A review of Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage that Spawned America’s Social Justice Warriors, by Mark T. Mitchell
This article was originally published in the Winter 2020/2021 edition of The European Conservative.
In recent years, the American Left has abandoned its trademark relativism and seemingly re-embraced absolutism. This has taken the form of a poisonous, if unconscious, fusion between the Puritanism of the Pilgrims and the nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche. In a new book, political scientist Mark T. Mitchell explains this phenomenon and how the progressive radicals of today, while exhibiting the zeal of religious fanatics, are ultimately driven by nothing more than the “Will to Power.”
Mitchell — my former colleague at Patrick Henry College — explains that after the so-called ‘collapse’ of Soviet Communism, the Left worldwide shrewdly adopted a stance of moral relativism in order to deflect any criticism for their crimes. For a while, this tactic served them well.
Today’s leftist revolutionaries, however, have returned to their absolutist ideas. They have totally rejected the past and now depict their opponents as “evil,” pure and simple. The Left has effectively abandoned relativism and, instead, wholeheartedly embraced absolutism — one that reflects the Puritan heritage of the United States. At the same time, their pursuit of the total revolutionary destruction of American culture — and, ultimately, the U.S. as we know it — in order to take power is completely Nietzschean and originates from his “Will to Power” playbook.
The result is a house divided. “True politics,” Mitchell notes, “requires a common culture with a common set of assumptions about human nature and the social order.” But in America, that is no more. And, as Mitchell warns, “[t]hese activists are willing to take extreme measures to achieve the paradise of justice and equality of which they dream.”
I am usually skeptical about such “one-trick pony” theories. But I do think Mitchell has a point. America is no longer a Christian nation but a secular, post-modern one. Yet the habits, customs, and arrangements inherent in the American people — and transmitted by centuries of Christian imagination and custom — remain present. “However emphatic their atheism,” Mitchell writes, “[Americans] cannot cleanse themselves of their residual Christianity.” So, while Americans may be running on spiritual fumes, they are post-Christian fumes. And in our atmosphere of secular absolutism, they’ve turned toxic.
Into this breach step the “Social Justice Warriors,” who cast themselves in stark black-and-white terms: they are “saviors” and “crusaders;” their detractors, in turn, are “evil,” perhaps even “satanic.” In this way, “‘[w]oke’ faculty members imagine they are powerful agents of liberation, justice, and equality,” says Mitchell. They fight in the name of “tolerance,” “democracy,” “equality,” and “rights.” And “those who stand in the way of these noble ideals are racists, homophobes, fascists, or just plain evil.”
In order to overcome such “reactionary” forces, today’s radicals have turned to Nietzsche. It is only the Nietzschean “Superman” (or “Overman”), endowed with the “Will to Power,” who can move “beyond good and evil” and assert himself over those who stand in his way.
Thus, the radicals have learned how the weak — that is, the revolutionary few — can overcome the strong.
Nietzsche: Christianity as weakness
One of the first steps they must take is to return to the West’s distant, pre-Christian roots. In their Nietzschean understanding, they envision a glorified past when triumphant Nordic men were free to exercise their will and impose it on others. Having once been Supermen, warriors, and conquerors, “might” was made triumphantly “right,” unencumbered by any moral strictures. The Dionysians thus ruled themselves.
But then the Jewish people entered the scene and, to Nietzsche, they embodied weakness. Not only did they abhor war but their non-martial and “priestly” skills put them at a distinct disadvantage. In Nietzsche’s schizophrenic telling, Mitchell explains, the “weak” Jewish people eventually overcame this disadvantage by rejecting and crucifying Jesus — while, at the same time, spreading his gospel of love. “Love thy enemy,” they preached. Peace. Cooperation. Solidarity. The weak shall inherit the earth. Nietzsche thus cynically reimagined Christianity as an epic deception pushed by the weak in their quest for power.
Nietzsche’s synopsis amounts to one of the most fantastic conspiratorial retellings of cultural history. The priestly people had done the unthinkable, Mitchell explains: “they discovered a way to triumph over their adversaries, not by force but by audacious cleverness, devising a means by which their masters would willingly submit to their dark and unnatural desires.”
As Christianity spread around the world, Nietzsche explains how the crucifixion — and the concept of guilt — was insidiously used to emasculate warrior elites. And with the introduction of the moral categories of “good” and “evil,” Christianity brought with it a paradigm shift. The weak thus ended up triumphing over the powerful.
“[T]he victory of Christianity,” Mitchell writes, “produced the victory of the slaves and priests … who through malevolent treachery convinced the powerful to submit to the ideals of Christianity.” The weak thus ended up controlling the new religion, and pretty soon its precepts had infused the laws. The weak effectively overcame the strong — and eventually created a false matrix of morality.
Education, rhetoric, and order
Relativism today serves the “Will to Power.” And that is where another Nietzschean lesson comes into play: only the most ruthless executors of the “Will to Power” deserve to be on top. Though they are few, they must drive “the herd” — that is, the common people.
This Nietzschean mechanism of the weak dominating the strong through guilt is precisely the paradigm that the Social Justice Warriors of today now deploy against the West, argues Mitchell. “The same psychological dynamic is at work in the attempt by the weak to assert themselves through identity politics and thus extricate themselves from the pain and misery of being subject to another.” They aim to go “beyond good and evil,” convinced that a deception fueled by the “Will to Power” shall bring them victory. In other words, smash “white privilege,” and the sky’s the limit!
Words, to be sure, are every revolutionary’s greatest asset. So they seek to weaponize all language. To accomplish this, “[r]eason, truth, and grammar all must be reconceived … Language as power. Words as weapons. A rejection of rationality.” This describes the “Will to Power” that lies behind “political correctness” and the speech codes proliferating across American universities.
Furthermore, in order to succeed, a revolutionary must reject and stigmatize all classical education. Whatever is “characterized by a pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful,” Mitchell says, must be replaced by propaganda. The results are lamentable: “The entire landscape of higher education appears to be the scene of a sweeping victory for Nietzsche. We have gotten beyond good and evil; we have rejected the notion of objective truth, and we have come to believe that beauty is nothing more than individual preference.” Complement it with the “new and exotic horizons of sexual activity,” and the “brave new world” is menacingly upon us.
Of course, this “new reality” is, quite literally, nonsense. The cosmos has a moral structure ordered by God, one that is predicated on the Truth, which is Divine Salvation. Without God, the Nietzschean matrix takes us “beyond good and evil” and into an ethical desert. In that desert, “[t]here are no moral grounds for denouncing racism, poverty, injustice, or the violation of human rights … In short, the moral demands of Social Justice Warriors are undermined by their metaphysical skepticism.” That is, their demands collapse under the weight of the relativist matrix’s own contradictions.
The roots of moral authority
Nietzsche infamously proclaimed that “God is dead.” Reason and science allegedly killed Him. This, however, presents us with a dilemma: “if we rid the world of God, we also dispense with Christian morality … The two stand or fall together.” Therefore, in the Nietzschean cosmology, there is no truth and no moral universe. Anything goes, and the strongest win — but only by virtue of strength (not moral authority).
Moral authority, however, remains our only defense against the juggernaut of the revolution and the idea that “might makes right.” As Mitchell notes, “one of [Christianity’s] central features is forgiveness, which identity politics cannot tolerate. Christianity seeks to counter the will to power — expressed in identity politics as the will to inflict pain — and replace it with the will to forgive rooted in love for one’s neighbor.”
As compelling as Mitchell’s analysis is, what is missing is a recognition that Nietzsche merely endowed the Left with a new vernacular to express millennial fanaticisms. Revolution itself is as old as the world. As Eric Voegelin had taught, the revolutionary phenomenon throughout the ages is simply an emanation of Gnosticism.
Thus, what Mitchell dubs “Puritan” is, in essence, merely heretical in a general sense. This sort of Will to Power characterizes all antinomian Gnostic sects — not just in Christianity but also in Judaism or Zoroastrianism. As Norman Cohn has argued, in Medieval times it was the Taborites, the Free Spirit followers, the “Saints,” and others who trod the “shining path” toward a “paradise on earth” ostensibly achievable through sheer “Will to Power.” Propelled by this same zeal, Jan van Layden’s anti-Trinitarians of Muenster and England’s Fifth Monarchy men followed in these footsteps, according to Erik von Keuhnnelt-Leddihn. And in the Ottoman Empire, the Sabateans shared many of the same fantasies and the methods to fulfill them. Likewise, it is the “Will to Power” that inspired the Communists and the Nazis. Today, the same animus drives the ghulat (extremist) orientations of Islam, such as the Caliphatists of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Whether or not they realize it, they have a common refrain: “We are all Nietzscheans now.”
Amid this din, Mitchell’s is certainly a clarion voice of moderation. Yet his rather quaint solution — to return to civilized debate and civility in discourse, and, above all, to “return to historical Christianity” — sounds woefully inadequate, perhaps even naïve, in this time of radical, revolutionary, Nietzschean, post-religious fanaticism. His “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” message will be ignored by the media — and easily shouted down in the groves of academe. His compassionate plea is simply not enough in this day and age.
In opposition to the “Will to Power,” one should instead be pro-active — and here, faith is the key. Faith is a gift and, as such, can be passed on to others: through example, gentle persuasion, and active struggle. But it requires that we reject the allure of the “Will to Power.” As Mitchell notes: “Perhaps the only choice really is as stark as this: Nietzsche or Christ, Dionysus or the Crucified, the will to power or the will to truth.”
Of course, the most notorious “Will to Power” character — Adolf Hitler — did not stop his bloody onslaught until everything came crashing down. That same self-destructive drive is apparent on the far Left today, for I doubt that today’s Social Justice Warriors will suddenly come to their senses or go gently into that good night. And why should they? So far, they are winning; their re-enactment of a Nietzschean paradigm shift is working; and unless we wake up, we will be unable to stop their revolution.
Mitchell’s Power and Purity is a compelling cri de coeur — a rigorous intellectual journey toward self-awareness. It may even become a cri de bataille — in the American context, a “rebel yell” — as we charge into battle, pushing back against the frenzy. Perhaps that is what is necessary: a little bit of Schumpeterian destruction in order to stop today’s heresies, pronto. Anything less would be unsuitable.