under-privileged against the “race”.’ (Twilight of the Idols, ‘The Improvers of Mankind’, p. 69)
In this respect, Nietzsche’s thinking can be recontextualised in terms of a long tradition of anti-socialist nineteenth-century thinking which depended, as Étienne Balibar has shown, on the ‘institutional racialisation of manual labour’. This is a position, we might also note, which rests on a nostalgic and utterly insufficient understanding of the relationship between cultural ‘enhancement’, exploitation and the division of labour – note the constant references to Nietzsche to systems of hierarchy and caste where the combination of stratification, homogeneisation and class conflict proper to the nineteenth-century European context would be averted. It is in this sense that Nietzsche’s vision of a unified and hierarchical Europe, in which internal domination would presage external power, is a phenomenon of the ‘’new racism of the bourgeois era’, a racism which ‘has as its target the proletariat in its dual status as exploited population … and politically threatening population’. It is worth noting that Balibar regards contemporary racism not only as constantly overdetermined by class struggle, but sees its very origins in notions of caste.
Perhaps the driving reason behind Nietzsche’s partaking of this form of anti-socialist nineteenth-century class racism – which, as Losurdo painstakingly chronicles, accompanied Nietzsche ever since his trauma at the apocryphal burning of the Louvre by the Communards in Paris – is his inability to distinguish between a levelling equivalence and an innovative and ‘transvaluing’ equality. As Montinari has judiciously argued, against Lukács, a certain suspicion if not critique of equality as a political category was even shared by the likes of Engels, and it might be noted that Nietzsche himself was more acquainted with a bland, Christian socialism than with the more affirmative and uncompromising aspects of the Marxist and communist movement. It is interesting to note however that Nietzsche’s handling of the problem of the proletariat in his own work is never capable of breaking out of the alternative between necessary subordination (such as in his speculations about the necessary ‘Sinification’ of the European working class), on the one hand, and colonial expansionism via the working or lumpen elements of the European population, on the other. Thus, in Daybreak, a seemingly rousing attack on the mechanisation of the labour-force and ‘impersonal enslavement’, and a critique of the idea of a social-democratic discipline of the working-class in view of future victories, ends up with nothing but a kind of social-imperialist epic, in which Europe is expanded and renewed by ‘an age of a great swarming-out such as has never been seen before, and through this act of free emigration in the grand manner to protest against the machine, against capital, and against the choice now threatening them of being compelled to become either a slave of the state or the slave of the party of disruption’. Hence the slogan: ‘Let Europe be relieved of a fourth part of its inhabitants! They and it will be better for it!’ The criminal degeneration of the working-class will thus, in Nietzsche’s imaginings, give rise, as European virtues go a-wandering across the globe to a ‘wild beautiful naturalness and be called heroism’ (and Europe itself might make do with ‘numerous Chinese’ with their ‘modes of life and thought suitable to industrious ants’ and even give Europe some Asiatic perseverance via crossbreeding) (Daybreak, § 206).
Beyond European Universalism
In Nietzsche’s musing on the ‘impossible class’, as in his thoughts about tyranny, slavery and democratization, or his fervent anti-nationalism, we encounter an important archipolitical theme in his work: the need for Europe somehow to separate itself from itself. This theme gives rise to a whole host of peculiar oscillations and contradictions. Thus, Christianity is deemed to be a kind of Oriental illness, a symptom of slave revolt or untouchable morality polluting (alternatively) a Greek, Roman or Jewish European, or Western, matrix. We also see a drive for geographical exodus which translates a need to break with the decadent dialectic of ‘European nihilism’ and the political options (liberalism, socialism, nationalism, populism) it gives rise to. More interestingly, towards the end of his conscious life, Nietzsche increasingly tests out the possibility of the superiority of other civilisational lineages over against Europe. In his treatments of Islam, or Hinduism – all of which are explicitly anti-liberal, hierarchical and frequently misogynist – he considers the possibility that an affirmative culture might entirely separate itself from the Christian, Western heritage. As he writes in The Anti-Christ: ‘Christianity robbed us of the harvest of the culture of the ancient world, it later went on to rob us of the harvest of the culture of Islam. … For in itself there should be no choice in the matter when faced with Islam or Christianity, as little as there should be when faced with an Arab and a Jew. The decision is given in advance: no one is free to choose here. One either is Chandala or one is not… “War to the knife with Rome! Peace, friendship with Islam!’ (The Anti-Christ, p. 196). Though this Islam may be purely ‘semiotic’ (as Ian Almond argues in a piece on Nietzsche’s phantasmatic infatuation with Islam), a mere signifying counterpart and provocation, it does reveal to us two things: one, the fact that as Nietzsche’s work progresses any identity to the archipolitical or philosophical concept of Europe, or indeed the West, is thrown into doubt; two, that the hierarchical invariants of his thinking remain determining in his evaluation of cultures: as he writes in his notebooks, the superiority of Arabs and Islam lies for him in the fact that we are dealing with a world ‘where man believes in order of rank and not in equality or equal rights’.
Despite the rather unsavoury reasons for this civilisational dislocation, it is nevertheless true that in its extreme consequences we could say, following the Italian philosopher Biagio de Giovanni, that Nietzsche’s thought brings into crisis ‘the self-representation of Europe’, and with Losurdo, that Nietzsche strikes a potent blow against the Christian imperialism that in his epoch (let us recall that the Berlin Conference and the scramble of Africa under the cover of anti-slavery morality takes place in 1884) seeks to justify Europe’s ‘civilising mission’, and destroys the genealogical myth of Europe and the West, whether Christian-Aryan-Germanic or the Hebrew-Christian-Greek-Occidental one. But the aim, consistently with Nietzsche’s work is to destroy not just the hypocritical universalism that is harboured in such saccharine ideologies which cloak the fundamental brutality of imperialism, but to jettison universalism altogether. In this respect, it is interesting to note, by way of conclusion, that non-European anti-colonial intellectuals, such as Aimé Césaire Fanon, found in Nietzsche a potent tool for a critique of what Immanuel Wallerstein has called ‘European universalism’ and a recasting of that universalism and humanism on a planetary scale. Edward Said’s description of Fanon’s relationship with Freud, Marx and Nietzsche in Culture and Imperialism is of interest here: ‘In the subversive gestures of Fanon’s writing is a highly conscious man deliberately as well as ironically repeating the tactics of the culture he believes oppressed him’. He treats his predecessors as ‘of the West – the better to liberate their energies from the oppressing cultural matrix that produced them. By seeing them antithetically as intrinsic to the colonial system and at the same time potentially at war with it, Fanon performs an act of closure on the empire and announces a new era’.
Ian Almond, ‘Nietzsche’s Peace with Islam: My Enemy’s Enemy is My Friend’, German Life and Letters, 56, 1 (2003): 43-55.
Alain Badiou, ‘Casser en deux l’histoire du monde’, Les conférences du Perroquet, 37 (1992).
Alain Badiou, ‘Who is Nietzsche?’, Pli: The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, 11 (2001): 1–11.
Étienne Balibar, ‘“Class Racism”’, in Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, London: Verso, 1992.
Stefan Elbe, ‘“Labyrinths of the Future”: Nietzsche’s genealogy of European nationalism’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 7, 1 (2002): 77–96.
Biagio de Giovanni, La filosofia e l’Europa moderna, Bologna: il Mulino, 2004.
Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, il ribelle aristocratico. Biografia intellettuale e bilancio critico, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002.
Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Mazzino Montinari, ‘Nietzsche Between Alfred Bäumler and Georg Lukács’, in Reading Nietzsche, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kauffman, New York: Vintage, 1989.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. Gary Handwerk, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols / The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, London: Penguin, 1990.
Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Vintage, 1994.
Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, 2004.