Why Not Nietzsche?

Questioning the inevitability of an orthodox consensus’ Marxist unraveling

During the late 1960s and 1970s, many writers who were critical of mainstream views in communications research, popular cultural studies, and media studies turned to Marxism, or to some variation of Marxism, in order to develop an alternative, more “critical” paradigm. Why was Marxism the source for so much of the critical inspiration at this time? At this time, why didn’t people turn to other philosophers whose ideas were to become so important for inspiring new forms of critique in the 1980s – for example,  Heidegger and Nietzsche?

In the first part of this paper I attempt to outline, using course readings and lecture notes, a history leading to the moment in time that a Marxist inspired critical theory begins to emerge in communication studies. In the second part of this paper, still safely within the confines of course readings and lecture notes, I will look at the questions: Why not Nietzsche? Why Marx? These questions still reverberate today. The questions are still very much alive. What interests me is the possibility of another line of history. What if the 60s had turned completely to Nietzsche? What if a Nietzschean critical, creative and experimental paradigm was chosen over the Marxist development of critical consciousness? I don’t answer these questions a) speculations are not answers and b) in this paper I engage primarily with the course material. Still, in the course material, there is enough material to go on speculating. Today, 40 years later, even after reviewing the history, I still dream of experimental realizations of social Utopias; experiments similar to those Marx condemns as “necessarily doomed to failure”. These experiments, temporary and/or Utopian are seen by some, Luhmann for example, as a social evolutionary force comparable to variation in Darwin’s theory. What follows is not a proposition or argument, but an exercise in the practice of writing long drawn out open questions. I make no conclusions. The question remains open. Why wasn’t Nietzsche used to create a critical paradigm in the late 60s? Although the question falls outside the scope of this paper, I wonder how Nietzsche and Marx could be used today in continuing the critique, and inspiring social experiments in the tradition of Dewey.

A brief history of the “orthodox consensus”
Like any good history I’ll start in the middle and work out. In 1926 the American radio networks formed. This event marks a distinct historical before and after. Using Marxist terminology, the economic base of America’s communication industry changed with this development. The radio became a new means of production. One commodity it produced was the audience, which was then sold to advertisers. With this increase in surplus value, Capital continued to purchase the creation of a world after its own image. Aside from producing and circulating a dominant consciousness, Capital expanded into communications research where it, more or less, purchased an ‘orthodox consensus’.

According to Delia (1987) communication research had been an area of interest across the social sciences and humanities, “and since the 1920s has been brought progressively under the control of disciplinary canons of research practice.”(Delia, p.23) This disciplining coincided with a reduction in reform-focused research.  I want to emphasize this reduction in reform-focused research.
The economic base didn’t change overnight but about a decade after the radio networks foundation, according to Schiller(1996), “University based social scientists now found themselves within the thickening web of philanthropic foundations, government agencies, corporate sponsors, and of course, the media industries, willing and able to contribute individual research grants, program endowments, student recruitment prospects, and even access to attractive research sites.” (Schiller, p.55) Schiller goes on to explain that for the two decades following 1950 “information theory thus conferred legitimacy on the proposition under which academic communication study now sought to operate: that communication processes could and indeed should be studied in relative isolation from environing social relations.” (Schiller, p.64) Czitron (1983) confirms the turn toward generating scientific authority in the newly disciplined communication studies. By 1960 researchers were seeking cause and effects sequences in communication. The goal was to “identify the crucial variables in the communication process and determine the patterns of interaction of each on the other.” (Czitron p.138)

It’s important to make the distinction between Communication studies, where writers like Bell were providing empirical evidence proving modern society’s equilibrium, and American society where a class war was raging. “On the one side,” writes Schiller, “the flare up of mass working class militance in and around the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the growth of radical politics at municipal and national levels could hardly be disputed; on the other side a business class, some of whose members openly flirted with fascism, and many more of whom were intransigently hostile to the New Deal, looked with fear and loathing at economic and social programs which invaded the sacred ground of entrepreneurial freedom.” (Schiller, p.44) This distinction allows us to see the strong influence of the media industries and of the interests of Capital in general on the creation of an “orthodox consensus” in communication studies.

In course lectures, the “orthodox consensus” is described as a belief in positivism and liberal pluralism; a depoliticized academic research program in a happily modernizing world; a systematic equilibrium projecting us into the future. We also learned that the “orthodox consensus” was devoid of a theory or critique of power and domination. In the research written up between 1940 and 1970 we are presented a society with no ruling class; no power elite; no overarching structure. What has occurred is a shift to a pluralistic, atomistic, functioning state; a vibrant, transforming and progressing, normatively regulating society.

This Capital driven research is part of a systematic production of consciousness. It is mentioned in a couple of the course readings that there is no Marxist theory of media, but in the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx characterizes the means of communication as one weapon in the Capitalists arsenal. In Marx’s day, print was the means of disseminating ideas. With the advent of radio networks American capitalism blossomed. Here was its means of injecting the world consciousness it desired. The research Capital purchased presented findings that would allow the media industry to more efficiently do this. This kind of research had also all but completely displaced more socially based research in campuses across America.

Prior to the radio networks’ arrival in 1926, US Capitalism was more open than it had ever been. Schiller recalls the muckrake journalism of this Progressive era. This populist writing of the local media attacking the “‘Fat Cats’ from below” sprung from multiple independent nodes. Dewey, Park and Cooley were engaged in reform oriented academic research as well as community building projects and saw the media as a potential tool for building a more democratic society. There are a number of factors that influenced social change following the radio networks’ arrival. The severe economic depression of the 30s is one factor credited with the changing intellectual climate, and the infusion of Capital is another factor. The New Deal left-liberal alliance absorbed potential radicals into the two-party system. Whatever the factors, ratios, and combinations, the intellectual climate changed. Delia informs us that the framework for a new approach to the study of communication was set out before the war “by Lazarsfeld, Lasswell, and others at a conference sponsored by the Rockerfeller Foundation.” (Delia p.61) So while society is comprised of multiple movements and counter-movements in and between strata, communication studies had been homogenized and isolated by Capital.

The academic/capitalist research coming out of this homogenizing framework presented a very different reality than what was being experienced in marginalized America. Indifferent to the intensifying social struggle, Schiller says, “communication study was recruited as a prime instrument of a ubiquitous corporate marketing and promotions apparatus.” (Schiller, p.55) For three decades this “theory for theory’s sake” movement in communication studies continued to put out a picture at odds with a rapidly changing society. That this movement, the blooming of American Capital, and its influence on communication studies, could be understood with a critique of political economy may have led to the turn to Marx. It could also be stated that Marx’s critique of political economy created the understanding. The turn to Marx at the end of the 1960s is not in question. The question is: Why Marx?

Why Marx?
The turn to Marx wasn’t necessarily “inevitable.” But looking back at the historical moment Marx does seem to fit nicely. How many explanations could be given for this? With time and industry a credible argument could be made that Marx created the future moment in which he fit so well. The critique of political economy, social organization/structure analysis, and the history of class struggle didn’t just pop into the revolutionary ethos of 1968. Could the revolutionary ethos have been created by Marx? In the same way that Foucault writes of the recent creation of man, Marx may have created the working class, the Promethean fire of class consciousness.

The ghost of Marx was always there. It is an interesting historical coincidence that as the “orthodox consensus” was emerging the American labour movement was in full swing. And “America” was swinging back. Blacklisting and deportation were a couple of the tools used to eradicate the Red Menace from the ranks of the working class. After the war, the Taft-Hartley Act required union leaders to sign affidavits swearing they were not and had never been Communists.  And McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee removed academic and cultural producers with communist ideas from their positions. Why did Marx return? The efforts to contain class consciousness, have been all but completely effective. The period after the war is characterized by affluence and optimism. Was a critical emancipatory theory necessary?

That depends on who is doing the characterization. According to Harvey (1989) the Enlightenment had its optimism shattered by the events of the 20th Century. Harvey refers to Marx as a child of the Enlightenment but with the “publication of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels rejected the Enlightenment thesis that once the shackles of feudal class relations had been thrown off, a benevolent capitalism could bring the benefits of capitalist modernity to all.” (Harvey p.29) Harvey goes on to explain, “The socialist movement increasingly challenged the unity of Enlightenment reason and inserted a class dimension into modernism.”(Harvey p.29) But at the same time and arguably more effectively, the capitalist movement injected individualistic subjective dimension into modernity. We are now confronted with the problem of the historical subject, or a consciousness of historical societies. What would society feel like in Marx’s time? How were the working classes conceived, and how did they conceive of themselves if at all? Harvey compresses history. From one part of a sentence to the next we travel over 200 years in time. How did consciousness change in those years? Those changes would be almost impossible to imagine, and it would always simply imagination. There are limits to thought, and reconstructing a historical consciousness with contemporary awareness is impossible.

In one of the many prefaces to The Communist Manifesto Engels clearly reiterates Marx’s proposition “that in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch;” (Communist Manifesto p. 65) Is it out of this proposition that critical theory and structuralism develop? From the lectures and readings it’s clear that Marxism and its variants launched a critique of the Capitalist system and its influence on communication studies of the late 60s. That Marxist theories and frameworks provided the basis for a critique launched against the “orthodox consensus’ in Communication studies is a historical fact, but a fact doesn’t explain its own existence. The existence of a Marxist critique doesn’t explain why Marx and not Nietzsche was at the source of that critique. If I were explaining simply why Marx was the source of critical inspiration, I could mention the arrival of the Frankfurt school and the slow dissemination of their work, which was produced in the German language. The school’s critical theory was inspired by Marx. But what if it had been inspired by Nietzsche?

Why not Nietzsche?
This second question opens up historical possibility. I question historical inevitability and determinism and see history in the Nietzschean sense of a constantly unfolding accident. The universities in the late sixties had been opened up to the working classes and Marx was a well worked over working class idea, which explains why Marx was the source for so much critical inspiration.  Nietzsche’s ghost haunted the late 60s as well. In the first pages of On The Road, the beats are reading Nietzsche. English translations of his work were widely available in the 1950s. The scholars in the Frankfurt school would have been aware of Nietzsche. Is the Frankfurt schools revival of an evolved/mutated Marx simply contingent on personality? Could a different group of writers have chosen Nietzsche as their inspiration in that time? Was there a moment where both Marx and Nietzsche were considered? The aversion to anything even remotely associated with Nazis may have been a factor in Nietzsche’s subterranean, if at all existent, influence on the Frankfurt school. There is Marx’s clearly applicable method, but Nietzsche did offer something, and the question remains. Why wasn’t Nietzsche a primary influence during this time?

Eagleton (1991) in his chapter on the Marxist Sublime compares Nietzsche and Marx. Eagleton tells us “Marxism is not a theory of the future, but a theory and practice of how to make a future possible.” (Eagleton  p.215) Does this mean that Nietzsche’s philosophy of the future suffers from a lack of practice?  When Nietzsche writes “With a creative hand they reach for the future, and all that is and has been becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer. Their “knowing” is creating, their creating is legislation, their will to truth is – will to power.” (Beyond good and Evil. 211) There is in this an echo of Marxism. Eagleton confirms the echo when he writes, “The whole concept of a productive force hovers indeterminately between fact and value, rather, as we shall see, like the Nietzschean notion of will to power.” (Eagleton  p222)  Swingewood(1977) also takes note of the Nietzschean influence on the Frankfurt school. “There is thus a close kinship of ideas between the ‘Marxist’ Frankfurt theorists and the reactionary Nietzsche: the masses are ‘mediocre’ and the bourgeoisie incapable of resisting the march of technical capitalism.”( Swingewood  p16) This quote is unfair to all three subjects in the attack, but I’m now wondering; how close is the kinship between Marx and Nietzsche?

Eagleton writes, “Unlike Nietzsche and Heidegger after him, Marx does not press through this aestheticization to human cognition itself. This is not some anaemic rationalism: the goal of human life, for Marx as for Aristotle, is not truth, but happiness or well-being.” (Eagleton  p.227) For Nietzsche happiness is fleeting, enjoyed best in contrast to harsh reality; and truth, the goal of inquiry. This doesn’t get us any closer to a distinction that would exclude Nietzsche’s thought from basing a critique. If anything Eagleton brings Nietzsche and Marx closer through his comparison. Daniel Czitron writes, “Critical theory did not seek truth for its own sake, but tried to bring about social change instead.”( Czitron  p143) Nietzsche must have a place somewhere in the critical theory of the 60’s early 70s because he clearly understood the need for change. “Artists, an intermediary species: they at least fix an image of that which ought to be; they are productive, to the extent that they actually alter and transform; unlike men of knowledge, who leave everything as it is.” (Will to Power. 585) Maybe the question should be: why did Marx take a backseat in the 80’s?

Eagleton  comments on the Nietzschean influence in the 80s . “Those post-structuralist thinkers who urge that we abandon truth for dance and laughter might pause to inform us just who this ‘we’ is supposed to signify.”( Eagleton p227)  Nietzsche would definitely exclude Eagleton from the ‘we’. “I would only believe in a god who could dance. And when I saw my devil I found him serious, thorough, profound and solemn: it was the spirit of gravity – through him all things fall.
    Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter. Come, let us kill the spirit of gravity!” (Portable Nietzsche. p153) The echoes of this sentiment in Bakhtin (1968) are interesting. “True open seriousness fears neither parody, nor irony, nor any other form of reduced laughter, for it is aware of being part of an uncompleted whole.”( Bakhtin p.122) What I see in this imaginary exchange is a compatibility between Marx and Nietzsche. Marx provides an answer, a practice and a plan that Nietzsche does not. Nietzsche provides a philosophy and a direction.

Both Marx and Nietzsche describe a world that is humanly alterable. They both critique the limits of science. And both were aware of the pain involved in change. Kumar (1978) writes, “The new society matures in the womb of the old, as Marx later put it; “force is the Midwife to the old society pregnant with the new.”(Kumar p.20) Both Nietzsche and Marx could have inspired a critique of the ‘orthodox consensus.’ Marx was the major influence behind the critical theory of the late 60s, but could a modified/mutated Nietzsche have inspired a return to a more joyous social experiment in the Dewey school tradition? Is something like that still possible?



Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1968) Rabelais and His World. Cambridge: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Czitrom, Daniel J. (1983). Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan. The University of North Carolina Press.

Delia, Jesse. (1987) Communication Research: A History in Handbook of Communication Science. Charles Berger, Steven Caffee eds. Sage Publications, Inc

Eagleton, Terry. (1991). Ideology of the Aesthetic. Wiley-Blackwell

Eagleton, Terry. (2007). Ideology: an introduction Verso; 2 edition

Harvey, D. (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kumar, Krishan. (1978). Prophecy and Progress: The Sociology of Industrial and Post-industrial Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.,

Schiller, Dan. (1996) Theorizing Communication Theorizing Communication: A History. By Dan Schiller. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Smythe, Dallas W. (1981) Dependency Road: Communication, Capitalism, Consciousness and Canada. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Swingewood, Alan. (1977). The myth of mass culture. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press.

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