06/06/2014 12:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2014

The Recurring Myth About Nietzsche and Fascism

Benighted student members of the Union Council at University College London have made headlines internationally after voting to ban a student group, "the Nietzsche Club," on the grounds that Nietzsche is "on the extreme-right," a "racist" with connections "direct or indirect, with Italian fascism and German Nazism." The ban is on hold, given its dubious legality.

The student action betrays profound misunderstandings of both Nietzsche and of universities. The latter can be dispensed with quickly. Freedom of inquiry and thought must surely encompass the right of students to discuss and think about ideas, including illiberal ideas. Universities may put constraints on racist abuse and discrimination, but they can not, consistent with the mission of a university, put constraints on the right to discuss any and all ideas, including ideas that others deem offensive or immoral.

The idea that a "Nietzsche Club," in particular, is not appropriate for a serious university (one with several Nietzsche scholars on its faculty, ironically enough) is astonishing. Nietzsche and Marx are the two most important philosophers of the 19th century whose ideas have exercised enormous influence in literature, art, politics, psychology, historiography and philosophy. Is discussion of the work of Mann, Freud, Weber, Hesse, Sartre, and Foucault off-limits as well, since all of these thinkers (among many others) were profoundly influenced by Nietzsche?

But what of the absurd misunderstanding of Nietzsche? When Nietzsche -- probably the victim of undiagnosed syphilis -- suffered a mental collapse in early 1889, he was barely read. Over the next two decades, he became the most celebrated intellectual figure in Europe. His cultural stature was so high that at the start of World War I, the German Kaiser purchased 250,000 copies of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra for the troops, to boost their morale. During and after the WWI, everyone in Germany fought to claim Nietzsche's legacy, from German nationalists to anarchists and socialists.

The Nazi takeover in 1933 settled these debates by political force, and nothing less would have made the Nazi misappropriation of Nietzsche possible. After all, as actual readers of Nietzsche know, he hated Germans most of all, famously titling an entire chapter of one of his last books, "What the Germans Lack." He ridiculed the German militarism and nationalism of his own day -- in terms equally applicable to the Nazi version -- and, most importantly, was a scathing critic of anti-Semitism, endlessly baiting anti-Semitic readers in his books. This passage from Beyond Good and Evil is typical:

[T]he Jews are without a doubt the strongest, purest, most tenacious race living in Europe today....The fact that the Jews, if they wanted (or if they were forced, as the anti-Semtes seem to want), could already be dominant, or indeed could quite literally have control over present-day Europe--this is established. The fact that they are not working and making plans to this end is likewise established. Meanwhile, what they wish and want to be absorbed and assimilated into Europe....[T]his urge and impluse...should be carefully noted and accomodated--in which case it might be practical and appropriate to throw the anti-Semitic hooligans out of the country.

Nietzsche's anti-anti-Semitic insult is twofold: First, he affirms the superiority of the Jews over most Europeans by noting how easy it would be for Jews to take over Europe; and, second, he denies the anti-Semitic trope that Jews have any intention of doing so. Nietzsche's main complaint about Judaism is that it gave birth to Christianity -- and 19th-century Christian anti-Semites would not have been happy to learn that, as Nietzsche put it, they are the "ultimate Jewish consequence."

If the smear of Nietzsche as a "fascist" and "anti-semite" has no textual basis, it would be wrong to conclude that Nietzsche is some benign secular liberal: He is not. When the Danish critic Georg Brandes first introduced a wider European audience to Nietzsche's ideas during public lectures in 1888, he concentrated on Nietzsche's vitriolic campaign against morality and what Brandes dubbed (with Nietzsche's subsequent approval) Nietzsche's "aristocratic radicalism." On this reading, Nietzsche was primarily concerned with questions of value and culture, and his philosophical standpoint was acknowledged to be a deeply illiberal one: What matters are great human beings, not the "herd." The egalitarian premise of all contemporary moral and political theory -- the premise, in one form or another, of the equal worth or dignity of each person -- is simply absent in Nietzsche's work.

The question about the basis of equality remains a live one in political philosophy: How can it be that we all have equal moral worth given that we are plainly not equal along almost any relevant dimension one can think of (intelligence, rationality, integrity, talents and so on)? Some contemporaries, like Jeremy Waldron, the current Chichele Professor of Social & Political Theory at Oxford, have argued that only with a belief in God can we find a basis for the moral equality of persons. Nietzsche would have agreed, which is why he thought the growing recognition that "God is dead" would be so momentous.

The implications of Nietzsche's anti-egalitarianism remains a vexed interpretive question, though as I have argued elsewhere, the most plausible reading is that Nietzsche had no political philosophy, that his focus was increasingly esoteric, on transforming the consciousness of select individuals -- his rightful readers -- about the extent to which morality was really compatible with the flourishing of the kinds of genius he most admired, as exemplified by figures like Beethoven and Goethe. Whether or not that reading is correct, it is clear there is no evidence that Nietzsche supported a fascist state, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Nietzsche's Zarathustra calls the "state... the coldest of all cold monsters... whatever it says it lies... Everything about it is false," concluding that, "Only where the state ends, there begins the human being who is not superfluous."

The students who voted to ban the Nietzsche Club should, instead, spend some time reading and discussing Nietzsche. Some of them are, like me, on the egalitarian or Marxist left, so let me assure them that thinking about Nietzsche's challenge will give them the most bracing and important test of their ideas. And as another great 19th-century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, argued, only by considering contrary views can we come to hold our views for the right reasons. To replace dogmatism with reasoned belief ought to remain one of the central tasks of universities.

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