Nietzsche, Schmitt, and the Alt-Right
Truman Chen

30 May 2017

The journalist Graeme Wood, author of the groundbreaking investigation on ISIS titled "What ISIS Really Wants," recently interviewed Richard Spencer, one of the leaders of the alt-right, a noted fascist, and coincidentally on of Wood's high school classmates. The entire profile, titled "His Kampf," is worth reading, but in particular, I'd like to bring out Wood's exploration of Spencer's philosophical background. 

Spencer draws inspiration especially from the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt, the former appropriated by the Nazis and the latter a devoted member. Starting with Nietzsche, Spencer began by reading "On the Genealogy of Morals, a systematic dismantling of the moral and religious truths of European civilization. Nietzsche saw Christianity as a slave religion, a consolation to the weak. Spencer says that the general effect, an inversion of his moral universe, was 'shattering.'"

Schmitt, on the other hand, provides the bulk of Spencer's critique of liberalism. Schmitt has experienced a resurgence in academic political theory, especially since a special issue of the journal Telos was devoted to reconsidering his work. Since then, both the radical left and the right have found him useful toward critiques of the basic assumptions at the heart of liberal democracy. He was, however, a fully-fledged Nazi, so this revival has not come without its controversies. Wood testifies that Spencer's understanding of Schmitt is actually "fair and reasonably nuanced."

It isn't everyday that you read Schmitt and Nietzsche, or philosophy at all, as serious theoretical influences for a rather large movement in the morning paper. But Spencer's fascist reading of Nietzsche and Schmitt represents only one strand of interpretation of either philosopher. Nietzsche, for example, has been contested far longer than Schmitt, and there has been considerable work in trying to disentangle Nietzsche from the deep anti-semitism his sister contorted his works into. 

Have you read Nietzsche and/or Schmitt? What do you think of Spencer's interpretation? 

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Comments (1)

SéanOg's picture


Sunday, July 2, 2017 -- 9:50 PM

I've read more Schmitt than

I've read more Schmitt than Nietzsche to be honest. I think it is a bit of a stretch to call Schmitt a 'devoted' Nazi. He was undoubtedly a white supremacist, in the European style of Catholic authoritarianism that held in the 1920-30s, and while he never recanted either position Renato Cristi and Bill Scheuerman have highlighted that much of Schmitt's critique of liberalism has been transported directly into the ontology of neoliberalism (see Hayek's 'Constitution of Liberty' footnotes, where he obscurant-ly cites Schmitt while damning him with faint praise). Nevertheless, the Nazis almost killed him twice, once for dedicating a book to his Jewish professor. Only his longstanding personal friendship with several Nazi high-command figures saved him. I would thoroughly recommend Ellen Kennedy's biography. That is not saying that he could not inspire neo-Nazis. Just that they'd have to read Schmitt somewhat selectively to not see contradictions with Nazism.