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Why both fascists and liberals idolise Nietzsche

The doctrine of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is complex, contradictory and open to a range of different interpretations. As a result, his legacy has been adopted by both violent fascists and liberal pluralists. However, as James Pearson shows, the true Nietzsche lies somewhere in between these two opposed camps. PhD defence 15 February.

There are few things as controversial as the legacy of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Different political factions – from liberal to conservative, and from left to right – dispute the proper interpretation of his words. Each of them is convinced that their interpretation is correct, and that they and they alone understand what the great philosopher really meant.

Plaything of all convictions

Nietzsche’s work consequently became a plaything in the hands of politicians of all convictions. The Nazis and fascists used his work in their mission to break with the morality surrounding slavery. Everything that they believed weakened society – the handicapped, Jews, Communists - had to be eradicated. According to more liberal views, this is a false interpretation. Nietzsche actually advocates pluralism, on the grounds that the conflict engendered by diversity makes us stronger.  

In his PhD research James Pearson shows that both camps are to a certain extent right about Nietzsche’s philosophy: in his work the philosopher with his famous walrus moustache advocated two different forms of conflict. On the one hand, we as humans and society need measured conflict. You can compare this with two wrestlers who are evenly matched: each of them may be fighting to win, but this form of sparring ultimately means that both sportsmen become better wrestlers. What it comes down to is that you need some form of opposition in order to improve yourself.

War as a cultural stimulant

On the other hand, Nietzsche also advocates a kind of unmeasured conflict. For example, under certain conditions Nietzsche promotes war as a cultural stimulant, and at the psychological level of conflict between our desires, endorse struggles to eliminate problematic impulses.

Nietzsche regarded the human spirit – and society as a whole – as dual entities. ‘On the one hand you have to eat and order the food you digest within the hierarchy of your body in order to stay alive,’ Pearson says. ‘But on the other hand the body needs to excrete waste products from that food that you no longer need. The same principle could also apply at the level of a society or a country. A healthy society needs a combination of both options: incorporation, and excretion. According to Nietzsche, that is.’

James Pearson

Eradication or exclusion

However, this should not necessarily take the form of physical eradication or exclusion, such as the fascists and many nationalistic proponents of repatriation might argue. It can take the milder form of suppressing disruptive values through informed educational practices, and by promoting those that are more conducive to collective flourishing.

Ultimately, Nietzsche believes, the desire for power will result in a ‘healthy, hierarchical organisation’ in both our bodies and in society. Your strongest desires will shape and exploit your more subsidiary desires – whether as equal sparring partners or as dominant aggressors. In the same way, the strongest in society will dominate the weak with care, since they rely on their health and survival in order to survive themselves. Much like the head needs the body to survive.

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