Nietzsche’s Glance at the State: Socialism, Nationalism, Universalism

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democracy / justice / nationalism / Nietzsche / socialism / universal politics / utopia


In January of 1872, less than a year after Germany officially becomes a nation, Nietzsche gives a series of five lectures at the University of Basel on the future of our educational/cultural institutions. Six years later in section 8 of Human All Too Human we find Nietzsche discussing the future of political institutions and the fate of European nations. One of the questions that Nietzsche asks in his analysis of socialism, nationalism and democracy is whether or not these political orientations are strong enough for an affirmative investment in the development of cultural forces­, investments that one day will lead to institutions that address the true needs of all of humanity (476). Nietzsche always comments on different state organizations in terms of their speeds of evolution and lifespan.

Since all institutions are mortal, the relations of power between the citizens among themselves address a problem of the measurement of forces behind the repetition of a set of customs that guarantees the dominance of a state through the rigid adherence to one particular mode of cultural development (474). Arguing against sudden revolutionary change, Nietzsche proposes a slow evolution through inquiries utilizing the political concept of force along with a cultural program for the “gradual transformation of the mind” (452). Nietzsche insists that to begin to create the foundation for a politics of universal address, “the sense of justice must grow greater in everyone, the instinct for violence weaker” (452). In opposition to the passionate revolution of Rousseau, the task for free spirits will be one of moderation. Moderation is the becoming-decisive of thought and inquiry, and the free-spirit cultivates this quality by drawing potential energy to the promotion of spiritual objectives (464).

What may be even more complex for our examination is the fact that Nietzsche depicts socialism, nationalism and democracy to all have close affiliations and family resemblances. Socialism shows the dangers of the absolute state: it demands complete subservience of the individual through segmenting them as an organ of the community (473). It only appears in short reactionary bursts of terrorism because it has a short and violent lifespan. Nationalism is no better than socialism on this point, even if it has a mechanism to guarantee its duration. Nationalism imposes through education an unconscious reverence for the patria and its customs, and if it can instill a fiery conscience with honor, it can more easily ensure its reproduction in the following generation. The question of the benefits of nationalism and socialism must always be related back to the question of how strong these forms of government are internally and how much force they are capable of deploying for the affirmation of new goals, or as Nietzsche writes: “Whenever a great force exists­ even though it be the most dangerous ­mankind has to consider how to make of it an instrument for the attainment of its objectives” (446). If it is a question of justice, a socialist revolution will require a minor population ­the new generation ­to enter into a struggle with the dominant political state. Only after such a struggle—­like May ’68—can the two parties articulate a calculation of forces. Based on this measurement, the existing state will either be able to reincorporate the reactive forces into a new totality or will be forced creating a new compact to prevent mutual losses through violent struggle. Finally, this compact will be able to guarantee the rights for a new social order, rights that may have the potential to satisfy an axiom of justice.

Democracy adds another element that disrupts the previous theorization. For both socialism and nationalism presuppose a dominant set of customs that “distinguish between government and people as though there were here two distinct spheres of power, a stronger and higher and a weaker and lower” (450). Democracy, however, puts forth the idea that the government is merely an organ of the people who embody the state’s power in their essence. It is important to realize that this essence constitutes the way in which the relationship between people and government reflects the organizations of other cultural relationships (teacher-pupil, general-soldier, etc.) (450). However, Nietzsche also thinks that “modern democracy is the historical form of the decay of the state,” a decay that is in itself an affirmative process (472). Democracy eats away at the layers of the state and the stratified cultural relations that they entail. This decay allows for the free spirit to collect potential energy for the invention of different institutions that will provide for the prudence and self-interests of all men.

Nietzsche’s utopia would consist in a dissemination of labor throughout the population by means of measuring how much suffering a group of tasks would cause the sensibility of different types of people (462). This cannot be achieved realistically insofar as we lack the instruments to measure the differences of degree and the capacity that people have for enduring different forms of labor. But the idea is a beginning. It offers a vision of a compact that assures the rights of everyone through the development of a form of life that affirms in a radical way the potential energy behind individual suffering. This minimizes the individual’s suffering and promotes a strong sense of self-worth along with the promotion of a contribution to society. It is with this type of society that individuals are able to exist on a level plain of power: each individual is capable of the same amount of value in his or her production of force, and so each individual is judged according to an immanent set of criteria that does not negate their individuality. This is the true foundation for a justice, insofar as Nietzsche believes that only among equals can the sense of justice begin to develop.

–Taylor Adkins

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  1. It never ceases to amaze me when progressives and liberals try to dilute his philosophy in order to make it more palatable for the masses. Nietzsche despised democracy, especially in its modern, egalitarian, liberal form. The only good Nietzsche saw in democracy was in its potential to create the “perfect slaves” in the most subtle sense (serfs and wage slaves). He did not speak glowingly of the decay of the state. He believed that the state was necessary and good so long as it served those who were best over those who were worst. Nietzsche’s political philosophy was aristocratic and authoritarian. He believed in a social order of rank where the most prominent individuals and families rule. He believed that noble ranks should be granted by the state.

    Nietzsche also did not dream of any utopia. He saw democracy, liberalism, nationalism and socialism as representing egalitarian, utopian ideals that can never be realized. Furthermore, he believed that if these ideals were ever to be realized that they would render all of humanity into the perfect mediocre herd animals. Nietzsche’s worldview was very anti-utopian.

    Also, the “free spirits” he’s describing are not some romantic individualists. Instead, Nietzsche’s idea of the free spirit is best represented by figures like Goethe, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli, the Sophists and Thucydides.

  2. I was not trying to dilute Nietzche’s philosophy; the reference to utopia was taken from the title of Nietzsche’s aphorism in HATH (as I indicated in reference to #462): it reads

    MY UTOPIA. In a better arranged society the heavy work and trouble of life will be assigned to those who suffer least through it, to the most obtuse, therefore; and so step by step up to those who are most sensitive to the highest and sublimest kinds of suffering, and who therefore still suffer notwithstanding the greatest alleviations of life.

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