Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche - Edvard Munch (1906)
Nietzsche is easily misunderstood, not least by those with racist and fascist leanings. In the latest high-profile example of this time-honoured tradition, Richard Spencer, the leader of the Alt-Right, whose cry “Hail Trump! Hail our People! Hail Victory!” at a Washington meeting to celebrate Trump’s election was met by Nazi salutes from his supporters, claims to have been “red-pilled” by Nietzsche. In Alt-Right speak, to be “red-pilled” is to have a sort of awakening from the lies one has been living under to see a new reality: the scales have been lifted from one’s eyes. The cultural reference is The Matrix, where the main character Neo (Keanu Reeves), is offered the choice between a blue pill and a red pill by the rebel leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): the blue pill to continue living a pleasant and docile life within the Matrix, the red pill to wake-up and realise you were living in a digital dream, with your life-forces being drained to sustain the mechanical overlords.
It is Nietzsche’s classic text, On the Genealogy of Morality, written in 1887, that Spencer cites as the source of his awakening. There Nietzsche famously divided the world into two moralities – “master” and “slave” morality – which have been battling it out for supremacy from ancient times to our present day. Master morality was the morality of the Ancient Greek and Romans, who celebrated their own power, courage, truth and nobility. They were the “good”, whereas the others, the mediocre and unremarkable, were the “bad”. Slave morality, on the other hand, rejects master morality and instead affirms all it is opposed to, namely meekness, humility, and timidity. Instead of being “bad”, it is the mediocre who are in fact the true “good” – “the meek shall inherit the earth” – and the old good are no longer just “bad”, they are now “evil”, because they freely chose to treat the downtrodden in that way. Spencer’s awakening was to realise that all the American values he had been taught to love – liberty, democracy, equality – are in fact just slave values that are keeping the true American people down. Spencer had a privileged upbringing in Dallas: his mother is the heiress to cotton farms in Louisiana, and his father is a respected Dallas ophthalmologist. He is an only child. It’s against the sort of “good-ol’-boy” conservatism of the Texas South he is reacting. Unlike other Trump supporters, Spencer and the Alt-Right do not desire to return to some idealised past. He wants to make American great again, but not by winding the clock back. For him the history of the US since its Founding Fathers has been one of decadence, of civilizational suicide through the spreading of slave morality. His vision, if it might be called that, is a futuristic one. His ideal for America is to transform it into a white, Christian “ethno-state”.
Nietzsche, like many before him, also critiqued the cultural decadence of Europe, particularly Germany. That critique of decadence, egalitarianism and democracy is what draws Spencer and his Alt-Right ilk to Nietzsche’s work. Nietzsche’s work is immensely evocative and provocative: the reader often has the sense he is writing directly for them. Like all great thinkers he is dangerous – think of the association with totalitarianism of thinkers from Plato to Rousseau and Marx – and in Nietzsche’s case this is deliberate: in his “autobiography” Ecce Homo (1888), he declares himself to be “dynamite”. So Nietzsche is always going to be a – rather superficial – draw for those who consider themselves subversive or rebels to the established order, and associating with him offers a degree of intellectual veneer or polish that might not otherwise be forthcoming.
But Nietzsche also explicitly denounced the Christianity Spencer seems to want to affirm. Christianity, for Nietzsche, is a manifestation of slave-morality: indeed the first “slave-revolt in morality” came about precisely when the Jewish-Christian priests rebelled against their Roman rulers. So isn’t there a tension between Spencer wanting to reject “slave morality” and yet affirm Christianity?
He doesn’t see it that way. An avowed atheist, for Spencer what is important about Christianity is not its values as such, but rather the identity it provides. True Americans, for Spencer, are not just a certain type of “Caucasian” race as they are often defined in the US, but they have a specific identity. That identity is to be white Americans of European descent, whose religion is Christianity. It is not really Christianity that Spencer is interested in, but rather, we might say, Christendom, and the identity that goes with it: his “white identity politics” is in some sense the mirror-image of “liberal identity politics”. It is the civilisation that Christianity is meant to represent – namely white Europeans – that he wants to defend, not “turning the other cheek”.
Quite the opposite. Although he claims neither to be a fascist nor to promote violence, in that infamous “Hail Trump” speech he explained the world as a great Darwinian struggle between the white man and the rest of the world. In this he echoes certain white supremacist language that has long roots in America, stretching back at least to the KKK. But it also ties him to developments within the Far-Right in Europe. Spencer, after all, spent a couple of years living in Munich and working at the Bavarian State Opera, teaching himself German and absorbing as much Wagner as he could: he owns a mountain chalet in Montana, as close as you can get in America to the postcard image of Tyrol.
Because of the failures of the Nazis and fascists during WWII, the European Far-Right today, especially as it has been theorised in France (Alain de Benoist), Italy (Julius Evola) and Russia (Aleksandr Dugin) has somewhat changed its tune in terms of how it presents itself. It no longer overtly claims that the white European race is superior and should conquer all; rather, it defends the idea that every race should have its own natural “sphere of existence”, and that this sphere should remain pure and free of outside influence. In this way, each race can grow to reach its own heights. This explains why Spencer can claim in his speech that the white race does not “exploit other groups” (although the truth comes back in through the back door when he adds that “they need us, and not the other way around”). The white man’s struggle is to “overcome, overcome it all…Because for us, as Europeans, it is normal again when we are great again”.
The Nietzschean language of overcoming – close to his ideal of the Übermensch, the “overman”, who will overcome modern man – should not blind us to the fact that such views, as any serious reader of Nietzsche will know, are in fact very far from Nietzsche’s own. Although Nietzsche’s politics is most often debated within the context of the twentieth century, we would do well to remember that he was in fact writing at the end of the nineteenth: his time was Bismarck’s not Hitler’s. But the type of white, ethno-state Christendom Spencer defends isn’t very far from the German Reich Bismarck set out to achieve. It was this “great politics” of blood and iron, based on German nationalism, xenophobia and Protestantism that Nietzsche explicitly rejected in his work: his 1886 text Beyond Good and Evil, for which the Genealogy served as an “appendix”, springs particularly to mind. For Nietzsche, Bismarck’s Realpolitik or power politics weren’t great at all, but rather an example of “petty politics”, springing from the slave morality of the rejection of the other and the lauding of all things small: philistinism, xenophobia and European fragmentation. Nor did Nietzsche have much truck with so-called Aryan “purity”: his vision was for a united Europe to create a new European culture, led by “good Europeans” who were to be a mixture of the Prussian military officer and the European Jew – hardly the mixing, one might suspect, Spencer would like to see (although he might like the first part of that equation).
In rejecting Christian values as slave values, Spencer seems to have taken on board Nietzsche’s notion of the “Death of God”: that we no longer share a common transcendental understanding – Christianity – of the world that can ground our actions. But in wanting to defend Christendom, he doesn’t manage to move out of what Nietzsche called the “Shadows of God”: he persists in wanting to live as if God still existed. In Spencer’s case that takes a certain form. For Nietzsche, as a nineteenth century German, “God” was Christianity, and it was this foundation that was being eroded: he didn’t give much thought to the extra-European world. Spencer too thinks that this is gone, but what unites Americans – or certainly those he considers to be Americans – is their joint white European Christian heritage. Of course, the (vast) majority of white Americans do not share his view, and Spencer recognizes that this identity won’t appeal to everyone. Given the struggle for world domination, it’s not meant to. Spencer claims he does not want to return to the past, but what he is in fact proposing is just an updated version of the Far-Right: the ancestry to Nazism and fascism isn’t hard to trace. Nietzsche’s point with the “Death of God” was that now humankind had to come up with new values determining how to live. In proposing to reassert a white Christian ethno-state, Spencer is not offering anything new; rather his reading of Nietzsche is an exemplary case of what G.K. Chesterton pithily termed “the art of missing the point.” God might be dead, but we have yet to step out into the light. Hugo Drochon is an historian of late nineteenth and twentieth century political thought based at the University of Nottingham, with interests in continental political thought, democratic theory, liberalism and political realism. He writes for The New Statesman and The Guardian, and his book Nietzsche’s Great Politics was published by Princeton University Press in 2016. @HDrochon