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Slave Morality Kicks the Ass of Master Morality: stupid Nietzsche again

When I started this blog my first post was a somewhat strident entry on why I hate Nietzsche.  In retrospect, it was probably not the most logical choice for my first blog-post, but since I was my blog's only reader at the time, and was under the impression that this would be the normative state of affairs forever, I just wrote a quick rant to try out the space.  (Also in retrospect, I should have thought more clearly about the name and url of the blog rather than, in my typical slap-dash manner, just throwing something together randomly.)  Apparently my sloppily written rant about Nietzsche has annoyed at least one reader who felt the need, like a first year philosophy student, to "correct" my understanding with a rather typical pro-Nietzschean response in that entry's comment string.

Although I do not feel the need to write a prolonged and devastating critique of every aspect of Nietzsche's philosophy now or ever (I have better things to do with my time), I was reminded of my sloppy rant today when, yet again, curriculum requirements in one of my classes caused me to teach Nietzsche.  [An aside for all you Nietzscheans who think my anti-Nietzsche sentiments render me incapable of teaching your beloved philosopher: I know his work well enough, unfortunately, to have accidentally convinced a former student (much to my chagrin) that I loved Nietzsche––and I really should self-criticize for that!]

In any case, what I want to discuss here is the problem that lurked behind my old rant, a long-standing frustration that provoked me to write it in the first place.  That is, I am less concerned with Nietzsche's philosophy than the fact that there are leftists who are under the impression that Nietzschean philosophy can be congruent with their progressive political commitments.  If anything, the critical (but predictable) comment on the original post demonstrated that Nietzsche lacked, at least in the mind of the commenter, this congruency––the implicit point behind that old post, the reason it was written to begin with.

I am not arguing that there are things we cannot learn from Nietzsche.  As I think I indicated in that strident post, I am sympathetic to Adorno and Horkheimer's reading of Nietzsche as an auto-critique of the European Enlightenment project.  What I am arguing, however, is that Nietzsche's ultimate philosophical commitments––and I apologize if this offends lazy readers who think he lacks any philosophical coherence––are utterly opposed to any progressive project and that, on the political spectrum, Nietzsche is the antithesis of Marx.  This is a fact that all anti-capitalists, all people who care about solidarity and liberation, need to take seriously.  Even if you are a social anarchist who rejects the trajectory of marxism, you should at least be suspicious of a philosopher who is politically the diametrical opposite of Marx––especially since Marx, regardless of the faults you wish to ascribe to him, did care about human solidarity, whereas Nietzsche (and this is the logic that runs through his entire work) rejected human solidarity as the basis for progress.

It is clear that Nietzsche despised the Paris Commune and the emergent Womens Movement, citing both as instances of "slave morality."  Rather than dismiss his rejection of liberatory and egalitarian struggle as unfortunate, though, we need to understand that this rejection is a symptom of his philosophical position. Throughout his work Nietzsche contrasts "slave morality" with "master morality."  The former deals with "good and evil" and the latter with the aesthetic judgment of "good and bad."  Historical progress, which Nietzsche celebrates as exploitation, is only possible through the morality of the masters, the enlightened few who are held back by the slavish masses.

We need to understand that Nietzsche is not arguing that "slave morality" is simply some sort of product of oppression and exploitation––his theory of ressentiment is not the same as a false consciousness where the oppressed accepts the ruling ideas of the ruling classes.  Rather, ressentiment (resentful self-hatred) is the very act of egalitarian thinking, of putting others before oneself ("good") and despising selfishness ("evil"), because solidarity and egalitarianism are in themselves weak, slavish, bovine, and herd-like.  Thus, solidarity movements to overthrow oppression are, in Nietzsche's worldview, intrinsically slavish and demonstrate this ressentiment––they are against life itself rather than, as those of us who believe in mass movements would hold, instances of human liberation.  So his argument about "slave morality" is not at all akin to marxist arguments about workers whose consciousness is not yet for-itself and who collaborate with the bosses, or akin to anti-racist arguments made by Malcolm X about house slave consciousness.  Nietzsche is arguing that mass movements that seek to overthrow oppressive structures are, in themselves, slavish.

Historical progress, which Nietzsche celebrates as exploitation, is only possible through the morality of the masters, the enlightened few who are often held back by the herd.  The greatest ideas, he argues, come from those individuals who are able to rise above the herd, ignore the "slave morality" that values being kind to others, and distinguish their individual master morality.

And yet Nietzsche's division between master and slave morality, the comparison he makes of different perspectives, is oddly in accordance with certain historical materialist approaches to morality… except that he reverses the value equation.  In Anti-Duhring, for example, Engels speaks of two moralities, one for the bourgeoisie and one for the proletariat, and argues that peoples' individual moralities are connected to class perspective.  Unlike Nietzsche, however, Engels holds that the master morality is inferior and in the way of human progress.  Similarly, in the Chinese Revolution, contra the Nietzschean position, the revolutionaries often spoke of how historical progress was made by the slaves and never by the masters; the masters were ultimately parasites, their existence as masters (along with the morality they developed) dependent on those deemed slaves.  We could also cite the Spanish Revolution and the anarchist maxim "No Gods, No Masters"––a statement that only the first half would be agreeable to Nietzsche.

This Nietzschean philosophy is evident in libertarian elegies to individual merit.  In Ayn Rand's odious Atlas Shrugged (that is now, unfortunately, about to be released as a film), society is made mundane, and historical progress halted, due to the intervention of the state on behalf of the herd.  Heroic individuals, who are uncompromising in their selfish master morality, are being brought low by the common and slavish masses.  Thus the visionary protagonist, John Galt, devises a capitalist/intellectual bizarro-strike where the special and unique individuals, the great men, disappear from society and thus prove that it is the masters who make history.  The herd, possessed by slavish morality of collectivism and unionism, can do nothing but produce a stagnant society, Rand argues, and progress can only be assured by those individuals who make themselves great––who do not have to suffer under the morality of the slaves.

Clearly Rand's proposition is ludicrous for anyone who considers hirself a proper progressive: this is capitalist pseudo-radicalism that imagines workers need capitalists when the opposite, as every strike and mass movement proves, is the historical truth.  (Rand also assumes that without state intervention on behalf of the collectivist herd, capitalism will flourish––a position that remains blind to every state intervention on behalf of capitalism, every redistribution of profit for the wealthy, every military adventure to preserve the world market, and every global institution that exists to ensure that capitalism will continue to function.)

But Rand's story of John Galt is simply a rearticulation of Nietzsche's beloved master morality and it is a terrible mistake to ignore the parallels.  Yes, I agree that it is not fair to accept Rand's reading of Nietzsche as authoritative… but after a while, when every libertarian ever continues to cite Nietzsche as the reason s/he's a libertarian, we should begin to wonder whether the correlation is telling us something.

When Nietzsche claims that the problem with society, the malaise that holds back the strong, is slave morality, we cannot simply dismiss what this implies by arguing (as some have) that he is being "ironic" and "satirical."  Why not assume that Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman are being ironic as well?  In order to take Nietzsche seriously as a philosopher, and not someone who spent his entire life being a vague satirist, we have to accept his position on master versus slave morality.  For if he was just a stairist, then his philosophy would not have inspired so much veneration; nor would he be a very good satirist considering that satire requires a certain level of focus to make the satire dissimilar from what is being satirized.  If there is any satire in Nietzsche it is the same satire that can be found in right-wing pundits: unintentional self-satire.

Nietzsche's philosophy is that of an extreme capitalist, and sometimes of an extreme aristocrat, who believes that history is made by great men (and perhaps great women if we grant that, as some desperately argue, he was not a misogynist) and not by the masses.  He argues for the coming of the ubermensch, the truly excellent individual, and refuses to see that those who would call themselves ubermensch, who claim to exist beyond the "good and evil" of slave morality, are nothing more than parasites, the fetters of progress.


  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I don't know much about Nietzche, so I can't say whether I agree or not. But I will say this: you had me at "...Nietzche...despised...the emergent Women's Movement."

    But in all seriousness, you make some very compelling arguments, especially when looked at in relation to Ayn Rand.

  2. Well I'm sure people will try to argue that Nietzsche's hatred for womens liberation needs to be "seen in context" or that maybe, when uses misogynist metaphors at points, he is just being ironic and it is not meant to be read as misogynist... It is strange that we make so many excuses for him. Marx and Engels said some dodgy things about India, for instance, and even though I'm an historical materialist I don't make excuses for their eurocentrism!

  3. We seem to disagree strongly on communism, but I do agree with you completely on Nietzche. It really bothers me to see such tolerance for Nietzche (and Rand), especially on the anarchist left, or from general 'leftist' professors who would normally not tolerate anti-semitic and ant-human garbage.

  4. Definitely... I don't know why people who call themselves "left" become all enamoured with Nietzsche. It must be the quality of his prose as opposed to his ideas.

    As far as disagreeing strongly on communism... the question is why? Maybe once you go down the road of third world marxism, the avenue opened by Mao, you might change your mind... lol.

  5. Lol. I'll admit that Third world Maoism has some good hate amerikka beats, but I don't know if i'm ready to go over yet.

  6. Fair enough. And I must say that yours are the nicest comments I've received today. Today is a day of troll-commenting in general, where a bunch of idiots on my last post, are being extremely annoying. I had to ban one of them. Usually I get comments like yours, even if they don't agree with my specific position, that are actually honest and productive. So what is it about the water today that has inspired so much trolling?

  7. Thanks. This has also been the nicest disucssion i've engaged in all day, I'm in a big ol' troll fight over at media coop all day myself. Its really unproductive I should probably go do something instead.

  8. Troll fights are always unproductive but they suck us in. I just closed the comment string on that other post because of that: it has wasted my day and, as you know, leads nowhere.

  9. "But Rand's story of John Galt is simply a rearticulation of Nietzsche's beloved master morality"

    Nietzsche did not advocate a return to master morality. He saw the master as a relic of a bygone era, but better than the slave morality. He definitely liked the master morality better than the slave because the master determined his own value and the slave morality is inherently anti-instinctual, and turns one against themselves. N was pushing for a new self affirming morality beyond the slave and master. Further N also said that Hedonistic attitudes are poisonous, an attitude that Rand is not likely to take.

    ""No Gods, No Masters"––a statement that only the first half would be agreeable to Nietzsche." This is a simple and obvious case of Equivocation. Do you really think what N meant by Masters what the slogan means by Masters.

    N did not like socialists, or communists. He equally had little or no respect for capitalism and disparages capitalism as a type of herd morality.

    I am sorry but your reading of N is as shallow and sophomoric as Rand and the first year philosophy students. This type of reading cherry picks one section N's work and then ignores the rest of his works.

    1. I absolutely concur with this post.

      The Will to Power, the force that is everything in existence at present (life, culture, consciousness, matter) has no values except power. The notion of progress is an illusion, a mask created and proliferated among certain manifestations of the Will to Power known as humans. Aided by the grammatical tricks of language and speech (ie subject and object both are illusionary creations) humans create the very notions of Self and Other. There is no self, there is no other. There is just Will to Power expressing it self reactively or actively and our consciousness' awareness of the illusions created by manifestations of Will to Power.

      Reactive expression of the Will to Power results in slave morality. It is fear based and resentment based. It is egalitarian, no doubt. Remember there are no values, so these are not judgements, just the illusion of fact.

      Active expression of the Will to Power is an outward, unrestricted and fearless manifestation. It is Becoming. This is the basis for master morality of old, pre-dating slave morality. While N laments its passing, his vision of the future development of consciousness includes both slave and master moralities co-existing and being driven further apart. Slaves into a complete or partial nihilism and Masters in an ecstatic nihilism. There is no value anymore. Slaves accept this, partake in society and then die or refuse it and place arbitrary values onto abstract notions like good and evil. Masters (there would be exceedingly few true masters and I don't believe its something one can aspire to or orient oneself towards. A massive failing of Rand is the placement of value onto the master type role) would just express power and create manifestations of that power and live truly in the moment.

      From this state of existence (slaves and masters both in states of nihilism), the Overman would be created and be something completely beyond humanity that would be undiscernable. It would not be the next step in human evolution or maybe even a physical object. It could be "near-future culture" as a whole or an AI network.

      If Nietzsche expressed a system anything like the one I've been trying to (trying!), that system would place progressive thought in slave morality. Its an obsession with values (intellectual and human progress, justice, good) that are illusions (just like everything else we perceive) in an attempt to suppress the Will to Power.

      N might say that of course someone under the thrall of slave morality would have a reaction like yours to certain selections from his writings. But that doesn't change the reality of the Will to Power and the consequence of no universal values. Clearly you think there are universal values, so that is where the impasse is.

    2. Good summation: it's heartening to know that someone actually reads Nietzsche in a thoughtful and critical manner rather than tries, as evinced from previous peoples' comments, to the esoteric and never explained Nietzsche represented by some of the commenters on this string. Would like to add, as I'm sure you noticed but based on your last paragraph, to claim that there are no universal values is itself a statement of value that claims universality.

  10. And I would argue that your reading of Nietzsche is the equivalent of a first year philosophy student's understanding. Cherry picking? Please. Your understanding of Nietzsche is filtered through the most juvenile hobby-horse understanding; it's no different than the students I have to teach in Intro to Philosophy classes. Your entire second paragraph, after all, begins by presupposing an ideology that emerged during capitalism: that is my point.

  11. Also, just to treat this juvenile first year philosophy student understanding of philosophy more seriously: there is no point where Nietzsche argues that master morality was necessarily a relic––in Genealogy of Morals, which is probably his most philosophically consistent book (and we care about consistency in philosophy), he treats history as a competition between these two types of morality, and it is master morality that he favours. This idea of a "new self-affirming morality" is something that is often imposed on Nietzsche by people overly excited by scattered aphorisms like "amor fati", etc., and who don't do the rigorous work that leads them to realize that the "new morality" is really just a reassertion of master morality. After all, the ultimate problem is the herd, the masses, the "slaves".

    And good on you for throwing out the fallacy terms you learned in your Intro to Philosophy course! But if you're going to call something a fallacy, you have to explain in detail why it's a fallacy, not just bandy about terms.

  12. Very interesting Blog - I enjoyed reading your replies. However.... my two cents worth.
    As a first year reader of GofM - the Hackett vers. - I think you overstate the idea that N. had a positive statement of morality to make there.
    You seem to fall into the same trap that you accuse all the others of: using Nietzsche's Genealogy as a framework for your hobby horse.
    Not bad company to be in as it would include Heidegger, Foucault, Nehamas among others.
    See Ms. Clark' Intro to the Hackett Version for a strong argument contra the idea of a positive philo of morality from Mr. N.

  13. But what hobby horse am I using Nietzsche for? I am certainly not appropriating Nietzsche; I am simply explaining him according to his own ideas and the ruling ideology of his time. Also, I find the idea that you think I'm ascribing a "positive" philosophy to Nietzsche rather strange. What I am arguing is that he performs a certain valuation regarding slave/master morality... And as someone with a doctorate in philosophy who has studied Nietzsche and taught Nietzsche (and has read GofM, as well as other texts, multiple times), I find this whole attempt to not ascribe any thought to Nietzsche, whether we want to call it "positive" philosophy or not, extremely telling and utterly mindless. If we cannot ascribe even the simplest values to a thinker than he is useless as a thinker. Nietzsche does have a philosophy and it boils down to his valuation of master morality: this is not my hobby horse, this is just Nietzsche pure and simple. People in his own time understood it; he understood it... If this cannot be understood, then you might as well just forget Nietzsche altogether because he has no thought worth thinking/reading.

  14. Your understanding of Nietzsche is as wrong as Hitlers. Frankly, I don't give a shit if you have PHD in philosophy, it sounds like you had a PDF in Nietzsche. The fact you've taught him just makes your misunderstanding of him all the more sad. None of what you've outlined is what Nietzsche meant, and it was only after the 1960's that people started to realise it. He never spoke about 'oppressive structures' and you can't extend the idea to the real world like that. It's not as grounded as you claim, but is more of a psychological claim—Freud certainly ate it up. No, this is the type of vitriol from someone who doesn't understand Nietzsche (not me, you, of course.)

    1. Sigh. It is clear that you really don't understand what I'm arguing. Simply claiming that you are the authority on Nietzsche and that my summation and reductio of what his thought implies his "wrong" doesn't make you correct. I'm sure you have a brilliant and especial understanding of Nietzsche. Your belief that slave morality is a psychological claim and that cannot be grounded in the real world is precisely what makes Nietzsche a problem: he psychologizes real world events, but still gives a historiography and a story that is intensely idealist (are you really claiming that your understanding of Nietzsche trumps Foucault's and that he is stupid for having a different idea than you)?

      What I find interesting here, as with everyone who loves Nietzsche and is offended that someone would dare speak of the problematic aspects of his thought and the value system that he celebrated, is that you, like so many other juvenile fans of Niezsche (and I say "juvenile" because of your first two sentences that are silly rhetorical garbage) get extremely offended whenever Nietzsche is criticized, never really offer an argument to explain Nietzsche's thought except that your secret understanding is superior to my oh-so-terrible understanding, and then when pushed to explain your authoritative understandings of Nietzsche, end up saying rather banal things that lack any coherence. Point being: based on these kinds of responses, it is not at all clear that you understand Nietzsche. I would assume you read Zarathustra in your undergrad, it confirmed your thoughts about your own specialness, and now are intensely upset when people ask you to consider the politics his philosophy implies.

      Because this is the point: a philosophy always implies a politics, regardless of what the original philosopher might have intended, because it always represents the views of a specific class position. And this is what this article is doing: examining the political implications of a philosophy rather than imagine we can lose ourselves in speculative––oh I'm sorry "psychological"––categories.

  15. I finished a paper I cited Nietzsche in and I stumbled across your column after the fact. Good read. Certainly some food for thought.
    I dunno. I was dealing broadly with science fiction, which is why I found him appropriate. I wouldn't say I agree with him any more or less than another philosopher (I've yet to see anybody produce that Great Truth for me), but I do simply find it interesting to read about the ideas of someone who seemed to be thinking a bit off base from the rest of the world. I won't claim to be an expert, or anything, but I did always feel like Rand related what she said a lot more to immediate conditions.
    Anyway. Have a good one.

  16. Thanks for demonstrating to me exactly why I loathe slavery morality. Politics is for pigs.

    1. Thanks for demonstrating your ignorance of Nietzsche. It's *slave morality*.


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