Monday, August 15, 2011

The Most Provocative, Revolutionary, Dangerous, Radical, and [insert adjective] Book Ever Written

by Stephen J. Gertz

Q1: What book, born of the political upheavals in mid-nineteenth century Europe,  spearheaded radical Leftist Anarchism in the United States during the late-nineteenth through early decades of the twentieth century and then, intellectually banished for a few decades, returned in the mid-twentieth century from exile  to rise, by the end of  the late-twentieth century, as the philosophical cornerstone of a Conservative wing of the Republican party?

Q2: Do Libertarians in the U.S. understand that the roots of their philosophy lie in Anarchism?  Does their leadership?

Q3: If so, why haven't their brains blown a fuse?

A1. Der Einzige und sein Eigentum by Max Stirner (b. Johann Kaspar Schmidt, 1806-1856), originally published in Leipzig, 1845 [1844, post-dating a dodge to confuse Prussian censors], translated into English and published in New York in 1907 as The Ego and His Own,  and reprinted, amongst other subsequent editions, in 1963 by the Libertarian Book Club.

A2. Probably not. If the leadership does, they're not talking; why scare the bejesus out of the current Libertarian constituency, which, if truth be known, would run for their lives?

A3. The answer, my friend, is explodin' in the wind.

STIRNER, Max (pseud. of Johann  Kaspar Schmidt, 1806-1856)). Der Einzige und sein Eigentum. Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845 [1844].

"Do truth, freedom, humanity, justice, desire anything else than that you grow enthusiastic and serve them?...God and mankind have concerned themselves for nothing, for nothing but themselves...Away, then, with every concern that is not altogether my concern! You think the 'good cause' must be my concern? What's good, what's bad? Why, I myself am my concern, and I am neither good nor bad. Neither has meaning for me...The divine is God's concern; the human, man's. My concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, good, just, free, etc., but solely what is mine, and it is not a general one, but is - unique, as I am unique.
      "Nothing is more to me than myself!"
-Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

The Ego and His Own presents the case for the individual against authority. It was forged in Europe during a time of roiling political change. Monarchy and the theocratic state were going down, Liberalism was on the rise. The monarchal “the State is me,” had lost its legitimacy; “The State is us,” its citizens, was the rallying cry. A strong sense of Nationalism was in the air. The modern secular state was beginning to emerge.

Stirner would have none of it. He saw no point in replacing one form of government with another. The Ego and His Own is the premier work of anti-Statism and Stirner's  anti-Statism is ecumenical in breadth. The State was the grand enemy and would always be tyrannical, no matter its political philosophy, what form it took, or how good its intentions. All governments presume sovereignty over the individual and are therefore an evil; that is the nature of things when individuals subsume their egos to the power of an Other and unite as a crowd. 

Stirner’s anti-Statism was only the beginning. He was vehemently against any sort of authority over the individual whatsoever. God, morality, family, country, theology, philosophy, ideology - there is no aspect of authority, none at all, that Stirner accepts. One’s conscience? The sum of all fears of authority. Though he admires Jesus Christ as an anti-Statist revolutionary, he is particularly harsh in regard to organized Christianity and other organized religions. Anarchism - in a truly, purely  free society every man is a law unto himself - was the message.

This was his appeal to the far-Left of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century who saw liberty threatened by the modern State and took individual action, sometimes violent, against it.

In America, the message of radical individualism found its voice in Benjamin R. Tucker’s Leftist magazine, Liberty, which, from 1881 through 1908, was the seminal publication to spread the cause of individual freedom. It was and remains the foundational publication of Libertarianism  and individual protest in the English-speaking world.

James L. Walker (1845 - 1904), a Texas newspaperman and, later, doctor, was the first American to think about Stirner’s radical anti-authoritarianism at length and depth. Texans, proud to this day that they were once an independent nation, are particularly keen on matters of individualism and freedom, and Walker was a frequent contributor to Liberty. Through his influence Stirner was translated into English and the book published, with an introduction by Walker written before his death, by Tucker (1854 - 1939) in 1907. "Fifty years sooner or later can make little difference in the case of a book so revolutionary as this," he wrote. The bible of zealous anti-authoritarian individualism was now available to American readers, the Anarchist’s New Testament available for study, and, for the true believer, a clarion call to individual struggle against the State was heard.

First U.K. edition in English, 1912.

 "...the most revolutionary book ever written...[Stirner] has left behind him a virtual breviary of destruction, a striking and dangerous is dangerous in every sense of the word..." (James Huneker, Egoists: A Book of Supermen. Stendahl, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Anatole France, Huysmans, Barré, Nietzsche, Blake, Ibsen, Stirner, and Ernest Hello. NY: Scribner's, 1909).

The book’s association with domestic terrorism pushed it to the fringe and it became a forgotten relic of  a time in American history that all wished to forget. After World War II,  however, it was rediscovered by a segment of the American Right. Libertarianism, once the enemy of order and all that the average American citizen held sacred, was now the True Path. How could this possibly happen?

In the post-WWII era, the Right was in full-fear mode, Communism's  invasion of  Eastern Europe and Asia too much to bear.  Socialism, Communism's second cousin, had made inroads into Western Europe. Marx was on the march. What was the philosophical counter to these developments? What was the intellectual hammer? Where was rugged individualism when it was needed most?

With  fierce, remorseless passion The Ego and His Own provides an answer, countering Communism's radical beatification of the collective over the individual with the radical beatification of the individual above all else.

Stirner's scorn for  Liberalism, with its insistence upon the basic equality of Man, is overt and palpable. Liberals, he accuses, sacrifice the actual individual to an abstraction of individuality. "The Christian takes hold of my spirit, the liberal of my humanity," he says.

The Ego and His Own remains the strongest philosophical argument against Socialism and Communism ever written; Stirner predicted that a Communist state would be more oppressive than any other yet seen in history. The fact that Sirner's contemporary, Karl Marx, despised  The Ego and His Own (a manically  enthusiastic  Hegelian tract one imagines Stirner madly scribbling away at, the Marquis de Sade busy doing same in the cell next door) surely sealed the deal.  The enemy of my  enemy is my friend.

Be careful how you choose your friends.

Libertarianism, once the  territory of Leftist revolutionaries, was now adopted by the far-Right as an intellectual bulwark against the spread of Communism. Its deification of the individual had natural appeal.
But Anarchists and latter-day Libertarians both got it wrong.

It was never Stirner’s intent for The Ego and His Own to be translated into a formal political philosophy leading to political action. That would constitute a movement and movements impress their own authority over their adherents. Politics is just another lever for authority to assert itself over individual will.

The Ego and His Own is about self-liberation, a revolution of the mind. Stirner is demanding of us. To be truly free man must be ruthlessly, relentlessly, and brutally honest with himself to expunge all traces of authority from without that dwell within, imposing their will against the individual. Strip it away; it is interfering with the  free and full expression of your sovereign self. Slavery to ideas was as pernicious as physical bondage.  Nothing exists or is more important than the individual.

It should really come as no surprise, then, that this book has been, over time, embraced by both the far-Left and far-Right. The political extremes are in constant search for  a new Eden, idealists from Never-Never Land on a mission seeking a Peter Pan-Pied Piper to lead them to a new, bountiful paradise.

Stirner would laugh out loud, pitilessly; they have enslaved themselves to an idea - Freedom! - sacrificed their ego to it and not, as Stirner argues, the other way around.

Stirner would mock, despise, and disown Libertarianism’s bastard step-child, Ayn Rand. She got the radical individualism right but fell off a cliff worshiping Capitalism - all -isms are authoritarian -  and allowing  a cult to develop around her subject to her iron authority. She was an apostate, just another power subjugating  followers to her will. On the plus side, however, she defends and celebrates, in The Fountainhead, the action of her protagonist when he blows up a building he designed in violent protest against its owner. But was he motivated by anti-government, anti-authoritarian sentiment? Not quite. The owner made design changes. His ego offended, Howard Rourke whined with TNT tears and Rand called it artistic integrity against collective bad taste. A strong case can be made for upholding artistic integrity but this is not it. On the down side, the building's  entrepreneurial capitalist owner got the shaft. Her philosophy is thus a muddle, praising one individual's will to power while damning another's, one who represents the  economic system she so admires that rewards individual vision and risk. Rand looks good until you look close; the inner contradictions are stark. Stirner, as rigorous a logician as you'll ever encounter, would dismiss her out of hand, amateur hour during the philosophy talent show. Rand denied her philosophy's Libertarian roots, as she tried to remake herself from Russian immigrant Jewess (thus with Leftist Anarchism in her blood) to femme-fatale atheist Conservative intellectual.

The libertarian movement has splintered. How could it not have? A truly  unified movement is antithetical to  individualism. Autonomy of the self takes a hit; at some point authority must be asserted. The post-Modern Libertarian Party was born in 1971. It has since grown to become the third largest and fastest growing political party in the United States. Many of its platform planks and core principles are right out of Stirner. How could they not be? He wrote the book.  

In his Introduction to the 1963 edition published by the Libertarian Book Club, Libertarian historian James J. Martin wrote  as much a warning as a welcome. “It may very well be that the largest number of mid-twentieth century individualists does not have the stamina to stick with Stirner to the bitter logical end. The various libertarians are free to decamp at that point of the journey beyond where they no longer care to proceed. But it is their responsibility to know whence individualism stems and where its logic goes.”

The proximal object lesson to glean from the contemporary American scene may be that the Post-WWII generations have more in common than not. We may have two political wings but  inordinate celebration of the individual self is not confined to either; it has become a cultural norm  that suggests  insecurity beneath exaggerated self-assertion, and not for irrational reasons.  We can feel individual liberties slowly, inexorably slipping away  as corporate interests march closer and closer to perfect, target marketing to an abstract individual with concrete buying habits, and we have become compelled to sell ourselves in the marketplace;  the individual as unique commodity,  come an' get it. But when rugged individualism becomes rabid individualism all of us suffer. We have responsibilities to each other as well as to ourselves. It’s called civilized society.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." (John Donne, Meditation XVII, 1624).


  1. Thank you for this. Excellent read.

  2. Informative post on a thinker more often cited than read. However, if one seeks the last word on the meaning of Self-fulfillment, I'd have to recommend Patanjali's Yoga-sutra over Max Stirner.

  3. Mix Max Stirner with Guy Debord, Carl Schmitt, and Giorgio Agamben, and you'll get a tasty treat to end politics, and probably society as we know it.

    I think you're wrong about Der Einzige und sein Eigentum translating into a manual for self-liberation though. You'll notice near the end the phrase "union of egoists." Stirner, despite (or because of) his sad boring life, was invoking a proto Übermensch, but, like Foucault, his "change your self" was a call to arms against literally everything--all the apparatuses of subjectivation--not a call to defend the liberal subject's imaginary boundaries. Another term from contemporary theory seems useful: "singularity." Stirners book title might have been better translated as Camus does in the Rebel as "The Unique and it's Characteristics," because his argument is for a permanent insurrection by the marvelous against the all that would seek to give predicates to their penchants, desire, and inclinations. I don't think the Galleanists and Illegalist anarchists of the 20th century got it wrong, they just didn't go far enough.


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