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Christian Benne reviews The Great Debate

Georg Brandes and Harald Høffding. The Great Debate: Nietzsche, Culture, and the Scandinavian Welfare Society. Trans. and ed. William Banks. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2024. 244 pp.

Review by Christian Benne

1 March 2024

There is a widespread belief that the great critic and essayist Georg Brandes discovered Friedrich Nietzsche and thus initiated the astonishing intellectual career of this unsettling thinker. The reality of Nietzsche’s early reception is more complex, but Brandes was the first to give a series of university lectures on Nietzsche in Copenhagen in 1888. The long essay compiled from these under the title “Aristocratic Radicalism” quickly established itself as a main reference for understanding its timely untimely subject. Brandes’s sensational article appears here in a brilliant new translation. Even more importantly and for the first time ever, William Banks has also translated the ensuing debate between Georg Brandes and the Danish philosopher Harald Høffding (never translated into any other language before). This is a true gift not just to intellectual history and Nietzsche studies but to everyone interested in the perennial debates surrounding the role of culture and equality in the organization of society.

Banks, an expert on Scandinavian culture and on Brandes in particular, gives abundant notes and explanations. In a long introduction (almost a quarter of the whole book), Banks motivates his task as a presentation of the intellectual origins of the Nordic welfare state; this should inspire a young generation interested in democratic socialism or other alternatives to the prevailing neoliberal model of society. Despite this worthy and appealing cause, the introduction—at times written in an informal, activist tone—stumbles when it tries to project the current political agenda all too closely onto the past. The issues at stake in both Nietzsche’s thought and Brandes’s appropriation of it are obscured, although Banks is knowledgeable and convincing on other aspects of the Danish critic’s life and work. He is less familiar with Høffding, of whom he wrongly claims, paraphrasing Brandes, that at the time of the debate he had not yet produced “a single book of actual intellectual consequence” (p. 23). Høffding was, in fact, already regarded as one of the century’s most important philosophers of the mind after the German translation of his empiricist psychology in 1887, a work, incidentally, that Nietzsche knew well and annotated thoroughly.

Banks rightly points out that reading “Aristocratic Radicalism” requires context, but it is precisely here where he is weakest. This is not his fault alone. Many Nietzsche specialists make similar mistakes, and Danish experts on Brandes do not know Nietzsche well enough. It is a common trap to interpret aristocratic radicalism as a kind of radical aristocracy: Banks puts Nietzsche in a tradition of conservatism born out of a reaction against the French revolution (Edmund Burke), resulting in a cult of great men (Thomas Carlyle) and culminating in Friedrich Hayek’s neoliberal elitism and Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean caricature (Leo Strauss, who would be much more interesting to look at in this context, is oddly absent.) He then must go to great lengths to dissociate his hero Brandes from this tradition and save his positions against Høffding, who is, at the outset, more in line with his own anti-elitist positions on welfare.

Nietzsche, as Brandes knew, had little to do with this tradition, from which he actively and passionately dissociated himself (for example in his remarks on Carlyle). Banks seems unfamiliar with Nietzsche’s well-established debt to Emersonian perfectionism and reads him as a doctrinal protofascist. Yet if there is a concept of aristocracy in Nietzsche’s political thought at all, it is far closer to Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a natural aristocracy than to a naturalized oligarchic ruling class of money men.

Strangely enough in the light of Banks’s rightful insistence on historical contextualization, he does not go into the political movement of radicalism that Brandes adhered to. In fact, the whole “great debate” between Brandes and Høffding is a competition about the proper definition of what radicalism should ideologically stand for in the new era.

Radicalism was a variant of liberalism born out of the July revolution in France and electoral reforms in England. It represented a classic emancipatory paradigm, embracing citizens’ rights (including, crucially, women’s rights), freedom of speech, anticlericalism, and cosmopolitanism. Brandes and Høffding originally shared this vision, but Høffding went a step further than the original Radicals by addressing the question of social equality. Against Brandes’s aristocratic radicalism he called this new program “democratic radicalism.” Brandes, however, believed Høffding to be stuck in mid-century radicalism. During his Berlin years, he had seen the dangerous side of democracy, realizing how easy it was to manipulate people by way of ressentiment—in this case, antisemitism, of which he was of course far more aware than Høffding. If radicalism did not manage to renew itself and orient itself toward culture, he believed, it would be eaten up by resentment in the name of equality and manipulated by powerful people with their own agenda. A liberalism that rests on its laurels will perish if it is not regularly forced to think beyond itself. And the original proponent of aristocratic radicalism even before Nietzsche was, for Brandes, none other than the great Heinrich Heine (also Nietzsche’s favorite poet).

The debate includes good arguments on both sides, and Brandes and Høffding grew closer again in later years. Høffding has more to say to readers interested in Nordic social democracy, Brandes was the better reader of Nietzsche. Both are valuable to anyone interested in the roots of our own political, ideological, and social predicaments.