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John Moore, "All Nietzscheans Now?"

"All Nietzscheans Now?"

John Moore


Nitezsche Contra Rosseau: A Study of Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Thought

Keith Ansell-Pearson

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Why We Are Not Nietzscheans

Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, eds.

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997)

The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra

Stanley Rosen

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

In his rancorous polemic Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, Murray Bookchin rightly identifies Nietzsche as one of the major influences on some of the most vital anarchist thinking of our day, even though Bookchin libels this thought with the grab bag label of ‘lifestylism.’ This fact in itself should indicate that Nietzsche is worth investigation from an anarchist perspective. Unfortunately, the three titles under review here add relatively little to such a perspective. Many interpreters of Nietzsche — Bookchin is a good example — nostalgically try to locate an ideological coherence in the work of the German philosopher which is inappropriate in the case of an anti-systemic thinker. Lamentably, these three texts, to one degree or another, fall for this red herring.There is no ‘true meaning’ to Nietzche’s work: Nietzche indicated that the will to truth is in itself a sign of decadence. In The Will to Power, he suggests that there are no such things as facts (or truths), only interpretations — and this is certainly accurate of Nietzche’s work itself.

Any interpretation of Nietzche’s oeuvre entails an act of appropriation, and as the philosopher himself indicated, the significance of any appropriation lies in the will to power which informs and motivates it. And this applies just as much to those appropriations which explicitly announce themselves as ideologically informed and those which purport to be concerned with discerning the ‘real’ meaning of Nietzche’s ideas.

The will to power energising Why We Are Not Nietzscheans, a collection of essays edited by Luc Ferry and Alain Renault, remains all too evidently Oedipal in nature. These essays are authored by a generation of Frenchmen (and they are all male) who as students during the 1960s were taught a (post)structuralist version of Nietzsche by Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Althusser and Lacan. But now, in a period of neoconservatism, it is time for the Oedipal sons to settle their scores with their radical professor fathers by reasserting their allegiance to traditional values. As the cover blurb indicates, the contributors to the volume recommend an abandonment of ‘the Nietzsche propped up as a patron saint by French deconstructionists in order to return to reason’, and ‘seek to renew the Enlightenment quest for rationality’. The potentially useful project of reappropriating Nietzsche from and going beyond the deconstructionist status quo is replaced by the conservative project of retreating toward a discredited rationalist rejection of Nietzsche.

Testifying to an unexpected parochialism and insularity in French academia, the text’s ideological perspectives are not difficult to locate. One contributor correctly identifies Nietzche as one of ‘the declared adversaries of democracy’ and without a glimmer of irony refers approvingly and with a straight face to ‘the task for democratic political thinking’ (p. 154); another contributor feels no hesitation in declaring that ‘we moderns, insofar as we are modern, are all “liberals” — whether that means we are in favor of liberalism or followers of some form of liberalism’ (p. 167) and goes on to explain that ‘if we feel we must defend democratic and liberal ideas, we cannot call ourselves ‘Nietzschean,’ merely as such and without any consequences’ (p. 202).

Although the various contributors agree to ‘think with Nietzsche against Nietzche’, this is largely a superficial commitment. Writing from liberal democratic perspectives, the contributors are mostly concerned with defusing the threat represented by Nietzsche’s thought or rejecting it as essentially reactionary. Nietzsche is a problematic thinker: this cannot and should not be denied. But this text remains largely concerned with recuperation, with defending and retrenching the embattled position of liberal democracy.

Keith Ansell-Pearson’s Nietzsche Contra Rousseau is similarly written from a liberal democratic perspective. In the end, the author’s sympathies are more with Rousseau than Nietzsche. In his conclusion, he refers positively to ‘Rousseau’s vision of a democratic polity’ (p. 222) and affirms ‘the vision of a tragic, but courageous and compassionate democracy’ (p. 223). But Ansell-Pearson’s reading of Nietzsche is more insightful and less defensive than that of his French counterparts. And this despite the fact that he has little or no conception of anarchism, using the term merely in a pejorative, Hobbesian sense of the term (pp. 79, 104).

Ansell-Pearson’s discussion is valuable because he focuses his analysis of Rousseau and Nietzsche on the issue of civilization: ‘To be heirs of the writings of Rousseau and Nietzsche is to be the inheritors of the most powerful and disturbing critiques of civilization that the modern period has produced’ (p. 1). And although in the end, from a liberal democratic perspective, Ansell-Pearson blunts the force of these critiques, the points thrown up in the course of the discussion are significant.

The consideration of Rousseau is useful inasmuch as it actually takes the trouble to investigate what the French philosopher had to say about civilisation and the primitive, rather than bandying around uninvestigated commonplaces about Rousseau’s positing of the noble savage and the desirability of a return to nature. Rousseau’s actual commitment to a constitutional monarchy and social hierarchy is well documented by Ansell-Pearson and will come as a surprise to those who automatically assume that there are compatibilities between Rousseau and primitivist anarchist projects. And despite the author’s ultimate affirmation of Rousseau’s democratic polity, there is a pertinent discussion of the totalitarian implications of the Rousseauvian general will.

The examination of Nietzsche’s politics benefits from the contrast with Rousseau, but also from being situated in the context of debates around civilization. As Ansell-Pearson maintains: ‘Nietzsche’s own politics are best understood, I would argue, in the context of his preoccupation with the problem of civilization and the paradoxes which result from his thinking on this problem’ (p. 200). The author’s formulations on this issue are worth quoting at length:

While drawing attention to the fundamental difference between Rousseau and Nietzsche in their conceptions of the problems of civilization, this study has also shown that it is possible to locate a common problem at the centre of their thinking on the formation and deformation of the human animal, namely, the problem of history. If man [sic!] has become a social and political animal through the historical labour of culture, but this process of development has resulted in a corrupt and degenerative civilization, then the question arises — still appreciating the fact that the way in which each construes the meaning and significance of this corruption and degeneration is quite different — as to how humanity is to undergo a process of transfiguration and learn the meaning of its self-overcoming. (p. 206)

The issue identified here is one that is central to contemporary anarchism, and both Rousseau but particularly Nietzsche have valuable insights to contribute to anarchist responses to this problem. This is not to suggest that anarchists should become Nietzscheans, but rather that the Nietzschean critique needs to be critically investigated, appropriated and utilised as appropriate. Ansell-Pearson’s study, despite its ideological limitations, provides some insights as to some of the dimensions of the Nietzschean critique which might be fruitful from an anarchist perspective.

Stanley Rosen’s The Mask of Enlightenment is less useful on this score. A resolutely apolitical interpretation of Nietzsche — in this case a close reading of Thus Spake Zarathustra — provides yet another pretext for liberal fulmination. Rosen concludes his study by averring: ‘The decisive problem for the next philosophical generation is to separate justice from pity and shame. This will not be possible with a reconstitution of reason that enables us to perceive once more the common root of truth and goodness. That root was once known as philosophy. Nietzsche bears a heavy burden of guilt for the radical deterioration in the second half of the twentieth century of our understanding of philosophy…’ (p. 250). The fact that Nietzsche has radically questioned categories such as justice, truth and goodness is swept aside, and once again the eternal rationalist verities supposedly underlining liberal democracy are asserted. Such a limited ideological perspective qualifies the occasional insights into Zarathustra which pepper Rosen’s book.

Bookchin’s defence of Enlightnement rationalism against Nietzsche and post-leftist anarchy neatly complements the liberal democratic defence of rationalism against Nietzsche in the three books considered here. In these neoconservative times, the bulwarks of tradition and retrenchment are being recemented brick by brick.

[This review originally appeared in Anarchist Studies, March 2001 (vol. 9, no. 1), pp. 79-82. The late John Moore is the editor (with Spencer Sunshine) of I Am Not A Man, I Am Dynamite: Nietzsche and the Anarchist Tradition, forthcoming from Autonomedia.]