Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought II

As with Nietzsche, there is a mixture of horror at past cruelties, and a suggestion that human Enlightenment values may have produced as much cruelty in more dispersed less dramatic ways. The whole critique of the understanding of theories of legal sovereignty is clearly a taking up of Nietzsche, and while it is directed against a large current of ‘liberal’ theory, it is articulated in the service of a critique of unrestrained state and social power. Liberalism since the Enlightenment is portrayed as deeply complicit with a power of control through visibility and rationalisation, but in the service of a resistance to the cruelty of power which extends liberal sensibilities. The book that made Foucault famous, History of Madness (also know as Madness and Civilisation), has a Nietzsche influenced respect for the insights of madness, as something connected with tragedy, as opposed to the confinement, constraints and rational controls placed on it later.


The world of the early seventeenth century is strangely hospitable to madness. Madness is there, in the hearts of men and at the heart of things, an ironic sign blurring the distinction between the real and the chimerical, but with barely a memory of great tragic threat.

(Foucault 2006, p. 42-43)


As with the critical attitude to modern punishment, there is a both a challenge to liberalism, taken up in the more left wing interpretations of Foucault, and a suggestion of how liberalism can be deepened, expanded and pluralised, taken up in liberal encounters with Foucault. Foucault’s own political engagements included a period of participation in the Maoist left, but he denies that he was a Marxist in any of his writings. Other periods of his life include engagement with a wide range of protests against power, and towards the end of his writing career a growing engagement with liberal, or liberal related, concepts.


Gilles Deleuze wrote one of his earlier books about Nietzsche (reference) and had an enduring interest in Nietzsche’s thought. In his Nietzsche study, he does not present a Nietzschean political philosophy, or deny that Netzsche might favour some Caesarist or Platonist form of government, but his way of writing about power and force in Nietzsche takes the reader’s attention from such approaches to Nietzsche to an idea of Nietzsche as philosopher of pluralism, difference and becoming, with regard to forces. Deleuze’s later work suggests that such metaphysical or naturalist pluralism is a model for social and political action and ways of thinking.


Thus reactive force is: 1) utilitarian force of adaptation and partial limitation; 2) force which separates active force from what it can do, which denies or turns against itself (reign of the weak or of slaves). And, analogously, active force is :1) plastic, dominant and subjugating force; 2) force which goes to the limit of what it can; 3) force which affirms its difference, which makes its difference an object of enjoyment and affirmation. Forces are only concretely and completely determined if these three pairs of characteristics are taken into account simultaneously.

(Deleuze 1983, p. 61)

It is no surprise, therefore, to find that every Nietzschean concept lies at the crossing of two unequal genetic lines. Not only the eternal return and the Overman, but laughter, play and dance. In relation to Zarathustra laughter, play and dance are affirmative powers of transmutation: dance transmutes heavy into light, laughter transmutes suffering into joy and the play of throwing (the dice) transmutes low into high. But in relation to Dionysus dance, laughter and play are affirmative powers of reflection and development. Dance affirms becoming and the being of becoming; laughter, roars of laughter, affirms multiplicity and the unity of multiplicity; play affirms chance and the necessity of chance.

(Deleuze 1983, p. 193-194)


From the political point of view, Deleuze’s emphasis on limits, difference, affirmation, laughter, play, dance, becoming, multiplicity, chance, enjoyment, and transmutation, can be taken against authority, hierarchy, sovereignty, rationalism and elitism in the state and in political life. Society can be seen as something conditioned by the multiplicity of constantly transforming forces in which hierarchies and sovereignty relations can only be temporary, and are always under challenge. So whatever Nietzsche may have sometimes advocated in the way of Platonist politics or Caesarism can be seen as itself challenged by the Nietzschean emphasis on difference, becoming and multiplicity. Forces flow through social organisations in ways which constantly disorder them, and suggest a politics of anti-authoritarian self-transformation along with existential challenges to authority. That understanding of social and political thought can be seen in Deleuze in a series of texts beginning with Anti-Oedipus (1984), which he co-authored with Félix Guattari. These texts use references to Nietzsche, amongst references to Freud, Marx and many others. The overall effect is that of a form of libertarianism strongly influenced by Marxist theory and revolutionary politics, confirmed by Deleuze’s own political interests.

To be continued

Nietzsche and the Politics of his Time IV/Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought I

 On the side of intellectual influences, Nietzsche took a great interest in Ralph Waldo Emerson an inspiration to the Abolitionist movement in America, and strongly associated with a democratic form of veneration of the individual and the individual search for perfection (Melville’s Moby-Dick takes a great deal of inspiration from Emerson, in this area and others, though he was not an enthusiast for democracy himself. Emersonian transcendentalism was an inspiration to enthusiasts for democratic progress in 19th centıry America. This way of taking Emerson in a democratic direction parallels what happens when Nietzsche is taken up politically, in a way that goes beyond a focus, however scholarly, on his gestures towards a version of Platonic elitism. 

 Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought 

The influence of Nietzsche on political theory has not been towards Platonic elitism on the whole, largely the influence has been the opposite direction. Nietzsche’s name was used by Fascist and Nazi totalitarians, but there is no reason to believe that Nietzsche would have approved of mass political movements based on extreme nationalism, belief in racially pure populations and militarism, all things condemned by Nietzsche. In addition Fascism and Naziism were mass movements appealing to a extreme manipulation of mass democratic politics. The best known Nazi leaning commentator on Nietzsche, Adolf Baeumler has  not become a central reference in Nietzsche studies since his work of the 20s and 30s. Thomas Mann was very attached to Nietzsche during his ultra-conservative years, but the influence is still clear in his later more liberal years. Some similar comments apply to W.B. Yeats who had rather ‘traditionalist’ esoteric-authoritarian-elitist interests in combination with hi appreciation for Nietzsche. Links can be made between Nietzsche and ‘Traditionalist’ ultra-conservative thought, but this has not not resulted in any great academic study of Nietzsche’s work, and the esotericist aspects of Traditionalism are at odds with the materialism and empiricism of Nietzsche’s thought. Since Traditionalism is the closest thing in the modern world to a movement for the Platonist dominance of an intellectual-aristocratic elite, it’s lack of fit with Nietzsche studies must have a qualifying effect on how we regard the Platonist form of elitism in Nietzsche. Another qualification is that the Platonist politics is at odds with Caesarism and Bonapartism, as the later phenomena refer to rule by someone of political and military strength, not rulers blessed with access to higher truths. In general Nietzsche is not arguing for a modified Platonism, but for a dissolve of Platonism, and the metaphysical assumptions which underly any belief in a guiding intellectual aristocracy with access to pure truths. This complete distance from Platonism is expressed most succinctly by Nietzsche in ‘How the Real World Became a Myth’ in Twilight of the Idols (GD Wie die “wahre Welt” endlich zur Fabel wurde), and passages of those kind should lead us to heavily qualify any assertion of a Platonist politics in Nietzsche. It is not so much that we should deny any leanings in that direction from Nietzsche, but that we must be very conscious of how it does not fit well with much of his thought, that he did not publish the text most often referred to in ‘Platonist’ readings of Nietzsche’s politics, ‘The Greek State’ (GSt), and that he did not even try to develop it into a more lengthy and full argument. 

One way of thinking about Nietzsche’s politics is how it influences the political thought of the most important of those thinkers who have been deeply concerned with Nietzsche. The class of those who have much to say about Nietzsche, and about political thought in ways that have much influence most notably include Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. While it is not a straight forward matter to classify the political thought of these three, they are all in someway democratic and egalitarian in questions of political rights, and are far from Platonic aristocratic-elitism. They all take from Nietzsche a concern with difference, pluralism, conflict and change in the sphere of politics, so that in their thinking Nietzsche becomes the source of critique of fixed forms, rigid hierarchies, and submission to political sovereignty of any kind. Nietzsche is the source of the most persistent critique of authoritarianism in despotism in a mode of a joyful celebration of multiplying differences and dissolving identities. Foucault’s more politically significant texts include Discipline and Punish, which has many overtones of On the Genealogy of Morality, which as explained above is full of ‘liberal’ sounding horror at legalised cruelty, particularly in the second essay. 

[….] the notions of institutions of repression, rejection, exclusion, marginalization, are not adequate to describe, at the very centre of the carceral city, the formation of the insidious leniencies, unavowable petty cruelties, small acts of cunning, calculated methods, techniques, ‘sciences’ that permit the fabrication of the disciplinary individual. In this central and centralized humanity, the effect and instruments of complex power relations, bodies and forces subjected by multiple mechanisms of ‘incarceration’, objects for discourses that are themselves elements for this strategy, we must hear the distant roar of battle.

(Foucault, 308)