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Nietzsche: A Radical Challenge To Political Theory?

Nietzsche:

A Radical Challenge To
Political Theory?

Keith Ansell-Pearson
Only if mankind possessed a universally recognised
goal would it be possible to propose ‘thus and thus is
the right course of action’: for the present there exists
no such goal. It is thus irrational and trivial to impose
the demands of morality upon mankind. – To recommend a goal to mankind is something quite different:

the goal is then thought of as something which lies in
our discretion; supposing the recommendation appealed to mankind, it could in pursuit of it also impose
upon itself a moral law …. Up to now the moral law has
been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not want actually to impose this law upon
oneself, have it commanded to one from somewhere.

Nietzsche, Daybreak. 1881
Nietzsche’s far-reaching critique of metaphysics, of philosophy’s claim to provide access to a realm of objective truth
and universal values, has placed him at the centre of debates
on the nature of the postmodern turn in Western thought. It is
only recently, however, that any attempt has been made to
examine the significance of his deconstruction of the philosophical tradition for political theory. An impasse on the
question of Nietzsche’s status as a political thinker was
reached by commentators adopting the practice of reading his
overt neo-conservative politics back into his philosophy of
power in an effort to discredit the philosophical site on which
he had constructed his political edifice. Yet for anyone aware
of the pivotal role that Nietzsche’s writings have come to play
in contemporary debates in critical theory, poststructuralism
and deconstruction, his status as a political thinker poses an
enigma in need of explanation and enlightenment.

Two recent studies – Mark Warren’s Nietzsche and Political Thought and William Connolly’s Political Theory and
Modernityl – place Nietzsche at the centre of a transition from
a modern to a postmodern (or ‘late modern’ in the case of
Connolly) perspective in political theory. The ideas of a
thinker whose political philosophy most students of the subject would regard as little more than an aesthetic-cultural ideology which prefigures, in its cult of strong leadership and
contempt for the mass of humanity, a Fascist style of politics,
are given a radical turn. Warren’s study is by far the most
original attempt yet to explain the radical disjunction which
commentators have argued exists between Nietzsche’s progressive and emancipatory philosophical insights and his
regressive and debilitating politics, probably best captured in
the phrase ‘aristocratic radicalism’ coined by the Danish
critic and first person ever to lecture on Nietzsche, Georg

10

Brandes. 2 In his highly imaginative reconstruction of the
relation between Nietzsche and political thought, Warren
attempts to explain the disjunction between Nietzsche’s radical critique of the Platonic-Christian tradition and his neoconservative politics by arguing that there exists no necessary
logical connection between the two. Rather, Nietzsche’s politics only follow from his philosophy of power if we accept
along with it several uncritical assumptions about the nature
and limits of politics in modern societies (such as, for example, that all societies, ancient and modern, require a rigid
and institutionalised division of labour and order of rank in
which society is divided into masters and slaves). From this
argument that Nietzsche’s philosophy of power can be fruitfully disengaged from his politics, Warren puts forward the
position that Nietzsche’s philosophy of power provides the
starting point for articulating a postmodern conception of
human agency.

The postmodern turn in Western thought whiCh we are
witnessing at present poses a major challenge to the radical
political discourse of modernity that unites Rousseau and
Kant with Hegel and Marx. The aim is to privilege a Nietzschean perspective in order to shift the boundaries of political
thought, a privileging which takes place by jettisoning the
Marxist project of modernity – that of creating, in Rousseau’s
phrase and echoed by Marx, a ‘form of association’ in which
the free development of each has become a precondition for

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

the free development of all;3 the construction of an ethicopolitical community in which the’!’ and the ‘We’ are united,
and in which the antinomies of modern political thought, of
individualism and communitarianism, of egalitarianism and
libertarianism, have been overcome. This radical political
project is replaced by a Nietzscheean-inspired aestheticism in
which the chief goal of existence becomes, in Nietzsche’s
words, one of ‘giving style to one’s character’.4 This aestheticism is apparent in Connolly’s deconstruction of the political
discourse of modernity and constitutes the major motif of
Michel Foucault’ s last work.

In this essay I want to critically examine the claims made
on behalf of Nietzsche’s alleged ‘post-modem’ critique of
political reason. I shall suggest that the attempt, it la Warren,
to arrive at a postmodern political theory based on a synthesis
of Kant’s ethics and Nietzsche’s philosophy of power is much
more problematic than his argument suggests, and that, contra
Connolly, the significance of Nietzsche ‘s thought for political
theory does not simply consist in its aestheticisation of ethics
and politics. It resides in its questioning of the way in which
individuals socially construct their ethical and political identities.

Human Agency: A Critical Postmodernism?

The concept of nihilism plays a key role in Warren’s reconstruction of the relation between Nietzsche and political
thought. He argues that nihilism primarily denotes a crisis of
human agency in which there exists a disjunction between the
individual’s actual experience of the world and his or her
interpretation of that experience. Thus, Nietzsche’s guiding
question is that of how human beings are able to be subjects of
action, ‘historically effective and free individuals, in a world
in which subjectivity is unsupported by transcendent phenomena or metaphysical essences’ (p. 7). It is in the context of
the problem of European nihilism that Warren introduces his
reading of the doctrine of will to power. The will to power is
to be understood in terms of an account of how human agency
is possible. The significance of understanding nihilism in the
context of the will to power lies in the fact that nihilism
signifies a profound crisis of human agency.

The most important question concerning Warren’s reconstruction is why Nietzsche’s philosophy – as opposed to say
Rousseau’s or Marx’s – is deemed to be the most apposite to
the tasks of a critical postmodern political theory. Warren’s
answer is that, although Nietzsche does not provide us with
either a systematic or a coherent political theory (let alone a
vision of political emancipation, as in Rousseau, or ‘total
human emancipation’, as in Marx, 5 it is only with his philosophy of power that we have the possibility of a postmodern political theory which offers a conception of human agency that
explicitly breaks with the metaphysical assumptions of modern political thought in which we find a conception of human
agency that rests on both transcendental and teleological
foundations. It is this central claim of Warren’s reconstruction of Nietzsche’s thought that needs to be subjected to
critical scrutiny. Many of the tensions of Warren’s reconstruction of the relation between Nietzsche and political
thought result from his adoption of a ‘critical’ postmodernism. Unlike Foucault, for example, Warren does not wish to
completely abandon, or even place under erasure, the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment. On the contrary, he argues
that these notions (that of an autonomous subjectivity, for
example) need to be historicized. The significance of
Nietzsche for political thought, according to this argument, is
that it is Nietzsche who is the first to embark on a historicizaRadical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

tion of the problem of human agency. Leaving aside the
question of whether or not this claim is based on a legitimate
reading of the history of modern political thought, it would
appear that the appellation of postmodernism in Warren’s
formulation of a ‘critical postmodernism’ is somewhat misplaced. As several commentators have noted, Foucault’s critique of humanism entails that notions of ‘autonomy’, ‘subjectivity’, and ‘self-determination’ lose their hegemony in
political theory on account of their complicitness with the
discourses of power/knowledge characteristic of modern disciplinary society. 6
Instead of composing a language of emancipation, Foucault’s postmodernism claims that the language ·of the Enlightenment constitutes a discourse of right which conceals a
discourse of power in such an insidious way that it is a
language which is implicated in the disciplinary forms of
power of modernity in which the human subject is trained to
accept responsibility for its ‘free’ actions. Contrary to the
tradition of critical theory, Foucault does not make an appeal
to the gap between appearance and reality, between, for example, the juridical ideals of bourgeois liberalism and the
material reality of inequality and class rule in capitalist society. Foucault forecloses the possibility of any recourse to a
critical notion of subjectivity since he argues that notions of
autonomy and selfhood are integral components of the disciplinary society. As Peter Dews has noted,
… such a critique functions by counterposing to the
limitations of existing democratic sovereignty a more
adequate conception of collective self-determination
which would promote the elimination of these discrepancies, whereas Foucault’s argument is that any theory
of sovereignty or self-determination must be abandoned, since the ‘free subject’ upon which such theories rely is in fact intrinsically heteronomous, constituted by power.7
Warren’s use of the term postmodemism distorts his critical
intentions to historicize, not abandon, these rationalist ideals.

The great weakness of his highly imaginative but problematic
reconstruction is that it fails to establish the relevance and
importance of Nietzsche’s philosophy of power for contemporary political theory by carrying out a systematic examination of the doctrine of will to power in relation to the tradition
of modern political thought (Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and
11

r
I

Hegel), where it would be necessary to examine the notion in
terms of questions about the nature of law and sovereignty;
about the nature of political legitimacy and consent (in which
a notion of the will has played such a crucial role); about the
relationship between civil society and the state; and about the
relationship between the universal and the particular. Because
of this neglect Warren’s major claims cannot be sustained.

His major argument that Nietzsche is the first to break with
the metaphysical assumptions of modern political thought
and to historicize problems of human agency is never demonstrated, it is merely asserted.

The most important claims Warren makes concerning the
relation between Nietzsche’s critique of the tradition and a
postmodern political theory rest on his interpretation of
Nietzsche’s philosophy of power. He interprets the teaching
of will to power not, as is most often the case, in terms of a

teaching of domination and lust to rule, but rather in terms of
a ‘critical ontology of practice’ which attempts in Kantian
fashion to explain how and under what conditions human
agency is possible (p. 111). The human agent (what Nietzsche
refers to as the ‘sovereign individual’)8 is not something
given. Thus, what politics simply takes for granted, Warren
argues – individuals constituted as agents and in possession of
free will, conscience, and responsibility (in a word, autonomy) – is that which is most in need of explanation. Traditionally this has been done by constructing transcendental and
teleological forms of discourse (God, Spirit, History, etc.).

Nietzsche’s innovation consists in conceiving human agency
in terms of a fragile, contingent possibility dependent upon
historical and cultural practices for its realization. One of the
most original and contentious aspects of Warren’s reading is
its claim that the will to power does not denote what it is most
often taken to denote, namely a psychological metaphysics
which posits a universal and ahistorical desire for power
(either over oneself or over others). This reading, it is argued,
misses a crucial aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy of power,
namely that it does not rely on a conception of a unified
essence (the self) which lies concealed in noumenal fashion
behind all phenomena (a metaphysical doer behind the deed).

This means that, instead of taking human agency as sociologically given, political theory has to view it in terms of a
historical achievement.

In the formulation ‘will to power’ the notion of ‘will’

serves to indicate the self-reflective nature of individual
agency, so that what it means to define oneself as an agent, as

12

a self, depends on one’s experiences of power, in particular,
one’s capacity to organise power as subjectivity. ‘Power’, on
the other hand, simply denotes the actuality of the will. Selfidentity is constituted through the individual’s capacity to
command its own will as a ‘will’ to power.9 Warren’s reading
of the will to power departs from previous ones by arguing
that rationality and universality are essential components of
the notion. Agency emerges as the central category in this
reconstruction. It is defined as rational self-knowledge ‘to the
degree that its worldly conditions of possibility are met in
practice’ (p. 129). The illusion of agency which characterises
Christian-moral culture is produced by the grounds of willing
being transferred from the social and historical world to a
metaphysical beyond. Warren describes Nietzsche’s aim as
one of wishing to remove the ideals of individuality, freedom,
and reflexive rationality from the realm of metaphysics into
the realm of historical possibilities. It is for this reason (the
historicization of Kant) that Warren claims that Nietzsche’s
philosophy of power points towards a critical postmodem
political thought. Nietzsche’s analysis of power entails, it is
argued, that human motives and desires are ‘necessarily selfreflective in nature: humans are fundamentally motivated by a
desire to experience the self as autonomous, as a free will’ (p.

141). As autonomy of the self, the will to power is a universal
motive of action and a universal value of self-reflective
beings. He describes this project as a critical postmodernism
because it wishes to retain belief in the value of reflexive
rationalist ideals, but at the same time wishes to historicize
their conditions of possibility. Precisely how this project
differs from a critical Marxism is never explained.

From his reading of the will to power as an ontology of
praxis Warren attempts to derive a Nietzschean social and
political morality with which to inform his postmodemism.

However, this leads to some very strange and hybrid ethicopolitical conceptions being put forward as the (postmodern)
solution to the antinomies of modern political thought:

namely, an improbable and undesirable attempt to marry
Nietzsche’s philosophy of power with Kant’s ethics.

Nietzsche’s philosophy of power, Warren contends, draws
into question the entire tradition of modern political thought.

It does so because modem political thought relies on metaphysical assumptions about individuals as agents. Within the
tradition we find idealized constructs (society) and idealized
agents (individuals), while a knowledge ofthe material conditions under which agents become free and rational beings is
neglected. Both liberalism and Marxism, the two dominant
political discourses of modernity, fail to relate rationalist
ideals to historical conditions of possibility. In the case of
Marxism, Warren points to its failure to explain the problem
of agency in the formation of a rational and revolutionary
class consciousness (p. 153). With Nietzsche, however,
agency is for the first time problematized as a historical
question. Warren makes the following astonishing claim:

Nietzsche is the first to break explicitly and completely
with the Cartesianism of modern rationalism, to view
the subject as a problem, and to distinguish clearly
between the moral ideas of rationalism and its metaphysical foundations (p. 155).

To dispense with modernist assumptions about human agency
and to embrace a critical postmodernism is to accept the
Nietzschean critique of metaphysics while retaining a commitment to the value of rationalist ideals. When disentangled
from the fatality of his (premodern) politics, Nietzsche’s
(post-modern) philosophy provides the logical ground for the

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

transition from a modern to a postmodern perspective in
political theory.

Warren makes several substantive claims on behalf of this
postmodem conjunction of rationalism and historicism, best
viewed in terms of a marriage of Kant and Nietzsche which
posits the universality of the value of power, where power is
understood as reflexive subjectivity. Firstly, it is suggested
that there is no longer any ontological polarity between agents
and society or between agents and history, ‘since Nietzsche
sees individual agency as enabled by social attributes and
achieved as history’ . Secondly, it is suggested that there is no
longer any valuative opposition between power and morality,
‘for Nietzsche sees morals as one category of the many valuations that enable or disable power as agency’. Thirdly, it is
suggested that one can conceive of a pluralistic society in
which ‘egalitarianism underwrites individuality and in which
politics is an arena allowing agency to be developed and
manifested’ (p. 157). Warren proposes to construct a
Nietzschean social and political morality from the individual’s reflexive need for power, where power is conceived not
as a principle of domination but rather in terms of selfconstitution, as subjectivity. Although he acknowledges the
vagueness of this morality he suggests that, if one followed
his construal of the logic of power, and despite Nietzsche’s
own refusal to specify what a new positive and post-Christian
morality would look like, it would bear close resemblance to
a Kantian kingdom of ends where the production of sovereign
individuality is combined with respect for persons as ends and
not merely as means (p.p. 175-76). A critical postmodem political theory is informed by the following vision of society:

It would be individualistic in that experiences of indi-

vidual agency – the power of the individual over his or
her future – would be the goal of the good polity.

Because individuation cannot occur in isolation, this
goal implies the complementary values of communal
intersubjectivity. Individuation is in many ways a collective achievement (p. 247).

It is difficult not to see Warren’s ‘critical postmodernism’

as built on little more than sociological platitudes. His reconstruction of Nietzsche’s central philosophical concepts is
remarkably eclectic. The will to power, for example, is described at one point as standing ‘halfway between Kant’s
critical philosophy and Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology, while exhibiting a materialism of the sort one finds in
Marx’ (p. 111). But this characterisation illuminates nothing
by purporting to tell us everything, and succeeds only in
exemplifying the worst kind of intellectual tourism so prevalent these days in Nietzsche commentary. Warren’s reconstruction of the relation between Nietzsche and political
thought both misconstrues the fundamental problematic of
the tradition of modem political thought and the nature of
Nietzsche’s challenge to that tradition.

Marx’s critique focuses on the illusion of sovereign individuality produced by conceiving the person as a bearer of
political rights and privileges (namely, property rights, hence
‘possessive’ individualism) prior to any social and historical
formation. For Marx the illusion of ahistorical individuality is
not simply an illusion of metaphysics, but rather an illusion of
a specific social formation, of what Marx following Hegel
calls civil society (buergeliche Gesellschaft). Marx is just as
radical as Nietzsche in conceiving the individual as a specific
and ambiguous historical achievement. Moreover, Marx is
sharply critical of any attempt by political theory to establish
the ‘will’ as the basis of ‘right’ as it would fail to recognise
and acknowledge the determination of the will by specific
social and historical practices. It is in this context that Marx
speaks of the ‘aesthetic illusion of the small and big Robinsonades’ who regard ‘the Individual not as an historical result, but as the starting point of history’ .10 Marx sees the task
of a critical political theory to be one of exposing the ‘juridical illusion’ produced by civil society which reduces law to
the representation of the will.ll He prefigures, therefore, in his
critique of the will, Nietzsche’s transition from ‘metaphysics’

to ‘morals’, although it should be said that for Marx the term
‘morals’ refers not to any natural relations of supremacy and
domination, but rather to historically specific relations of
production, relations which are independent of an abstract
and reified ‘will’ .12
The economic domination of individuals, which rests on
their separation and alienation from one another within the
relations of production established by modern capitalism
(which in turn creates the juridical illusion of free, equal, and
rational legal subjects) is the determining feature of modernity for Marx. Thus, the fundamental task of political theory
becomes that of a revolutionary praxis, that is, of making the
transition from the abstract and isolated’!’ of the bourgeois
epoch to the concrete and united ‘We’ of a future, undetermined post-bourgeois epoch. However, the problem of making the step from the’!, to the ‘We’ becomes especially acute
for Marxism, when full cognisance is taken of Marx’ s insight
that individuals are determined socially and historically by
relations of production which are independent of their will. 13
How can the actuality of these relations be acknowledged and
changed if not via an act of will?

Nietzsche and Modern Political Thought
Although Warren concedes that Nietzsche’s philosophy of
power offers no more than a preface to a postmodern political
theory, he does make Nietzsche the pivotal figure in the
transition from a modern to a postmodern perspective on
human agency and subjectivity. But the book’s major claim
that Nietzsche is the first to break explicitly with the metaphysical assumptions of the tradition of modern political
thought is astonishing when viewed in the light of Marx’ s
critique of the tradition of possessive individualism.

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

13

The central problematic of modern political thought, as
Marx conceives it, is not so much that of how sovereign
individuality is possible (civil society has made that ambiguous achievement possible), but rather how, on this basis,
political subjectivity understood as collective rational autonomy is possible (‘the necessary solidarity of the free development of aIr, as Marx puts it).14 It is this problem which has
been of major concern to the tradition of Western Marxism
beginning with Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness. It
is now widely recognised that Lukacs’s solution to the problem of political subjectivity in the form of the proletariat as
the identical subject-object of history is as inadequate as
Rousseau’s notion of the wise Legislator from which it is
derived. What is missing from both Rousseau and Marx is a
theory of political practice which can explain theformation of
a collective rational autonomous subject. Although Marx
recognised that the reality of capital would persist in determining the antinomical nature of our thought and action, he
did not theorise Rousseau’ s legacy in the form of a political
practice, but instead reduced the political in his writings to an
epiphenomenal status where politics becomes little more than
the technical administration of nature and resources. IS But
without this theorisation of a political practice, Marxism
becomes little more than an abstract demand for self-sacrifice
and a reflection of Rousseau’ s awkward challenge to the
possessive individual of civil society that it imposes on itself
a universal law of morality which it is to regard not as the
negation of its individuality and liberty but rather as the realisation of these ideals.

It is in this context of the major problematic of the radical
tradition of modern political thought uniting Rousseau and
Marx that we can locate the nature of Nietzsche’s challenge to
political theory. From a certain reading of Rousseau and Kant,
Nietzsche takes up the problem ofthe relation between autonomy and morality, between the particular and the universal.

He argues that in a world where God is dead (and which can
stand as a metaphor for modernity, secularisation, the iron
cage, after virtue, etc.) the problem of modem individuality,
of the individual who is faced with the demand for universality, will either result in the strong supra-moral individual who
succeeds in transcending society altogether (the Overman), or
the weak individual who is full of rancour and resentment
towards him/herself for failing to live up to the moral strictures of this severe morality, and who at the same time
manifests his or her resentment towards the world and all
forms of otherness in the form of a negative and destructive
slave morality (the herd). Nietzsche’s philosophy of power is
not designed to take us beyond the moment of power (the war
of all against all) to the moment of the political (the moment
of recognition and reciprocity, or community), but instead
leaves us with the informative, but somewhat disabling,
choice between the Overman and the herd.

Warren’s conception of power as subjectivity, which reflects the individual’s reflexive need for autonomy, takes us
back to the very beginnings of modem political thought, to the
fundamental problem of how to make the transition from the
‘I’ to the ‘We’. Power as subjectivity is an insufficient conception for constituting an ethical community in that each
individual’s desire for autonomy (will to power) could quite
easily revert to a pre-political condition of war of all against
all. Without some conception of a substantive ethical content
(the universality of ethical life in Hegel, for example) subjectivity either remains trapped within itself (as in the beautiful
soul) or faced with the constant threat of a Hobbesian warlike
state of nature breaking out. The attempt to supply an ethical

14

content by resorting to KanC s notion of a kingdom of ends as
a way of supplementing Nietzsche’ s philosophy of power
reveals a crucial weakness in Warren’s reconstruction of the
relation between Nietzsche and political thought, in so far as
it underestimates the gulf which separates Kant and
Nietzsche’s thinking on autonomy. In contrast to both
Rousseau and Kant who posit self’mastery in terms of a
universalizable law,16 Nietzsche posits the mutual exclusivity
of autonomy and morality. Nothing could be more alien to his
‘morality of strenuousness’ than the notion of a kingdom of
ends.17 The novelty of Nietzsche’s position is not that he is the
first to show human agency in the form of sovereign individuality to be a historical achievement, a product of socialization
and historicization (surely this achievement belongs to
Rousseau), but rather that he envisages sovereign individuality as an achievement of a labour of self-overcoming (one has
earned the right to make promises, Nietzsche sayS).IS It is this
essentially aristocratic understanding which distinguishes
Nietzsche’s conceptions of selfhood and individuality from
the Christian egalitarianism which informs Rousseau and
KanC s thinking on the will and autonomy.

Although Nietzsche accepts that the capacity for selflegislation, the ability to impose a law upon oneself that one

has freely chosen, and to be judge and avenger of that law, is
the defining feature of modernity, he insists that this law can
never be universalized. Although he recognises individuality
in its modem form to be the result of a specific historical
labour, he argues against Rousseau and Kant that
A virtue has to be our invention, our most personal
defence and necessity … The profoundest laws of preservation and growth demand the reverse of Kant: that
each one of us should devise his own virtue and his own
categorical imperative. 19
For Nietzsche the essence of what it means to declare oneself
‘new, unique, and incomparable’ is that action, one’s will to
power, is non-universalizable and non-generalizable. 20
Nietzsche resists the temptation to universalize law, insisting
that such an impulse reflects an attempt by the weak to
overcome the strong, either through advocating the vaue of
pity as a panacea to man’s ill,s or through the fiction of free
and equal individuals in the notion of a social contract. The
Kantian demand that we should universalize the maxims of
our actions in the form of a categorical imperative is regarded
by Nietzsche both as an act of cruelty on the self and in terms
of an ultimate act of selfishness on the part of a slave consciousness which announces its sovereign individuality to the
world by declaring that everybody should act as it does.

Warren’s arguments in favour of postmodernity presup-

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

pose an entire history of modern political thought. His somewhat casual dismissal of this tradition – it is simply absurd to
argue that prior to Nietzsche no thinker had broken with
metaphysical assumptions about the ego, the self, and agency
– means that his argument on the need for a reconciliation of
Nietzsche’s philosophy of power and Kantian ethics simply
takes us back to the beginning of modem political thought and
its fundamental problematic. If the criterion for distinguishing between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ political theory is to
be located in whether or not a theory conceives of the problem
of agency in metaphysical or historical terms, it becomes
impossible to understand precisely where Nietzsche’s challenge to Marx is supposed to lie. In this respect Warren’s use
of the term postmodernism to signal the break with metaphysical understandings of human agency is deeply mystifying. His central argument that Nietzsche is the postmodern
political thinker par excellence because he is the first to break
with the metaphysical assumptions of modern political
thought by viewing the individual subject as the product of a
historical labour of culture and civilization simply cannot be
sustained.

Aesthetics and Politics
ConnoUy is much more apposite than Warren in recognising
that Nietzsche’ s challenge to political theory lies in casting
suspicion and doubt on the fundamental impulse behind the
‘political’ moment in modern political thought: the search for
a rational community of free and equal beings. This recognition allows Connolly an admirable sensitivity regarding the
ethical dilemmas facing political thought and practices in
‘late modernity’ (to use Connolly’s own terminology). Inspired by Foucault’s reading of modernity, Connolly argues
that Nietzsche brings into radical doubt the philosophical
certainties and comforts on which the major thinkers of the
tradition (Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx) constructed
their elaborate politico-philosophical systems. He thus proposes that we privilege a Nietzschean perspective in order to
shift the boundaries of political thought, not in order to leap
into some unknown and ill-defined postmodern condition, but
to rethink and revalue the problematic of modernity.

The importance of Nietzsche for rethinking the relation
between political theory and modernity, according to Connolly, is to be found in his recognition and affirmation of the
phenomenon of otherness without desiring to incorporate it in
some grand dialectical system of thought. Both Hegel and
Marx, it is argued, promote
an ontology in which otherness can be dissolved into
higher unities; neither affirms one in which every project and achievement engenders otherness as it realises
itself … each advances a theory which supports suppression and subjugation in the name of realization for
the self and the community (p. 132).

The advent of the reign of nihilism in the West, which
Nietzsche illuminated for us in such ominous terms, allows us
to recognise the illusions and myths which have inspired the
project of modem political theory: the drive for self and social
transparency, the desire to see ourselves reflected in a world
we have made by mastering and dominating everything which
comes under our control. Things which escape our control are
simply defined and delimited as ‘forms of otherness’ in need
of normalization: madness, irrationality, perversity, chaos
and disorder, etc. (p. 13). The Rousseauesque desire for an
ethico-political community based on equality and liberty,-and
inherited by Marxism, is, according to this reading of nihilRadical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

ism, little more than a desire for a perfectly transparent world
in which the self and society have at last become ‘known’ to
themselves. This radical project of modernity, Connolly argues, offers no more than a depoliticized ideal of modem life
in which politics becomes reduced to a mere technical means
for achieving the common good (p.p. 129-131). On Rousseau
he writes:

The Rousseauian vision collapses, not because it is impossible for some to have faith in it, but because its
faith is not generalizable in the modern age in which it
is offered. Its eloquence can speak only to some; its
vision is a nightmare to many (p. 66).

The desire for unity and singularity expressed in the search
for a common good can only result in a totalitarian denial and
rejection of forms of otherness which necessarily result from
this quest.

For Connolly then, the modern project of freedom and
emancipation is caught up in an imperialistic discourse. of
mastery and domination which is blind to its own uncritical
assumptions about the self and the world. For Connolly, any
set of norms or standards that becomes endowed with authority and legitimacy is an ambiguous achievement in that it will
necessarily succumb to the temptation of establishing its own
hegemony by excluding and denigrating that which does not
fit into its confines. 21 In place of tolerating ambiguity, we
prefer the discipline of harmony through positing the ideal of
a self-inclusive community. Like Foucault, Connolly also has
a deep suspicion towards notions of the integrated and harmonious self for such integration and harmony is always
achieved at the expense of a form of otherness which has been
subjugated to achieve the goal of unity and harmony. The
great strength of Nietzsche, he argues, is that the absence of a
political theory in his ethical and political thinking allows
him the advantage over other modernists of being able to
examine the presumptions of modernity without advocating
in advance a single theory of politics (p. 168). Thus, unlike
Warren, Connolly does not view the lack of a coherent or systematic political theory in Nietzsche in terms of a lacuna in
need of reconstruction, but rather the source of a virtue in
thinking about the problems of late modernity without the certainties provided by totalising and foundational philosophical
systems. With the thought of will to power Nietzsche provides us with a counter-ontology of resistance which puts into
doubt the anthropomorphism of the modern ethos that the
world is susceptible to human mastery and the quest for a
unified community (p. 134 and p. 169).

For those accustomed to reading Nietzsche’s will to power
in terms of a philosophy of domination, Connolly’ s reading of
the notion in terms of a counter-ontology or resistance, providing a highly useful counterpoint to the models of mastery
and domination regarded as prevalent in the political discourse of modernity, will come as a revelation. Whatever
final scholarly conclusions are reached on the question of the
status of the notion of will to power in Nietzsche’ s writings whether it denotes the domination and exploitation regarded
by Nietzsche as intrinsic to the dynamics of life as such, or
whether it denotes the more noble ideal of self-mastery22 Connolly’s unorthodox and imaginative interpretation of the
doctrine is to be regarded as a welcome addition to the
literature. However, it should be said that Connolly does
recognise the inadequacy of Nietzsche’s politics for thinking
about the competing demands and aporias of late modernity.

Nietzsche attempted to conceive of a new ethics and politics
beyond the spirit of revenge and resentment which characterizes modern politics’ inheritance of the slave revolt in morals,
15

and which rests on egalitarian demands for justice. However,
he did not recognize that the demand for justice is based on
the reality of economic exploitation and political oppression.

As a result of this lacuna in his political thinking, Connolly
argues, we require a post-Nietzschean political theory made
up of Nietzsche’s ontology of otherness and an independent
reflection into the plight of late modernity (p. 171). Some
conception of justice, where justice refers not just to one
virtue amongst many but rather to the structure of society and
the organisation of society’s resources, in the manner of
Rawls for example, is central to late modern political life in a
way which is a complete anathema to Nietzsche’s politics and
its exclusion of any notion of social empowerment. Thus,
Connolly argues, a late modern political perspective
would appreciate the reach of Nietzschean thought as
well as its sensitivity to the complex relations between
resentment and the production of otherness, but it
would turn the genealogist of resentment on his head
by exploring democratic politics as a medium through
which to expose resentment and to encourage the
struggle against it (p. 175)
As a political ‘solution’ to the problems of late modernity
Connolly calls for a ‘reconstituted, radicalized liberalism’,
which is a liberalism that is able to cope with the competing
demands of otherness and subjugation, individuality and
communality, as well as one which challenges the hegemony
of the idea that economic expansion is a precondition of
liberty (the idea of socialist abundance is rejected as one of
the notions lying behind modernity’s drive for mastery and
domination) .

Connolly’s critique of the tradition culminates in a conception of an ethic of ‘letting be’ in which difference and
otherness can be allowed to exist in their own terms. A brave
ethic is needed to replace the discredited political discourse
on modernity. However, this aestheticisation of ethics and
politics rests on a spurious opposition between Nietzsche and
the tradition of modernity. When translated into concrete
terms this brave ethic becomes little more than an aesthetic of
the decentred self in which the chief goal is ‘to give style to
one’s character’, understood by Connolly to include such
revolutionary adjustments in one’s behaviour as changes in
diet, exercise, reading habits, etc.! (p. 163). Not only is this

16

ethic, as Connolly admits, vague, it is entirely vacuous. Are
we seriously being invited to believe that an aesthetics of the
self can simply be divorced from the class (and race and
gender) structures oflate modern capitalism? The reference to
one freely choosing and changing one’s diet and reading
habits is risible. Is not Connolly’s deconstruction of the tradition of modern political thought something of a caricature?

Can the entire project of modernity simply be reduced to a
quest for a perfectly ordered self and a perfectly ordered
society in complete harmony with one another? What of
Hegel’s attempt to reconcile antiquity and modernity by conceiving of a form of ethical life which could reconcile the
competing demands of modernity for absolute freedom on the
one hand and the need for social differentiation on the other?

Is it desirable that we simply abandon the aspiration for a
‘form of assocation’ in which there is an identity between
individuals in a self-constituting community, based on the
democratic values of liberty and equality, in favour of a vague
‘brave ethic’ in which the chief purpose of life is one of giving
style to one’s character?

While the attempt to construct a politics of difference as a
way of moving beyond the assumptions of modernity about
technology and domination represents an original contribution to political theory, the attempt to deploy Nietzsche as a
major critic of the political discourse of modernity through an
aesthetic reading of his notion of character sets up a spurious
opposition between Nietzsche and the tradition, and ignores
the fact that Nietzsche’s concern with forms of sovereign
individuality is as much a concern with law and sovereignty
as it is with art and aesthetics.

Nietzsche’s Challenge to Political Theory
The turn to Nietzsche in recent years as a way of moving
beyond the paradigm of modernity has drawn on his notion of
character in terms of style, but it has bowdlerised his thinking
in such a way as to deprive it of its political import. This is
clearly evident, for example, in a work such as Alexander
Nehamas’s Life as Literature. 23 Warren’s and Connolly’s
reconstructions of the question of the relationship between
Nietzsche and political thought are important because they
take Nietzsche’s work seriously for questioning the assumptions of modernity, understood as a political project, and
moving beyond them.

In contrast to both Warren and Connolly, I would suggest
that Nietzsche’s challenge to political theory is a great deal
more subtle and sophisticated than they allow. I agree with
them that any contemporary deployment ofNietzsche’s thinking for advancing a postmodern political theory has to relinquish its original aristocratic pretensions. But Nietzsche challenges political theory on a number of levels. At his most
disconcerting and disquieting he suggests that the ambition of
modern political theory to reconcile the particular and the
universal (autonomy and morality) – whether through the
fiction of a social contract or through some form of utopian
politics – represents no more than a slave revolt in morality in
which the weak seek to convert the strong to the value of
liberal and democratic virtues (equality, for example). He
produces a theory of culture in which he historicises this
problem, and in which his political thought looks forward to a
new and higher type of noble morality. However, Nietzsche’ s
political thought does not envisage any kind of universalistic
solution to the problem of modernity and nihilism, whether in
the form of a Kantian kingdom of ends, Marxian-inspired
socialism, or a radicalised liberalism. In fact, nowhere does
Nietzsche link his insights into culture and history with a
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

phenomenology of political form. What concerned him most
was the need for historical change through strong aristocratic
leadership.

The key question of Nietzsche’s political thinking concerns how we create a common ethico-political identity; that
is, how we constitute ourselves as social beings. His distinction between master and slave moralities is crucial here. The
distinction revolves around two different ways of constructing an ethical identity: master morality denotes a morality of
strength and courage resting on the affirmation of its own
uniqueness and distinction; by contrast, slave morality, a
morality of weakness and internalised will to power, is a morality which can only define itself through negating everything which is other and different to itself. The slave consciousness is thoroughly dependent on the existence of the
Other which it must first of all negate, and define as ‘evil’, in
order to affirm its own superior identity. It is with a slave
morality that the will to power, understood as a striving for
something the will lacks, namely power, takes on the form of
a will for supremacy and domination. The importance of this
thinking in otherness and difference for a feminist political
practice has been shown by Rosalyn Diprose in a recent essay
in Radical Philosophy.24
Nietzsche is highly suspicious, not of community, but of
the way in which notions of common identity are arrived at in
the political discourse of modernity. In Rousseau, for example, a common morality is constructed on the basis of the
value of pity (conceived in terms of a law of the heart).2S
Nietzsche attacks Rousseau’ s sentimentalism since it posits a
common ethico-political identity on the basis of human weakness and dependence; it cannot serve as the basis for a positive
morality which is genuinely creative and within which sovereign individuality can flourish. For Nietzsche, a Rousseauianinspired politics could only culminate in a complete obliteration of otherness and difference. A similar line of argument
lies behind his harsh critique of Kant. In Kant the notion of a
kingdom of ends rests on a totally abstract concept of universal rationality. The only common identity achieved is one of
formal equality. But this, according to Nietzsche, is the perfect example of a slave morality in which the individual
arrives at a notion of its independence and strength by making
the other recognise the value of a morality of weakness
through positing a formal and abstract identity of equality
between individuals (I would like to treat you as an end in
itself, the Kantian self declares in a kingdom of ends, because
I wish you to treat me as an end in itself as I am too weak to
affirm myself in all my uniqueness and independence).26
Nietzsche’s conception of sovereign individuality is political through and through. In contrast to Foucault’s last
work, in which he attempts to formualte a new aesthetic ethics
by separating art and law,27 Nietzsche conceives of the modern self in terms of a synthesis of the aesthetic and the
juridical. This is why he speaks of sovereign individuals who
want to become what they are,· unique and incomparable, and
who create themselves and their own laws.28 He understands
historical development in terms of a transition from the morality of custom which cultivates a sense of political obligation, to the autonomous and supra-moral sovereign individual
who is compelled to live beyond the old morality. His critique
of Rousseau and Kant is that their philosophies provide us
only with a modern rationalisation of traditional morality in
which we are spared the task of creating ourselves and our
common identities by engaging in a labour of self-overcoming and self-legislation (which can never be a legislation/or
all). The decisive question Nietzsche raises concerns the basis
on which sovereign individuals, emancipated from the moralRadical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

-~

ity of custom, are to enter into social relationships and construct ethical and political identities. His critique of law is
not, therefore, a critique of sovereignty as such (as Foucault
argues). Rather, his refusal to replace a discourse on force
with one on the principles of political right rests on the
recognition that the determining feature of modernity is the
absence of any legitimate claim to ethical universality. 29 In
this way, Nietzsche’ s political thought aims to keep open the
question of power and its legitimacy.

Notes
I would like to thank Peter Dews and Peter Osbome for reading an
earlier draft of this essay and for their helpful comments.

1

2
3

4

5

6
7

8

9

10

11
12

Mark Warren, Nietzsche and Political Thought (Cambridge,
Mass., MIT Press, 1988); William Connolly, Political Theory and Modernity (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1988). Page
numbers in the text refer to these two books.

Georg Brandes, Friedrich Nietzsche (London, Heinemann,
1914).

See J. J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. G. D. H. Cole
(London, Dent, 1973), Book I, Chapter 6: ‘The problem is to
find a form of association which will defend and protect with
the whole common force the person and goods of each
associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all,
may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.’

F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science (henceforth GS), trans.

Kaufmann (NY, Random House, 1974), section 290: ‘To
“give style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is
practised by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and fit them into an artistic plan until
everyone of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.’

On ‘total human emancipation’ see K. Marx, ‘On the Jewish
Question’, in Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1975), pp. 211-243.

See, for example, Nancy Fraser, ‘Foucault. A Young Conservative?’ in Ethics, Vol. 96, October 1985, pp. 165-184.

Peter Dews, ‘Power and Subjectivity in Foucault’, New Left
Review, No. 144, March-April 1984, p. 67.

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, n, 2, trans. R. J.

Hollingdale (NY, Random House, 1967). Essay 11 of GM
begins by posing the question of how the sovereign individual of political theory, that is, the self who has a free will and
thereby is able to make promises and be bound to social
contracts and obligations, is possible: ‘To breed an animal
with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical
task nature has set itself in the case of man? Is this not the
real problem regarding man?’

Although Heidegger insisted in his reading of Nietzsche that
the doctrine or the will to power is to be understood in terms
of its consummation of the modem Cartesian metaphysics of
subjectivity, he also provides, I would argue, one of the best
accounts of the doctrine in terms of a phenomenology of
action. See M. Heidegger, ‘The Word of Nietzsche: God is
Dead’~ in The Question Concerning Technology and Other
Essays, trans. William Lovitt (NY, Harper and Row, 1977),
pp. 53-115.

K. Marx, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy’,
in Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, ed. C. J. Arthur
(London, Lawrence and Wish art, 1977), p. 124.

Marx, The German Ideology, p. 81 and pp. 106-07.

See Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann
(NY, Random House, 1966), 19: ‘In all willing it is absolutely a question of commanding and obeying, on the basis …

of a social structure composed of many “souls”. Hence a
philosopher should claim the right to include willing within

17

13
14

15

16

17
18
19
20
21

18

the sphere of morals (der Moral) – morals being understood
as the doctrine of the relations of supremacy (HerrschaftsVerhaeltnissen) under which the phenomenon of “life”
comes to be.’

See K. Marx, ‘The 1859 Preface to A Critique of Political
Economy’, in Early Writings, pp. 424-29.

See Marx, The German Ideology, pp. 117-18. On this characterisation of Marx’s project see John Harris, ‘Socialism
and Democracy: Beyond State and Civil Society’, Radical
Philosophy, No. 45, Spring 1987, pp. 13-23, especially pp.

20-22.

See Rousseau, Social Contract, Book 11, Chapter 7. ‘For a
young people to be able to relish sound principles of political
theory and follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the
effect would have to become the cause; the social spirit,
which should be created by these institutions, would have to
preside over their very foundation; and men would have to
be before law what they should become by means of law. ‘

Marx replaces this riddle with another one on the proletariat
conceived as ‘a class of civil society which is not a class of
civil society’. See Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of
Right. An Introduction’, in Early Writings, p. 256. In uniting
Rousseau and Marx in terms of a radical political theory, I
am following the argument put forward by Lucio Colletti in
his From Rousseau to Lenin, trans. John Merrington (NY,
Monthly Review Press, 1974), p. 185. ‘My thesis is that
revolutionary political theory, as it has developed since
Rousseau, is already foreshadowed and contained in The
Social Contract; or to be more explicit, that so far as “political” theory in the strict sense is concerned, Marx and Lenin
have added nothing to Rousseau, except for the analysis
(which is of course rather important) of the “economic
bases” for the withering away of the State.’

See Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 1, Chapter 8: ‘The
mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law
we prescribe to ourselves is liberty’; I. Kant, Groundwork of
the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (NY, Harper &
Row, 1964), p. 70: ‘I ought never to act except in such a way
that I can also will that the maxim of my action should
become a universal law.’ In comparing Rousseau and Kant
in this way I am denying that there are important differences
between them in their conceptions of self-legislation.

Rousseau’s conception of self-mastery makes an appeal to
the heteronomous aspects of our being, where Kant’s does
not.

I borrow the phrase, ‘morality of strenuousness’ from J. P.

Stem, Nietzsche (Glasgow, Collins/Fontana, 1978), p. 89.

Nietzsche, GM, 11, 2.

See F. Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, trans. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966), section 11.

Nietzsche, GS, Section 335.

See Connolly’s previous work, Politics and Ambiguity
(Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 138. A
similar argument to Connolly’s concerning the imperialistic
and totalitarian quest of modem political thought can be
found in Bernard Yack’s study, The Long ing for Total Revolution. Philosophic Sources of Discontent from Rousseau to
Marx and Nietzsche (Princeton University Press, 1986),
Yack argues that from Rousseau to Nietzsche modem
thought has deluded itself into thinking that emancipation
would follow from a ‘total revolution’ of existing society.

Yack’s argument differs from Connolly’s in placing
Nietzsche within the confines of the alleged totalitarian
discourse of modem political theory. His hero is the late
Hegel who, it is claimed, is the only thinker of modernity to
recognise the limitations of historical reality and achieve a
reconciliation with it. What amazes me most about deconstructions of the tradition of modern political thought, such
as we find in Connolly and Yack, is that, despite their

22

23
24

25
26
27

28
29

poststructuralist pretensions, they nevertheless end up ‘by
reading the tradition in terms of a single, monolithic narrative. They differ only in their choice of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’.

For a one-sided reading of the will to power in terms of selfmastery see WaIter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche (Princeton University Press, 1974, fourth edition), pp. 200-01; for a onesided reading of the doctrine in terms of a teaching of
domination see Stem’s Nietzsche, pp. 84-87. For a mediation between the two extremes see Ofelia Schutte’s Beyond
Nihilism. Nietzsche without Masks (Chicago University
Press, 1984), pp. 76-105. For a comprehensive treatment of
the doctrine see Wolfgang Mueller-Lauter, ‘Nietzsche Lehre
vom Willen zur Macht’, Nietzsche-Studien, Band 3, 1974,
pp. 1-60.

A. Nehamas, Nietzsche. Life as Literature (Cambridge,
Mass., Harvard University Press, 1985).

R. Diprose, ‘Nietzsche, Ethics, and Sexual Difference’,
Radical Philosophy, No. 52, Summer 1989, pp. 27-33. For
an attempt to articulate a postmodern feminism see N ancy
Fraser and Linda Nicholson, ‘Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Postmodernism and Feminism’, in Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 5, Nos. 2-3, June
1986, pp. 373-94.

See Rousseau, Emile, trans. Barbara Foxley (London, Dent,
1974), especially pp. 192-90.

Nietzsche, GM I, 7-8.

See M. FoucauIt, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview
of Work in Progress’, in Paul Rabinow, A Foucault Reader
(Middlesex, Penguin, 1984), pp. 340-72. I offer a detailed
reading of Foucault’s ethical turn in my paper, ‘Foucault and
the Postmodern Turn in Political Theory’ (unpublished).

Nietzsche, GS, 335.

See Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982), section 108.

Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990

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