Over a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought sparked a heated debate among Danish intellectuals about society’s moral foundations. The dispute prefigured today’s debates between the Left and the far right, which continues to be inspired by Nietzsche.

Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1895. (Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

Review of The Great Debate: Nietzsche, Culture, and the Scandinavian Welfare Society by Georg Brandes and Harald Høffding, edited and translated by William Banks (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023)

Few thinkers have undergone as tumultuous a reception as Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1889, Nietzsche collapsed into madness after years spent mostly alone and unknown. Yet within a few years of his passing he was already exercising an enormous influence on the broader culture. This included inspiring Fascist and Nazi acolytes, who delighted in repurposing his arguments for breeding and aristocracy into ultranationalist banalities. By the end of World War II, many were convinced Nietzsche was a Nazi thinker, with Bertrand Russell even calling it “Nietzsche’s war.”

This was unfair, and after the war some began to reassess the political thrust of Nietzsche’s work. First, writers like Walter Kaufmann and Albert Camus presented him as a largely apolitical existential psychologist. Later, an array of French postmodern thinkers, most famously Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, read Nietzsche as offering important philosophical resources for the Left. He was the ultimate countercultural figure, they argued, deconstructing systems of power and repression avant la lettre.

Things have since come full circle, as many on today’s right, especially the hard right, claim Nietzsche as a major influence. After torturous self-reflection inspired by Nietzsche’s thought, plenty of hard-right personalities have come to the conclusion they are a kind of super-duper man, to quote John Ganz. This includes alt-right personalities like Richard Spencer, the self-described Bronze Age Pervert (BAP), and most recently the white supremacist turned “liberal Nietzschean” Richard Hanania.

Nietzsche’s return to the hard right, where I’d argue he obviously belongs, has induced yet another reevaluation of his thinking by liberal and progressive thinkers. This has included the popularization of Domenico Losurdo’s totemic Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel and recent books by scholars like Ronald Beiner and Daniel Tutt. William Banks’s new The Great Debate: Nietzsche, Culture, and the Scandinavian Welfare Society is a welcome addition to this growing literature.

The Debate Over Aristocratic Radicalism

Banks’s goal in the book is to acquaint readers with one of the first major debates about Nietzsche’s work, between Georg Brandes and Harald Høffding. Brandes was a major nineteenth-century literary critic and man of letters who corresponded with Nietzsche near the end of the latter’s productive life. In correspondence, Brandes described Nietzsche as committed to a kind of “aristocratic radicalism,” which Nietzsche approved as “very good” and the “cleverest thing” he’d yet read about himself.

Brandes took it upon himself to use his considerable soapbox to introduce Nietzsche to a wider audience, which he did in a popular essay “Aristocratic Radicalism” published in 1889. Brandes read Nietzsche as a creative critic of the “slave morality” that was currently sweeping across Europe through demands for liberalism, socialism, and democracy.

While critical of Nietzsche for deploying a militaristic language common to right-wing German intellectuals, Brandes largely commends Nietzsche’s rejection of the idea that society should try to secure dignity for the lower orders or to achieve the utilitarian goal of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Brandes reads Nietzsche as claiming that the “fostering of a stronger, higher form of humanity than that which surrounds us (the ‘overman’) would be a great, and actual form of progress even though such could only be achieved through the sacrifice of masses of human beings as we know them.”

For Brandes’s Nietzsche, the production of a worthy aristocracy capable of greatness is both the means and ends of providing human life with meaning, and almost anything is permitted in pursuit of that goal. This means establishing a new aristocracy to undo egalitarian achievements stretching back from the Enlightenment through (at least) the dawn of Christianity.

Nietzsche is also very explicit that a form of slavery will be required, to ensure that his new aristocracy possesses the leisure and material needed to pursue its great projects. This reflects his insistence in The Will to Power that he was not an individualist, but a thinker concerned with an ordering of rank.

As Banks observes, this was electrifying to many readers being introduced to Nietzsche for the first time. But it didn’t impress everyone. Harald Høffding, a well-respected Danish professor and philosopher of theology and ethics, published a lengthy response to Brandes criticizing the latter’s largely uncritical appraisal of Nietzsche.

In this exchange, Høffding raises a number of philosophical objections to Nietzschean thought. He notes, for instance, that Nietzsche is ambiguous as to whether the production of great men is the the ultimate purpose of life itself, or whether producing great men is merely a means to creating values that make life worth living. The distinction is important since it isn’t clear whether a great man acquires greatness simply through his being, or through what he does, or some combination of the two. If it’s the former, then greatness seems to be little more than a psychological or spiritual state; if it’s the latter, then Nietzsche needs to provide some criteria for what constitutes a great deed.

Høffding also points out that Nietzsche seems to think that great men are a means to creating life-affirming values, which means that for aristocratic radicalism to be more an than an aesthetic posture, he needs to provide a substantive explanation of which values counteract the cultural nihilism that Nietzsche sought to combat. But establishing such criteria for the greatness of deeds or values would require offering an alternative “ethics,” justified by rational argument, of the sort Nietzsche found abhorrent.

The most interesting part of Høffding’s critique is his substantive alternative to “aristocratic radicalism.” He proposes a “democratic radicalism” grounded in the “welfare principle” that sought to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

In a later essay in the debate, Høffding says he is increasingly convinced by socialist arguments on these points. Inspired by the liberal socialist John Stuart Mill, Høffding believed that socialism would not only be beneficial to everyone’s welfare but also conducive to the production of great enterprises. He claimed that Nietzsche and Brandes’s claims that only radically unequal, aristocratic societies could pursue greatness seemed largely suppositional, since plenty of very talented people might be born poor and never develop their abilities — unless society corrects for this through generous welfare provisions.

The back and forth between Brandes and Høffding is interesting in how much it anticipates contemporary debates between the Left and the far right. Throughout their exchange, Brandes demonstrates a kind of anti-demotic punk attitude, presenting himself as opposed to Høffding’s academic elitism and mediocrity while expressing indifference to the truth of his claims so long as they are interesting and galvanizing. He tries to paint Høffding as a defender of the establishment consensus over democracy, which gains power by flattering the vulgar masses.

Høffding argues that Brandes’s pseudo-populist condemnation of his academic credentials sits uncomfortably with his transparent elitism, and that Høffding’s own arguments for democratic radicalism and the welfare principle constitute a bigger threat to power and privilege than Nietzsche’s defense of aristocracy. Over time, Banks notes, the arguments of Høffding and other egalitarians would gain traction in the Nordic regions and beyond, helping provide a philosophical foundation for their famously generous welfare states.

Aristocratic Radicalism and the New Nietzschean Capitalists

Banks’s volume mostly consists of the major exchanges between Brandes and Høffding, which, like most long-running debates, grow less interesting as time goes on. But Banks’s opening essay persuasively makes the case for the relevance of the debate today.

Banks observes that relatively few on the Right today find Nietzsche’s aristocratic ideal of a kind of philosopher-artist appealing. But, despite Nietzsche’s own frequently expressed disdain for capitalism and businessmen, there has always been an enthusiastic cadre of contemporary right-wing intellectuals who’ve tried to present the entrepreneur or tycoon as embodying the “overman” ideal.

This has required interpreting Nietzsche’s philosophical and aesthetic language of greatness into economic terms, making the case for why a ruling economic elite not only maximizes efficiency but is necessary for the pursuit of higher cultural goals. This is very explicit in the case of someone like Ayn Rand or Richard Hanania, who were directly inspired by Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. But Banks is more ambitious, describing an affinity between the thinking of Nietzsche and Friedrich Hayek:

The concordances between the philosopher of aristocratic radicalism and the intellectual father of neoliberalism are as palpable as they are profound; indeed it is arguable that Hayek’s central concepts cannot be fully grasped without at least some reference to Nietzsche. . . . What is suggested here is that Hayek, every bit as much as Nietzsche, is principally animated by deep-seated disgust at the increasing uppityness of ordinary human beings, which in his own era was manifested in the social democratic insistence that “labor and the laborer” function as “the centerpiece of modern civilization.”

This is a bold claim to make about Hayek, who famously declared that he was not a conservative because he rejected the claim that there were recognizably superior people in society. Hayek also rejected the idea that the market should or would reward people on the basis of “merit,” since the ability to get rich depended on producing goods that gratified consumer demands rather than the intrinsic value of what was produced.

For this reason, I am skeptical that Hayek should be read as a kind of neoliberal Nietzschean; more transparent elitists like Ludwig von Mises, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, or Ayn Rand better fit this description. Nevertheless Banks does draw attention to how much elitism was baked into Hayek’s outlook. In many parts of his oeuvre, he waxes nostalgic about the need for an aristocracy to pursue higher cultural objectives. This is true even if much of this wealth is passed down through inheritance and spent in a less than economically efficient way — since even if most of the perma-rich wound up looking a lot like the perma-children of Succession, at least a few would take their money and use it to build rocket ships instead.

Nietzschean Neoliberalism

Banks is undoubtedly right to suggest that, if Nietzschean aristocratic radicalism has a future, it will be through a fusion with neoliberal meritocratic mythology. This is already evident in BAP and Hanania’s recent writings. Though he has in the past called himself a “fascist or something worse,” BAP has more recently sung the praises of the self-described libertarian president of Argentina, Javier Milei.

This might seem contradictory, not least to those libertarians who condemn fascism as another form of collectivism. But it in fact makes a great deal of sense. In his earlier essay “Communitar Fools,” BAP claimed he did not care about economics. He has “said for a long time that I believe in rule by a military caste of men who would be able to guide society toward a morality of eugenics. I am indifferent to economics as long as economic activity is subordinate to the interest of this caste and their project.” On this basis, embracing Milei’s libertarianism makes a lot of sense, since his mission is to halt the “logic of democracy” and reassert the rule of a big-haired, mostly macho capitalist elite of the sort Latin America apparently hasn’t seen the back of.

Hanania makes the same kind of claim with less care when he casually declares himself a “liberal Nietzschean” in spite of Nietzsche’s description of liberalism in Twilight of the Idols as “leading to the transformation of mankind into cattle” and a philosophy fit only for “tea-grocers, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and other democrats.” This is because Hanania crudely conflates liberalism with support for capitalism, despite the fact that two of the greatest liberal philosophers of the last two centuries (John Stuart Mill and John Rawls) expressed strong criticisms of capitalism and at least tentative support for a socialist alternative.

All this makes The Great Debate an important and clarifying read for those interested in Nietzschean philosophy. More than just an important piece of history, Brandes and Høffding’s rivalry foreshadowed intellectual conflicts to come. Those of us who want to change what will be therefore will benefit from understanding it.

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