Nietzsche, Socialism, and Utilitarianism

Among Nietzsche’s many excellent insights into the mind of nineteenth-century socialism, here is one from his early days (1878) that particularly appeals to my way of thinking:

The Socialists demand a comfortable life for the greatest possible number. If the lasting house of this life of comfort, the perfect State, had really been attained, then this life of comfort would have destroyed the ground out of which grow the great intellect and the mighty individual generally, I mean powerful energy. Were this State reached, mankind would have grown too weary to be still capable of producing genius. Must we not hence wish that life should retain its forcible character, and that wild forces and energies should continue to be called forth afresh? But warm and sympathetic hearts desire precisely the removal of that wild and forcible character, and the warmest hearts we can imagine desire it the most passionately of all, whilst all the time its passion derived its fire, its warmth, its very existence precisely from that wild and forcible character; the warmest heart, therefore, desires the removal of its own foundation, the destruction of itself,— that is, it desires something illogical, it is not intelligent. [Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, Helen Zimmern translation, Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1910, §235.]

One thing that jumps out immediately, with benefit of hindsight, is that Nietzsche’s speculation, framed in the subjunctive mood to imagine what might have happened if the socialists had achieved their political goal, turns out to have been a pitch-perfect prediction of what so-called democratic socialism actually means in practice, a century after Nietzsche wrote those words. The state built on the premise of providing comfort to “the greatest number” is, by both its intrinsic impulses and its practical methods, crushing to the individual spirit (the individual’s “powerful energy”) and what we might call man’s higher aspirations. Though Nietzsche does not explain clearly in this context what drives the socialist will to universal comfort at the expense of individual passion and power, portraying it here as something of a self-contradictory weakness (the excessively “warm heart”), in his mature works he is more psychologically incisive, attributing the socialist’s egalitarian instinct to self-loathing and cowardice. That is to say, socialism dulls the passion and independent spirit of the gifted individual, not as an accidental side effect of “the perfect state,” but rather as its primary goal. Socialism is, at its warm heart, modernity’s most perfectly realized and systematic instantiation of Tall Poppy Syndrome.

The inherent problem, as Nietzsche acknowledges here only implicitly, is that utilizing the authority of the state to provide for everyone’s “comfort” entails expanding the power of the state widely enough to be able to utilize it for such a purpose, which in the process means regulating and subduing individual will, private initiative, and independent thought so effectively that the best natures among the population are drained of their vital energy, namely of the passionate intellect required to overcome trials, withstand challenges, redeem suffering, and convert spiritual struggle into the longing that gives birth to philosophy and great art. 

The crux of the issue, as Nietzsche recognizes in the passage’s opening sentence, and as is all-too-often neglected today, is that socialism, progressivism, or whatever you wish to call it, is at best merely one form of utilitarianism. Its stated goal is nothing but “a comfortable life for the greatest possible number.” In other words, the generalization of “comfort,” meaning ease — relief from the emotional hardships and difficult imperatives of human life — is the aim to which all other interests are subordinated in the socialist’s supposed utopia. Socialism is at its heart nothing but the reduction of mankind to a pathetic form of escapism that we might call egalitarian hedonism: an attempt to spread pleasure into every corner of society, precisely by spreading it so thin that the pleasures everyone is permitted, in the end, are tasteless and transparent, little more enticing than the relative absence of pain, followed by a reasonably comfortable death. Or rather, socialist utilitarianism, in its most idealized form, is human life reduced to nothing but a prolonged and reasonably comfortable death. Essential to this process, both as a moral stand and as a psychological necessity, the socialist’s perfect state, eager to eliminate counterexamples, must and will begin by lopping off its most assertively beautiful (i.e., rarest) flowers, and end by weeding such non-compliant growths out of the garden altogether, primarily by means of state education. Nothing less than this is what Nietzsche refers to, above, as socialism’s removal of life’s wild and forcible character. The destruction of the profound passions that give rise to great intellect and the mighty individual. The comfort-induced weariness of mankind.

After explaining the self-destructive historical impulse of passionate individuals who seek social conditions in which passionate individuals as such would become impossible, Nietzsche concludes with a pithy predictive summary of the political fate of modern rational-scientific man:

The State is a wise arrangement for the protection of one individual against another; if its ennobling is exaggerated the individual will at last be weakened by it, even effaced, — thus the original purpose of the State will be most completely frustrated. [Ibid.]

And so here we are.


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