The troubling rise of Bad Nietzsche

The alt-right loves Nietzsche the same way 20th-century fascists loved Nietzsche

Bad Nietzsche.
(Image credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Bad Nietzsche is back. And he's being co-opted by the alt-right.

You can see it in a personal, highly compelling profile of Richard Spencer, the now-famous white nationalist who was a former high-school classmate of The Atlantic's Graeme Wood, who traces Spencer's descent into disrepute to an encounter with Nietzsche.

"He developed intellectually after a swift kick in the cortex from Richard Wagner and, ultimately, Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher whose skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism later made him beloved by the Nazis," Wood writes.

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"You could say I was red-pilled by Nietzsche," Spencer told me. To "red-pill," in alt-right slang, is to enter a vertiginous spiral of awakening and reassessment. … The false dreams from which Spencer found himself freed were the dreams of the good ol' boy, who goes to church on Sunday and does things as his granddaddy did before him. Spencer started off with Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, a systematic dismantling of the moral and religious truths of European civilization. Nietzsche saw Christianity as a slave religion, a consolation to the weak. Spencer says that the general effect, an inversion of his moral universe, was "shattering." [The Atlantic]

Despite all the media attention he garners, Spencer remains a marginal figure. Still, this is extraordinary. And it makes me wonder what the late Allan Bloom would think.

Bloom was a University of Chicago-based professor of philosophy and classical literature whose book The Closing of the American Mind was a publishing phenomenon in the late 1980s. Subtitled How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, the book was an unlikely bestseller about how the Western elite was trashing its civilizational inheritance and trying to build a new edifice on the sands of relativism and egalitarianism. It featured a forward by Bloom's friend, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, who had attracted a fair bit of ignominy for having asked, allegedly tauntingly, why Zulus and Papuans hadn't produced great literature (a remark to which he offered extenuating context here).

The Closing of the American Mind makes for interesting reading today. The thrust of its complaint about elites and relativism has only intensified. But some of it does not hold up well at all. Take its snarkily written chapter with the heading "The Nietzscheanization of the Left or Vice Versa," for example. In it, Bloom argued that the left had largely abandoned the discredited economic doctrines of Marx and, in their place, adopted a stylized anti-bourgeois Nietzsche. Nietzsche and his "will to power" over flabby liberal values no longer sustainable by reason or myth were still casting a revolutionary spell, Bloom asserted, but it was no longer over adherents of German and Italian fascism, discredited (to say the least) as those movements were by the horrors of World War II.

Nietzsche's thought was now being transmitted through European leftists such as Georg Lukacs, Alexandre Kojeve, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, who had jettisoned Marx's "embarrassing economic determinism" and created a new "mutant" crossbreed of Nietzsche and Marx:

The mature Marx had almost nothing to say about art, music, literature, or education, or about what the life of man would be when the yoke of oppression was lifted. His early "humanistic" writings were looked by some for the inspiration lacking in the later ones, but they turned out to be thin and derivative stuff. Since the Nietzscheans spoke so marvelously well about all these things, why not just appropriate what they said? So they took over "the last man," whom they identified with the Marx's bourgeois, and "the superman," whom they identified with the victorious proletarian after the revolution. [The Closing of the American Mind]

Without crawling further into the weeds, suffice it to say that, in 2017, the philosophical picture that Bloom painted in 1987 has been inverted. In the post-crash, post-Picketty era of global inequality, the Marxist-minded left is very much interested in those discarded economic doctrines. And the far right, as evidenced by Spencer and his ilk, is very much interested in Nietzsche as he was originally understood by 20th-century fascists.

Today's alt-right warriors take their Nietzsche neat.

Politics is a zero-sum game, Spencer told Wood; its end product is not derived from consensus or compromise. There is a winner and a loser: "It's nonconsensual by its very nature. The state is crystallized violence." That is a scary thought. And I've no doubt that this is not at all what Bloom meant when he urged his students to be "open to closedness" — that is, to be open to the notion that some of life's big questions about existence and morality might have definitive answers.

Bad Nietzsche is back. And Allan Bloom would be appalled.

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