The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of the titans of modern Western thought. His most famous statement, "God is dead", can still be found scrawled on the notebooks and lockers of angsty high school students the world over and is, for many people, the extent of their knowledge about the man and his thought. For the slightly (but only slightly) more sophisticated armchair philosopher, Nietzsche has developed a reputation as something of a bête noire, perhaps best exemplified by a dumb scene in the film The Day After Tomorrow in which a character declares "Nietzsche was a chauvinist pig who was in love with his sister." Well, that's wrong on both counts, but this is a fairly common type of reaction to him, based primarily on the association that Nietzsche has with Fascism.

Fairly or unfairly, Nietzsche's thought has been inextricably tied to the extreme right since World War II. If the average person "knows" anything about Nietzsche, it's that he hated God and that he was a Nazi. This general perception probably started because he was a German-speaking writer who said shocking and unacceptable things about society that were directly at odds with Western ideas of freedom, democracy, and liberalism. I have spent many years reading and writing about Nietzsche, including an academic paper that was recommended for publication by a professor of mine but which was ultimately declined (although I was upset at the time, it's easy to realize why after reading it five years after it was originally written). Some people think that Nietzsche is in need of a rehabilitation, and indeed, he's had something of one in the past couple of decades. I have not seen the issue of Nietzsche's politics really addressed on everything2, and I have meant to commit this to writing for several years, so I will ask the question point blank: was Nietzsche a fascist?

In a way, asking this question is a bit like asking "was Marx a Stalinist?" or "was Jesus a Catholic?" Fascism as a political ideology did not exist during Nietzsche's lifetime or indeed until after the first World War. Literally, then, the answer would be "no, he was not a fascist." A more precise question would be "was Nietzsche's philosophy the ideological basis for the Fascist political doctrine?" The answer to that is a little less clear-cut. To really get to the heart of it, we need to give "fascism" a good working definition and then to examine which aspects of Nietzsche's thought coincide with that and which ones do not.

What is Fascism?

In some ways, it is easier to discuss what fascism is not before going into what it really is. Contrary to popular belief, neither Republicans nor Democrats are fascists. The cop knocking on your door at 2:00 in the morning telling you to turn your stupid fucking music down is not (necessarily) a fascist. Your boss, who will not allow you to cruise porn on the company's time, is not a fascist. Fascism is not, as most leftists say, capitalism taken to its "logical extreme." "Fascism" has unfortunately become something of a byword that signifies "I don't agree with you," which serves no further purpose than to dillute its meaning and confuse people about its true nature (much the same has been done with "socialism" and "anarchy").

The best people to ask about fascism would be the fascists themselves. The National Fascist Party of Italy (Partito Nazionale Fascista) was founded in 1921 by the former socialist Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had fallen out with the broader socialist movement over his advocacy of Italian intervention in World War I on the side of France and England. Disillusioned with leftist politics and skeptical of liberalism, Mussolini and his chief ideologue, Giovanni Gentile (pronounced "zhenteelehy"), laid down what was termed "a third position" between the two. There has only ever been one official document describing the ideology of the original Fascist Party, which Mussolini and Gentile authored in the 1930s. The Doctrine of Fascism does not lay down an exact policy platform as such, but it does much to reveal the party's philosophical underpinnings. According to the tract:

  • "(Fascism) conceives of life as a struggle in which it beehoves a man to win for himself a really worthy for the individual, so for the nation, and so for mankind."
  • "The Fascist conception of life is a religious one, in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law."
  • "Fascism is...opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism all Jacobinistic utopias and innovations...and it therefore rejects the theological notion that at some future time, the human family will secure a final settlement of all its difficulties."
  • "(Fascism) stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only so far as his interests coincide with those of the State."
  • "Fascism is therefore opposed to Socialism...which sees in history nothing but the class struggle (and) is likewise opposed to trade unionism as a class weapon."
  • "We wish the working classes to accustom themselves to the responsibilities of management so that they may realize that it is no easy matter to run a business."
  • "Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace."
  • "Fascism will have nothing to do with universal embraces; as a member of the community of nations it looks other peoples straight in the eyes; it is vigilant and on its guard."
  • "Democracy is a kingless regime infested by many kings who are sometimes more exclusive, tyrannical, and destructive than one, even if he be a tyrant."
  • "Imperial power, as understood by the Fascist doctrine, is not only territorial, or military, or commercial; it is also spiritual and ethical. An imperial nation, that is to say a nation which directly or indirectly is a leader of others, can exist without the need of conquering a single square mile of territory. Fascism sees in the imperialistic spirit -- i.e. in the tendency of nations to expand -- a manifestation of their vitality."

There is of course more to the fascist program than these snippets, but these quotes serve as an adequate descriptor of the overall theory behind the world's various fascistic regimes of the 1920s and beyond. I didn't really touch on the economic aspect of fascism, which is its idiosyncratic ideology commonly called corporatism today, although a more accurate translation of the term would be "guildism." The fascist conception of the "corporation" is different from the modern one, referring not to large individual businesses, but rather to groups of particular types of businesses divided into guilds (i.e., textile, agricultural, etc.). These guilds were unions that both owners and laborers were required to join, ostensibly to be under the direct supervision of the Finance ministry and to prevent class warfare. Since Nietzsche was not an economic philosopher, this won't really figure into our examination, but I did want to use this digression to show that fascism is not, as some people like to say, derived from an extreme form of laissez faire capitalism.

These quotes are a distillation of the overall fascist ethos. To parse it down, fascism is Statist, anti-democratic, anti-socialistic, anti-capitalistic, expansionist, idealistic, confrontational, absolutist, and an ideology guided by the precept of external conflict. It is not, you will notice, by necessity racist, anti-Semitic, or even nationalist. Fascism is a phenomenon distinct from National Socialism in general and Hitlerism specifically. The Nazis definitely borrowed from Mussolini, but their ideology added a racial component (among other things) not present in the original conception.

What Did Nietzsche Say?

Trying to label Nietzsche is very difficult because his philosophy, like that of his predecessor Georg Hegel, is so wide-ranging and covers so many different areas of thought. He was chiefly concerned with morality, but he got his start as a philologist and also dabbled in religion, science, and aesthetics. One branch of philosophy that Nietzsche conspicuously avoided was politics. Sure, he had thoughts and ideas about the politics of his day, but he devoted almost no space in his works to conceiving an overall system of politics (compared to others such as Hegel, Kant, Marx, or Plato). His writings were therefore not particularly "political," which makes it very difficult to extrapolate his personal thoughts on the subject. This ambiguity has allowed Nietzsche to become a figure used and abused by political hacks of all stripes for more than a century.

Nietzsche is also kind of frustrating because he spent more time describing things as he saw them rather than describing what he thought people should do. That being said, he had several noteworthy ideas and concepts that have a direct bearing on what we're talking about, so let's start with them. His first big contribution to philosophy was a distinction between two modes of thought: the Apollonian and the Dionysian, first appearing in the Birth of Tragedy. He used this mainly in his analyses of art and religious practice, but the core concepts would play an integral role in his thought later on. He used the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus as archetypes, viewing the former as logical, detached, and subdued with the latter being irrational, emotional, and ecstatic. Nietzsche preferred neither one to the other, but insisted that a careful balance had to be struck between the two modalities, although he did think that Apollonianism deprived the individual of experiencing God (as in a generic divine abstraction, not the specific Judeo-Christian deity) as fully as he ought to be able. Fascism could fairly be said to be a Dionysian ideology, with its fixation on irrationality as a guiding idea. Note that "irrationality" doesn't imply stubbornness or chaotic self-expression, but a form of thought that is not based on the Socratic method or the dialectic. This is partially what is meant when fascism is described as "religious" by Mussolini and Gentile, neither of whom had any real interest in particular sects or denominations. It's a focus on what they viewed as immutable truths untied to materialistic concerns. Nietzsche himself disapproved of materialism as an adequate method of explaining the world.

Another of Nietzsche's ideas was something he called der Wille zur Macht, meaning the will to power. The will to power was the next logical step from Arthur Schopenhauer's will to live, which the older philosopher believed to be the strongest biological impulse. Nietzsche rejected this, saying that people (and indeed most organisms) would generally pursue power beyond a survivable extent simply because of the lust for it. This does not necessarily imply political power or indeed power over other people, but a more generalized desire to overcome something or move beyond it. This is the root of Nietzsche's opposition to Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution. Darwin was of course famous for his idea of natural selection in which organisms with the best traits for survivability were the ones whose descendants would eventually predominate given areas while Lamarck held the slightly more uplifting notion that organisms would evolve to suit the environment around them and everybody would be happy and have lots of offspring. Nietzschean evolutionary theory states that organisms will actively try to outbreed and outmaneuver their adversaries and those with the greatest will to power will eventually "win" the game of evolution. He therefore rejected the notion of evolution as a means toward a particular end.

The Doctrine of Fascism makes repeated references to the will to power, with the exact phrase appearing several times. This can be discerned from the above statement regarding what Mussolini and Gentile called "imperial power." The portion that says an imperial nation need not even conquer others to be considered as such accords nicely with Nietzsche's comment that "the powerful natures dominate, it is a necessity, they need not lift one finger. Even if, during their lifetime, they bury themselves in a garden house!" The will to power is thus essentially a psychological phenomenon and does not require one to actively go out and seek conquest. However, Nietzsche did also say:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (--its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement ("union") with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on.

This is a tantalizing hint of political philosophy, implying as it does a type of social contract that directly contradicts the typical understanding of the term. For people like John Locke, the social contract was designed to form unions (i.e. states) between various parties for the purpose of securing protection, property, and rights. Nietzsche sees the contract as an agreement to jointly pursue power.

This ties in with a concept familiar to any entry-level philosophy student, namely the state of nature. The state of nature is what the world is like without laws or society in general. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau looked at the state of nature as a time of perfection for man, unbound as he was to slavery, despotism, or social conventions. Nietzsche thought Rousseau's analysis at best naive and at worst dangerously schizophrenic. Nietzsche conceived of the state of nature -- and indeed life in general -- as a constant battle. It was Nietzsche who said "that which does not kill me, makes me stronger." These sentiments accord with the fascist belief that life is a struggle and they explain the statement regarding the lack of "utility" for peace. Life is war and war purifies the soul; therefore, perpetual peace can only degrade the spirit and war is essential to becoming a better, fuller person.

Perhaps Nietzsche's second most famous idea (after his "God is dead" statement) is that of the Übermensch, variously translated as the Superman (which fails to really grasp the meaning of the prefix "über") or the Overman. As a concept, the term would more accurately be translated as "above humanity," but that's unwieldy and to avoid a conflict with DC Comics, we'll stick with Overman for now. The Overman, in essence, is an archetype. He is best understood as a sort of Platonic ideal (despite Nietzsche's insistence to the contrary), more a goal to work toward than an actual corporeal being. He is a person for whom morality as we understand it is not a chief concern. Instead of morality, the Overman focuses on values, embodying qualities that we might find contradictory. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche describes the Overman as being more similar to the Renaissance-era Italian prince Cesare Borgia than to a gifted poet. Cesare was a transgressive figure, being as he was a ruthless warlord but also a generous patron of the arts. He is supposed to have been the chief model for Niccolo Machiavelli's seminal masterpiece of political science the Prince. That people perceive the Overman as conflicted is due, Nietzsche says, to the prevailing Judeo-Christian ethos of Western civilization that inverts healthy aristocratic values of power, strength, and manliness and calls instead for submissiveness, "turning the other cheek," and egalitarianism. Nietzsche further elaborated on this theme with his distinction between Master Morality and Slave Morality. Judaism and Christianity, in supplanting the paganistic thought embodied best by the ancient Roman Empire and their Germanic barbarian foes, made Slave Morality the force majeur behind the European spirit, creating a life-denying ethic that Nietzsche saw as detrimental to real human happiness.

Fascism holds that man ought to love life, following the formulation that life is a struggle and struggle is good for you. Likewise, shades of the Overman as a concept are present in the fascist ideal of a higher form of humanity, but chiefly as a rhetorical device. The confrontational attitude of fascist foreign policy (we "will have nothing to do with universal embraces") brings to mind both the Master Morality and the (presumably) despotic aspect of the Overman, but says nothing about his other qualities. Fascism is harsh without being refined, and presents amorality (an essential characteristic of the Overman and his values for the future) as an end unto itself rather than as a means of achieving a higher ethos.

Like the Fascist Party, Nietzsche cared little for democracy. He thought egalitarianism was a form of spiritual debasement, and he believed strongly in hierarchy. People, he believed, were different and therefore ought to have different roles and responsibilities. He anticipated the trifunctional hypothesis in his Twilight of the Idols, noting that the ancient Indians divided their society in priests, warriors, and merchants/farmers, and even further segregated themselves from the Chandalas -- the Untouchables. Nietzsche referred to democracy and democratic outcomes as the "sum of zeroes." He felt that democratic politics were the end-result of centuries of a negative Christian influence on Europe and that in the future, democracy would breed an unmotivated, fatalistic, servile people who could not function without a tyrant to command them. More succinctly, he stated "modern democracy is the historical form of the decline of the state."

The fascist rejection of democracy is in some ways similar and dissimilar to Nietzsche's. While both Mussolini and Nietzsche make references to a concept we might call the tyranny of the majority, Mussolini actively professes a dictatorship, which can certainly lead to tyranny. Nietzsche makes no real comment about the desirability of a despotic leader, although he was certainly a proponent of the Great Man Theory of history, which holds that a select group of people were responsible for most of the significant events of the world. Like the Overman, the Great Man is also an archetype, although his greatness is generated largely in reference to the perception that others have of him. Nietzsche's view of the Great Man is somewhat ambiguous since he doesn't necessarily view him as desirable to anyone other than the masses, whom he usually refers to collectively as the herd. While both Nietzsche and the Fascists were Great Man Theorists, they disagreed on whether this was inherently good or bad.

Where Nietzsche strongly differs from the theory of fascism is in his analysis of the State. As we've established, the fascists were definitely and umambiguously Statists. Nietzsche, by contrast, said in Thus Spake Zarathustra "everything the state says is a lie and everything it has, it has stolen." Nietzsche lived during the formation of the German Reich, the first successful unification of the state we now call Germany. He viewed this negatively, seeing the "Iron Chancellor" Otto von Bismarck as an opportunistic parvenu and the consolidation of the formerly loose confederation under Prussian domination as a threat to German (and by extension a broader European) culture. He felt this way about the State in general, officially having the citizenship of no country after the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

Fascist or Not?

Politically, Friedrich Nietzsche is a tough nut to crack. Since he didn't write very much about his own personal political leanings, all we can really do is try to take his other statements and try to fit them into some sort of political framework. Nietzsche was skeptical of most of the things that the fascists opposed. He disliked democracy, materialism, socialism, utopianism, and idleness. However, he also disapproved of Statism and distrusted mass sentiment. The thing is, Nietzsche didn't write for or about societies, he wrote for and about individuals standing against the grain of society. Fascism is by definition a mass movement and thus at odds with this core tenet of Nietzsche's thought.

That being said, I would be utterly shocked if I found out that neither Benito Mussolini nor Giovanni Gentile had ever read anything written by Nietzsche. While certainly not a Fascist in the strictest sense, Nietzsche could perhaps be said to have been either a proto-Fascist or, more neutrally, that parts of his works gave a philosophical justification for Fascism. Fascism takes the Nietzschean analysis of the world -- and a person's place in it -- and turns it into a policy platform. The will to power is not an imperative to behave aggressively, it's a description of why people behave aggressively. The Fascists apply Nietzsche to a society-wide level, looking at states as organic individuals. Whether Nietzsche would have approved of Fascism is debatable, but my gut tells me that he probably would not have.

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