As Donald Trump basked in his presidential election victory in 2016, white supremacist Richard Spencer unleashed a round of Nazi-inspired praise for Trump’s victory — sentiments echoed by Alexander Dugin, a Russian neo-fascist whose writings reached a broader English-speaking audience thanks to Spencer and his wife, Nina Kouprianova.
These three, writes University of Toronto political science professor Ronald Beiner, all trace their fascistic views back to a pair of German philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, both of whom played outsized roles in either inspiring or participating in Hitler’s Nazi party.
As Beiner writes in Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right, the recent resurgence of the far-right and white supremacy didn’t occur in any kind of philosophical vacuum. Rather, it’s rooted in a long lineage of fascists who have leaned on Nietzsche and Heidegger to excuse and expand their own racism, anti-Semitism, and personal quests for power.
As Beiner outlines, Nietzsche and Heidegger aren’t simply anti-liberals — they have both, in different times, written “incitements to genocide.” (There’s a reason Kouprianova and Dugin have both lauded Heidegger, and why Spencer says he was “red-pilled by Nietzsche.”) Both Nietzsche and Heidegger bemoan an essential “spiritlessness” of the modern age, and both believe that there’s a more worthwhile world of hierarchy to which man and cultures alike can, and should, aspire.
“Nietzsche’s talk about slavery and exploitation as conditions of a meaningful culture is… a direct call to action,” Beiner writes. Heidegger “truly believed in the greatness of Hitler” and “never expressed an ounce of regret or contrition” for his Nazi party membership.
Decades later, the two philosophers have gained newfound prominence thanks to the growing impact of neo-fascists and white supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic. ThinkProgress spoke with Beiner about the effect Nietzsche and Heidegger have had, and what may come next for the young white supremacists who have found their philosophical heroes in a pair of German thinkers.
Why do you think these young white supremacists, members of the so-called “alt-right,” have latched themselves so heavily onto philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger?
First of all, I want to say that I would never claim that the far-right is experiencing a resurgence because of a book they’re reading. Obviously, there are things going on in the world — economically, sociologically, culturally, all these things — so the idea that there are just some ideas floating around in philosophy that turned them to the far-right, I wouldn’t make any kind of claims like that.
“Destroy everything from the ground up. And if it takes a nuclear explosion, they’re happy with it.”
But if you look at far-right websites, you see there’s a lot of interest in these thinkers in particular — and that’s not an accident. These people [on the far-right] are looking for the deepest, most ambitious challenges to the existing order they can find, and they’re not mistaken when they find that that’s what Nietzsche and Heidegger are providing.
Can you outline some of anti-liberal, anti-democratic programs these two philosophers envision?
Nietzsche and Heidegger despise the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution — they resolutely, deliberately, and bitterly reject that legacy, that inheritance of the modern West. I’d say they violently reject [them]. Why is that? Take the French Revolution. Really what it stands for is the idea that people should not be locked into pre-dictated roles in life, scripts they’re meant to live out. The idea is to give individuals space to map out their own ideas of life, to live freely. Well, Nietzsche totally rejects that.
Both Nietzsche and Heidegger think we have to completely undo that inheritance of freedom and equality. They’re both perfectly explicit about this — they both despise liberal democracy. There’s nothing morally grand about this; it’s just a kind of a dehumanization of humanity. And the far-right agrees with all that.
The project is: destroy liberalism. Destroy the moral and political horizons of modernity. Destroy everything from the ground up. And if it takes a nuclear explosion and just starting all over again, they’re happy with it.
Their new civilization will be war-like and anti-liberal, creating deep cultures hostile to other cultures, building much stronger attachments to your own. Nietzsche and Heidegger were prepared to wait a few centuries for it. Part of their message was: We need to think in centuries. And the price of that world is millions of people being cannon-fodder. But they shrug — who cares? They think that’s a price worth paying. Hundreds of millions of people will die so they can have the world they want. That’s the scale of insanity we’re talking about.
Some of the people you mention throughout the book — Dugin, Spencer — all have pointed directly to these philosophers as inspiration. Are they all leaning on Nietzsche and Heidegger for the same ends? Are there any disagreements they run into?
Well, step number one is that you destroy the existing liberal order. There are little intramural spats about things like how friendly we should be toward Russia, and God knows what Spencer has in mind with his ethno-states. But those details — they’ll kick that ball down the field. They first want to destroy what they despise, which is A) egalitarianism, B) multiculturalism, C) feminism, and a bunch of other progressive commitments that they see as feminizing, decadent, as a kind of bottoming-out of modern life.
“The idea that we should ‘just hear him out and you’ll see that he has some interesting ideas’ — that’s just bullshit.”
These thinkers gravitate toward Nietzsche and Heidegger because they are the most categorical, and most uncompromising, and most ambitious despisers of… liberal modernity, liberal egalitarianism, progressivism – “the left” in the broadest possible sense. And in that sense they represent “the right.” And that’s why fascists want to plant their flags on them.
These are all kind of sending out codes that, “We are the real resistance to the liberals.” This is a hard-core, we-will-not-bend group, saying, “This is the revolution.” And if it means violence, or if it means revolutions, or if it means cruelty, or if it means killing people, or if it means genocide, they can live with that.
Right as your book was coming out, another far-right darling, a Canadian woman named Lauren Southern, sat down with Dugin for an “interview.” She said she was just there to “talk,” but she and her partner — Brittany Pettibone, who is a Pizzagate truther — basically offered Dugin a platform to spout his fascism. What did you make of the interview?
[Southern] is a kind of rock star of the alt-right, or however you want to characterize her. Young people look at Spencer, and they might find him a little scary, and people are doing Heil Hitler salutes, whereas she comes across as relatable, or innocent, or whatever… So why interview Dugin? Why is that an attractive person to interview?
And she’s saying, “Oh, well, he’s been slandered by you liberals, and in fact he’s a decent guy, and he’s not a fascist, and he’s very emphatic about not being racist, and real Nazis don’t like him because he’s not racist enough for their liking.” Well, that’s all just a PR job.
This is a very dangerous person who is a racist, who is a deep anti-Semite. And it requires minimal effort — you don’t have to do years of digging to see how much hatred there is in this man, and how much lunacy. And the idea that “oh, well, he’s been unfairly represented by the fake news liberal media, and just hear him out and you’ll see that he has some interesting ideas” — that’s just bullshit. It’s very directly politically motivated bullshit.
I think you have to have your eyes open… With [Southern’s] telegenic looks and her smile and her relating to teeny-boppers — it’s scary how many people are subscribers to her on YouTube. She’s presenting one of the most dangerous people on the planet as, “Oh, well, let’s hear what he has to say.” How stupid and naïve can you be?
As a final question, one of the notes in your book includes an anecdote of one of your students citing Nietzsche in a paper — but the quote the student cited came from a neo-Nazi website. What was that like for you?
The student had no idea, no clue. But that’s what [these sites] are trying to do, to suck people in. For me it’s like a slap in the face — but it’s been a whole series of slaps in the face, just a succession of sucker-punches. What kind of crazy, upside-down world are we living in? In the longer scheme of things, maybe a decade or two decades from now, this will look like some crazy aberration, and we’re back to liberal sanity. But right now it doesn’t look like rule of liberal sanity — it looks like crazy ideological anti-liberal insanity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.