Getting Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche Talking

Karl Marx believed in the self-emancipation of the working class, while Friedrich Nietzsche had nothing but disdain for the masses. But a provocative new book claims the two thinkers can be read together to develop a socialism for today.

Jonas Ceika's new book compares the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche. (Wikimedia Commons)

What could Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche possibly have in common?

Marx dedicated himself to analyzing the relations of domination that emerged under capitalism in the hope that a future socialist society would promote the free development of all. Nietzsche claimed that “every elevation of the type ‘man,’ has been the work of an aristocratic society and so it will always be.” Marx famously dedicated himself to a critique of political economy. Nietzsche focused his energies on culture and religious morality. Sure, both were great critics of the modern world. But isn’t the urge by some to see Marx and Nietzsche get into bed together doomed?

Jonas Ceika, creator of the popular YouTube channel CCK Philosophy, disagrees. His new book, How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle: Nietzsche and Marx for the 21st-Century Left, makes the bold claim that Marx and Nietzsche can be used to “bring out what is already present in the other, but perhaps overlooked, hidden, or even placed in the background.” Not so much a synthesis of Marx and Nietzsche as a side-by-side reading, Ceika’s book tries to show how latent but under-theorized insights can be made explicit by studying the pair in tandem.

It is a stimulating argument, and Ceika’s book, though not without serious problems, is an excellent read that deserves a wide audience.

Getting Marx and Nietzsche Into Bed Together

Ceika devotes a healthy majority of his book to fostering the seeds of anti-capitalist critique in Nietzsche’s vast oeuvre. Throughout the book, Marx acts more as a gravitational pull than an actual presence — tugging on Nietzsche, trying to move him left, while preserving the core lessons of his insights.

This is an inherently fraught enterprise. As Ceika himself acknowledges, there is a long history of conservative and far-right figures celebrating Nietzsche for his strident elitism and anti-egalitarianism. Critical theorists like Domenico Losurdo and Hugo Drochon have cautioned that any effort to fit Nietzsche’s political convictions into a left-wing mold are bound to run up against his antidemocratic views. Here is Nietzsche in 1889, lamenting that the

working-man has been declared fit for military service; he has been granted the right of combination, and of voting: can it be wondered at that he already regards his condition as one of distress (expressed morally, as an injustice)? But, again I ask, what do people want? If they desire a certain end, then they should desire the means thereto. If they will have slaves, then it is madness to educate them to be masters.

Any theorizing about what Nietzsche has to offer socialism will therefore require some analytical flexibility. Of course, interpretation needn’t favor scholarly fidelity over creative acuity. Innovative left-wing thinkers have often appropriated deep insights from the Right. Marx himself drew much theoretical inspiration from Hegel, a consummate conservative.

But if we are going to engage in a selective reading of Nietzsche, we should acknowledge that that is the project. After all, Nietzsche continually insists that we not misunderstand him.

Nietzschean Socialism?

Ceika proves the viability of his reading through the sweep and power of his interpretation. How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle is packed with exciting insights and provocations. The book is such a bevy of riches I will limit myself to highlighting two key takeaways.

The first: Ceika uses Nietzsche to remind us that socialists’ aspiration shouldn’t be establishing strict equality along all metrics, but instead securing the conditions for human flourishing. As Ceika points out, Marx shares Nietzsche’s wariness of viewing equality as an end in itself, since the immeasurable differences between people means that treating everyone the same means treating some people far better or worse than others. A person with mobility issues who is unable to enjoy places that aren’t handicap-accessible is unlikely to be consoled if someone tells them the space is equally available to everyone.

There is another danger to the “strict equality” trap: a politics of crude resentment that proposes social leveling for its own sake, cutting down the rich even if it would do little to help the poor. Ceika is right that Nietzsche was astute in criticizing this kind of “ressentiment” — the jealous urge to take from another whether it benefits you or not — and reminding us that a democratic socialist future would ultimately liberate the rich from social alienation as well as the poor. (Though liberating the latter is of course the primary motivation.) Here one might complement Ceika’s argument by noting it is often conservatives that are most animated by ressentiment: consider the bitterness with which some opponents resist the “free college” demand, fuming: “I worked hard to pay my tuition, so it’s not fair that others don’t have to.”

A second key point in How to Philosophize is that Nietzsche provides an account of the aesthetic dimension of life that hardened Marxists sometimes miss. Marx and Nietzsche were both historical materialists when examining social and political issues, but not moral materialists in thinking that the only point of life was accumulation and production to satiate desire.

Both shared the conviction that capitalism narrowed the soul of humanity to nihilistic pursuits. While they had different analytical strengths — Marx showed how capitalism shaped human relations and culture, while Nietzsche often provided deeper accounts of that culture and its psychological effects — each hoped for a future where human beings could pursue deeper and more life-affirming projects. On this point we see Ceika at his best: productively using the distance between Marx and Nietzsche to generate novel insights.

The Interesting and the Just

There is a lot to like in Ceika’s book, and his “Nietzschean socialism” is an important theoretical contribution. But his book is not without its flaws. The most important one: his relentless opposition to invoking justice or morality.

Ceika’s stance is very much in keeping with Nietzsche and at least some Marxists, for whom any gesture toward the normative constitutes a failure of political nerve. But without rooting his politics in some conception of justice, Ceika can at best offer aesthetic reasons for why we should prefer his kind of society to another.

This points to one of the pitfalls of a purely aestheticized left politics: capitalism comes to be criticized less for the injustice and misery it induces and more for its vulgarity or tedium; radicalism is reduced to a countercultural aesthetic, its primary appeal the thrill of a world remade anew. This is a serious mistake. After all, as Walter Benjamin pointed out long ago, fascism’s primary pitch was how “entertaining” it was.

The heart of radical politics isn’t the interesting but the just. And if one finds that ethical language off-putting, it is worth remembering the distinction between moralism — the kind of Helen Lovejoy tendency to scream, “Won’t someone please think of the children!” when Cardi B’s pro-sex anthem “WAP” comes on — and deep moral conviction.

In a society where everyone had what they needed to lead a flourishing life, many people would undoubtedly develop deeper sides to themselves. But others would not. In fact, if one’s primary aim is to produce and empower the most interesting kinds of people, it isn’t clear that Nietzsche is wrong to favor a sort of aristocratic perfectionism. Society’s resources could be organized to foster an elite, who would in turn use other people in their projects of “great politics,” at once dangerous and life affirming.

Socialists, of course, view this vision of society as a nightmare. They insist everyone should have a genuinely equal opportunity to flourish, not just because it would produce more interesting people but because it would be more just and fair. There would be something morally noxious about sweatshop workers being paid pennies to work fifteen hours a day without bathroom breaks, even if it turned out that some of them preferred to use their higher pay and leisure time to sit around and watch TV. The same could be said about permitting exploitation because it granted elites the resources to pursue aesthetically astounding enterprises.

So, in the end, I think the strongest argument for Ceika’s Nietzschean socialism is the one he is wary of making: that a world where all were able to pursue a life of flourishing — however they understand it — would be a more just world than the one we live in now. It would also be one where the infinite potentials of human existence were unlocked, rather than deadened by the weight of poverty and domination. We should be doing all we can to bring that world into being — not just because it would be more aesthetically pleasing, but because it’s the right thing to do.