A Socialist Reading of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals”

There’s a lot that any socialist would want to reject in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche; but there is also much that they might find useful. In this post I want to take a famous work of his, the first third of The Genealogy of Morals, and offer an internal critique of it; even accepting its main claims, it contains resources for attacking and even reversing its own conclusions.

Awesome Tache

Awesome 'Tache

This work can be be quite easily summarised: morality as it has come down to us from history displays two quite different and opposed origins.

The first, expressed in the words ‘good and bad’, stems from warrior-aristocrats identifying themselves and everything strong, beautiful, and happy as ‘good’ and the lower classes, everything ugly, weak, and miserable, as ‘bad’. After Nietzsche this has come to be called ‘master-morality’. The second, expressed in the words ‘good and evil‘, stems from priests and ‘the herd’ identifying those first warrior-aristocrats, and everything destructive, overpowering, and happy as ‘evil’, and then by contrast identifying themselves, and everything weak, humble, patient, and passive as ‘good’. This has come to be called ‘slave-morality’.

Now this work is a bit crazy at times, and also contains a lot of casual racism, an identification of the tendencies he discusses with ‘noble races’ and ‘slave races’. There’s a focus on Judaism/Christianity as the historical representative of ‘slave morality’ which is both Eurocentric and bordering on anti-Semitic. And Nietzsche is, in political terms, essentially someone who thinks there aren’t enough joyfully-butchering dictators around, imposing their mighty penises wills onto the world – and endlessly critical of democracy, socialism, egalitarianism and humanitarianism.

But at the same time, there’s also a lot that would appeal to the average class-struggle socialist. The attempt to understand the history of ideas in terms of people’s concrete situations and desires, the psychology of power and longing, is akin to Marx’s attempt to understand it in terms of economic relations, the psychology of need and avarice.

But moreover, Nietzsche affirms something very important: that “the right of the master to give names extends so far that we could permit ourselves to grasp the origin of language itself as an expression of the power of the rulers”. Or as Engels and Marx put it, “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

But this is something which is immediately a source of contradiction in the work, because Nietzsche appeals extensively to linguistic data, on the origins and relationships of words, in order to support his point. But if language is determined by the needs of the ruling class, then this method will provide him with only half the story: history from the perspective of the ruling class.

The same point comes out another way. Nietzsche talks about the divergence of ‘master-morality’ and ‘slave-morality’ in relation to the times when “the priestly caste and the warrior caste confront each other jealously and are not willing to agree amongst themselves about the winner.” And he says that these two “fought a fearful battle on earth for thousands of years.”

But if we consider history, something strikes us overwhelmingly – not the conflict between priests and military aristocrats, but their co-operation. Of course they have fought – and arguably the struggles between the Catholic church and the various kings of Medieval Europe is the greatest example of this we have. But their conflicts have always been against the background of their basic reconciliation with one another, their basic alliance. When the peasant revolts broke out, Catholic priests and warrior-nobles were entirely united in putting them down.

This in turn suggests that the ‘master-morality’ and the ‘slave-morality’ are also only in conflict against the background of their basic agreement. Nietzsche is often very good at exhibiting the way that Christian morality – Christian asceticism, humility, patience, kindness, is in fact the exact mirror-image of the aggressive violence that it claims to oppose – best captured in Aquinas’ quote that in heaven, the blessed will increase their bliss by watching the damned suffer in hell.

But why think that it is these two close siblings which together monopolise all human and experience? Because these two which have been able to force themselves into the culture and writings that have been most valued and most accepted by the elites of each age? That’s hardly surprising: that it is moralities of power that the powerful have most promoted.

What is required here, as in all history, is the effort to unearth, or read between the lines, the silences of the powerless, of the men, children, and especially women who have not been praised and propagandised by history’s various elites. To write, as it is sometimes put, ‘herstory’ as a counterweight to ‘history’.

Which is why I think Nietzsche is completely wrong in using the phrase ‘slave revolt in morals’ to describe the spread of christianity. A real slave revolt doesn’t preserve and prolong the ideas and mentality of slavery: it does away with them. This is the systemic ambiguity in ‘slave-morality’: a morality created by slaves, or a morality created for slaves? Equivalently, does Christianity represent the triumph of the weak, the masses, the downtrodden – or does it represent the triumph of priests? The two are far from being the same.

If we wanted to extract the most plausible account from Nietzsche that we can, we would have to say that ‘slave-morality’ is a hybrid – it is something which draws on and can thus connect with the experiences of the lower classes, the exploited, the oppressed, but which directs their quite reasonable and legitimate anger and rebelliousness into a value-system that will maintain their oppression.

For example, Nietzsche argues that the ‘virtues’ of patience, humility, and non-aggression are simply the unchosen qualities of the ‘weak’ (i.e. oppressed) – inability to respond, inability to evoke pride, inability to express agression – re-described as virtues in order to give succour and comfort to the ‘weak’. But because he sees no difference between ‘priests’ and ‘the masses’, he sees this as the weak themselves giving themselves this illusory comfort. But this is completely against the interests of the ‘weak’, which would be much better served by organising to assert the ‘virtues’ of strength by casting aside the ‘strong’ (privileged). This ‘comfort’ is provided by parts of the ruling class, acting on behalf of, and in the interests of, the ruling class.

This would of course lead Nietzsche to substantively the same view of religion that Marx had: that religion, the ‘heart of a heartless world’, draws on and co-opts the ‘real distress’ of the oppressed, transmuting it into the harmless ‘religious distress’ that would pose less challenge to the ruling class.

Probably Nietzsche is right to suggest that priests are, as a rule, historically, ‘weak’, in the sense of not having the right personality or gifts to win power, popularity, and success in an ‘effortless’, ‘natural’ way. But his dyadic vision, where ‘priests and all of the oppressed’ jointly counterpose the blessings of heaven to the pleasures of the world, is too simple. It leaves out the fact that while the oppressed must make do with the eventual blessings of heaven, priests are ‘comforted’ by the abundant pleasures that their power brings them in this life – which they are able to win from their more naively ‘strong’ (oppressive) colleagues, the kings and warlords and knights, on account of their ability to enlist the oppressed and deflect their resentment.

Because he sees the contending fragments of the ruling class as though they were the whole of humanity, Nietzsche is also forced to normalise the condition of being ruling class as though it, or some version of it, were simply the human condition. He speaks of warrior-aristocrats as ‘beasts (or birds) of prey’: “the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey”. That is – violence, murder, rape, pillage, and oppression flow naturally from the inner nature of all healthy and powerful human beings. If you refrain from all violent assaults on other people, it is probably because you are too weak to do so.

This is nonsense – it takes the carefully and laboriously constructed violence of the man (specifically man) trained from birth to rule and fight and grind down his ‘enemies’, and presents it as the universal essence of humanity. Equally, he presents the mentality of the priest – who transforms weakness and non-violence into a substitute for power and violence – as the universal mentality of everyone else, all the victims and all the oppressed.

What it amounts to is this: when we examine the records and history and culture that the ruling classes have created, we find that everyone here is either a ruling-class-member simpliciter (‘beast of prey’) or an inverted mirror-image of  a ruling-class-member. From this fact, that only those with the mentality of rulers have been immortalised by rulers, we will conclude that there exists no-one who is not a ruler. All the oppressed must therefore be failed oppressors.

Women, of course, hardly appear. This is probably for the best, since it spares us the claim that rape victims are merely aspiring rapists too ‘weak’ to rape anyone else. But while Nietzsche is hardly to be excused the failing of presenting oppressors as the model for all humanity, in doing so he is not novel; this is what culture has done for millennia.

A final word on Nietzsche’s view of the present and future. In many respects Nietzsche seems most at home in the past; his accounts of aristocrats and priests is designed for the past, not for the distinctive forms of modern oppression and exploitation. But he is perhaps not far off the truth in identifying socialism and democracy as the successors to religion. Very often, when these words are spoken they serve exactly the same purpose: to enlist the oppressed, and their natural resistance to oppression, into a struggle that will serve simply to put one more faction of rulers in charge, whether that’s Castro or Obama.

This is of course entirely consistent with socialism and democracy being valid ideas – because few things are as obvious as that our ‘democracy’ is undemocratic, and that the Union of Soviet ‘Socialist’ Republics was a class system. But for Nietzsche of course, this distinction – between socialism and ‘socialism’ – cannot appear, for the same reason that the distinction between priests and ‘the suffering’ on whose behalf they speak cannot appear. But we need not imitate his blindness.

6 Responses to “A Socialist Reading of Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals””

  1. Francois Tremblay Says:

    “But this is completely against the interests of the ‘weak’, which would be much better served by organising to assert the ‘virtues’ of strength by casting aside the ’strong’ (privileged).”

    Seems like you’re asserting here that people always act in their class interests. I think simple observation will yield the result that, while the power elite is pretty good at being cohesive, the masses certainly aren’t. Fact is, there is very little class consciousness left in the working class now.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    No, people don’t always act in their class interests (nor in their individual interests…) but – well, I’m not trying to prove to readers that priests, not slaves, invented ‘God wants you to suffer in silence and obey your owners’, I’m trying to point it out, since I figure it’s a fairly obvious fact, that just needs to be inserted into the theoretical narrative Nietzsche is drawing. The fact that inventing that idea is very much against the slave’s/oppressed people’s interests is meant to reinforce this.

  3. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Why? People invent concepts that go against their class interests all the time. So how does it reinforce your point?

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    It made it seem more plausible to me, I guess.

  5. “The Genealogy of Morals” « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] of Morals” July 7, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork This is the final part of my reading of, and critique of, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, focused on the third section, […]

  6. Emmy07 Says:

    Really interesting and helpful, Thanks.


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