The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stands among the canon’s most-cited figures, with aphorisms dotting texts on a variety of topics, and his name evokes strong responses from almost anyone who has ever heard of him. His aphoristic and poetic writing style have made it difficult at times to understand what he meant, although the wealth of commentaries pulling him in a variety of different directions points to the fact that he did mean something. On the political right he has been credited as an influence among many reactionary political movements, but even on the left he is cited as an emancipatory figure, suspicious of the powers that be. Aside from these, his writings on art and psychology have remained influential for many. It would seem then that there are numerous Nietzsche’s one can pull from, and due to the loose nature of his writing, one would seem to be warranted in reading Nietzsche a bit more freely. However, that freedom and flexibility misses that there may in fact be a unifying thread to Nietzsche’s thought, and it may in fact be a much darker thread than many of his apologists have realized.
This is the main argument of the book we’ll be discussing today, Domenico Losurdo’s Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel: Intellectual Biography and Balance Sheet. Originally published about 20 years ago in Italian, it has recently been delivered to English audiences by Gregor Benton and with an introduction by Harrison Fluss as part of the Historical Materialism book series. Clocking in at just over 1000 pages, it is both a literal and figurative bombshell, delivering a rigorous and systematic account of Nietzsche’s thought. A major part of the books length comes from the fact that Losurdo refuses to treat Nietzsche in isolation, and instead spends a large amount of time recreating Nietzsche’s various contexts, 19th century Germany and Europe more broadly, as a way of making the political orientation of Nietzsche’s thought all the more explicit. Through his investigation, Losurdo reveals a Nietzsche who is committed to fighting against the democratic movements happening all around him and being an advocate for a superior elite at the expense of everyone else, whose main purpose in life is to serve them.
Context is important to any biography, including intellectuals often assumed to be above the fray of their own times. Losurdo’s work goes above and beyond in placing Nietzsche in context, although what sets this book apart from other commentaries is how and why he uses this context. Usually, placing a thinker back into their time has the effect of toning down remarks and ideas that have aged poorly. Comments that have aged poorly are shown to have been commonplace in the time they were originally made, and may have even been progressive by older standards. That does not happen here. Instead, placing Nietzsche in context allows Losurdo to show that Nietzsche was not simply a product of reactionary times, but was instead a committed reactionary fighting the progress happening all around him. Losurdo also shows that there is a particular genius to Nietzsche not shared by many of his contemporaries; he had a keen awareness of what was going on around him, and understood what would be required to combat the emancipatory movements he saw. It was this understanding that sets Nietzsche apart from various other thinkers who have certain reactionary elements, but do not have the level of consistency or depth that Nietzsche had. Where other thinkers fall short, Nietzsche holds fast and stands as one committed to a deeply antidemocratic society for the few, unapologetic in his intensity, and worth studying for saying the quiet part loud.
Many books have come out on reactionary politics in the last few years; few manage to be as systematic, rigorous and thorough as Losurdo’s. It’s a work of scholarship that absolutely deserves to be read and wrestled with for those interested in the biggest social and political problems of our time. It will be of interest not just to those interested in Nietzsche studies, but German and European historians, political and cultural theorists and all those committed to better understanding some of the intellectual trends of our times. Currently the book is only available in a very expensive hardcover, but a paperback edition from Haymarket is on the way, and will be deeply rewarding to all those who decide to take the challenge to get through it. Losurdo was a scholar of the highest caliber, and this book is a testament to both his scholarly commitment to depth and rigor, as well as his political commitment to the emancipation of all those suffering under our present situation.
Domenico Losurdo was an Italian Marxist historian and philosopher.
Harrison Fluss received his PhD in philosophy at Stony Brook University. He is a professor at Manhattan College, NYC and wrote the introduction to the English edition of The Aristocratic Rebel.
Daniel Tutt studied at American University and the European Graduate School. He teaches in the philosophy department at George Washington University. He reviewed The Aristocratic Rebel for Historical Materialism.
Ronald Beiner studied political theory at McGill University and Balliol College, and has been a professor of political science at the University of Toronto since 1984.