Why Marx or Nietzsche?

András Gedö

The world in which we ourselves exist intellectually is a world largely molded by Marx and Nietzsche.

—Max Weber

In the history of the debates about Marx and/or Nietzsche, the desire for reconciling Marx with Nietzsche, for abandoning the choice, Marx or Nietzsche, has perhaps never come forth so plainly as today. At the same time, the alternative, either Marx or Nietzsche, was perhaps never more visibly in the focus of the philosophical dispute. The paradox and the ambiguity of contemporary discussions about the Marx-Nietzsche relationship ensue from the simultaneity and juxtaposition of these two tendencies.

Acknowledgment of the relatedness of Marx and Nietzsche, acceptance of their complementarity, and synthesis of both are demanded from divergent standpoints, from the left and the right, with opposite value judgments. On the one hand, a Marx located in Nietzsche's neighborhood or interpreted and supplemented according to a Nietzschean framework is affirmed; on the other, the nihilistic essentials allegedly common to Marx and Nietzsche are denied as much in the name of the traditional faith in revelation1 as in that of a well-functioning, trouble-free capitalism.2 Advocates of French Nietzscheanism, conceiving themselves, at least temporarily, as situated on the left, inclined toward combining Nietzsche with Marx. Klossowski tried to draw a parallel between the social criticism of Marx and Nietzsche (1973, 99–101). Lyotard strove in the early seventies to reinterpret Marx's Capital with reference to Nietzsche (1973, 145ff.), and Foucault presumed in the midsixties to find a common denominator in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud (1994, 564ff.). It is, however, a sign of the fragility of the intended reconciliation of Marx and Nietzsche that Foucault announced the Marx-Nietzsche alternative quite harshly and unambiguously (and his philosophical work is marked by this alternative), while he stated that Hegel and Marx were “the ones who bear great responsibility for contemporary humanism,” which was rejected by Foucault. He advocated a “nondialectic” and “therefore nonhumanistic” culture that began with Nietzsche and “appeared in Heidegger too” (cited in Ferry and Renaut 1985, 138).3 This approach of confronting Nietzsche with Marx prevailed in the later development of French Nietzscheanism; the (exclusive) disjunction of Marx and Nietzsche overcame their conjunction.

Deleuze emphasized in his early book on Nietzsche the incompatibility of dialectics and Nietzschean philosophizing, the underlying and overwhelming antidialectic of Nietzsche's philosophy.4 In pleading for “nomadic thinking,5 he also opposed the alleged trio Marx-Nietzsche-Freud and moved Nietzsche out of this supposed trio. “Marx and Freud are perhaps the dawn of our culture, but Nietzsche is quite other, he is the dawn of a counterculture” (1973, 160). The antidialectical Nietzsche versus Marx is the point of reference of French—and not only French—philosophical postmodernism.

Nevertheless, one of the trends within the contemporary third Nietzsche renaissance is the endeavor to bring to the fore a reconciliation of Marx and Nietzsche by evoking the historical traditions of left Nietzscheanism, the images of Marx accommodated to Nietzsche or of Nietzsche accommodated to Marx. It embraces present versions of the narrow current of the Nietzschean Left and of a Nietzschean Marxism that allegedly refer to the permanent crisis of Marxism (Batrick and Breines 1978, 119ff.). The effort of this current to legitimize a Nietzschean Marxism and establish its relevance is reminiscent of the Nietzschean leanings of some Russian revolutionaries who supported Marxism in the first decade of the twentieth century  (see Kline 1969, 166–67). A concise exposition of these contemporary endeavors to Nietzscheanize Marx states that there is “a crisis of that tradition of Marxism . . . in which were captured the advocates of the polar contrast `Nietzsche-Marx' from Mehring to Lukács, from Hans Günther to Holz” and that the counterposition to this tradition and viewpoint demands embracing of “a residue of Nietzsche's thinking that was alien to Marx and was not accepted by Marxism” (Masini 1981, 34). According to this view, Nietzsche's alternative to that which he opposed was not positive—in fact, it was nonrevolutionary in the Marxian sense. Nevertheless, this claims that a revolutionary content is inherent in Nietzsche's surmounting of humanism, while this Nietzschean surmounting of humanism is located beyond Marx; the residue of Nietzsche's thinking that one is asked to accept lies in the themes of “the destructuring of the subject . . . the infinite game between depth and surface” (34). It is a paradox of demanding a reconciliation of Marx and Nietzsche that the contrast between them is a premise and a consequence of this demanded reconciliation. It is a premise insofar as the disparity of Marx's and Nietzsche's frameworks is the starting point of this approach; it is the stated reason for supporting Nietzsche's philosophy, because the helplessness and inability of Marxism to look into the genuine depth of life are taken for granted. It is also a consequence of this approach, insofar as the “residue” that we are asked to accept and incorporate into Marxism belongs to the philosophical whole, to an antisystematic system alien to Marx's thought, just as it is alien to rational philosophizing in general. Attempting to reconcile Marx and Nietzsche reproduces the confrontation of both, instead of surmounting it.


The influence of Nietzsche and the attempted conjunction of Marx and Nietzsche had a molding impact not only on Adorno,6 but also on Ernst Bloch and Althusser, although they did not cope with it. This moment was irreconcilable with their ideas borrowed from Marx and Marxism, impairing nevertheless the reception and interpretation of Marx and Marxism. The influence of Nietzsche and the attempt at combining his philosophical thought with that of Marx—which provided a certain contact between such differing and even contrasting philosophical works as those of Bloch and Adorno—appeared in their reflections on Nietzsche, on the one hand, and in their own thoughts of Nietzschean provenance, on the other. In face of the range and scope of these works, the consequences of Nietzsche and of the sought-for combination of Marx and Nietzsche are a test of the conceptions about the Marx-Nietzsche relationship, although the thinking of Bloch and Althusser (or of Adorno) is neither understandable apart from the influence of Nietzsche nor subsumable under Nietzscheanism.

Bloch's acquaintance with Nietzsche during the first Nietzsche wave had preceded the period when he saw himself as a Marxist. His 1913 essay “Nietzsche's Impulse” belongs to the basic foundations of this philosophical work; its ideals were involved in the shaping of his later interpretation of Marx and of his whole philosophical conception.

Nietzsche's life work quite entirely is a fight against the cold, undionysian, unmystical man, against the right to exist and against the truth of the “scientific truth” in general, that is, against a truth without the subject and without a dream. . . . For here it holds good in fact, that what matters is not only the comprehension of the world or else it matters merely in changing oneself according to one's comprehension of it. Here another autonomy than that of the lumen naturale is demanded, and in the second, more dangerous epoch of modern times the world ceases to be a sheer guessing game for the scientific intellect. (1964a, 107-8)

In these considerations certain tenets and ideas were formulated: the inclination to the Dionysian-mythical, the criticism of scientific rationality, also the subject of Bloch's later writings. Here he anticipated his thesis of the “cold stream” and “warm stream” in philosophy, later applied to the interpretation of Marx and Marxism. What Bloch left out in this first version of the essay “Nietzsche's Impulse,” Nietzsche's thought about the “will to power,” about the eternal recourse of the same, was openly rejected in the later version of the same essay (incorporated in Bloch's book The Inheritance of This Time). Nietzsche as the preacher of the “Übermensch” was abhorred but the “other Nietzsche” was regarded as necessary—the Nietzsche who “is searching for that which is this-worldliness not merely bleached but also passed through utopian fire” (Bloch 1964b, 363). The early message recurred: “The lumen naturale became glowing here; knowledge was no longer contemplative; the world ceased to be a guessing game for the scientific intellect” (364).7 The internally conflicting character of his interpretation of Nietzsche was manifested in Bloch's later lectures on the history of philosophy, which assigned Nietzsche to the “disaster line” of nineteenth-century German philosophy. Nevertheless, he insisted on positing the “other Nietzsche” whose Dionysos “is an enormously dialectical being” (1985, 414). This understanding of Nietzsche was interwoven with certain traits of Bloch's views in general, with his aim of philosophizing out of the “darkness of the lived moment,” out of subjective inwardness, with the ambiguous attitude of his thinking towards scientific rationality.

Althusser declared his support for the alleged trio Marx-Nietzsche-Freud in his early essay “Freud and Lacan,” revealing the deeply irrational roots of his philosophizing, which was indebted to the stream of Lebensphilosophie (Life Philosophy), “As far as I know, two or three unexpected children were born in the nineteenth century: Marx, Nietzsche, Freud. They were `illegitimate' or `natural' children in the sense that nature goes against morals, ethics, and manners. Our Western reason allows us to have the illegitimate child at a high price” (1976, 12). Neither this thesis nor the Nietzschean-pathetic tone recurred in Althusser's later published works. He included the essay “Freud and Lacan,” however, in his last book, Positions (1964–1975), a collection of his essays edited before his collapse. Althusser's philosophical biography can hardly be adequately grasped if attention is not paid to the reflections formulated in “Freud and Lacan.” Nietzschean thought-motifs, even though entirely without reference to, acceptance of, or application of Nietzsche, pervade all three phases of Althusser's philosophical activity. These thought-motifs were merged with other philosophical ideas (including those of positivistic orientation) and had a strong influence on Althusser's interpretation of Marx, an influence that was partly direct, partly mediated by philosophical structuralism, French Nietzscheanism, and even by Lacan's adoption of Heidegger. The Nietzschean thought-motifs, hidden in the presuppositions of Althusser's philosophizing, but carried in his explanation of Marxism, a philosophy alien to Nietzschean thought-motifs, brought about tempting shock effects, a shimmering intertwining of theoretical stringency and arbitrariness, transparency and opaque depth, conclusive proof and flotsam in a vacuum. In Althusser's philosophical work—already in its first phase in For Marx and Reading “Capital”—his concept of history, his demand to eradicate the idea of the subject, together with, at the same time, the subjectivizing of the epistemological problematic, were considerably stamped, even though latently and not exclusively, with Nietzschean impulses. The Nietzschean elements in the first phase of Althusser's thinking, on the whole concealed rather than outspoken, became more evident in the second phase, although even then too without alluding to Nietzsche. Present in this the second phase were attempts to justify class-struggle slogans with a voluntaristic content or in voluntaristic manner. Marxian thoughts were introduced in a Nietzschean way, decreed or reinterpreted; Nietzschean traits were also imparted to the concept of philosophy. The option for materialism or idealism appeared in Althusser rather as an act of will; the controversies about them were conceived according to the idea of the eternal recurrence of the same (see Althusser 1969, 42ff.). Althusser held that philosophy qua philosophy advances unprovable theses (“dogmas”) that are neither true nor false, that philosophy has no history and no subject-matter, that the “correctness” of philosophical theses must be decided only with reference to an accepted “line.”8 All these views advocated Nietzsche's voluntaristic concept of philosophy: “The genuine philosophers are those who give orders and who are legislators; they say: `so should it be!' Only they decide for man whether? and wherefore? . . . Their `knowledge' is creating; their creating is legislation; their will to truth is actually will to power” (Nietzsche 1969b, 676–77). In the third phase of Althusser, his “critical balance sheet of Marxism” turned out negatively (see Althusser 1978, 280ff.). This is a consequence of the failure of the attempt to understand and reinterpret Marx on the basis of Nietzsche.


The alternative, Marx or Nietzsche, bears a philosophical character; it therefore goes far beyond the German history of ideas.9 It has general content and supranational relevance.10 In fact, Nietzsche's influence on German literature was enormous (while the manifoldness and divergencies of this impact were motivated not only by the ambiguities and the multifariousness of Nietzsche's philosophy but also by the intellectual diversity of the recipients).11 Nevertheless, Nietzsche was located, above all, in post-Hegelian philosophizing: it was Nietzschean Lebensphilosophie qua revolt that had a fascinating effect on German literature (and also French and Anglo-Saxon literature).12 When German writers such as Arnold Zweig, Johannes R. Becher, and, above all, the later Thomas Mann reflected in their critical reconsideration of Nietzsche and the spell he cast on European culture, the political tendency inherent in it, and its fateful potential and results emerged, The enthusiasm for Nietzsche in literature was mediated by the aesthetic moment: first, by the concept of philosophy conceived as art and that of art conceived as redemption, both aspects belonging to the essentials of Nietzsche's philosophy; second, by the artistic element in Nietzsche's œuvre, and third, by his life history as possible subject matter and impulse of artistic creation. These mediating links were sometimes separated from the mediated topic. The German poet Christian Morgenstern wrote in 1912 about Nietzsche:

But I know well in what regard he was the highest to me; in his greatness as a human being, not in the kind of philosophy that belonged merely to his time. This kind of philosophy was sunset, it was not sunrise, and those who are going on from it are walking into the night. (cited in Krummel 1973, 1:111)

What, however, would have been this human fate without Nietzsche's philosophy, for which and in which he lived? The issue Marx or Nietzsche, or alternatively, Marx and Nietzsche, lies in the field of philosophy.

As a result of the rejection of the exclusive alternative of the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, Marx was subsumed under the traditional readings of Lebensphilosophie; set up as “paradigms” for the interpretation of Marx was the trio Marx-Kierkegaard-Nietzsche, which was followed by that of Marx-Nietzsche-Freud. The trio Marx-Kierkegaard-Nietzsche, set out in Löwith's book From Hegel to Nietzsche, was thought of both as a counterpart to the claim made on Nietzsche by German (and Italian) fascism and as a criticism of Marxism. The differences among Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche were not simply suppressed in Löwith's scholarly and stylish explanation. Despite the acknowledged divergences, the philosophies of the three thinkers were reduced in their essentials to the common denominator of a revolt against the bourgeois-Christian world, of the consciousness of alienation and homelessness, while Nietzsche was conceived as completing this common idea. “The world became alien to Marx and Kierkegaard, the world where Hegel still had `settled in'; they were located over and beyond or were `absurd' and `transcending,' as Goethe called the coming spirit of the century. And Nietzsche was altogether nowhere at home” (Löwith 1988, 222).

 Marx, when included in the Zeitgeist of Lebensphilosophie, loses his own philosophical and historical outlook. Löwith even asserted that Marx's thought remained a prisoner within the ideas of capitalist society. Even Karl Jaspers, in his later Nietzsche essay, accepted the idea of the trio Marx-Kierkegaard-Nietzsche.

They inaugurated the modern consciousness._._._. The break of continuity was carried out in them. . . . But those three are by no means the leaders of a new humanity. They may be prophets, but prophets through their sacrifice and their own enrapturedness in the terrible distress of man losing himself, of being alienated from himself; they are not prophets as founders of a new world. (1980, 56)

Here Marx was Nietzscheanized, appearing as a prophet pronouncing imperatives: the historical-real Marx and his theory became lost in the trio formula.

Michel Foucault formulated in the midsixties an extreme version of the other stereotypical variant, that is, of the trio Marx-Nietzsche-Freud. His version, however, revealed the voluntarism inherent in this formula and in its consequences. The central figure in this trio was, according to Foucault's interpretation, Nietzsche, whose epistemology, the absolute of interpretation, the dissolution of reality in interpretations, were to be used as the frame of explanation of Freud and Marx. Foucault claimed that the unfinished character of interpretation had been common to Nietzsche, Freud and Marx: “if the interpretation can never be finished, then it is plain that there is nothing to be interpreted— there is nothing absolutely primary that is to be interpreted because everything is fundamentally already interpretation; every sign is . . . an interpretation of other signs” (1994, 571). Foucault Nietzscheanized Marx differently than did Jaspers. The loss was not less, however, when Marx's theory was sacrificed to the fetish of interpretation of the Nietzschean epistemology than when Marx was transformed into a prophet à la Nietzsche.


The question “Why Marx or Nietzsche?” has three implications. First, it involves becoming aware of the historically changing character of the controversies between the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, aware of the opposition between their different social settings and their differing philosophical contents. Max Weber realized the scope of the Marx-Nietzsche problem. After a debate with Oswald Spengler, who was contemptuous not only of Marx but also of Nietzsche, the main source of his own ideas, Max Weber said:

The honesty of a contemporary scholar and above all, of a contemporary philosopher, is to be decided on the basis of his attitude to Nietzsche and Marx. Those who do not acknowledge that they could not carry out considerable parts of their work without the work done by these two, are cheating themselves and others. The world in which we ourselves exist intellectually is a world largely molded by Marx and Nietzsche. (cited in Baumgarten 1964, 554–55)

The simultaneous presence and influence of the two in Max Weber seems to raise the possibility of paying tribute to and following both. The basic thought framework of Max Weber points to the opposite; he was influenced by both Marx and Nietzsche, and he admitted this honestly. He polemicized against Marx and disagreed with him even when he borrowed from his work; Nietzschean motifs had a part in shaping his way of thinking, the disparity of their attitudes notwithstanding (see Hennis 1987). Nevertheless, his assessment in 1920 that “the world in which we ourselves exist intellectually is a world largely molded by Marx and Nietzsche” retains its validity despite the alternating increases and decreases of the influence of Marx and Nietzsche.

Secondly, the philosophical Marx-Nietzsche controversy implies an awareness of the fact that Marx is the alternative to Nietzsche. The thought of Nietzsche is a particular variant of Lebensphilosophie, but also a focus of elements, germs, and possibilities for other versions of Lebensphilosophie and of later forms of positivism. Controversies such as the one over Heidegger's interpretation and criticism of Nietzsche or the lack of interest of logical positivists in Nietzsche may veil these interrelations. Nevertheless, it is recognizable that “many influences lead from Nietzsche to Heidegger,” as the Nietzsche scholar Wolfgang Müller-Lauter stated. “There is a kinship between the two that must not be pushed aside because of misjudgements and false estimations concerning Nietzsche by Heidegger that have come to the fore” (1981/82, 362). Danto's 1965 book on Nietzsche as a precursor of analytic philosophy stresses, despite the one-sidedness and omissions in Danto's explanation (see Schacht 1983, 530–35), the positivistic traits and anticipations of Nietzsche as well as his Berkeleyan tendency.13 In consequence, the only alternative to Nietzsche's `philosophy in its entirety is a philosophy located outside of the controversy and complementarity of positivism and Lebensphilosophie.

Thirdly, the issue “Why Marx or Nietzsche?” when formulated and developed by Marxists implies the question “Why Marx and not Nietzsche?” Since the alternative, Marx or Nietzsche, persists, the criticism of Nietzsche can involve neither the deletion of a Marxist Nietzsche scholarship nor an abstract unchanging negating. It implies rather an evolving historical and theoretical surmounting. If Nietzsche's philosophy is an epitome of Lebensphilosophie, the source field and melting pot of different, even divergent, attempts and possibilities of philosophical decadence, the tragic character of which was experienced by Nietzsche as his personal destiny, in suffering from it and in supposing himself to have found redemption from it, then Nietzsche is in a certain sense a key to the critical understanding and discussion of philosophical decadence in general. The Nietzsche waves and renaissances following one another reflected nonidentical social and cognitive situations from a persistent standpoint that was full of ambiguities. The renewed discussions with Nietzsche and Nietzscheanism are not repetitions of the same. They involve novelties in each modified situation, first of all because the question “Why Marx?” has a bearing on the theoretical totality of the Marxian conception, the thought movement of which takes place in the dialectic of identity and change, in the historicity of knowing and acting. In the question “Marx or Nietzsche?” Marx stands for the theoretical revolution represented by the dialectics and the historical outlook of the new materialism, for the theoretical revolution that was initiated before and without Nietzsche.

The question “Why Marx and not Nietzsche?” needs to be answered in a rational—and only in a rational—manner. A theoretical option in favor of Marx, and against Nietzsche and Nietzscheanism, is not an arbitrary voluntaristic act. It can only be the result of a cognitive process, an act of thought against arbitrary voluntarism, not an unsubstantiated statement. The appearance of abstract generality in these philosophical topics and discussions, the appearance of their remoteness from life, stands apart from the debates about Nietzsche or Marx. Nietzsche himself had a foreboding of the fateful consequences of his own philosophy: “There shall one day be attached to my name a reminder of something monstrous—of a crisis the like of which has never been on earth, of the deepest collision of conscience, of a decision against everything that up to now has been believed, demanded, kept holy. I am not a human being, I am dynamite” (1969a, 1152). The theoretical option in favor of grasping the historical necessities of capitalist society and the historical necessity of overcoming it, dealing with the real social crisis not as the destiny of the “last man” but with concepts of knowledge and reality, against the nihilistic negating of knowledge, against the loss of truth and the positing of a mythical quasi objectivity; in favor of a rational dialectics against the irrationalizing of dialectics; in favor of democracy and a socialist perspective against contempt for humanity, the exhilaration of the master morality and of the superman, against “philosophizing with the hammer”—this option is an act of thought not only dealing with Lebensphilosophie's anticonceptual concept of irrational life, but also with the issues of the objective-real and intellectual life of social human beings.

The materialistically founded humanistic aspect of Marxist theory is neither an arbitrary supplement to, nor an idealistic substitute for, its scientific content, but a necessary conclusion from it. The intellectual experience of the inner connection of proletarian class consciousness, Marxist knowledge, and humanistic understanding was articulated in the philosophical poetry of Attila József in the early thirties: “After the priest, soldier and burgher / now it is our turn at last / to be upholder of the laws; / and so the sense of all human works / resonates in us / like so many resounding violas” (1997, 67). As the philosophical theory of materialist dialectics, in the process of sensitive recording of history and of grasping whatever “the works of man” may mean, the thought of Marx is the alternative to Nietzsche's philosophy.



1. Translations from non-English sources were made by the author.

2. See Rohrmoser 1981/82, 332ff. But this view is also based on the pattern Nietzsche versus Marx and it, too, portends an interpretation of Marx overcome by Nietzsche. Rohrmoser claims, “Just as we need a postfascist Nietzsche, we require a post-Marxist Nietzsche” (358). Rohrmoser too pleads “the superiority of Nietzsche over Marx” (1980, 336).

3. “From very different perspectives, Nietzsche and Marx attacked the triumph of commercial man. . . . Both Nietzsche and Marx scorned a society predominantly composed of men pursuing their self-interest” (Miller 1980, 120).

4. “Nietzsche's philosophy amounts to an absolute antidialectic” (Deleuze 1962, 223).

5. “Nomadic thinking” became a catchword in the philosophy of French postmodernism (see Grisoni 1977, 20ff.). The idea of “nomadic thinking” stems from Nietzsche, who says in his Menschliches, Allzumenschliches that “in contrast to the engaged and rooted intellectuals we almost see our ideal in a mental nomadism” (1969c, 817).

6. See, among others, Pütz 1974 and Maurer 1981–82.

7. For a critical analysis of Bloch's Erbschaft dieser Zeit that also deals with Nietzsche, see Günther 1981b.

8. See, among others, Althusser 1967.

9. See, among others, Krummel 1974–93; Thomas 1983; Bertram 1965; Raschel 1984; Lotter 1987; and Ries 1967.

10. On Nietzsche's international influence see, among others, Bianquis 1929; Serra 1984; Granier 1966; Granier 1967; volumes 1 and 2 of Nietzsche aujourd'hui? 1973; Künzli 1976; Bataille 1973; Kofman 1979; Bridgwater 1972; Copleston 1975; Kaufmann 1950; Stern 1979; Paci 1940; Vattimo 1974; Rukser 1962; Sobejano 1967; Becker 1983.

11. See Hillebrand 1978. For Nietzsche's impact on literature beyond the German, see Gaède 1967 and Foster 1981.

12. See, among others, Günther 1981a; Lukács 1984, 244ff.; Holz 1976, 31ff.; Steigerwald 1980, 69ff.; Buhr 1988.

13. See also Danto 1979.


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© 1998 Marxist Educational Press. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with the permission of Marxist Educational Press.

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