In his 1947 essay ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Contemporary Events’, Thomas Mann evaluates in the following way Friedrich Nietzsche’s attitude to the worker:

It does not testify of enmity against the workers, it testifies to the contrary when he [Nietzsche] says: ‘The workers should learn to feel like soldiers: a fee, a salary but no payment. They should one day live like the bourgeoisie at present; but above them, distinguishing itself by its lack of needs, the higher caste, poorer and simpler, but in possession of the power.’footnote1

Mann initially claims that ‘the socialist touch in his vision of the post-bourgeois life is as strong as the one that can be termed fascist’footnote2 and that ‘his idea of culture has here and there a strongly socialist, in any case no longer a bourgeois, colouring.’footnote3 Further on, however, he stresses the unbridgeable distance that ultimately separates Nietzsche from socialism:

His philosophy is just as meticulously organized a system as Schopenhauer’s philosophy, developed out of a single, all-embracing basic idea. But this underlying idea is certainly radical, aesthetic art, through which alone his outlook and thought must stand in irreconcilable opposition to all socialism. There are, finally, only two dispositions and inner postures: the aesthetic and the moralistic, and socialism is a strictly moralistic world-view. Nietzsche, in comparison, is the most complete and incurable aesthete the intellectual world knows . . .footnote4

Thus, Mann perceives Nietzsche as opposing not the working class as such, but ‘merely’ its commonly accepted political manifestation—socialism. According to Mann’s analysis, Nietzsche promotes a social and ethical vision genuinely committed to the goals of the working class and in affinity with its tastes and sensitivities,footnote5 while disagreeing with the official, conventional politics. This divergence has to do with the motives operating in each case: socialism is engaged with the working class because of moral considerations, whereas Nietzsche’s home-grown socialism is founded upon aesthetic impulses. Before examining the validity of such a conception, it is necessary to put the discussion into its context.

Mann’s reading is by no means an isolated case within Nietzsche criticism. It rather represents a recurring hermeneutic conclusion, even if the explicitness of the German novelist’s claim is somewhat less typical. The general protective—if not approbatory—assessment of Nietzsche’s socio-political vision is certainly not an exception among thinkers broadly associated with the Left. There is not, and never was, any shortage of critics to denounce firmly the ‘appropriation’ and ‘abuse’ of the individualistic, rebellious and relativistic German philosopher by fascism. In fact, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, this critical approach enjoys a privileged position. To grasp its ‘qualitative’ distinction, one only need supply a partial listing of those highly influential names who have assured the German philosopher’s predominant place in modern philosophical discourse: Freud, Weber, Bloch, Bataille, Deleuze, Sartre, Camus, Adorno, Horkheimer, Foucault, Derrida. The very core of twentieth-century intellectual life is decidedly Nietzschean. The opposite camp is considered to be both smaller in number and less intellectually commanding; one can think of Lukács, the much vilified ‘die-hard Marxist’, whose treatment of Nietzsche became largely discredited as an example of a rigid ideological dogmatism,footnote6 and, in more recent times, Habermas, who, in any case, could only contrast the passionate rhetoric of Nietzsche enthusiasts with a thin, if precise, critical tone.

The ‘illustrious Nietzscheans’ mentioned above exploited and assimilated significant Nietzschean insights in their own projects, thus founding psychoanalysis, critical theory, existentialism or deconstruction. Some of them ignored, to a greater or lesser extent, the specific elements in Nietzsche’s teachings that dealt with socialism and the working class; Derrida, for example, was content with disassociating Nietzsche from Heideggerian authoritative, ‘metaphysical’ thinking,footnote7 and with ingeniously transforming the German thinker, infamously renowned as a vicious misogynist, almost into an out-and-out feminist.footnote8 Often enough, however, opinions were voiced that were generally in tune with Mann’s rendition of Nietzsche as ‘friend of the worker’. Horkheimer, for instance, maintained that Nietzsche, though essentially the philosopher of the dominant class, could still contribute, if read creatively, to ‘proletarian praxis’.footnote9 At any rate, a vast number of ‘mainstream’ critics in the last three decades or so adhere, frequently with considerable vigour, to the rehabilitation campaign of Nietzsche’s reputation, after its temporary entanglement with fascism.