BORN ON October 25th, 1806, in the famous Bavarian town of Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner (1813-1883) later staged his famous operas, Johann Kaspar Schmidt would go on to adopt the non de plume ‘Max Stirner’ and become the chief ideologue of what has since become known as Individualist Anarchism.
An only child – which, given his philosophy, is perhaps significant – the young Johann was born to Albert Christian Heinrich Schmidt (1769–1807) and Sophia Elenora Reinlein (1778–1839). Albert died at just thirty-seven, when the future philosopher was barely six months old, although his mother survived her husband by thirty-two years. Just two years after his death, however, Sophia married a pharmacist by the name of Heinrich Ballerstedt and both he and his newly-inherited family settled in what, at that time, was the West Prussian town of Kulm. It has since returned to its old name of Chełmno and been reincorporated within the environs of modern-day Poland. It was during his school-days in Kulm that Johann, on account of his large forehead, or ‘Stirn’ in German, became known as Max Stirner. This nickname, which he also later adopted as a pen-name, remained with him throughout his life and it is Max and not Johann that has been remembered by history.
In 1826, at the age of twenty, Stirner became a student at the University of Berlin and began studying philosophy, philology and theology. After attending a series of lectures by the famous German Idealist, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), where he formed the nucleus of his own radical ideas, Stirner moved to the University of Erlangen and studied alongside Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), a future philosopher and anthropologist whose Das Wesen des Christentums (1841) went on to influence leading Marxist thinkers like Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederich Engels (1820-1895).
Returning to Berlin in the wake of his studies, Stirner secured a teaching certificate from the Prussian Government. His mother, Sophia, was committed to a mental asylum in 1835 and remained institutionalised until 1859.
It was during this second term at the university that, in 1841, Stirner discovered the Young Hegelians and a circle of intellectuals known as ‘The Free Ones’ (Die Freien). Trained in dialectics, this important debating society and clearing-house for new ideas met at Hippel’s wine bar in the city’s Friedrichstraße district.
As Peter Marshall explains, Stirner
developed the Hegelian manner, including its dialectical progression of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and adopted his theme of alienation and reconciliation. He saw his philosophy of egoism as the culmination of world history.
Almost half a century later, Engels – who, briefly, had befriended his future adversary in those early days – sketched a famous caricature of his intellectual counterpart standing at one of the tables in the bar, smoking a cigarette and looking all for the world like a mid-nineteenth-century dandy. Around the same time, Engels even composed a short poem about his associate:
Look at Stirner, look at him, the peaceful enemy of all constraint.
For the moment, he is still drinking beer,
Soon he will be drinking blood as though it were water.
When others cry savagely “down with the kings”
Stirner immediately supplements “down with the laws also.”
Stirner full of dignity proclaims;
You bend your willpower and you dare to call yourselves free.
You become accustomed to slavery
Down with dogmatism, down with law.
Whilst Hegel himself had already been dead for more than a decade, the group represented the left-wing of Hegelian philosophy and believed that the entire purpose of history was to negate everything which stood at odds with reason and personal freedom. They had in mind a materialist philosophy that was capable of undermining the supernatural foundations of Christianity and Idealism. Attacking both the Church and Prussian politics, the Young Hegelians differed from most other Hegelians in that they refused to accept that civilisation had reached a stage of total perfection. This notion had been developed in Hegel’s 1807 work, Phenomenology of Spirit, but the ‘Young’ followers of his philosophy profoundly disagreed that the Prussian state had essentially brought about a new age of liberty and enlightenment. Its politicians had certainly created more employment and a slight improvement in conditions for ordinary people, but compared to what passed for progress in Britain and France the country was still lagging behind in many respects.
Hegel’s ground-breaking work had declared that spirit (geist) itself was the only force capable of destroying anything which stood in the way of reason and freedom, but the Young Hegelians rejected what they perceived to be the lunacy and irrationality of religion. They also realised that Prussia in the first half of the nineteenth century had failed to provide its citizens with a significant or meaningful degree of political and religious freedom. Indeed, when the recently installed monarch, Frederick William IV (1795-1861), failed to live up to their expectations by promoting a programme of reform or by further consolidating the relationship that his late father had sought to engender between Protestantism and human emancipation, the Young Hegelians saw Frederick’s reign as a new era of intolerance and thus rejected their philosophical mentor’s penchant for the Prussian state and began adopting a deeply atheistic attitude towards the Christian religion. The two main exponents of this revised Hegelian approach were the Rational philosopher, Bruno Bauer (1809-1882), and the aforementioned Feuerbach.
The rejection of Lutheran Christianity – which, ironically, some had defended in an attempt to undermine Catholicism – saw many Hegelians turn away from Monarchy altogether and embrace Republicanism, although Marx and Engels were busy developing their more uncompromising brand of revolutionary communism and in this they were aided and abetted by the Jewish philosopher, Moses Hess (1812-1875). To mark this change in direction, however, the main bulk of the Young Hegelian movement began incorporating the ideas of the late Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), a Freemason and proto-nationalist whose formula of ‘thesis–antithesis–synthesis’ is often wrongly attributed to Hegel himself. Fichte’s main contention was that man, at least to some extent, can essentially overcome his own circumstances through a combination of self-consciousness, moral awareness and expression of the ego. Another enormous influence had been the publication of Das Leben Jesu, an 1835 text in which the liberal Protestant theologian, David Strauss (1808-1874), had argued – within a decidedly Hegelian framework – that the Christian message had been perverted in order to suit the authoritarian whims of the political establishment.
Needless to say, a budding individualist like Stirner soon became thoroughly disillusioned with the new direction taken by the Young Hegelians and was poised to denounce the group in the most forthright and unforgiving manner. Managing to secure a teaching role at a prestigious academy for young girls, it was here that he wrote his only major work, The Ego and Its Own (‘Der Einzige und sein Eigentum’). It was designed to attack the increasingly popular ideas of Bauer and Feuerbach, not to mention those of the communists. Realising that his work would spark enormous controversy, Stirmer resigned from his teaching post in October 1844, immediately prior to the book’s publication.
Stirner’s individualist philosophy did not prevent him from marrying on two occasions. His first wife was the daughter of his landlady who unfortunately died whilst giving birth, but the second, Marie Dähnhardt (1818-1902, was a suffragette from Western Pomerania. Although The Ego and Its Own had been dedicated to her, the couple’s marriage lasted just three years and Dähnhardt herself later moved to England and Australia before claiming to one of Stirner’s biographers that he was “a very sly man whom she had neither respected nor loved” and that their marriage had been little more than a co-habitation.
After embarking upon a misguided and ill-conceived attempt to open a milk shop with those Young Hegelians he still respected, a scheme which failed to attract enough customers as a result of the premises being so elaborately designed that it led to the creation of an unbridgeable social chasm between the working-class suppliers of the dairy industry and the inexperienced middle-class intellectuals themselves, Stirner tried to make a little extra revenue by translating both Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) and Jean-Baptiste Say’s Traite d’Economie Politique (1803) into German.
In 1851, Stirner’s History of Reaction (‘Geschichte der Reaktion’) was issued in two volumes by the publishing house Allgemeine Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt. Banned in Austria, the work addressed the 1848 uprisings across various German states and was mainly comprised of quotations from other writers. With Stirner performing an editorial role, the work of both Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) were nonetheless used to create a polemical juxtaposition on the matter of revolution.
The remainder of Stirner’s twilight years, as David Leopold explains, were fairly uneventful:
After his brief and intense period of literary notoriety, Stirner’s life settled down into a pattern dominated by social isolation and financial precariousness. He did live an eremitical existence, but his personal relationships seem to have been few in number and distant in character.
Between 1853 and 1854, Stirner served two spells in prison as a result of falling into debt and Marx – ever the opportunist – began spreading the false rumour that he had starved to death. In reality, however, Stirner had moved in with a widow on Berlin’s Phillipstrasse and managed to make some money from selling the property that he had inherited from his late mother.
In May 1856, despite briefly recovering from having been bitten on the neck by a winged insect, Stirner died in Berlin on June 25th that year. His death came just four months prior to his fiftieth birthday and his funeral was held at the Friedhof II der Sophiengemeinde cemetery in the city centre. Bruno Bauer – who, despite appearing in Stirner’s egoistic tome, had emerged relatively unscathed – was the only Young Hegelian in attendance.
Whilst Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own can be a very difficult and unapproachable text, the fact that its author produced just one main work at least narrows the field in the sense that, unlike other writers, there is no long-term ideological metamorphosis that leads to subsequent volumes either lessening, revising or even invalidating the ideas contained in the first.
Although Stirner is often credited as being a leading example of what has since become known as Individualist Anarchism, similar political themes were also developing in both nineteenth-century England and across the Atlantic in the United States. Among the first exponents of these radical ideas were people like William Godwin (1756-1836), who was opposed to people performing collectively, as part of an orchestra; Josiah Warren (1798-1874), an American inventor and musician who believed that humans had been reduced to small parts in an enormous machine; Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939), editor of the Anarchist periodical, Liberty, and the first man to arrange for a translation of Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own to appear in English; and Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), the famous anti-authoritarian and abolitionist.
In 1842, Stirner wrote The False Principle of Our Education (‘Das unwahre Prinzip unserer Erziehung’) and Art and Religion (Kunst und Religion). Ironically, both articles were published in the pages of the Rheinische Zeitung, which, at that time, was edited by none other than Karl Marx.
The first of these set out to discuss the importance of education and Stirner believed that the Enlightenment presented the Realists with a golden opportunity to offer a counter-argument to their humanist opponents. Knowledge, he believed, was there to be lived, but the system itself was obsessed with education for education’s sake and should, instead, teach young people how to apply their knowledge wisely. Whilst Stirner appreciated the Realist perspective, however, he nonetheless criticised them for failing to progress past the stage of merely providing the tools for people to develop their innate will-power. As far as Stirner was concerned, education theory must include a thorough discussion of what he describes as ‘freedom of will,’ in the sense that it becomes possible for a student to attain the kind of self-understanding that will allow them to avoid the very real possibility of failure and non-fulfilment. Knowledge, then, is not the final goal of education itself, and without freeing our ‘nature’ we remain subservient and no better than trained animals. Education, he says, must lead to the creation of ‘free men’ or ‘sovereign characters’.
Art and Religion was a direct attempt to address Bauer’s Hegel’s Theory of Religion and Art Judged from the Standpoint of Faith (1842), in which Bauer himself had rejected Hegel’s earlier claim that religion was closer to philosophy than art on account of having their origins in the same ethical framework. Bauer had essentially reversed Hegel’s doctrine, but Stirner rejected both standpoints and insisted that art created an object for religion and is therefore not related to Hegel or Bauer’s notions of philosophy:
[Philosophy] neither stands opposed to an Object, as Religion, nor makes one, as Art, but rather places its pulverizing hand upon all the business of making Objects as well as the whole of objectivity itself,and so breathes the air of freedom . Reason, the spirit of Philosophy, concerns itself only with itself, and troubles itself over no Object.
By excluding it from the discussion altogether, Stirner contends that philosophy neither concerns itself with the object-constructing methods of religion nor attempts to actually create an object in the way that art does.
Two years later, in 1844, Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own was published. The text is divided into two main parts, with the first (‘Man’) looking at both ancient and modern humans in relation to how they are, and the second (‘I’) as Stirner believes they should be: self-aware and conscious of their own multifarious possibilities. In addition, despite the fact that he had already rejected Hegel he nonetheless applies the ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ method in that mankind’s ancient history is shown to have been negative and then, by way of the modern Enlightenment, provided with a false dawn. As the modern is said to have negated the ancient, therefore, Stirner attempts to present his own superior way of looking at the world. Needless to say, this becomes a deliberately humorous attempt to imitate – and then transcend – the ideas of Hegel himself.
The Ego and Its Own is not an easy text, by any stretch of the imagination and, as the French politician and philosopher, Victor Basch (1865-1944), remarked at the beginning of the twentieth century:
At first one seems to be confronted with a series of essays strung together with a throng of aphorisms […] But, if you read this book several times; if, having penetrated the intimacy of each of its parts, you then traverse it as a whole – gradually the fragments weld themselves together, and Stirner’s thought is revealed in all its unity, in all its force, and in all its depths.
In many ways, the book is designed to shock readers out of their apparent somnambulism and inform them that, through an appreciation of selfhood and ‘ownness’, they belong to none other than themselves.
As James Huneker observed in 1909:
His thought is sometimes confused; he sees so many sides of his theme, embroiders it with so many variations, that he repeats himself. He has neither the crystalline brilliance nor the poetic glamour of Nietzsche. But he left behind him a veritable breviary of destruction, a striking and dangerous book. It is dangerous in every sense of the word to socialism, to politicians, to hypocrisy. It asserts the dignity of the Individual, not his debasement.
Stirner insists that the claustrophobic relationship between language and rationality has led to mass enslavement, meaning that the process George Orwell (1903-1950) later described in his prescient novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), as ‘newspeak’, has ensured that an unaccountable minority of linguistic moderators has effectively gained control over our day-to-day lives. Stirner thus adopts a remarkably unique and idiosyncratic style as a way of underpinning the fact that language should serve our own interests and not those in the political and cultural establishment.
His work also seeks to explain that humans go through various stages of development. Beginning with the rigours of childhood and man’s futile teenage rebellion against social conditioning, Stirner contends that by the time we reach adulthood we develop an ability to thrown off the shackles of our material (external) and spiritual (internal) existence by embracing our natural egoism.
Given the title of The Ego and Its Own, it is perhaps worth explaining that Stirner’s use of terms such as ‘self’ and ‘ego’ are somewhat interchangeable, whilst for many of us today they are not. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), for example, one of the leading patriarchs of modern psychology, defined the ‘ego’ as being one of three psychic components of the mind – the others being the ‘id’ and the ‘super-ego’ – and that its organisational tendencies allow it to mediate between the ‘id’, which contains our more disorganised instincts, and actual reality. As far as Freud was concerned, the ‘ego’ was consistent with the ‘self’, but he later used the term to denote those psychic functions which are involved in memory and decision-making.
Whilst for Freud the ‘ego’ could have a positive effect on the human condition, however, within the realms of religion and spirituality it is more often than not portrayed as a form of ‘evil’ that can lead you away from the true path. The ‘ego’, therefore, is something that must be overcome. Naturally, the fact that Stirner rejects spirituality means that he perceives the ‘ego’ and the true ‘self’ to be synonymous and thus compatible with one another.
Meanwhile, to what actual extent Stirner intended his individualistic pronouncements to be taken in a wholly serious vein is impossible to gauge, and some academics have claimed that The Ego and Its Own is little more than an egoist prank or even a mischievous exercise in literary adventurism. According to R.W.K. Paterson, Stirner
reserves the liberty to delete, truncate, amend, transpose, or replace any proposition or set of propositions which no longer fulfils the truly aesthetic function assigned to it in the egoist’s overriding sense of self-enjoyment and self-display.
It is certainly true that Stirner employs certain textual devices with which to dazzle or perhaps shock his readers into reality, but it would be unfair to suggest that he was not serious. As William Brazill notes, Stirner’s writings were a
private, violent reaction against all those forces and abstractions that were plunging man toward the depersonalisation that Stirner dreaded and feared.
At the time of writing a brand new translation of Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own has just been produced by the anarcho-individualist, Wolfi Landstreicher, although the original English translation was first committed to paper by Steven T. Byington in 1907. Ironically, perhaps, Byington was a Christian and was connected to Benjamin R. Tucker who, after finding himself in full agreement with Stirner’s demolition of ‘natural rights,’ went on to publish both The Ego and Its Own and the work of many important and up-and-coming progenitors of individualism in America. As Tucker said at the time:
I have been engaged for more than thirty years in the propaganda of Anarchism, and have achieved some things of which I am proud, but I feel I have done nothing for the cause that compares in value with the publication of this volume.
Tucker had first been introduced to Stirner’s ideas by the Boston journalist, George Schumm (1856-1941), a German immigrant with whom he developed a close friendship. As Tucker explained in the pages of his anarcho-individualist periodical, Liberty:
The basic factor of social existence is that the individual shall be left entirely and absolutely free to regulate his life as experimental contact with other equally free individuals may seem to direct.
Landstreicher’s version of Stirner’s work – retitled as The Unique and Its Property – is perhaps more faithful to the original, and includes many of the humorous subtleties that Byington himself overlooked.
In 1865, a little over twenty years after The Ego and Its Own had first been published, a leading German sociologist by the name of Friedrich Albert Lange (1828-1875) had this to say about Stirner’s controversial text:
Stirner went so far in his notorious work, ‘Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum’, as to reject all moral ideas. Everything that in any way, whether it be external force, belief, or mere idea, places itself above the individual and his caprice, Stirner rejects as a hateful limitation of himself. What a pity that to this book – the extremest that we know anywhere – a second positive part was not added. It would have been easier than in the case of Schelling’s philosophy; for out of the unlimited Ego I can again beget every kind of Idealism as my will and my idea. Stirner lays so much stress upon the will, in fact, that it appears as the root force of human nature. It may remind us of Schopenhauer.
By this time, Stirner had been dead for almost ten years, but what is even more intriguing than the fleeting comparison with Schopenhauer is that Lange – a socialist reformer – is known to have been on Friedrich Nietzsche’s own reading list. Stirner was also mentioned in Eduard von Hartmann’s (1842-1906) Philosophy of the Unconscious, which Nietzsche had attacked in his 1876 work, Untimely Meditations.
Those readers familiar with Nietzsche’s oeuvre will have already recognised the extent to which Stirner’s more famous counterpart was influenced by The Ego and Its Own. Indeed, whilst Nietzsche had a marked tendency to use aphorisms and semi-mystical allegory, his stylised metaphor and hyperbole – not to mention the use of wit and sarcasm – do often bear similarities to Stirner’s own. Meanwhile, whilst the only ‘evidence’ we have for Nietzsche having been aware of his predecessor comes from Stirner’s appearances in Lange and von Hartmann, the former’s opposition to Judeo-Christianity (Anti-Christ), moral law (Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals) and Socratic rationalism (The Birth of Tragedy) – not to mention his endorsement of the supreme individual in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Will to Power – indicate that Nietzsche did base much of his own work on that of Stirner. Although it would be unfair to suggest that Nietzsche plagiarised Stirner’s ideas, the fact that he never acknowledged his fellow countryman certainly indicates that he was keen to leave the Berliner’s name out of the equation.
There is a certainly a link between Nietzsche and Anarchism, too, not in the sense that he ever described himself in that way, but due to his philosophy being championed by the likes of Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and various other individualist revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century. Goldman had also been hugely influenced by Stirner. However, Robert C. Holub notes that
translations of Nietzsche’s writings in the United States very likely appeared first in Liberty, the anarchist journal edited by Benjamin Tucker. […] Tucker preferred the strategy of exploiting his writings, but proceeding with due caution: ‘Nietzsche says splendid things, – often, indeed, Anarchist things, – but he is no Anarchist. It is of the Anarchists, then, to intellectually exploit this would-be exploiter. He may be utilized profitably, but not prophetably.
Paul Carus believes that whilst Nietzsche was influenced by Stirner, failing to acknowledge him is simply part of the individualist method:
Nietzsche has been blamed for appropriating Stirner’s thoughts and twisting them out of shape from the self-assertion of every ego consciousness into the autocracy of the unprincipled man of power; but we must concede that the common rules of literary ethics cannot apply to individualists who deny all and any moral authority. Why should Nietzsche give credit to the author from whom he drew his inspiration if neither acknowledges any rule which he feels obliged to observe? Nietzsche uses Stirner and Stirner declares that it is the good right of every ego to use his fellows, and Nietzsche shows us what the result would be-the rise of the political boss, a brute in human shape, the overman.
It was Stirner, after all, who proposed that the ideas of others can legitimately be ‘owned’ by the egoist himself.
The Post-structuralist philosopher, Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), is convinced that Stirner – whose ‘spook’-busting egoist was transformed into the supreme übermensch – had a negative influence on Nietzsche and that it was actually for the best:
It is clear that Stirner plays the revelatory role in all this. It is he who pushes the dialectic to its final consequences, showing what its motor and end results are. But precisely because Stirner still sees things like a dialectician, because he does not extricate himself from the categories of property, alienation and its suppression, he throws himself into the nothingness which he hollows out beneath the steps of the dialectic. He makes use of the question ‘which one?’ but only in order to dissolve the dialectic in the nothingness of the ego. He is incapable of posing this question in anything but the human perspective, under any conditions but those of nihilism. He cannot let this question develop for itself or pose it in another element which would give it an affirmative response. He lacks a method, a typological method which would correspond to the question. Nietzsche’s positive task is twofold: the Overman and Transvaluation. Not ‘who is man?’ but ‘who overcomes man?’.
It is true, after all, that Stirner’s involvement with the Young Hegelians had originally been centred on breaking the stranglehold of theocracy and that The Ego and Its Own is a materialist text. Nietzsche, for good or ill, both refined and developed Stirner’s ideas in the way that he had also sought to build upon the deeply pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.
* * *
Between 1887 and 1888, three Frenchman by the name of Jean-Baptiste Louiche, Charles Schæffer and Georges Deherme co-edited the Individualist Anarchist publication, Autonomie Individuelle, for which Émile Zola (1840-1902) also wrote an article during the infamous Dreyfus Affair.
Stirner also influenced the famous Victorian author, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), who, in 1891, made an attempt to reconcile individualism with socialism:
With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
As we have already seen with Benjamin R. Tucker’s efforts to introduce The Ego and Its Own to an English-speaking readership for the first time, in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries Stirner’s ideas had begun to influence a sizeable political milieu. James L. Walker (1845-1904), who became a regular contributor to Tucker’s Liberty, published the first twelve chapters of his The Philosophy of Egoism in the pages of the journal itself. As John F. Welsh explains, Walker’s interpretation of egoism
implies a rethinking of the self-other relationship, nothing less than “a complete revolution in the relations of mankind” that avoids both the “archist” principle that legitimates domination and the “moralist” notion that elevates self-renunciation to a virtue. Walker describes himself a s an “egoistic anarchist” who believed in both contract and cooperation as practical principles to guide everyday interactions. He is clearly a Stirnerite. He does not combine Stirner with Proudhon, and is very careful to differentiate his philosophy from any sort of supremacism, particularly that of Nietzsche.
As far as Walker was concerned, Stirner offered a political world-view that had the potential to shatter the dominant hierarchy of Church and state into a thousand pieces.
With the arrival of the twentieth century, meanwhile, Stirner’s work was being championed by a number of prominent intellectuals. A group of French thinkers, among them Albert Libertad, André Lorulot, Emile Armand, Victor Serge, Zo d’Axa and Rirette Maitrejean discussed anarcho-individualism in the pages of L’Anarchie and, in 1903, Han Ryner (1861-1938) wrote his Petit Manuel individualiste.
Elsewhere, Dora Marsden (1882-1960) – a leading English suffragette and philosopher of language – began promoting individualist ideas in the pages of her journals: The Freewoman (1911-1912), The New Freewoman (1913) and, most notably, The Egoist (1914-1919). Whilst she began life as a Modernist, publishing work by Ezra Pound (1885-1972), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) and many others, by the time the First World War had arrived she was rapidly gravitating towards Anarchism.
Stirner’s ideas also experienced something of a mini-revival both during and after the Second World War and his work was published in 1944 by the Italian Anarchist, Ettore Zoccoli (b.1876), and again in 1948 Paris by the Franco-Nietzschean, Henri Lasvignes.
By the middle of the century and on into the 1960s, the influence of egoism among anarchists was beginning to decline and Leftism had managed to hijack the Anarchist mainstream. Whilst Anarchists had scored a series of significant ideological victories over Marx and Engels in the mid-nineteenth century, the move towards anarcho-collectivism received its first real shot in the arm in the form of the International Workingmen’s Association between 1864 and 1876. Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), who was himself chiefly responsible for the discreditation of communism, as well as his associate Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), adopted an increasingly collectivist line and it was at this point that individualism – despite the fact that it was always destined to frequent the margins of the movement – began to wane.
One anarcho-communist observation that was made in relation to The Ego and Its Own came from the American writer, Max Baginsky (1864-1942). In 1907, he used the pages of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth magazine to suggest that Stirner should have treated the idea of property as just another construct:
Modern Communists are more individualistic than Stirner. To them, not merely religion, morality, family and State are spooks, but property also is no more than a spook, in whose name the individual is enslaved—and how enslaved! The individuality is nowadays held in far stronger bondage by property, than by the combined power of State, religion and morality […] The prime condition is that the individual should not be forced to humiliate and lower himself for the sake of property and subsistence. Communism thus creates a basis for the liberty and Eigenheit of the individual. I am a Communist because I am an Individualist. Fully as heartily the Communists concur with Stirner when he puts the word take in place of demand—that leads to the dissolution of private property, to expropriation. Individualism and Communism go hand in hand.
The same confusing trends emerged in the lead-up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, as well as during the 1936 Spanish Civil War, and there has always been a fierce and bitter divide between the anarcho-individualists and the anarcho-collectivists. Indeed, the latter argue that Anarchism was never designed to be a free-for-all in which the individual is permitted to act as he or she wishes, something that is clearly at odds with personal freedom. The modern Leftists who have since appropriated Anarchism for themselves and tarnished it with identity politics and political correctness, know far more about human enslavement than they do about liberation. Whilst Stirner dismissed the idea of ‘society’, for the Leftists it has become the centre of the universe and ‘man’ will accept it whether he likes it or not.
In the twenty-first century, however, some Anarchists have made an attempt to counteract the growing spirit of authoritarianism within Anarchism by promoting what they describe as Post-Leftism. Among those who presently fall into this general category are figures such as Bob Black, author of The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1986) and Anarchy After Leftism (1997). Another strand which falls outside Leftism’s tightly-controlled field of vision is Insurrectionist Anarchism. Two of its exponents, Alfredo M. Bonanno and Wolfi Lanstreicher, are each highly influenced by Stirner’s writings.
Whilst the debate continues to rage between those who favour a more holistic interpretation of Anarchism on the one hand, and the kind of radical egoism advocated by Stirner on the other, one of the more logical tendencies which appears to have solved this intractable problem is National-Anarchism. By appreciating that it is possible for an individual to feel part of an organic whole and yet nonetheless retain his or her individuality, ties in very nicely with Stirner’s ‘union of egoists’. The National-Anarchist Movement (N-AM), for example, is an umbrella grouping comprised of people from a variety of different political backgrounds who set aside their differences and work for radical decentralisation and real alternatives to statism and globalisation. The group’s supporters and fellow travellers include Post-Leftists, anti-capitalists, Christian anarchists, racial separatists, anarcho-primitivists, former nationalists, anti-fascists, ex-fascists, post-Strasserites and even anarcho-individualists in the traditional Stirner mould.
Smeared by the Left as a form of clandestine ‘fascism’, this dogma-rejecting current represents what is possibly the most open-minded, non-coercive and free-spirited variant of Anarchism in the modern age. In that respect, therefore, National-Anarchism has the potential to act as a vehicle for collectivists and egoists alike.
* * *
Finally, it is my wish that this article has gone some way to reclaiming Max Stirner from the authoritarianism and ideological duplicity of the Left. Indeed, whilst Stirner’s attacks on Marx and Engels – as well as their reciprocation – prove beyond all doubt that he has nothing whatsoever in common with the state socialists, his unwarranted association with Left-Anarchism is further demolished by the fact that he would have laughed in the face of their current obsession with so-called ‘human rights’.
In the words of Peter Marshall, Stirner
reminds us splendidly that a free society must exist in the interest of all individuals and it should aim at complete self-fulfilment and enjoyment. The timid and nondescript teacher at a girls’ academy turned out to be one of the most enduringly unsettling thinkers in the Western tradition.
If anything, Stirner’s philosophy is more in tune with the ‘sovereign individual’ discussed by Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) in novels such as The Forest Passage (1951) and Eumeswil (1977). Furthermore, as we have seen, it seems fair to suggest that National-Anarchism really does offer the most conducive atmosphere in which the Stirnerian legacy can thrive. This, I am certain, will form the basis of any future transcendence of Left and Right.
- Marshall, Peter H.; “Max Stirner” in Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (HarperCollins, 1992), pp.223-4.
- Arvon, Henri; Aux sources de l’existentialisme Max Stirner (Paris, 1954), p.14.
- Leopold, David; ‘A Solitary Life’ in Saul Newman [Ed.], Max Stirner: Critical Explorations in Contemporary Political Thought (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p.29.
- Stirner, Max; Quoted in Saul Newman (Ed.), Max Stirner (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p.151.
- Basch, Victor; Quoted in Max Stirner & Steven Byington [Trans.], The Ego and Its Own (Rebel Press, 1982), p.10.
- Huneker, James; Egoists, a Book of Supermen: Stendahl, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Anatole France, Huysmans, Barrès, Nietzsche, Blake, Ibsen, Stirner, and Ernest Hello (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), p.371.
- Paterson, R.W.K.; The Nihilistic Egoist: Max Stirner (Oxford University Press, 1971), p.292-3.
- Brazill, William J.; The Young Hegelians (Yale University Press, 1970), p.214.
- Tucker, Benjamin R.; ‘The Philosophy of Right and Wrong’ in Liberty, XVI (April 1907), p.1.
- Tucker, Benjamin R.; ‘The Philosophy of Right and Wrong’ in Liberty, I (October 29th, 1881), pp.2-3.
- Lange, Friedrich Albert; History of Materialism and Critique of its Present Importance, Second Book, First Section, Chapter II (Houghton, Mifflin, & Company, 1882), p.252.
- Holub, Robert C.; ‘Nietzsche: Socialist, Anarchist, Feminist’ in German Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Reception, Adaptation, Transformation (Camden House, 2005), pp.139-40.
- Carus, Paul; Nietzsche and Other Exponents of Individualism (Open Court, 1914), pp.100-1.
- Deleuze, Gilles; Nietzsche and Philosophy (The Athlone Press, 1983), pp.153-4.
- Wilde, Oscar; The Soul of Man and Prison Writings (Oxford University Press, 1962), p.8.
- Welsh, John F.; Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation (Lexington Books, 2010), p.163.
- Baginski, Max; ‘Stirner: The Ego and His Own’ in Mother Earth, Vol. II, No. 3 (May 1907).
- Marshall, Peter H.; ‘Max Stirner’ in Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (HarperCollins, 1992), p.223.