Marx and Nietzsche: Beyond the bourgeois world’s Yes’s and No’s

karl_marx Nietzsche


Friedrich Nietzsche was three years old in the revolutionary year of 1848, and while he doubtless had little idea of what was going on the reaction of his father Carl Ludwig Nietzsche, pastor of Röcken, to what took place in Germany was to become a formative memory. When news of events in Paris reached Prussia’s Frederick Wilhelm IV and revolutionaries were mobilising in Berlin, the monarch agreed to a number of concessions and appeared to sympathise with the masses. His proclamation ‘To my dear Berliners’ led to the withdrawal of troops from the capital’s streets and squares, much to the anger of General von Prittwitz and others who wanted to crush the rebels. When he appeared among the crowds, the King donned the black, red and gold cockade of the revolutionaries. Nietzsche senior’s reaction on reading a newspaper report about this, his son later recalled, was to collapse into tears.

Twenty-three years later, another revolutionary upheaval was to make a more direct impression on Nietzsche. In late May 1871, when Nietzsche was 26, the world’s first working-class government, the Paris Commune, was in the process of being crushed by the regular French army. Outnumbered by five to one, the revolutionary National Guard was retreating amidst fierce street fighting. Frustrated and hopeless, some of its units began torching public buildings, symbols of royal power. The destruction engulfed parts of the Tuileries Palace and destroyed the Richelieu library of the Louvre, which adjoined it.

For Nietzsche, the news was calamitous. “What does it mean to be a scholar, over and against such an earthquake of culture… how does this vocation look when a single, wretched day is enough to reduce the most precious documents…to ashes? This is the worst day of my life,” he wailed in a letter to Wilhelm Vischer, written the day before the fall of the Commune and as Communards were being massacred in their thousands. It took Wagner to tell him to get over himself.

These incidents are striking because they link experientially to Nietzsche’s political conservatism and lunging antipathy in relation to revolutionary socialism, and even to democracy in general. For some of Nietzsche’s later admirers, such as the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, such attitudes accorded with their own political outlooks. The Nazis capitalised on them too but went much further, getting just about everything else about Nietzsche infamously and wilfully wrong, thanks in part to the ruinous contribution to Nietzsche’s legacy of his sister, the noxious Elisabeth Föster-Nietzsche.

While in no way on the same tack, Curtis Cate’s 2002 biography of Nietzsche 1, though meticulous in its detail of Nietzsche’s migraine and neuroses-plagued creative adult life, all too eagerly piles on inconsequential reactionary asides from Cate’s own catalogue of gripes to illustrate what Nietzsche “would have thought” of things he had no possibility of knowing about: the atrocious views of Benjamin Spock, the insidious harm of multiculturalism, or the sheer awfulness of rap music. The danger of reading Nietzsche to support what we like or dislike about the world now is that we easily misunderstand what he was about when he was alive, and link him in various ways to later events and trends. Part of that retrospective linking takes us back to the way the Nazis misused Nietzsche, and it tends to put the blame on Nietzsche because he was misinterpreted, and it does so by misinterpreting him again, only from another direction.2

Take what Nietzsche writes in the last section of Ecce Homo, the famous passage ending “I am dynamite”. The Hungarian philosopher András Gedö wrote in his 1998 essay Why Marx or Nietzsche? 3 : “Nietzsche himself had a foreboding of the fateful consequences of his own philosophy: ‘There shall one day be attached to my name a reminder of something monstrous – of a crisis the like of which has never been on earth, of the deepest collision of conscience, of a decision against everything that up to now has been believed, demanded, kept holy. I am not a human being, I am dynamite.’” Gedö doesn’t spell out what “fateful consequences” he has in mind, but the implications are balefully plain.

Gedö seems to have translated this passage from the original German himself, as he gives as the reference for it volume two of the Werke, published in 1969. His is very similar to Hollingdale’s translation in the Penguin edition of Ecce Homo. The version of the passage in the edition translated by Antony Ludovici, published in 1911 in New York by the Macmillan Company, has a lighter, less apocalyptic feel about it: “…my name will recall the memory of something formidable…the passing of a sentence upon all that which hitherto had been believed, exacted and hallowed…”.4 It is tempting to see the more thunderous late 20th century translations as coloured by a post-WW2 sensibility that saw Nietzsche as highly incendiary. It fits with the stereotypes of Nietzsche as dangerous stuff we get in popular culture, typified by a hatched-faced Henry Rollins circa 1990, or the ubiquitous stern, goateed academic male “Nietzschean” (they’re always males) dressed in black.

The misinterpretation comes about in the way Gedö suggests that Nietzsche had an inkling of the way his work would be misused, and it is backed up by making the passage he quotes sound as grim as possible. Ending the quote at “I am dynamite” also gives the first part of it the necessary explosive finality. Boom! If we read on, though, it is clear that Nietzsche is striking many notes together. “I am horribly frightened that one day I shall be pronounced “holy”. You will understand why I publish this book beforehand – it is to prevent people from wronging me. I refuse to be a saint; I would rather be a clown. Maybe I am a clown.” (From the 1911 translation).

This gives an altogether different feel to the passage, and, typical of Nietzsche, it is not painted in just one colour, being by turns playful, sardonic, teasing and self-mocking in making a serious point. That point, which Gedö, and anyone else who leaves off at the word “dynamite”, ignores is Nietzsche’s introduction of his big plan, the project that he had in mind towards the end of his sane life – An Attempt at a Revaluation of all Values (“my formula for mankind’s greatest step towards coming to its senses.”). Seen in this light, the seismic shift that Nietzsche predicts his name will be associated with concerns a total overhaul of our system of values, of the way we look at the world and behave in life, and of the revolutionary change in human understanding this would entail. That’s the dynamite. It is not a presentiment of Auschwitz.

Gedö quotes the passage from Ecce Homo to show unreservedly that Nietzsche and Marx share no common ground and are mutually incompatible. He concludes that attempts at “reconciling Marx with Nietzsche” end up, after much useless circuitous effort, as a standoff between Nietzsche’s “nihilistic negating of knowledge, irrationalizing of dialectics, contempt for humanity, the exhilaration of the master morality and of the superman… ‘philosophizing with a hammer’”, and Marx’s “grasping the historical necessities of capitalist society and the historical necessity of overcoming it, dealing with the real social crisis…with concepts of knowledge and reality.” All of which goes to show that “Marx is the alternative to Nietzsche’s philosophy.”

Gedö’s article is a good starting point for looking at the relationship between the ideas of Marx and Nietzsche. He is one of the few Marxist writers to give an overview of how Nietzsche has been used by other Marxist (or Marx-influenced) thinkers and to ask if their doing so had any value. As we see, he concludes emphatically that it did not.

The charges against Nietzsche that Gedö lists are very much in step with caricatures of Nietzsche rooted in hostile second-hand accounts and popular misconceptions, quite remote from the content of Nietzsche’s works. It’s not hard to rebut them: Nietzsche’s pinpointing the way knowledge has been deployed down the ages shows that “everything has evolved…there are no eternal facts” (Human All Too Human 1, 2). But this is not to negate knowledge, only to show how it is situated. He does something similar with morality, but holds very strong views about how people should and should not treat each other. His work is suffused with dialectical thinking in various ways. He has contempt for humanity’s base behaviour, but is far from being misanthropic or an advocate of tyranny. The ‘superman’ is a misreading and mistranslation of Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘overman’, the person who overcomes his or her encumbered “human nature”. And the famous philosophising with a hammer is not Nietzsche wielding a sledgehammer amidst the ruins of the academy but rather using a sounding hammer “as with a tuning fork” for “sounding out idols” (Twilight of the Idols, Preface).

If Gedö’s view of Nietzsche rests on misconceptions that he uses credulously to argue why Nietzsche has nothing in common with Marx or why it is impossible usefully to draw on Nietzsche in a Marxist worldview, then his argument about their incompatibility falls flat. On the other hand, his characterisations of Nietzsche are so like a series of straw man arguments that if we only rely on refuting them to demonstrate that there is the scope for Marx 5 and Nietzsche to share the same space, we’re being disingenuous.

Gedö’s characterisation of Nietzsche may be false, but that doesn’t mean his overall argument is wrong. So much that is fundamental to Nietzsche’s thought conflicts with any sort of Marxist approach to the world. Obviously so. Gedö looks at how ranks of philosophers, for the most part writing in the 1960s and 1970s, when Nietzsche was under rehabilitation, variously used Nietzsche’s work, or tried to. How far can we reconcile, acknowledge the relatedness or attempt a conjunction of Marx and Nietzsche? Gedö says we can’t – not without undermining Marx. He has a point. There are many aspects about the two thinkers ideas that are palpably at odds with one another, which can make talk of reconciling Marx and Nietzsche appear mildly dim-witted.

Strip their perspectives down to their essentials and they jar and clang against one another. Marx and Engels’ problem setter in the Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” eventually resolves when society is “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.” Blindside this with Nietzsche’s assertion, in The Use and Abuse of History for Life, that: “The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens.” (The word ‘specimens’ perhaps carries a eugenic sounding nuance of the kind that got the Nazis so excited, Some translations use ‘examples’ or ‘exemplars’.) Walter Kaufmann wrote of this: “Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence.”

Of course, from Nietzsche’s side there is much more that places him against Marxism in general terms. He railed against socialists and seekers of equality, against the “democratic movement [which is] not merely a decadent form of political organisation but a decadent (that is to say, diminished) form of the human being, one that mediocritizes him and debases his value…”. (Beyond Good and Evil, 203). And if his sympathies lay with any social class, it was with the aristocracy prior to its decline in the late 18th century. If Nietzsche had come across the Communist Manifesto, he would have probably laughed and chucked it in Sils Lake, though there is no direct reference to it in his writings (Cate suggests that he did read it but is vague on the point) nor evidence that he even knew of the existence of Marx and Engels. Of early 20th century attempts by various “socialists” to co-opt Nietzsche, Curtis Cate, who sees no distinction between the emerging National Socialists and communists of the Weimar years in Germany, wrote “…extraordinary feats of intellectual gymnastics were needed to reconcile Nietzsche’s detestation of the ‘herd’ with twentieth-century Socialism – with the help of quotations from The Will to Power.”

Gedö scorns Michel Foucault’s combining aspects of Marx and Nietzsche in his work for sacrificing Marx’s theory “to the fetish of interpretation of the Nietzschean epistemology”. But he doesn’t explain how Foucault does this or how Marx’s theory is thereby so degraded. He also doesn’t bother with Foucault’s creative and innovative use of their ideas in his discussion of power and resistance, where Nietzsche’s will to power and Marx’s analysis of how material realities shape us combine in analyses of the power dynamics of coercive or disciplinary institutions. This is just one example of how the ideas of the two thinkers have been used in ways that build on their contributions without undermining them or trying to ignore their incompatibility in other respects.

In the academic world just as everywhere else we use the works of heavyweight thinkers eclectically, often without paying much attention to, or feeling that we have to go along with, what these thinkers considered to be their central ideas on which most if not all else hinged. The more remote the original source, the easier it is to use it in whatever context we want. No one feels the need to accept, say, Plato’s theory of Forms when we cite passages from The Republic or The Laws to illustrate some piece of analysis of the modern state. The allegation “But you’re quoting him out of context!” doesn’t really deter us, though perhaps in some instances it should.

Or rather it should if we haven’t bothered to find out what Plato was concerned with more broadly. We can say the same about using bits of Marx and Nietzsche without taking account of their central ideas. The internet in particular is awash with inspirational quotes fashioned from little snippets of their writings selected randomly. They are perfectly in sync with each other because they are devoid of context. No one reading them has any idea of what they relate to or why they were written in the first place. They exist online simply to enhance the feel-good cretinism of market culture. But if we want to use Marx and Nietzsche together to any meaningful or useful extent, we have to do so in context, fully aware of how incompatible they are on a range of core ideas on which there is no point looking for reconciliation.

A prominent theme in Nietzsche’s work is, as we saw earlier, his visceral contempt for socialists and revolutionaries. How far can we locate this political conservatism, or what nowadays comes across as blindly reactionary, in his being an indirect witness to revolutionary events that left a profoundly negative sensibility in him? The linkage is not fanciful. Nietzsche’s great admirer and correspondent, the Danish critic and scholar Georg Brandes was always candid with Nietzsche about what he thought of Nietzsche’s books. He seems, though, to have hardly ever taken issue with anything Nietzsche wrote, except in a letter written in 1887: “I am a little hurt, however, at the offhand and impetuous pronouncements against such phenomena as socialism and anarchism. The anarchism of Prince Kropotkin, for instance is no stupidity.”6

Nietzsche’s characterisations of socialists and other revolutionaries are simplistic and hot headed, as Brandes noticed. His views on women, often criticised as misogynistic, could be far more nuanced and varied, such as in Book 2 § 71 of the Gay Science where he analyses the cruel social conditioning of women in matters of chastity and marriage. But when it came to political radicals, Nietzsche really had a blind spot. Of course, Nietzsche apparently also had no knowledge of socialist intellectual thought, such as the philosophy of historical materialism or sequential historical class relations and class struggles. As it was, radical revolutionaries were purely motivated by envy and ressentiment. Had Nietzsche offered an insightful and knowledgeable critique of socialism and socialist theory he would at least seem on firmer ground, but because his views on the subject are easy to challenge it is also feasible to overlook them to some extent. This does not make him any more compatible with Marx, but it clears the ground somewhat when we consider areas they have in common.

There are many areas where there is a complementary relationship between Marx and Nietzsche, and where in particular Nietzsche’s thought either has a sort of parallel relationship with Marx’s or can even usefully enhance it, and to some extent even the practice of Marxism in the real political world.

As many others have pointed out, the two thinkers are compelling for the way they strip away surface appearances and expose the inner workings of – for Marx – society and – for Nietzsche – individuals. They both reveal those surface appearances as expressions of ulterior, often inconspicuous or masked dynamics, for example class struggle in Marx’s case and the will to power in Nietzsche’s. However differently they approach these particular dynamics, we find that Nietzsche often adds detail and dimension to subjects described differently by Marx. There is room in analyses of class struggle for appreciation of Nietzsche’s ideas on the will to power, not just in general terms but within specific areas of the human interactions within property relations, the points of production and distribution and the processes within the superstructure.

Perhaps one reason why this is possible is their similarity of context and intellectual disposition and background. Both men were atheists and materialists. They were steeped in ancient Greek philosophy and literature.7 Both were grappling with the unfolding changes of modernity, and stemming from this their general terrain is distinctly anti-bourgeois, “beyond the bourgeois world and its Yes’s and No’s” wrote Nietzsche of himself in Beyond Good and Evil (§34), though he could have been speaking for Marx. Both thinkers rejected the moral presuppositions and conventions of their time. Marx located them in the class interests of a historically transitory mode of production. Nietzsche also saw them as historically determined, but differently:

“ Custom represents the experiences of men of earlier times in regard to what they considered as useful and harmful; but the feeling of custom (morality) does not relate to these feelings as such, but to the age, the sanctity and the unquestioned authority of the custom. Hence this feeling hinders our acquiring new experiences and amending morals: i.e. morality is opposed to the formation of new and better morals: it stupefies” (Dawn, 19).

There are parallels, partial overlaps and complementary ideas particularly in their ideas on religion. Marx views religion as “the reflex of the real world” (Capital, Vol 1, Section 4). It is “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again”. Further:

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right).

Some of the ways these “illusions” are produced and enacted in the performance of religion are prominent in Christianity and particularly those aspects of it that Nietzsche dwells on at various points. Marx writes of religion in general terms describing the way it functions systemically in emasculating human potential, but Nietzsche gives us examples. Much of what he writes about Christianity concerns how it functions mendaciously:

“The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed to them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded (Will to Power, 191).
“…the value of existence is transferred to single high tension states of inactivity (prayer, effusion etc.).” (Will to Power, 192).
“How little Christianity educates the sense of honesty and justice can be seen pretty well from the writings of its scholars: they advance their conjectures as blandly as dogmas and are hardly ever honestly perplexed by the exegesis of a Biblical verse. Again and again they say ‘I am right, for it is written,’ and the interpretation that follows is of such impudent arbitrariness that a philologist is stopped in his tracks, torn between anger and laughter, and keeps asking himself: Is it possible? Is this honest? Is it even decent?’” (Dawn, 84).

Nietzsche shows how the morality fashioned and disseminated by the Christian church works to create the illusions that distort the “self-consciousness and self-esteem” of people that Marx refers to. This is not to suggest that if you put Marx and Nietzsche together in this way, you get a definitive view of religion, or at least the Christian facet of it. There are anyway many people who would describe their views as Marxist who support the ideas of radical liberation theology that emerged well after Marx and Nietzsche.

Both Marx and Nietzsche viewed moral values as relative to the different contexts that give rise to them, including – for Nietzsche – the way Christianity generates debilitating moral prescripts. Nietzsche devotes far more space in his works to the origins of moral values, their role as expedients and, crucially in relation to the will to power. He expounds on the latter in the wonderful section of Thus Spake Zarathustra titled The Thousand and One Goals: “Values did man only assign to things in order to maintain himself – he created the significance of things, a human significance! Therefore he called himself ‘man’ – that is, the valuator” (Thus Spake Zarathustra 1, 15)

In the earlier work Human All too Human he focuses in the first part on different aspects of this, including likening moral values to a belief in astrology:

“It is probable that the objects of religious, moral, aesthetic and logical sentiment likewise belong only to the surface of things, while man believes that here, at least, he has touched the heart of the world… astrology believes that the firmament moves round the destiny of man; the moral man, however takes it for granted that what he has essentially at heart must also be the essence and heart of things” (Human All Too Human 1 §4).

Marx does not discuss moral values anywhere at any length. He attacks capitalism for its exploitation and immiseration of the working class, and shows that this is a feature of the irrationality of the system, being part of its eventual undoing. In general, though, Marx avoids criticizing capitalism on moral grounds. Instead, he locates morality within the ideology of materially derived social action:

“The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. (…) Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. (…) The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

It therefore makes little sense to waste much breath berating and complaining at the ruling class for actions that are part of its normative moral framework. Marx seems to say as much when in 1875 he slammed the call in the draft manifesto of the United Workers’ Party of Germany for a fair distribution of the proceeds of labour:

“What is ‘a fair distribution’? Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only ‘fair’ distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise out of economic ones? Have not also the socialist sectarians the most varied notions about “fair” distribution?”

It’s one of the few times Marx refers to the contingency of values and the pointlessness of using bourgeois values to weigh socialist demands. Marx unloads plenty of sarcasm and irony onto his class opponents elsewhere and it constitutes a form of moral criticism, but he doesn’t appeal explicitly to notions of “justice” and “fairness”. Nietzsche does the same in many respects, heaping scorn down on Christians, nationalists, anti-Semites and the like, but in some respects he tries to steer clear of the dominant values of his day and in his later work is well on the way to his transvaluation of all values. He tends to lash out at his pet hates, but the many aphorisms he devotes to analyzing the origins and generation of values can be usefully read alongside what Marx has to say about their bases in the historical material world. The two approaches don’t coincide neatly and automatically – why would they? – but they do enhance one another. They also do this in a negative fashion by not taking a reflexive approach to their own suppositions and preconceptions regarding the precepts from which they approach their material. This problem is such a common failing in scholarship that it would seem pointless to stress it here were it not for Marx and Nietzsche’s insistence on doing the opposite.

In other areas too we find crossovers between Nietzsche and Marx, though, again, it is not a question of reconciling them. Take Nietzsche’s approach to change. Gilles Deleuze argued, not altogether successfully, that there is no dialectical content in Nietzsche, and that we see this in the concepts such as the Overman, the transvaluation of values. “Not all relations between ‘same’ and ‘other’ are sufficient to form a dialectic,” wrote Deleuze in Nietzsche and Philosophy. What he means is that Nietzsche does not contain the thesis-antithesis-synthesis combo attributed to Hegel. The approach is a mainstay of Marxist method, which uses it reflexively to describe the effects of the relationship between coexisting divergent phenomena that lead to qualitative change.

Nietzsche’s approach is often to posit opposite ideas and take divergent stands, a kind of dialectical dualism but not one that results in an elevated synthesis at the end. Divergence is most clearly seen in love between two people, even self-love, which “presupposes an irreconcilable duality (or plurality) in one person” (Human All too Human, 2 §75). We don’t get a single view of things, but one where they work in conflict with one another within processes of and generating constant change. This is reminiscent of Heraclitus’ coincidence of opposites. Change in Nietzsche echoes Heraclitus ideas of impermanence and flux: “As they step into the same rivers, others and still other waters flow upon them”, more freely and famously rendered as “One cannot step twice into the same river…”.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra builds on this:

“When the water hath planks, when gangways and railings o’erspan the stream, verily, he is not believed who then saith: ‘All is in flux.’ But even the simpletons contradict him… ‘Over the stream all is stable, all the values of things, the bridges and bearings, all “good” and “evil”: these are all stable!’” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 56, §8).

It’s not, of course, and other forces create a situation where everything comes crashing down, after which Zarathustra says:

“O my brethren, is not everything at present in flux? Have not all railings and gangways fallen into the water? Who would still hold on to ‘good’ and ‘evil’?” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 3, 56)

Where Marx shows how values and ideas are shaped by the “ruling material force in society” that itself is impermanent, Nietzsche looks at the inner process of change that transform them. The two approaches and the way they are explored diverge, and yet here we can stand back and view their linkages, and, if we wish, crack them open, take them forward.

There are other such links and parallel lines: the internationalism of the two thinkers, for Marx a global imperative of working class solidarity, for Nietzsche a united Europe under a European League of Nations. For both, the trend is of national boundaries lowered and surpassed by transnational interests. This is a main theme in Marx’s work, how capitalism and the bourgeoisie runs riot around the world. “National differences are antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market…”. In the identity of interests of the working class “The working men have no country” (Communist Manifesto, Part 2).

Nietzsche does not concur, but he echoes the point in his own way: “Commerce and industry, interchange of books and letters, the universality of all higher culture, the rapid changing of locality and landscape… these circumstances necessarily bring with them a weakening, and finally a destruction of nationalities, at least of European nationalities (Human All to Human, Part 1, 475)”. In the Gay Science he characterizes this European internationalism as being “homeless in a distinctive and honourable sense”, an antithesis of “the national scabies of the heart and blood poisoning that now leads the nations of Europe to delimit and barricade themselves against each other as if it were a matter of quarantine”.

Instead of a working class without nations, Nietzsche’s “homeless” are his “modern men” who “are too manifold and mixed racially” and do not “feel tempted to participate in the mendacious racial self-admiration and racial indecency that parades in Germany today” (Gay Science, 377). Apart from making one wonder just how much of Nietzsche the Nazis actually bothered to read, Nietzsche’s internationalism comes across as a progressive impulse. In the Wanderer and His Shadow he takes a different apparently less antagonistic view of democracy than he usually does, viewing a democracy of the future as something that “tries to create and guarantee independence for as many as possible in their opinions, way of life and occupation.” (Wanderer and His Shadow, 293).

Part of the problem with an analysis such as Gedö’s is that it posits a “why Marx and not Nietzsche” approach when – setting aside what other philosophers attempted in the late 20th century – there is no need to. Drawing on Nietzsche’s views on a wide range of issues need not detract from how we might use Marx’s work in understanding and then acting in the world around us. Whether or not the philosophers who sought to incorporate aspects of the two thinkers in new efforts of interpretation succeeded without “sacrificing” the ideas of either seems unimportant. No one has a final say. The ideas of the two thinkers remain available to us unmediated and intact whenever we want them.

The approach I’ve taken here is weighted to some of the ways that Nietzsche’s ideas and writings illuminate or add a complementary contrast to some of Marx’s main concerns. Nietzsche as a philosophy of life, as a trove of psychological insight into how we do and how we can live is not by necessity at odds with Marx’s philosophy of social change or for that matter with how politically active Marxists might live their lives. Marx is not concerned with how we should, can and do behave. Today’s Marxists, particularly those who are politically engaged and active, could usefully heed Nietzsche’s views of the debilitating and corrosive effects of ressentiment in their ad hominem moralizing about the bourgeoisie. It takes us back to Marx’s WTF-do-you-expect exasperation with the Gotha Programme’s call for “fair distribution”. In a similar vein, Nietzsche’s analysis of pity is a good guide to why international solidarity and not “development aid” should prevail in relations between the global North and South:

“It is the very essence of the emotion of pity that it strips away from the suffering of others whatever is distinctly personal. Our ‘benefactors’ are, more than our enemies, people who make our worth and will smaller. When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you.” Gay Science, Book Four § 338.

With Nietzsche I often get the feeling that if he hadn’t been so upset by the spectre of social revolution he might have taken a different view of class relations. Sometimes he almost seems to get it right, or at least right enough perhaps to keep our class opponents awake at night: “The exploitation of the worker was, as we now understand, a piece of folly, a robbery at the expense of the future, a jeopardisation of society. We almost have the war now, and in any case the expense of maintaining peace, of concluding treaties and winning confidence, will henceforth be very great, because the folly of the exploiters was very great and long-lasting.” (Wanderer and His Shadow, 286).

Mark Waller

Thanks to Emrys Westacott of Alfred University, New York, for checking this article and for his useful comments and suggestions.


1. Curtis Cate Friedrich Nietzsche, Hutchinson, Londom 2002. I have used Cate’s biography for some of the anecdotal information I use here, which I have supplemented from other sources.
2. Slavoj Žižek writes in Intellectuals, Not Gadflies, in Critical Inquiry 34/5 2008: “Is it not too simple to relieve Nietzsche of responsibility by claiming that the Nazis distorted his thought? Of course they did, but so did Stalinism distort Marx, so was every theory changed (betrayed) in its practico-political application, and a Hegelian point to be made here is that, in such cases, the “truth” is not simply on the side of theory. What if the attempt to actualize a theory renders visible the objective content of this theory, concealed from the gaze of the theorist himself?” To which we could reply: what if the objective content of Nietzsche’s “theory” is unrelated to how the Nazis actualized it?
3. Nature, Society, and Thought, vol. 11, no. 3 (1998): 331–346.
4. In his seminal work Nietzsche – Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann writes that Ludovici’s translations of Nietzsche could be hopelessly inaccurate, but here I’m more concerned to draw attention to the style of the passage quoted.
5. I refer to Marx alone when often it would be more accurate to speak of Marx and Engels.
6. Georg Brandes Friedrich Nietzsche, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1915.
7. For much more on this see George E. McCarthy’s study Dialectics and Decadence – Echoes of Antiquity in Marx and Nietzsche, Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

About Mark Waller

a freelance journalist and translator from Finnish to English, currently living in South Africa. Mark has been freelancing for Finnish media and organisations since the early 1990s, and mainly focuses on issues to do with overseas development, foreign policy, social policy and the EU, and Southern Africa. Waller has visited the Southern African region frequently in the 1990s and early 2000s, and for the last 10 years has been based in South Africa, where he has covered aspects of the transition to democracy for Finnish papers and magazines.
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