×

The alt-right is drunk on bad readings of Nietzsche. The Nazis were too.

White nationalist Richard Spencer (C) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the 'Unite the Right' rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Getty Images
White nationalist Richard Spencer (C) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the 'Unite the Right' rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"You could say I was red-pilled by Nietzsche."

That's how white nationalist leader Richard Spencer described his intellectual awakening to the Atlantic's Graeme Wood in June. "Red-pilled" is a common alt-right term for that "eureka moment" one experiences upon confrontation with some dark and previously buried truth.

For Spencer and other alt-right enthusiasts of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that dark truth goes something like this: All the modern pieties about race, peace, equality, justice, civility, universal suffrage — that's all bullshit. These are constructs cooked up by human beings and later enshrined as eternal truths.

More from Vox:
Why Trump's Charlottesville crisis is shocking but not surprising
This expert on political violence thinks Trump is making neo-Nazi attacks more likely
I'm a black Southerner. I had to go abroad to see a statue celebrating black liberation.

Nietzsche says the world is in constant flux, that there is no capital-T truth. He hated moral and social conventions because he thought they stifled the individual. In one of his most famous essays, The Genealogy of Morality, which Spencer credits with inspiring his awakening, Nietzsche tears down the intellectual justifications for Christian morality. He calls it a "slave morality" developed by peasants to subdue the strong. The experience of reading this was "shattering," Spencer told Wood. It upended his "moral universe."

There is, of course, much more to Nietzsche than this. As someone silly enough to have written a dissertation on Nietzsche, I've encountered many Spencer-like reactions to his thought. And I'm not surprised that the old German philosopher has become a lodestar for the burgeoning alt-right movement. There is something punk rock about his philosophy. You read it for the first time and you think, "Holy shit, how was I so blind for so long?!"

But if you read Nietzsche like a college freshman cramming for a midterm, you're bound to misinterpret him — or at least to project your own prejudices into his work. When that happens, we get "bad Nietzsche," as the Week's Scott Galupo recently put it.

And it would appear that "bad Nietzsche" is back, and he looks a lot like he did in the early 20th century when his ideas were unjustly appropriated by the (original) Nazis. So now's a good time to re-engage with Nietzsche's ideas and explain what the alt-right gets right and wrong about their favorite philosopher.

The obsession with decline

In her recent book about the rise of the alt-right, Irish academic Angela Nagle discusses their obsession with civilizational decay. "They're disgusted by what they consider a degenerate culture," she told me in a recent interview.

Nietzsche made these same arguments more than one hundred years ago. The story he tells in The Genealogy of Morality is that Christianity overturned classical Roman values like strength, will, and nobility of spirit. These were replaced with egalitarianism, community, humility, charity, and pity. Nietzsche saw this shift as the beginning of a grand democratic movement in Western civilization, one that championed the weak over the strong, the mass over the individual.

The alt-right — or at least parts of the alt-right — are enamored with this strain of Nietzsche's thought. The influential alt-right blog Alternative Right refers to Nietzsche as a great "visionary" and published an essay affirming his warnings about cultural decay.

"Future historians will likely look back on the contemporary West as a madhouse," the essay's author writes, "where the classic virtues of heroism, high culture, nobility, self-respect, and reason had almost completely disappeared, along with the characteristics of adulthood generally."

Christianity is wrong, Christendom is right

In his interview with the Atlantic, Spencer, an avowed atheist, surprised Wood with a peculiar defense of Christianity: that the religion is false but it "bound together the civilizations of Europe."

Spencer's view is common among the alt-right. They have no interest in the teachings of Christ but they see the whole edifice of white European civilization as built on a framework of Christian beliefs. From their perspective, Christendom united the European continent and forged white identity.

It's a paradox: They believe the West has grown degenerate and weak because it internalized Christian values, but they find themselves defending Christendom because they believe it's the glue that binds European culture together.

Last August, Vox Day, a prominent alt-right thinker (who often cites Nietzsche in his posts), laid out the central tenets of the alt-right in a post titled "What the Alt-Right is." There are a number of revealing points, one of which reads:

The Alt Right believes Western civilization is the pinnacle of human achievement and supports its three foundational pillars: Christianity, the European nations, and the Graeco-Roman legacy.

Nietzsche accepted that Christianity was central to the development of Western civilization, but his whole philosophy was focused on convincing people that the West had to move beyond Christianity.

When Nietzsche famously declared that "God is dead," he meant that science and reason had progressed to the point where we could no longer justify belief in God, and that meant that we could no longer justify the values rooted in that belief. So his point was that we had to reckon with a world in which there is no foundation for our highest values.

The alt-right skipped this part of Nietzsche's philosophy. They're tickled by the "death of God" thesis but ignore the implications.

"Nietzsche's argument was that you had to move forward, not fall back onto ethno-centrism," Hugo Drochon, author of "Nietzsche's Great Politics," told me. "So in many ways Spencer is stuck in the 'Shadows of God' — claiming Christianity is over but trying to find something that will replace it so that we can go on living as if it still existed, rather than trying something new."

The irony of racist Nietzscheans

The alt-right renounces Christianity but insists on defending Christendom against non-whites. But that's not Nietzsche; that's just racism. And the half-baked defense of "Christendom" is an attempt to paper over that fact.

Nietzsche was interested in ideas, in freedom of thought. To the extent that he knocked down the taboos of his day, it was to free up the creative powers of the individual. He feared that the death of God would result in an era of mass politics in which people sought new "isms" that would give them a group identity.

"The time is coming when the struggle for dominion over the earth will be carried on in the name of fundamental philosophical doctrines." By doctrines he meant political ideologies like communism or socialism. But he was equally contemptuous of nationalism, which he considered petty and provincial.

Listening to Spencer talk about Nietzsche (and, regrettably, I listened to his Nietzsche podcast) is like hearing someone who never got past the introduction of any of his favorite books. It's the kind of dilettantism you hear in first-year critical theory seminars. He uses words like "radical traditionalist" and "archeofuturist," neither of which mean anything to anyone.

Like so many superficial readers of Nietzsche, Spencer is excited by the radicalism but doesn't take it seriously. Spencer's rejection of conventional conservatism clearly has roots in Nietzsche's ideas; but Spencer's fantasy of a white ethno-state is exactly what Nietzsche was condemning in the Germany of his time.

"Nietzsche's way forward was not more [racial] purity but instead more mixing," Drochon told me. "His ideal was to bring together the European Jew and the Prussian military officer. Spencer, I take it, only wants the latter." Nietzsche, for better or worse, longed for a new kind of European citizen, one free of group attachments, be they racial or ideological or nationalistic.

Racists find affirmation in Nietzsche's preference for "Aryan humanity," a phrase he uses in several books, but that term doesn't mean what racists think it means. "Aryan humanity" is always contrasted with Christian morality in Nietzsche's works; it's a reference to pre-Christian Paganism. Second, in Nietzsche's time, "Aryan" was not a racially pure concept; it also included Indo-Iranian peoples.

People often say that the Nazis loved Nietzsche, which is true. What's less known is that Nietzsche's sister, who was in charge of his estate after he died, was a Nazi sympathizer who shamefully rearranged his remaining notes to produce a final book, "The Will to Power," that embraced Nazi ideology. It won her the favor of Hitler, but it was a terrible disservice to her brother's legacy.

Nietzsche regularly denounced anti-Semitism and even had a falling out with his friend, Richard Wagner, the pro-Nazi composer, on account of Wagner's rabid anti-Semitism. Nietzsche also condemned the "blood and soil" politics of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who unified Germany in 1871, for cementing his power by stoking nationalist resentments and appealing to racial purity.

So there's no way to square Nietzsche's philosophy with the racial politics of the alt-right, just as it wasn't fair to charge Nietzsche with inspiring Nazism. But both of these movements found just enough ambiguity in his thought to justify their hate.

Nietzsche as a mirror

Nietzsche liked to say that he "philosophized with a hammer." For someone on the margins, stewing in their own hate or alienation or boredom, his books are a blast of dynamite. All that disillusionment suddenly seems profound, like you just stumbled upon a secret that justifies your condition.

He tells you that the world is wrong, that society is upside-down, that all our sacred cows are waiting to be slaughtered. So if you're living in a multiethnic society, you trash pluralism. If you're embedded in a liberal democracy, you trumpet fascism. In short, you become politically incorrect — and fancy yourself a rebel for it.

Nietzsche was a lot of things — iconoclast, recluse, misanthrope — but he wasn't a racist or a fascist. He would have shunned the white identity politics of the Nazis and the alt-right. That he's been hijacked by racists and fascists is partly his fault, though. His writings are riddled with contradictions and puzzles. And his fixation on the future of humankind is easily confused with a kind of social Darwinism.

But in the end, people find in Nietzsche's work what they went into it already believing. Which is why the alt-right, animated as they are by rage and discontent, find in Nietzsche a mirror of their own resentments. If you're seeking a reason to reject a world you don't like, you can find it anywhere, especially in Nietzsche.