Shortly after the last US election, I published a blog on how the Left could reinvent itself in an age hostile to identity politics. This evaluation of Nietzschean concepts from a leftist perspective follows up on that blog.
French hedonist philosopher Michel Onfray, and Georges Palante, have been among those who have most openly discussed Nietzschean philosophy specifically from the perspective of one who admires the thinker from the left side of the political spectrum–and not without controversy. Their writings seem to be mostly in French and I have not been able to find an English translation, or an online version of the original Palante: Essai sur un nietzschéen de gauche. Some detractors have qualified this notion as a phantom: there is no leftist Nietzschean thought, they claim. In Sculpture de soi, Onfray explains his Nietzschean self-label by stating that he is Nietzschean “insofar as my thought takes Nietzsche as a starting point“, which is fair enough, as everyone’s thought evolves constantly with regards to oneself and others, and it is difficult to reduce both Onfray and N to their ideas at a certain point in time.
But how does this synthesis and inter-fertilization develop? On the one hand, a reconceptualization of leftist ideals that once again elevates individualism is needed, as the left is often linked to collectivist ideals that are sometimes a threat to individual freedoms and priorities. A gauche nietzschéene also requires a reconceptualization of Nietzschean notions about aristocracy, which I’ve explored here.
In reading essays about Onfray and the gauche nietzschéene, it did not escape my attention that among the foundational slogans of the French Republic, we find the prevalence of solidarité, and that this basic Republican value is missing from the American counterpart: the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution. This may help to explain why the French left is so much more robust and has a much clearer identity than the American left. People are much more aware of the history of French leftist thought.
Solidarity, as an expression of collective-mindedness, connects us to people we may not know and with whom we may share certain values or interests in common. Collectivism can also be a trap, a Platonization of true community–as some Epicurean intellectuals point out when differentiating between community and the polis.
This is not to say that an Epicurean cannot have solidarity, or participate in the polis–there are many advantages at times in these things. What is being said is that true identity and community must be differentiated from Platonic communities and identities. This is an important distinction to us because Platonic identity and community are not natural and necessary, as is the case of true community. Different rules must apply to our discourse on both.
But these are distinctions that properly belong in discussions about an Epicurean “left”, if there can be such a thing (that’s a big “if”). In the context of our discussion about a Nietzschean left (Nietzschean à la Onfray: “insofar as it takes N as a starting point”), the problem is the tension between collectivities and individualism.
In WtP 784, N says that individualism is the “most modest stage of will to power”, and that socialism can be “a social order as a means to enable many individuals“. He therefore imagines the possibility of a certain elitism of the left, and in fact it has been noted many times that many of the movements that have risen on the left have been instigated by (often wealthy) intellectuals who were highly educated, by which they stand out from the masses.
Nietzsche is also insinuating that, in the projects headed by the left on behalf of the collective, we may be able to read attempts at elevating herd types to a nobler kind, via education and via raising standards of living. In Nietzsche, we find a near-obsession with distinction and aristocracy–high status is only high status when measured against surrounding mediocrity. What the Nietzschean left must do away with is the apparent need to measure one’s status against the others–which, studies indicate, also leads to a happier life–and it must champion the raising of everyone’s status to produce–as much as possible–an aristocratic society. In Zarathustra, N also prophecies that this is one of the necessary repercussions of his thought when he calls for the creation of a new nobility and for the birth of new peoples out of which a type of super-human will emerge.
In other words, if collectivism lifts the masses out of mediocrity, can collectivist projects be considered Nietzschean? I believe they can, and therefore I disagree that the gauche nietzschéene is merely a phantom.