‘We Need to Talk About Nietzsche’ Marina Gržinić on Nietzsche, Racism, and Capitalism

As the month begins to draw to a close, our series of articles marking Nietzsche’s birthday continue. This time, Marina Gržinić offers her thoughts on a part of Nietzsche’s world view that is often sidelined – his racism. Marina is a philosopher, theoretician and artist from Ljubljana, Slovenia. She is a prominent contemporary theoretical and critical figure in Slovenia, and has been employed at the Institute of Philosophy at the Scientific and Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts (ZRC-SAZU in Slovenian / SRC-SASA in English) since 1993. She currently serves as a Professor and research adviser. Read on for her thoughts…

On October 15, 2018, it was the birthday anniversary of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, born on that very day in 1844 in the Kingdom of Prussia and who passed away 55 years later in 1900. In January of this year, Martin A. Ruehl, Lecturer in German intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, published in The Independent a critique of Nietzsche, revealing that he was not after all a prophet of total liberation. Ruehl exposed Nietzsche’s defense of slavery, especially in the context of Nietzsche being enthroned as an emblematic figure of “morality” and “aristocratic radicalism.”

However, twenty years ago William A. Preston, in his dissertation Nietzsche as Anti-Socialist: Prophet of Bourgeois Ennoblement defended at Yale University in 1995, argued that “Nietzsche is ultimately a pro-bourgeois thinker (…) whose ostensibly anti-systematic work is given by its anti-working-class and more specifically anti-socialist animus. Nietzsche’s highest political ambition is to re-make the European bourgeoisie into a new aristocratic caste exercising global dominion.” After this, in 1997 Preston begun his essay “Nietzsche and Blacks,” published in Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy (ed. Lewis R. Gordon), asking “Why should not a black existentialist who is also a leftist turn to Nietzsche? After all, Nietzsche’s namealong with Heidegger’semblazons the banners held high by those who march in the literature and philosophy regiments of postmodernism.Preston primarily focuses his attention on the passage in Nietzsche Genealogy of Morality (1887) a book that is seen as is Nietzsche most important work on ethics and politics.

In essay number 2 of the Genealogy of Morality, section 7, Nietzsche mentions Black people and what that means within his political philosophy of domination. Nietzsche was convinced that Africans, whose constitution he believed closely resembled that of “primeval man,” felt less pain than white people, especially the white “cultural elite.” Listen to Nietzsche’s own words – “Now, when suffering is always the first of the arguments marshalled against life, as its most questionable feature, it is salutary to remember the times when people made the opposite assessment, because they could not do without making people suffer and saw first-rate magic in it, a veritable seductive lure to life. Perhaps painI say this to comfort the squeamishdid not hurt as much then as it does now; at least, a doctor would be justified in assuming this, if he had treated a Negro (taken as a representative for primeval man) for serious internal inflammations which would drive the European with the stoutest constitution to distraction;they do not do that to Negroes” (pp.44-45).

So to Nietzsche, to his “young flaws” (Antisemitism) we can also add directly racist views towards Black people. Preston’s critiques were not at all rhetorical, as what he identifies is Nietzsche’s anti-black racism or even more precisely the “racist aristocracy of Nietzschean Ethics.” As Preston writes, “Two kinds of racist commitment are manifest in Nietzsche’s thought: one, affirming the need to heighten the race-quality of the European bourgeoisie, the other, denying the full humanity of Black people.”  Preston points out that Nietzsche’s views on Black people, as being inferior to the white bourgeoisie, is intrinsically relevant for Nietzsche’s racial ontology. Preston’s analysis from the 1990s, retaken and reflected by Ruehl in 2018, is at least awkward if not hyper problematic for any anti-racist, leftist thinker that is not only a Black philosopher, but as well for any other socialist, feminist philosopher.

What Preston’s position highlights is that Nietzsche’s thoughts on race, particularly about the supposed racial inferiority of Black people, should be dismissed altogether. Of course, there exists an intensive debate that such a path of critique of Nietzsche, who after all is seen as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, is exaggerated. And yet, if we dive into Nietzsche thoughts we capture further a troubling image of him being dismissive of modern egalitarianism altogether.  He called for contempt not only of slaves and Black people but of women and workers as well. This is now surfacing in his notes of 1881, in which, as exposed by Keith Ansell-Pearson in 1991, Nietzsche “outlines the doctrine of the eternal return in terms of a critique of socialism.”

Finally, why is such a critical view needed? Structural racism is the core logic of global capitalism. Racialization is its internal administrative, judicial, and economic procedure, which regulates the space of financial capitalism as well as the system of representation, theory, and discursivity. Racism is not just an identity politics but something internal to the whole agenda of the transformation of the nation-state under global capitalism. It is possible to argue that in the passage from nation-state to war-state, which is the contemporary form of the old imperial nation-states of the past, we bump into a specific formation: the racial-state. All EU states are racial-states, as demonstrated by the way they have managed refugee and asylum politics.

This is to say that what supports the process of identity politics is not simply a multicultural project of differentiation in society, but a process of racialization that is actually at the core of contemporary global capitalist societies. The identity politics that we have defined as the product of a process of multiculturalization in contemporary capitalist societies is in fact a process of racialization.

Professor Marina Gržinić, Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts


William A. Preston, “Nietzsche and Blacks,” in Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy, ed. L.R. Gordon (New York: Routledge, 1997).

As part of our celebrations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birthday, we are offering a 50% discount on five of our most important recent titles on the enigmatic thinker. Please click here to see more.

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