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(en) Red & Black Revolution #6 - Stirner, the individual & anarchism

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>(http://struggle.ws/rbr.html)
Date Mon, 28 Jan 2002 10:52:12 -0500 (EST)


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        Max Stirner "The Ego and It's Own" (Rebel Press
         London 1993, available from Freedom press in
                       London) 

Max Stirner is a relatively obscure figure in anarchist and left wing
thought. He has influenced many who regard themselves as
anarcho-individualists such as the Americans, Lysander Spooner and
Benjamin Tucker and modern polemicists such as Bob Black. He also
has some following among anarcho-communists, notably in Glasgow
where a Stirnerist tradition has persisted to this day. Stirner was an
egoist who railed against all doctrines and beliefs which demanded a
subordination of the individual will to their leadership. So you might ask
why I should be interested in trying to outline some of his ideas in the
magazine of an organisation committed to a collective
anarcho-communist vision of society? I would say for two reasons. 

Firstly Stirner's ideas are the perfect corrective to those expounded by
authoritarian socialists. Indeed, they came to realise this very quickly
and condemned Stirner almost from day one. Marx and Engels
devoted a whole 300-page book to denouncing his ideas - "The
German Ideology" published in 1846. The semi hysterical and personal
nature of the criticisms tell us just how worried they were. They
condemned him as "the emptiest, shallowest brain among the
philosophers" whose "whole activity is limited to trying a few,
hackneyed, casuistical tricks on the world handed down to him by
philosophical tradition." This effort alone such surely alert us that the
fact that he might be saying something interesting! Stirner's absolute
contempt for those who would be masters allowed him to clearly and
accurately predict the disaster that happened when socialist ideas
were elevated to the level of a state religion:

   "Society, from which we have everything, is a new master, a
   new spook, a new 'supreme being' which 'takes us into it
   service and allegiance.'"

There's a second and deeper relevance to his thinking though. All
anarchists strive to maximise individual liberty. In the Workers
Solidarity Movement our aim is to maximise individual freedom through
collective means. But in order to do this it is important that people are
committed to the ideas of collectively organising with others. This is an
idea that is common to anarchists and many others on the left.
However much less time is devoted, even by anarchists, to thinking
about what it would actually mean to live in an anarchist society.
Freedom cannot be handed out. It is only meaningful to people who
really desire it and that means strong individuals knowing what they
want. What does it mean to be free or as Stirner puts it "self owned"?
Unless we really appreciate what this means and how valuable it is
then we might as well give up and let the state and the capitalists do our
thinking for us!

What were his ideas?

Surely if socialism is anything it is the opposite of selfishness and
egoism. In fact opponents often argue that, while the ideas of socialism
and anarchism are attractive, human greed makes it unrealisable in
practise. We are told that it's the "natural" greedy condition of humanity
that makes socialism an impossible dream. Yet what if it was all turned
on its head? What if socialism sprung firstly from a greedy snatching at
life's possibilities to turn them to personal advantage? What if it was
our own individual greed and egoism that pulled us out of capitalism
and into a new world? The great are only great because we are on our
knees; what happens if we all get up? This is the paradox suggested by
Stirner in "The Ego and Its Own"

Max Stirner (real name Caspar Schmidt) was a member of a small
group of left leaning German intellectuals styling themselves "the free"
and including Marx and Engels. Stirner wrote many essays, compiled
and edited "a history of reaction" and translated works by Adam Smith.
However this book is his only completed original work. Before I launch
into some of the ideas contained in the book, it is only fair to warn
anyone who does get their hands on it that it is not an easy read. In
fact it is very badly written and I can only pity the translator. Firstly
Stirner can sarcastically quote summaries of other people's ideas as if
he agreed with them and then suddenly switch to his own views.
Secondly there is a high level of abstraction in the book with often the
same word such as "man" being used to mean very different things
within the same paragraph. That having been said a patient reading will
give many rewards!

The book is a searing attack on all abstract belief systems, starting
and working out from religious ideas to encompass all political beliefs
as being religious in nature. The first paragraph sets the tone, with
Stirner sarcastically putting forward what he sees as the enemy's line:

   "What is not supposed to be my concern, first and foremost,
   the good cause, then God's cause, the cause of mankind, of
   truth, of freedom, of humanity, of justice, further, the cause of
   my people, my prince, my fatherland. Finally even the cause
   of mind and a thousand other causes. Only my cause is
   never to be my concern "shame on the egoist who thinks
   only of himself."

He starts with religion. He believes that the concept of spiritual man
first emerged among the Greeks and then was reinforced with
Christianity. The idea of spiritual man is that man's earthly concerns
take second place. The thesis is first sold of a spiritual and ideal
person beyond the present ordinary earthly person. In contemplation of
this idealised spirit that dwells in everyone (in the sense that they are
supposed to be "God's image") all immediate bodily concerns fall away.
The Christian aims to do away with "the vanity" of the present world
and "renounce" their immediate life in favour of a future paradise. 

He goes on to the first philosophers to question religious beliefs - they
continued to accept the spiritual world as the important one. Descartes
declares, "I think therefore I am" not I eat therefore I am or I have a
smoke therefore I am! People are defined by their thinking which is
abstract and spiritual in the general sense (you could argue that
thinking does draw a considerable amount from real experience but he
doesn't go into this). So spiritual things outside the actual real
experienced life of the person were still elevated above and alienated
from their day to day lives.

Stirner's most original idea, to my mind, is to show how secular liberals
and socialists, in aiming to do away with God and spirituality, just
erected a new edifice onto which day to day concerns could be
sacrificed. This edifice was "man" (apologies but I have to stick to his
wording - presumably he meant this to mean both sexes). 

According to Stirner, liberals, humanists, communists, anarchists and
so forth have just replaced God with man. So some ideal future vision
is expounded for humanity as a whole to move towards. Where you
are at present is not nearly as important as what you might one day
become. They are interested in man in the abstract not the actual lives
of individual persons. This leads to an interesting statement of what
psychologists today sometimes call "deferred gratification" - you are
always trying to reach some ideal version of yourself:

   "Therefore over each minute of your existence, a fresh
   minute of the future beckons to you, and, developing
   yourself, you get away 'from yourself.'" 

In other words you are something to be reached. An ideal version of
yourself is held over you as a target to aim for. You never really start
from yourself because you're always trying to reach it. You are
alienated from yourself!

OK perhaps now it is becoming apparent just how abstract some of the
ideas are! But there are immediate practical implications. If you sketch
an ideal of what we must become you can also impose restrictions on
us. If everyone obeys the law out of respect then you need very few
cops. Ideas are internalised and self-discipline turns out good citizens.
Now there is always some abstract morality, some party line that has
to be guiltily adhered to. 

>From an early age concepts of property, sin and guilt are drummed in
to us through family, church, school, media and politicians. These set
the limits for what you can and can't do. The ideas - or "spooks" as
Stirner terms them of morality, respect for private property etc keep
people in line. You could live in poverty from birth but, as he puts it,
"You must not pick up a pin unless you have got leave to do so." 

These ideas are programmed in and even respected and encouraged
by those aiming to change society. Once they are accepted and
internalised people obey the rules not because they are forced to but
because they think it is right and proper to do so: "Every Prussian
carries his gendarme in his breast"

Egoism in Practise

Stirner's critique is far reaching but what does he offer as a solution
and how can it be realised given that the ideas seem to rule out getting
involved in any collective struggle towards an abstract idea of how
things should be done!

First of all he dismisses all talk of freedom. Stirner views the concept
of freedom as a dangerous "spook". It implies absence of want
(freedom from something) rather then confers any particular benefit.
It's a negative definition and easy for anyone to use as a platform from
which to sell their ideas. Instead he calls for people to become "self
owned." This means simply to put yourself at the centre of things and
then to make as much of the world as possible your property. So you
own the ideas and belief systems rather than vice versa and
everything is analysed according to how useful it is to you. Of course,
as he makes clear, you first of all have to know who you are as
separated out from the ideas or passions which may be in charge at
any given moment. In an idea, which was later, to be pinched by
Nietzsche ("Beyond Good and Evil") among others he proclaims:

   "Away with every concern that is not altogether my concern?
   What's good, what's bad? Why, I myself am my concern and
   I am neither good nor bad. Neither has any meaning for me"

What sort of society would this lead to? Though very much an
individualist Stirner gives us a few glimpses of what he terms his
"Union of Egoists". The union is a voluntary structure formed by its
members in their own immediate interests. This is a union of
self-confessed selfish people, which they leave as soon as their
interests are not being delivered. Stirner has more faith in this system
than in any state or political party. In the final analysis he says: "I would
rather be referred to men's selfishness than their kindness." Of
course he would not favour any form of collective action to realise this
society. The only route he comes up with is the rather worrying "war of
all against all". He calls for an insurrection of all individuals aiming not
to overthrow existing institutions but to move beyond them in some
vague way.

What is his relevance today?

Many would agree that Stirner had some interesting ideas and could
see him as something of a figure for individualists or even libertarian
free marketeers. Does Stirner have relevance to anarcho communists
though? As mentioned earlier I think he has.

Firstly, of course, he serves as a continuous warning against lefties,
nationalists, religious fanatics and anyone who lets abstract ideas run
away with them. As long as groups exist with abstract schemes to
"liberate" or "free" "suffering and oppressed" humanity there will be
new states, new rules: 

   "The hierarchy lasts as long as the parsons, that is,
   theologians, philosophers, statesmen, philistines, liberals,
   schoolmasters, servants, parents, children, married couples,
   Proudhon, George Sand, Bluntschi and others have the floor,
   the hierarchy will endure"

Secondly he locates the urge to rebel - the need to rebel - within
people's real and actual conditions of life. One of the points he
constantly hammers home is that the rich are rich because the poor do
not see clearly their own self-interests. People who voluntarily submit
to oppression lose the right to complain. Anyway if they only complain
or use abstract concepts of rights and freedoms to be handed to them
by their masters they will be ignored. People have to rise up to realise
their own self-interests - "To what property am I entitled? To every
property to which I empower myself." If you feel you are under valued
you must raise your price!

Finally the concept of the individual is central to anarchist beliefs. We
(unlike Stirner) wish to maximise individual freedom through collective
means. However the role of the individual in revolution is not greatly
explored. The final version of an anarchist society should, I think, look
very like Stirner's Union of Egoists - with people freely associating in
pursuit of their own interests (OK these might be long term rather than
immediate). Unless it is built by "self owned" people then it can easily
be defeated or driven in a Statist direction. People who have really
found themselves and know they are fighting for themselves don't give
in too easily. A stateless society can only be built by people who see it
as being in their own real interests. As Stirner puts it:

   "The impudent lads will no longer let anything be whined and
   chattered into them by you, and will have no sympathy for all
   the follies for which you have been raving and drivelling
   since the memory of man began.... If you command them,
   'bend before the Most High' they will answer. If he wants to
   bend us, let him come himself and do it; we, at least, will not
   bend of our own accord."


The Ego and its own is also available free as a pdf or palm pilot
document http://www.df.lth.se/~triad/stirner/

A full online version is at
http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/stirner/theego0.html


                 
    This page is from Red &
        Black Revolution
       (no 6, Winter 2002)
 Print out a PDF file of Issue 6
        PDF file of most recent
       Red & Black Revolution

       Part of the pages of the
    Workers Solidarity Movement

 Red & Black Revolution A magazine of libertarian communism:
 http://struggle.ws/rbr.html

PDF file of Red and Black Revolution Number 6:
http://struggle.ws/rbr/pdf/rbr6.html



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