The Monsters We Become: On "How to Read Like a Parasite"

Date: 2024-05-31T19:37:26+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Conrad Hamilton offers his review of Daniel Tutt’s recent book How to Read Like a Parasite: Why the Left Got High on Nietzsche, an inquiry into Nietzsche’s politics.

George Condo, Writer (2006)

In the history of philosophy, certain readings remain very difficult to understand. How did Descartes, who saw the subject as set on by God, become a poster boy for the atomized “I”? How did Deleuze, who insisted on the fluidity of identity, become the patron saint of a reified species of identity politics? Yet it speaks to the sheer breadth of their influence that no philosophers have been subject to more complex co-options than Marx and Nietzsche. After an abortive attempt to instigate world revolution from the periphery, Marx’s work was appealed to by communists to justify — quite counterintuitively, given its workerist character — the creation of top-down states delinked from the world market. Nietzsche, on the other hand, became the icon of a fascism that (whatever the dubiosities of his views on race) easily outdid them. In spite or because of their shared affinity for state-building, history set these two readings on a collision course — one that culminated in what Richard Rorty called “the six-month-long seminar known as the Battle of Stalingrad.”1 Its decisive moment was not a keynote speech; it was the slow strangling of the 6th Army by Soviet troops.

In the wake of World War II, one might have imagined that Marx would wax and Nietzsche would wane. In at least one crucial sense, this did come to pass: Marx, after all, continued to inspire political projects the world over, whereas Nietzsche did not. But one of the ironic effects of the triumph of the USSR is that — within the realm of philosophy — it arguably helped Nietzsche. Communist philosophers working in the most advanced centers in the West had to bear the crucible of anti-Marxist Cold War ideology; where their work rose to prominence, it typically did so in nations with robust communist parties, as in Italy and France. The defeat of the Nazis, by contrast, freed Nietzsche up for reappropriation. Bolstered by selective translation — why not “relentless destruction” instead of “extermination”? (pp. 146) — he was reframed by scholars like Walter Kaufmann not as a proto-fascist ideologue, but a restless soul… a sensitive artiste utterly adverse to racism. By the 60s and 70s, his reputation had swelled to the point his work was seized upon as arguably the touchstone for French theory, keen as it was to liberate the left from the fetters of class analysis. From the get-go, this was rejected by the Soviet camp: in his 1954 tome, The Destruction of Reason, Lukács even compares his rehabilitation to that of Nazi figures such as Hjalmar Schacht,2 situating him within an irrationalist lineage that serves to justify the capture of modernization by regnant feudal classes, dating back to Schelling or earlier. Few in the West noticed – at least until the past decade. Now, his increasing deployment by the right, as well as the appearance in English of Domenico Losurdo’s groundbreaking exposé Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel, have conspired to generate the impression that the guy who called for the revaluation of all values may be in need of one himself.

Enter Daniel Tutt. In the past few years, Tutt has risen from unlikely origins — a hardscrabble upbringing in Southern Oregon, and years blogging while bouncing around in the NGO sector before belatedly pursuing a PhD — to being one of the most visible English-language exponents of the left critique of Nietzsche. His new book, How to Read Like a Parasite: Why the Left Got High on Nietzsche, serves as both an entry point and an expansion upon earlier work by Lukács and Losurdo, put across with the ease of something you’d pick up from an airport off-license. Its title refers to its central conceit: a somewhat labored metaphor according to which Nietzsche has parasitized the left and must be “sweat […] out” through exposure to historical materialism rather than “canceled full stop.” Discernible beneath all this is not just discomfort with a poststructuralism that’s long since swapped out condemnations of capitalism for Nietzsche-influenced platitudes about ‘power’ and ‘the law’ — though that’s very much there — but with predominant readings of Marx himself. Aloof upper crust academics, Tutt all but tells us, have done a disservice to his work by either depriving class of hegemony vis-à-vis other forms of identity, or by — as with the modish cult of value form theory —c alling for its abolition sans the intermediary of a working-class movement. 

For all his efforts, though, it may now be Tutt who’s sweating. Lukács’ scathing attacks on Nietzsche were motivated by a conceptual grasp of the political impulse that drove him; Losurdo’s work is in a way far more damning, since he demonstrates beyond doubt that Nietzsche was an unambiguous antisemite in the early phase of his career, that he attacked anti-slavery abolitionists, and that he supported the eugenics of good health (if not race per se). Since the Nietzschean conception of the will to power is the ontological edifice upon which extra-class left demands have long been made, Tutt’s attempt to amplify Losurdo’s message has occasioned something of a backlash. Two months after its publication, Devin Gouré — better known by his Twitter handle “Left Nietzschean” — posted an Excel table on his Substack3 demonstrating that thirty of the thirty-six citations in the book’s second chapter are at least partially misleading (mostly pages that were numbered incorrectly, though in a couple of instances Tutt does outright misattribute quotes). This suggests some pretty slack scholarship on Tutt’s part; at the same time, the failure is partly his publisher’s, and a book on a less controversial topic would surely not have suffered this sort of Twitter drive-by shooting. Not that he can expect much from his putatively woke publisher, Repeater Books: as How to Read Like a Parasite has garnered more and more attention, several individuals linked to the company have made their displeasure with Tutt clear, helping to diffuse Gouré’s remarks as well as tut-tutting him for dialoguing critically with noted TERF Nina Power. That he ultimately didn’t publish this conversation due to concerns from the trans community didn’t matter – he was still at fault of, as the ever-eloquent Matt Colquhoun (“Xenogothic”) put it, not “guilt by association” but “guilt of association”.4

“A book full of spirit,” Nietzsche once wrote, “communicates some of it to its opponents too.”5 By this criterion, How to Read Like a Parasite is already a minor success. But what of the content? In what amounts to an anticipation of the adverse reaction that would ensue, Tutt begins the book with a time-honored gesture: telling us the weight of what he’s up against. Nietzsche has traversed so many lives, has woven himself so deeply into our collective psyche that — whether we read him or not — we live in his world. This ubiquity is perhaps not so innocent. The “center” of Nietzsche’s work is hard to discern – not just due to his perspectivism, which denies in advance the possibility of a proprietary reading, but due to his “Janus-faced” thought: one finds in him both “joyful affirmation and anarchic celebration” and “cruel and brutal defense of rank order” (pp. 6). This seeming contradiction has led most readers of Nietzsche—including those on the left—to focus on the good while ignoring the bad. But the two are not so extricable as they initially seem. If he lauds grand artistry and strident individualism while calling for the repression of the repugnant masses, it’s because they are mutually conditioned: without compelled labor (“slavery”), the free time and disposable resources needed by the upper strata to pursue these would not exist. Such an approach — an ethos of self-creation combined with an obliviousness to inequality — may seem redolent of our modern-day entrepreneurial capitalism, with its injunction to express one’s authentic self in a relentless focus on self-branding. That’s no coincidence, since — as Peter Sloterdijk and Andrea Reckwitz have both observed in different ways — he has exerted a crucial influence on the synthesis of ‘68 with unreconstructed capitalism that has prevailed over the last several decades. But here, Tutt has something to expiate: he, too, was once a follower of Nietzsche. During his college days, he readily inhaled a copy of Beyond Good and Evil before moving on to other books; particularly impressive to him was the “rhythm and movement” (pp. 14) of his style. And indeed, there can be no discussion of Nietzsche without discussing style. Proleptic and esoteric, his writing both summons forth a futural community of believers as well as shrouds his true agenda in rapturous prose. For the most part, this hasn’t fooled the right, who understand that he is far closer to fascism than — in the words of Leo Strauss — either “communism” or “democracy.” The left, though, has been decidedly more gullible: take Derrida’s take on his On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, which he reads in blithely metaphysical terms, in spite of it clearly being a set of lectures intended to persuade Bismarck to adopt a more elitist educational model.

The link with the Second Reich, and with politics in general, is explored more fully in the book’s third and fourth chapters. Nietzsche’s most enduring contribution to philosophy is arguably his perspectivism — the idea, contra the Kantian consensus, that there are no facts, only interpretations. Often this is taken as an embrace of identity politics avant la lettre, as if he were slipping notes to the feminist founders of standpoint theory a century in advance. The reality is somewhat more sordid. As both Lukács and Losurdo have shown, Nietzsche’s relativism was intimately linked to his opposition to the Paris Commune, which crystallized the rationalizing energies he so deplored; in Losurdo’s study, it’s proven that his condemnation of an effete and phrenic “Socratism” redoubled as a condemnation of Jews (though he later abandoned at least “vulgar” antisemitism, going so far as to uphold Jewish culture as a model worthy of emulation). But beyond merely browbeating exponents of “socialist realism,” Nietzsche’s “nominalism” served another function. The nineteenth century was marked by the rise of regimes that sought to temper the rising tide of socialism by assimilating some of its axioms; in honor of Louis Napoleon III, who presented himself as both a Christian and Saint-Simonist, Marx termed this “Bonapartism” (a category fleshed out later to great effect by the Trinidadian Marxist, C.L.R. James). Because these leaders tend to rely on highly eclectic and harried class coalitions — and Bismarck, a fascist forerunner of sorts who eventually instituted public Medicare, was very much among them — they profit from a perspectivist worldview, allowing them as it does to puncture the primacy of the proletarian standpoint by equivocating between competing class demands. Though he may have reproached Bismarck’s politics from the right, Nietzsche didn’t have a problem with this approach in principle: he, too, desperately sought a solution to the coalescing of the working class, taking the Prussian Junker class’s call for otium — that is, the leisure time afforded by labor of others — as his calling card, even as he understood that aristocratism would need to be articulated anew. One might expect — given all this — that the left would be more circumspect about drawing on him as a political influence. They haven’t. Deleuze and Guattari, for instance, push class to the side in their Nietzsche-inspired psychedelic self-help book Anti-Oedipus, proclaiming the desire instilled by capitalism as the means through which it will be overcome. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has given rise to an “accelerationist” tendency that aims to appropriate and advance capitalist technology without the retconning of the working class or, in the case of the septic futurist screeds of Nick Land, simply degenerates into racism.

One of the things stressed by Tutt is that Nietzche’s work functions esoterically, in a manner that obscures its reactionary political center. It’s appropriate then that Tutt’s book does too, unveiling its agenda more fully only in its second half: namely, a vintage Lukácsianism; it sees the recession of calls for working class hegemony within dominant readings of Marx as a symptom of embourgeoisement. In the fifth chapter, he surveys the influence of Nietzsche within the left, finding it everywhere: the steely workerism of Jack London, the Bolshevik Revolution, and Huey Newton’s efforts to radicalize lumpenized blacks. While not unappreciative of the sense of invention demonstrated by these appropriations, Tutt sees each of these as deformed by Nietzsche’s imprint: if London’s recasting of the working man as Übermensch wasn’t enough to stop him from embracing eugenics, the hubristic militancy that allowed the Bolsheviks to vault themselves to power already contained within it a latent elitism and self-distancing from the proletarian standpoint which dogged them once they got there — and in the case of the Black Panthers, he seems to suggest, it presaged their abandonment of Marxism. That elitism is made clear when we contrast Marx and Nietzsche’s views of religion. Whereas Marx saw it not as negative per se, but as a necessary narcotic for a rapacious capitalist world, Nietzsche is hardly the pillar of atheism he’s often made out to be. He disdained the emancipatory kernel of Christianity, sure. But he also was more than willing to authorize its use provided it served as a check on anti-establishment energies, helping birth a right-wing atheism that — as Peter Sloterdijk has drawn attention to, albeit with a positive slant — deprives politics of its vertical horizon. Part of the way this deprivation is achieved is through the application of the term ressentiment. A moralistic phrase that delegitimizes the demands of social inferiors, its main function seems to be paralyzing meaningful discussion – why else would Nietzsche, as Tutt wonders aloud, not simply use the term “resentment”? Reactionary origins or no, Tutt attempts something of a détournement in the seventh chapter, flirting with the possibility that ressentiment can be better used to describe a specifically class-elevated form of anguish that escapes tidy Marxian analysis: take Wendy Brown’s point, for instance, that white men in the Trump era seem to be afflicted by it in so far as their outcry reflects more a loss of entitlement than any kind of tangible injustice (though Tutt reproaches Brown with being too black-and-white in terms of which objections to the status quo are legitimate and legitimate which are not). But however useful such formulae may be, they ultimately must bow before the prism of class—the subject of the book’s final chapter. The “transversal” racism advocated by Nietzsche in his late works was in a way an attempt to realign with racial categories with the capitalist division of labor, so that even privileged Jews would be invited to crossbreed with a pan-European elite (but not, as Nietzsche emphasizes in The Antichrist, filthy Polish Jews). In certain respects, this cross-racial coalition of capitalist has come to pass; against it, Marxists must work to cultivate class literacy amongst fellow workers, as well as organize for a revolutionary rupture. But beyond the narrow acquisitiveness of neoliberal culture, Marxian thinkers like G.M. Tamas who — leaning on Nietzschean perspectivism — see the working class as an agent of capitalist equality, not the means for the creation of a classless future (and it’s clear Tutt has a host of value-theoretical voices — vices? — in mind here, not just Tamas) are a significant stumbling block. Whatever limited benefits have been bequeathed to the left by Nietzsche’s hermeneutic of suspicion, the working class should not be its target. On the contrary, it’s the Archimedean point through which we must pass if we hope to repair society, weaving a desultory postmodern world of Kleinian part-objects into a coherent whole. 

That focus on the whole is apt, since where How to Read Like a Parasite most excels is in the breadth of its dialectic. Indeed, if anti-Hegelianism, as Foucault once said, may be a “trick” at the “end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us”,6 Tutt makes good on this by showing up again and again at the end of every Nietzschean bromide, as if he were Batman (another Übermensch). Granted, this doesn’t absolve him from the standard scholarly objections. The references, as mentioned before, could be more rigorous; moreover, while more than capable of assimilating the work of his interlocutors, he sometimes does so quite gracelessly, beating them over the head with the cudgel of uncharitable reading rather than building up his totality more amicably. Take accelerationism: is it really the case, as Tutt claims, that left accelerationism wants to “keep the existing mode of production intact” (pp. 140) while eschewing working class mobilization? The only source he cites, Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, explicitly states the contrary; a more plausible criticism would be that its vision of proletarian splendor grossly overestimates the ability of technology to bend existing ecological boundaries. Not that he’s much better on its right-wing counterpart – calling Nick Land “neo-confederate” (pp. 140) may make for easy point-scoring, but it also prevents Tutt from fully grasping the character of his “hyper-racism,” which — with its post-human call for the evolution of “face tentacles”7 — more closely resembles Nietzsche’s eugenical “transversal” racism than that of Old Dixie. One could say much the same of their shared fetishism of the Chinese: Nietzsche’s view of them as a paradigmatically passive race who could be imported to Europe to negate proletarian demands8 overlaps with Land’s enthusiasm for a “Far Eastern Marxism”9 able to make a transnational version of this a fait accompli.

At the risk of nitpicking, there’s another issue that should be raised. One of the most salient features of Tutt’s book is that it tidily aligns metaphysical concepts with political ones — so that, for instance, “realism” becomes a cipher for socialism, whereas “nominalism” is treated as a reactionary war cry.  The real origin of this type of equivocation has little to do with the unvarnished workerism he repeats mantrically over the course of the book; it rather stems from the sharp line drawn by Lenin, in Materialism and Empirio-criticism, between a revolutionary materialism and a reactionary idealism. This dyad was later enshrined officially within the Marxism-Leninism of Stalin’s USSR; it was also long opposed by Western Marxism from Lefebvre onward in favor of the more subtle assessment, in his Philosophical Notebooks, that “[i]ntelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism”.10 It’s surprising Tutt would opt for this path, given that his PhD supervisor, Alain Badiou, rejects an expressive link between politics and ontology. But the point here is not that such a position is indefensible – if we had nothing other than Althusser’s post-1967 work, which follows Lenin in portraying philosophy as a trans-historical battle between materialist and idealist camps, unable to “prove” their first premises, these alone would attest to its usefulness. It does, however, need to be defended. Who knows? Tutt is said to be working on a book on Lukács’ Ontology of Social Being for Zero Books – maybe that will give him the opportunity to reckon with the relation of philosophy to its founding conditions.

How to Read Like a Parasite, then, has its fair share of faults and fuckups. None of these, though, erase its erudition, nor diminish the chutzpah of a thinker who — for the challenging character of his theses on Marxism — could come to occupy a leading intellectual role. “Our destiny exercises its influence over us,” Nietzsche writes, “even when, as yet, we have not learned its nature: it is our future that lays down the law of our today.”11 That future may not arrive — certainly, the visceral reactions the book has spawned suggest the abyss is eyeing him as its elect. Either way, How to Read Like a Parasite will remain a compelling snapshot of a moment when, parasitized by brilliance, Tutt was really able to get under his enemies’ skin.

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  1. Samuel McIlhagga, “Hegel Is Still an Important Thinker for the Left,” Jacobin, Nov. 16 2023, https://jacobin.com/2023/11/hegel-political-philosophy-world-revolutions-book-review#:~:text=Therefore%2C%20the%20liberal%20philosopher%20Richard,called%20the%20Battle%20of%20Stalingrad.%E2%80%9D.
  2. Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981), 343.
  3. Devin Gouré, “How to Read Like a Parasite, Appendix on Citations,” Methods of Madness (substack), March 2 2024, https://devingour.substack.com/p/how-to-read-like-a-parasite-appendix.
  4. Matt Colquhoun, “The Post-Left”s Marketplace of Ideas,” Xenogothic, July 19 2023, https://xenogothic.com/2023/07/19/the-post-lefts-marketplace-of-ideas.
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 249.
  6. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 235.
  7. Nick Land, The Dark Enlightenment, 2013, https://www.thedarkenlightenment.com/the-dark-enlightenment-by-nick-land.
  8. Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel: Intellectual Biography and Critical Balance-Sheet, trans. Gregor Benton (Leiden: Historical Materialism Book Series of Brill, 2020), 319-320.
  9. Nick Land, “Meltdown,” in Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007 (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2011), 447.
  10. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 274.
  11. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. Alexander Harvey (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1908), Project Gutenberg, 11, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38145/38145-h/38145-h.htm.