Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rand and Nietzsche For Kids

Postal Stamp Art On Display At National Postal Museum

My five year old son has been asking me how it is that I have chosen to write a blog about socialism without commenting on the philosophical legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Rightly or wrong, the fascist critique of the Revolution was intertwined with an admiration of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms. What is the relationship between the Superman and socialism? How about the will to power? The tyranny of the weak over the strong? What did the slogan—God is Dead—mean to the socialist project? WWNS, What Would Nietzsche Say about the October Revolution and its aftermath?


Even Francis Peabody, the Christian social theorist referred to in a recent post, felt it necessary to address Nietzsche’s legacy in the context of a full analysis of what he called the Social Question. I tell my son that I’m no philosopher. I’m not equipped to deal with the subject. He replies (our debate is getting old—it often interrupts our attempts to play Good Transformers versus Bad Elmo and his stuffed animal goons) that it’s simply impossible to neglect the twentieth century’s most important philosopher. I don’t get Nietzsche so I don’t really have an opinion. He doesn’t understand that at all.


I recall a moment in my long and sorry graduate school career when I approached a cultural studies professor and asked him whether I might not audit his class. I was a history graduate student but somewhat fraudulently claimed cultural studies as a minor field. The professor (who hailed from the Caribbean and had a deep, Jazz radio sort of voice) invited me to his class, and also to a more mysterious “Foucault Reading Group.” It felt like I was falling through a series of trap doors. I hadn’t been trained for cultural studies, still less for philosophy.

The conversation among the professor and his graduate students seemed brilliant to me, or perhaps I was merely stupid, or bored silly by years of old fashioned political and social history. A remember one woman with fashionable glasses (and who what other graduate student in Urbana had fashionable glasses?) who dominated the conversation.

When I objected that something she had said wasn’t historically accurate, she coldly and decisively dismissed my comment with something like this: What I’ve said may not be historically true, but if I am speaking of an archeology of knowledge, then wouldn’t it make all the sense in the world? The large circle of her supporters nodded in agreement and I was ashamed.

Inevitably, the Foucault Reading Group turned its attention to one of Foucault’s inspirations, namely Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. I couldn’t keep up with my peers, but I do remember one relevant discussion of Nietzsche’s concept of "resentiment." I recall from this distant time, the term refers to the way weak people will sometimes resent stronger people. It’s a form of bitterness born out of jealousy and a desire to bring people down to their lowest common denominator. It’s related to Nietzsche's critique of Christianity as an ideological justification for ensuring that the meek really could inherit the earth, or at least quash anyone who really was worthy of such an honor.

Socialism in this context resembles Ellsworth Toohey (Thank you, Wikipedia) in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He’s a brilliant but sinister apostle of everything second-rate, incompetent, and ordinary. He resists Howard Roark, the Nietzsche-inspired superman and architect. He knows Roark’s projects are superb, and for precisely this reason he objects to them. As editor, Toohey uses democracy itself (in the form of his readership, who are easily manipulated) to thwart humankind’s natural aristocracy. One can easily imagine that Ayn Rand had Lenin or Trostsky in mind when she created Toohey. The original communist leaders were also brilliant, almost themselves natural aristocrats, who used their genius to implement a system that ruthlessly ensured the triumph of mediocrity.

The socialist project failed, but it made some significant attempts to implement social equality, at least on a theoretical level. In a way that would have horrified Nietzsche, the Communist Party in Russia, as well as China, celebrated the little guy, and move brutally against anyone who had any association with elitism, including priests, aristocrats, kulaks, intellectuals, NEP-men, and former officers, and indeed their families. The system of Soviet mass education and public education were also geared toward leveling out disparities. This was the ultimate expression of currents of modernity that—I would imagine—horrified Nietzsche. Socialism did away with Christianity, but seemed to embody the essence of Christian principles anyway by celebrating the weak at the expense of the strong.

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