Anti-individualism and collectivism [Section 34 of Nietzsche and the Nazis]

[This is Section 34 of Nietzsche and the Nazis.]

luft-100pxPart 7. Nietzsche as a Proto-Nazi

34. Anti-individualism and collectivism

nn-front-cover-thumbWe know that the National Socialists were thoroughly collectivistic and strongly anti-individualistic. For them the relevant groups were the Germanic Aryans—and all the others. Individuals were defined by their group identity, and individuals were seen only as vehicles through which the groups achieved their interests. The Nazis rejected the Western liberal idea that individuals are ends in themselves: to the Nazis individuals were merely servants of the groups to which they belong.

The anti-individualism of the Nazis was most blatant in their treatment of Jews. They did not see Jews as individuals with moral significance and rights—rather they saw members of a group they wished to destroy. This meant, as a matter of policy, that the Nazis were uncaring about the lives of individuals and were willing to kill as many individuals as was necessary to achieve their group’s advantage.

Even within their own group, the Nazis did not see Aryan/Germans fundamentally as individuals. They saw them as members of the Volk, the German people, the group to which they owed service, obedience, and even their lives.

Nietzsche has a reputation for being an individualist. There certainly are individualist elements in Nietzsche’s philosophy, but in my judgment his reputation for individualism is often much overstated.

When we speak of philosophies as being individualist or collectivist, three key points are at issue.

First, we ask: Do individuals shape their own identities—or are their identities created by forces beyond their control? For example, do individuals have the capacity to decide their own beliefs and form their own characters—or are individuals molded and shaped primarily by their biological inheritances or culturally by the groups they are born into and raised by?

Second, we ask: Are individuals ends in themselves, with their own lives and purposes to pursue—or do individuals exist for the sake of something beyond themselves to which they are expected to subordinate their interests?

Third, we ask: Do the decisive events in human life and history occur because individuals, generally exceptional individuals, make them happen—or are the decisive events of history a matter of collective action or larger forces at work?

Let us take the first issue—whether individuals shape themselves significantly or whether they are the product of forces beyond their control. Only in an attenuated way does Nietzsche believe that individuals shape their own characters and destiny—to a great extent he is determinist, believing that individuals are a product of their biological heritage. As he puts it in Beyond Good and Evil, “One cannot erase from the soul of a human being what his ancestors liked most to do and did most constantly.”[107] Any given individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, are an expression of an underlying set of traits that the individual inherited. Whether one is a sheep or a wolf is a matter of biology—one does not choose or shape oneself significantly—so to that extent it makes no sense to hold individuals responsible for who they are and what they become.[108]

What about the second issue—does Nietzsche believe that individuals are ends in themselves, that they exist for their own sake? Emphatically not. Here I think many casual readings of Nietzsche get him dead wrong. Take an initial obvious point: Nietzsche has nothing but contempt for the vast majority of the population, believing them to be sheep and a disgrace to the dignity of the human species. Their individual lives have no value in themselves. This is Nietzsche’s point in the following quotation, in which he denies explicitly that his philosophy is individualistic: “My philosophy aims at ordering of rank not at an individualistic morality.”[109] Nietzsche believes that most individuals have no right to exist and—more brutally—he asserts that if they were sacrificed or slaughtered that would be an improvement. In Nietzsche’s own words: “mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man—that would be an advance.”[110] And again: “One must learn from war: one must learn to sacrifice many and to take one’s cause seriously enough not to spare men.”[111] It is hard to see as an individualist anyone who sees no value in the lives of the vast majority of individuals. And it is hard to see as an individualist someone who would sacrifice those individuals in the name of improving the species. Improving the species is a collectivist goal, and measuring the value of individuals in terms of their value to the species and sacrificing those who do not measure up—that is textbook collectivism.

This connects directly to the value Nietzsche sees in the few great individuals who crop up in each generation. It is his powerfully poetic rhetoric in speaking of those exceptional individuals that gives Nietzsche his reputation for individualism. But it is important to note that Nietzsche does not see even those exceptional individuals as ends in themselves—and he does not exempt them from the sacrifice either. The point of becoming exceptional is not to advance one’s own life but to improve the human species—in fact to get beyond the human species to a higher species-type: the overman. As Nietzsche says repeatedly, “Not ‘mankind’ but overman is the goal!”[112] Nietzsche’s goal is a collectivist one—to bring about a new, future, higher species of man—overman. This is the significance of his exhortations about the Übermensch, the overman, the superman.

So it seems that for Nietzsche none of us, whether weak or strong, exist for our own sakes. In direct contrast to individualists who believe that individuals’ lives are their own to find and create value within, Nietzsche’s belief is that our lives have value only to the extent we fulfill a goal beyond our lives—the creation of a stronger species. And on that general collectivist end, Nietzsche has an important point in common with the Nazis.

There is also the third sub-issue of individualism—whether the decisive events in human life and history occur because individuals, generally exceptional individuals, make them happen, or whether individuals are pawns of greater historical forces. Here the Nazis’ theory and practice were a combination of both. They believed in and utilized mass-movement politics, seeing their political movement as the vehicle through which a powerful cultural force—the German Volk—was asserting its historical destiny. At the same time, the Nazis held that those powerful historical forces singled out some special individuals to perform special tasks and that destiny spoke through those special individuals. This, at any rate, was Hitler’s firm belief when he made statements such as the following: “I carry out the commands that Providence has laid upon me”; and “No power on earth can shake the German Reich now, Divine Providence has willed it that I carry through the fulfillment of the Germanic task.”[113]

In invoking Divine Providence, Hitler is drawing upon a long philosophical tradition that goes back most famously to the German philosopher Georg Hegel, with his World-Historical Individuals—those individuals such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, who, on Hegel’s view, were vehicles through which the Spiritual forces of history operated. That tradition goes back even further in religious interpretations of history.

prophet-100pxThink, for example, of religious prophets. Prophets are special individuals within a religious tradition. The prophet, though, is not special as an individual—he is not an individual who has acquired his powers through his own efforts and who has created his own new and unique vision. Rather the prophet is special only because God has chosen him and because God is speaking through him. The prophet is totally a tool of God—his power comes from God and he is a mouthpiece through which God speaks his message. He is a localized vehicle through which the real force—namely, God—works.

Now let us return to Nietzsche. Nietzsche is an atheist, yet he offers a secular version of the same theory.

Nietzsche’s power force is not religious or spiritual force, but a biological one. His great men—prophets like the Zarathustras who may be among us and those who are to come—are special individuals in whom powerful evolutionary forces have converged to create something remarkable. And those powerful evolutionary forces are working through those Zarathustras to achieve something even more remarkable—the overman. Such exceptional individuals do not develop and use power; power develops and uses those individuals. Individuals are only the tools, the vehicles. This is what Nietzsche is getting at when he says that every “living creature values many things higher than life itself; yet out of this evaluation itself speaks—the will to power.”[114]

Note what Nietzsche is saying the real causal power is: The will to power works through those individuals; it is not that those individuals develop and use power.

There is legitimate controversy among scholars over this interpretation of Nietzsche, but to the extent this interpretation is true it does undermine Nietzsche’s reputation as an individualist and strengthens the claim the Nazis have on him as a philosophical forerunner.

References

[107] BGE 264.

[108] “There is only aristocracy of birth, only aristocracy of blood” (WP 942).

[109] WP 287. Morality is a social product: it arises “when a greater individual or a collective-individual, for example the society, the state, subjugates all other single ones … and orders them into a unit” (HH 1.99).

[110] GM II:12.

[111] WP 982.

[112] WP 1001.

[113] Hitler, quoted in Langer.

[114] Z 2:12.

[Bibliography]

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8 thoughts on “Anti-individualism and collectivism [Section 34 of Nietzsche and the Nazis]

  • February 13, 2010 at 5:21 am
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    My website is worth a peek.

  • February 13, 2010 at 9:46 pm
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    This is a very meticulous examination of the issue. Thank you.

    Does Nietzsche’s work offer a systemetic philosophy or representation of a particular personality? Perhaps some hybrid of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Iago? Would thinking of Nietzsche as either an individualist or a collectivist enhance the experience of reading his books?

    “Such exceptional individuals do not develop and use power; power develops and uses those individuals.” Can you give textual suport for this? Or, how would Nietzsche’s rhetoric look different if he believed exceptional individuals DO develop and use power? In the second sentence the word power is geven agency – it is personified – how often does Nlietzsche do this? (It sound more like something Blake would do.)

  • February 15, 2010 at 2:29 pm
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    On the textual support for power’s agency. It’s a consistent theme especially in Nietzsche when he is focused on having his process metaphysics replace most earlier thinkers’ substance metaphysics. E.g.,

    *Twilight of the Idols*: “the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence” (“Reason” in Philosophy 2).

    *Genealogy of Morals*: “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” This substance/action ontology leads people to maintain the belief that “the strong man is free to be weak and the bird of prey to be a lamb—for thus they gain the right to make the bird of prey accountable for being a bird of prey.” (1:13)

  • August 29, 2010 at 4:22 am
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    Nietzsche was talking about a psychological sacrifice of the people who would be plunged into the depths of nihilism in the absence of previously held values.

    Nietzsche felt powerful when he helped other people find isolated qualities of an eventual overman within themselves. THIS is the sole reason he wrote and spoke about his views on existence. It made him feel good, and powerful, to be a psychologist of sorts to overmen who found themselves weighed down by the burden of meaningless, externally imposed moral codes and prescribed ways of living in society that tramples the individual. Nietzsche was most definitely an individualist! He recognized the necessity of the sacrifice, the dark feeling that would be experienced by men to weak to find meaning if they took his philosophy to heart. Only strong-willed humans, so-called “last men,” and actual overmen would be able to find meaning in light of Nietzche’s observations (if they took them to heart, truly). The uniqueness of the overman is a constant feeling of power and seamlessly instantaneous renewal of that feeling. The overman wouldn’t need to “do” anything to feel powerful, certainly not kill weaker humans. All that would be required for a species of overmen would be to implore men to invite their psychological urge to “transvaluate” all values. Of course, only those in the three aforementioned categories would be able to do this. Thus, the psychological sacrifice of the weak-willed to the pits of a nihilism they can’t escape. The only way to find the strong-willed is to explain the philosophy to everyone and see what people are helped by it, rather than hurt. Nietszche personally valued the helping of others find their “free spirit” so much, that he decided the sacrifice of weaker minds was worth it. I can’t help but see your interpretation (along with hitler’s) as being a sign of a sort of intellectual weakness. A characteristic of a weak-will, but not necessarily something that can’t be overcome. Definitely a sign that you aren’t an overman though, unfortunately (neither am I, neither was Nietzsche, neither will anybody ever be, in all truth).

    “One does not choose or shape oneself significantly—so to that extent it makes no sense to hold individuals responsible for who they are and what they become.[108]”

    Um…doesn’t this actually favor an individualistic framework?

    In any event, I don’t think Nietzsche would say individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for they are or what they’ve become. I don’t think he would say they should either. I think he would simply say that if a person acts in such a way as to reduce your power, you need to do what you can to assert your greater power. Perhaps what one “is” and what one “has become” would be a source of that action against you, but I don’t see how the issue of “responsibility” would even fit into the discussion. Will to power is what, in Nietzsche’s estimation, IS existence. Thus we are responsible for our actions in the sense that we are our existence, and our existence is our feeling of the will to power, and our expression of the will to power is what we are………………………………………………ya know?

  • August 29, 2010 at 4:51 am
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    Addendum to above: You twisted Nietzsche’s use of the word ‘sacrificed,’ and interpreted as ‘sacrificed OR slaughtered.’ which is just plain intellectually dishonest BS.

    “What about the second issue—does Nietzsche believe that individuals are ends in themselves, that they exist for their own sake? Emphatically not. Here I think many casual readings of Nietzsche get him dead wrong. Take an initial obvious point: Nietzsche has nothing but contempt for the vast majority of the population, believing them to be sheep and a disgrace to the dignity of the human species.”

    Hold up there. Nietzsche DOES NOT believe the vast majority of the population to be a disgrace to the dignity of the human species. Nietzsche doesn’t believe humanity HAS any dignity! Have you not read “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”? I agree with you that he thinks the majority are sheep…because he is right! This does not equate to contempt and you have not successfully demonstrated that it does. Nietzsche may have felt contempt, but it was not central to his philosophy. What WAS central, was the ability to recognized a weak-willed person when you encountered one, such as a priest (which is why he expounds on the weakness of the priests will in The Antichrist).

    ““My philosophy aims at ordering of rank not at an individualistic morality.”[109]”

    This has nothing to do with collectivism! Granted, Nietzsche was being redundant by saying his objective was not an individualistic morality, because he wholly rejected the idea of objective morality! In the sense that man HAS values, they must be generated by himself! The ordering or rank simply refers to the recognition that, when faced with society, the free spirit should be ready and able to recognize where he fits in, psychologically, with the herd. Otherwise there is a danger of allowing the nihilistic tendencies of the herd to become burdensome. This ordering of rank was nothing if not individualistic!

  • August 29, 2010 at 4:58 am
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    I strongly disagree with the assertion that Nietzsche wasn’t fundamentally an individualist.

    “The point of becoming exceptional is not to advance one’s own life but to improve the human species—in fact to get beyond the human species to a higher species-type: the overman. As Nietzsche says repeatedly, “Not ‘mankind’ but overman is the goal!”[112] Nietzsche’s goal is a collectivist one—to bring about a new, future, higher species of man—overman. This is the significance of his exhortations about the Übermensch, the overman, the superman.”

    Nietzche’s goal was not to create a “race” of supermen, but rather to tear down the so-called ‘values’ that were standing in the way of the superman finding true expression! Nietzche reached out with his writings because it made him feel powerful to reveal what he saw as more valuable than what men had hitherto look at as ‘truths.’

    But the operative term is ‘because it made him feel powerful.’ In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Zarathustra alternately associates with other people, and his animals in his cave, depending on what he feels would bed serve his requirement of feeling powerful. It has NOTHING to do with the community as an end, only as a means to power. That Nietzsche considered himself as empathetic as he could possibly be (his superman was actually a pinnacle of empathy) is what would justify the feeling of power he got from spreading his ideas (descending from the mountain, in Zarathustra’s case). He knew what it felt like to feel the revelations in his own head…and it made him feel powerful to be the one that could catalyze similar revelations in other men who were disposed to be supermen or at the very least understand the need to feel power. The superman would be the ultimate in empathy and goodwill, as the idea that such a straight-forward disposition as empathy could make one feel the ultimate sense of power is the mark of a truly, inherently powerful self and mind. If a person needed to kill in order to feel powerful, such as the nazis or leopold and lobe, Nietzche would almost certainly regard that as the antithesis to the overman. Perhaps Nietzche was empathetic to a fault at times.

    He didn’t want to “create” a race of ovemen…he just wanted to help the overmen, last men, and ‘conscientious ones” as a whole, recognize the potential in themselves, because he knew how amazing it felt to do so! (as do I)

    ” The size of a “step forward” can even be estimated by a measure of everything that had to be sacrificed to it. The humanity as mass sacrificed for the benefit of a single stronger species of man— that would be a step forward . . . .”

    This is a tricky excerpt, but you have to remember that Nietzsche essentially thought of himself as a psychologist. When he talks about “sacrificing” “humanity,” two thing should be noted. Humanity to Nietzsche meant everything that he considered “human” (which inspired “human, all too human” an amazing work). Such things would include (ironically) herd instinct and morality, proclivity toward religious sentiment, etc. If his ideas were to be realized by all members of society, those people unable to transcend their humanity, or humanness, would be sacrificed in the sense that they would be lost in the depths of nihilism, too weak to create their own meaning in the absence of the dogmas and morality they were born into. The higher man would be able to create their own voluptuous sense of renewed meaning, and in fact would ONLY be able to do so in the absence of the very same thing that the weak-willed REQUIRE for meaning! See how he could see this as being beneficial to society? The sacrifice is a psychological one! I personally would say the misinterpretation of this passage by the likes of hitler (and yourself?) is a sign of intellectual weakness. Claiming that I must be exhibiting a desire to kill you (hitler I would because of his deeds) would be absurd on the same level as it is absurd to claim Nietzsche’s writings lead to the conclusion that he condoned sacrificial murder…

  • August 29, 2010 at 5:09 am
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    Oh, and also, the actual quote is:

    “The humanity as mass sacrificed for the benefit of a single stronger species of man— that would be a step forward”

    not:

    MANKIND as mass sacrificed for the benefit of a single stronger species of man— that would be a step forward

    This is important, because the sacrifice (as I originally mentioned) has to do with humanity, humanness, things all-too-human…ie weakness of the will. Sacrificing things human, ie ‘the humanity’ is essentially allowing nihilism to develop in weak-willed individuals. Again, this is ultimately reverent to individualism in a utilitarian sense: the feeling of power felt by free spirits is worth the feeling of nihilism felt by the weak.

  • July 14, 2011 at 8:44 am
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    “Nietzche’s goal was not to create a “race” of supermen, but rather to tear down the so-called ‘values’ that were standing in the way of the superman finding true expression!”

    Actually Jason, Nietzsche was very very clear that breeding a new ruling caste informed a large part of his project:

    “But here it is fitting that I should break off my cheerful Germanomaniac address: for already I am touching on what is to me serious, on the ‘European problem’ as I understand it, on the breeding of a new ruling caste for Europe.” (BGE 251)

    The original German reads: “ich rühre bereits an meinen Ernst, an das europäische Problem, wie ich es verstehe, an die Züchtung einer neuen über Europa regierenden Kaste.”

    Can’t wear to hear your metaphorical spin on that passage.

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