George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 1962, Postscript 1975.
4 The Egoist
The pervasiveness of anarchistic ways of thinking in the age that followed the French Revolution, and which established both the capitalist system of production and the modern centralized state, is shown strikingly in the variety of points from which writers in many countries started independently on their journeys to similar libertarian destinations. Godwin, as we have seen, came to the rejection of government by way of the English Dissenting tradition, modified by the French Enlightenment. Josiah Warren in the United States and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France independently reached anarchism during the 1840s largely by criticizing Utopian socialist doctrines, particularly those of Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. And during the same decade in Germany Max Stirner, in his single important work, The Ego and His Own, proceeded from Hegelianism to its almost complete inversion in a doctrine that denied all absolutes and all institutions, and based itself solely on the 'ownness' of the human individual. It is true that Stirner had studied Proudhon's earlier works but -- like Proudhon himself in dismissing Godwin -- he failed to see the similarity between his own conclusions and those implied in the writings of the French anarchist. His arguments, and the extreme individualism to which they led him, can therefore reasonably be regarded as the independent outgrowth of a general tendency of the age.
At first sight Stirner's doctrine seems strikingly different from that of other anarchist thinkers. These tend, like Godwin, to conceive some absolute moral criterion to which man must subordinate his desires in the name of justice and reason, or, like Kropotkin, to pose some innate urge which, once authority is brought to an end, will induce men to cooperate naturally in a society governed by invisible laws of mutual aid. Stirner, on the other hand, draws near to nihilism and existentialism in his denial of all natural laws and of a common humanity; he sets forth as his ideal the egoist, the man who realizes himself
in conflict with the collectivity and with other individuals, who does not shrink from the use of any means in 'the war of each against all', who judges everything ruthlessly from the viewpoint of his own well-being, and who, having proclaimed his 'ownness', may then enter with like-minded individuals into a 'union of egoists', without rules or regulations, for the arrangement of matters of common convenience.
There is no need to point out the resemblance between Stirner's egoist and the superman of Nietzsche; Nietzsche himself regarded Stirner as one of the unrecognized seminal minds of the nineteenth century. Yet there are elements in Stirner's thought that bring him clearly into the anarchist tradition and which have given him a considerable influence in libertarian circles during the present century. As much as any of the more typical anarchist thinkers, he criticizes existing society for its authoritarian and anti-individual character; he poses a desirable condition that can come about only with the overthrow of governmental institutions; he calls for equality between egoists even if he sees it in terms of the tension created by a balance of might; and he suggests -- however vaguely -- insurrectionary means by which the change in society can be brought about. At the same time, there have been few anarchists so extreme as Stirner in their worship of force, or so joyful in their view of life as a perpetual and amoral conflicy of wills.
Yet a curious insight into the character of theoretical extremists is presented when we come to observe this fanatic of individualism, who alarmed even some of the anarchists, such as Kropotkin, by the ferocity of his teachings. For the great egoist, the poet of everlasting conflict, who praised crime and exalted murder, was in real life, when he published The Ego and His Own in 1843, a mild-mannered and long-suffering teacher in Madame Gropius's Berlin academy for young ladies. He was called Johann Caspar Schmidt. The nom de plume which he substituted for such a commonplace name was derived from the extraordinary development of his forehead; Stirne is the German word for brow, and Max Stirner might reasonably be translated as Max the Highbrow.
Just as Schmidt assumed a new name to publish his book, so
he appeared to create a new personality to write it, or at least to call up some violent, unfamiliar self that was submerged in his daily existence. For in the unhappy, luckless, and ill-ordered career of the timid Schmidt there was nothing at all of the free-standing egoist of Max Stirner's passionate dream; the contrast between the man and his work seems to provide us with a classic example of the power of literature as a compensatory daydream.
The known facts of Schmidt's life, pieced together with difficulty by the individualist poet John Henry Mackay in the 1890s, are scanty and pathetic. He was a Bavarian, born in 1806 in Bayreuth, then an obscure town untouched by the fame that Wagner and Richter were later to bring it. His parents were poor, his father died when he was young, and his mother's second marriage led to a period of wandering in northern Germany, broken by intermittent sickness. Later, when the family returned to Bayreuth, Johann Caspar followed his studies at the local gymnasium, and then he embarked on a long, interrupted, and undistinguished university career.
From 1826 to 1828 he studied philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he attended the lectures of Hegel, the first intellectual hero against whom he was later to react decisively. There followed a single semester at Erlangen, and a registration at Königsberg, where he did not attend a single lecture, being called to Kulm to look after his mother, who was now sinking into insanity. Only three years afterward, in 1832, could he return to the University of Berlin, where eventually he passed narrowly the examination for a certificate to teach in Prussian gymnasia.
For a year and a half Schmidt worked as an unpaid training teacher at the Berlin Königliche Realschule, at the end of which time the Prussian government refused to appoint him to a salaried post. He did not protest; indeed, this period of his life was characterized by a resigned apathy that seemed to prevent any serious effort to overcome his misfortunes. And the misfortunes continued. Despite his lack of employment, Schmidt married his landlady's daughter in 1837; she died a few months later in childbirth. Then he resumed the task of caring for his mad mother, and waited almost two years before
he was finally taken on as a teacher in Madame Gropius's
school, where he remained, and taught well, for five years.
These were the least unlucky years of Stirner's life, the years during which he associated with some of the most vital intelligences of Germany, and, under their stimulation, emerged from the stagnation of his life to write The Ego and His Own, a book which, whatever its faults, can never be accused lacking force and fire.
The environment that summoned these unexpected qualities from the hitherto unproductive mind of Johann Caspar Schmidt was Hippel's Weinstube on Friedrichstrasse where during the early 1840s, the Young Hegelians of Berlin would gather to discuss and amend and eventually refute the teachings of the Master. They called themselves Die Freien -- the Free Ones -- and formed a kind of irregular debating society under the leadership of the brothers Bruno and Edgar Bauer. Marx and Engels, and the poets Herwegh and Hoffman von Fallersleben, were occasional visitors. The debates were brilliant, extravagant, and noisy. Visiting dignitaries were treated with disrespect, and one evening Arnold Ruge, who had himself set up as a kind of high priest among the Left Hegelians became involved in a bitter dispute with the Berlin group, which Engels celebrated in a pencil sketch. The sketch has survived. Ruge, portly and pompous, is shouting angrily at the Berliners among a welter of overturned chairs and trampled papers, while outside the fray a lonely figure, highbrowed, bespectacled, negligently smoking a cigarette, looks on ironically. It is Stirner, caught in the silent, detached role he played in the company of the Free Ones, the role of the critical smiling listener, on good terms with all and the friend of none.
Only in one way did the armour of detachment break apart and that was after the arrival from Mecklenburg of a pretty, brilliant, and superficially emancipated young woman named Marie Dahnhardt, who frequented Hippel's Weinstube and was accepted by the Free Ones as a good comrade who could drain her stein and smoke her cigar with the best of them. Stirner saw in Marie a hope of the happiness he had so far missed in life, and in 1843 they were married; the ceremony which took place in Stirner's apartment, was bohemianly
chaotic, for the pastor arrived to find the bridegroom and witnesses playing cards in their shirtsleeves, the bride came late, in her everyday clothes, and, since no one had remembered to buy wedding rings, the ceremony was completed with the copper rings from Bruno Bauer's purse. It was during the first year of the marriage that The Ego and His Own appeared.
This was not Stirner's first published work; Karl Marx had already printed in the Rheinische Zeitung an essay on educational methods. But it was the book that brought Stirner fame, brief and scandalous. In its pages he not merely advocated an egoism and an amorality repugnant to most nineteenth-century minds; he also attacked the whole spectrum of contemporary thought. Not only Hegel, but also Feuerbach, Marx, and Proudhon -- already an avowed anarchist -- were rejected. The habitues of Hippel's Weinstube -- and especially Bruno Bauer -- were condemned with the rest. Stirner set out to demolish not merely all religious beliefs, but also every political or social or philosophical doctrine that seemed to him, by posing anything outside the individual, whether an absolute principle, or a party, or even a collective abstraction like Man, to start the religious process all over again. By their very extremity his arguments provoked such celebrities as Feuerbach and Moses Hess to reply in print.
But Stirner's success was as insubstantial as most of those that proceed from notoriety. His book faded quickly from the public attention, and it was only fifty years later, after the vogue for Nietzsche had prepared the readers for the cult of unlimited self-will, that a popular revival of The Ego and His Own took place. During the 1890s and the Edwardian era it was read widely, both within and outside anarchist circles; there was something in the book's undisciplined vigour that appealed particularly to the rebellious auto-didacts of that time, the stalwarts of the Mechanics' Institutes. As late as the 1940s I encountered a group of anarchist working men in Glasgow for whom it was still a belated gospel.
This vogue, however, took place long after Stirner's death, and for him ephemeral success was followed by renewed misfortune. He left Madame Gropius's school; though the cause of his departure is not known, it was very probably due to the
discovery that the mild Herr Schmidt had for alter ego the terrible Herr Stirner who recommended rebellion and gloried in violence. To earn a living, he began a series of translations of French and English economists, and actually published several volumes of J.-B. Say and Adam Smith; it was an unremuneratively arduous task and, in a desperate attempt to make some easy money, he invested what was left of his wife's dowry in a dairy, which in its turn failed from his lack of business experience. By 1847 Marie Dahnhardt had endured| enough of Stirner's ineffectual dealings with life, and she departed, first to England and later to Australia. Long afterward, in London during the 1890s, John Henry Mackay visited her and found that the memory of those days half a century ago still rankled; she would not talk of Stirner except to say that he was 'very sly' and impossibly egotistical.
Left alone, Stirner sank gradually into poverty and obscurity, living in a series of poor lodgings, earning some kind of miserable living by arranging deals between small businessmen, and publishing a History of Reaction whose pedestrian dullness bears the mark of Johann Caspar Schmidt rather than that of Max Stirner. Twice he was imprisoned for debt, and the last years of his life, until he died in 1856, were spent mostly in evading his numerous creditors.
It was the career of a man whose proneness to failur clearly sprang from something more personal than mere ill luck, from some flaw of will that gave his one considerable book, seen against the grey background of his life, the aspect of a violent effort to break free from a natural and suffocating apathy. The apathy closed again over Johann Caspar Schmidt the man and finally engulfed him; Max Stirner the writer survived by the sheer desperation which gave his protest its peculiar vigour.
What strikes one at once about The Ego and His Own is its passionate anti-intellectualism. In contrast to Godwin's stress on reason, Stirner speaks for the will and the instincts, and he seeks to cut through all the structures of myth and philosophy, all the artificial constructions of human thought, to the elemental self. He denies the reality of such abstract and generalized concepts as Man and Humanity; the human
individual is the only thing of which we have certain knowledge, and each individual is unique. It is this uniqueness that every
man must cultivate; the ego is the only law, and no obligations exist to any code, creed, or conception outside it. Rights do not exist; there is only the might of the embattled ego. As for such Godwinian concepts as duty and immutable moral laws, Stirner denies them completely. His own needs and desires provide the sole rule of conduct for the self-realized individual.
Even freedom, the great goal of most anarchists, is, in Stirner's view, surpassed by uniqueness or 'ownness'. Freedom he sees as a condition of being rid of certain things, but he points out that the very nature of life makes absolute freedom an impossibility.
One becomes free from much, not from everything. Inwardly one may be free in spite of the condition of slavery, although, too, it is again only from some things, not from everything; but from the whip, the domineering temper, etc., of the master one does not as a slave become free. 'Freedom lives only in the realm of dreams!' Ownness, on the contrary, is my whole being and existence, it is I myself. I am free from what I am rid of, owner of what I have in my power or what I control. My own I am at all times and under all circumstances, if I know how to possess myself and do not throw myself away on others. To be free is something that I cannot truly will, because I cannot make it, cannot create it; I can only wish it and aspire towards it, for it remains an ideal, a spook. The fetters of reality cut the sharpest welts in my flesh every moment. But my own I remain.
Yet in his fight for 'ownness' Stirner finds himself faced with the same enemy as the anarchist in his fight for freedom -- the state.
We two, the state and I, are enemies. I, the egoist, have not at heart the welfare of this 'human society'. I sacrifice nothing to it. I only utilize it: but to be able to utilize it completely I must transform it rather into my property and my creature -- i.e., I must annihilate it and form in its place the Union of Egoists.
The state, whether despotic or democratic, is the negation of individual will. It is based on the worship of collective man; moreover, its very systems of legislation and law enforcement result in a stabilization, a freezing of action and opinion,
which the man who wishes to possess himself in uniqueness cannot tolerate. Therefore the struggle between the egoist and the state is inevitable.
For the state it is indispensable that nobody have an own will; if one had, the state would have to exclude, lock up, or banish him; if all had, they would do away with the state. The state is not thinkable without lordship and servitude; for the state must will to be the lord of all that it embraces, and this will is called the 'will of the State'. . . . The own will in me is the state's destroyer; it is therefore branded by the state as 'self-will'. Own will and the state are powers in deadly hostility, between which no 'eternal peace' is possible.
In the vacuum left by the annihilated state arises the world of the egoists, a world Stirner alarmingly characterizes by the liberal use of such words as force and power and might, words most anarchists use only in a pejorative sense. These, as I have already remarked, Stirner opposes to right.
I do not demand any right; therefore I need not recognize any either. What I can get by force I get by force and what I do not get by force I have no right to, nor do I give myself airs; or consolation, with talk of my imprescriptible right. . . . Entitled or unentitled - -that does not concern me; if I am only powerful, I am empowered of myself, and need no other empowering or entitling.
The accession of each man to his power, which his uniqueness implies, does not however suggest for Stirner a reign of universal rapacity and perpetual slaughter, nor does it mean the wielding of power over others. Each man defends by force his own uniqueness, but having attained the self-realization of true egoism he does not need to be burdened with more possessions than he requires, and he recognizes that to rule over others would destroy his own independence.
He who, to hold his own, must count on the absence of will in others is a thing made by these others, as the master is a thing made by the servant. If submissiveness ceased, it would be all over with lordship.
In Stirner's world there will be neither masters nor servants, but only egoists, and the very fact of the withdrawal of each man into his uniqueness will prevent rather than foster conflict.
As unique you have nothing in common with the other any longer, and therefore nothing divisive or hostile either; you are not seeking to be in the right against him before a third party, and are standing with him neither 'on the ground of right' nor on any other common ground. The opposition vanishes in complete severance or singleness. This might be regarded as the new point in common or a new parity, but here the parity consists precisely in the disparity.
Egoism does not deny union between individuals. Indeed, it may well foster genuine and spontaneous union. For 'the individual is unique, not as a member of a party. He unites freely and separates again'. Stirner, who despises the practical and always prefers aphorism to argument, does not go into very much detail about the form of social organization that the Union of Egoists might produce. Indeed, anything static enough to be defined by a word like 'organization' lies outside the Stirnerite perspective, and he clearly opposes society, as well as the state, because he sees it as an institution based on a collective conception of Man, on the subordination of the individual to the whole. To society all he opposes is a union based on the free coming together of egoists who use their 'intercourse' or 'commercium' for their own advantages and abandon it as soon as it ceases to serve them.
You bring into a union your whole power, your competence, and make yourself count; in a society you are employed, with your working power; in the former you live egoistically, in the latter humanly, i.e., religiously, as a 'member in the body of the Lord'; to a society you owe what you have, and are in duty bound to it, are possessed by 'social duties'; a union you utilize, and give it up undutifully and unfaithfully when you see no way to use it further. If a society is more than you, then it is more to you than yourself; a union is only your instrument, or the sword with which you sharpen and increase your natural force; the union exists for you and through you, the society conversely lays claim to you for itself and exists even without you; in short, the society is sacred, the union your own; the society consumes you, you consume the union.
If the world of Stirnerite egoists, that free intercourse of unique beings each embattled in his power, could ever be achieved in real life, it might take on a shape rather similar to the underground Utopia which Bulwer Lytton describes in
The Coming Race, where every individual possesses power in the form of the deadly energy called vril. A kind of equilibrium based on mutual respect has been established, and brotherhood paradoxically emerges from the danger of mutual destruction so that governments have been rendered unnecessary and have withered away in the face of this union of the powerful.
But the world in which the Union of Egoists will reign cannot be won without a struggle. While the state remains, Stirner contends, the egoist must fight against it with all the means in his power, and the idea of this constant struggle carried on outside all conceptions of morality leads him to a rhapsodic glorification of crime.
In crime the egoist has hitherto asserted himself and mocked at the sacred; the break with the sacred, or rather of the sacred, may become general. A revolution never returns, but a mighty, reckless, shameless, conscienceless, proud crime, does it not rumble in distant thunders, and do you not see how the sky grows presciently silent and gloomy?
Stirner may have had no direct influence on the proud and reckless criminals whose presence darkened the anarchist movement in the Latin countries during the 1880s and the 1890s, but he often anticipates them remarkably, as he also anticipates the later anarchist idea of the spontaneous rising of the people as a gathering of rebellious individuals rather than a mass insurrection.
At the same time, Stirner attacks the socialists and the communists for their belief that the property question can be settled amicably. Force will be necessary. Each man, Stirner declares, must have and take what he requires, and this involves 'the war of each against all', for 'the poor become free and proprietors only when they rise'. Here Stirner makes a distintction, fundamental to his point of view, between revolution and rebellion. Like Albert Camus in our own generation, he denies revolution and exalts rebellion, and his reasons are linked closely to his conception of individual uniqueness.
Revolution and rebellion must not be looked upon as synonymous. The former consists in an overturning of conditions, of the established condition or status, the state or society, and is accordingly a political or social act. The latter has indeed for its unavoidable
consequence a transformation of circumstances, yet does not start from that but from men's discontent with themselves; it is not an armed rising, but a rising of individuals, a getting up, without regard for the consequences that spring from it. The Revolution aims at new arrangements; rebellion leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on 'institutions'. It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself.... Now, as my object is not the overthrow of an established order but my elevation above it, my purpose and deed are not political and social, but egoistic. The revolution commands one to make arrangements; rebellion demands that one rise or exalt oneself.
From Godwin, who placed his faith in immutable moral laws, and saw rational discussion as the best means to change the condition of man, to Stirner, who exalted the amoral individual and called for egoistic and self-assertive rebellion, the way may seem long, yet it ends for both in a society of proud individuals, each secure in his integrity and cooperating with other individuals only in so far as it is convenient to him. Working in isolation, and separated from the main historical stream of anarchism, one of them developed the logical and the other the passionate conclusion of anarchistic thought, and it is significant that two such different thinkers should have found their journeys meeting in the same destination.
It is true that The Ego and His Own remains a highly personal book, a product of Stirner's discontent, crying extravagantly against everything that in life bore down upon and destroyed his will. Yet when one has taken all this into account and has endured the appalling verbosity with which the substance of a brilliant essay has been inflated into the most tedious of all the libertarian classics, it remains the expression of a point of view that belongs clearly to one end of the varied spectrum of anarchist theory.
Of anarchist theory -- but not of the anarchist movement; for, like Godwin, Stirner was not to be discovered by libertarian writers until after anarchism had taken on definite shape as a creed of the times. Even then, his influence affected only a few small marginal groups of individualists. It is as the appropriately lonely rhapsodist of the uniqueness of every human being that Stirner claims his place in the history of anarchism.