Nietzsche as Critic and Proponent of Socialism: A Reappraisal Based on Human, All Too Human
Against the impression that what he says about socialism is either indiscriminately hostile or somewhat superficial, I show Nietzsche to be a subtle and nuanced judge of socialism in his first three “middle period” works— Human, All Too Human, Assorted Opinions and Maxims, and The Wanderer and His Shadow. First, I argue that the critique of socialism contained within the two volumes of HH cuts deeper than generic dismissals of socialism found in later work. Second, I contend that Nietzsche’s critique of socialism is not his final word, but comes with an equally pointed critique of the “property-minded.” Third, I demonstrate that although Nietzsche diagnoses both pro-socialists and anti-socialists as driven by factionalism, he is not committed to a position of neutrality. Finally, I examine his claim that when economic equalities grow extreme, determinedly socialist policies merit strong support, and argue for the contemporary relevance of Nietzsche’s thinking about socialism.
Nietzsche, socialism, politics, ownership, factionalism
The picture of Nietzsche as a thinker who simply disdained socialism dies hard. Routinely (and irresponsibly) assimilating Nietzsche to right-wing movements, popular journalism continues to reinforce this picture of his thought.1 Scholarly readers of Nietzsche have not generally made this crude mistake. Nonetheless, interpreters who regard Nietzsche’s thought as essentially nonpolitical generally ignore the passages in his works that mention socialism, perhaps assuming that what he says about the topic is superficial and merits little attention. “Anti-political” readings that see Nietzsche as intensely engaged with politics, though primarily in opposition to institutions, typically mention passages that are highly critical of socialism and the state. But their attention is selective; they downplay or ignore other passages in Nietzsche that point in a different direction. Even interpreters [End Page 1] who see Nietzsche as a thinker whose engagement with politics is more complicated than suggested by the designation “anti-political” tend to overlook the full range of his texts that speak of socialism.2
The impression of Nietzsche as an author whose opposition to socialism is virulent, if somewhat simpliste, depends heavily on the tendency to privilege his later works and the contemporaneous notebook entries. But those who consider his first three “middle period” works—that is, the first volume of HH and its two sequels, AOM and WS, later published together as the second volume of HH—will encounter a rather different Nietzsche. They will discover that Nietzsche is in fact a subtle and nuanced judge of socialism, one whose thinking is surprisingly relevant to our own economic and political divisions.3
I substantiate this thesis in four steps. First, I examine the particular critique of socialism that Nietzsche offers in the two volumes of HH, showing that it cuts deeper than the generic dismissals of socialism found in the late Nietzsche (e.g., socialism as the most recent manifestation of the revolt in slave morality). Second, I contend that Nietzsche’s critique of socialism, though powerful, can hardly be taken as his final word. Nietzsche accompanies the critique by an equally pointed judgment of those who are obsessed with wealth and insufficiently concerned about the common good. Third, I show that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of both pro-socialists and anti-socialists as driven by factionalism does not commit him to a position of toothless neutrality. On the contrary, he expressly argues that in some circumstances determinedly socialist policies merit strong support, even as he refrains from any general advocacy of socialism. But which policies? Under which circumstances? A final section addresses these questions and thereby strengthens the case for the contemporary relevance of Nietzsche’s thinking about socialism.
Nietzsche as Critic of Socialism
That Nietzsche is a sharp-eyed critic of socialism in his middle period works is true. One salient aspect of the critique, as it appears in HH, is his exposure of the gap between the professed motives of socialists and their actual motives. Consider the person who belongs to the class of the Nicht-Besitzenden—the “non-possessors” or “have-nots.” If a member of this class becomes a socialist, she does not do so out of a desire for justice. Rather, she [End Page 2] wants to join the set of the Besitzenden; she wants to become a possessor. Whatever she might say about justice, her actual motive—so far as she is a member of the “subjugated caste”—is “covetousness” (HH 451).4 That she will frequently claim a special right to possess what she does not presently own is beside the point.
The whole past of the old culture is built on violence, slavery, deception, error; but we, the heirs of all these conditions, indeed the convergence of that whole past, cannot decree ourselves away, and cannot want to remove one particular part. The unjust frame of mind lies in the souls of the “have-nots,” too; they are no better than the “haves,” and have no special moral privilege, for at some point their forefathers were “haves,” too.(HH 452)
Whatever the “haves” happen to possess, a moral right to their property is not among them—they are the direct beneficiaries of “violence, slavery, deception, and error.” The absence of moral right on their part, however, does not confer any corresponding right on the part of the “have-nots.” Generally speaking, Nietzsche suggests, those who lack riches are motivated by the desire for self-aggrandizement, and are therefore no better than those who possess them. If this is true, then nothing especially noble drives the advocacy of socialism on the part of those who are badly off under present conditions. Nietzsche compares the impoverished masses who want to become wealthy to a beast that roars when a bloody piece of meat is dangled before it only to be drawn away. “Do you think this roar means justice?,” he asks (HH 451). Envy, ambition, covetousness, pain—these tend to be the actual motives of socialists who belong to the subjugated caste.
Something quite different, however, must be said about the motives of members of the ruling class who desire greater economic equality.5 Nietzsche grants the possibility of people who sacrifice their own riches and renounce their own possessions—putting their money where their mouth is—for the sake of the whole. “To that extent, a socialistic way of thought, which rests on justice, is possible” (HH 451). Perhaps surprisingly for those who reflexively assimilate Nietzsche to Thrasymachus, Nietzsche does not identify members of the ruling class with those whose rhetoric about justice masks the true intention of their policies (the “advantage of the stronger”). On the contrary, Nietzsche sees every reason to consider the possibility that the nobler representatives of the ruling class are genuinely motivated by a [End Page 3] desire for justice. Moreover, the conclusion of HH 452 suggests that such a desire is possible for everyone, rulers and ruled alike: “We do not need forcible new distributions of property, but rather gradual transformations of attitude; justice must become greater in everyone, and the violent instinct [der gewalthhätige Instinct] weaker.”
Nietzsche, then, combines a keen suspicion of rhetoric about “justice” with a non-cynical desire for an increase in actual justice. This desire bears some connection to a “socialistic way of thought, which rests on justice [eine socialistische Denkungsweise, welche auf Gerechtigkeit ruht]” (HH 451). Because Nietzsche acknowledges the possibility of non-covetous motives for socialism, one cannot say that he dismisses socialism as an effect of “class envy” and leave it at that. For a deeper critique of socialism in Nietzsche, one must look elsewhere—that is, to the actual consequences of attempts so far to make the “socialist way of thought” practical. To the extent that such attempts involve “forcible new distributions of property,” Nietzsche is a perceptive critic.
On what grounds does Nietzsche criticize forcible new distributions of property? One may look to WS 285, titled “Whether possession of property can be reconciled with justice.” Here Nietzsche distinguishes two socialist measures that have historically been proposed for the sake of reconciling property and justice. The first is equal division of property; the second is the wholesale abolition of property. For some, the first measure seems unproblematic. But what generates this appearance, Nietzsche argues, is a failure to consider what it actually entails:
“Equal shares of the fields” is easily said, but how much bitterness is created by the separation and division that are necessary to achieve it, through the loss of long-revered properties; how much piety is wounded and sacrificed! We dig up morality when we dig up boundary markers.(WS 285)
To this, one might venture a rejoinder drawn from the spirit of both Marx and Nietzsche himself: “Go ahead and dig up morality then, since its principal function is to protect the propertied members of society and exploit everyone else.” But Nietzsche would not find this rejoinder convincing— not because he has any interest in protecting conventional morality, but because he takes “equal division” to assume a metaphysical idea of equality of which there are no real instances. “There have never existed two genuinely equal shares of land, and if such things did exist, human envy toward [End Page 4] our neighbors would not believe in their equality” (WS 285). Any endeavor to legislate a perfectly equal division of property is doomed to failure. Such attempts, Nietzsche says, “were often made in antiquity, but with a lack of success that can still instruct us, too” (WS 285).
The second socialist prescription that WS 285 considers is the ban on property as such. Nietzsche rejects this prescription no less vigorously than the first: “If we want to follow the second prescription, returning property to the community and making the individual into simply a temporary tenant, we thereby destroy the arable land.” Whereas the first measure proposes to divide the fields, the second ends by destroying them altogether. How so? As rental car companies know, short-term lessors cannot be trusted to care much about the automobile they rent. Often their attitude is exploitative. “People do not exhibit foresight and a sense of sacrifice toward anything that they possess only temporarily; they behave exploitatively toward it, like thieves or dissolute spendthrifts.” Nietzsche considers a “Platonic” objection to his critique—namely, that what causes human selfishness is private property. Eliminate private property, the objection holds, and selfishness will disappear or be mitigated; people will begin to care about the whole and not simply their own. Nietzsche’s reply to this objection is that the four virtues of the Republic—temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice—have their root in selfishness.6 Any care for the cultivation of these virtues in the individual soul presupposes an individual’s concern for her own well-being (though not necessarily at the expense of others). “Without vanity and selfishness [Selbstsucht]—what are the human virtues then? Which is not at all to say that the latter are only names and masks for the former.” Here again, Nietzsche is not a “Nietzschean.” He does not dismiss the very idea of human virtue. His claim is that any attempt to abolish property, were it to succeed, would bring with it the destruction of the soil from which the virtues grow—despite the intentions of those who propose to eliminate property. The radical call for the abolition of property seems characteristically modern. It is, Nietzsche says, “what our socialists have most at heart.” Nonetheless, its origins lie in “Plato’s underlying utopian melody, which is still being sung today by the socialists” (WS 285).
The reference to “the socialists” almost certainly includes Marx and Engels. As Thomas Brobjer observes,
Nietzsche never mentions Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels, and it is generally assumed that he had no knowledge of them and their kind of thinking and socialism. However, this is not correct. [End Page 5] Marx is referred to in at least eleven books, by nine different authors, that Nietzsche read or possessed. In six of them he is discussed and quoted extensively, and in one of them Nietzsche has underlined Marx’s name.7
To Brobjer’s observation, one may add that at AOM 324 Nietzsche refers to “the German socialist” as a type. It would be odd if he were not aware of Marx and Engels as exemplary instances of the type.
Nietzsche, then, seems to be a harsh judge of socialism, ancient and modern. Despite the nod to justice as a possible motive on the part of the noble element of the ruling class, he paints a largely negative picture of both the motives of particular socialists and the consequences of socialism generally. In light of this picture, casual readers will be inclined to follow the lead of the many who judge Nietzsche as merely a critic of socialism, either praising or blaming him for his anti-socialist position.8 Such readers will also suspect some affinity between Nietzschean pronouncements about the supremacy of power and strength, the connection between greatness and the will to inflict pain, and the dog-eat-dog ethos of the free market. In short, Nietzsche is all too likely to strike the casual reader as simply a critic of socialism and an apologist for capitalism.
One can, of course, use selective quotation to portray Nietzsche as an unremitting enemy of socialism. Any attempt to exhibit Nietzsche’s qualified sympathy for (particular versions of) socialism, some will charge, amounts to “domesticating Nietzsche.” To such a charge, one may reply that nothing domesticates Nietzsche more than the habit of reading only his more notorious texts that conform to our preconceived notions about what he “must” think and ignoring other passages that challenge those notions.9 I am willing to concede that there is a Nietzsche that fits the “scourge of socialism” description, particularly if one depends upon entries from The Will to Power. But this is not the only Nietzsche. It is not the wisest or most discerning Nietzsche, nor the Nietzsche most worth reading in our present situation.
Complicating the Picture
However superficially plausible, the picture of Nietzsche as unqualified critic of socialism and ardent defender of capitalism is seriously misleading. To see why, we can do no better than to turn directly to AOM 304, [End Page 6] “The revolution-minded [Umsturzgeister] and the property-minded [Besitzgeister].” In this aphorism, we find Nietzsche inverting the tactic that he used in HH 452, where the focus of his critique was the “have-nots” that are driven by covetousness and so are “no better than the ‘haves.’” Here Nietzsche directly addresses those who are “property-minded”:
You rich bourgeois who call yourselves “liberal,” just admit to yourselves that it is your own heartfelt convictions that you find so frightening and threatening in the socialists, but that you consider unavoidable in yourselves, as though they were something different there. If you, such as you are, did not have your property and the concern for maintaining it, these convictions would make you into socialists: only the possession of property makes any difference between you and them.(AOM 304)
The property-minded and the revolution-minded have more in common than either would like to admit. But this is not the only point of AOM 304, nor its main point. More deeply, the aphorism argues that if those who possess significant property really want to defend themselves against the “socialistic” prospect of its forcible expropriation, they can avail themselves of a particular “remedy.” This remedy is not to be property-minded—that is, not to be fixated on property, as if it were the only good or the highest good. If the property-minded want to forestall revolution, they must consider a remedy that their combination of fear and fixation makes it hard for them to see. “The only remedy against socialism that still remains in your power is: not to challenge it, that is to live yourselves in a moderate and unpretentious way, to prevent as far as you can any excessive displays of wealth and to come to the aid of the state when it places severe taxes upon everything superfluous and seemingly luxurious” (AOM 304).
In this way, Nietzsche gives flesh to HH 451’s somewhat skeletal exhortation for justice to become greater and the violent instinct weaker. His strategy is to appeal to what is actually in the best interest of those who own property. If the property-minded do not implement the remedy that he proposes, they should not be surprised when—sooner or later—the masses get tired of being oppressed and engage in violent revolution, deciding to throw off the yoke of their oppressors.
How likely are the property-minded to take Nietzsche’s remedy to heart? AOM 304 suggests grounds for pessimism. Precisely to the extent [End Page 7] that property owners have deeply embedded character traits, owing to unconscious drives and other forces, they will persist in the condition of being property-minded. Their very identity, their conception of who they are, is bound up with their sense of themselves as property owners. To contemplate losing their property—or to consent to increased taxation on that property, no matter how justified or necessary for supporting higher goods—will seem to them to entail a loss of their identity. For the property-minded to avail themselves of the only remedy that will actually work in the long run against violent revolution, nothing less than self-conquest is necessary. “You must first gain victory over yourselves if you want to gain any sort of victory over the opponents of your wealth” (AOM 304).
But why should wealth be such an object of envy? Why not hold that the envious will always be with us, but that such an unfortunate circumstance should not prevent property owners from enjoying the spoils of what they have acquired, fairly or otherwise? Nietzsche’s answer to this question is worth heeding. He does not indiscriminately polemicize against wealth itself, as if merely having wealth were the problem. There is, however, a characteristic manner in which the rich bourgeois display their wealth. At this point, we must let Nietzsche address the bourgeois in his own words:
And if only that wealth really were well-being! It would not be so superficial and arouse so much envy, it would be more communicative, benevolent, egalitarian, helpful. But the spurious and histrionic air of your joy in life, which lies more in a feeling of opposition (that others do not have it and envy you for it) than in a feeling of the fulfillment and enhancement of your energies— your houses, clothes, vehicles, fancy stores, necessities for palate and table, your noisy enthusiasm for opera and music, and finally your women, formed and shaped, but out of base metal, gilded, but without the ring of gold, chosen by you as showpieces, giving themselves to you as showpieces:—these are what has spread the poison of the public sickness that now communicates itself faster and faster to the masses as socialist scabies, but that has its first seat and incubator in you.(AOM 304)
More than a century later, little has changed. The ostentatious and tasteless display of wealth has only grown worse, as the increasing dominance [End Page 8] of politics in the United States by an unappetizing mixture of celebrity and oligarchy would suggest. Those who fear a socialist revolution in the United States should heed Nietzsche’s warning in AOM 304 that the property-minded are themselves the “first seat and incubator” of any uprising that might occur. That is to say, they are precisely those who belong to the party that speaks in the loudest and most fearful tones against what it indiscriminately calls “socialism.”
To confirm and deepen the point, a quick glance at the chain of aphorisms that runs from AOM 304 to AOM 310 is instructive. AOM 304 diagnoses the malady of being “property-minded.” AOM 305–9 contain five aphorisms that read as an interlude about the dangers of parties. It begins with an observation of the hostility with which parties treat those who make the transition “from being an unconditional supporter to a conditional one” (AOM 305). The interlude culminates in AOM 309, “Taking sides against ourselves,” an aphorism that recalls the necessity of self-conquest on the part of those who have property-minded. The interlude is followed by AOM 310, “Danger in wealth,” which picks up where AOM 304 left off. “Only someone who has spirit should possess property: otherwise property is dangerous to the common good,” the aphorism begins. The defect of those who are “property-minded” is not their ownership of property; it is their lack of “spirit.” Such a person does not know “how to make use of the free time that his property could provide him” (AOM 310). For him, the acquisition of property loses its instrumental status and becomes an end in itself, a substitute for spirit. In this way, property acquisition become the spiritless person’s “entertainment, his stratagem in the battle with boredom” (AOM 310). Such a person, Nietzsche adds, usually tries to disguise his lack of spirit with the purchase of masks, particularly “the mask of cultivation and art.”10 This disguise has social consequences, since the wealthy person without spirit “awakens envy among those who are poorer and less cultivated—who basically always envy cultivation and do not see the mask in the mask—and gradually prepares the way for a social revolution” (AOM 310). Moreover, the spiritless possessor of wealth inflicts harm on himself, since the capacity for property to confer freedom and independence is limited. After a certain point, “the property becomes the master, the owner the slave,” in a way that is “contrary to his most inner and essential needs” (AOM 317, “Property possesses”). [End Page 9]
Partisan Opposition to “Socialism”: A Nietzschean Diagnosis
When Nietzsche’s critique of the “property-minded” is considered along with his critique of the “revolution-minded,” readers of his texts will acknowledge that he is not a party man. He belongs to neither a pro-socialist party nor an anti-socialist party. It does not, however, follow that his basic position is one of neutrality. In this section, I will show that Nietzsche has much to say about the roots of fanatical opposition to socialism.
Taken by itself, the articulation in AOM 304 of a “remedy” to socialism seems to reinforce the idea that socialism ought to be understood mainly as a “problem.” But this aphorism should not be misread as Nietzsche’s definitive word about the essential character of socialism. It is, rather, an artful accommodation to the prejudices of those whom he wants to persuade— namely, the “property-minded” whom he wants to dislodge from their entrenched and fanatical opposition to anything described as “socialism.” For a subtler understanding of socialism, we must go back to HH 446, “A question of power, not justice.” Here Nietzsche begins with the assumption that in some cases, at least, socialism is the authentic uprising of people who have been seriously oppressed. In such cases there is no real problem of justice, but only a question of power. Nietzsche proposes that we think of socialism on the analogy of a natural power like steam. Rather than indulge in moralized opposition (or attachment) to socialism, we might detach ourselves from the prejudices of either party and ask, “To what use can socialism be put?”
Considered along these lines, socialism is neither a “problem” nor an evil that must be implacably opposed. It is not the proper object of fanatical opposition. What generates fanatical opposition to socialism—in addition to the untutored fear of losing one’s property and therefore one’s identity, as shown in the last section—is the idea that there is one thing that is properly called “socialism.” Although he sometimes speaks with the vulgar and uses “socialism” in an essentializing manner, Nietzsche does not actually think of socialism as a single entity. The real challenge is to know “how strong socialism is, and in which of its modifications it can still be used as a mighty lever within the current political power game” (HH 446). The choice of the term modification is telling. Socialism not only permits varied motives (as we saw in the first section), but it also has multiple versions. One cannot easily or accurately generalize about socialism as such, since at least three questions always arise: (1) “Which version or modification of socialism do [End Page 10] you have in mind?”; (2) “Under which particular set of circumstances do you mean to recommend or argue against socialism?”; (3) “To what use do you propose that socialism be put, here and now?”
For today’s users of “socialism” as a weaponized term of abuse—that is, the majority of the American and European right—such questions either do not arise or are willfully suppressed, in the name of advancing an oligarchic agenda. Nor are they as salient as they might be for certain members of the left, who are prone to assume that “socialism” is always and everywhere a good thing. Nietzsche does not think in such absolute terms. He is aware of simplifying oppositions between “capitalism” and “socialism,” as if these terms named the only two possibilities between which one must choose. But Nietzsche consistently rejects such crude dichotomies, not least because they conceal the existence of other points on the spectrum.11 As we have seen, a regard for property is not a single phenomenon. Nietzsche distinguishes between different modes of possessing property and displaying wealth: healthy and unhealthy, spirited and spiritless, wise and unwise. Similarly, he distinguishes violent revolutionary socialism, which calls for “new forcible distributions” of property, from reasonable efforts on the part of the state to levy severe taxes on commodities that are correctly judged to be superfluous or luxurious. But as observers of American social reality can readily verify, party men are always ready to label any proposal for increased state activity in the economy as “socialist”—and therefore unpatriotic and dangerous.
Both the contemporary left and the contemporary right misread and misunderstand Nietzsche in their own characteristic ways. (And sometimes in the same way—for example, those who take for granted that Nietzsche is a blanket opponent of socialism, but differ as to whether to praise or blame him for his opposition.) Against these predictable misunderstandings, we can remind ourselves that Nietzsche delights in ridiculing oppositions that remain facile, no matter how frequently they are propagated in vulgar discourse—such as “morality as culturally variable” versus “morality as unconditionally binding.” Both views, he says at GS 345, are equally “childish.” We do not have to go as far as Karl Jaspers and deny that Nietzsche has any doctrine. But we should say that Nietzsche’s primary objective is not to impart any simple teaching about socialism. His aim is to make things difficult for both doctrinaire socialists and ideological anti-socialists.12 Even as he warns against base motives for socialism and its unsuccessful implementations, he also proposes that “in some circumstances one would even have to do everything possible to strengthen it” (HH 446). [End Page 11]
Socialism for the Present Age?
Some will be shocked to hear Nietzsche say that, in some circumstances, we should do “everything possible” to strengthen socialism. But under what circumstances? Which version of socialism? To what end? Nietzsche’s clear acknowledgment at HH 446 that such circumstances do exist is significant. It invites us to put these questions to his texts, and to listen for a response.
Let us consider these three questions in reverse order, beginning with the last. Toward what end is it sometimes necessary to support socialism? Nietzsche’s critique of socialism, as examined in the first section of this article, clearly identifies two things that cannot be the goal. Support for socialism should not be driven by the desire to bring about perfect equality. This goal, according to Nietzsche, is simply impossible and not worth pursuing. Nor should we abolish private property in order to create the ideal state, “heaven on earth.” (Neither goal, Nietzsche thinks, should be conflated with justice, which he does think worth pursuing by nonviolent means.) We can add that Nietzsche rejects a third aim professed by some socialists—namely, comfort.13 Any version of socialism whose primary goal is to increase human comfort—to bring about the “last man” who thinks he has found happiness and blinks—Nietzsche scorns.14 Given his clear rejection of these three candidates—the generation of total equality, the abolition of private property, the increase of creaturely comfort—to what end does he think socialism might be a justified means, one deserving our support?
We can infer Nietzsche’s answer to this question from his insistence that when the property-minded pursue the unlimited acquisition of wealth, they constitute a real danger to the common good. That is, they endanger not only the many at whose expense they prosper, but also themselves, since they are “first seat and incubator” of the revolution that would unseat them from their oligarchic thrones (AOM 304). The proper end of redistributionist policies, then, is the mitigation of gross inequalities, in order to ensure that the remaining inequalities do not constitute a public danger. Some inequalities will always remain, Nietzsche thinks; he is no utopian. But he judges it necessary to support socialism when doing so will help ensure the longevity of a system in which there is some correspondence between work and reward. Societies in which the inequalities are too great will generate despair in those who judge their chances of economic advancement under the prevailing system to be minimal. What Nietzsche describes as a “danger to the common good” will assume the form of a crisis. The crisis [End Page 12] might consist in an unprecedented turn to opioids, or other futile attempts to cope with the feeling of hopelessness. Or it might consist in an increase in the sort of political agitation that aims to bring about violent revolution. On Nietzschean premises, support for socialism can be justified in order to avert any such crisis and thereby promote political stability.
But which modification of socialism? The question arises because Nietzsche perceives that “socialism” does not name just one thing, a single essence. Some versions of socialism should not be supported, particularly the versions that receive explicit criticism at WS 285. When socialism takes the form of a comprehensive ideology that claims to regulate all of human life, down to its smallest details, it becomes equivalent to “the coldest of all cold monsters,” the state (Z I: “New Idol”). Nietzsche’s opposition to this “new idol” should not be forgotten or set aside. But if the state is not to be worshipped as an idol, it should equally not be regarded as our necessary enemy.15 As we have seen, Nietzsche specifically says “we should come to the aid of the state when it places severe taxes upon everything superfluous and seemingly luxurious” (AOM 304). It is possible to come to the state’s aid without idolizing it.16
Does it follow that Nietzsche would align himself with contemporary “democratic socialism”? It does not: Nietzsche’s rejection of party membership in any form, including the “democratic socialist” party, is clear and cannot be wished away. The rejection of party membership, however, does not entail a posture of neutrality with respect to particular policies, as the above quotation from AOM 304 suggests. But which policies? Nietzsche does not leave us in the dark:
If possession of property is henceforth to instill more confidence and become more moral, we should hold open all paths for working toward a small amount of wealth, but prevent any effortless, sudden enrichment; we should take from the hands of private individuals and private companies all the branches of transportation and of trade that facilitate the accumulation of great wealth, and therefore banking, in particular—and consider those who possess too much as well as those who possess nothing as a danger to society.(WS 285)
At least two things about this passage deserve emphasis. First, the passage comes as the conclusion of WS 285—the very aphorism in which Nietzsche [End Page 13] articulates his most pointed criticisms of two historic implementations of socialism. Nietzsche does not hesitate to combine specific critiques of particular versions of socialism with stringent warnings against the dangers of wealth and property. Second, Nietzsche’s nod to socialism does not consist of platitudes. On the contrary, WS 285 recommends highly specific policies. These include the elimination of private banks, the nationalization of transportation, the reform of structures that promote the acquisition of great wealth on the part of a few. Such measures are necessary in order to prevent inequalities between individuals from becoming so extreme that they pose a “danger to society.”17 Nietzsche supports a system in which all can work toward a “small amount of wealth.” He wants to protect, and not destroy, the conditions under which individual enterprise is rewarded. But he recognizes no right, natural or otherwise, to the unlimited accumulation of riches.
Under what circumstances, then, should a “socialistic way of thought, which rests on justice” (HH 451) be taken seriously, yielding policy recommendations akin to those mentioned explicitly at WS 285? Nietzsche says that in some circumstances we should do “everything possible” to strengthen socialism, but he does not say which ones. He is silent on this point, because he regards it as a question for prudential judgment. There is no invariant formula, no absolute rule (e.g., “whenever 10 percent of the citizens possess 90 percent of the national wealth, then support socialist measures”). But the above reflections on the end for whose sake socialism is defensible, and sometimes necessary, suggest the form of his answer. Whenever injustice is extreme, caused in part by the property-minded’s determination to accumulate an unlimited amount of wealth for themselves, regardless of the damage to the common good, it is necessary to consider policies that bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth. That Nietzsche provides no list of conditions under which we must support some version of socialism does not imply that his thinking lacks practical application. Even the most compelling articulation of an ideal, as he argues in the third UM, is inert unless it drives us to recognize that “it is possible to impose on you and me a chain of duties capable of being fulfilled” (SE 5, p. 193). Philosophy for Nietzsche is never “pure science”—a “lifeless embalmment of knowledge,” as George Eliot puts it (describing in Middlemarch Casaubon’s failure as a scholar). It can and must speak to particular circumstances, even if the precise manner of application cannot be determined in advance. Otherwise “truth” will become a thing that is merely chattered about—“a mousy little [End Page 14] creature from whom nothing unruly or exceptional need be feared—a cozy, good-natured little thing who constantly assures all the established powers that she will cause nobody any trouble” (SE 3, p. 173).
If the primary interest of the “established powers” is to defend plutocracy, ensuring that the wealthy remain well-off while denying others the opportunity for advancement, then philosophy as conceived by Nietzsche will prescribe the duty to oppose plutocracy in the name of justice, and to support specific policies that conform to this duty. These policies will aim to redistribute wealth and to reform political structures that aid and abet the unlimited accumulation of wealth. No doubt such policies will be attacked as “socialist.” Reading Nietzsche is valuable because he reminds us that one should not be afraid of being tarred with the socialist brush, as if “socialism” were to denote only a totalizing collectivism. Nietzsche offers one way in which a sharp critique of socialism, in some of its modifications, can be combined with the recognition that in some circumstances we should not merely pay it lip service, but “do everything possible to strengthen it” (HH 446).
Here it may be objected that I have gone too far. To acknowledge that Nietzsche recommends policies intended to mitigate gross inequalities and render them less visible is one thing. But surely we can acknowledge his support of these policies, the objection runs, without turning him into an advocate of socialism. After all, many who support policies designed to mitigate inequality do not identify themselves as “socialist.” To this objection, two responses suggest themselves. The first is that policies whose principal aim is to reduce economic inequalities are in fact socialist policies. Proponents of such policies may wish to avoid the tag “socialist,” since the tag may lead others to suspect them of socialist party membership. But this desire, however understandable, has no bearing on the legitimacy of the description of such policies as socialist.
A second, and perhaps subtler, response to the objection is to consider the implications of the claim that “socialism” is not just one thing. The objection assumes a sharp distinction between “inequality reduction,” on the one hand, and “recourse to socialism,” on the other hand, so that it can coherently make Nietzsche say that we can have the first without the second. But this distinction is clear only if we construe socialism as a fixed thing with a specific content. I take it, however, that Nietzsche means to question precisely this construal by speaking of various “modifications” of socialism. When certain forces cause inequalities to become so extreme that [End Page 15] social stability is jeopardized, a counter-force must be employed. The name of this counter-force, in one of its modifications, is “socialism,” according to Nietzsche himself. When HH 446 claims that “in some circumstances one would have to do everything possible to strengthen it [unter Umständen müsste man selbst Alles thun, ihn zu kräftigen],” the antecedent of “ihn” is clearly “Socialismus.”
The objector may claim that I am placing undue weight on HH 446. Against this claim, I would note that HH 446 is not a unique case. Other aphorisms in the two volumes of HH advocate policies that are clearly socialist in intent. The conclusion of WS 285, as we have seen, specifically recommends the elimination of private banks and the nationalization of transportation. That such radical policies belong to some modification of socialism seems clear enough, and it accords with Nietzsche’s own usage. None of these considerations imply that Nietzsche is a general or indiscriminate advocate of socialism. On the contrary, as I have argued, his advocacy of socialism is highly selective. It is a force that he thinks should be unleashed only under certain circumstances.
Do we currently live in such circumstances? A recent study by Oxfam concluded that 1 percent of the world’s population possessed 82 percent of the wealth produced in 2017.18 In the United States, the inequalities appear still greater. Forbes cites a report that the three wealthiest individuals in America—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett—have more riches between them than the bottom 50 percent of the American population. (It is not that 3 percent have as much as the bottom 50 percent, but that three individuals do—or 0.000000921 percent of the whole.) If these studies are even approximately correct, then we have grounds for judging that the circumstances mentioned by Nietzsche are the ones that we live in. Accordingly, if we wish to avoid the outcome that he associates with extreme inequality—namely, violent revolution—the wisest course of action would be to support at least some of the redistributionist policies that are demonized as “socialist” by the contemporary right.
We can learn, I think, from Nietzsche’s determination in HH, AOM, and WS to bring together two thoughts that remain surprisingly difficult for us to think at the same time: (1) In particular circumstances, when inequalities become too massive to bear, some version of socialism deserves unhesitant and energetic support; (2) one should resist the allure of becoming a partisan who sees the whole of human life as an attempt to build a new society that conforms to the socialist vision. Something of the dual articulation [End Page 16] of (1) and (2) may survive in the late Nietzsche, even if (1) far recedes into the background. To take one example, in Book V of GS, Nietzsche suggests that socialists are “perhaps the most honest” human type (GS 356). Their perception of the unfreedom of present capitalist society is not deluded, nor is their desire for a “free society” insincere. The problem is not their honesty, but the myopia involved in their naïve assumptions about what is required for “building.” No society (Gesellschaft)—as Nietzsche argues in GS 356—can be constructed out of people who have grown accustomed to endless role-playing (“actors”), and so lack the requisite stability to function as “material” with which an architect (any architect, socialist or otherwise) might build. Reading the late Nietzsche in conjunction with the two volumes of HH can help us discern how and when socialism merits support, while protecting us from the temptation to turn it into a surrogate religion.
1. Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), though an incisive analysis of several influential figures on the contemporary American right, tends to reduce Nietzsche to isolated utterances from his later texts, even if he does at one point suggest that “vulgar Nietzscheanism” should not be confused with Nietzsche’s own thinking. Other authors, more journalistic and less careful than Robin, fail even to hint at any distinction between Nietzsche’s political thought and its reception in contemporary political movements.
2. Sometimes the sense that Nietzsche has little to say about socialism is made explicit. Often it is unstated—that is, demonstrated performatively. A recent example is Hugo Drochon, Nietzsche’s Great Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016). Though Drochon’s book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Nietzsche on politics—one that correctly notes his keen interest in political topics beginning with HH—it seems no less reluctant than its predecessors to treat socialism as one such topic.
3. There is a growing literature on Nietzsche’s “middle” works. Representative examples include Michael Ure, Nietzsche’s Therapy: Self-Cultivation in the Middle Works (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008); Ruth Abbey, Nietzsche’s Middle Period (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Paul Franco, Nietzsche’s Enlightenment: The Free-Spirit Trilogy of the Middle Period (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Keith Ansell-Pearson, Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings (London: Bloomsbury, 2018). None of these books, however, provides any sustained analysis of the middle Nietzsche’s thinking about socialism— though Abbey’s does include insightful commentary on Nietzsche’s conception of justice. In the same way, Ansell-Pearson’s book contains an illuminating analysis of the anti-fanatical spirit of the middle Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy, 47–61). This article extends his anti-fanatical reading by applying it to the particular topic of socialism.
4. For translations of HH I have used Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. Marion Faber, with Stephen Lehmann (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996). Quotations from AOM and WS are taken from Human, All Too Human II, trans. Gary Handwerk (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); citations of SE are from Unmodern Observations, trans. William Arrowsmith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990). Quoted phrases from other works are my own translation.
5. The different motives for equality on the part of the haves and have-nots can be further illuminated by reflecting on a distinction made at HH 300, “Twofold kind of equality”: “The craving for equality can be expressed either by the wish to draw all others down to one’s level (by belittling, excluding, tripping them up) or by the wish to draw oneself up with everyone else (by appreciating, helping, taking pleasure in others’ success).” Socialists are often accused (sometimes with justification) of promoting the first kind of equality. But on Nietzsche’s account, there is no reason for a nuanced supporter of socialist policies not to align herself with the second kind. I am happy to acknowledge an anonymous referee for suggesting the pertinence of this aphorism to my argument.
6. For astute discussion of the “tension between egoism and justice” in Nietzsche, see Ruth Abbey, Nietzsche’s Middle Period, 46–50. As Abbey notes, the notion of justice “does play some role in his thinking,” even if the “new justice” that Nietzsche calls for in GS 289 (Abbey mentions similar passages at HH 452 and HH 473) differs from concepts of justice “prominent in modern political thought” and in some ways “returns to traditional ones by repudiating any idea of inherent equality” (50).
7. Thomas Brobjer, Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 70.
8. Julian Young’s Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) takes a step toward correcting the impression that Nietzsche is an unnuanced anti-socialist. Citing a pro-socialist remark from the notebooks, he comments, “In Nietzsche’s entire career, the only remarks that are anything other than rampantly hostile to socialism come from this period, and must reflect the temporarily moderating influence” of Malwida von Meysenbug (Friedrich Nietzsche, 233). Young’s sense that Nietzsche’s most nuanced judgments about socialism come from his “middle period” texts is certainly correct. I am not, however, convinced either by Young’s assumption that Nietzsche’s capacity for subtle judgment about socialism should be attributed to extrinsic influence, or by his claim that every comment about socialism from his earlier or later writings merits the characterization “rampantly hostile.”
9. On this point, see AOM 137, read together with AOM 129.
10. Such masks do not necessarily render their wearers impotent in determining what the many regard as good or conducive to happiness. Though we think that artists determine such matters for each generation, the real appraisers, Nietzsche says at the end of GS 85, are “the rich and the idle.”
11. Here I mean to evoke Nietzsche’s critique of the “faith in opposite values,” most famously present at BGE 2, but no less clearly articulated at HH 1. It is significant that a version of the critique appears at WS 285, which accuses Plato of believing, “like all of antiquity, in good and evil as in black and white: therefore, in a radical difference between good and evil human beings, between good and bad qualities.” He takes both partisan “capitalists” and fanatical “socialists” to be capable of falling into this trap.
12. Julian Young misses the anti-factionalist tenor of Nietzsche’s thinking when he describes him as an “implacable opponent of socialism,” even if some passages (as he says, citing WS 288 and finding a connection to William Morris) show him “to be by no means unsympathetic to all strands of nineteenth-century socialism” (Friedrich Nietzsche, 285–86). Young’s formulation suggests its own undoing. If Nietzsche is indeed sympathetic to some strands of nineteenth-century socialism, it is hard to see why his opposition to socialism should be characterized as “implacable.” At most, his opposition to some particular varieties of socialism would be rightly described in this way.
13. Paul Franco makes this point, following Hollingdale’s translation of HH 235’s “für möglichst Viele ein Wohlleben herzustellen” as “to create a comfortable life for as many people as possible” (see Franco, Nietzsche’s Enlightenment, 49). One might argue that Wohlleben means simply a “good life” (as Faber translates it), and so not ascribe to Nietzsche the view that socialists aspire specifically to comfort. But in view of Nietzsche’s consistent rejection of comfort as a worthy goal for humanity, I think Franco is right to make the point, even if we need not foist on Nietzsche any necessary connection between (every form of) socialism and the idealization of comfort.
14. Nancy S. Love notes that Nietzsche “may inappropriately intend” the last man “as a portrayal of man in socialist society,” but she does not say what would make such a portrayal “inappropriate” (Marx, Nietzsche, and Modernity [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986], 52).
15. How should the state be regarded? HH 235 suggests one answer: “the state is a clever institution for protecting individuals from one another.” One can err either in “ennobling” it or in denigrating it. As Nietzsche implies, it is possible to go too far in either direction. For sensitive reflections acknowledging both Nietzsche’s view that the state should not be overthrown and his warnings against its “hegemonic aspirations,” see Tamsin Shaw, Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 14 and 23–26.
16. I do not deny that Nietzsche occasionally speaks as if socialism and state idolatry were inseparable companions. See, for example, GS 24 on “socialists and state idolaters of Europe [die Socialisten und Staats-Götzendiener Europa’s].”
17. Though Love correctly acknowledges the relevance of WS 285 for assessing Nietzsche’s critique of socialism, she claims in her (very brief) commentary on the aphorism that for Nietzsche the main defect of “capitalist private property” is that its characteristic mode of exploitation is “vulgar” (Marx, Nietzsche, and Modernity, 185). But WS 285 cuts deeper than that. Even if Nietzsche does regard capitalist exploitation as “vulgar,” the point emphasized by WS 285 is that destabilizing economic inequalities constitute a serious danger to society.
18. For a description of the Oxfam study, see Larry Elliott, “World’s 26 Richest People Own as Much as Poorest 50%,” Guardian, January 20, 2018. On the wealth of Bezos, Gates, and Buffett, see “Billionaires: The World’s 20 Richest,” Forbes, March 31, 2018, 20.