How do you rate Max Stirner?
Answer by Martin Jenkins
Max Stirner, the alias of Kasper Schmidt (1806–1856) was a member of the Berlin Doctor’s Club. Here, along with other ‘Young Hegelians’ such as Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Arnold Ruge and of course, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, they discussed and radically developed Hegel’s philosophy and its applications to socio-political issues. Stirner published The Ego and its Own in 1844 and this text can be understood as the development of Hegel’s philosophy to its extreme.
A large proportion of Stirner’s book is composed of an attack on the philosophy of his fellow Young Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach. In his Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach analysed the Christian Religion. His central thesis was that human beings had abstracted and alienated their essence by positing it in a creation of theirs called God. The creation took on greater reality to become the cause of all actual things including the now subordinate human being: the creation became the Creator.
Stirner vehemently attacked this humanism as being in actuality, a perpetuation of the Christian religion and thus the continued estrangement of human beings from themselves. In his words, Fixed Ideas or Spooks still informed people’s thinking and acting.
“And after the annihilation of faith Feuerbach thinks to put to the supposedly safe harbour of love. ‘The first and most highest law must be the love of man to man. Homo Homini Deus est – this is the supreme practical maxim, this is the turning point of the worlds History’. But properly speaking only the god has changed………to homo as Deus.” (P.74)
Unselfish, other regarding actions are to be approbated as good and ‘selfish’ actions are condemned as contrary to the divine love between human beings. These Fixed Ideas become our master, categories which occupy our being prioritising an alien abstraction over and against our own interests. Feuerbach’s radical solution to the estrangement of humanity from itself in Religion actively perpetuates the estrangement; albeit in a humanist and secular guise.
The same themes Stirner identified in Feuerbach are present in political philosophies. Spooks still seek to determine how we think and act, they occupy and attempt to shape our ontology in conformity (a theme later examined in depth a hundred and so years later by Michel Foucault).
With Political Liberalism, the State is the Spook that endeavours to define what it is to be a human being. After the demise of Absolute Monarchies, the concept and practice of Citizenship is observed. As Stirner writes:
“The commonality or Citizenship is nothing else than the thought that the State is all in all, the true man and, that the individual’s human value consists in being Citizens of the State.” (P. 128)
Each citizen is to recognise and promote the welfare of the whole, to make the ends and interests of the State his/ her own interests. The concept of the ‘General Will’ as espoused by Jean Jacques Rousseau accurately captures this position. Here the interests of the Community or State as opposed to particular or sectional interests, are to be established and furthered by the stated consensus of the citizenship; this becomes law to which citizens must obey in their capacity as subjects. Hence the rational citizen transcends his/ her irrational particularity to establish the interests of the State. In doing so, the true, rational and free nature of humanity is realised. The Citizen/ State alone is the true human being, it commands and prescribes what is right and wrong; any other power such as the individual will or personality is judged as ‘Un-Man’, irrational, criminal, out-law. Again, Christian principles such as mutual love, self-sacrifice for some greater thing are present albeit in a supposedly rational and secular guise. Accordingly, the individual is reduced to a mere instrument of society, shaped, moulded and thereby limited by society’s needs as prescribed by, for example, its education system.
“…never does a State aim to bring in the free activity of individuals but always and only that which is bound to the purpose of the state.” (P. 298).
“The State wants to make something out of man, therefore, there live in it only made men, everyone who wants to be his own self is its opponent and is nothing.” (P. 299)
Again, human beings are estranged from themselves by means of a posited essence, this time the concept of the Rational and Free Human being, the subject of Citizenship. This is, for Stirner, another Spook.
Social Liberalism concerns itself with wealth and the ownership of property and entails Stirner’s understanding of Socialism/ Communism. Whereas Political Liberalism defines human beings as political citizens and nothing more; Social Liberalism is a response to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism. Its consequent diagnosis is the abolition of private property. Property will become the common property of the State/ Society. ‘Neither command nor property is left to the individual; the state took the former, society the latter.’ (P. 155).
Whilst recognising that Liberal property relations leave the average man propertyless, Stirner is highly critical the revolutionary prescriptions of Socialists like Pierre Proudhon.
Common Ownership of property merely changes the relation of the ownership of property, it does not abolish ownership. For it prevents any individual from owning property, so in theory all are owners but no one has anything. The collective becomes the new master of the ‘I’. Further, like Feuerbachian Humanism and Political Liberalism, Socialism/ Communism is a continuation of Christian ways of thinking.
“When the law says ‘The King is proprietor… of everything… he has potestas and Imperium over it. The Communists make this clearer by transforming that imperium to ‘the society of all’. Therefore because both are enemies of egoism, they are on that account Christians, or more generally speaking, religious men – believers in ghosts, dependents, servants of some generality (God, Society etc). In this too, Proudhon is like the Christians when he ascribes to God that which he denies to men. He names Him the proprietor of the earth. Herewith he proves that he cannot away the proprietor as such; he comes to a proprietor at last but removes him to the other world. Neither God nor Man (human society) is proprietor, but the individual.” (P. 331)
People will become labourers for the common good and more, will be understood as servants for the community where each labours for the other as labour becomes a defining virtue of the human essence, of socialist humanity. ‘The state will provide all’. This is another example of the self-sacrifice and abrogation of the individual for a higher ideal. In this instance communist society is the Ideal but, for Stirner it remains within and is a reiteration of Christian categories of thinking and being.
Unique Ownness, Power, Union of Egos
Stirner’s remedy is for the Ego to simply stop recognising such Spooks. Thereby, the estrangement of humanity from itself is negated and a return to the human as human as itself occurs, as Ego. It is not a matter of seeking Freedom as usually sought by political and social movements. Stirner challenges the concept of Freedom as being negative, it is always about being free from something. It is also relative and there is no substantive state of Freedom – this is a Christian concept evoking a final state, another world such as heaven which is free from everything. In reality, new relations of power replace the previous but they still remain coercive in some capacity. Besides, what is at the basis of any claim for freedom is the ego. The ego is my own, it is me as the owner of my Ownness. It is at the basis of all I do. I am Unique, no one else can be me, no-one else can perceive things as I do. At the same time I am not who I am. The ego is transcendental, a creative nothingness which is not identical with what it owns, with what it does. This continues the theme of the transcendental ego in German Idealism. It is epitomised by Fichte’s instruction to his students ‘ to think the wall in front of you. Now think about that which thinks…’ The Creative Nothing is the real basis of all social intercourse.
There is no objective ‘Right’ or morality – these only exist within Christian and crypto-Christian paradigms. There is only Power or might which facilitates what the ego can do, can possess, can retain.
“What you have the power to be, you have the ‘right’ to. I derive all right and all warrant from me; I am entitled to everything that I have in my power.” (P. 248).
In essence, it is a matter of ‘might is right’. If I choose to help other people, it is not because I am compelled to by any mythical Spook of morality in my head such as duty, right, ought; I do it because I choose to as it benefits me in some capacity. Does this entail the collapse of a society of peoples? Stirner maintains it does not as individual ego’s can associate with others in furtherance of their interests in a Union of Egoists. This is a purely voluntary association and the ego is a member only insofar as his/her interests are being satisfied. ‘Only in the Union can you assert yourself as unique; because the Union does not possess you but you possess it or make it of use to you’ (P. 415)
To the egoist, only its history has value. It wants to develop itself and not ‘Man’, ‘Society’ or any other Spook. The Egoist is not a tool to be used by God, Society etc; it recognises no calling and it lives himself out ‘regardless of how well or ill humanity fare’. (P. 489)
“I am the owner of my might and I am so when I know myself as unique. In the unique One, the owner himself returns into his creative nothing, of which he is born. Every Higher essence above me, be it God, be it Man, weakens the feeling of my uniqueness And pales only before the sun of consciousness. If I concern myself for myself, the Unique one the my concerns rests on its transitory, mortal creator who consumes Himself and I may say: All things are nothing to me.” (ibid)
Stirner’s attack on the Christian religion and its secular derivatives within an Hegelian philosophical paradigm is certainly creative and innovative. Like Nietzsche, he saw ‘modern ideas’ as a continuation of themes central to Christianity such as community, equality, self-sacrifice and the like. His solution to these issues – Egoism – although attractive in its extremism, would be unworkable. In all probability, it would entail the bellum omne contra omnes as Hobbes contended the state of nature to be in his Leviathan. Power and might of the Ego would be the dynamic of life. An ironical that Hobbes the materialist and Stirner the extreme Hegelian Idealist both arrive at the same conclusion, a conclusion that horrified Hobbes but apparently one which Stirner recommends. The Union of Egoists would essentially be a gang, a tribe and the conditions they operate in not unlike failed states in the world that we witness at the moment. It is highly unlikely that individualist egoism could prosper here, rather a subordination to gang leaders, to a tyranny of arbitrary power.
Many interpretations of Christianity would not emphasise those elements Stirner is so critical of. Many advocates of capitalism find in the Christian Bible, strictures that justify the acquisition of wealth, its consequent inequality and certainly do not draw socialistic conclusions. So Stirner’s attack on Christianity does not necessarily follow.
If the Ego can do what it wants, then say a promise made yesterday does not have to be maintained today. (Indeed, if all morality is a spook then promises would be impossible) As such, social co-operation would be impossible as there would be an absence of reliability and, of trust. The existence of a society would, I believe be impossible. To avoid this, co-operation would have to be practiced in for example, the Union of Egos, co-operation whereby compromises would have to be made by the Ego – such as observing a promise. The Ego would be doing something it doesn’t want to do which, is contrary to what Stirner holds the Ego to be. Further, some form of morality would have to be invoked for social norms – such as promising – to be possible. As Stirner denies morality, this would prove impossible.
Stirner’s reduction of all action by the Ego to its interests is little better that a tautology: I do things because I do them. It is the Self or Ego which acts – yes, how can it be otherwise? Such interests might not be in my interests – self-sacrifice does occur, people sacrifice their lives for others – this can hardly be in their own interests! Further, many actions are done without a prior calculation deciding how they might or might not be in my self interest. This area is far more complex than Stirner allows.
Evolutionary biology and anthropology provide evidence that empathy and co-operation are at the bedrock of ‘morality’. Co-operation ensured human beings survived as a species. This is the antithesis of Stirner’s position, if his strictures were adopted, it is unlikely human beings would have survived at all. Also, if co-operation and all the values Stirner attacks find their basis in human evolution, they do not have their origin in the Spooks he attacks. Therefore, his attack on Religion etc as the cause of such values is misplaced.
The Ego as unique etc, appears to come from nowhere and needs nothing external to develop as an Ego, as a human being. It is a-social. This is a point noted by Karl Marx after he had read The Ego and Its Own. The Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach states that ‘the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each human being, it is in its reality, the ensemble of the human relations’. Marx took from Stirner the point that contra to Feuerbach, there is no human essence or nature (hence he ceased to be a Feuerbachian that he was as evidenced in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts) but, internal content is acquired from without, from society. This is the point of Stirner’s identification and criticism of the Spooks of Christianity etc which are internalised by human beings. Yet where Stirner reduces the self to a Creative Nothing, Marx maintained that as the content of human interiority is acquired from a society, the point is therefore to change society and not to negate it with and by a Creative Nothing of the Ego. Indeed, the Creative Nothing would be impossible without the internalised content acquired by social interaction, by socialisation. In this sense, Stirner’s Creative Nothingness is a non-starter. A Transcendental Ego could be retained, an Ego that transcends and is apart from social content (as Sartre demonstrates in Being and Nothingness) but which simultaneously, needs that content to be an Ego. Stirner maintains it does not, which is absurd.
As an exercise in the development of Hegelianism, I think Stirner’s work is extremely interesting. It also contains insightful critiques of modernity which have been taken up by Individualists, by anarchists of right and left and as mentioned above, insights which can be found in the works of ‘critical ontologist’ Michel Foucault concerning social categories of sexuality, gender, mental health and so on that are imposed on the human subject. Karl Marx was so perturbed by Stirner’s book that he wrote The Holy Family and more importantly, The German Ideology to refute Stirner. Taken literally and implemented, Stirner’s Egoism would be, to say the least, impractical.